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Scratch

By Susannah Shepherd
Page 2 of 2

The others watched her intently as she slipped into a meditative state. Vila felt the tendrils of Cally's mind whisper across his consciousness, and it made him jump nervously. One look from Avon was enough to keep him silent.

When Cally's eyes opened again they were even more troubled. "It is a predator, I can sense its need to hunt, and it seeks one of us." Dayna's eyes had grown as wide as saucers.

"But there's something, I don't know..." Cally added. "It's dangerous, it hunts, but I sense no evil or malice. And it's so aloof, I cannot trace the link..." She looked across thoughtfully at Avon, who met her gaze with his unblinking dark eyes.

"You probed all of our minds for the link. Did you test Tarrant's, too?" Avon sounded as though the attempt to remain reasonable was costing him a lot of effort.

Cally flushed. "Of course." She regained her composure. "Dayna was right. I think we had better find this thing before it finds us."

She got to her feet and collected two weapons. Avon raised an eyebrow. "We can't leave Tarrant alone out there, not until we know what this is. I'm going to find him. Vila, will you come with me?"

"Hang on a minute," Vila said, sounding shaky, "hadn't we better all stick together? I mean, we don't know how dangerous it could be..."

"Vila's right, for once," Dayna said, "the thing was so quick and quiet, it could be on top of us before we noticed."

Cally nodded. "Let's go then. We'll cover a lot of ground on the way back to the guidance control room."

Their journey took them through many of the lesser-travelled passageways of the Liberator, where the ambient lighting was dimmer and the ship seemed unnaturally quiet, except for the background hum of the drive systems propelling them through space at breathtaking speed.

Dayna was the first to catch sight of something. "There!" she hissed, pointing down the hallway at floor level. As she took aim, the others were aware of a softly blurred apparition moving away from them.

In the instant before Dayna fired, the lights went out and threw them all into the pitch darkness, lit only briefly by the energy bolt from Dayna's weapon.

"Aaah!" Vila cried, and clutched at Cally for support.

"Quiet!" she whispered in his ear. "Don't alert it!"

They all stood still, the only sound they heard being their own harried breathing. Four pairs of ears strained for any hint that the predator was closing in on them. Instinctively, they all moved closer, seeking the comforting warmth of human companions.

"Aieeeeeeeeee!" Dayna's scream was piercing, and everyone tensed in the dark to take action against their silent and invisible enemy.

The lights came flickering back up to reveal that Dayna had thrown herself into the arms of a disconcerted Avon, and was clinging tightly to handfuls of his close-fitting sweater. While he tried to disentangle himself, Cally searched but could catch no sight of their hidden adversary.

"It touched me!" Dayna sobbed with her face buried against Avon's chest. "It slid against my leg, it was horrible..."

Cally came to his rescue, and pulled Dayna gently away. "It's all right, it didn't attack you. It's gone now."

"What the hell happened to the lights?" Avon snarled as he tugged his clothes back into place. He strode to a communicator a little further along the hallway, and stabbed at the button.

"Zen? Report cause of lighting failure in Corridor S3, Deck B."

The computer's voice sounded strangely muted through the tiny wall speaker. +Sensors report a minor circuit burn-out in the auxiliary relays. Auto-repair was activated and function has been restored.+

"There we go," Vila said, nervous but chirpy. "Just a coincidence, eh?"

"Hm," Avon replied, unconvinced. "A very curiously timed coincidence, which lasted just long enough for whatever that was to escape. Something very strange is going on here."

"Cally?" A more composed Dayna spoke. "You said it was a predator, why didn't it attack us?"

"I can't tell," she admitted, "but perhaps there were too many of us. It might want to choose the ground it meets us on."

"Let's stay here, then," Vila said, "we know it doesn't like it." That earned him a sour look from both Avon and Cally.

"Or it might be looking for a softer target," Dayna mused. "I think we'd better find Tarrant."

The young pilot was surprised to see all his crew-mates watching him once again as he worked under a low console, and he got defensively to his feet. "What have I done this time?" he bristled.

Avon tossed him the spare hand-gun. "There's an intruder on board. Cally can feel it's a predator, we thought it prudent to leave no-one alone." Tarrant sensed the unspoken 'not even you' tagged on to the end of that sentence.

Once Tarrant was armed, Avon spoke to all of them again. "We'll never catch it if we keep making it run, it's too fast. We'd better split up. Dayna, you've seen it twice, take Tarrant. Cally, Vila, with me."

Vila knew from Avon's tone that it was useless to argue, and he tagged along behind the other two as they began their methodical search of the corridors around the place they had last seen the mystery invader. He let his gun hang limp in one hand as he tried to stay as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.

He saw Cally suddenly stop and tense in front of him, and she dropped down into a stealthy hunting pose. She spoke to both men telepathically. //I just saw it slip around that corner.//

Avon mirrored her alert pose, and nodded. "Dead end," he mouthed silently to her. "Trapped."

//Yes, it's trapped. Avon, you go to the left. Vila, cover us both.//

Avon moved silently into position to cut off any possible escape, while Vila gripped his gun as though he knew what he was doing. Cally looked at them both.

//Ready? On my count--one, two, three, GO!//

Avon and Cally moved in fluid unison to corner the enemy. It grew in size before their shocked eyes, hissing and arching in fury. They both fired at once.

Both weapons failed to fire. Avon swore through gritted teeth and fired again, with the same result. He took a step forward.

"No!" Vila screamed in horror. "Don't touch it!"

To Avon's enormous surprise, Vila shouldered his way between him and Cally and skidded to his knees on the floor in front of the creature, which backed up and hissed again.

"Don't hurt him!" Vila extended a hand towards the creature, which began to subside a little and stopped hissing.

"It's... it's a cat!" Cally said in surprise. "How did a cat get on board the Liberator?'

"That's a very good question, Vila, and one I'd like an answer to," Avon growled.

Vila ignored him, and started crooning to the little pale cat. "Here, Scratch, come to daddy. You naughty cat, sneaking out like that and getting lost." He fished inside his tunic, then extended a hand holding a piece of food towards the frightened animal.

Scratch relaxed enough to extend a curious nose towards the offering, decided he liked the smell of it, and started licking. Vila dropped it on to the floor for the cat to eat, then rubbed at the fawn and white-furred head as the cat enjoyed his treat. "Good boy," Vila murmured again, and the cat responded with a burst of loud purring.

Vila waited until Scratch had finished his snack, then lifted him into his arms. The cat nudged at his face while Vila tickled it under the chin. He turned slowly to face Cally and Avon.

"Well?" Avon asked, his voice low and reasonable and eminently dangerous. "I'm waiting."

"Let's walk as we talk, shall we?" Cally broke in. "We'd better find the others before they shoot each other by accident. Vila, how could you let us run around armed when you knew it was just a cat?"

"I wasn't sure," Vila said defensively, "not until I saw him when Dayna shot at him. I mean, I thought it probably was just Scratch, I was looking for him when Dayna found me, but I wasn't taking any chances, not with some of the things we've had stow away on board before."

"We're back to that word stowaway, Vila," Avon said. "That mangy bag of fleas did not materialise here by itself."

"I found him when I was breaking into that security complex on Rufior," Vila said, offended. "He was in the alley outside, crying like he'd been abandoned. He was still there when I came back, I couldn't just leave him. I put him in my box of tricks and left the lid ajar so he could breathe. I wasn't sure the teleport would pick him up, but it did. Poor thing, he's barely let out a meow since."

They found the others and returned to the flight deck. Vila put Scratch down and the cat walked around, investigating the options, before leaping lithely into the pilot's seat and curling up to go to sleep.

"Hey!" Tarrant protested. "Get that thing off my position!"

Dayna just laughed at him and went to tickle the cat's ears. Scratch pushed his head up into Dayna's hand, but didn't stir. "Ignore the grumpy man," she said.

"Vila, I don't understand," Cally said. "Why wouldn't our guns fire?"

"Oh, that was too easy," Via said breezily, "when you're the best pickpocket in the Federated Worlds and your targets expect you to be standing close behind them." Cally and Avon both looked down to find their hand-guns unplugged from the power-packs, but secured so that they wouldn't notice the cords were loose. Both switches were also turned to the rarely used safety setting.

Avon looked at Vila for a moment, then laughed. "And how did you fool Zen?"

"Didn't need to, did I? I just told him that we had a new, non-human crew member when I first brought Scratch on board."

"Of course," Avon said with a touch of annoyance, "Zen said no unauthorised life-forms. I should have been suspicious of that qualification." He gave Vila an appraising look. For a man who usually pretended to be stupid, he sometimes showed a remarkable degree of forethought.

"It still doesn't explain why the lights went out just as Dayna was firing at it." Avon's tone was still suspicious.

"Him, Avon, not it. Like I said, coincidence. Things just happen like that sometimes." Vila stifled a yawn. "I'm supposed to be on a rest period. I'm going to bed." He stepped over to the pilot's position.

"Come on, Scratch, seeing as you're the only warm thing on board that'll share with me..." He went to pick up the cat, but one paw shot out and batted his hand away. The claws were sheathed, but the others laughed.

"Even the cat's turned you down, Vila," Dayna teased. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

"Thanks a million, Scratch," Vila said morosely. "It looks like he wants to stay. You're on night watch, Avon, do you mind? They're not the most obedient of animals."

"If it must," Avon ground out. "It will be little different from the rest of you in that regard."

"He, Avon, he. All right, then, g'night..." Vila left the flight deck, followed by Dayna and then Tarrant and Cally. Avon tried to ignore the smile that passed between them.

Avon sat at his own flight position for several minutes, until he was certain that the others had gone for the night. He slipped out of his chair and moved up to the pilot's seat. He and the cat regarded each other for a time, unblinking green eyes held by an equally determined pair of brown eyes.

Once they'd taken the measure of each other, Avon stretched out his hand to rub the cat under the chin, the way he'd seen Vila do it. For several seconds, the cat accepted the caress but made no move or sound. Just as Avon was about to drop his hand, Scratch started to purr and rolled over in the chair.

Avon chuckled and obliged, rubbing the cat with long strokes of his hand along the soft fur. The purring increased in volume until it rang across the flight deck. He petted the cat until his hand started to tingle, then stopped with a sigh. The cat looked at him, blinked, then fell soundly asleep.

"I'm going to fetch a coffee, Scratch. I think there's some leftover protein chips in the galley. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Avon sauntered off the flight deck, and Scratch reopened his eyes to watch the human leave. He waited for a few seconds, then jumped down from the chair. He stalked resolutely across the flight deck to stand in front of the viewscreen, then coiled and leapt up on to the analysis dome beneath Zen's display.

As the cat rubbed and nuzzled against the perspex, Zen lit up and flashed in time with the cat's caresses.


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