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Divide and Conquer or Plan 9 From Andromeda

By Willa Shakespeare
Page 1 of 22

Avon woke, briefly. His head, shoulders and the back of his neck ached. He ignored the pain while blinking in an attempt to clear his fogged vision. The last he recalled they were evacuating Liberator, now he was surrounded by curving metal walls and being jostled unmercifully.

He'd never ridden in an emergency life-pod before, and if this smashing about was usual, he'd make damn sure not to do it again. Provided he survived this time. He reached for the controls, limited though they were, but his limbs responded poorly, falling far short of the simplified panel.

His head rocked to another swinging, wild movement that brought nausea closer to the surface, and unconsciousness even nearer. One last effort. He had noted Orac crammed in beside him, rather like an Egyptian pharaoh's funerary offering.

"Orac," he said, feeling his eyelids flicker shut, "get us down. Get me down," he added with all the fierceness he could muster before going completely limp.

"Down?" asked the computer. "Down where? You must be precise in your instructions." Getting no reply, the computer said to itself, "Illogical. There is no down in space."

Blake looked out the tiny viewport of his escape pod at the expanding gas cloud that had been the planet housing the Federation's central computer control. It seemed a small and unimportant thing in the vast cosmos, but millions, quite possibly billions, of human beings would die because of that dully sparkling display. The Federation was the enemy of all humanity, one to be defeated at any cost for the benefit of the survivors. But the cost was too high. Hating Blake, Travis had betrayed them all to an enemy that had no reason to leave any survivors. Ultimately, it was Blake's fault. He could have killed Travis several times over, but no, he wanted to prove he was better than his enemies. He had discounted Travis's insane hatred and his strength of purpose, while driven in much the same manner himself.

Blake said bitterly, "I had to be right, and the hell with everyone else." It was mere chance that he had not been the one to destroy the Federation's mine-field, allowing the aliens through. He could not conceive the resources necessary to build, transport and control the millions of mines that had kept humanity safe while he complacently strutted his moral purity before his crew. Faced with the threat of total species extermination, what would he have done? Asked people to contribute to the fund? Or taken, and ordered, as harshly as he felt necessary?

Avon knew. Those cynical brown eyes had often told him what a hypocrite he was, even when Avon's sharp tongue was mercifully silent. Blake would have done what needed to be done, no matter who it hurt. As the Federation did. If they had not possessed flotillas of killer ships to throw against the Andromedan armada, the aliens would simply have strolled right in and wiped out everyone. What did freedom matter to the dead?

The battle was virtually over when Avon and Jenna came to hustle him into a life-pod. From the medical unit he had listened to the carnage, felt the Liberator take blow after blow. Jenna said they'd won, that the few remaining aliens were fleeing, but he wondered. There had been so many of them.

His 'ship' lurched, throwing him against the bulkhead with bruising force. Startled, he checked the instruments. Normal across the board, no planet nearby, no collision with debris. The life-pod jerked again, then settled down to a jittering crabwise course, nearly at right angles to the propulsion units. He was being dragged by some sort of traction device. He braced himself against the battering and prayed it was the Federation.

He kept looking out. His heart sank as he studied the stars. He was being pulled away from Federation space, towards the retreating remnant of the Andromedan fleet.

After an interminable, bruising journey, all movement stopped, so suddenly that he was flung into the instrument panel. Dazed, he groped after the weapon Avon had tucked in beside him before sealing him in the pod. The pod door opened automatically and he looked out.

It was obviously a ship's airlock, but like none he'd ever seen before. Everything was all slick, shining, iridescent curves, seamlessly fitting together. It didn't look like metal, or plastic, or any substance he'd ever seen. The air was breathable, but odd, with an ozone reek, like an artificially produced atmosphere.

The hair was standing stiffly up on the back of his neck when he stepped out into the empty corridor. A door, for want of a better word, irised open a few metres to his right. It reminded him of a carnivorous plant. A clunk behind him was the hatch of his life-pod shutting. "Who are you? What do you want?" Blake demanded, slowly turning, hand on weapon hilt.

A soft, sucking noise drew his attention. Part of the exterior bulkhead moved, bulging outward, thinning in the centre to reveal a transparent ovoid giving a view of space. And of four Liberator life-pods motionless just beyond. "Go. Leave ship opening," a barely understandable, sourceless voice said. As emphasis, the door irised partly shut, then opened again. When fully open, Blake could see another door leading to another featureless compartment.

"No," Blake said.

"Small ships. Life-gas limited," the voice said.

Blake frowned. He had a choice, allow his crew to be captured by aliens, or allow them to suffocate. He gave one last glance at the four pods, then turned toward the door. "What do you want from us?" Blake asked as he obeyed the voice's instructions, going into the second compartment and watching the door seal shut behind him. There was no answer.

In a few minutes, Jenna came through the opening, gun held at readiness."Blake?" she asked, lowering the weapon, but not yet holstering it. "Are you all right?"

He made a noncommittal sound. His shoulder wound was annoying more than anything else. "For the moment. Haven't seen our hosts yet."

Jenna shuddered. "Avon told me what to expect. I'm just as pleased not to see them. What will they do to us?" she asked, moving closer to Blake.

"No idea. Nothing pleasant, I would assume." He ran his hand over the area of 'wall' where Jenna's door had been. It was exactly the same as the rest of the wall, and responded to no stimuli he could produce. He wasn't even sure it had opened in the same place as before.

Another opening a metre away confirmed his suspicion. Vila came in, trembling and pale, hugging one arm to his chest. "I told you I wasn't a hero." He winced. "And I've got the broken arm to prove it." He cringed as the door shut, sealing him in with the others.

Jenna slipped off Vila's tunic and examined his arm as best she could with him whimpering and pulling back at every touch. "Yes, it's broken, all right."

"We need medical attention," Blake said, out loud. "Vila and I are injured." No response. "Unless you picked us up only to kill us, you have to do something." This time he received an answer.

"Cellular damage minimal. Discontinuity of calcium structure in Vila-specimen. Carbonization of tissue of Blake-specimen small percentage of mass. Permission to heal damage," returned the voice. "Live specimens desirable."

"Well, I'm glad to hear that," Blake said, "but we can't just heal on command." The Andromedan infiltrators on Star One were fluent in Federation Standard and seemed to know everything they needed about human beings. Were there factions among the aliens? He had gathered that their ships were highly individualistic, with no two alike, from his crew's comments during the battle. Shouts of 'blast that teapot', 'duck the helmet', 'look out for that saucer' and other descriptions invented on the spot when there was no time for coordinates had told him as much. The rubble his life-pod passed through confirmed that impression. They were individuals, perhaps even more so than humans. If this bunch was ignorant and wanted to learn about humans, their immediate chances for survival were not as remote as he feared. Unless the Andromedan's ignorance itself killed them.

"What is needed for repair?"

"Drugs. Antibiotics. Antiseptics. Bandages and a cast, to start with."

The voice replied, "Have not. If self-repair not possible, specimens' use limited."

"Limited to what?" Vila asked, practically squeaking.

"Study of physical organism after life-end. Fluids. Tissues. Organs. Other structures."

Vila sank to the deck in a half-faint. "No, no, no. Not me, Blake, you can't let them cut me up to see what makes me tick."

"You created the air- the 'life-gas'," Blake said, guessing. "Can't you make the other things we need?"

"Life-gas simple combination of elements. What is 'drug'?"

That stumped Blake.

"Jenna-specimen undamaged?"

"Yes, I'm fine," Jenna said, not liking the idea of dissection any more than Vila did.

"Jenna- specimen will return to ship opening." The iris appeared again.

"Why?" Jenna asked, at the same time Blake said, "No!"

"Move damaged specimen," the voice replied.

"I'll go. It might be Cally," Jenna said. "And I wouldn't leave anyone to die alone here, not even Avon." She patted Blake's good shoulder. "It'll be all right." She drew her weapon.

The voice said, "No," as the iris disappeared again. "Remove. Put in opening." A small hole appeared in the floor, just large enough to accept a Liberator hand-gun.

"Remove what?" Jenna said, pretending not to understand.

"Kill-thing. All, remove. Put in opening."

Blake said, "And what if we don't?"

"Life-gas will be stopped."

Jenna looked at Blake. Vila looked at Blake, then at the hole. Blake sighed. "All right. Do it."

All three guns fed into the hole, it sealed itself and the 'door' opened. "Be careful, Jenna," Blake said.

"Always," Jenna replied, looking back long enough to give Blake a cheerful grin, which vanished the instant the opening vanished. She turned, squared her shoulders and strode toward the airlock.

It wasn't the pristine, featureless corridor it had been. Avon was there, bloody and unconscious, lying slumped over Orac, which was twinkling madly. Several metres away a large pool of bluish-green glop spread, contrasting with the scarlet smears Avon was adding to the decor. The deck humped up under the pool, forming a funnel shape leading to the bulkhead. There was a transparent place on the bulkhead, and as Jenna watched in fascination the thin jelly-like substance oozed through and into space where it dispersed into a trail of globules.

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