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Rosa

By Judith Proctor
Page 1 of 1

"I'm sure something is bothering him."

      Blake placed his coffee carefully on the small table in front of him and considered Cally's statement. "Why do you say that? Gan seemed okay when I spoke to him this morning - although he did seem to have some problem concerning the date."

      "And he hasn't been on the flight deck since then. That's not like Gan. Please, could you have a word with him?"

      Rising to his feet, Blake smiled reassuringly at Cally. "I'll go and see him. Don't worry, I'm sure it's nothing serious."

      Cally said nothing: she'd brought the situation to Blake's attention and he would deal with it in his own way. Being the only telepath on board the Liberator carried its own problems, she was denied the full communion of fellow minds and the support they could give, but she was unable to fully avoid the emotions of her fellow crew members. True, she couldn't read their thoughts, but when they felt strongly about something, she could hardly avoid being aware of it. Right now, Gan was fretting, something was nagging at him like an aching tooth and he couldn't let it go.

      

      

A knock on the door roused Gan from where he was sitting hunched up on his bunk. He lifted his head up from his knees and listened for a moment before sinking back once more into a huddle.

      The knock repeated itself. "Gan, it's Blake; can I come in?"

      Getting slowly to his feet, Gan shambled over to the door and unlocked it, allowing the other man to enter. Blake looked at him in surprise - Gan's face was pale; his hair in disarray; and his room, which was normally methodically neat, was in total disorder, the bed unmade and clothes simply abandoned on the floor. Gan heaved himself up onto his bunk and sat there without saying a word. Refusing to be put off by his manner, Blake hunted around for a chair, removed a pile of uneaten food, and pulled it over to where Gan awaited him.

      "Can you tell me what it's all about?" Blake asked.

      "It was the 26th yesterday and it's the 28th today."

      "That's unavoidable, we're travelling at the equivalent of time distort six. Time passes faster for us because we're moving at a greater speed. Why? Does it matter?"

      Gan was silent for a moment, clasping his large hands together and rubbing his thumbs.

      "Rosa's birthday - it never happened. Her birthday is on the 27th. It's all wrong..."

      The 27th would have passed during the night watch, but Blake understood that Gan's problem wasn't really one of dates.

      "Rosa - she was your woman? You miss her don't you?"

      "She needs me. There's no one to look after her now." Gan looked defiantly at Blake. "I killed the last man who laid hands on her; I went to Cygnus Alpha for her, and now I don't even know if she's still alive." His eyes filmed over and he hid his face behind his hands.

      Blake spontaneously reached out to grasp the big man's shoulder. "We'll take you to Earth, I promise it."

      

      

Making the promise had been simple, carrying it out was going to be harder. The conversation on the flight deck was becoming heated:

      "You want to risk all of our lives so that Gan can pay a social call on his wife?"

      "Why is it so unreasonable for him to want to know what has happened to her?"

      "I'd quite like to see Earth again."

      "That's only because you haven't thought about the dangers involved."

      "You're right, I don't really want to see Earth again."

      "I don't want to cause any trouble."

      Blake placed his hands on his hips and stared them all down. "Stop it, all of you! There will be no danger to anyone except myself and Gan. We'll go in fast, you can drop us off at maximum teleport range, hide yourselves in the asteroid belt and pick us up twenty four hours later without even making verbal contact. Satisfied?"

      "No," Avon retorted, hands on hips.

      "Why not, Avon?"

      "You're too well known. You'd be recognised and picked up within hours."

      "Why should you care?" Blake flung the challenge at him.

      Avon smiled, but the smile never reached his eyes. "There would be a full scale alert, the moment you were picked up. I doubt the rest of us would escape attention for long."

      "Who do you suggest then? Gan can't go alone. He is restricted by his limiter: if anything goes wrong, he can't defend himself."

      "It's obvious, isn't it?" Now Avon was visibly enjoying himself. "Jenna is needed to pilot the Liberator if you are going to go for a fast approach and instant exit; Cally has never been on Earth and would be lost within the domes, and Vila is obviously unsuitable."

      "Hey!" Vila said automatically, then considered the implications of protesting and opted for silence.

      "That only leaves me," Avon said calmly.

      "Do I take it that you are volunteering?" Blake sounded sceptical.

      "Why not? It will make a pleasant change to be free of your company for a while."

      

      

Gan and Avon stood in the teleport bay, Gan in the nondescript clothing of the gamma grades, Avon wearing the dark-grey tunic top of the alpha computer specialist. Cally looked on in curiosity: she hadn't seen them like this before. Avon's preference for dark clothing had always struck her as a positive statement of the way he wanted people to see him, rather like the warning coloration of a poisonous snake. Was it that, or was it simply an extension of the clothes he had worn on Earth?

      "It seems odd to see you dressed like that. Is all of Earth so drab and colourless?"

      "It's worse," said Blake. "Most of the people spend their entire lives under the influence of suppressent drugs."

      "That's barbaric! On Auron we would never dream of treating people in such a way."

      "On Earth the Federation wouldn't be able to maintain control without the drugs. They put them into the food supply, the only way to avoid them is to go without eating or drinking."

      "That's not quite accurate."

      That was Avon for you, thought Blake. He never volunteered information, he let you know that he knew something and then waited to be asked. Playing along with him was usually the simplest option.

      "In what way?" he asked.

      "Some grades and classifications of workers have always been exempt. The top levels of the administration and people in important jobs don't receive the drugs. A computer analyst who can't think quickly is of little use to anyone."

      "He might not run off with the money either," added Vila, quickly checking that he was out of Avon's reach. Blake stepped between them - Avon didn't appear to be bothered by the remark, rather amused if anything, but it was always better to stay on the safe side.

      "If anyone is interested," said Vila, "I used to buy food on the black market."

      Gan spoke in his slow deliberate manner. "Avon, you did something to the food processors on the London didn't you?"

      "I altered the programming to remove suppressents on certain menu items."

      "But why only a few? I never understood that."

      "That's because you're a fool."

      Gan flinched visibly.

      "If I had altered more than a few items, then everyone would have looked too alert, and the guards would have become suspicious. It was possible to eat a nutritionally adequate diet on what I selected."

      "But it was so boring," complained Vila. "Why couldn't you have included banana desert?"

      "Are we going to stand here all day," asked Avon irritatedly, "or is someone going to operate the teleport?"

      Coordinates already set, Cally reached out and activated the final switch and watched as Gan and Avon flickered out of view.

      "Well at least it's going to be peaceful around here for a day or two," Vila commented.

      "That's what you think," Blake replied. "I want you to get working on the detectors immediately."

      "Why is it always me?" muttered Vila, as he kicked the teleport console and headed for the flight deck.

      

      

The walkways and corridors of the city seemed narrow and crowded after the space and emptiness of the Liberator. It must have been just after the evening shift change as crowds of people were all travelling in the same direction. Avon disliked the claustrophobic feel of it all; he withdrew into himself as much as possible as the workers pushed by him, intruding on his personal space. Gan seemed totally unperturbed. Presumably, thought Avon, Gan was used to it.

      They had teleported into one of the large hydroponic farms in order to avoid being seen, and were now working their way through the lower levels where the gamma and delta grades mainly lived. Gan was steering steadily through the crowds, confident of his direction, leading Avon through a succession of shopping areas, industrial premises, and finally to a large residential zone. Large blocks of buildings with too many people crammed into them; the paranoia of the neighbourhood emphasised by the steel mesh over many of the windows and the small spy glasses set into the doors. Individuality was non-existent: every door identical to the next, except for the name and number in neat lettering precisely one and a half meters above the ground. Hurrying now, Gan found the door he sought and knocked. It was almost a minute before the door opened slowly to reveal a short woman with fluffy blonde hair and a nondescript, brown dress.

      Emotions flew across her face as she looked at Gan: panic, love, misery? It was hard to tell which. "You'd better come in quickly." Her voice was low and fearful.

      The door opened straight into what was obviously the main living area - untidy and smelling slightly of stale food. A bed was folded up against the wall, and a vidscreen in the corner was currently relaying a public service broadcast warning all citizens to be alert to the dangers of drug abuse.

      Oblivious to his surroundings, Gan gathered the woman into his arms, unprepared for her resistance. She pushed at him and struggled, and retreated until the wall was at her back when he uncomprehendingly released her.

      "Olag, I'm sorry." Her voice was so low he could barely hear her, and she was shaking visibly. "I can't."

      "What's the matter, Rosa?"

      She looked at Avon, willing him to go away, but Avon was totally impervious to embarrassment. In any case, there was nowhere to go in the small apartment except the lavatory, and he had no intention of going out into the city once more.

      Gan failed to understand her look. "It's all right. Avon's a friend; he won't hurt you. Will you, Avon?"

      Avon refused to dignify that statement with an answer and turned his attention to the food processor on the wall. It wasn't a model he was familiar with, but he had time to waste, and they were going to get hungry sooner or later. There were a good twenty hours before the Liberator was due to return and it sounded as though some long and tedious domestic arguments were about to develop.

      Rosa watched him, torn between wanting to ask what he was doing, and the need to talk to Gan. The concern evident in Gan's face made the decision for her. "Gan." She stopped, swallowed, and began again. "Gan, when you went with Blake, the soldiers came for me." Her hands had taken on a life of their own, twisting and weaving in front of her; she seemed unable to control them. "They wanted..." She stopped again, trying to keep her voice under control. "They wanted to know what I knew about you. They thought I might know where you were, what your plans were."

      Avon dropped a current probe, but neither Rosa nor Gan noticed the sound. Avon picked up the probe and appeared to carry on working.

      "Gan, they did things to me, please don't ask me to tell you what." Her hands had stopped their aimless movement. Now they crossed over her breasts as though to shield herself from an invisible attacker. "Gan." She looked at him, pleading for understanding. "I can't bear to let anyone touch me any more."

      The fury built inside Gan. He wanted to reach out and smash someone, but Rosa's frailty helped him control the rage. If he lost his temper, she would only be more terrified. He knelt down and held out his hand to her gently.

      "Rosa, it's me. It's Olag. I won't hurt you."

      Trembling, she slowly stretched out her hand to touch his fingertips. "It's too late. It's already too late."

      There was a crashing sound as the door burst open to reveal two black clad Federation soldiers pointing their weapons directly at Gan.

      "Gan, I'm sorry." Rosa's eyes pleaded with him for understanding. "They said if you came back and I didn't alert them, they'd do it all over again. I couldn't bear it again."

      So, thought Avon, that was why she'd taken so long to answer the door. Rosa had obviously seen Gan through the peep hole and raised the alarm.

      One of the weapons swung around to cover him. "Who are you?"

      "I am trying," Avon said patiently, "to convert a faulty rectifier circuit into something slightly less reminiscent of the stone age. The sooner you finish arresting people and get out of here, the sooner I can finish my job."

      The trooper relaxed slightly and held out his hand. "Identification?"

      Avon made as though to reach for a pocket, then reversed the move and swung a punch at the man's stomach. As he doubled over, Avon grabbed the gun and pulled. Gan, seeing the man guarding him briefly distracted, chopped his hands hard down on the weapon pointing at him and it promptly discharged into the floor.

      Hesitating for a moment, Rosa reached a decision, grabbed a table lamp and brought its base down on the head of Gan's opponent. Wasting no time, Gan moved to help Avon, and the fight was over in moments.

      Captured paragun in hand, Avon headed for the door. "Move, both of you."

      "What's the hurry?" Gan asked.

      Avon nodded briefly at the bodies on the floor. "The moment those two fail to report in, the hunt will be on. We need to leave the dome and quickly."

      They headed rapidly through the streets. The crowds largely gone now, every road looked the same as every other. Occasionally light came through from the top of the dome, but this deep down most routes led under buildings and through buildings, and the artificial light was far stronger than any echo of true day which dared reach so far. They were ten minutes away from the closest exit, and Gan was beginning to think they would make it, when the troops found them. Not just two this time, but a squad of six.

      Recognition was instant. Gan's image had obviously been circulated.

      "Stop!" the officer commanded. "Move and we fire."

      Gan and Avon froze. Rosa stared glassy eyed at the soldiers, then slumped softly against the wall, moaning quietly to herself.

      "Drop the gun!"

      Avon looked at the weapon as though he had almost forgotten he was holding it, then slowly and deliberately he pointed it at Rosa, and fired. As he dropped the gun, Gan leapt at him. Avon turned to face him, calm and unmoving, and watched dispassionately as Gan's hands reached out for his throat, then drew back and started to go into a spasm. Limiters, Avon reflected, had their uses on occasion.

      The black clad men moved closer; one rammed a gun into his side. "No more funny tricks." He nodded at the dead body lying on the floor. "What was that for?"

      Avon's smile was cold and mechanical. "She betrayed us."

      

      

They had been held for at least fifteen hours, and Avon was getting bored. Professor Torberg had gone to get some sleep and the expert who had replaced him seemed to be particularly dense. It would appear that tracking down suitable members of the late matter transmission project was giving security some headaches. Not that the security commander seemed worried. He watched everything, recorded every word. Sometimes Avon felt that he understood more than the man who was supposed to be asking the questions.

      "You have to understand," Avon explained for the fifth time, "that there is such a thing as an ultimate frame of reference. Once you accept the principle of everything existing in a definite position, one can then postulate the background matrix that things exist relative to."

      "I don't see the problem," the expert protested. "Everything on Earth can be positioned by a grid reference. Why should space be any different?"

      Avon replied as patiently as he could. "Because of the theoretical problems caused by the speed of light. No matter what velocity you travel with at sub-light speeds, light still arrives at its destination with the same velocity, regardless of its origin. This can be shown to disprove the possibility of any form of ether in which a light wave can vibrate. Hence, there is nothing fixed for things to exist relative to, in normal space"

      "But you just said that an ultimate frame of reference does exist?"

      Avon leaned back in his chair and drank some coffee. He was tempted to throw the remains of the drink in the other man's face, but resisted the urge. Sitting here discussing physics in a comfortable office was a distinct improvement on sitting in a hard cell having the same information extracted by drugs or torture. The interview room might be in the middle of a high security prison, but the meals appeared regularly and as long as he was co-operative he was safe from discomfort.

      "Do you have any grounding in classical physics?" Avon inquired.

      "Of course, but my speciality is in biology. My task on the teleport project was to study the stresses imposed on living organisms."

      "Then, I suggest you study the Michelson-Morley experiments, if you wish to understand the theoretical background to what I'm saying."

      "Personally," said the other man frankly, "I wish they'd locate a mathematician and be done with it. Apart from the professor, I'm the first member of the project they managed to track down with a high enough security clearance to be allowed to talk to you."

      Avon smiled serenely. "Security is of course of the utmost importance. Let me try again. Matter transmission is propagated through a wave in a seven dimensional hyperspace - "

      His discourse was interrupted by the entrance of another officer who reported, "The other man's passed out on us again. He's impossible to work with, every time we start to make some progress, he works himself into a fury, his limiter cuts in, and he passes out. He's overloading the thing on purpose and we can't do a thing about it."

      "Did you get anything about Blake from him?"

      "Not a single word."

      Propping his feet up on the desk, Avon turned to look at them. "If you can arrange a pardon and a sufficient amount of money for me, I could tell you how to get Blake."

      He watched their reaction with inward amusement. They now had to decide whether threats or promises were more likely to gain his co-operation. If promises, they had to weigh whether to offer whatever he asked for and hope he was stupid enough to believe them, or else stick to what could realistically be offered and hope that it was enough. In the event, it took half an hour of tough negotiation and several calls to the justice department before they were in agreement over terms and Avon laid his plan before them:

      "Blake has to contact Gan and myself before he can teleport us back to the Liberator. All that is required is for me to tell him that an emergency has arisen and that he must remain in orbit for an hour while we sort it out. That should give you plenty of opportunity to arrange a large-scale attack upon the ship. Just give me a teleport bracelet and I'll do it."

      They weren't willing to agree to that, but then he hadn't expected them to: they would have been even greater fools than he took them for if they had. Letting him wear a bracelet would have given him complete control of the situation and far too many opportunities to double cross them.

      "Use Gan," Avon suggested. "The communications function of the bracelet is linked to the biosignals of the individual. A message sent to myself will reach a bracelet I am wearing, one intended for Gan will sound in a bracelet he is wearing. If Blake can't contact me, he'll assume there is a fault in my bracelet and try Gan's instead. If I answer him by that route, it shouldn't cause any surprise."

      Gan, Avon thought, wasn't going to like the idea at all, and in this he was correct. Gan when brought in, was gagged and tied to his seat. If looks could kill, he would have incinerated Avon at thirty meters. Avon, feeling fortunately fireproof, albeit somewhat sleepy, proceeded to explain seven dimensional hyperspace to another ex-member of the teleport project who had been dragged out of bed to interrogate him. Soon, he thought wearily the shifts would come full cycle and he'd be back to the professor again. They weren't going to let him sleep yet. Firstly they wanted to see if he kept his facts consistent over time, and secondly they were waiting for Blake.

      Avon{\160}yawned and tried to estimate the time. They'd taken his watch, but the shift changes of the security men were giving him a rough idea of how long he'd been here.

      "The structure of the teleport bracelet," he explained, pointing to one on the desk, "is designed to focus an interdimensional pulse. It does this by referencing a matrix which - "

      There was a familiar chime to his left. While everyone else in the room looked that way, Avon dived to the right, grabbing the bracelet and ducking behind the desk for cover.

      "Teleport now!"

      

      

As Gan materialised in the teleport bay he stumbled and fell, his arms and legs numb from the constricting ropes. Seconds later, Avon appeared beside him in a crouched position and promptly stood up with ease. Gan's resentment and anger came to the boil; he tried determinedly to damp it down, to prevent the limiter cutting in - first he had to make the others understand that Avon had sold them out.

      "Blake," he said desperately, "Avon gave them the teleport, he told them how it worked in order to save his own neck."

      Avon didn't look at Gan. He stood calm and relaxed, his arms folded, studying Blake. The other man returned Avon's gaze and then gave a half-smile. "Which teleport theory?"

      Avon's face relaxed into a grin. "I always rather liked the seven dimensional hyperspace variant myself. It took four years to disprove that one."

      "With any luck," Blake replied, grinning back at him, "they'll waste another four years on it now!"

      In spite of pins and needles stabbing him in every limb as circulation returned, Gan managed to get to his feet. Avon was a con man and was pulling his tricks again. "Ask him about Rosa," he shouted. "Ask him about Rosa!"

      Blake's surprise at Gan's outburst was mirrored in his face. "What does he mean Avon?"

      "Rosa's dead." Avon showed no more emotion than he would have used if he had been discussing the weather on Cygnus Alpha.

      "You!" Gan only managed to get out the single word before the limiter defeated him. He struggled against it, his hands twitching, and his lips straining to get out the words he wanted to say, but to no avail before the pain in his head made him black out.

      

      

      

Gan awoke in his own cabin, feeling more relaxed - the result of a tranquilliser pad although he was unaware of this. Blake was sitting on a chair beside him listening to some music through a set of headphones. As soon as he saw Gan stir, he removed the earpieces and asked him how he was feeling.

      Stretching himself cautiously, Gan was relieved to discover that he felt normal - at least, normal physically. Memories of Rosa flooded his mind, her beauty, her tragedy, her death. Even her death was unable to shake him totally from the cloud he was drifting on; he was able to see her last moments without the accompanying despair and hatred. She had wanted to die. Why hadn't he seen that? Falling back into the hands of the Federation had been her ultimate fear. Gan recalled again the terror in Rosa's face when he had wanted to kiss her. Whatever had been done to her was horrific enough for her to betray him rather than face it again.

      Still under the induced euphoria of the tranquilliser Gan suddenly realised the irony of the situation. Avon had killed Rosa for that betrayal, but in so doing had probably done exactly what she wanted. If Avon had sought to punish her he had failed. The realisation was a victory of sorts, but it was quickly followed by another. It was possible that he owed Avon his life. The thought was sour, he didn't want to owe Avon anything.

      His head was beginning to ache as he followed the complex chain of thought. Should he tell Blake what had happened? Would Blake understand, or would he view Avon as the hero and not the villain of the piece. Avon, who was clever as Gan was not. Avon, who was so essential to the smooth running of the Liberator. If it came to a showdown, who would Blake back, the dark computer expert with all his skills, or Gan, the gamma grade labourer who had nothing to offer except his strength and his loyalty?

      "Gan," Blake's gentle voice interrupted his chain of thought. "What happened to your wife? Do you want to talk about it?"

      The Liberator was Gan's home now. He needed to be among friends, among people he could trust - even Avon, who had probably only saved Gan's life because it helped his plans to rescue himself. If he accused Avon openly of Rosa's murder it would destroy the seven as a group. How then would he be able to take revenge against the Federation for all that they had done to Rosa?

      Regret racked him as he finally, reluctantly, made his decision.

      "Rosa was killed by the Federation. That's all there is to it."

      

      

And Avon? He spoke to no one about the incident and carried on with his work in his own quiet way, but his mind was filled with memories of a fair-haired woman taken by the Federation, and her name was not Rosa Gan.


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