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Phantoms

By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 6

For several moments, Avon watched Blake watching Vila, who had brought Payter water from the chamber's dispenser and now sat beside the boy, talking to him. Payter answered him slowly, distrustfully, never glancing at the observers outside the glass.

"Some time, Blake," Avon said evenly, "you should examine the criminal records of the people you've chosen for crew."

Blake's brow knit. "Meaning what? I know enough about Vila to be certain he was never convicted of... anything like that. So how would he know--?"

"First penal colony conviction at fourteen? How do you think?"

The sick feeling in the pit of Blake's stomach turned suddenly shard-brittle. He'd read the file, Vila's file, and yet he'd never thought of what must have lain between those lines of sterile print. First penal colony conviction at fourteen. Vila had been little more than a child himself. And that colony, like Cygnus Alpha, would have comprised primarily adult men...

The chatter of the diagnostic computer dragged Blake's attention from the scene behind the window. The tape had continued to feed out, at Orac's instruction, and Avon was perusing the results, a frown darkening his features.

Blake didn't wait for him to finish reading. "Can the implant conditioning be reversed?"

Gaze carefully neutral once again, Avon tore off the diagnostic tape and handed it to him. "There would seem to be little point," he said.

Annoyed, Blake snatched the paper and scanned it. The final line of Orac's readout was a blunt PROGNOSIS TERMINAL. Above that, several diagnostic scans confirmed the reason. Blake read it aloud.

"Total immune system failure resulting from chronic deficiencies in cellular..."

"A viral disorder," Avon clarified, mistaking Blake's incredulity for ignorance. "Transmitted in one of two ways. Intravenously... and sexually. It reached plague proportions on Earth once, before the new calendar."

"I've read of it." Blake dropped the readout tape on the ledge beside Vila's forgotten bottle of red serum. The pair inside the chamber were still now, Payter's face turned away from the thief, sullen and tight-lipped. Blake drew in a tortured breath. "I've read of it," he repeated. "But it was eradicated."

"On Earth, yes." Avon spread his hands. "Out here..."

"Orac--" Blake spun on the computer. "According to the history tapes I've read, there is a serum capable of curing this disease. Why is your prognosis terminal?"

As ever, Orac affected offense at the accusative tone of the question. *The curative substance, actifron E, has already been administered by Cally as part of universal decontamination and inoculation procedures,* he huffed. *The virus has in fact been neutralized. Results are nevertheless negative. I suggest the advanced stages of the disease in conjunction with subject's inferior size and strength have combined to--*

Blake yanked out the key, silencing Orac's voice and power whine both at once. "No end to the tyranny," he seethed, and tossed the key down beside the curled computer tape. "How many more innocents have they slaughtered just to silence me?"

Avon's eyes narrowed. "Misplaced guilt will do little to alleviate that," he said quietly.

The anomaly of Avon trying to assuage his conscience was almost lost on Blake, who had gone back to watching the bleak tableau of Vila and the now-sleeping Payter Fen. The silence stretched, until Liberator's alarm claxon shattered the quiet with a piercing wail. It was audible even inside the soundproofed isolation ward: Payter had stirred on the bed and Vila was on his feet, opening the chamber door. Blake hesitated on his own way out only long enough to say, "Stay with him, Vila. We'll take care of it." Then he followed Avon at a run toward the flight deck.

They arrived to find Jenna, grim-faced, tracking four points of light on the Liberator's viewscreen.

"Pursuit ships?" Panting, Blake slid into his flight position. Avon nearby, had done the same.

Jenna nodded. "They came up from the far side of the planet." She cut the alarm and tripped several more controls on the console in sequence. "Bearing zero-nine-zero, attack formation."

"Far side of the planet," Avon muttered, throwing switches on his own console. "Obviously this place isn't altogether useless to the Federation after all."

Blake ignored him. "Zen, time to attack range?"

+Two minutes, 34 seconds,+ the computer announced.

Breathing an oath, Blake ordered, "Break orbit. Course nine-four-seven, bearing 360, standard by ten." Jenna gave him a sharp look as Zen obeyed the instructions. Power surged through the deck beneath Blake's feet. Stars spun on the viewscreen, tilted, levelled off again. For the first time, he noticed that Cally had entered and silently taken up her own flight position.

"They're right behind us," Jenna said curtly. "And that course will take us right back where we started. What are you playing at, Blake?"

"Flotilla dropping back," Avon said before Blake could respond. "Still on pursuit vector, following our heading, but out of strike range. We're losing them." He stepped away from his console, eyeing Blake suspiciously. "Why are we going back then?"

Blake left his own station to approach Cally's, not answering Avon's question. "How large a supply of Actifron E does Liberator carry?" he asked the Auron.

Her soft eyes appraised him for a moment before she said, "Zen can manufacture a nearly inexaustible supply."

"A thousand litres should be sufficient. Zen, can you confirm the efficacy of an airborne serum?"

+Affirmative,+ was all the computer had to say.

Blake nodded. "All right. We'll make one pass, Jenna, and instruct Zen to release the serum into the atmosphere."

"Over the prison complex," Avon added, fathoming Blake's intent at last.

"Yes."

"Nothing if not altruistic. Those pursuit ships will be on top of us the minute we come back into range."

"I don't think so."

Jenna scowled at both of them. "And why not?"

"Our coming back is likely the last thing they'll expect. Anyway, we won't be staying around long enough to engage them."

"Going back at all is an unnecessary risk," Avon grated. "There is no valid reason--"

"I consider preventing the spread of a potential plague a more than valid reason." Blake glared at Avon briefly, then stepped deliberately around him on the way to the portion of Liberator's flight deck that housed her main computer. "Zen, how much time is required for production of one thousand litres of substance actifron E?"

Yellow rectangles flashed rapidly across Zen's mottled brown fascia. +As a component of standard decontamination compound mordrine, this amount is already in ship's stores.+

"And we can release the compound into the planetary atmosphere?"

+Liberator is so equipped.+

"Prepare to release then, one thousand litres over co-ordinates zero-three-four-seven. Stand by."

+Confirmed.+

"We're entering orbit," Jenna said.

Avon had made his way back to his station, and now watched the indicators warily. "No sign of pursuit craft." Almost to himself then, he added a muted, "Yet."

"Nothing on the communications frequencies either," Cally supplied.

Blake turned to Jenna. "How long before we're over the prison complex?"

"Two minutes."

"Take us in low. One pass, and out again as soon as we've released the decontaminant."

"Right."

No one said anything for several moments while Jenna busied herself with the orbit and Zen's deep, resonant hum filled the flight deck. In the intervening quiet, Blake became aware of footsteps in the approach corridor, and looked up to see Vila in the hexagonal entryway, a de-activated Orac in his arms. The thief met Blake's unspoken question with calm denial as he placed the computer on its customary table.

"He's asleep," the thief said. "There wasn't anything else this plastic pain-in-the-arse could do, so..."

"Coming into position now." Jenna's voice cut across Vila's speech. Blake looked at Vila and nodded understanding, relieved when the thief responded with a small smile and turned to take up his own flight chair.

"Zen," Blake said. "Release the decontamination compound."

The huge computer hummed melodically, lights oscillating more rapidly than usual.

+Releasing,+ it intoned.

Jenna's voice intersected Zen's. "Four pursuit ships on approach vector nine."

Avon grimaced. "So much for 'the last thing they'll expect,'" he murmured.

+Decontamination procedure completed,+ Zen said dispassionately. +Enemy pursuit craft now on intercept course.+

"We know," Jenna breathed.

Blake had activated the viewscreen in time to see four ships in tight formation converging on Liberator.

"Put up the flare shield, Vila. Clear the neutron blasters." Blake moved to the piloting station. "Plot us a course out, Jenna. Standard by seven."

"They're breaking formation." Cally's voice drew his attention back to the screen, where the pursuit ships had indeed broken their pattern and were now spreading out to surround Liberator on four 'sides.' With the planet behind her, she was now effectively bracketted.

+Plasma bolts launched and running,+ Zen informed them tonelessly. +Bearing directly.+

"Evasion course!" Blake's words were lost in the double impact of the plasma bolts. He was thrown to the deck, hitting the pilot console housing as he went down hard enough to make lights swim in the periphery of his vision. He struggled back to his feet in time to hear Avon's unflappable tones report a 30% energy drain on shields two and six.

"Zen!" Blake snapped. "Increase speed to standard by ten. Bearing zero-four-one."

"Straight through them?" Jenna was incredulous.

"Straight through them," Blake echoed.

Avon crossed his arms, voice smirking. "You tried that once before."

"Yes, well, let's just see who backs down first, shall we?"


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