Weight of the WorldBy Alicia Ann Fox
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|"Put up the force wall, Jenna!" Blake shouted, hurriedly readying the weaponry console.|
I almost sighed as I did so. I ran to the flight controls and turned my attention to the two Federation pursuit ships that had somehow managed to stumble across the Liberator. Astra class, I noted. Small and maneuverable, but not noted for their heavy armament or staying power. I made rapid mental calculations. "Zen, standard by six." I automatically began to enter a few evasive maneuvers suited to that speed. Zen probably could have done it faster, but I liked to keep in practice; one day I might have to do without Zen. "We'll outrun them in less than an hour," I said. Blake nodded, but didn't seem to be paying much attention. When Avon and Vila ran in, Blake sat down on the flight couch, perching on its edge and peering at the screen. "We'll outrun them, Blake," I repeated. He didn't answer. I cast a hopeless look at Avon, who met my gaze and after a moment walked over to sit by Blake, hands clasped behind his back.
"Blake," he said. "Where do you plan to go after we outrun these ships?" I saw Vila start to speak and I quickly made a shushing gesture.
"There's Docholli," Blake began. "We need to find him before we can find Star One."
Avon showed his teeth in that sarcastic smile he has. "That's news to me. At this rate Travis will catch up to us from our sheer lack of motivation. You said Travis knows how you think; he'll know that he has you beaten. We haven't done anything of the kind for days."
Blake looked at him as if to say, you were never overly enthusiastic, but did not follow it up with a comment. He merely ended the argument as Avon so often did--he walked out. Avon looked after him, then at me, and half-shrugged. I shrugged in answer. All we could do was wait, and hope Blake would come out of it on his own.
Dinner we usually ate on the flight deck, during Vila's watch, and afterwards talked for a while, or played probability games, or watched Vila do card tricks; we had all grown used to this comfortable end to the "day." Since Atlay this had changed; Blake ate quickly if at all, and could hardly be goaded into conversation. Usually he would leave after eating, and the rest of us would sit and force half-hearted conversation. I didn't know what to do; both Cally and Avon had already tried several times to get a response of some kind, and if they had failed, what hope did I have?
After running my evening check of the flight systems, I stayed on the flight deck to watch Vila and Avon play Pyramid. I tried to concentrate on their game, but they were both so absorbed that their usual entertaining banter was at a standstill. My attention drifted to Zen's screen and, kicking off my shoes, I stared abstractedly at the flashing lights.
When Zen spoke, some time later, I started violently. +Information. Message from Tek Samos on planet Graeburn. Recording.+
Avon and Vila lifted their heads at the same instant, wearing identical expressions of annoyance. "Let's hear it, Zen," said Vila in a bored tone. Avon sneaked another glance at his cards then leaned back to listen.
+Message on speakers.+
"--This is Tek Samos. I was instructed to give the code word Lancelot and this signal." Four seconds of high speed computer language followed.
Unexpectedly Zen said, +Confirmed,+ and the message resumed.
"--We need your help, Blake. We are occupied by Federation troops, and the planetary vote for admission to the Federation begins in ten days. If the motion passes we'll be domed in a decade. I refuse to let my people live like that; the creed of the Ekuar forbids it."
"The vote will be computer tallied. Our council is sure that the computers are under Federation control. You can help us, Blake. Contact us as soon as you can."
+End of message.+
"Well that's just fine," said Vila. "Contact them how?"
"The coded signal should have the particulars." Avon looked interested. "I wonder what the creed of the Ekuar is?"
I stood up. "You can ask Orac later. We need to tell Blake about this."
Vila sighed. "I suppose I could fetch him. He hasn't ignored me for a while."
Avon glanced fleetingly at both of us, then down at his hands. He spoke quietly. "This sort of mission might be a good thing." Vila and I stared at him, incredulous. "Much as I despise Blake's idiot quests, they are infinitely easier to put up with and less dangerous than his current state of apathy." He didn't say, "And I'm bored," but it was hanging in the air.
Silence fell, then Vila left to get Blake. He moved so quietly that for a moment I didn't realize that he had gone. Avon was brushing the side of his hand, a nervous gesture that, on edge as I was, made me nervous too. I went to the flight controls (barefoot they were not at the same comfortable angle) and rested my hands on them, reassured by the "presence" of Zen. Perhaps a change of scene was what Blake needed....
The flight deck was momentarily silent except for the many small noises of Liberator's functioning. All eyes were on Blake, who had just listened to the message from Graeburn. He was gnawing on his finger, a habit even Federation conditioning hadn't been able to eradicate. Finally he looked up, and fastened his gaze on Avon. "Are you going to protest, because if you are I'd like you to be done so we can get on with the mission."
"This is a stupid idea, Blake. But by all means, let us rush into this and die heroically."
//One of his better efforts,// Cally sent, and smiled at me.
"All right," Blake was saying. "Zen, set course for Graeburn, standard by four."
Blake got up to leave. "Well, Avon, I'll leave you to your watch. I'll stop by again during yours, Cally."
I was finally getting sleepy, so I left also, departing with Cally, who needed to get back to sleep before her "wee hours" shift.
When we arrived on Graeburn, Blake, Avon, Cally, and I, it was mid-morning on a beautiful spring day. We were met by a man in his early fifties, whose dark hair had a streak of grey at each temple. "My name is Tek Samos, Outworld Liaison of Graeburn. You are Blake?"
"Yes." Blake cordially shook the proffered hand. "This is Jenna, Cally, Avon." Samos extended his hand to each of us, and then towards a group of grey stone buildings. We entered one of the larger ones and found a group of some twenty men and women of varying ages seated on round pillows around a central heating unit which was, at the moment, switched off. I heard a noise behind me and turned quickly, catching a glimpse of two dark-haired children of perhaps four years who ran giggling out a smaller door at the back. From the noise coming from outside, there were many more children nearby.
Samos pulled out more pillows, one for each of us, and we sat in the group as he stood in the middle and recapped what we already knew. I watched Blake, who was watching the council members intently, cataloguing their reactions.
Samos sat down and a much younger man, in his mid-twenties, stood up. I noted that his clothing was a good deal more rugged than that of his companions, and he wore a Mark Six projectile pistol on his hip. War chief, I decided. We had seen so many guerrillas it was becoming second nature to identify them. His opening statement proved I was right.
"I am Jacob Kinder, defender of the Ekuar." That name again. Was it what the people of Graeburn called themselves? We have scouted the perimeter of Government House. The Federation has an adequate number of troops to hold us off until well after the vote. We contacted every fighter group on Graeburn; as of yesterday our combined forces will not be enough. The Federation no longer simply occupies Graeburn." He turned to face Blake directly. "Yesterday forty men and women were wiped out by a chemical, sprayed from the air by troopers in a flyer. Eight were immune and escaped. Last night another group of thirty-two were massacred; only five escaped this time."
I glanced at Cally. She was scowling, remembering her comrades on Saurian Major.
"There are only five of us," Blake said, "and one must remain on our ship. What do you want us to do?"
Cally flung an angry look at him and sent to all of us, //Blake, you are defeated already!//
Blake flinched. Even Avon looked surprised (well--a small amount) at this uncharacteristic statement from Blake.
Jacob Kinder apparently didn't see anything wrong, however. "There is a stone building about a klick from Government House. It looks like an ordinary storage building. In it, underground, are housed our secondary computer facilities, run from their own power source. From there we could possibly regain control of the computers that control the vote and the automatic defense systems as well. Before the chief counselor, Bren Teska, evacuated, he closed off the defense mechanisms of Government House and insured that they could not be switched on by the Federation to use against us. Control of those systems would be a sizable advantage for us."
Avon spoke up sharply. "How did he do this?"
An elderly balding man spoke from the corner. "I changed the access procedure and put in three new passwords. It has worked so far. Once they had control they would not have needed the troops had they been able to use the defense systems."
"How did they take over in the first place?" I asked.
"Under the guise of a state visit from the Supreme Commander of Space Command herself," said Kinder angrily.
Blake drew in his breath sharply. "Is she here?"
"She never was. But we believed it, long enough for our doom to fall on us."
Cally spoke next. "How many man guard the secondary control center?"
Kinder smiled briefly and gestured at the outside. "Our very efficient scouts say thirty-five." I was appalled. The children? He must have seen my face because he added, "Only the older children scout. The guards do not fear them."
Cally turned to Blake. "There are at least thirteen who are immune to the gas. Surely Orac could single out others?"
"If we knew what it was, yes. But where are we going to get a sample?"
Kinder broke in. "We already have one. It is contained under pressure in small cartridges. We retrieved some from a corpse in the last attack."
Blake, glancing at each of us, said, "May we go somewhere to discuss this?"
Kinder shrugged. Teska replied, "You are our guests."
We went out the front to avoid the noise of children playing. Cally turned to Blake immediately. "We could do it. One more world saved, and perhaps they would be an example to others."
Blake looked at me. "Jenna?"
Blake seemed to be seeking reassurance, almost. As if he were afraid Graeburn would turn out to be another failure. "I think we should risk it. We've done things more difficult before."
"You forget that we may not be immune to this poison." Cool and logical, as usual.
"You could find that out, couldn't you? Could you access their system?"
"Yes, of course. Even without Teska. But I shall probably not be required."
Blake apparently took that for agreement, because he lifted his wrist and called Vila. "Vila, this is Blake. Are you on standby at the teleport?"
"I haven't budged, not even to go to--"
"That's enough, Vila. Get ready to bring up--" He glanced around at us, making a decision. "--Avon and Cally."
Blake dropped his wrist and we all trooped inside. The scene had not shifted an iota. Blake took the center of the floor, and I marveled at the way their eyes instinctively focused on him.
"Can we have one of those cylinders now, Kinder? We'd like to test it up on our ship."
Kinder went to a woman of iron-gray hair and indeterminate years, who produced it from a pocket of her baggy jumpsuit. Kinder gave it to Blake, who handed it to Avon before gesturing for them to go up and test it.
Samos waited until they had gone outside before rising. "Perhaps you would like to see the living place of the Ekuar." Politeness decreed that we did, and I was curious as well. At least it would pass the time.
Cally and Avon were to return in time for dinner, Graeburn time. Liberator was some hours ahead, so Blake and I were both hungry, not to mention a little drowsy; Avon of course was used to standing his watch about this time, but I rarely came to the flight deck this late, and Blake's watch was not until midday.
The Ekuar ate around the central heating unit; this was one of the many intriguing things Blake and I had learned during the afternoon. Ekuar was what they called their extended family system, and it was very extended. The entire planet followed this philosophy, divided into clans to twenty to sixty people. The group we had met with consisted of councilors and their immediate families, an event that usually occurred only in council season, as they represented many different clans. But the customs of all were the same, and that brings me back to where I started, with dinner.
Dinner was excellent, but I felt oppressed by the large number of people; it had been a long time since I had left the Domes. Blake, however, was in his element, and the meal passed quickly. Soon after I heard a familiar voice, and glimpsed Cally just inside the door. It took me a few moments to realize I couldn't see Avon, but then I noticed him standing a little apart, almost in shadow. Naturally; he wouldn't like the crowd either and I wondered if he was a little scornful of all this togetherness. Or afraid. I admired them; they defied everything I had come to believe. They reminded me of Blake.
Blake then spotted Cally and Avon and led us outside, to a circle of benches under a great spreading tree. The stars, dimmed by the atmosphere, were still the most brilliant I had seen planetside for many years.
Blake started to give Avon and Cally an enthusiastic report of our afternoon, sounding like himself again, but Avon interrupted, his voice harsh. "We must leave here, Blake." The odd look in his eyes gave me an uneasy feeling.
"Must you--" Cally exploded.
Avon ignored her. "While we can."
"Avon, what do you mean?" I asked. But my uneasy feeling had just doubled.
"That chemical is a variant of Reon-40; it houses a viral genome used in biological warfare. Those 'survivors' won't last out the week. By now they have passed the contagion on to their families; their clans. We, of course, are immune, not being of the local genetic stock. That is how they protect their own troopers. There is, however, always the chance that we could be contaminated." His voice was flat but stinging. I imagined each word struck Blake like a blow.
Hoarsely, he said, "Are you sure?"
"Orac is rarely wrong."
"We've got to get them off the planet--" Blake said, but he knew as well as I that the Ekuar would not leave, that it would do no good anyway. He stopped. "I've failed."
Cally had turned her face away, to get it back under control. Now she turned to Blake fiercely. "You cannot bear a thousand worlds on your shoulders, Blake. I know I can't; I realized that on Saurian Major. You must realize that you can't either. You can only try, and when the odds are too great, give in. Give before you break! And then go on."
Blake thought about it for a long moment, then hesitantly reached for my hand, holding it tightly for an instant before letting go and standing up. There was something reassuring in that grip, something that was a bit--yes--almost enthusiastic. "I'll inform Teska." He stopped. "Then we're going to look for a cybersurgeon named Docholli. Call Vila and tell him, would you?" He walked back to the building, head bowed; but unbeaten.
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