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Jabberwocky - part 4 - The Froma

By Sheila Paulson
Page 3 of 11

      "And if you do fail?" he asked.

      "Then what have we lost but a little time and effort?" she pointed out. "We do not possess the Froma now, and the rebels do exist. If we do not stop them this time, there is always later. Besides, I can already give you names and places and dates, and if nothing else, that will help you capture them after I have gone."

      "Give them to me now."

      "And lose the chance of taking the Froma from Blake?"

      "I think you're wrong, Sleer. But we'll try it your way for now. I won't pass up a chance to take Blake and his crew though."

      "If you ruin this plan, Clancy, heads will roll, and the first of them will be yours."

      "You exceed your authority, Lieutenant."

      "Do I, Clancy? Supreme Commander Arpel would not think so."

      He threw her a glance of active loathing, which she returned in full measure. The man was a fool who could ruin all her plans. She would have to devise a method to keep him out of the way. Otherwise, her carefully constructed plans could tumble about her like a city wrecked by earthquake. If Clancy destroyed this mission, she would bury him and enjoy the process, but she could not let him try.

      

      "That's it, then?" Vila said sceptically to Avon as they stood looking at the Froma. They had teleported down with Soolin, Tarrant and Hugh and had separated for an hour playing tourist, then met again to go through the museum where the Froma was housed. Hugh and Tarrant were lurking about in the next chamber, alert for trouble, and Soolin was across the room staring at the Froma from a different angle, her elbow on the railing, her chin resting on her hand. She looked bored. Vila could not conceal his outraged disbelief. "It's ugly," he protested.

      "That does not detract from its worth." Avon frowned. The Froma was a dull metallic black, the irrestium coating transparent, visible only by the way it caught the light at unexpected angles, glittering suddenly as one moved, then when one stood still, waiting, it went dull again. It was like a trick seen from the corner of one's eye that would vanish under direct scrutiny, leaving only doubt.

      Avon's frown deepened, intensified by the sudden sensation that he was being watched. He cast a cautious and exploratory eye around the chamber for hidden camera monitors and discovered three of them. Positioning himself carefully to avoid facing one of them directly, he resumed his examination, trying to shake the uncomfortable sensation that there were more than monitor eyes upon him. The sensation was unpleasant but he could find nothing to account for it. Finally dismissing it from his mind as a stupid flight of fancy - he knew he was being watched, so why make a fuss over it - he considered the Froma.

      Roughly half the size of Orac and the same general shape, though with a few extraneous corners and bulges, as if a blind man had tried to design a cube, it was as ugly as Vila claimed it was, only more compelling. Having focused on it, Avon found it difficult to pull his eyes away. This squat little shape killed people and drove ships from the sky and that should be impossible for it had no power source. There was no obvious way for it to absorb energy from its surroundings, unless it was more porous than it looked and sucked in some unknown form of energy from the air itself. He leaned closer to it, only to have a uniformed guard bestir himself from the shadows at the corner of the room and make ineffectual shooing gestures at him. "Please, sir, not so close. The Froma has been known to attack the unwary. Stay outside the boundary and you will be quite safe. But if -" He ran down under the force of Avon's glare and backed away a little. As Avon had no wish to test the Froma's perimeter of defences, he withdrew obediently. Satisfied, even if unsure he had won, the guard retreated to his cubicle.

      "But I still don't see why it's so important," Vila persisted. "It's just an ugly little thingamy with homicidal tendencies. I wouldn't have it as a gift."

      "No one is offering it to you," Soolin retorted, continuing curiously, "Doesn't its monetary value tempt you?"

      "Not as much as staying alive does." Vila shook his head and turned away from the device, his eyes probing the corners of the room and the energy barricade that glinted almost invisibly around the Froma. He looked up to the ceiling and down to the floor again, then he began to browse around, peering behind vases and draperies, touching the walls, prodding the floor in various places and generally presenting a very thorough portrait of a thief casing his next job.

      Avon heaved an impatient sigh and took him by the arm, steering him back to the Froma. "Don't give us away." he muttered in an undertone.

      "I'm not," Vila shot back, only loud enough for Avon to hear. "I have to check the place, otherwise what's the good of coming here? If you had any sense, you'd create a diversion, give the poor bored guard something to watch and let me do my job."

      Avon glared. Dealing with Vila while he was thieving was different from dealing with him the rest of the time, and Avon had never learned to like it. But Vila was right that the guard needed distracting so he strolled over to Soolin and slung a casual arm around her shoulders. She glanced at him in surprise, caught the warning in his eye and played up, demanding to know why she'd been brought to see something so dull. Avon pointed out the fame of the Froma and the way she could one-up her friends when she told them she'd seen it. Soolin scorned that loudly. "They'd be really impressed when I told them I'd seen some ugly box that just sat there, wouldn't they?" Avon retaliated and they enjoyed a nice healthy quarrel that drew the guard from his cubicle to supervise with obvious enjoyment. Avon presumed that the people maintaining the monitors would be listening too. Finally, Vila wandered over to them, complaining about the noise and Avon allowed the fight to die down as they left the room, the guard following them at a discreet distance.

      They met Tarrant and Hugh outside and split up again in case they might be recognised. As agreed, Vila headed across the square with Soolin, while Tarrant started down a side street and Hugh fell into step with Avon. Once away from the museum, the doctor asked, "Do you think Vila can manage it?"

      "Perhaps," Avon replied. "I detected two separate security systems and Vila will no doubt have seen more. That will not be as much of a problem as the Froma itself. Besides, it is under observation."

      "That guard?"

      "Three monitors as well and... something else."

      "Something else?" Hugh stopped walking and looked at him in surprise.

      "What?"

      "I am not certain." He couldn't quite describe the sensation he'd experienced there. It had made him uncomfortable though, and he resented it.

      "It wasn't... telepathic, was it?" Hugh asked.

      "No!" Avon resented the question. He still did not like to believe that he possessed any telepathic gifts, although he could not deny the healing ability that accompanied it. Even with that, he had never experienced anything like this, a sense of presence, something unlike any previous mental contact. There had been no conscious awareness of speech, no concrete ideas. It was just a presence, someone watching him steadily with incredible patience. The Froma? He dismissed that idea as soon as it occurred to him. The Froma was an inanimate object. And even if Orac's speculation that it could be alive was correct, that did not make it sentient. He had felt no communication. Even the moon discs had had more of a presence that this.

      Hugh must have sensed his discomfort, for he didn't press it. "What was wrong with Vila?" he asked instead.

      "With Vila?" Avon asked in surprise.

      "Yes. He was being more sneaky than usual, as if he had something to hide.

      "Vila always has something to hide," Avon pointed out. "His lack of intelligence for instance."

      "More likely the reverse," Hugh disagreed, as he resumed walking toward the corner of the square. There were a few people about including two Federation troopers lounging in the park in the middle of the square, propped against the foot of an abstract statue made of some metal that had oxidised, giving it a diseased look. The locals were giving the troopers a wide berth, and Vila and Soolin had done the same. They were past them now, strolling along as if they met Federation troopers every day. Avon glanced at them, then forced himself to turn away and follow Hugh. They had reached the edge of the square where a narrow alley branched away when there was shouting behind them.

      "You there! Stop!"

      "Do we turn?" Hugh asked in an undertone.

      "Yes. To ignore it would indicate guilt. Besides, would you want to face trouble or have it come up behind you?"


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Sheila Paulson

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