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Adventures in Babysitting

By Sheila Paulson
Page 3 of 5

Avon slept half the way to Raskin Major. When he roused, he felt well enough to defy anyone who tried to stop him leaving the medical unit, but he was alone there. Blake had already gone.

Dressing quickly, Avon didn't stop to eat but went directly to the flight deck, pausing in the doorway in some dismay.

The entire crew was present, including Blake, who looked quite recovered from his wound, though he was favoring his arm a little. The children were there, too, enjoying the crew's attention. Tirn, determined to show no pleasure, was actually at Jenna's position while the smuggler stood at his shoulder giving him instructions. In spite of his efforts to appear blase, the boy couldn't hold back an excited grin. Half expecting the great ship to start doing loops, Avon grimaced and looked for the other children.

Ree was with Blake, of course. It would take considerable effort to pry him free when the time came. Blake displayed a remarkable gentleness around the boy, talking and laughing with him as if he'd once had a family of his own. That made Avon stop and wonder. It was possible that Blake had had a family, but he never mentioned it. He'd lost a brother and sister in the outer worlds, but Avon knew no more than that. Yet the man who sat chatting companionably with the small boy looked relaxed, at ease, as if he had put his Cause aside for the moment. Avon's eyes narrowed. He wasn't quite certain how to deal with Blake in this frame of mind.

Desta had planted herself in front of Zen's fascia, talking eagerly to the computer.

" everything on the ship," she was saying as Avon started to listen. "What about repairs?"

"Auto repairs function as required."

"But who decides? You? Avon?" she persisted.

"Necessity determines usage of the auto repair systems," responded Zen. "Upon detection of a breakdown, repairs are initiated. Safety of the Liberator is the prime requirement. Crew members may require assistance periodically, but some information must be gained by crew initiative and not volunteered by this unit."

Avon was fascinated at the responses she was eliciting, and he stood listening, hoping to remain unnoticed.

"Does that mean that you only help them sometimes?" the girl asked. "Who decides what help is needed? Who programmed you? Did they request you to keep things secret? Or do you let them decide what to do as long as it doesn't interfere with your working? Avon must be good at it."

"Kerr Avon has great skill. However, this unit's systems require protection from outside interference. Withdrawal from unwise crew decisions is occasionally required."

Desta thought that over. "You mean if they override you and do something reckless, you won't help them? What if they only get in worse trouble?"

Her elder brother chuckled suddenly. "Then he leaves them to stew in their own juice," he said. "I'd like to see how Avon takes that."

"Would you?" Avon asked smoothly, deciding to announce his presence. Vila grinned at the boy's startled reaction and at Desta's delighted smile.

"Sleeping beauty awakens," the thief said cheerfully. "Just when we were having such fun."

"Your idea of fun always leads to trouble, Vila," Avon pointed out, walking forward. "I think you have gone unsupervised far too long."

Vila muttered, "Killjoy," just loud enough for Avon to hear.

Blake bounded up. "Avon. You're awake then?"

"Demonstrably. Must you state the obvious?"

Blake favored him with a bright smile, refusing to take offense. "I'm simply pleased to see you looking better."

Avon's eyes narrowed slightly. "But then it takes so little to please you. What is our status?"

"No one followed us from Donnat," Jenna volunteered, taking Tirn's place at the controls. "Travis must think Blake is still trapped in that cave. I can't see him blowing up the entrance and then just walking away. He'd never believe Blake was dead unless he saw the body. He'll have the place dug open before he does anything more."

"So we have Travis digging energetically on Donnat?" Avon asked skeptically. "Surely the return of the Liberator did not go unmarked."

"There was some initial pursuit, but we left them behind," Cally volunteered calmly. "We have since altered course to Raskin Major."

"Relax, Avon," Vila urged. "No one's bothering us."

"Speak for yourself, Vila. You always bother me."

"I try," responded the thief flippantly. The presence of the children and relief at their escape had put everyone in an excellent mood. Avon grimaced. He was more comfortable with them when they were snapping at each other.

"Avon!" Desta had been hovering at his side, waiting for a chance to speak. "I've been talking to Zen."

"I heard some of it."

She nodded excitedly. "Zen's not like other computers, is it? Not if it can decide when to help you and when not to. I think Zen's like another person."

"Blake considers it a member of the crew," Avon admitted in the tones of one who has long humored an idiot. "However, you must never confuse superior programming with human reactions."

"Unless it's Avon," said Vila in an aside to Cally.

"But Zen says it decides..." Desta objected.

"That is the way Zen was programmed. Within certain parameters, it will retain control of the ship. That does not mean it exceeds programming."

The child frowned. Her awe at the ship's computer was clearly written on her face. Avon could not dispute that, for he still found himself awed occasionally at Zen's capabilities. Not that it meant Zen was anything but a computer, but a superior computer such as Zen was worthy of his study. "It offers endless research possibilities," Avon replied. "As yet we have not discovered the ship's origin, but should Blake tire of his rebellion long enough, I, for one, would like to discover it."

"They might want the Liberator back," Gan protested.

Avon had considered that. "Then we shall claim salvage rights," he replied.

"Blake," Cally said suddenly. "That call you put through to Raskin Major is coming through."

"Call?" Avon asked sharply turning to stare suspiciously at Blake.

"To locate the children's aunt," Blake informed him. "Do we have her location, Cally?"

She bent over her instruments. "Yes, Blake, I have it."

"Then notify her that the children will be arriving."

"You don't mean to give her your identity?" Avon asked sharply.

Blake shook his head. "No, Avon. I don't mean to give her my identity. There's no point in taking chances. We'll claim to be a merchant vessel. She won't need to find out who we are until after we've gone."

"I doubt Aunt Arian will turn you in after all your assistance," Tirn said. He made it sound as if he grudged them the help, but he couldn't deny that it had been given. Avon studied the boy in some irritation, refusing to compare his attitude with Avon's own. "Besides, when she hears how Travis meant to blow us up in that cave, she'll have to take your side."

"I should doubt that," Avon replied. "No one ever 'has to' do the logical thing. I should have expected you to know that."

"I do know it," Tirn snapped at him. "But I know Aunt Arian too. The others are too young to remember her. I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't want to take Blake's side."

"Another recruit," Avon murmured.

"Ignore him," Jenna told the older boy. "I'm sure your aunt will be glad to have you."

Tirn eyed her suspiciously.

"I wish we could stay with Blake," announced Ree, looking up adoringly at his idol.

"We'd like that, too," Blake told him, "But I'm afraid you can't. It would be too dangerous."

"I like it to be dangerous," Ree proclaimed grandly. "And I'm good with guns."

"I know you are," Blake agreed. "But it just isn't possible. Give it a few years. Get your schooling. After that, if you want to join me, I'll be glad to have you."

"But you'll have already won by then," Ree protested, disappointed.

Avon opened his mouth to express skepticism of Blake's probable success, but at the last minute, he didn't say it. Desta was watching him, but he doubted that was why.

Tirn was watching him too. "What's the matter, Avon?" the older boy asked. "You're not a believer, are you?"

Of course he is," Desta cried.

"What, Avon?" Vila asked. "Believes in his own way." He winked at Desta, who relaxed. Avon let it stand.

The rest of the trip was more of the same. The three children never let up. Tirn stood off to one side and made cynical comments about everything, striving in vain to hide his fascination with the Liberator. Desta prodded at Zen, who responded favorably to her. No doubt it was programmed to respond thus to such interest, but Vila grinned and remarked:

"Zen's going to be spoiled by all that attention."

"As Zen is simply a computer--" Avon began before he spied Vila's amused grin and realized the thief had been waiting for just such a response. Refusing to be so predictable, Avon turned to Vila and studied him measuringly. "Or is it more simply that your nose is out of joint, Vila? No one is paying you any particular attention?"

The thief glared at him. Maybe that was it, after all. But Desta looked at Vila carefully and then she left Zen for the moment and went over to talk to the thief. Vila shot Avon a triumphant grin.

Desta looked at Avon apologetically and set out to mother Vila. Avon found himself struggling to hide a smile.

"She is very kind hearted," Cally said in his ear. "Don't begrudge Vila the time. He loves children."

"More fool him," Avon replied.

Ignoring his tone, Cally took his arm and steered him across the flight deck away from the others. "Can nothing be done for Tirn's leg?" she asked.

"He said only the favored received such treatment on Donnat. Yet he must have received some medical treatment--his brace suggests someone took the trouble to provide what care was possible. You do not know the extent of the damage. I would suggest you say nothing to the boy."

"He has learned cynicism," she agreed. "I doubt he would allow himself to feel false hope."

Avon frowned. "No, Cally. He would not allow himself to show it."

She looked at him penetratingly as if to read the reasons for his knowledge written in his eyes. He returned the stare expressionlessly. He did not find Tirn difficult to understand.

"Are you certain?" she asked, though she didn't seem to doubt his words.

"I am quite certain. False hopes are difficult to endure." Better to avoid hope altogether, though he did not say as much to Cally.

"Then I will check with Zen privately. We gave all three children medical examinations to be certain they were all right when we brought them on board."

"Tirn remarked that such treatment was reserved for the privileged. I doubt his aunt is wealthy."

"There is a strongroom on this ship," Cally remarked. "Blake has earmarked the money for his Cause, but I doubt he will begrudge a little of it to Tirn."

"With that great bleeding heart of his?" Avon asked. "Naturally not."

"You will not begrudge it, will you, Avon?"

"If I did, no doubt I would find myself outvoted."

"Then come with me to study the medical results." Raising her voice, she said, "Blake, I'm going to borrow Avon for a bit."

No one protested their going.


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