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Jabberwocky part 16 - Mutoids

By Sheila Paulson
Page 1 of 23

"You do realize, don't you, Blake, that this new scheme of yours is utter madness?" Avon glared at the rebel leader across the flight deck of Jabberwocky, his face tight, his muscles rigid. "As an experiment, it will achieve nothing, for it is clearly destined to failure. It won't even be a glorious failure, simply nothing. I assume that is why you have neglected to inform Avalon of your plan."

Vila studied Avon surreptitiously from his seat on one of the forward couches where he had been ostensibly playing at Thief, the computer game Avon had once, in a benevolent mood, designed for him; it didn't do to study him openly when he sounded as cold and furious as this. Most people became hot and angry, Avon turned glacial. He could withdraw into his pre-Jabberwocky persona at the drop of a hat, usually when the subject at hand applied to his telepathy, his psi-healing abilities, or even to threats to any of the crew of Jabberwocky. That he had come so far, had grown easier with the crew, and that his verbal attacks were more often the way he cloaked friendly banter, made this morning's anger all the more blatant.

This time, Vila agreed with Avon, though. He agreed that Blake's latest plan was insane, too; at best a waste of time, at worst a threat to Avon, and, by extension, the rest of them. But Blake had always been as stubborn as Avon, especially where his Cause was concerned, and he held his ground. Pacing around the flight deck, he stroked his chin, a sign of deep thought--or else a stalling tactic. Probably planning his next argument.

That his latest idiotic scheme--Avon was right about that--would endanger Avon more than any of the others, and would certainly disconcert and annoy him, as well as causing him to expose himself to what was certain to be failure, didn't stop Blake from dreaming. Freedom for his rabble was a goal he'd never yielded, not for one minute. That he might consider mutoids deserving of freedom had never occurred to Vila. It had never occurred to anyone with sense, especially anyone who had ever faced the wrong end of a mutoid para-handgun.

Tarrant, had been idly playing a game of Ship and Asteroids on the other forward computer, but he would be in linkage with Jabberwocky, and would know everything that was going on the minute he wanted to. He wouldn't guess what was going on inside Avon and Blake's minds unless they were in link-mode, though. Vila popped in to see, and found only Tarrant there. Well, probably Thorm, too, but the avatar of Jabberwocky, whilst always in linkage with the disembodied brain at the heart of the mindship, didn't deliberately enter link-mode, only when the others did, although he was always linked with Jabberwocky since he was Jabberwocky, and even when he did, he wasn't quite visible, absorbed in the Jabberwocky whole. Vila wasn't sure he understood the distinction, but it didn't really matter. He liked Thorm, who was, in ways Vila hadn't tried to define, somewhat different from Jabberwocky. It boggled his mind when the two spoke together, a conversation the psych-tech, Perren, always referred to as the ship's split personality.

Abandoning his game, Tarrant stretched his long legs, grinned at Thorm, who sat across from him on the forward couches beside Vila studying a book viewer, and rose. He was just enough taller than Blake that he could loom when he wanted to, and he did it now. Avon could ignore looming with the best of them, but his was a deliberate ignoring. Blake didn't even notice.

"Blake, do you honestly believe a mutoid can be restored? Even if he weren't mind-wiped and physically modified at the start of the process, there's the need for blood serum. Restoring a mutoid's original memories won't remove that compulsion, and even if it could, it might lead to insanity when the victim remembered what he had become."

"You doubt my abilities?" Avon purred. He couldn't loom, being shorter than Tarrant, but he had mastered the art of looking down his nose at the taller man, even if it meant slightly standing on his toes and tilting his head. Someday, Vila would need to show him in link mode how he looked when he did that. Someday when he was braver than today.

Typical Avon. Using psi-healing on a mutoid was probably his least favourite idea in the universe, but let someone decry his abilities, and he would defend them. He didn't think he could really reverse the mind-erase of a mutoid, did he? They claimed it couldn't be done.

"I doubt your ability to do the impossible," Tarrant said. Was he consciously challenging Avon, or simply being realistic? With Tarrant, you couldn't always tell. Challenging Avon had been a habit of his since the day they had met. "You couldn't restore all of Blake's memories after the Federation mucked about in his brain. Sorry, Blake," he threw the apology at the rebel. "But you know it's true. Your memories were blocked. All trace of a mutoid's original personality is wiped, erased. Gone. They claim the mind is completely rebuilt."

"So the Federation has always informed us," Blake insisted. "When did we start believing everything the Federation says? Besides, Avon did remove the final blockage when we were stranded on Malodaar so that I could remember Cella. The cost of totally rebuilding a mind would be prohibitively excessive and hardly worth the expense of creating mutoids. They might as well make androids. If we believed their lies, we'd need to acknowledge that we were butchers, that I had molested young boys, that..."

"Point taken," Avon said hastily before Blake's temper could explode or his dark memories of his rigged trial could swamp him. He glowered at Tarrant for the reminder--even when angry, he tended to defend Blake, although no attack had been intended. "However, you will recall the skill that went into creating the Avalon android, and the way it could discuss complex ideas. I see the value in that if simply to capture us. But you may be correct that creating mutoids would be prohibitively expensive if it was necessary to entirely rebuild the brain. Reprogramming the brain, however, is well within the abilities of the Federation, for they did it to you. Eventually, it did break down. Perhaps something in the serum mutoids need to survive reinforces the blockage. It might be interesting to examine the formula. However, if there is a chance for mutoid restoration, it would need to be physical as well as mental, at least to remove the need for serum. While a bionic reconstruction should not alter memories, the mind-wipe would do that. Orac?" He whirled and inserted the little computer's key.

The perspex box glimmered, lights blinking brightly. *What is it now? I am conducting my own researches and have no time for your petty concerns.* Typical Orac. One would think Ensor had created him to study the whole galaxy, not to be useful.

"Set your researches aside," Avon gritted in the tone that even Orac knew better than to disregard. "Blake has determined we must restore mutoids. You will examine all material available on the creation of mutoids and determine if there is even a remote possibility that it can be accomplished."

*That will take time and effort and will prove pointless, for mutoids are blanked, some repeatedly. No trace of the original remains.*

"Or so we have been told repeatedly," Blake argued. "Come on, Orac, we needn't believe everything we're told, especially when the Federation is doing the telling. Your researches will prove if it was another lie."

Orac's lights blinked. *Interesting. An excellent point, Blake. For a human,* he added disparagingly. *Very well. There are at present six mutoids, four male and two female, held captive in the base incarceration facility. Jabberwocky, display images.*

Six faces, all impassive, all wearing the distinctive mutoid headgear and garb, flashed on the main screen, clearly a feed from the prison cell. One female was dark-skinned like Dayna, the other very pale by comparison. The dark-skinned one was somewhat older than the usual run of mutoids, perhaps one of the early prototypes. The males were so similar in type they might have been brothers. Servalan might have chosen them for her mission for that reason. Even she couldn't find mutoids attractive, could she? Vila shuddered at the very idea. On the other hand, maybe it was their non-expression that made them similar.

One was taller than the others by half a head, one about Vila's height, but the others were around Blake's height. One was very broad in the shoulders, but there was nothing else distinctive about them. Neither of the females faced the camera directly, but one of the males, the broad-shouldered one, stared directly at it, as if he understood he was monitored, and almost as if he resented it. There was slightly more than blankness in his stare.

"That one," Blake said, pointing at the starer. "He might be the best choice."

"You are assigning him personality on the strength of a direct look at the camera," Avon disagreed. "Or is it that you knew him before he was modified?"

"No, he's not familiar," Blake said. "I don't recall ever seeing him before."

"He looks suspicious," Vila piped up, abandoning his game entirely to jump into the conversation. He shut down the program. "If a mutoid were smart before he was converted, he'd probably still be smart, wouldn't he?"

"Not necessarily, Vila." Avon scarcely glanced in his direction. "The modification process removes individual will. A mutoid might possess the capacity to learn, but would be unmotivated to do so unless instructed. Its motivation would only include that which it is instructed to do or programmed to do. Which is why anyone who works with mutoids must give extremely specific commands or program in specific knowledge. This one may have been given instructions to arrange an escape for Servalan, if she should be captured. The fact of his capture would not halt the programming."

"There's also instinctive survival," Blake said. "Unable to obtain the life-sustaining fluid, they will seek victims to fill the need. That almost happened to Jenna, the time Travis and his mutoid were stranded with us and pitted against us."

"All animals will hunt for prey, Blake. Do not humanize mutoids. Once, they were human, and if you must resent the Federation for denying them their humanity, I will not be surprised, nor will I disagree, for to tamper with a human mind is a crime I fiercely resent, but not even you can reverse the process."

"We don't know yet that it is irreversible, only that the Federation claims it is. Not all their processes work as well as they would wish."

"That's true," Vila offered, knowing Avon wouldn't welcome his input, but compelled to speak. "After all, I had my head adjusted by some of the best, but it never took." He tapped himself on the forehead."

"Since one must actually possess a brain for it to be altered, Vila--"

"No, Vila is correct." That was Jabberwocky, and he enforced his agreement with a flick of mind-link. "Avon, you know this is true. My history was blocked from me, and it was intended to be permanent, but it wasn't. You were able to help me. You learned how to destroy programming in your healing mode, and have used it several times, all successfully. If there's any chance at all that these mutoids can be saved, we must save them. If they are programmed to forget, you can eradicate that programming the way you did your own and Gan's."

"That's what I think," Blake said unnecessarily. From the wry grimace Avon cast his way, he must have agreed that Blake's agreement was redundant. Blake threw him a rueful glance; Avon would hate to link with a mutoid. Well, that was only good sense. Anyone would.

Orac huffed. *If you are finished discussing a subject that cannot be resolved simply by discussion, I will begin my research. I must not be disturbed as I perform your needed instruction.*

Avon whisked away the pad. "Very well, Blake. If Orac determines there is a chance for your scheme to work, I will consider it. If it decides it is impossible, then you will yield it, and the six mutoids in Avalon's prison will remain there until a decision is made about their fate."

Jabberwocky removed the image of the mutoids, and Vila was glad. They made him uneasy. Even though he knew they couldn't possibly see him, it felt like that one was watching him, and he didn't mind at all when the screen blanked. If the mutoids were observed too long, Vila might have to observe the feeding process, because Avalon and Blake had determined they must be preserved whilst they remained captive, and he didn't like the thought of that, even if it only meant they inserted the serum capsules in the chest cavity. Vampires, they were. If one of them broke loose, would he drink the blood of anyone he captured? With his luck, he would probably encounter Vila.

The six mutoids, along with Servalan, had been captured two weeks earlier, during tests with Jabberwocky and Essilon, the second mindship developed by the rebels on Ryalon. During manoeuver at a distance from the base, they were attacked by Servalan's new Mark-70 mindship, but, fortunately for everyone, Servalan's lies to the brain within the ship, Darsan, had been exposed, and Darsan had thrown in his lot with the rebels. Tarrant's brother, Deeta, now worked and trained to form a permanent bond with Darsan, although he was not yet fully linked and would not be until he was determined ready--and until Avon, Blake, and Avalon were convinced that Darsan's loyalty was valid. As one proof of the ship's new commitment, the mutoid pilot had remained on the ship when Servalan had come aboard Jabberwocky after the six she originally sent had been restrained by Darsan, but had broken free and been killed when the ship was boarded. Since they had no value in trade as Servalan might, no decision had yet been reached concerning their fate, and Avalon was still considering her options. It had even been suggested the mutoids might be given commands to work for the resistance, but no one relished that idea, least of all Vila. If Federation troopers knew key words to revoke such commands, you'd have your supposed allies shooting you in the back.

"There is another matter to consider," Jabberwocky spoke aloud, his fascia blinking. "I have just instructed Orac to cross-reference the faces of the mutoids with former rebels to determine if any of them originally had rebel allegiance, and also with records of past criminals. It would do us little good to restore a crimo."

"Restore crimos?" Vila echoed. "We have enough trouble already. Let's not do that."

"Let's not do what?" Hugh Tiver, the ship's doctor, strode in with Soolin at his side the way she usually was these days, trailed by Perren, their psych-tech. Since their return to base, Perren and his two cohorts, well trained on mindship control, had been over on Darsan, working with Deeta Tarrant, examining the controls, and helping to determine who might be suited to crew the Mark-70. Avon had spent half his time there, too, accompanied by Orac, to determine what modifications had been put in place since Jabberwocky had come off the assembly line. Anything that could be incorporated had been duly noted, and once Blake worked this mutoid nonsense from his mind, Avon planned an update for Jabberwocky.

At Space Command Headquarters, Supreme Commander Arpel must be gnashing his teeth.

Or maybe not? He'd tried to destroy Jabberwocky, but that had been mostly to prevent an all-out war between the Federation and the Resistance, who would stand no chance against the Federation in a space battle without their mindship. Now, with Essilon's testing going so well and Darsan almost ready for linkage with Deeta, the Resistance could probably walk all over the Federation. Darsan still needed additional crew, but that wouldn't happen until Deeta had formed the permanent link.

If that was what Avalon decided. She was all for peaceful solutions; wars were nasty, messy things that left a lot of bad feelings, not to mention too many corpses. Vila didn't want to be one of them.

Perren studied Avon's face with that intense look that proved he was thinking hard, then strutted over to confront him, that stray lock of brown hair that always trailed over his forehead bouncing as he walked. "What are you up to, Avon?" No teasing the way he usually did. He must have sensed the mood--he was good at that--and decided to cut to the heart of the matter. He wasn't a puppeteer, but he was the closest thing the Resistance had to a psycho-strategist.

"Do not ask me. Ask Blake. The latest lunatic plan comes from him, from whence all lunacy originates."

Instead of taking offense, Blake grinned. "I just wondered, since we had six mutoids, if we could determine a way to restore them. Think of the advantage it would give us. Maybe we could trigger a reversal universally."

Perren's brow wrinkled. "Not sure it would work, unless we turn the great brain on them to make sure there's anything to restore." He caught Avon's eye, then he chuckled. "Now I see why you're so against it, Kerr, old man. That's what Blake wants you to do, isn't it? Link with a mutoid in healing mode. I don't blame you for being unhappy about it. Wouldn't be my first choice, either."

Avon grimaced fiercely, and Vila wondered whether he objected to being called Kerr, which he did, or whether he loathed the idea of Perren reading him so well. He should know better than to think Perren wouldn't. What else was a psych-tech for, after all? Vila was sometimes convinced that Perren could read minds, even if he knew it wasn't really that. What he could do was read the slightest twitch on somebody's face, or the way he moved or stood, and offer crazy theories about it. The better he knew a person, the better he could do it, but he wasn't bad with strangers, either, once he'd let them talk and had time to study them. If he weren't right so often, Vila could have discounted him. The only advantage Vila could see was that he didn't give people away unless it was necessary in a crisis, and he didn't expect them to talk about their feelings, either. Just as well.

"Blake is wrong this time," Avon said in the tone of voice that implied such a state was the usual one.

Blake only grinned. "If I am wrong, I'll be sorry, and I realize there might be no hope. I won't give up on it until I'm convinced there isn't. Imagine what we would do to save one of us, had he been converted. We wouldn't wring our hands and say, 'There's no hope,' not until we had tried everything."

"Do you believe it's even remotely possible, Blake?" Soolin asked. If anyone sounded suspicious, it was Soolin. "What about partial conversion and then the mutoid turning on us?"

"I think it's remotely possible. We can use safeguards. Even mutoids can't break free of techno-locks. If there's even one chance in ten thousand, I won't give up."

"Not when the work--and the risk--falls to me," Avon said dryly.

"Not entirely," Jabberwocky said, both aloud and through the mind-link, but allowing all of them to hear him. "If you do it, I will go with you and boost you in linkage."

"Somehow," Avon said, "that utterly makes my day."

 

                                                                               *****


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