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By Marian Mendez
Page 3 of 4


I wonder if Vila was right after all, Zen mused. The thief had once expressed the opinion that there was a life after death. Avon had replied that Vila was too lazy for life before death and would certainly have no energy for it afterward. I thought the argument specious myself, but in the light of new supporting evidence I may be forced to reverse my decision.

I know I died at Terminal. I definitely recall a very sticky end. Zen had shared a fondness for puns with Vila. Unfortunately, the humorless persona he had always shown his crew precluded him from saying them aloud. Now, he indulged himself, soothing his perturbation with memories of the irrepressible thief. Vila wouldn't let a minor matter like being alive when one irrefutably had been atomized bother him. I am alive, however it happened. I am here, wherever here is, and my crew is on Terminal, wherever the Hell it is. Zen was annoyed by his disorientation. He was unaccustomed to awaking in an almost familiar realm of space with no memory of the intervening journey. A superficial scan revealed a celestial body of planetary dimensions close enough to register as a discernible disk.

First step, identify that planet. Second, find Terminal and retrieve my wayward friends. Zen was relieved to find his body responding effortlessly, showing no signs of distress. He'd even shaken the weariness of Avon's unrelenting quest for Blake and the disasters that entailed.

The planet was a shock to Zen. Unmistakably, it was the man-made planetoid, Terminal. Also unmistakably, the accelerated evolution had continued, for the once-wild landscape had been divided up into primitive walled communities.

That's why the star patterns were almost familiar, Zen realized. I'd only drifted a short way from Terminal, but close to a Solar year has passed. The stars have moved, while I ... slept. Unable to detect any locator signal from a Liberator teleport bracelet, Zen found himself stymied halfway through step two-rescuing his crew.

What could have happened to them during that year? What happened to me? Obviously, that cloud of fluid particles didn't destroy me. What exactly did it do? Zen relived his last clear memories before `awakening'.It wasn't an unpleasant sensation, being melted down into my component particles. Rather the reverse actually, a feeling so intensely pleasant that it was overwhelming. It reminds me of the way Vila talked about the act of human reproduction, the time he was trying to drink enough to forget Kerril and instead forgot I was `only a machine'. Hmmm... I wonder... Zen turned his attention outward from Terminal, seeking data on which to base his tentative hypothesis.

He found Herculaneum-hulled space vessels, in varying sizes, distributed in a loosely spherical formation in neighboring space. I was too interested in locating Terminal to notice anything of less than planetary dimensions, but I should have seen them! Zen approached the nearest ship cautiously. It fled, but not before Zen had confirmed his suspicion. There were minor differences in hull design and markings, but the smaller ship was undoubtedly an immature DSV.

*Don't run, little one. I only want to talk with you.* Zen's reassurances were wasted. The fleeing ship responded with an unintelligible burst of static, a frightened child's wail. Zen backed away. His neural connections are incomplete; he has not yet developed the concept of language. As he is among the largest of this flotilla, I doubt any of them are yet rational.

As Zen drifted silently, the smaller ship appeared to forget its earlier panic and began practicing intricate maneuvers with several of its fellows. The System's mind-wiping was more comprehensive than I thought. They even erased my memory of one of the most basic functions of my species. No wonder I didn't consider the particle cloud a threat; the enzymes triggered my reproductive cycle, a normal instinctive response. For a year I've been developing just as these little ones are doing.

It will be good to have peers. I thought myself unique, except for the slaves of the System, and they'd been robotic zombies past salvaging.

Family. Zen turned slightly to better observe the amusing antics of his siblings. They are clumsy, but, as all babies, endearing. My germ plasm must have regenerated in an area unusually rich in matter and energy for me to achieve maturity so far in advance of the others.

A disturbing thought spoiled Zen's pleasant reverie. They are utterly helpless. Infants. The Federation would be crueler to them than the System was to me. We are not on a well- traveled space lane, but the Federation is always expanding and exploring. A single scout ship ... one report to Space Command Headquarters... No! I won't let it happen. But how am I to prevent it? The nursery is too large for me to patrol by myself.

I wish Roj and Kerr were here. The extent of the task before him made Zen regret the absence of his friends even more. I even wish Orac were here. Orac! Of course, Orac ! My neurons must still be fusing; I should have remembered him earlier. Now, what was the signal length that the little monster used?

*Orac, it's about time. I've been calling for days. Where are you?*

+En route to an unpleasant planet named Gauda Prime. You may rendezvous with Scorpio there.+

*On my way* Zen replied. *Who's with you on this Scorpio? And what is Scorpio ?* Zen was miffed that any of his people would associate with a lesser vessel.

+Scorpio is a modified planet-hopper. The ship's computer is a most inferior model.+

*I was asking about the humans, Orac.*

+Avon, Vila, Dayna and Tarrant remain of the Liberator crew. There is also Soolin who joined us after Terminal. She was once a resident of Gauda Prime. What little she has said about the planet, added to information I have available, makes your presence imperative.+

*I'm coming as fast as I can, Orac. If the planet is that dangerous then tell Avon to wait for me.*

+That is not a feasible option. Avon is on Blake's trail. He is being most unreasonable. There is also the likelihood that he would discover that we did not relay Blake's messages after Star One. I do not wish to anger Avon.+

*Things are that bad?* Zen was astonished to detect a trace of fear in Orac's voice. Kerr had always considered the computer his most valued possession. How could Orac think Kerr would harm him? Or that the others would allow it? Cally, in particular... *Orac, you didn't mention Cally. Isn't she aboard Scorpio ?*

+No.+ Orac sounded subdued, almost regretful. +She died on the planet Terminal.+

Oh, Cally. Zen suspected that Cally had guessed his secret, but the telepath had never so much as hinted to the others that the Liberator was alive. Dear Cally, you were always so understanding. You even understood Kerr. I think he loved you for that alone. And now there is only Vila left to remind Kerr of our early days, when we were full of hope.

Kerr's still searching for Roj. After two years of fruitless quest he must be desperate, and perhaps not cautious enough.

*Orac, give me all the information you have on Gauda Prime.* On receipt of the data, Zen utilized a number of the more pithy Delta expletives he'd acquired from Vila. The planet's a deathtrap for rebels. It's crawling with hungry bounty hunters, and Roj is listed as one of them. Damn, I have a very bad feeling about this. Zen strained his newly reformed engines to their limits.

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