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Mutualism

By Marian Mendez
Page 2 of 8

+Kerr, come to the flight deck, please.+

"I don't think so." Avon sat back in his chair and put his feet up on the Rest Room table. "I'm comfortable here."

+Then Roj will find out first why I brought you here.+

Avon put his feet on the deck and stood. "You remind me of Blake, do you know that, Zen?" He stalked out of the room.

Tarrant looked up as Soolin and Dayna arrived. "Sorry, you're too late for the show. Blake and Avon already left."

"They'll be back," Dayna informed him. She went to the flight deck couch and sat on the left side, ignoring the sleeping Vila.

"Why?" Tarrant asked. "For that matter, why are you two here?"

"Zen invited us," Soolin replied, settling in on the right side. She pushed Vila's feet over slightly to make room. "Apparently, he's finally going to tell us where we've been going for the last three weeks."

Vila snorked, snuffled and grunted. The women glanced at him then away, to the main viewscreen.

Blake came onto the flight deck, and the others - with the exception of Vila who snored on- stiffened. He noted the response, but continued walking. "I see. Zen wants a group conference. Well, Zen, let's get started."

Dayna nodded, stiffly. "As soon as Avon gets here."

"Oh, by all means, let us wait on Avon's pleasure."

"Why not?" Avon's voice carried clearly from the other entrance. "You were waiting for me before. Maybe you'll get it right if you practice."

Not another argument. Zen bonked, +Information+ to get their attention. He hadn't done that since they came on board and it startled them, momentarily replacing the hostility with curiosity.

"Wuzzat?" It even woke Vila. He sat up, rubbing at his eyes. "Wha's everybody doing here?"

Blake said, "Zen called a meeting. He probably thought it was easier holding it here than moving you."

"Leave Vila alone," Avon warned.

"Oh, that's right, I've forgotten," Blake replied, "this is your crew, isn't it? You've done wonders with them." He lowered his voice, and his head, so that he looked like a bull about to charge. "What the hell did you do to Vila?"

Unexpectedly, Vila interrupted, forestalling Avon, "None of your business, Blake. You left us. We don't owe you any explanations."

"Thank you, Vila," Avon said.

Vila looked at Avon, then shrugged. "I just didn't want any more shouting. I've a splitting headache."

Avon looked at Zen's fascia. "Well? Get on with it."

+Look to the monitor.+

The blank monitor cleared. Everyone straightened, fascinated by the revealed image. Blake rose to his feet and moved closer to the screen.

Vila blinked. "Am I drunk, or is that a whole fleet of Liberators ?"

"You're drunk," Dayna told him absently, while she stared at the screen.

"And that's a whole fleet of Liberators , " Tarrant said, his blue eyes bright with excitement. "My God, there must be dozens of them."

+More. I am only transmitting the images of those directly ahead of us.+

"How did they get here?" Avon waved at the egg-shaped planetoid visible beyond the ships. "Terminal isn't even in the same quadrant as The System."

"Terminal?" Blake asked. He looked back at Avon's crew, but only Soolin would meet his eyes.

"It's not a nice story," she said, softly. "I've only heard it second-hand, but that's probably for the best."

+They are my siblings.They were born here, as I was. I am- and I am not- the Liberator you knew. +

Avon gave Zen's fascia a sharp look, then resumed his examination of the screen. "Born?" he asked, skepticism clear in both his tone and expression.

"Born?" Vila echoed. He scratched his head. "Maybe it's not a fleet- maybe it's a flock. Or a litter- nah, there are too many of them."

"Maybe a gaggle?" Dayna put in, entering into the spirit of it.

"Or a herd," Soolin said.

"Flying things don't come in herds," Dayna replied.

"Swans do."

Vila offered, "How about a pod?" He nodded. "Yeah, that's it. A pod of DSV's. I like it." He smiled.

"How many are there, Zen?" Blake's tone was avid.

Avon's head jerked up and he snapped, "Don't tell him. He wants your `siblings', Zen, as sacrifices for his insane rebellion."
"Not sacrifices," Blake growled. "Allies. Are you so damn selfish that you can't see the difference?"

"I can see through you, at any rate." The two men looked about to leap at each other.

Tarrant cleared his throat, distracting them. "Er, Zen, why did you bring us here? I don't really think you meant to hand your whole family over to Blake."

+ They are immature and relatively speaking, defenseless.+ As Liberator turned the screen image shifted, until another gleaming white space ship filled the screen, looking near enough to touch. +This is the most mature and it is still a child-like creature. It can understand speech, and reply in a limited fashion. There are several others who are not far behind it in development. I had hoped you could find trustworthy people to merge with them- as Jenna did with me- to accelerate their mental growth so that they would be able to protect the rest of the nursery. If they wish, some of them may join the rebellion. But I will not allow the infants to be coerced in any fashion.+

"This merging," Dayna asked, "Could anyone do it?"

+A pilot would be best.+ Ah, Del has taken the bait. Zen noticed the pilot was casually edging toward the exits. Zen checked that the spacesuits nearest the port airlock were fully supplied and serviceable, then he sent a message to the ship hovering curiously nearby. He had told it of humans, and the young ship had expressed a desire to have some of these interesting creatures for itself. Del will protect this young one, at least. He needs it, too.

"But not absolutely necessary." Blake smiled. "Zen, I volunteer."

"No!" Avon leapt to his feet. "Not again! You're not abandon..." Avon went red, whirled and left the flight deck.

There was silence for a minute. Blake rubbed his chin, a thoughtful expression on his face. "What do you suppose that meant?" he asked the room at large.

"Who knows?" Vila said. "Avon's always going off in a tiff for no reason, if you ask me."

"I don't think Blake did, actually," Soolin said.

Dayna lifted her chin. "Avon has reasons for everything he does."

"Yes," Blake agreed. "Of course, he's the only one who ever knows what they are." He turned back to Zen. "Well, Zen, will you let me have one of your siblings?"

+No. You are not ready. You do not understand the degree of commitment necessary. It is like a bonding - a marriage. When I `read' Jenna if she had not been compatible with me, she would have had the higher centers of her brain burnt out by the shock.+

"I'm willing to take the chance."

+No. I will not have a child traumatized by sharing the agony of a sentient being. I will choose the humans who are ready for my people. Those who will properly value and care for their new partner.+

"Put in your resume, Tarrant, why don't you?" Dayna said. "Zen's looking for..." She turned. "Tarrant?"

+He is no longer aboard the Liberator .+

"What did you do to him?" Dayna asked, jumping to her feet.

+I have given him his heart's desire. What he makes of it is up to him.+ The monitor changed to an internal view of a DSV's interior. It looked like Liberator, yet there were subtle differences. The corridors seemed narrower and the colors were pale aqua and metallic gold, where Liberator was white with touches of black. Tarrant came into view. He was wearing a spacesuit, but had taken off the helmet and was carrying it in one hand. He looked determined, and more than a little frightened.

Blake slammed his fist down on the console beside him. "Zen! Does the other ship have its anti-intruder device activated?"

+No. It wishes to merge with Del and will do all it can to help him.+

"Tarrant, be careful!" Dayna shouted, but saw no reaction in the young man on the screen. He continued walking down a corridor. "Zen! Let him hear me."

+No. You must not interfere.+

"It'll be all right," Vila said. He put his arm around Dayna and after the initial flinch, she allowed it. "Zen's a good guy. He wouldn't hurt Tarrant."

"Maybe not. But that isn't Zen," she said. Tarrant had reached the other DSV's flight deck. It was slightly smaller than Liberator's . The computer fascia was dark and there were no signs of activity.

Tarrant deposited his helmet on a console and looked over the flight deck. "This should be it," he murmured, placing his hand on a flat panel at what corresponded to the pilot's position on Liberator. "And if it's not, then Vila owes me an apology." He frowned. "Nothing. I should have known better than to trust Vila's..." Tarrant's look of disappointment vanished, supplanted by astonishment. "Zen? Is that you?" he said, replying to a voice no one else could hear.

Back on the Liberator, Blake, Dayna, Vila and Soolin watched the transformation with varying degrees of envy and relief.

The computer on the other DSV spoke aloud, +Well, of course it's me.+ Its voice was higher-pitched than Zen's, with none of the mechanical overtones that they had gotten accustomed to. +And I'm very pleased to meet you, Del Tarrant. Welcome aboard Freedom. It's a nice name, I like it.+
Tarrant grinned brightly.

+Only my name isn't exactly Zen.+

"All right, what is your name?"

+I'm Zenobia, Del.+ The computer's higher pitched voice giggled. +You're cute. I'm glad Zen sent you. Let's go beat up the Federation. Where shall we start?+

Seeing Tarrant's bewildered look, Dayna snickered and punched Vila on the arm. He jumped a bit, then grinned and laughed. Soolin smiled, and asked Blake, "Well, are you still sorry that Tarrant jumped the gun on you?"

Blake shook his head. He smiled. "He's welcome to his new ship. It sounds like she'll be a handful." He settled onto the flight deck couch. In the camaraderie of the moment, even Dayna was willing to let him join them. "Zen," he asked, "could you establish voice contact with Tarrant, now, please?"

+Certainly, Roj.+


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