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By Jean Graham
Page 2 of 6

Liberator's diagnostic computer hummed over the medical cot, its lights flashing in seemingly random series. Blake had watched Cally expertly clean and dress the boy's wound -- the shot had taken him high in the shoulder when he had leaned around the corner to fire. Now the Auron was cutting away the rest of the filthy prison garment, looking for any further signs of injury. Other than the fact that the boy was thin to the point of emaciation, there did not appear to be any.

"How is he?" Blake could no longer contain the question.

"The wound is not serious," Cally replied without turning from her task. "But according to the computer, his condition is dangeriously unstable. There's something else... Maybe Orac can sort it out when Avon gets here with him."

Blake came closer, peering down at the pale face nearly lost in the white of the oversized pillow. Their patient wasn't more than twelve Terran years old. Blake could not imagine an offense severe enough to warrant convicting a boy that age to an offworld prison. Then again, age had seldom mattered to the Federation's political machine when it came to 'relocating' rivals and dissidents -- and their families.

Cally's voice brought him abruptly back to the present. She had bathed, redressed and covered the boy with a clean sheet and stood looking at Blake now with troubled concern.

"I'm sorry..." He rubbed his eyes, aware that she must have spoken and was waiting for him to answer. "What did you say?"

"Do you know him?" she asked patiently.

Blake shook his head. "That's what bothers me. I've never seen him before. And I certainly have no idea why he'd want to kill me."

Cally considered that. "He was very deliberate about it."

"Yes, he was."

"Federation programming, perhaps?"

"On a planet they'd have no reason to think I'd ever come near? Why would they bother? This place doesn't even have a name. It's a number somewhere in a security computer file. A place they send people who might embarrass them. Among others..."

A sudden movement from the cot startled both of them. Their patient was struggling to sit up, and resisted Cally's efforts to dissuade him. Her soothing reassurances had begun to calm him, until Blake stepped into the boy's line of vision.

The effect was both immediate and unexpected. The boy came up off the bed, pushing Cally aside with surprising strength, and bolted away from them. He'd shouted something on the order of "Get away from me," but Blake had no time to respond to it. He tried to intercept the youngster, and found himself deftly outmaneuvered. His quarry dodged him and ran -- albeit in the wrong direction. The door he darted through led only to the glass-enclosed isolation unit, and the automatic sensors, registering a presence, immediately sealed the opening and locked him in. Realizing his mistake too late, the boy spun on the door and pounded futilely at it. In a moment, the effort spent, he'd collapsed onto the floor, and though the chamber was soundproofed, Blake could see the small shoulders shuddering with fearful sobs. He moved to release the lock, and was startled when Cally's hand stopped him.

"Don't," she said. "He may just be better off in there."

"What?" Blake found her apparent callousness unnerving. "You can't mean that. He's terrified."

"Yes," she said quickly. "Of you, apparently. I think perhaps we had better find out why, don't you?"

Moving around him, she tripped the lock and eased the chamber door open a fraction. Then, soundlessly, she had disappeared inside. Blake stepped to the window in time to see her kneel beside the boy, who had scrambled to a far corner at the motion of the opening door. Cally reached out with open fingers, a universal gesture of peaceful intentions, and took one of the too-thin hands in hers. Though her lips never moved, Blake knew she had spoken; he could see it in the look of puzzled wonder that came into the boy's eyes.

He watched, not entirely happy with these procedures, yet unwilling to say so. If Cally could somehow unravel this in her own fashion, the same ends would be served. At least he would have answers to his questions.

He saw tortured eyes drink in whatever mental reassurance Cally had delivered. The youngster began to speak then, and Blake wished fervently for some way to hear him. The conversation lasted for several minutes. Then the boy's eyes strayed to the man outside the glass.

Cally recoiled suddenly, breaking the hand-contact and drawing away. Her eyes had gone dark, full of horror and revulsion. Something was very wrong...

Blake was at the door and about to go inside when the emerging Auron met him, pale and trembling. She'd barely cleared the door, which locked itself behind her, when she stumbled and nearly fell. Blake reached instinctively out to steady her, but to his bewilderment she struck his hands away. There were tears glistening on her cheeks.

"Please," she murmured. "Don't..."

She tried to move away, but her legs seemed unwilling to carry her. Blake took gently hold of her, gratified that this time she permitted the touch, and eased her into a chair. What had possessed her to react to him that way?

"Cally..." He couldn't hide the concern--or the hurt--in his voice. "Cally, what is it?"

"I'm sorry," she said weakly. "I didn't mean--"

"It's all right," he said a little too impatiently. "Just tell me what happened."

He watched some of that same horror filter back into her eyes as haltingly, she said, "On Auron, such things would be unthinkable." A shudder turned the next words into a near-sob. "With children it is..."

"Cally..." Blake grasped her by the shoulders, applying a light but noticeable pressure. "Cally, please. Tell me why this child should be terrified of me? I don't know him."

"No," she said finally, and Blake saw her eyes soften then, becoming more the compassionate Cally he knew. "No, you do not. But he knows you." She got to her feet and went back to the glass, one hand pressed silently against the cold, unyielding surface. "His name is Payter," she said quietly. "Payter Fen."

Blake felt the color drain from his face. That name was indelibly etched in his memories of a courtroom, where it had been pronounced along with two others by a sallow-faced judge. Three children, none of whom he had ever met. But three names he would forever remember. The Federation had seen to that.

Leesal Renor. Carl Deca.

Payter Fen.

Blake stood, a supplicating gaze meeting Cally's strangely hard eyes. "I didn't..." he said weakly.

She shook her head, as though the gesture might somehow reassure him. "It is a memory implant," she said. "But to Payter Fen it is quite real. And there's more, Blake. More that is real, and..." She faltered, fighting more tears, he realized with horror. "...terrible."

He had the impression that 'terrible' wasn't what she'd intended to say. Blake turned to stare again at the fetally curled figure behind the glass. "Why here?" he asked quietly. "How did he get here?"

"Probably the Federation wished to protect their... 'investment'... in the implant," Cally theorized. "To be certain it would never be questioned--or broken through. So they 'put him away' where no one was supposed to find him."

Blake felt suddenly ill. "What about the others? Renor and Deca?"

"I don't know. Probably the same... but to other prison planets, I imagine. It wouldn't do to let them be together."

The chime of the intercom cut across her speech. Blake moved woodenly to answer it, and Jenna's crisp tones came over the speaker, a stark contrast to the bleak mood in the room. "Sorry to interrupt, but I need a heading. Or are we just going to hang about here? The Federation might just have got a message out."

"They didn't," he told her. "Orac saw to that. Hold us here a little while yet, Jenna. I'll be up to give Zen a new course shortly."

"Right." Jenna sounded disappointed, but she signed off without saying anything more.

As Blake turned from the intercom, the med unit door whispered open to admit Avon, carrying Orac. He cast a questioning glance at the empty cot, then noted Cally at the isolation window and carried Orac to the ledge beside her.

"Is your patient suffering from an infectious disease?" he asked her matter-of-factly.

Cally glanced nervously at Blake. "I don't think so. He ran in there on his own." At Avon's questioning look, she added slowly, "His name is Payter Fen. He's one of the children Blake was convicted of..."

She let the sentence trail away, leaving Blake to wonder if she might not harbor some doubt as to his innocence. Surely Cally couldn't believe a thing like that of him. Not Cally...

Avon had assimilated her news without comment, and was now attaching diagnostic electrodes from the wall to Orac's casing. He slid the activator key into place last of all, bringing the box-shaped computer to life with a strident whine.

Blake ghosted to his side, feeling acutely uncomfortable for absolutely no reason that he could fathom. "Can Orac make a diagnosis without direct contact?"

Avon nodded. "As long as he is in there, yes."

Blake glanced at the small figure hunched in one corner of the isolation cell. "Then there's something else I want to know."

Avon merely stood there, waiting for him to go on. Blake had the inane urge to grab the man and shake him. For all Avon seemed to care, Payter Fen might have been nothing more than another piece of Liberator's vast machinery, neither living nor breathing -- merely there.

"I want to know," Blake said in a tightly-controlled voice, "if there is any way to safely obliterate a Federation memory implant."

"That wouldn't be wise," Cally said suddenly, surprising him. "It is far too late for--"

"I have to try!" Blake all but shouted the words at her, and Cally seemed to shrink from him, visibly frightened. The action was unlike her, and only served to augment his discomfort.

"Very well." She sounded hurt. "I will let Orac tell you then." And abruptly, she was gone, the med unit door snicking primly shut behind her.

Avon had ignored the entire exchange. "Orac," he said, "did you get all that?"

The pettish voice snapped back at him. *Did I get all of what? You must be more specific if I am to--*

"Shut up," Avon interrupted, as curt as Orac himself. "You will run complete diagnostic analysis on subject in isolation ward B. You will further determine the feasibility of memory implant negation to be performed on same subject. Is that clear?"

*Perfectly. Now if you will kindly allow me to proceed with--*

"Get on with it then." Avon thumped the computer's casing, a gesture of both impatience and comtempt, and turned back to Blake. "We should have an answer soon," he said.

Blake scarcely heard him. He was watching Payter Fen try to melt into the sterile corner of the glassed room, hugging the wall as though it alone offered him any form of security.

"I should be in there. I should at least try to talk to him, make him understand."

Avon's ice-hard voice softened ever-so-slightly. "I should think that would be even less wise," he said.

Blake put a hand to the glass, clenched it into a fist until the knuckles had gone white, then dropped it to his side. "What kind of animals would do this to a child?"

Avon's look said the answer to that should be obvious, but he did not voice the admonition. He gazed through the glass instead, and for the first time, Blake thought he saw compassion in the stormy eyes, a hint of something other than the calculated unconcern that usually disguised Avon's soul.

"There are many," Avon said to the glass, "who never had a childhood at all."

Blake paced away, one hand running ragged patterns through his hair. He'd been about to ask what Avon's remark meant when the med unit door slid open again. Expecting Cally, he wheeled to confront a nervous Vila instead.

"I..." The intensity of Blake's glare disconcerted the thief and he seemed to lose his resolve. "I saw... I mean I talked to Cally... in the corridor," he said lamely, and waited, as though that had explained what he'd come for.

Avon provided the necessary prompt. "And?"

Vila started, then visibly tamed his nerves and handed Blake a medical phial filled with bright red liquid. "She said you ought to give him that," he said in a small voice. He walked resolutely to the observation window, and Blake didn't fail to notice that he paled at the sight of their young patient. "It's... to help him sleep," he went on shakily. "Stops the nightmares. He'll have a lot of those..."

As though he'd somehow heard Vila's words, Payter Fen lifted his head from his knees and gazed out at the thief with empty, lifeless eyes. Blake was dismayed to see Vila recoil and turn away, only to turn back again as though he were fighting some mysterious battle with himself.

Blake caught the smaller man's arm. "What else did Cally tell you?" he demanded. He had a vague memory of Cally saying something before she had gone. Something about there being more.

Vila's mouth opened, but no sound emerged. He glanced at Avon, pillar still and silent in front of a flashing Orac, then wriggled uncomfortably free of Blake's grasp as though he were preparing to escape again out the door.

"Not very much," he answered warily. "She didn't have to tell me. Not most of it."

Blake was puzzled. "Not most of what?"

"Would..." Vila stammered, paused, then gathering his courage around him like a cloak, let the rest out in a rush of words. "Would you let me try to talk to him? Please?"

"You?" Blake regretted the response immediately. Vila looked hurt, then promptly more determined.

"I can help," he said confidently. "Let me try, at least."

"I don't see what--"

"Let him try." Avon's calm tones interrupted Blake, who gave the computer tech a mystified look. He found Avon and Vila exchanging a look of their own, some unspoken knowledge passing tacitly between them. Vila nodded, and moved to open the isolation chamber door.

"Vila--" Blake started after him, only to find himself caught up short when Avon gripped his arm.

"Leave it, Blake. He may have a better chance of getting somewhere than we do."

Avon's clasp loosened at once, but left Blake no less bewildered. His voice carried an angry edge. "What makes you think that Vila...?"

He stopped, distracted by the sight of the subject in question lifting Payter from the floor, putting him gently down again on the diagnostic bed inside the unit. Orac's power hum changed perceptibly with the motion. Humming as well, the nearby medical computer began emitting a hard-copy tape.

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