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Islands

By Nicola Mody
Page 1 of 1

It was quiet on the flight-deck. None of the three people on duty particularly felt like talking.

 

Vila was still smarting from Dayna's latest attack and he hadn't quite got over the events on Kezarn—or off it. On the whole, he thought he'd done the right thing in not going with Kerril, considering his lack of talent as a pioneer or hunter or gatherer; at least in that sense. Not that he'd had much choice at the time. And anyway, she'd chosen a new life before she'd thought to ask him. Sometimes he wished he'd asked her to come with him, called for teleport with her in his arms, but it was probably just as well. She'd seen him at his best; her love wouldn't have survived what they thought of him here.

That was what hurt most of all. Dayna and Tarrant's contempt, Cally's indifference, and Avon's ... what? Shame? Tarrant had enjoyed telling him what Avon had said about him back at Kezarn. Not that Vila quite believed Avon despised him, not with that easy acceptance of each other which neither of them ever put into words, but it still stung that Avon had to say that. Ashamed of it, was he?

Vila looked at Avon, sitting on the flight couch with his back to them and fiddling with his latest gadget. Or pretending to. He'd lost more than Vila had. Vila would always be able to remember that long golden afternoon and evening by the pond, but Avon had only lies.

He looked sideways at Cally, sitting all self-contained at her station, her head bent so her face was in shadow. She'd lost even more, her whole planet and almost all her people. He wondered why she hadn't stayed with what was left of them but he didn't dare ask.

Vila sighed. He wished he could think of something to say to either of them to make it better, but he only had jokes and wordplay. Hardly enough, was it?

 

Cally stared at her monitor, flicking her way through Liberator's long-range sensors. Nothing but stars, nebulae, galaxies so distant they looked like stars. Little white pinpricks in the vast cold darkness of space, unimaginably far from each other. You couldn't tell what each one was like unless you got close or could access the available data. She picked a random dot and watched the words scroll up her screen.

Humans were like stars: isolated from each other; essentially unknowable unless you could decipher the readout. Some were easier than others. Vila showed almost everything he felt written large on his face and she got the edges of his strongest emotions, but one had to watch Avon for the slightest sign of what he was thinking, consider his words, decide whether they should be taken at face value or regarded as another line in his self-defence.

Auron had been a warm sea of ever-present thought. Kaarn would have been a pond, but she had still chosen this ship of space and its crew of island universes for the same reason she had left years go. Here she could think her own thoughts without censure. Here she had the freedom to be different.

 

Avon sat with his back to the others so that they would not be able see that he was fidgeting with his tools rather than working. He was thinking about Anna—or whoever she had really been. Regret was a waste of time, but one ought to be able to learn from one's errors.

At least he was not the only victim; her own brother had believed she was dead too. Had she been living a double life as Sula Chesku all the time he'd known—or not known—her, or had she assumed that identity in a sort of betrayer's protection programme? He didn't even know whether she really had been leading a revolution, or was a double-agent intending to sabotage it from within.

Cally had said once that someone who trusts can never be betrayed, only mistaken. Avon did not like being mistaken. And if he had read Anna so badly, could he really trust anyone else?

Including the crew?

***

"Oh, no, here we go again. We're changing course and no one has."

It was a welcome distraction despite Vila's idiosyncratic syntax; Avon looked at the command monitor next to him. "I wouldn't worry, Vila. I rather think we're avoiding trouble, not looking for it."

"Information," said Zen. "Data stores indicate the presence of an unexplained phenomenon in our predicted flight path. Course has been accordingly altered."

"Good for you, Zen." Vila relaxed in his seat. "Better pull Orac's key though, before he gets interested."

"Ah." Avon had found their position on the local sector's star chart and felt a brief spark of curiosity, soon quenched. "Yes. Give it a wide berth, Zen."

"Confirmed."

Cally frowned and put her head on one side as if listening. "What is it, Avon?"

"The Bermuda Nebula."

Vila's eyes widened. "Even I've heard of that! They say it's as bad as the Darkling Zone! Ships go in and never come out!"

"Well, we won't be," Avon said shortly.

"There's ... something there." Cally's eyes went unfocussed. "Something watching. Something ... curious."

"All right, now you're frightening me, Cally."

"It is nothing to be afraid of, Vila. It just wants to ... know."

"Somehow that doesn't make me feel any better."

"Avon?" Cally leaned forward. "Could we go a bit closer perhaps?"

"I'd rather not risk it."

"That's hardly fair," Vila said. "We almost freeze solid on the dark side of some miserable out-of-the-way ice-ball just to satisfy your curiosity."

Avon raised his eyebrows. "A sudden attack of courage, Vila? Are you suggesting a spot of intrepid exploration?"

"Eh? Oh now look, that wasn't what I meant at all! I was just saying it wasn't very fair on Cally."

"I see." Avon smiled briefly. "Tell me. Has your much-vaunted ability to sense danger warned you of any?"

"No." Vila looked trapped. "But that doesn't mean there isn't any."

"And I thought it was never wrong," Avon drawled.

"It isn't, not when I do sense danger. But sometimes I don't."

"Oh, very useful, Vila. A sort of coward's insurance that covers everything."

Vila scowled. "And why not? The universe is out to get me."

For once, Avon had no comeback. He had much the same feeling himself lately.

"Auronar," Cally said wonderingly. "There are Auronar there."

"There can't be." Avon said impatiently. "There is no life in that nebula."

Vila looked up at Zen's fascia. "Is he right about that, Zen?"

"There is no organic life."

"There. You see?" Avon turned back to his work.

"Life doesn't have to be organic," Vila said. "That Sopron rock wasn't."

Avon paused in the act of reaching for a probe. Every now and then, Vila had a flash of intelligence. Or, as he sometimes suspected, just forgot to hide it. "No, it wasn't. Perhaps that's what you're sensing, Cally? A reflection of your own thoughts."

"No," Cally said decisively. "There are Auronar, several distinct personalities. And ... others. So many others, harder to read." She paused to listen. "They feel rather like you, Vila."

"Me?"

"Human."

"A matter of opinion," Avon said dryly.

"Yet somehow they're all one. Encompassed in something ... vast."

Vila shivered. "My name is Legion."

Now where had he got that reference from? Ancient religious literature was hardly the usual reading matter in the Delta grades. Avon shrugged the thought off and stood up. "Take us closer, Zen."

Zen's lights pulsed. "It is prudent to treat any unexplained phenomenon as potentially dangerous."

"My thoughts exactly! Well, what d'you know," Vila said mock-wonderingly. "I've got a mind like a computer!"

Avon frowned in thought. "Give me manual control, Zen. Status one, subcategory Q, no countermand."

"Confirmed."

"Wonderful." Vila slumped in his seat. "I can't wait."

"Thank you, Avon," Cally said gravely.

Avon did not answer, but he smiled faintly—not because of Vila's remark or Cally's gratitude, but because the universe could still interest him after all.

***

The nebula filled their forward view, showing on their light-intensifying sensors as an ethereally beautiful cloud of coloured gases shot through with what looked like lightning.

Vila regarded it with distrust. "We're not going in, are we?"

Avon looked up from his monitor which showed a close-up of three drifting hulks. "I should like to find out what happened to those ships."

"It might be the last thing you do!"

Avon ignored Vila. "Put those up on the main screen, Zen."

"Confirmed."

"Avon!" Cally stared at the image. "One of those is Auronar! I was right."

"Yes, and by the looks of it it's been there a long time, and it's a long way from home. How many years since Auron decided on a policy of isolation?"

"About thirty."

"Orac. When was that ship reported missing?"

"Sixty-seven years ago."

"There. No one would have survived that long, Cally."

"I can hear them."

"Ghosts!" Vila's eyes widened.

"Don't be ridiculous," Avon said shortly. "Do they respond to you, Cally?"

"I haven't tried to speak to them ... wait." Cally lifted a hand to her temple and closed her eyes. The whole nebula lit up with increased lightening.

Vila's mouth dropped open. "Bloody hell! It's talking back to her!"

"Don't be stu—" Avon stopped, uncertain. Perhaps it was.

"Stop!" Cally winced. "Too loud! Who are you? One at a time. Who are—what are you?"

"Cally?" Vila approached her anxiously. "What is it, Cally? You all right?"

"Yes." Cally shook her head as if clearing it. "That was ... strange. They tried to talk to me, welcome me, but something much bigger touched me ..." She frowned, putting her chin on her hand in thought. "Remember that creature who took over Orac? It is as alien as that, but not cold and implacable like it was. More like—well, more like a child, really."

"Perhaps it's a very young nebula." Vila looked from Cally's doubtful face to Avon's scornful one. "Well, it could be, couldn't it? Our thoughts are electrical. Perhaps that's what we can see."

"The plain Delta's guide to cosmic neurology." Avon considered it. "And for once you may be right, Vila." He tapped a probe distractedly against the edge of the table. "Energy discharges in that composition of gases and on that scale could attain self-awareness. Especially if encountering a template."

"Eh?"

"The first people to attempt to go through it." Avon put down his probe. "Orac. Could imprinting of that nature work, much as a recording of a brain-print does?"

"The question is absurd. It should be obvious that the answer is yes."

"Ah." Avon smiled slowly. "Now that is fascinating."

Vila screwed up his face in puzzlement. "What's in your mind, Avon?"

"Rather a lot of electrical impulses actually." Avon made his decision. "Forward, standard by one."

"What?" Vila leapt to his feet, beginning to understand. "NO!"

"And I thought you wanted to live forever, Vila."

Vila stared at him in horror. "But I wouldn't! I'd be dead!"

"What are you doing, Avon?" Cally demanded. "Vila's right—they all died in there when their electrical systems failed." As if in answer to her, the flight-deck lights flickered and dimmed slightly as the Liberator entered the nebula.

"Their bodies may well have, but their consciousnesses live on, imprinted and preserved on the electrical matrix." Avon's eyes glittered. "A community of pure intelligences, and one that would last as long as the universe, or as near as makes no difference."

Vila went pale. "You must be joking! It wouldn't be you, it'd just be a copy."

"Your consciousness would regard itself as you. I fail to see the difference."

"Well, I do! The real me would be dead!"

"That's a purely emotional response. Imagine spending centuries, millennia in thought. Imagine—"

"No, Avon! I'd rather be dead—well, I would be—but I couldn't live like that—well, you know what I mean—" Vila threw up his hands. "That's not life! Never to feel anything again, or see something beautiful? Never to touch another person, or taste or smell. Never to—" He stopped, seeing the look on Avon's face. "That's what you want, isn't it?" he said softly.

Avon did not answer, remembering the feel of Anna's skin, the silken softness of her hair, the smell of the perfume she used, the sound of her voice. The dead weight of her in his arms. Would that he had never experienced any of that, or that he could forget it.

Vila leaped forward and grabbed his arm. "Well, the rest of us don't! How dare you decide for us! Turn back now!"

Avon shook his hand off, almost distractedly. "Yes, you are quite right. Reverse course."

Vila let out a shuddering sigh of relief.

"I shall take a life-pod." Avon strode towards the stairs.

"No, Avon." Cally moved quickly to stand in front of him, her eyes hard. "I will not let you."

"Why not? Give me one good reason."

"Because I hate the dark and the cold and confined spaces and I teleported into that bloody cave for you!" Vila shouted from behind him.

Avon turned to look at him dispassionately. "Oh, I'm sure it wasn't all for me, Vila. You've received the attentions of others like Shrinker, haven't you?"

Vila was taken aback. "Um, well yes, but that isn't why ... I mean, I don't go in for revenge; don't see the point. Doesn't change the past and it just causes more of the same. I just—" He shook his head angrily. "Oh, never mind. You wouldn't understand."

He likes you, Avon, Cally said in his head. Is that so hard to accept? She spoke aloud. "We all went to Earth with you, Avon. Not for revenge. For you."

"Get out of my way, Cally."

"No." Cally stood her ground.

Avon had seen her in action and had no doubt who was the better fighter. "Let me go, Cally," he said wearily.

"Cally?" Vila's voice trembled. "Do something!"

 

Vila's concern was so intense it was almost palpable. Cally knew she could take Avon—he had never been trained in unarmed combat—but he would also resent his defeat and she could hardly prevent him from taking one of the life-pods later. On impulse, she packaged up everything she felt for Avon and what she could detect from Vila, and launched it all at him.

Avon gasped and stumbled back a pace. "Oh, that was unfair, Cally."

"Yes, I know. It was not something I would even do to a fellow Auronar without their request." Cally's chin came up. "But you asked for it, Avon."

 

Avon reached out blindly for the wall and leaned against it, unable to meet her eyes or deny the reality of what she had given him from them both. He lowered his head in defeat. If he left these two, he suspected, he would never feel warm again.

"Resume control and course around the nebula, Zen."

"Confirmed."

"I shall be in my cabin." He went up the stairs as Cally stepped aside for him. He paused at the top and spoke without looking back.

"Thank you. Both of you."

***

It watched them go with regret. Many of its pets—it had found the concept in some of the minds it had preserved copies of—had not expired well. Many had come to find objects on the dead ships which would enable them to acquire more objects, and some of those had hastened the ends of their companions to delay their own. Some though had displayed a dimmer version of what had blazed briefly like little suns from these three. Something too large for the little word that described it in their minds.

Wistfully, it reached a tendril of gas after the departing ship.


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