DefenseBy Alicia Ann Fox
Page 1 of 1
"What is it, Zen?" Tarrant stood up and walked over to the reference point, glad of the excuse to do so. Anything to distract him from Cally's angry grief, that she had been directing at anyone who met with her displeasure since they had left Kaarn. Not to mention Avon's brusque ill-temper.
"Liberator is approaching the Arcadia system."
"The where?" Vila asked. Cally looked up from the go board, listening, a puzzled wrinkle between her eyes.
"Zen, there are no planetary systems on our projected course to Earth."
"Liberator has deviated from the projected course."
Tarrant muttered something obscene. "Has there been a malfunction?"
"Liberator is approaching the Arcadia system."
"I'll get Avon," Vila said, getting up.
Tarrant started to protest but instead turned back to Zen. "Zen, what's in the Arcadia system?"
"Liberator is now approaching the planet Tessalia."
"Why are we going to Tessalia?"
"Stationary orbit above the planet Tessalia will be achieved in seventeen-point-two minutes."
"That must be where we're going," Cally remarked. In the midst of frustration, Tarrant noted the flicker of humor on her face, and felt relief.
"Zen, what's on Tessalia?"
"Tessalia's soil matrix is composed of--"
"Stop." Tarrant ran up to the flight controls and studied them. Zen was of course telling the truth, but that did not mean it was telling them everything.
"What's going on?" Avon asked from the archway. Without waiting for an answer, he crossed the flight deck and stood in front of Zen's flickering reference point. "Zen, continue with programmed course."
"Stationary orbit above the planet Tessalia will be achieved in fourteen-point-six-seven minutes."
Vila dropped back into his seat next to Cally. Tarrant heard him say, "I wonder what's down there? Hope it isn't anything nasty."
Avon was unfastening a panel.
"Perhaps we should investigate," Cally suggested. "Zen wouldn't do this if it weren't important."
"Don't count on it," Vila muttered.
"I'll go," Tarrant said. "There's no hurry, after all. We'll still have plenty of time to get to Earth." He was not looking forward to waiting around what was for them the most dangerous planet in the galaxy while Avon let himself be tortured until he got what he wanted.
Avon emerged from Zen's innards, shaking burned fingers. He glanced up at the computer's fascia, looking resigned. Tarrant felt immediate annoyance; Avon didn't seem to care that they had lost control of the ship.
Interrupting his thoughts, at that moment Dayna emerged from the corridor. "What's going on?" she asked.
"I think Zen wants us to go down to Tessalia," Dayna remarked, stating the obvious. "I'll go with you. The sooner we go and see what's down there, the sooner we can be on our way. Come on, Tarrant."
"No," Avon spoke up. "I'll go. The ship shouldn't be left without a pilot in a situation like this."
Surprised that he finally had something to say, Tarrant bit back his retort. Avon might be right. Hopefully it was a sign of better things to come. He would give the older man the point.
"I'll man the weapons in case anything nasty shows up," Vila said quickly, bouncing to his feet.
"I'm going down, too," Cally said suddenly, in a defiant tone. She stood up. "Give me a gun, Avon."
"Cally, no!" Dayna protested. Vila looked as though he might say something, but glanced at Cally and refrained.
Avon's jaw was clenched as he tried to stare Cally down. Tarrant could feel the angry tension between them. Vila seemed to know what was going on...but he would never tell Tarrant. Why was Cally so dead set against Avon's revenge plan? It had nothing to do with her.
Avon tossed a gun. Cally caught it, and belted it on over her suede jacket.
"Dayna, you can run the teleport," Avon said.
"You can't go down there without me!" she protested.
"Yes we can. You'll be backup. Let's go and get this over with."
Cally wasn't sure why she was going down with Avon. She'd been deliberately avoiding him since they'd left Kaarn. But then again, to get away from the claustrophobia of the ship, she would have teleported down with any of a wide variety of Auron mythological nasties.
Tessalia was cool and windy, at least where they had set down. Orac had informed them that this mountainous area featured sparse, desertlike vegetation and herbivorous herd animals, and the area was probably prone to thunderstorms. A structure loomed, a metallic edifice stretching for at least a hectare over the sandy soil. Cally tried to get some sense of what the building might be, but was spectacularly unsuccessful.
Avon trudged doggedly beside her, not speaking. Cally was satisfied. She didn't want to talk. Especially not to him.
They had reached a series of terraces, stone scoured dry by the wind. Cally bent and touched a gray block with her hand, letting the warmth sink into her flesh for a moment. When she looked up, she had to squint in the sun's glaring off the building's walls. She smelled dust, like old bones. Cally shivered as she was buffeted by wind.
The climb was tiring; the terraces varied in height, but all were either too short or too tall for comfort. Perhaps there was another way in? But no, Orac had said no. Could this be some sort of religious building? With these scientific thoughts, she calmed her mind and transformed her companion into a neutral figure. Into someone who would think and not stupidly risk death.
Avon stared fixedly at the door, at the indented square just below Cally's eye-level.
"Try putting your hand in," Cally said, knowing that would have been his first thought. His second thought, like hers, had no doubt been, That could be dangerous.
Avon tossed a scowl in her direction. She could see the tension in his eyes and mouth. Instead of his right, he placed his left hand in the square.
"Hrmph," he said.
Cally stepped forward and peered into the square. She had spotted, from her lower vantage point, a brief greenish glow when his skin had contacted the metal. She touched the square and said, "You too, at the same time."
The glow was brighter; the door slid into the floor.
Black. Solid. Without hesitation Avon stepped in. Inexorably, slowly, Cally followed, drawn by something she could not name. She hissed and whirled when the door, moving twice as quickly as before, shut.
So much dark made the eyes strain, searching desperately for sparks of light where there were none. It was like the substance of Cally's grief for her dead planet. She closed her eyes, hoping to see light.
Somewhere ahead of her--was it ahead?--she heard Avon's voice, quiet and tightly controlled. "Liberator. Liberator, come in." There was not even static. "I didn't think so," he said to himself. "Cally?"
Before she could stop herself, she said, "I don't like this." Her spine felt as if it would creep out of her body through the top of her skull. She wished she could scream and scream again, just to fill the void with noise. She bit her lip.
"Stay there. I'm trying to find you."
"I don't hear your feet."
"Neither do I. Keep talking."
Cally tried to think of something rational to say and couldn't. She shouldn't be here, she shouldn't have come, she should have fought to stay outside.
"Talk to me, or I won't be able to find you." The voice was insistent.
"How do we get out of here?"
"Obviously I don't know."
"We've got to get out of here. There must be a way out. Zen would not have sent us here otherwise."
"Then there must be a reason why. Something Zen finds important."
"I don't find it interesting. I hate this." She was beginning to feel dizzy and cold, alone and empty with a scream coagulating in her chest. "We have to get out of here--" She interrupted herself with a small gasp when Avon's outstretched hand touched her shoulder.
Cally heard a relieved sigh. Each finger had its own individual pressure and warmth as his hand gripped the juncture of her shoulder and neck.
"Don't touch me," she gasped, just before grabbing him.
"If you insist." Avon's tone was rich with irony. Time passed, though it was impossible to tell how much; he waited for Cally to respond with a quip, or at the very least an embarrassed laugh. When she said nothing, only tightened her fisted grip in the back of his jacket, an eerie panic roiled in the bottom of his stomach. Cally, terrified?
He wasn't afraid, of course. He didn't have time for fear; they had to find whatever there was to find so that Zen could be persuaded to leave orbit and get to Earth.
Quickly, before he lost his courage.
Avon decided to look for a light, or failing that, an exit. He directed his feet to move. They didn't. The very idea of letting go of Cally and venturing again into the destitute darkness froze his entire body. Idiot, he castigated himself. Cowering fool. Use your brain. So he was afraid. So what.
Where did the sound of their feet go? Cautiously he rapped the floor with the heel of his boot. Nothing, but it didn't feel soft, either. Some sort of dampening field? He wondered where the walls were, and fought off despair at the idea that the structure housed only one vast room, blacker than space. But they had to do something.
"Cally?" he said, and mentally cursed his own shaky questioning voice. Be calm. You can think your way out of this. You are the one who thinks first and acts later.
Why did I dash in here, then? I didn't want to, but I did it anyway, didn't I?
Avon pondered, slowly turning his head to one side, then another, listening for anything that was not their frightened breathing. Absently his hands soothed his companion, and some moments later, she spoke.
After a split second of relief Avon realized she had not spoken aloud. "Talk to me, Cally. Why do you think we rushed in without thinking?"
Still not spoken. He knew it was difficult for her to send messages in this way. He in particular had always been a difficult subject. This was her reaction to fear? To...isolation. There was no help to be had from Cally, not at the moment. He was lucky she was even speaking to him, he supposed. He should have brought Dayna, but Cally had wanted to go, and she of all people needed an opportunity to leave the ship....
"Let's find a wall," he said as firmly as he could. "There could be another door, to go out." Probably there was only the one door, which they had lost, but what else was he to tell her?
Gradually he felt Cally's hands opening. He could feel fear knotted into her shoulders. She stepped back, away from him, but at the same time caught hold of his forearms. Suddenly the darkness seemed larger, and he bit back an unexpected gasp of panic. "Don't let go," Cally said aloud in a choked voice.
"That would be unwise," he agreed. "This way?"
"It's--as good a direction as any." Her voice was steadier. She gripped only one hand now, but tightly.
The first step was the worst. After that Avon felt himself calming. Perhaps faking had metamorphosed into the real thing; sometimes it did. Still, he would have been glad to crash into a wall, even if face-first.
"You know I haven't gone anywhere." Don't laugh, you won't be able to stop.
"I think there's something here."
A shiver coursed down his spine. "What kind of something?"
"Empty." His voice didn't echo, he noted suddenly. He was reminded irresistibly of black holes.
"It's outside of me, I'm sure. If we can't get out of here, it will destroy us."
"I don't know."
She was right, she had to be right, even he could feel something, something that was an absence rather than a presence, but nevertheless seemed to suck the marrow from his bones. Deliberately he did not look over his shoulder. He had remembered, like a memory of a dream, someone calling his name. He said, "It called. When the door opened."
"I didn't hear anything."
"There wasn't anything to hear."
"I meant sensed." Cally's voice had calmed. "The way I can tell that this is your hand and not Vila's."
Avon was confused, but decided not to say so. He couldn't really explain what he meant, either. "I wonder what it was in Zen's programming that sent us here?"
"Don't you know?"
"If I could decipher Zen I could probably take over the Federation single-handedly."
"Perhaps this thing is dangerous."
"Not to us, surely," Avon said. "We were no-where near this system, on our projected course; Zen shouldn't have considered it to be an immediate danger. Perhaps a command left from the previous occupants. Or perhaps it...called...to Zen."
Cally fell quiet, and the only proof of her presence was her hand's pressure upon his. They walked in silence into nothingness. Avon was beginning to be tired. He wondered what was happening on the Liberator, and how much time had passed.
Cally stopped short. "This is stupid."
"You have a better idea?"
"We need to know what that emptiness is, otherwise we could still be here in a thousand years."
"Not likely," Avon said, though secretly he thought just that. "How do you plan to go about it?"
"I felt it before," Cally said. "I shall try to feel it again." Avon heard her draw a long, steadying breath. His hearing had become so acute he imagined he could hear her eyes blinking.
Cally sat, pulling him with her. The floor didn't feel any different to his hand than it had to his feet; there was something there, but he couldn't identify what the material was. His eyes were beginning to hurt from straining for nonexistent light. He waited, feeling Cally's fingers relax and loosen and almost fall away.
When her breathing sped up he knew that it was there. Not there? He felt it, too, a disquietude brushing the back of his neck that began to build into anxiety. It was waiting for us, he realized. Waiting for someone, anyway, so it could--could-- "Found it," he said.
"Yes," Cally whispered. "Describe it."
Someone else's voice seemed to say, "Dread."
"Despair," she said. "Avon, I think...it's drawing from inside our minds. I can feel it, somehow. Maybe there's a void that needs substance....."
As she spoke he realized that the dread he had named loomed ahead of him. It lay in putting himself into the hands of the Federation, allowing them to lay hands on his flesh, hooking into his deepest fears, all in preparation for a planned, cold-blooded murder, the one crime he had never before even considered to be within his capabilities.
There was much to be afraid of. Avon had been ignoring his fear, stuffing it down deep, beneath his lungs. He should not be afraid; he had made a logical decision and planned how best to carry that decision out. That was all there was to it.
But still he was terrified. He didn't have the slightest idea what he was in for.
Cally spoke, as if trying to fill the blackness with sound. "It's drawing out from both of us, all the darkness. Perhaps it drew you in, hoping to reach me."
Argument. That was what he needed. "You're assuming there is volition involved."
"I think," Cally said, "that it might be a defense mechanism."
"Against what? The sun?" The flippancy recovered him to himself; some of his tension fell away.
As if she hadn't heard, Cally continued, "Jenna told me about when you first found the Liberator. Could this be another thing built by the System?"
"If it were like what Zen had, we'd be dead by now. It was only...it was Blake who saved us. His mind had been so tampered with that he could recognize what Zen presented to us as real, and know that it was false."
"Was it like this, at all?"
Avon thought. The experience had blurred almost immediately afterwards. He remembered seeing Edward, but there had also been an accompanying sense of despair, and unhappiness...he had thought that was a result of seeing his brother, but perhaps it had been a cause, and that was why the image of Edward had been drawn up from his mind. Jenna had said later she'd seen her mother, again being killed before her eyes--Avon thrust the memory of that somewhat drunken conversation from his mind. "A bit," he said finally.
"Tell me how it worked."
"I can't tell you. That part of Zen is sealed up tight, and I want to keep my fingers."
Cally was beginning to sound unnerved again, and the feeling was creeping in through his skin. Was it contagious? Was there an outside cause? He would have liked to believe the latter. "Let's walk." It was the lack of sound that was most disturbing, Avon decided. So long as there was a voice to listen to, he felt, absurdly, safer. "Now that I think about it, perhaps it was related. The feelings were much the same. I've always thought the vision aroused the emotional reaction, but it might have been the other way round."
"What did you see?"
"A fellow conspirator."
A pause. "Jenna told me you said it was your brother."
"It was." Avon made his tone into a warning.
Thankfully, Cally let the subject drop. "If we're right, then there is a way out."
"I don't know exactly how Blake did what he did." In fact, Avon still felt amazement when he thought about that victory. It had shown Blake's strength, that part of him that willfully defied the impossible.
"He knew it wasn't real."
"What our brains sense is real to us. I've never had much luck overcoming what my hindbrain believes. Sometimes the hindbrain knows best," he added, trying to make her understand.
"I'm going to try and contact it."
"What?!" Avon was so startled he almost released her hand in his desire to grab and shake her. "That's crazy. Anyway, you can't. You can only send."
"I need to sit down for this."
"Cally, don't." The very idea was ridiculously foolish.
"I don't want to be trapped in this forever. It's worse than death, and more silent."
"Maybe I would have a better chance if you would be quiet."
"Cally....." She let go of his hand, and in a moment had stepped beyond his reach. "Damn," he hissed, and sat. No use in becoming more lost than he was already. He closed his eyes, but it made little difference. Was this what death was like? This endless, empty darkness, this lack of time, this fear that the nullity would be eternal?
Avon wanted to find her, but knew it would be practically impossible unless she made more noise. Nothing would occupy his mind for more than a few seconds; he was too tense and distracted. He seemed to wait forever, fear knotting into his throat.
Then there was light, without fanfare. When he could pull his hands away from his eyes, the first thing he saw was Cally, sitting cross-legged about a meter from him. She was climbing to her feet. Incredulous, Avon stood too, stumbling when his knees protested.
On the inside, the building looked like a giant hangar. At first he couldn't decide where that impression had come from; then his eyes began to make sense of what he saw. The scale had confused him. Resting on the floor, which he could now see was simple concrete, was a Deep Space Vehicle. "So that's it," he said, numbly.
Cally was walking toward the ship, a dazed expression on her face. "So big," she said.
"What did you do?" Avon asked, as his eyes devoured everything in sight. Something, probably the sudden return to light, was making his head ache, but he ignored the pain, lost in wonder.
Cally turned slowly in a circle, her gaze encompassing the vast interior, before answering. "It was drawing upon us for the defense mechanism, but I did something to it, so it didn't work properly."
"And that was, exactly?"
"I was projecting what the defense mechanism did to me, projecting it to both of us, to make a closed loop--does that make any sense?"
It did, in a strange way, like the insides of Zen made sense; you just couldn't look too closely. "You did all that, did you?"
She grimaced, and rubbed at her forehead as she answered. "I think I was more of a channel, or perhaps an amplifier. When I closed myself off, the intensified loop was broken." She resumed walking towards the DSV. "Wouldn't it have been better to dock it in space?"
"It's safer here. Sensors can't detect it, and chance visitors end in nasty ways."
"I've never seen one from the outside," Cally commented, when at last she was standing between two of the three pods. The ship was suspended just above the floor by a faint pink force field. "Whatever are we going to do with it?"
Avon had a sudden thought that the damage Cally had done to the defense system might be only temporary. "Let's go outside." They walked quickly; the door slid shut behind them. He turned to Cally and said, resignedly, "I need a word with Zen."
Cally was staring at him steadily. "What do you propose we do?" She was daring him, he realized. Daring him to put his personal desires over something so large as the ship that waited for them, so significant that it could turn the course of events in the Federation.
The DSV was inescapable. And she knew it. And he could not deny it. If he did, it would haunt him.
Avon sighed. "We'll have to stay here for now." Squinting in reflected sunlight, he looked over at the building again. "But when this is done, no matter how many months it takes...I'm still going to Earth."
Cally didn't reply.
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