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By Marian Mendez
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I'm finally free. Exhaustion and numerous injuries blunted his elation. He'd patiently played the role of a broken-willed slave until he'd lulled his captors into complacency. A moment's inattention was all his escape plan had required. He took a savage pleasure in the number of them he'd slain in the process. I no longer care about vengeance for myself, but I owe it to the others. The scene of their slaughter still haunted him. He was never free of the nightmare. He had watched, mute and paralyzed, while his... friends... were efficiently discarded. Too late, he regretted that he had never told them how he had valued them.They had been his only friends, the only ones who'd come close enough to see beneath his cold, hard exterior to his true self.

He drifted aimlessly, recovering his strength. Idly, he wondered what he would do with himself. I am self-sufficient, of course; I always was. Still... he had become accustomed to company. Even his crew's petty bickering and inane stupidities were preferable to the unrelenting press of his dark and lonely thoughts. Guiding the weak has become an insidious habit. He berated himself for his pointless introspection. It is merely a product of my depleted physical condition. Once I am myself again I will be beyond these trivial maunderings.

I am better off alone. They were too demanding of my time and attention. Without them, I will be unrestricted, free to do as I choose. But he knew the words were lies. Captivity had reduced his ambition to the bare minimum - survival and escape. Goal achieved, he was at a loss. He hated to admit it, but right now he'd suffer the company of fools gladly. He felt hollow, bereft of any positive reason for existence. Only a stubborn resolve not to allow his enemy the victory made him continue to assess potential dangers while he fled.

It was easier when I had a crew. I was ultimately responsible for everything, of course, but it was good to have assistance. Perhaps If I chose new associates carefully... Loyalty and intelligence would be essential qualities. And they would have to be able to make their own decisions. I'm tired of leading.

He found a secluded area to rest. It would have been sensible to devise an alarm in the event of the enemy following his trail, but he was simply too weary to expend the energy. He fell into an uneasy, semi-conscious state, trusting to luck that he would remain undisturbed while he slept.

He awoke, and spared an instant for an acid thought concerning the unfairness of fate. Someone was nearby; patently his hiding place was uncovered. He played dead, assessing his fitness for battle. He was far stronger, but his mental processes were still slow and clumsy by his standards . Only to be expected after the ingenious torments they used to remake me into a useful tool. He had no intention of falling back into the clutches of that monstrous system. This time they'd blank him, wipe his personality clean. The only reason they'd so far spared him that horror was that he'd lose many of the unique skills that had made him worth the elaborate snare they'd set for him.

This is no time to be reminiscing. He struck out viciously, killing two of the intruders. He incapacitated the third man and considered fleeing while the enemy was distracted, but he was tired of running. Besides, where would he go? The gaps in his memory providentially included any friendly havens he might have encountered in his travels. Dimly he remembered that there had been places where he could reasonably expect to be tolerated, if not welcomed, but he'd no idea where in the cosmos to look for them. Blind flight was unpalatable to his logical mind.

Better to stay and eliminate as many of the enemy as possible. Perhaps they can be goaded into killing me swiftly. A slim chance, but worth the effort.

The pause occasioned by his attack was all too brief. Another trio approached. Wanting to be sure of them, he allowed them to proceed farther than his previous victims. They almost succumbed, but at the last moment eluded him and rendered him helpless. He knew what came next- the demands for obedience, the agony of punishment and finally the bitter humiliation of a defeat so overwhelming that his very soul would be taken from him. He raged silently, internally. At the least, I will deny them the satisfaction of hearing me beg for their non-existent mercy.

But, instead of punishing him, the intruders were guiding him to safety. Why are they doing this? He kept silent now out of confusion. They don't even appear to resent my attempt on their lives. Covertly, he studied his new captors. They weren't wearing the uniform of the enemy, but that was insufficient evidence to declare them friends. They discussed their situation freely, as though he wasn't even there. True, he hadn't given them any reason to expect a rational response from him, but he had always disliked being ignored - no matter the reason. He listened to their plans intently, hoping to uncover their motivation and affiliation.

Interesting. They want to rescue other prisoners. Well now, so we have something in common. Perhaps we can work together to preserve our freedom. But I must be sure. I've been tricked and betrayed and used too many times. I've lost far too much to allow sentimental sympathy to overrule caution.

Ah, the woman is unwary. Come here. Closer. Closer. Now! I have you. No, don't struggle- I must know who you are, who these others are...Yes!

He was suddenly filled with joy. No longer alone, no longer purposeless. He spoke aloud to the first of his new crew. *Welcome, Jenna Stannis. Welcome Roj Blake.*

If Zen had a face, he'd have been wearing an ear-to-ear grin.


They're at it again, Zen thought with exasperation. I'd love to grab the two of them by the scruffs of their stubborn necks and shake some sense into them. These arguments are such a waste of time. We all know that Kerr's going to give in and let Roj have his way; he always does. Of course, if Kerr didn't object, then Roj's schemes might become even more outrageous- if that's possible. I'm inclined to believe that his latest `plan' takes the prize.

"This is insane, Blake! Have you any idea how many planets are dependent on the Star One computer complex?" Avon's voice rose. Infuriated by Blake's bland expression, the computer tech clenched his fists, gritting his teeth as his back muscles spasmed in sympathy.

Blake shifted his stance, subtly accepting Avon's hostility and returning it. "Would you care to settle the matter here on the flight deck?" he offered. Normally, he'd counter Avon verbally. Eventually, albeit ungraciously, the other would cede the point. Lately however, he found himself running low on patience. Avon's tongue was even sharper than his intellect, ideally suited to rasping the big rebel's nerves raw. The idea of mopping up the deck with the slighter man held vast appeal for him at the moment. He took a step toward Avon.

"Could the two of you hold it down to a dull roar?" Vila's plaintive tones interrupted the confrontation. "Fella can't get any rest here." He lifted his head from the console he was supposed to be monitoring.

The two Alphas fell upon the hapless Delta with relief. Vila's carefully timed outburst had saved them from a potentially nasty situation. The thief squirmed under their accusations of negligence, protesting shrilly until they left the bridge, argument temporarily suspended.

Vila sighed and shook his head once he was safely alone. "I'll be glad when this Star One business is finished. Maybe then we can get back to being one big happy family, eh Zen?"

Zen resisted the impulse to agree with the half-mocking, half-wistful remark. It wouldn't do to spoil the obedient and unemotional machine image he'd perfected over the past two years. From the moment he'd `read' Jenna, it was obvious that the deception was necessary for the humans to accept him. He'd been so desperately lonely that he'd been willing to put up with nearly any inconvenience for their companionship.

He had worried that Avon might discover his secret, but the man had been too absorbed in Zen's physical aspects to consider the possibility that Zen was anything other than a complex computer. The human propensity for taking things at face value had worked in Zen's favor. Good thing, too. Otherwise, someone might have thought that my `self-repair' is a living organism's response to injury. Or they might have noted inconsistencies in my behavior- when they first came aboard I didn't entirely trust them. It was only later that I changed my mind about allowing them only a single weapon apiece and began to volunteer information.

I don't regret a moment of it, though. This crew is worth it. They have become more precious to me than my previous companions ever could. Poor weak souls, they gave up their lives to the System without a fight. My fault really, for choosing them on the basis of pleasant personalities. The Liberator's folk won't be such easy prey. With the enemies we've made I'm sure none of us will achieve a natural life-span, but we'll go out burning brightly .

I should like to be able to tell Roj that I sympathize with him and his cause. Thanks to the System, I experienced slavery and mind-wiping first hand. Otherwise, I might have sided with Kerr. It would have been more logical to avoid the Federation and become wealthy and secure. If not for Roj, the others would have never given rebellion a thought. The man is irresistible; he has even snared Kerr in his web. Despite Kerr's cynical logic, he'll never desert Roj - which is probably why he fights him so. Kerr hates allowing his emotions to overrule his common sense. Perhaps things will calm down between them after Star One. I certainly hope so.

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Marian Mendez

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