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A Stitch in Time

By Sheila Paulson
Page 2 of 7

"But I tell you, he just vanished!" Vila wailed. "I couldn't find him anywhere. And there were troopers coming. I could hear them. I had to teleport."

"You idiot, Vila," Dayna snapped at him. "For all you know, that machine could have sent him back in time, and you've run out on him. How can we hope to get him back without that place?"

Vila shuddered. The troops had nearly caught him, and his last memory before the teleport had taken him was the sound of their firing and the crackle of sizzling wiring. The place was probably fried, effectively destroying Avon's only chance of rescue. Via hadn't been very fond of Avon since Malodaar, but Avon hadn't killed him on the shuttle and, while not ready to be forgiving, Vila was not quite prepared to wish Avon stranded in time, either. At least, he told himself, not permanently. Stranding for a while might do him good, but not forever.

"You forget, Vila," Tarrant interrupted before the thief could burst out with his fears, "Orac was recording all of that. If anyone can duplicate that device, it's Orac. How about it, Orac?"

The computer displayed its interest in the problem by responding immediately. "This is a complex mechanism. It will require much study before I can formulate an answer. As to whether it can be duplicated, I see no reason why not, though it will be time consuming and will require much detailed work on your part. A pity Avon is the one missing, for he could have completed the needed work far more easily than the rest of you."

"It's nice to be appreciated," Vila muttered under his breath.

"I do not appreciate you," Orac returned haughtily. "Now I require time to study the device. When I am ready for you to begin your work, I will inform you." Its lights began blinking industriously and Tarrant pulled the key.

"We'll check back with him later. As for now, I think we should get out of here. I don't like being this close to Earth. It makes us too big a target, and we don't have Liberator anymore. It will be harder to get away if we're spotted."

"Just leave Avon?" Dayna asked skeptically.

"He won't like that," observed Soolin, folding her arms across her chest and regarding the others with a detached stare.

"The point being, Avon is not here," Tarrant reminded them. "Theoretically, he's somewhere in the past. You can't remember what that machine was set for, can you, Vila?"

"The past, I told you, it was set for the past."

"Not good enough, Vila."

"Well, Orac'll have it recorded, won't he, then?"

"Maybe we're all missing the point," Soolin remarked abruptly as Tarrant set the course to take them out of the solar system. "Maybe Avon was transferred to somewhere else on Earth--maybe that scientist has developed a rudimentary teleport system. Or maybe...." Her voice trailed off thoughtfully, her expression inscrutable.

"Maybe what?" Vila prodded, positive he wouldn't like her answer.

"Maybe that plate he was standing on was a weapon, a defense mechanism to protect the laboratory. Maybe Avon wasn't shifted in time or location. Maybe he was vaporized."

Vila's stomach lurched and he was pulled up sharply at the reaction. After Avon had tried to kill him, he couldn't possibly have any feeling left for him, could he? If he did, what did that say for his common sense, let alone his survival instincts? But the fact remained that, while he was still furious with Avon and hurt by Avon's betrayal, he didn't want Avon dead. He tried to tell himself that it was because if anyone was going to do away with Avon, it should be him, but that wasn't the answer.

"Then maybe we should get right away from here," he made himself say. "Hanging around's only likely to get us caught."

Soolin eyed him through narrowed eyes and even Tarrant turned from the controls to give him a considering stare, but Dayna burst out, "We can't do that. We've no proof Avon is dead."

"None that he's alive, either," Vila insisted.

"Only the fact that Orac didn't seem to think we'd be wasting our time looking for him, and Orac wouldn't bother if the device was nothing more than a weapon to vaporize trespassers." She looked at Vila consideringly. "We're not going to run and leave him here."

"Surprisingly loyal, " Tarrant muttered.

"Someone must be." She cast a dark look at Vila. Tarrant followed the look but didn't comment, and Vila had the uneasy certainty that Tarrant knew exactly what had happened on that shuttle of Egrorian's.

"So what do we do now?" Soolin asked practically.

Tarrant smiled, displaying what seemed like a vast quantity of predatory teeth. "What we do best," he announced. "We wait."

*****

Avon awoke with a pounding head, a throbbing ankle, and a multitude of lesser aches and pains. He was lying on a bed that would have been comfortable if it weren't for his injuries, and the light on the other side of his closed eyelids felt dim. Cautiously, he risked opening his eyes and found himself in a candle-lit chamber, bathed in a soothing, yellow glow, while a bearded human completed fastening a support bandage around his ankle.

Sensing Avon's revival, he looked up curiously. He was at least twenty years Avon's senior. He wore an air of authority without dominance and a sense of calm that Avon had never been able to emulate that reminded him of Blake at his best. Avon stared at the man, realizing he meant him no actual harm. But when he looked at Avon, he saw a threat. Not a fool, then.

Avon's mind was surprisingly clear, though he knew he was too badly injured to attempt an escape. From the savage throbbing in his ankle, he doubted it would support him and his vision was fuzzy. If he didn't lie very still, the room would swirl around him and he would probably pass out again, which made him effectively this man's prisoner.

The only advantage was that he did not wear a Federation uniform or a jailer's visage. Perhaps he didn't realize who Avon was, or didn't care. Until he understood the situation properly, Avon would do nothing to alienate him. Perhaps, by then, he would be strong enough to defend himself. Until then, he would play this by ear.

"So you're awake," the man said. "My son brought you to me. He tends to bring home strays. What do you remember of your arrival here?"

Avon narrowed his eyes. "Two men encountered me in a tunnel. One of them was an alien. He took my gun and when I tried to run, I fell. He claimed I would not be harmed." He looked down at himself deprecatingly. "Interesting how seldom men keep their word."

The man had frozen. "An alien?" he echoed. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean the man who found me was not a standard human. I'm not familiar with his planet of origin, though I've traveled more widely than most people, but...."

He came to an abrupt stop because the man was gaping at him as if he didn't believe what he was hearing. "Planet of origin?" he repeated.

Avon massaged his temples. "Must you keep repeating everything I say? Are you so isolated here that the concept of travel to other worlds has escaped you? How do you explain the alien else?"

"I know of no aliens here."

"Ah yes. It's to be passed off as head injury, no doubt."

"You are severely concussed. This is the first time you've spoken coherently, though your words have made me doubt you this time, too."

"This time? How long have I been here?"

"Two days."

Two days and the others had not located him. That seemed unlikely and was also a very bad sign. How deep beneath the city had he fallen? He looked at his wrist and saw that his teleport bracelet was gone, in fact, his arm was bare. His clothing had gone, too. "What have you done with my possessions?" he demanded coldly.

"We have them safe for you," the man replied with a touch of resentment at the veiled accusation. "We are not thieves here."

"My gun?"

"Safe."

"By which I presume you will return it to me when it is time for me to leave?"

"Perhaps," the man replied. "I am called Father. May I know your name?"

Avon hesitated. To give his name was to expose himself to danger but, after two days, he was not in Federation hands, though surely someone here must have recognized him. He said flatly, "My name is Avon. Suppose you tell me where I am and how I came here?"

"As for how you came here, only you can tell us that, and this place is secret. You've seen...the alien. Surely you realize why he must be kept a secret?"

"If you plan to make war on Earth, you have my permission as long as you take the Federation with you."

"The Federation?" He smiled abruptly. "But I'm echoing you again. Suppose you tell me where you were before you came here?"

"I was in the North American dome. This place is beneath it, isn't it? A secret base?"

Father's lips twitched in an abortive smile. "I have never heard it described in quite those terms but it will suffice."

"So he is awake?" The alien entered with a long stride, unfastening the billowing cloak he wore and tossing it aside, pausing to rest an affectionate hand on Father's shoulder. "You suffered a bad fall," he said to Avon. "But your injuries are not serious."

Father smiled up at him, then turned back to Avon. "This is Vincent," he said. "My son."

Avon's eyes widened. "Biologically impossible, I should guess."

"Adopted," Vincent confessed.

"What is your planet of origin?"

Vincent stared at Father in astonishment.

"He has been speaking of aliens and travel to distant worlds since he awakened. Either he has come from further than most of us believe possible, or he has come from a refuge within his own mind."

"Why is it so difficult to believe what I am telling you?" Avon demanded. "One would think you had never heard of the Inner and Outer Worlds."

Vincent's catlike lips quirked in a smile. "Perhaps because we have not."

"This is a trap," Avon snarled. "Leave me. If you mean to attempt brainwashing you must...." Then his voice trailed off as he remembered the device he and Vila had been examining before he had found himself in the passage. "What year is this?" he demanded suspiciously, hoping his sudden speculation was wrong.

"1989. Should that matter?" Father asked.

"So," he breathed. "It was a time traveling device."

Father and Vincent exchanged skeptical glances. If he were so far in the past, in the Twentieth Century, old Calendar, naturally, they had not yet been exposed to space travel. But then how to explain Vincent?

"I would be more inclined to believe your story if it weren't for you," Avon told Vincent. "Twentieth Century Earth was entirely human. How did you come to be here? Through an unlikely accident, such as my own?"

"We do not know the answers to that," Vincent confessed ruefully. "I was found as an infant and taken in."

"You can't believe his story, Vincent," Father protested, pacing back and forth, a slight limp evident as he made his way across the chamber.

"It feels as if he means what he is saying," Vincent returned. "I sense a strong feeling of privacy about him and a need to conceal himself from others. His reaction to me was instinctive, but bore none of the instincts of those above. He showed no surprise when he first encountered me. Had I traveled to distant worlds and seen all manner of beings, I believe I would be less likely to react with fear to the sight of an unfamiliar life form." He sighed faintly and Avon heard a wistful note in the sound and realized that Vincent was as effectively stranded in the Twentieth Century as he was and that, perhaps, it was worse for Vincent, who was an alien in his own home. The momentary sympathy vanished immediately as Avon narrowed his eyes. He was inclined to believe their story; if the device he had examined could affect the past, travel into time was a logical extension of its function. But he doubted they would believe him.

Father put a hand up to check Vincent. "He's not well enough to reason this out yet, Vincent. We must let him rest. When he wakes again, some hot broth might help."

"I will stay with him," Vincent offered, taking his place in a nearby chair and stretching out a furred hand to retrieve a book from the bedside table. Avon saw that it was a collection of the sonnets of William Shakespeare.

After Father left, Avon lay unmoving, too spent and weary to carry on further conversation, but unable to sleep. His muscles were taut with tension and unease, and he felt abandoned in a place where no one would watch his back. No one had watched it on Scorpio, either, but he felt even more alone here than he had in his own place, and he knew that if he slept like this he would dream. The dreams were familiar ones; Cally crushed in the rubble, Anna dead in his arms, Blake missing, possibly dead, Vila in the shuttle, staring at Avon with bruised, accusing eyes. Avon shifted restlessly and closed his eyes.

There was a rustle of pages as Vincent opened the book. "Shall I read to you?"

Startled, Avon opened his eyes. He couldn't remember anyone reading to him, not even when he was a child, but the idea was not as repellent as he had expected it to be. Certainly there were far worse things than being read to. Vincent's voice was deep and flowing and, if nothing else, it might put him to sleep.

"If you wish," Avon replied ungraciously.

Vincent smiled faintly and selected a sonnet at random.

Avon didn't listen to the actual words. He had read various plays by the Bard and had enjoyed them, but the sonnets had always put him off, full of romantic sentiment that Avon found tedious. Listening now, he realized that the poetry was meant to flow; like the plays, the sonnets sounded well aloud, and Avon enjoyed the reading , though he sensed that, for Vincent, the sentiment was real. He loved someone deeply and read the poems as a tribute to her, but surely there were no others like him here. Avon didn't care about other people's love affairs, even unlikely ones. Love affairs only led to betrayal, and those who believed otherwise were fools.

But the mellifluous voice poured over him like soothing balm, and Avon felt his rigid muscles begin to ease. He shifted cautiously, trying to find a position that did not hurt too badly, and let himself go with the flow. He was curiously relaxed, wondering with sudden alarm if Father had drugged him. But there was none of the blurred lethargy a sedative might produce. If he were really in the past, perhaps he was safe, at last from the Federation.

He didn't trust either Vincent or Father, of course, or the other man who had been with Vincent in the tunnels and who had been so interested in the clipgun. But he felt no malice in Vincent. Later, when he was well, he would try to rationalize that feeling but, for now, there was only a strange and unlikely peace as he drifted into sleep. Vincent would watch his sleep, and he defied anyone to get past such a powerful looking being. Fangs and claws aside, the alien musculature looked as if it could handle most crises.

Avon's last thought before he dozed off was to wonder what Vila would make of this hairy alien.

*****


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