Keeper of the TrustBy Jean Graham
Page 1 of 4
|Until a few moments ago, Liberator's flight deck had been relatively
quiet. Blake stood silhouetted against Zen's amber fascia, facing Avon
across the console of the computer expert's flight station.
Avon's scathing tones were nothing less than he'd expected.
"As usual, I fail to follow your quantum leaps of pseudo logic, Blake."
With an indulgence he didn't really feel, Blake said, "Perhaps there's very little logic involved."
"I could have told you that."
"You just did," Jenna interjected from the pilot's station. To Blake, she added, "Course for Vaarn is laid in."
He nodded. "Zen, execute course for Vaarn in Sector 7, standard by four."
Blake came to stand near Avon's station. "It doesn't get very much simpler than cause and effect," he explained patiently. "Vaarn is the Federation's primary source of betonium ore for their FE missiles, and I intend to eliminate that source. Simple as that."
"With you, nothing is ever as 'simple as that.' We could be--"
Avon was interrupted by the whine of an alarm from the weapons console. Vila roused himself from a near-doze to turn it off.
Blake was beside him instantly. "What is it?"
Vila's hands moved hesitantly over the controls. "I dunno. Some minor fluctuation in the force wall energy field, or so it says. Zen's taking care of it. He...er...just needed the manual override canceled."
Blake scowled at him. "Try staying awake, Vila."
"I am trying!"
"Extremely trying, most of the time," Avon said tersely.
Vila shot him a disgusted look, but ignored the insult. "It's all right now," he told Blake. "Zen's fixed it."
Satisfied, Blake turned away. But he'd no sooner drawn even with Avon than the computer tech resumed their argument as though nothing had ever interrupted it.
"The Federation are unlikely to have left Vaarn defenseless. In point of fact, a mining complex of that nature would undoubtedly be the most heavily guarded of all."
"He's right about that," Jenna added. "Otherwise it would only naturally be a prime target for every pirate with enough guns -- and nerve -- to hijack an ore carrier and get rich in a hurry."
"Sounds good to me," Vila put in, but as usual, no one acknowledged him.
Blake had drawn another tempering breath before he said, "I've already accounted for heavy defenses. We'll go in with the detector shield up, use the teleport to invade the main complex, then use their central control computers to set up a chain reaction explosion."
Jenna's eyes glittered. "Very neat."
"And very suicidal," Avon nearly cut her off. "You'll never get anywhere near the control complex. And the base is probably shielded, which means the teleport won't function."
Blake inclined his head, conceding the possibility. "I'll find another way in then."
Vila squirmed in his flight chair, aware that Blake's gaze had fallen on him.
"Well don't look at me. I gave up breaking into Federation complexes; it's bad for my life expectancy."
Avon grinned suddenly. "At long last, a voice of reason. Albeit from an unlikely source."
Blake saw Vila's face fall. As though alarmed that he had inadvertently agreed with Avon, the thief sat up straighter in his chair and said, "Now wait a minute. I didn't mean... That is, I don't think..."
"That's true. So why not try being quiet instead?" Avon turned abruptly back to Blake. "You're dragging us in blind with no possible prior knowledge of what we will be up against. And that is suicidal."
"Orac can advise us of the base defenses."
"Orac is only a machine. Even it cannot account for every contingency, particularly where human error is concerned."
Blake's patience was wearing thin, but he refused to allow Avon's goading to produce any visible result. "Yes," he said. "Well, no one can entirely account for that, I'm afraid."
+INFORMATION,+ Zen intoned, cutting into Blake's response. +ENERGY SHIELD MALFUNCTION HAS RESULTED IN MINOR BURN-OUT OF AUTO-NAVIGATIONAL CIRCUIT 12. THIS FAULT CANNOT BE ENTIRELY CORRECTED BY AUTOMATICS. ADJUSTMENT OF PRIMARY NAVIGATIONAL COMPUTER AT COMPONENT LEVEL WILL BE REQUIRED.+
Blake stifled a sigh, not sure whether he ought to be bothered or relieved. "That sounds rather like your province, Avon."
Glaring, Avon stepped down from the flight console. "Sooner or later, Blake," he said, voice a disquieting monotone, "you are going to push everyone aboard this ship too far."
Blake met the implied challenge head on. "And then what? They'll turn to you?"
The humorless smile returned. "There'll come a time."
For a protracted moment, Blake locked gazes with him. Then something in the tech's dark eyes made him break the contact, and he turned away uncomfortably, feigning disinterest.
"Just see to the computer, Avon."
Affecting a deliberate air of disdain, Avon fixed Blake with a final contemptuous look before he whirled and departed the flight deck.
Three people breathed audible sighs of relief in his wake.
"If looks could kill..." Jenna commented dryly.
"We'd all've been dead long ago!" Vila settled back into his chair again, but gave Blake a pleading look. "Do you have to antagonize him?"
"Me?" Blake vented a short laugh, trying unsuccessfully to relieve the tension. "I thought that was your forte, Vila. Some sort of honor-bound code among thieves, perhaps?"
"Eh?" Vila looked sorely affronted. "Oh now be fair. Avon's not actually a thief. Well, not in the real sense. I mean, he got caught, didn't he?"
Jenna exchanged an amused glance with Blake before she said pointedly, "So did you."
"Well that's different." A distinct pride edged Vila's voice. "I managed to steal something before I got caught. Several somethings. He never did."
Blake smiled. "Well he nearly did. Or so you've told me."
"Nearly doesn't count! We have a professional ethic about things like this you know."
"I'm sure you do."
"Same as smugglers' ethics, probably," Jenna teased. "Must make for terribly interesting company. Never know when one of them will put a knife through you."
Vila paled. "You speak for your friends, I'll speak for mine."
Blake's comment was forestalled by a soft voice calling his name. He turned to see Cally entering the flight deck, Gan close behind her with Orac in his arms. They moved to the lounge area, where Gan placed the activated computer on its customary stand.
"There's something I think you ought to hear," the Auron said tightly, and Blake was sure he heard a note of -- fear? -- in her voice. He sat down with the others as Gan took up a stance near Cally, Orac between them.
"We've just finished medical analyses on everyone aboard," the big man said. "Orac's been correlating data with the med-unit computers."
Vila moaned. "I knew it. I'm dying of something, aren't I? How long have I got, Cally?"
She didn't answer him. Instead, she said to the group, "Physically, we are all fine."
"Well that's nice to know," Jenna breathed. "So what's the problem then?"
Gan folded his large arms, glancing furtively at Cally. "Avon is the problem," he said.
"Avon's dying of something?" That was Vila again. "No, that can't be right. Nothing would dare."
Jenna shushed him. "He's down in the computer section," she told Cally, and started to rise. "I can call him if you--"
"No, not yet." Cally motioned her back. "I think you'd better hear what Orac has to say first."
Gan placed both hands on the little computer's transparent casing. "Orac," he said, "report on medical analysis, please. Psychological scan, subject, Kerr Avon."
Blake's head came up sharply at the mention of psychological scans, and he stared hard at Orac's flashing lights. "Well, Orac?" he said impatiently.
*I am working!* Orac snapped. *The complete report will require considerable time to relate.*
Cally scowled at it. "Then summarize."
*Very well. The final conclusion of psycho-analytical scan is that the subject, Kerr Avon, is psychologically unstable. Furthermore--*
Vila snorted. "Tell us something we don't know."
*Furthermore,* Orac repeated, *records and analysis concurrently reveal a marked hostility toward all forms of authority which has been evident from early childhood. As the probable result of prolonged exposure to Federation interrogation and mind probe methods, this hostility now verges on deep psychosis. The probability is high, though not accurately measurable, that this psychosis will result in homicidal action taken against the authority figure in closest proximity to the subject.*
Blake was on his feet, pacing to Orac's side in the stunned silence that followed the computer's pronouncement. Orac hummed noisily to itself, but offered no further information. Grim-faced, Blake asked, "Orac, with what evidence have you supported this conclusion?"
*As I have already told you, the conclusion was reached via lengthy investigation of Federation psychostrategy computer records, interpolated with in-depth analysis conducted by myself and Liberator's medical facilities. The evidence is incontrovertible.*
"Avon will try to kill me?" He had trouble saying the words, so inconceivable did he find the prospect.
*That is the contingency of highest probability, yes.*
Jenna's voice was cold. "Not if I have anything to say about it."
"The question is," Cally wondered aloud, "what do we do about it? What can we do about it?"
When Blake had no immediate answer, Gan looked down at the maze of multi-colored lights beneath his hands and said, "You have recommendations, Orac?"
*Toward what end?* the computer shot back.
"Toward stopping Avon killing Blake, you miserable plastic junk heap!" Vila's outburst was quelled by Blake's gesture for silence, but the thief went on glowering at Orac as though he might be wishing for a rock big enough to dent it with.
"Tell us how to prevent your 'high-probability contingency,'" Blake ordered, aware that he had just reworded Vila's statement and wondering if Orac were not being deliberately obtuse.
*Recommendation one,* the computer replied smugly. *Kerr Avon must be removed from all contact with Liberator personnel. Recommendation two: he must be further removed from contact with any human subject representational of authority and therefore likely to trigger--*
"Thank you, Orac, we get the picture." Blake interrupted. "Can you correlate with ship's computers to produce a hard copy of Avon's Federation medical record?" He wasn't sure why he'd asked for that. If nothing else, he had to admit a certain morbid curiosity about how Avon's experience with the Federation's interrogators might compare with his own.
*Of course I can,* Orac had responded peevishly.
"Then do so."
Blake moved away to the flight consoles, and Jenna came after, her expression both curious and analytical.
"What are you planning?" she asked quietly.
"It doesn't sound as though I have a great many choices, does it?" The words had come out more sharply than he'd intended, but Jenna's only response was a knowing look.
"So drop him off on the nearest unaligned planet," Vila offered from the lounger. "He's always saying he wants to go. So we'll let him go."
"It isn't that easy," Blake admonished.
"Isn't it?" Jenna's question was threat masquerading as innocence.
"No it isn't. You heard what Orac said. I'm not the only one he might endanger."
"Oh fine," Vila said dismally. "Don't we have enough problems without having to worry about the rest of the universe, too?"
Gan scowled at him. "Be quiet, Vila."
The thief ignored him. "So leave Avon someplace where there aren't any people then. A planet with only computers, maybe. He'd even like that."
Jenna had fixed Blake with a cold look that he found more than a little discomfitting. "You're overlooking the most obvious solution," she said.
Blake stared at her, shaken by the ease with which she made the suggestion. "Kill Avon?" he asked softly. It wasn't an option he'd have considered, let alone carried out, but it was obvious that Jenna harbored no such reservations.
"It's the surest way of seeing he doesn't kill you," she said.
The others fell silent, holding a collective breath. Blake turned away to study the flight console, spreading his fingers over the controls without seeing them at all.
"Could you kill him, Jenna?"
The answer was prompt, and seemingly without feeling. "If I had to."
He looked her in the eye again as the console began disgorging Orac's medical report. "In cold blood? No self defense, no threat, no cause? Just...kill him?"
"I'd have all the cause I needed, if he were to harm you." The anger and...something else...in Jenna's voice surprised him yet again.
"I don't believe what I'm hearing!" It was Cally's strident objection, coming from beside Orac. "Avon is ill, and you're standing there planning his execution. He needs our help, Jenna."
The blonde pilot lapsed into guilty silence while Blake extracted the lengthy sheet of paper from a slot on Liberator's console. He perused it, rapidly at first. Then he slowed as the text reached details provided by the Federation's so-called 'psycho-strategists.' They went on at length. Graphic length.
Jenna came to stand beside him, unable to tolerate the silence any longer. "What is it?" she demanded.
Mutely, he handed to paper across to her, whereupon the others immediately clustered around her to look on.
"Tell me anyone could have survived four months of that," Blake said solemnly, "and still remain 'psychologically stable.'"
Vila paled, and had to stop reading. "They did all of that to Avon?"
"I never thought..." Blake felt mildly ill, and irrationally, more than a little ashamed. "I've been so concerned with what their 'therapists' had done to me," he said miserably. "I never stopped to consider..."
Gan finished reading the report, disgust and sympathy both plainly etched on his broad, expressive face. "Four months is an unusually long interrogation period, isn't it? They never kept you that long."
"They never needed to," Blake told him, unpleasantly aware that the experience, like an unhealed wound, was still all too vivid. "All they had to do for me was eradicate my memory and replace it with a set of false ideals. That was easy."
"But they couldn't do it that way with Avon," Cally said.
"Because they wanted what he knew," Vila supplied, "about the computers."
"And they never got it." Blake returned to Orac's side. "That must have caused some heads to roll in Federation Security Central. They're supposed to be infallible."
"That," Gan said slowly, "was before they tried to match heads with Avon."
Gently, Cally asked, "What will you do?"
"For the moment..." Blake pulled Orac's key, silencing the computer's whine. "...nothing. I'll need time to consider the alternatives."
Jenna's scowl spoke volumes. "That," she said, "could be more than a little dangerous."
Blake ignored the comment. "In the meantime, you're to say nothing to Avon. Any of you. Is that understood?"
Blank looks, then slowly, nods of ascent, Jenna's last of all. Blake wondered how long it would be before the computer expert pieced it together anyhow: none of them, himself least of all, were as adept at the art of deception as Avon was.
* * *
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