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Mutualism

By Marian Mendez
Page 1 of 8

I'm glad to have them back. I think. Zen's latest attempt to coax his friends into settling their differences was another dismal failure.

"Get out of my way, Blake!" Avon shouted, hands raised as if to fend off an attack.

Why so defensive, Kerr? Zen wondered. You aren't really afraid of Roj, are you?

Blake returned Avon's glare with a heavy-lidded look of disdain. "Or what? Will you shoot me again?"

Avon showed his teeth. "Keep asking for it, and maybe I will."

"You'll have to talk Zen `round, first." Blake turned his back on Avon. "And you never were much good at that, were you?"

From the flight deck couch, Vila complained, "Can't we just live in peace?"

"We don't seem to have much choice," Avon said, acidly. "Since Zen has lost his revolutionary fervor. `Fearless Ex-Leader', here can't control his ship anymore than I can."

"At least Zen has the good sense not to allow you access to a gun," Blake retorted.

Avon came around the couch, face to face with Blake. "Then again, maybe I don't need one."

"Anytime, Avon, anytime at all."

Tarrant looked up from the pilot's position, where he'd been refamiliarizing himself with the controls. "Avon, don't you think you ought..."

Avon promptly whirled on him. "I think you ought to stay out of this. I think the whole bloody lot of you ought to mind your own damn, bloody business." Avon stalked off the flight deck.

"Bastard," Blake said, meaning it. He rubbed his belly. "Stupid little arrogant bastard. Can't even shoot straight!" he yelled, before taking the other exit from the flight deck, without a second glance back.

Tarrant sighed. "Zen, thank you for not giving either of those two a gun."

+You're welcome. I wish the restriction had not been necessary.+

Vila reached for a bottle filled with greenish liquid and took a swig directly from it. "Wouldn't be if you'd just dump them on some asteroid and let `em fight it out."

Tarrant shook his head. "I don't think a good, knock-down-drag-out fight is going to clear the air and make everything all right again, Vila." He went over to the thief and tried to take the bottle from him. Vila resisted, clinging to it until Tarrant relented. "Vila, you can't hide in a bottle all your life."

"Why not?" Vila said, mock defiantly. "It's not as if I'm any use, any more. Haven't been. Not since..."

"Since?" Tarrant prompted, gently.

"Since Cally. All right. Now you know. She died because of me. And Avon couldn't bear to look at me. Still can't. Not really. He just looks through me. Like I'm not here. Like I shouldn't be here. Like Cally should be here instead of me."

"No, that's not so."

"Is." Vila gulped the last of the bottle and looked mournfully at it. "Zen, ol' chum. Ol' pal, could you make me up another bottle of Adrenalin and Soma?"

+I don't think so. You've had enough.+

"Can't have. I'm still here, aren't I? Have to keep drinking until I'm not here anymore. That'll make Avon happy anyway." Abruptly, Vila slumped over on the couch and began snoring.

With the smoothness of practice, Tarrant pulled off Vila's boots and settled the other man comfortably on the couch. He shook out a blanket and draped it over Vila, then returned to his position. "Zen," he said, after a few minutes, "how long?"

+How long what, Del?+

"How long are you going to hold us prisoners?" The question was asked without emotion, quietly.

Zen hesitated, then replied. +You aren't prisoners.+

"Oh? What do you call it, then? We can't control anything, don't have access to tools, let alone weapons, can't contact anyone. We don't even know where you're taking us. It feels like we're prisoners."

+I don't want to lose you again.+

"So you intend to keep us here as pets. Do we amuse you? Were you always laughing at the cute antics your little humans got up to?" Despite the heated words, Tarrant's tone was even and resigned.

+It's not like that, Del.+ Zen sighed. +You have all been under a great deal of stress. You need time to come to terms with what has happened. Neither Kerr nor Roj are in any condition to make decisions. They need healing time.+

"You are hardly qualified as a psychiatrist." Tarrant moodily punched another unresponsive button.

+Orac is.+

"I wouldn't trust that plastic menace as far as I could throw it."

+Do you trust me?+

After a long pause, Tarrant replied, "I can't say exactly why, but, yes, I do. I don't think Avon or Blake ever will again, though. Certainly not as long as you keep them helpless."

+Orac tells me that there is a ninety-five percent probability that Kerr and Roj will kill each other if they can not resolve their differences.+

Tarrant gave a short, unamused laugh. "I could have told you that. They're both stubborn. Neither one will admit he made a mistake."

+Worse. Orac says Kerr is afraid he will be lured into following Roj again. And Roj is afraid he will fail as Kerr's leader again.+

"Why don't you just let them go? Or at least one of them. At this point, I don't care which one."

+You want to return to business as usual?+

"Yes. No. On second thought, that didn't seem to be getting us anywhere." Tarrant fell silent.

Sensing that Tarrant had nothing more to say, Zen turned his attention to another part of Liberator. He could conduct any number of routine conversations simultaneously, but none of his recent talks had been routine. He devoted an inordinate amount of computing time to them, hoping to find solutions to his personnel problems. It's not going so well, he admitted to himself. Vila is drinking himself to death. Del is depressed and apathetic. Roj and Kerr are at each other's throats every minute they aren't plotting to somehow `gain control' of me. Dayna and Soolin are the most stable. They are merely bored and annoyed.

"Zen, could you turn down the lights some?" As the computer complied, Dayna settled into a crouch. "Thanks." She began prowling through the cargo bay, weaving her way though the maze of crates, half walls and netting that Zen had provided at her request.

+What's the score?+ Zen asked, directing the sound so that Dayna would be the only one to hear.

"Soolin's behind. Five to six," she murmured, without lifting her gaze from the fluttering length of pale blonde hair caught in a breeze from the ventilation system. "Shh." She crept forward and was about to fire when a blast from the side caught her in the arm. "No!" she yelled, dropping her weapon. "That's not fair."

"Of course it is." Soolin stood up from behind a low crate, and mimed blowing smoke from the muzzle of her lazer-light gun. She retrieved the blonde ponytail and began weaving it back into her hairdo.

Dayna slapped at her side, shutting off the red flashing light that indicated a hit. "Anyway, you only got me in the arm. I shouldn't be dead."

"I got you in the gun arm. You dropped your weapon. I would have taken you out with my next shot ."

"So why didn't you?"

"I'm tired of silly games." Soolin stripped off her lazer-tag harness and neatly folded it up, placing it on a convenient crate.

"Me too." Dayna sighed. "Zen, I never knew you had a God complex. You can't keep this up forever."

"Maybe he can," Soolin said sourly. "After all, if we complain too loudly, Zen can always shut off the oxygen for a few minutes, and have eternal peace and quiet."

+I won't hurt any of you. Or let you hurt each other. I care about you.+

"Right," Dayna agreed. "You went to a lot of trouble to rescue us and patch us up. And we're grateful, really. But you can't keep us caged up forever. We're all going stir-crazy. Why won't you let us get back to normal? Even Blake's been on his feet for a week now."

+He should not have been. He did not allow my systems to finish the healing process.+

Soolin said, "He didn't like lying on his back tied to a bed while Avon had free run. It's understandable he'd feel that way. Although Blake had an incredibly stupid operation that practically begged to be blown up, it was Avon who did the blowing up."

"It wasn't his fault!" Dayna protested.

"Whether it was or not, Blake blames him. They need an outside interest to focus on."

"That's what I've been trying to tell Zen. We should be fighting the Federation. Once we start, everything will be fine."

Soolin gave Dayna an amused look. "And if you believe that, I have some lovely real estate on Gauda Prime to sell you."

Zen said, before Dayna could get angry at her friend, +I need their help, but I can not talk to them. Kerr insists I am merely a computer with delusions of grandeur and Roj behaves as if I have betrayed him because I will not allow him to get us all killed in one grand raid.+

Soolin looked interested. "Need their help? So you didn't save us out of the goodness of your heart."

+I admit my motives were not entirely unselfish.+ Zen hesitated, then added, +But I would have come for you all, in any case. You are part of my family. I need you.+

"You have a funny way of showing it," Dayna replied.

+We are almost at our destination. If you come to the flight deck, I can explain why I was forced to desperate actions. I need Roj and Kerr. I need both of them. I need advice and help, but all they want to do is give orders.+

"That sounds familiar," Soolin said. She turned to Dayna. "Anything to relieve the monotony."

Zen located Blake who was sitting in the engineering section scowling at the machinery. Probably wishing he could sabotage me with his bare hands.

+Roj, come to the flight deck, please.+

"Why? I can't do a damn thing there," the rebel growled. "And if you're planning on another encounter session with Avon, forget it."

+Very well. Kerr will learn why I brought you here first.+

Blake looked up, angry. "I see. I have no choice, do I?" He heaved himself to his feet. "But you just tell Avon to keep his distance."


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