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Not Quite Friends

By Irish and Cami
Page 1 of 11

Tarrant sometimes thought Avon was deliberately trying to drive him mad. On the other hand, he usually believed that it was Avon who was insane. Today, for instance. It wasn't bad enough the man had been prowling the ship like a ghost for several days, during which he had clearly not slept and probably had not eaten; he had kept Orac so busy with whatever obsession had him now that it categorically refused to answer Tarrant's questions about the destination he had in mind.

Tarrant ran both hands through his hair and sank into the couch at the front of the flight deck. Damn, damn, damn! If they didn't get replacement crystals for the flare shield pretty soon, they'd be sitting targets the next time the Federation caught up with them. With the flare shield that protected them from radiation backlash operating at such diminished capacity, they could kill themselves with their own weapons, even if the enemy never hit them.

On a properly run ship, he thought, glaring at nothing in particular, someone would have been keeping track of parts for all essential systems and they wouldn't be in this potentially deadly situation. This wasn't the first time, either. That debacle on Keezarn still made Tarrant shudder every time he thought of it. He wondered whether his misjudgment there was what had turned the rest of the crew against him. Well, perhaps he had been too hard on Vila, but it wasn't easy getting used to a civilian crew. Even a mercenary vessel had a clear chain of command and assigned duties for each member, and no one who wanted to stay aboard would have questioned the need for the deal Tarrant had made. Thought he had made.

Now, that was a large part of the problem, Tarrant thought--chain of command. He fervently wished Avon would make up his mind and either lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. Tarrant didn't /need to command the Liberator, but someone must. Sooner or later, this sort of disorganization would get them all killed. Tarrant would have to speak to Avon today.

Dreading the confrontation, Tarrant put it off by placing the ship on automatics and going to the Rest Room for a cup of coffee.

Vila was there, a circumstance Tarrant would have been willing to ignore, except the man insisted on conversation, saying, "I know that look, Tarrant."

Tarrant sighed and got his coffee. "Congratulations, Vila. Excuse me."

"Leave him alone."

Annoyed out of all proportion, the pilot said, "Are you presuming to tell me what to do, Vila?"

Vila seemed uncharacteristically unintimidated. He shrugged. "Just don't say I didn't warn you when he takes your head off at the shoulders for interrupting his concentration."

"Why are you assuming that I'm about to interrupt 'him' at all?" Tarrant wanted very badly to hit something. Preferably Vila. Even better, Avon. "And it drives me to distraction that everyone says 'him' with a capital 'H' whenever they mean Avon."

Vila, still looking at Tarrant with that strangely penetrating stare, said in a peculiar tone of voice, "It was a very near thing, that last argument you had. I wouldn't underestimate Avon if I were you."

"Is that possible?" Tarrant said, and immediately regretted it.

He hadn't noticed Cally in the room. She looked thunderous. Her voice, however, came out in perfectly civil tones. She said, "I'd say it was more than likely. Isn't it time to grow up, Tarrant?"

Nowthat made him angry.

Vila, of all people, said, "Stop!" Tarrant stared at him. Vila rubbed his face, shook his head, and said at a slightly lower volume, "We're all tired. Let's not talk to each other right now."

Tarrant scowled and stepped closer to the smaller man. "There you go again, trying to tell me what to do. I don't take it from Avon, and I certainly won't take it from you!"

Cally had somehow interposed herself between Tarrant and Vila. How did she do that? She was visibly restraining her own temper, but she said softly, "Please, Tarrant. For one moment, listen to me. If you appreciate nothing else, you should be reminded that, whatever your opinion of Avon, he was here first. In addition," she said, raising her voice slightly when he was about to interrupt her, "I wish to warn you that he is never unarmed. Never. Just because you don't see a gun, do not assume you are safe."

Astounded, Tarrant stepped back. He said at last, "You are telling me about the ship armed all the time? Against whom? Us?"

Cally shook her head. "The point is, you could easily push a confrontation past the point of no return if you don't keep that in mind."

"You think he'd kill me, just because I disagreed with him? Is he mad?"

Cally sighed and her shoulders slumped. "You are not hearing me. As usual. Just bear it in mind, Tarrant. It would be a pity to get yourself killed simply because you refused to take the time to understand someone who doesn't fit in the box you've assigned him."

Tarrant turned quickly and walked away from Cally because he wanted to shake her. He knew her well enough to know he'd have to fight her if he tried it. Facing away from both of them, Tarrant said, "Look. I know I'm an outsider here. But you always act as if I'm deliberately being stupid." Having regained control, he looked at them, something in his chest aching because, once again, the original crew was lined up against him. "I fail to see why I should have to be the one who makes all the allowances? Shouldn't he make some effort as well?"

Vila snorted. "You're still alive, aren't you? I'd call that an effort on his part that he might not have made if he didn't think you were a damned good pilot."

Tarrant sank into a chair and shook his head, looking up at them. "I don't understand."

Cally said, "That's a beginning." She sat down across the small table from him, obviously no longer angry. She said, "This all started just now because Vila thought you were about to interrupt whatever Avon's working on that's driving him so hard. You've done it before and seen how he acts. Do you really want to go through that again?"

Tarrant shook his head. Gods, now he was getting a headache. He said, "Of course not. But we need some more crystals for the flare shield systems, and who knows how long it might be before Avon's finished playing genius? What good is it to us if we're all dead?" His anger threatened to rise again. "Besides, I refuse to tiptoe around Avon as if I were an errant child and he the offended, unpredictable, abusive parent!"

Cally sighed again. "Back to the point, please. If you think this matter has become critical, leave a message at his station. He'll look at it when he stands his next watch. He will understand how important it is. That way, neither of you has to try the other's nerve, or whatever this stupid game--sorry, I don't mean that. I'm a little tired myself."

Tarrant exited the room quickly before he could lose his temper yet again. Why, he wondered, did he spend half his time furious aboard this ship? She was the best ship he'd ever flown, and he'd rather lose his left arm than give her up, but, gods, he was going to get old before his time if he were angry every other minute. If only the man would talk to him. Tarrant was certain that if Avon would accept him, so would the others. And worst of all, Tarrant had no idea what he'd done that was so unforgivable that Avon found it necessary to interdict every attempt Tarrant made to join the team.

Striking the keys unnecessarily hard, Tarrant created the message Cally had suggested and routed it to Avon's station. Having done that, he buried himself in a study he was making of the power consumption ratios under battle conditions. Maybe Avon had the right idea about one thing. Work took your mind off other matters.


Something about the tone of voice caught his attention. It wasn't Avon's usual snarl. He had not realized the man was on the flight deck. He said, "Avon."

With a fleeting smile, the meaning of which escaped Tarrant utterly, Avon said, "My watch."

Really? Tarrant hadn't realized he'd been so engrossed in his work. He nodded, stood up from his station and decided he was hungry and tired. Without realizing he was going to do it, Tarrant suddenly found himself moving to stand beside Avon, who was already reading one of his screens and ignoring Tarrant, as usual. With real curiosity, Tarrant asked, "Is it true, Avon, that you go about the ship armed?"

The impact of the dark stare that hit him nearly triggered Tarrant's natural aggression, but he really wanted to know why. He withstood the look and just barely stopped himself from altering his stance to one that would have signaled a readiness to fight. Finally, Avon looked down at his screens again, and said quietly, "It is true."

"Why?" Tarrant was very careful of his tone. It conveyed, he was certain, only the honest curiosity he felt.

The man's hands paused and he went very still, seeming not even to breathe for a long moment. At last, he said in that same soft tone of voice, "I have never been without a weapon by choice since I was eight years old. I am not comfortable without one."

Eight years old! The man's personal force wall slammed into place almost visibly then, and Tarrant knew he'd got all the information he was going to get. With a last, long glance at Avon, Tarrant left the flight deck. Eight years old?

He nearly mentioned the conversation to Dayna, who was the only one in the Rest Room when he went to fix his meal, but remembered in time that Dayna Mellanby had cut her milk teeth on weapons, and wouldn't think it in the least odd. With a strange, hollow feeling, he found himself missing Deeta, of whom he had not thought for some time. At least Deeta would have listened to him talk. Offered some theories. Helped Tarrant remind himself he was alive just by reacting to his presence. Sometimes, Tarrant thought, staring at his food without appetite, this was the loneliest place in the universe.

Dayna, who had sat down opposite Tarrant, interrupted his reverie, saying, "What's wrong, Tarrant? Are you all right?"

Tarrant forced a smile. "Just tired, I think. We ought to consider a stop for R&R soon."

"R and R?" she echoed.

"Rest and recreation. We've all been under a lot of pressure for far too long. We need a rest stop. At least I do."

Dayna grinned. "Sounds good to me. Any ideas where we could go that we'd be safe enough for that sort of thing?"

Tarrant shrugged. "I'm sure Orac could come up with something if we could get its attention."

Dayna's grin disappeared. "Yes. I've noticed Avon's kept the little monster busy lately. He looks exhausted."

Tarrant scowled, realizing the twinge of jealousy he felt that Dayna remarked on Avon's fatigue. That he felt such a thing was embarrassing, especially in light of Cally's earlier advice to grow up. Did he really seem immature to these people, or were they simply envious of his youth? Of course, Tarrant went well out of his way to avoid ever appearing to be tired, even if he was on the edge of collapse, and being so much younger than Avon, he could more frequently get away with it. I'm thinking about him again, he caught himself. Dammit!

Dayna said, "Oh, no. You're not--"

Instantly enraged, Tarrant glared at the girl and said, "No, I am not!" He left his food where it was and walked out of the room before he could get into another fruitless argument, this time with someone who really ought to know better, not being one of the original Seven herself. Tarrant kept walking, as he sometimes did for hours, just walking the ship, listening to her, getting the feel of her, until it calmed him, as invariably happened. By the time he'd worn off the adrenaline, he was once more in a small observation room high above where they usually went, with direct, uncorrected vision of the peculiar space through which Liberator moved at high speeds. With all light apparently compressed into a ring about the belly of the ship, it seemed as though she wore a necklace of stars and flew through absolute nothingness. Tarrant sank into the comfortable chair he'd moved in here and put up his feet. Definitely time for some R&R, he thought. I've completely lost my perspective.

Tarrant loved this odd view of the universe. He liked it better than the "corrected" view Zen would give on the main screen, because it was what the ship herself experienced. He found it relaxing. Indeed, before he'd realized how tired he was, he'd fallen asleep.

Multiple disturbances bombarded Tarrant's rest.

Deafening noise. Intense jarring. A brightness of light that turned the inside of his eyelids a scalding red.

He jerked awake, rolling off the chair, running almost before his feet touched the deck. Liberator was under attack.

It took him approximately two minutes to reach the flight deck. They felt like the most helpless two minutes of his life. The ship was being battered from all sides and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.

"Where have you been?" Avon demanded, sensing Tarrant's arrival though his concentration was so intent on his station that he couldn't actually have seen it.

Tarrant ignored the question in favor of action. He flicked the override switch, taking the ship under manual control.

"Neutron blasters are clear," Zen announced.

"Avon, you can't!" Vila cried. "If you fire the blasters, we'll get toasted."

"We have no choice. Dayna, fire."

A neutron bolt erupted from the portside blaster, grazing across one of the attackers but not causing discernible damage. Radiation backlash bathed the ship. With the flare shields operating at only forty percent capacity, sub-atomic particles penetrated the hull, contaminating everything they contacted.

"We have medicine," Cally said, apparently to soothe Vila's fears.

The sensors showed three small ships darting at Liberator with the speed and fury of angry bees. They soared in close, loosed a charge, then seesawed out again. Their speed and agility made them difficult targets. Tarrant marveled that his shipmates had managed to come close to hitting one of them.

Tarrant spent precious minutes quietly observing the spacecraft as they weaved and twisted a menacing path of destruction. It was left to Avon and Cally to protect the ship, activating sections of the force wall as required. Finally, Tarrant detected that one of their adversaries was using an alternating repetitive pattern in his attack approach. It was an error in judgment that he intended to use to his advantage.

Meanwhile, Liberator continued to take a beating. A freak charge ricocheted off the force wall and slammed into an unprotected area. A sound like distant thunder rumbled through the ship.

"Damage to energy bank four," Cally reported, her voice calm and steady. "I'm diverting life support to bank two."

"Dayna, prepare to fire," Tarrant ordered. "Don't worry about getting a fix. I'll point us in the right direction." He watched the enemy ship come closer, anticipating each of its twists and turns. When it was one hundred spacials out he began a countdown. "Four, three, two, one," Tarrant nudged Liberator sharply to the right, "fire."

Tarrant breathed a shaky sigh of relief when the blast found its target. The odds were turning slightly more manageable. "Do we have any idea who these people are?" he asked.

Avon spared a quick glance his way. "Zen is unable to identify them. They aren't Federation."

"I knew that. I wish they were. I'd know what to expect from space command trained pilots."

"There were reports about hijacking in this quadrant," Cally recalled. "I think we've found the pirates who are responsible for those incidents."

"It's more like they found us," Vila said. "They came out of nowhere. Before I knew it, we were under attack."

"And still are," Dayna sighed. "Do something, Tarrant."

"I'm trying." Tarrant rolled the ship to avoid an advancing plasma bolt. Leveling off after the maneuver, he spotted one of the intruders about to cross their flight path. "Lock on target," he hurriedly directed. "Fire." The enemy ship neatly slithered out of the way, wagging its wings with seeming audacity as it prepared another attack run.

The two unidentified spacecraft, in what appeared to be a well-rehearsed move, hurtled at them from opposite sides. Tarrant heavy-handed the controls, wrenching Liberator into an evasive maneuver that rattled his bones and spawned cries of dismay from Vila and Dayna. However, Liberator was a big target, and the ship rocked as it took a glancing blow in the keel.

"Damn!" He banked and spiraled, and managed to shake free of the attackers for what he hoped to be a few minutes' respite.

Actually, it was only fifty-five seconds.

"Tar-rant," Vila called. The thief ducked instinctively as an incoming charge filled the main screen.

Avon slammed the forward force wall into place. It absorbed the brunt of the blow in an explosion of white. Tarrant shut his eyes against the painful glare while Liberator trembled as if caught in a solar quake.

"This is getting annoying," Dayna murmured as the vibrations faded.

"Dangerously annoying," Avon confirmed. "Zen, plot an escape path."

Even before the computer responded, Tarrant knew what its answer would be. "Speeds required for an escape course are unattainable at the present time."

"Does that mean what I think it does?" Vila asked.

"Yes," Dayna answered. "We stay and fight."

Try as he might, Tarrant couldn't find any weaknesses to exploit in the two remaining pilots. They relentlessly continued their assault, forcing Liberator on the constant defensive. Mentally calculating power consumption, Tarrant wondered how much longer they could hold them off.

Cally's voice drifted down from her corner position, confirming his worry. "Energy levels are critical."

Tarrant stared grimly at the blips on the scanners and decided to pour everything into one concentrated assault. The plan was not without risks. If it failed, they wouldn't have enough power left to roll over and play dead.

"Vila, I want a continuous charge directed at that one," Tarrant punched up a projection of the more reckless of the two ships, "when it comes within range."

"Why? I'll never hit it without a monumental piece of luck. With the flare from the neutron charges disrupting the scanners, I won't even know where it is half the time. I'll be wasting energy, not to mention increasing the internal radiation level."

"Just do it; I don't have time to explain. Dayna, be ready. I'm hoping it will stray your way."

The ploy worked. Though Vila's charges weren't on target, the steady bombardment eventually sent the enemy pilot reeling nervously away from the barrage. It was an incautious, straight line of flight that allowed Dayna to get a fix on it. Without hesitation, she fired.

The spacecraft was rather close when it burst into an orange ball of fire. Liberator buffeted wildly as debris and shock waves crashed into it. The lights on the flight deck flickered, then went out. At the same instant, the main screen and their individual consoles turned black, plunging them into complete darkness.

"Zen," Avon said, "close down all unoccupied areas of the ship and divert that power to the flight deck." It took the computer a few seconds to comply with the request. In that time, their remaining opponent had decided to flee.

"Should we chase it?" Cally asked.

Avon checked the power reserves before answering. "No. The energy banks are seriously depleted. We need to let them recharge. Zen, return to preset course, standard by two. I'll want a full damage report. Route it to my station."


Tarrant released the now dormant controls and slumped back in his seat. Though exhausted and sticky with sweat, a mild euphoria washed through him. It had been a perilous encounter, but teamwork had gotten them out of it. They had performed smoothly and efficiently, with little hint of the strife and disharmony that often sent his blood boiling.

If only it could be like that all the time.

Cally tapped a series of figures into the portable med scanner, then rested back on the flight couch while it interpreted the data. Dayna and Vila sat nearby. The youngest member of the crew was already complaining of a headache and fatigue, the early signs of radiation poisoning. Cally wasn't feeling well herself, but was determined to complete her medical duties before giving in to her weakness. The diagnostic computer had suggested several possible treatments to ease their symptoms, but so far only Vila had availed himself of one, a medicinal dose of adrenaline and soma.

"I've found out how they managed to sneak up on us," Tarrant announced from his station. "They were riding in the gravitational field of an asteroid that passed close by. There was no way our scanners could have detected them."

Vila waved his glass around to celebrate his vindication. "I said it wasn't my fault. I would have spotted them if there had been anything to spot."

"No one accused you of anything," Dayna reminded him.

"Not out loud," Vila said, darting glances at his two male shipmates. He reached for the pitcher of green liquid on the table. "Have some of this, ladies. You'll feel better."

Cally shook her head. "Maybe later." The instrument in her hand pinged to announce completion of its task. She scrolled out the report slowly.

"Will we live?" Vila asked, trying to read over her shoulder.

"Yes. The massive doses of decontaminant that I gave everyone will eventually cure the radiation sickness, but we are not going to be in the best shape for the next week or two. And until the autorepairs clean the ship we'll be constantly exposed to more rads. That will require follow-up treatment."

Avon looked up from where he was rewiring a burnt out communication relay. "Do we have a sufficient supply of medicine on board?"

"Just. We'll need to restock as soon as possible."

"Especially if we aren't going to replace the flare shield crystals," Tarrant muttered.

Cally held her breath, afraid that the young man was going to lecture Avon, putting blame for their troubles on his shoulders. But he didn't say anything else, returning his attention to something on his console.

"You had me worried, Avon," Vila admitted, "when you decided to use the blasters. I should have remembered your well-honed self-preservation instincts." He flapped his arms, almost spilling his drink. "You can usually count on being safe when you're with Avon. He's a genius, he is."

Dayna snatched the tumbler from his hand and drained the final mouthful. "I think you've had enough," she said.

"You didn't have to take mine," Vila mourned as he set about pouring four servings, then refilled the glass in Dayna's hand. "There's plenty to go around."

"Drink it," Cally urged when Dayna hesitated. "I'm sure we could all use some." To stress the point, she selected a glass for herself. "Avon. Tarrant."

"There is work to be done," Avon answered. Tarrant waved off the offer with a flick of his hand.

With a shrug of mild disapproval, Cally resumed her study of the medical report. An inconsistency caught her attention. "Tarrant," she said, tilting her head to face him, "you registered a higher level of radiation than the rest of us."

"I'm not surprised," he said without looking up. "I was in the observation compartment when they first attacked. There wouldn't have been much protection up there."

"So that's why it took you so long to get to the flight deck," Dayna said.

Vila propped his feet on the table and closed his eyes. "I don't know why anyone would want to go up there. It makes me dizzy." His head lolled to one side. "I'm dizzy now."

"None of us is in the best of health," Cally said. "And it's going to get worse before it gets better. I think we should consider finding a safe planet and taking turns off the ship. It would lessen our exposure to additional radiation and allow us all recuperation time that we badly need."

"There's too much to do," Tarrant argued. "There are areas of the ship that will repair more quickly with human assistance."

Dayna's eyes widened. "But you said we needed R&R," she reminded him.

"That was before."

"We also have to locate replacement crystals for the flare shields," Avon added his voice of dissent.

Cally knew how Vila would have voted, if he hadn't fallen asleep. Not that a majority would sway Avon. Outright confrontation seldom worked with him. It would be best to let the matter rest for twenty-four hours. By then, even Avon wouldn't be able to deny the debilitating effects of the radiation. And if, in the meantime, she located a suitably safe planet that also was a source for the crystals they needed, he would be hard pressed to forbid a trip there.

Finishing her drink, Cally stood up. "Tarrant, when you come off duty, I'll want to give you an additional dose of decontaminant." The young man, intent on his console, nodded. Cally wondered whether he would remember. If not, she'd have to track him down. He was going to be very sick, very soon.

Just now, however, she had to get some rest, or she'd pass out on the couch beside Vila. That the image made her smile caused Cally to wonder if she might be even sicker than she thought. The humans aboard always told her she had no sense of humor. But then the humans were frequently wrong about Cally.


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