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The Wanderers

By Ros Williams
Page 1 of 4

"We can't go out there," Vila said, his face pale with fright. "We're already way outside the galaxy's boundary and if we run any further we'll surely get lost."

"Impossible." Avon replied. "Backward projection, Zen."

Vila stared desperately at the receding stars of the galaxy's rim. "I shall go mad," he said, "I'm going mad already. Please, Avon...."

"Control yourself," Avon said coldly as he studied the screen.

"It's agoraphobia," Cally said, touching Vila's arm sympathetically. "Try not to think about it, Vila. I'll give you a tranquiliser when I have a moment to spare."

"I can't help thinking about it." Vila wailed dismally.

"Claustrophobia, agoraphobia...what next?" Tarrant enquired tartly. "Perhaps we should get rid of you, Vila, just as soon as we find a suitable planet to dump you on?"

"Why is it," Vila muttered, "that I am the only normal person around here? Don't any of you feel afraid of anything?"

Avon glanced sideways, noticing the thief's trembling hands as he pressed them anxiously together. "Make time for that tranquiliser now," he said to Cally, his voice suddenly more gentle than usual. He ignored Vila's mumbled thanks and returned his gaze to the screen. "They've given up," he said and a moment later Zen's calm, impersonal tones confirmed his suspicion.

"That's fortunate," Tarrant remarked, heaving a sigh of relief. "We couldn't have kept up that speed for much longer; in fact we shouldn't have kept it up as long as we did. Our energy banks are now functioning at only forty percent capacity, which is more than a little worrying, given our position."

"Forty percent's enough to get us back," said Vila, visibly relaxing. "even if we only drift...."

"If we drift," Avon murmured, "It will take a--long time. We shall merely orbit the galactic centre."

"It's going to be quite a while before we can turn back," Tarrant said with a rueful grimace, "and we can't even drift. That engagement with Servalan's minions has severely damaged the controls and at the moment we're locked into forward flight. That means..."

"That means we can't turn," Vila said flatly. "That means we are going to carry on racing into intergalactic space until someone effects the necessary repairs. That means we could be out here--further and further out here--for days." He began to shake again, his hands clasping and unclasping frantically. "And if the repairs can't be done before we run out of power we'll go on and on in the void for the rest of our lives."

"Right enough," Tarrant agreed thoughtlessly. "Not that we'll live long anyway once our power supplies cease to exist."

"You damned fool, be quiet," hissed Avon, "can't you see that he isn't able to cope with this?"

"Sympathy from you?" Tarrant sneered. "Come on, Avon, where's that chilly indifference gone, all of a sudden?"

"We need a full complement on this ship," Avon snarled, "not a half-crazed invalid to cope with!"

"How can you squabble when our lives are at stake?" cried Vila, starting to his feet. His frightened eyes darted about and spotted a handgun lying on Dayna's console. He lurched forward, seized it and aimed it at Tarrant's head. "This will certainly concentrate your thoughts!" he shouted. "Go on, get to work."

Tarrant stared at the thief in astonishment. "For heaven's sake," he said, "put that down Vila. Zen is attending to the controls and I will take a look shortly. It's not as if we're in a hurry...."

"MOVE!" Vila screamed. "If you don't, I'll kill you, I swear it!"

"He's mad," Tarrant said to Avon. "What's come over him?"

"Do as he says," Avon responded sharply. "If you don't he will indeed carry out his threat, and I must say that the more I think about it, the more I approve of the idea... He's terrified out of his mind, Tarrant."

Muttering resentfully, the pilot left the flight-deck. "Watch out," he said as he passed Cally in the corridor, "Vila's gone berserk."

Raising her eyebrows, Cally walked onto the flight-deck and stopped short as she saw Vila, the weapon now leveled at Dayna. "I don't believe you," Vila was saying. "There must be something you can do to turn this ship, Avon. Talk to Zen. Order him to turn the ship."

"It's no use," Avon responded quietly. "Zen is doing all it can and any orders of mine would merely slow down the repair operations."

"If we were just facing towards the galaxy, it wouldn't be so bad."

Vila said "Someone has to obey...I'll kill her, Avon, unless you do as I say."

"No, you won't." Avon replied. "Kill me first...."

He can't, Cally thought, he'd never kill Avon, not even when he's scared out of his wits. Carefully she edged towards Vila, who appeared to be unaware of her presence. If I can just get within reach of him, she thought, I could seize that gun before he could fire it. She slipped the tranquilisers into her pocket and moved slowly and soundlessly behind the thief.

"If I kill you then Tarrant will take charge, and he'll get us all killed." Vila said. "No I'm not killing you, Avon. I'm killing Dayna, because she isn't necessary...and then I'll kill Cally, unless you do as I tell you."

Behind him, Cally reached out and brought her hand sharply down on his arm, causing him to shriek with pain. She seized his arm and twisted it, forcing him to shriek again as Avon leapt forward and wrenched the weapon from his grasp. "The tranquilisers," she said to Avon. "We can't use them now. He'll need an injection."

"I'll get it." Dayna was already half-way across the flight deck. "Poor devil--I don't suppose this would have happened but for Tarrant babbling as usual."

"You have to turn the ship," Vila was whimpering. "If you don't, I'm going to get into one of those survival capsules and head back by myself. I'm not going out any further, I swear it.. Please, Avon, please..."

"You have to face the truth," Avon said gently. "There's nothing I can do just yet, Vila." It was then that Vila began to scream.

#

"It's none too good," Tarrant said. "Some of the repair mechanisms have been damaged, so Zen has to attend to those before he can get down to repairing the flight controls."

"How long do you think?"

"Perhaps thirty-six hours. It's hard to say. Even Zen won't be specific, which is rather worrying."

"Yes...it is. Could we effect some manual repairs, I wonder? Get our speed lower, for example to lessen the drain on the energy banks?"

"Standard by two isn't all that bad."

"No. On the other hand, if these repairs turn out to be time-- consuming, we'll need all the energy we can muster just to keep the work going. If Zen is unable to give a completion time, we must assume that it could be extended."

"All right.... How's Vila?"

"Unconscious. It seems best to keep him that way, for the moment." Avon frowned and rose to his feet. "Next time you speak to an agoraphobic, mind what you say. I don't want something like that happening every time we near the rim."

"It didn't occur to me."

"No, it wouldn't, would it? I'll remember to throw you off the flight deck next time, before you have the chance to cause chaos... I'll work on some bypass loops; it shouldn't take more than an hour and then we can get into drift mode."

"Fine." Tarrant turned his attention to his inspection of the wrecked controls, thankful that Zen's speedy sealing of the hole torn in the hull obviated the need for a suit. Hang Vila for being such an idiot, he thought irritably, and yet I suppose it's not so pleasant hurtling into the unknown, virtually out of control. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad for him if there were something useful he could do? An idea came to him and he nodded to himself. Why not? He thought I don't really want him around here and I expect he'd chatter interminably but I suppose it might be worthwhile if it keeps him sane.

#

"You have to be joking." Vila said in disbelief.

"Of course I'm not," said Cally evenly, "Tarrant needs your help, Vila. More--you are the only person who can help. Those controls are in a shocking state and he reckons that he can speed up the repairs if he can dismantle some of the sections so that Avon can get at the circuits. We all know, don't we, that you are far and away the quickest and most deft when it comes to that sort of work."

"It sounds like an excuse to force me to do the job for him." Vila grumbled.

"Perhaps it is; does it matter? I thought you wanted this ship turned round and on its way back as soon as possible...."

"Oh, all right." Vila muttered and stomped off to find Tarrant.

Cally smiled to herself as she finished tidying the medi-unit and then made her way unhurriedly to the flight deck. "He was suspicious, of course," she said to Avon, "but he went nonetheless."

"I doubt if it matters what he thought," Avon remarked, "so long as he went. Tarrant and I can find more than enough to keep him busy."

"I see we are still travelling at standard by two," Cally remarked after a moment, "I thought you were going to bypass..."

"It's a matter of damage compounded by damage," Avon said. "Nothing I can't attend to--or indeed that Zen can't attend to--given time and sufficient power."

She looked at him sharply. "Power," she said. "That's the problem isn't it? If we cannot slow down we are losing too much power."

"Yes. It's by no means desperate now, may never become so, but I'd prefer to feel that the risk did not exist. I'm detailing you to do some of the simple checks and adjustments, Cally."

"Gladly," she replied, relieved to be of use, and she listened carefully to his explanations. As he listed the actions required, she began to realise the enormity of the task. This, she thought, will take hours of meticulous effort, and it is just my part of the work. Furthermore, everything we do relies on the hope that we will not encounter any obstacles outside the ship, for at the moment we can't even manoeuver.

"As you can see," Avon murmured, interrupting her thoughts, "it is probably fortunate that we are in intergalactic space. I'm inclined to doubt whether we could have survived a sustained, uncontrolled flight within the galaxy."

"Perhaps I should tell Vila that?" Cally suggested. "It might help to cheer him up." She hesitated and then forced herself to continue. "Avon, do you think we are going to survive?"

He looked up from the diagram he had drawn for her benefit and stared into her troubled eyes. "Do you want comfort," he enquired, "or the truth?"

"What is the truth?" she asked. "It's too late for comfort now."

Avon turned his gaze away from her to the small machine humming indolently nearby. "Tell us the truth, Orac," her said. "No long speeches, just the odds, if you please."

"The odds," Orac replied dispassionately, "are 2.37 to one against survival, given all known factors. I trust that is succinct enough for you?"

"Masterfully brief," Avon said acidly and looked again at Cally.

"Do the others know?" she asked, grimly hiding her dismay beneath her usual air of sensible practicality.

"Tarrant will have guessed long since. Dayna? I doubt whether she has even thought of failure. Vila must not be told, of course."

"He's liable to suspect. He's sensitive when it comes to his own survival."

"I know... So we must be wary, that's all. Now, the sooner you start, the sooner we might be able to turn those odds in our favour."

#

"I'm exhausted," Vila complained, hours later. "Surely we can stop for a moment?"

"No point," Tarrant replied firmly. "We're well on with this task and I want it done and out of my mind before I relax at all."

"Will we be able to turn back then?"

"No. There's a good deal more to do yet."

"So why aren't the others helping? Why only me, eh?" Vila asked aggrievedly. "I don't think much of them lazing about while I..."

"They aren't lazing about." Tarrant looked up for a moment from the mass of machinery before him and wiped his brow with his arm. "They're helping Avon."

"It's down here the help is needed." Vila grumbled. "It's not Zen that's out of action, it's this muddle surely?"

"Uhuh." Tarrant agreed non-committally, forcing his tired eyes to concentrate again on his work.

Vila eyed him with sudden suspicion. "Is there something wrong with Zen?" he demanded.

Tarrant groaned inwardly. Don't you dare go off your head again, he thought angrily. It's hard enough trying to cope with all this without you throwing a fit on me. "You know it's all interconnected," he said mildly.

"Yes, but.... You're hiding something from me, aren't you? It's not so easy for you to pretend because you're worrying about it, whatever it is."

"There's nothing." Tarrant insisted, putting into his voice a firm confidence he did not feel. "Do you think you could get on with that...."

"I'm not going to become hysterical again," Vila said. "I've passed that now. Just tell me." As Tarrant shook his head, Vila added quietly, "Don't you think it might be better for me to know for sure."

"Very well," Tarrant replied, accepting the logic of Vila's point and so told him. He then waited for the terror.

There was a long silence. "I see." Vila said slowly, and then he bent his head back to the task before him. "I wonder," he added calmly, as though talking of the most mundane matters, "where this ship will eventually end up. Andromeda, perhaps... D'you think Orac will survive it, Tarrant? Will he enjoy meeting those Andromedans again? What a pity we don't have intergalactic drive. Just at this moment, even a revolting, unlovable blob would be better than nothing for company."

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," Tarrant murmured, "but we are going the wrong way. We're directly on line for Fornax at the moment."

"Of course, no minefields."

"Right."

"I wonder what the aliens will look like," Vila continued casually. "We've had blobs, so what next?"

"Sentient seaweed, perhaps?" Tarrant suggested.

"Do you think we could survive that long?" Vila demanded. "I mean if we had enough power, of course."

"Eight hundred thousand light years," Tarrant murmured. "It's a long way, Vila, but considerably nearer than Andromeda. Perhaps...if we had the power."

Vila smiled. "Who knows, I might even get to like sentient seaweed!"

#


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