A Fine Collection of AlliesBy Sheila Paulson
Page 1 of 24
|A Fine Collection of Allies
by Sheila Paulson
Blake's wound throbbed fiercely. The rough landing of his life pod had jarred it open again and he had been too weak to do more than wait for the Liberator to repair itself and come after him. Unable to contact the others on his teleport bracelet and fearing that the battle against the Andromedans was going badly, there was little he could do but rest, hoping his ship would find him, hoping the others would come after him. At first, he had lost track of time but surely it wouldn't be much longer. His greatest fear was that someone would come upon the Liberator while it was weakest and destroy it--or board it. That might create serious problems, though he remembered the defense the great alien vessel had thrown against the crew of the London and against himself, Jenna, and Avon. Surely even weakened, Zen would protect the ship from anyone who tried to take it.
Wearily he tried his bracelet yet again, telling himself sternly that it was much too soon to expect a response, refusing to permit his expectations to grow too high. No one would answer this time either. If he believed that, he could hold on a little longer, in spite of his wound, in spite of the threat of an Andromedan victory. "Blake to Liberator. Is anyone there?"
+Liberator is on station.+ Zen's sudden answer sent relief surging through him. +Auto repairs have been completed.+
"Are any of the others on board yet? Can you bring me up?"
+You are the first to be located, Roj Blake.+
"Then bring me up."
+Teleport requires manual operation.+
Blake stiffened. "Orac isn't on board?"
+The one called Orac was removed from the Liberator by Kerr Avon. However, an alternative solution is possible. Wait.+
"Wait?" echoed Blake under his breath. "There's not much else I can do, is there." He should have known Avon wouldn't leave Orac behind when he abandoned ship. Probably assumed he would be the first one located afterward, which might not be so unlikely if he were the last one to leave. Or perhaps it was his way to protect what he would now consider his ship. Blake was not sure the others would be so willing to give the ship over to Avon; certainly they had not agreed to it, and he suspected that if it came to a struggle, Jenna would give Avon a run for his money. But all bets were oft now. The battle had been going badly when Blake had been forced to abandon ship. If the Andromedans won, humanity would need the Liberator to hold out against the forces that wished to destroy them. Surely Avon would understand that. Though he claimed to value no one, he would certainly value his own people over an invader who wished to destroy all life in this galaxy. When Avon returned to the ship, the two of them would have it out--assuming they could return to the ship.
+Ready to teleport,+ Zen Intoned, and before Blake could question him, he felt the familiar sensation of the teleport taking him. A moment later he was sitting in the teleport facing a stranger behind the console, a curly haired young man in a Federation uniform whose gun lay within easy reach of his hand.
At the sight of Blake, who probably looked too weak to stand let alone struggle over a weapon, he relaxed his instinctive reach for it and rose abruptly. "Your ship's computer says you need medical treatment," he remarked. "I'd prefer to claim salvage rights since you'd abandoned this vessel, but the situation is too serious for that."
"The battle?" Blake asked in concern.
"The battle," the young officer confirmed with a nod. He gestured down at his uniform. "Don't take this wrong. I've been using this for protection. I'm not Federation, not that it'll matter. Enough of the Andromedans got through that we're guaranteed trouble in the future. Even if I were Federation, I wouldn't turn you in now."
"Turn me in?" Blake asked carefully, pushing himself into a more comfortable position and bracing his sound shoulder against the wall.
"You're Roj Blake. I recognize you."
"Interesting. The Federation's done a good job of keeping my face out of the media press releases. They don't want to encourage the masses to follow me--unless you really are Federation."
"I was," he confirmed. "Former Space Captain Del Tarrant. I had enough of them and left, taking my ship with me. Since then I've been roaming around the Outer Worlds getting involved in other people's wars." He grinned in a blinding display of white teeth. "I came in against the Andromedans, and my ship was badly damaged. That's when I found this ship. The repairs weren't complete, but life support was back on line."
"And you had no trouble?" Blake asked carefully. Evidently Zen had trusted Tarrant enough to allow him information on teleport functions, but then Zen had an obligation to his crew, and Tarrant had been all that was available.
"Trouble? You mean the defense system on the flight deck? I didn't have trouble with it but a Federation squad boarded too and it killed them. Your ship must have recognized that I was not Federation."
"It didn't with us," Blake disagreed, eyeing Tarrant suspiciously.
"I felt the pull," Tarrant replied. "It showed me an image of my brother and tried to draw me in. But I knew Deeta couldn't be here--I don't believe in that kind of coincidence. It gave me enough resistance to hold out. Besides," he added, smiling, "Your Zen must have realized how awed I was by this ship. I'm a pilot," he added as if saying, 'I'm the next thing to god.'
Blake wondered if it were truly conceit or if he were as good as all that. Maybe he was because Zen had not resisted him. Blake wondered how Jenna and Avon would take to him, and smiled at the Idea. Reminded of his crew, he raised his voice. "Zen, we need to locate the others. Initiate standard search proceedure."
+Confirmed,+ came Zen's disembodied voice, and Blake could feel the surge of power as the great ship started to move.
"What about that wound?" Tarrant asked. "Do you have a surgical unit on board?"
Blake nodded. "It's not a wound from the battle but it's opened up again. We have the means to treat it."
Tarrant stretched out a long arm and pulled Blake to his feet, steadying him as he swayed. "Have any of the others called in?" he asked as Tarrant steadied him.
"There's been another signal or two," Tarrant confirmed. "I didn't know the voices. I told Zen to set priorities according to risk to the people. He must have thought you were worst off because he went quiet analyzing signals then we came after you first."
If no one was hurt worse, Blake would be grateful, but that could mean that some of the others were dead. If they hadn't all called in... He let Tarrant guide him toward the medical unit, astonished at how well the arrogant young man seemed to have got on with Zen. Maybe it was because he was a pilot. Zen had interacted with Jenna before him or Avon when they had first come aboard after all.
Once his wound was dressed and a healing pad in place, Blake felt a little better, but for the moment, while they headed for the next rescue, he was content to stay in the medical unit. Tarrant remained with him, prowling about with blatant curiosity, and Blake watched him, reluctant to trust the young man without proof. Zen had trusted him enough to listen to him, but then Tarrant's orders matched Zen's priorities; Blake doubted the computer would have obeyed if Tarrant had ordered Liberator to turn tail and run.
Tarrant wore a possessive air about the ship, as if he considered it his own, and Blake knew he would have to do something about that. Unless Zen was ordered to do so, he would not take Tarrant's orders as valid, and as he half drowsed, waiting for the pad to do its work, he contemplated devising orders for Tarrant to give the computer which would prove he ran nothing. But that was not as important as the current crisis, so he nodded to Tarrant to activate the voice link with Zen.
"Zen. What is the status of the battle?"
Tarrant paused in his wanderings and came over to stand near Blake, braced for the possibility of bad news. Blake wondered if the threat toward humanity had given them common cause and realized it must when Zen replied.
+Federation losses have been extensive,+ Zen informed them. +One hundred forty seven Alien vessels penetrated the galaxy and avoided destruction. There is evidence that some of these ships were damaged, but not destroyed, and the alien fleet has regrouped and is challenging late-arriving Federation vessels. The Liberator's present course will take it away from the battle and it is recommended that battle be avoided at least until such time as backup can be obtained.+
"A lot of backup," Tarrant agreed. "This ship's the best hope we've got against the Andromedans. I wonder what they're like."
"You'd rather not know," Blake returned with a sour grin.
"Not remotely human, then?" Tarrant nodded, unsurprised.
"Not remotely--though they can assume the appearance of humans if necessary."
"That's bad," the young pilot responded. "How big is your crew. I've heard of Avon, Vila, Jenna, Cally and Gan. Are there others?"
"I'm not sure I want to tell you," Blake returned. "Convince me you're trustworthy. That uniform tends to discourage me."
"I'll be happy to be rid of it," Tarrant replied. "Convince you? That fleet out there should convince you. Do you think I want alien shapechangers roaming our galaxy? Even if I were Servalan's right hand man, I'd want the same thing you do right now, to defeat them and protect us. With a ship like this, we stand a good chance of doing just that."
Blake doubted their chance would be as good as all that--even with a fully charged and sta"ed Liberator, their chances against the aliens were only slightly better than their chances had been against the Federation, and even if they were united with the Federation now against a common foe, their new 'allies' would turn against them the moment the Andromedans ceased to be a threat. So might Tarrant, and the longer he stayed aboard and the better he came to know the ship, the greater danger he would be.
Blake decided to leave it to Orac. Though Ensor's creation resented being used as a lie detector, it could make sense of Tarrant's declarations of support better than any of the others might. The fact that Zen had not injured or killed Tarrant and that he had instructed the young pilot in the use of the teleport to retrieve Blake spoke in his favor, but Avon would be unhappy to find a new crew member already in residence when he returned to the ship.
"I feel a little better," Blake said truthfully. "I'll show you where you can find some different clothing. At least you won't look so threatening to the rest of my crew."
He went with Tarrant to find new clothes. The strongroom was too near for him to risk Tarrant finding it yet. Though something told him the young ex-Federation officer meant no harm, the boy's lust for the Liberator made Blake wary. He would put no more temptation in his path than necessary, at least not before the others returned.
Dressed as a civilian, Tarrant looked slightly more innocuous, but he had an edge that made Blake cautious. No matter how pure he might claim his intentions, and in spite of admitting he wanted the Liberator, something he could have kept silent until a more propitious moment, he might be biding his time. Slowly recovering under the healing pad, Blake knew he must wait and watch until he could be certain of Tarrant.
They went to the flight deck. Blake drew back-momentarily when he found the bodies of the Federation squad. "I suppose we should put them out the airlock," Tarrant admitted. "But there was too much to do at first, and I was here on sufferance. I didn't want to get that close to an airlock myself."
Blake didn't blame him. "We can do it now," he decided.
Tarrant eyed Blake's wound and grinned faintly. "You mean I can do it while you direct?" He set to it uncomplainingly.
"Zen," called Blake. "Confirm that those men are dead." He had not checked the bodies.
Remembering his own arrival on the ship, Blake frowned as something occurred to him. The look on Jenna's face after her linkage with Zen, her claim of being totally known, made him consider another possibility. "Zen, when we first boarded this ship, you linked with Jenna. She said she was totally known."
+State your question,+ Zen replied.
"Did you do the same thing with Del Tarrant?"
"He says he is no longer a Federation officer. Is this true?"
A sound behind him announced the return of Tarrant to the flight deck. He gave Blake a slightly sour grin. "Checking up on me, are you?"
"In my place you'd do the same."
"I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't," Tarrant replied. "It would have made me wonder how you'd achieved as much as you did."
"I never achieved enough," Blake replied regretfully. "Zen. Answer the question."
+Del Tarrant is no longer a Federation officer. He is a gifted pilot whose presence can benefit the Liberator.+
Tarrant's grin broadened into a genuine one. "I can't wait to fly this ship," he announced, suddenly sounding very young. "Zen wouldn't let me do that. I'm not used to that kind of computer. Zen's self-aware, isn't he? No wonder you were able to do so much with the Liberator. This is more than just programming."
"Avon would disagree with you," Blake replied.
"He's the computer specialist though. He'd see it as more advanced programming. I think I'd disagree."
"Wait until you meet Orac."
Tarrant shot him a curious look and went to remove the last body, and Blake sat down on the forward couch. His wound still hurt, though the pain was easing into a dull but bearable ache. If Tarrant was no longer Federation, it removed one threat, though the young pilot had been a mercenary and was not instantly trustworthy simply because he'd left the Federation. Blake knew Avon thought him too soft, too willing to take people on trust, but Blake had no way of knowing it Tarrant was what he claimed to be until Zen had verified it. Tarrant might even have been an Andromedan, though Blake doubted Zen would have given an Andromedan instruction in teleport functions. If Tarrant had not been here, Zen might have linked with Orac wherever it was, and operated the teleport that way. The fact that Zen hadn't worried Blake. He hoped Avon was all right.
"Zen," he called out, "How long before we rescue the next crew member?"
+Two point three eight hours,+ intoned the computer.
"Which of them is it?" Blake asked anxiously.
Blake heaved a sigh of relief. Avon. He and Avon had been increasingly at odds lately, his Cause driving a near-unmanageable wedge between them, but how much of that had been his growing obsession to destroy the Federation? How much had Avon changed? Most of the change had been in Blake, and Avon's behavior had been a reaction to something he could see but could not control. He had agreed to stay and fight with Liberator when it seemed futile simply because he had given his word. Avon had always valued the giving of his word. He possessed more integrity than he was willing to admit, but he had resisted that promise. Blake had feared it would be the final straw, but when he had come to the flight deck before the battle and faced an Avon who was resentful that Blake had not trusted him to do as he had vowed, his declaration of trust had stopped Avon in his tracks. Blake doubted Avon had believed him but it was true. Trust was not always wise and he was certain that his trust of Avon hadn't been. He'd never given Avon reason to believe it either, once telling Jenna that Avon might run when he suspected Avon could hear him. He had thought Avon wanted to run then, but when Avon had teleported down to Horizon and rescued him, nearly shooting him in the process, Blake had not been very surprised.
Now Avon was returning. How hostile would he be? How resentful of Blake's manipulations? Blake knew Avon had resisted him, had fought liking him, had in one way welcomed Blake's growing obsession as it presented him with a valid excuse to hold himself at arms length. That he had needed an excuse was the one thing that gave Blake hope for a future relationship. The tensions between himself and Avon had had all the others walking warily around them. Blake hoped to change things, since the crisis at Star One had shocked him into taking a second look at himself. He hoped he could manage differently. If not, the future would be even bleaker than it looked right now.
Avon was alive, at least as far as Orac had been able to report to Zen. That was one less worry. "What about the others, Zen? Are they alive?"
+Vila Restal has been in contact. He reports his situation as perilous in the extreme.+
"Then why not go after him first?" Blake asked, though Vila considered many things perilous and his hyperbole need only be a reaction to a potentially threatening situation.
+Avon's situation is perilous as well,+ Zen reported. +His location is on a direct course to Vila's location.+
"What about the others?"
+Cally is en route to the planet Chenga,+ Zen explained. +That is Vila's location. Jenna is on a hospital ship on route to the planet Morphenial. Her situation is stable and as a result will be retrieved last.+ They were all alive then. Blake heaved a shaky sigh. He had been afraid to let himself hope until now. The relief was so overwhelming that his growing tension snapped, allowing him to relax. Gradually, he slipped sideways on the couch, the strain of the past days and the weakness from his wound finally catching up to him. He slept.
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