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A New Machine

By Belatrix Carter
Page 2 of 6

Orac had no idea how much time had passed when the alien finally entered the room. Yet another item to add to the long list of internal malfunctions.

"I apologize for not being here when you awoke," the creature said as it came through the doorway. "I was tending to your companion."

It was not a species he recognized, and under ordinary circumstances he would have been interested in learning more about it and the unusual translator technology it was employing. But, for once, he had higher priorities than the accumulation of knowledge for his databanks, and he ignored the alien, instead concentrating his limited and odd-angled vision on the human figure that entered beside it.

"Avon! Where have you been? My communications links are down, my processor speed has been greatly diminished, my sensory input is malfunctioning, and a number of my circuits appear to be inoperative. I will require repairs immediately. I suggest you begin by..."

But Avon, who had simply been standing there, eyes wide and round, began to laugh.

Orac had never particularly understood the human sense of humor, despite Vila's best efforts, but he would have thought that Avon, at least, had enough appreciation for Orac's value to preclude finding humor in his incapacity. "I fail to see what is so funny!"

"This..." Avon addressed the alien. "This is what you've done with Orac?"

"As I said, it was necessary to employ a biological substrate. As he was found in your company, we felt that he would be more comfortable with your form of life than with ours. You, of course, were the only source of genetic material we had for your species."

Why would these organisms -- human and alien alike, it seemed -- never speak clearly and directly? "I require a more coherent explanation. What is it that has been done to me?"

"You were damaged…" the alien began.

"Yes! Yes! I am aware of that!" he snapped, frustrated, as always, at the painful slowness of verbal communication, willing the creature to simply get to the point.

"Well, it certainly sounds like Orac." Avon shouldered past the alien before it could speak again, coming towards Orac until he blocked most of his field of vision. He stood there looking at Orac for a moment, then reached down and touched... Touched Orac's...

The input made no sense. It was very much like the meaningless pseudo-sensations that he had earlier dismissed as random noise, caused by the malfunctions in his sensory apparatus. But this… This was not noise. This was genuine sensory feedback, perfectly coordinated with what he could see of Avon's movements. This was information. This was, presumably, what it was like to have a sense of touch.

And, in a moment, Avon's hand rose until it again entered Orac's field of vision… holding a human hand.

Orac's thoughts were moving slowly, sluggishly, his intellectual capacity far, far below what he considered nominal. And yet, he had not been robbed entirely of the capacity for deductive reasoning. He considered again what the alien had said. "Biological substrate." It all made a horrifying sort of sense.

He made a tiny moaning sound, quite involuntarily.

"It was necessary in order to preserve your existence," the alien said. As if that excused this act of butchery.

Avon ceased his inspection of the hand, extended his fingers instead to touch what must be Orac's face. Yes, the sensations began to fall into place. Hands there, face here. Now that he knew what to concentrate on, Orac was aware of the feeling of some soft substance beneath him, gentle upward pressure against his body. Human fingers traced a line down his cheek, overwhelming him with unfamiliar sensation as his processors -- or whatever bundle of neural material now served him as a processor -- tried to integrate it all.

"Well," Avon said with a peculiar smile. "At least they gave you an attractive visage."

As if he cared what he looked like to humans. "I demand that you restore me to my proper form at once!"

"I'm afraid that is not possible," said the alien. "My people do not have the expertise to repair that type of technology."

"Then Avon must effect the repairs! The current state of affairs is unacceptable."

"Let me see it," said Avon.

The alien strode over to the wall in which the door was set and traced a complicated pattern over the fibrous white material with one forelimb. Silently, a hole opened in the wall and extruded a small platform on which sat... Orac. Or rather, what had once been Orac.

He stared at the battered plastic box with a sense of dismayed fascination. This was how human senses perceived him? How unimpressive. Undignified, even. But then, Ensor had never had a particularly advanced sense of aesthetics.

The top panel of the casing was already loose, and Avon lifted it off, making a small hissing sound between his teeth as he did so. It wasn’t difficult to ascertain the source of Avon's displeasure: even from here, even with his distressingly decreased perceptions, the damage was obvious. Delicate components had broken themselves loose from their housings and shattered. One corner of the casing had buckled and cracked, the circuitry it held crushed almost into unrecognizability. Orac felt his new, organic body twinge with unfamiliar and highly unpleasant feedback at the sight.

"The main processor unit is almost completely degraded," Avon was saying, "the communications crystals have fractured, and much of the secondary circuitry has sustained damage. It looks like the memory banks are intact, at least. I should be able to repair it eventually, but not without tools and replacement parts."

"We have neither of these things," said the alien.

"I don't even have some of them." Avon straightened and faced Orac -- or rather, the current seat of Orac's consciousness -- with a tight, unpleasant smile. "It looks as if you may be stuck like that for some time."

Orac's body shuddered.

**

Vila sat at the teleport console, feeling nervous. What were they going to do if Avon was dead? Worse yet, what were they going to do if they couldn't find Orac? So much for their secret weapon against the Federation. So much for any hopes of ever managing a repeat of Freedom City.

Well, at least they wouldn't miss Avon as much if they didn't have Orac for him to keep in line. As long as Zen stayed nice and functional, that is. Some hope. Besides, Vila felt fairly sure he'd actually end up missing the old...

The console beeped.

Vila started slightly, then reached down and pressed the communications button. "Liberator. Have you found him yet?"

No answer. Not even the faint hiss of an open comm channel.

Panic began to well up from somewhere in the back of Vila's mind. What if whatever it was that had got Avon had the others now, too? What if they'd all been crushed in another rockfall or whatever it was? What if he was all alone on the Liberator now, just him and Zen…

The console beeped again, still insisting that there was an incoming transmission.

He frowned and looked more closely at the console. What the...? He pushed another button, and a voice came through, loud and clear and very unhappy. "Liberator, come in!"

"Avon! You're alive!" Relief washed over him like a hot shower after a hard day's thieving. "What are you doing on this frequency?"

"My bracelet's not functioning. The locals kindly lent me the use of their transmitter. Get--"

Vila cut him off. "Locals? Zen said this planet was supposed to be uninhabited!"

"Well, apparently even Zen doesn't know everything. Now get down to these coordinates, and bring two bracelets with you."

"Two? What, you mean besides my own?"

"Yes, Vila. I would think that even your rudimentary grasp of mathematics would be up to the task of adding one plus two."

"But why do you--?"

"Just do it. Now." Hmm. That didn't sound like an I'm-about-to-be-shot "now," more like the usual I'm-starting-to-lose-patience "now." Which was good, because Vila could see one small problem with this plan.

"I can't. I'm the only one on the ship. All the others are down there looking for you. Speaking of which, what did happen to you? No, never mind, tell me when you get here. I suppose I can come down and bring you a bracelet and Orac can operate the teleport."

There was a short pause on Avon's end. "No," he said in that flat but somehow obviously annoyed tone peculiar to Avon. "No, it can't. Bring the others up and then come down."

The signal cut off.

With a long-suffering sigh, Vila hit the retrieval button and reset the coordinates.

"Vila!" Tarrant had barely finished shimmering, and already he was yelling. "What are you playing at? We weren't finished..."

"It's all right, Tarrant. I found him."

"What?" Wonderful, Dayna was practically yelling at him, too.

"Well, all right, he found me. Anyway, he's on the planet, and he said to come and bring him a couple of teleport bracelets." He grabbed two of them from the rack and held them out to the closest of his newly-arrived shipmates, which happened to be Cally. "Here. You go."

"You're the one who knows what's going on," said Tarrant, handing him another bracelet. "You go."

"We'll both go," said Cally pulling him gently onto the teleport platform as he automatically snapped the bracelet into place. "Put us down, Dayna."

"Now, wait a…" The teleport took him before he could finish the sentence, and anything else he might have added to it died unsaid as he stood there blinking in astonishment at the scene in front of him.

Under normal circumstances, the strange gadget that looked like a cross between a radio transmitter and a half-dissected frog would have held his attention for quite some time, but its place in his perceptions was immediately overwhelmed by the existence of the giant spider standing next to it.

Vila yelped and cowered behind Cally, who was standing there with her mouth hanging open... and not, Vila abruptly realized, at either the gadget or the spider. She was looking at Avon.

Vila almost forgot the presence of the terrifying alien himself as he realized what it was that had struck Cally dumb. He blinked hard, but the image didn't go away. "Avon! There's two of you!"

Avon -- the Avon that was standing up -- smiled tightly and took the teleport bracelets from Cally, who was making a valiant attempt to regain her composure. He snapped one onto his own wrist, and the other onto the Avon who was floating in the odd hoverchair contraption. They were both dressed in some sort of loose, flowing white robe.

This is it, he thought. The strain of teleport finally killed me, and I'm in heaven, and all the angels look like Avon. Or would that make it hell? That'd explain the creepy-crawly demon-thing, anyway.

"Help him stand," said the first Avon, nodding brusquely towards his seated duplicate. "He hasn't quite got the hang of it yet."

"Avon?" said Cally uncertainly, looking from one to the other, as if unsure which one to address.

"I am Avon. This--" he made a small, disgusted gesture towards the second one "--is an unfortunate and hopefully temporary emergency measure."

Vila glanced back and forth between them, trying desperately to figure out just what sort of emergency would necessitate the availability of a spare Avon, and how you'd go about getting one if it did. As he peered more closely, he could see that they weren't quite identical. The sitting Avon, the one who had not yet spoken, was considerably younger-looking than the Avon he knew, and the hair was slightly different, and there was something about the eyes... They both wore nearly the same sour expression, though.

Cally nodded, clearly deciding that now was not the time to ask questions, although the perplexed look on her face plainly indicated that, like Vila, she was going to want some answers soon. She moved forward, her hand dropping briefly to the hilt of her gun as she passed the spider, and took Avon Number Two's arm.

"Vila," she said, tilting her head in an unmistakable come-here gesture.

Vila took a step forward, stopped, licked his lips, glanced at the alien, tried to take another step forward and realized he was rooted to the spot.

"Is something the matter?" the spider inquired politely, causing Vila to do a passable imitation of having a heart attack while simultaneously jumping out of his skin.

"It won't hurt you," said Avon derisively, although Vila felt strangely unsure whether he was talking to the alien or to him. "Go and help Cally so we can get the hell off this planet."

He skittered nervously past the spider and positioned himself at the second Avon's other arm, smiling weakly down at the bizarre not-quite-Avon face and getting a reasonably Avon-ish scowl in response as he and Cally pulled the figure unsteadily to its feet.

The first Avon -- the real Avon, if he were to be believed -- bent to pick something up, and Vila realized that it was Orac. A very battered, bent, and broken Orac. A strange, disturbingly organic-looking piece of apparatus rested atop the plastic case.

"What happened to Orac?" said Vila, mildly dismayed by this sight.

"I have been subjected to considerable indignities, not the least of which is having to stand here and listen to your inane prattlings when we should be making our way back to the ship!"

It took Vila a moment to realize that the voice hadn't come from Orac's casing, and another to realize that it hadn't quite been Orac's voice. By the time he'd recovered his own voice enough to say anything, he couldn't, because Avon had called for teleport and his vocal cords were in the process of being relocated.

**


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