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Scratch

By Susannah Shepherd
Page 1 of 2

Dayna tensed and froze as something unfamiliar teased at the edge of her senses. She stopped, standing on one foot with effortless balance, and concentrated hard. There it was again, a faint but insistent scratching at her cabin door. She relaxed a little, finished pulling on her pyjamas, and stole to the door on silent bare feet.

"Vila, if that's you, I'm going to break both your arms, and then..." She'd spoken loudly enough for her words to carry through the door, but her voice trailed away completely as she opened it and stepped out into the corridor.

There was no-one there. There was no way Vila could have disappeared in time; the corridor was long and straight, and would echo to the sound of fleeing feet. A flash of movement at the corner of her eye had Dayna spinning about, ready to fight, but she had only the sense of something disappearing pale and wraith-like around the distant corner.

Dayna darted back into her room to grab the small gun she always kept handy by her bed, then set off in pursuit of the mysterious creature. She didn't let the little misgivings at the back of her mind grow any bigger, not yet. There shouldn't be anything non-human traipsing the Liberator's halls, wraith-like or not.

She moved along the corridor with the grace and stealth of a panther, her natural hunter's instincts roused to the chase. As she reached the corner, she readied herself then glided around it in one fluid movement, weapon at the ready. Nothing but empty space.

This time, the noise she heard was a faint shuffling, once again tantalising at the edge of her range of hearing. She shivered involuntarily. Something was out there, moving, and moving stealthily. Almost slithering. Dayna swallowed hard and gripped her gun a little more tightly.

This section of passageway was shorter, and ended in a T-junction. Which way to go next... left towards the flight deck or right down to the cargo hold? Flight deck, she decided. At least that way, she might find some support if things got tricky.

She took one deep breath to steady herself, then swung around the corner with weapon braced.

"Aaaahhhh!" A terrified Vila took one look at the brandished weapon and hit the floor, landing with his nose almost up against Dayna's bare toes. "Dayna, you maniac, what are you doing?!"

"Vila, I'm sorry," she said, leaning down and pulling him back to his feet. He did look very pale and shaken, she could feel his arms trembling. But she couldn't help thinking that he'd had a very furtive look on his face, as though she'd caught him up to something rather than simply scared him witless.

"So it was you!" she said, landing only a half-friendly punch on his upper arm.

"Ow!" he complained. "What was me, I haven't been doing anything, honest!" The protest was a routine one, and Dayna didn't set much store by it.

"Trying to break into my cabin, that's what!"

His expression moved from pained outrage to puzzled consideration. "No, Dayna, that wasn't me. Not this time."

Somehow, she believed him. His false denials were usually more elaborate. Dayna suppressed another shiver.

"Then what was scratching at my cabin door?"

"You thought you heard something scratching at your door?" Vila looked a little worried then shook his head. "Nah, take it from an old space-hand like me, it was just the ship creaking or something. You know what these old buckets are like."

"Old bucket? The Liberator?" Dayna's tone was cutting. "I did hear it. There was definitely something there, when I went out I saw it."

Vila's eyes widened a little. "What did you see? What did you see!"

"I didn't get a clear look, just a sense of something disappearing. Small, pale..." She thought back. "Fluid movement."

"You're imagining things." He eyed her over and flashed her a leer. "Tell you what, why don't you let me tuck you into bed, then I'll go back and look for the nasty monster."

"No thank you."

"All right then, I'll tuck you up and stay to check you don't have nightmares." The leer turned into an amused smirk, as Vila took a closer look at the baby-pink flannelette pyjamas, complete with floral pattern. "After all, Vila's widdle girl looks like she wants a bedtime story."

That earned him another punch on the arm.

"I'm going to find Avon. Come on." Dayna strode off, leaving Vila to follow in her wake.

Avon was at his accustomed place on the flight deck when Dayna marched in. He looked up, annoyed at first by the interruption, but he too couldn't suppress a grin at the sight of the armed and distinctly dangerous Dayna Mellanby clad in her girlish night-clothes.

"Don't you start," she warned. "What's wrong with them? I had a pair like this on Sarran."

"Well then, it's lucky you weren't wearing them while I was there, or I'd definitely have left you behind." She scowled, and he saw that she wasn't in the mood for any more of his deprecating wit. "So why are you upset enough to be charging around the ship armed and half-dressed?"

"I heard someone--or something--trying to break into my cabin."

Avon turned smoothly to look at Vila with one raised eyebrow.

"No, not me." His succinct and no-nonsense answer also seemed to satisfy Avon.

"And it wasn't one of the others, either," Dayna added, "I'd have seen them."

"Perhaps you were simply imagining things in the dark, then."

That did make Dayna explode, and she struggled not to stamp her foot in frustration. "Avon, I am not a five-year-old imagining monsters under the bed! I saw it, running down the corridor."

Avon turned to face the ship's computer. "Zen, Dayna suspects that there is an unidentified creature aboard the ship. Report status."

It seemed to Dayna as though there was an infinitesimally longer than normal pause before Zen reported, +There are no unauthorised life-forms aboard the Liberator.+

Vila let out a sigh of relief beside her. "Satisfied?" he asked.

"No," she repeated stubbornly. "It was real." She shuddered slightly. "I mean, if it was an alien, would Zen necessarily pick it up?" That comment made Avon's eyes turn suddenly thoughtful.

"Or," Dayna pressed on, barely daring to say the words, "something not alive..."

"You are certain of what you saw?" Avon's question was softly spoken.

"Yes," she replied, equally calmly, and he nodded his head in acknowledgement.

"Very well. We'll fetch Cally first, then go looking." He paused on the way out to belt on a hand-gun, and tossed another to Vila, who juggled it a couple of times before finally grasping it. Avon flashed a humourless smile at his crew-mates. "Just in case."

Avon and Dayna moved quickly through the Liberator's passages, ever alert for the slightest hint of danger. Vila followed several paces behind them, looking considerably more nervous.

They were nearing Cally's cabin when their journey was halted by a high-pitched cry, the sound of a woman in distress.

"Cally!" Dayna cried, and all three of them covered the rest of the distance at a sprint. Avon was the first to slam his hand on the cabin door release, but it failed to open for him.

"Locked!" he hissed, and Vila pushed his way wordlessly past to begin his work. His fingers flew over the controls, and it was only a few seconds before the door slid open. Avon and Dayna had situated themselves one on each side, and on Avon's silent nod they burst through, weapons levelled.

Vila, following a prudent distance behind, heard Avon's sudden intake of breath and Dayna's muffled cry. He closed his eyes, fearing what was in there, then opened them again even wider as Cally screamed more loudly.

"What the..." Avon's voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper. An uncharacteristic compulsion took hold of Vila's feet and led him to brush past the stock-still man to see what was happening. His eyes were drawn to stare in the same direction as Avon's and Dayna's. He too gasped, struck dumb by shock.

Cally lay sprawled back on her bunk, half-pinned to it by a naked and clearly spent Tarrant. He was only just starting to stir again as Cally snatched at the sheet to pull over them both, and started to shout at Avon.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, bursting in like that!" she railed at him.

Avon's voice was dead calm as he spoke to her, reflecting the control he had regained over his features. "We heard you cry out."

Tarrant rolled over and spoke, his face flushed but combative. "And it took all three of you to check?" he panted.

Avon turned his cool gaze on Tarrant. "I was under the impression that I had sent you to test the changes we made to the retro-thrust systems. I was expecting it to be done by the end of the shift." He made a theatrical show of checking his watch. "You have ninety minutes."

Tarrant flushed even brighter, but bit down his answer. He looked around, suddenly realising only a sheet separated him from the others. Vila, recognising the source of his distress, picked up his trousers from the floor and threw them to him. Tarrant wriggled into them under the sheets, gave Cally a defiant kiss on the cheek, and slid out of bed. He gathered up his clothes, and Vila and Dayna parted to let him leave the room in silence, his head held high.

Cally's voice was dangerously controlled as she sat up and spoke to Avon, although her eyes flashed fire. "You have still given me no explanation."

"Dayna's seen a ghost," Vila chipped in cheerfully, but he shut up again as Avon gave him a full-wattage glare.

"Dayna saw something that tried to break into her cabin, but Zen says that there are no other life-forms on board," Avon confirmed.

Cally's eyes glittered even more and her lips set in a tight line. "So, Avon, you assumed that I was the source of the problem?"

"Cally, that's not what I thought." His voice had softened, and he took a step towards her.

"Time to leave, I think," Vila whispered in Dayna's ear, and took her by the arm to lead her into the corridor.

"Vila..." she complained, but he held up a finger to silence her and bent to listen at the closed door.

"...desirable man, Avon, and available. I'm not made of stone, unlike some..."

Both of them managed to step away quickly before the door eased open again and Avon stepped out. Vila could read nothing from his face, but his voice was clipped. "She'll meet us on the flight deck in five minutes."

Cally acted as though nothing untoward had happened when she joined them soon after. "So, Dayna, you saw something? But Zen can find no life signs?" Dayna nodded.

"You have proved yourself better than Zen at sensing certain alien entities, and I don't trust Orac to interact with them," Avon said in what might almost have been a compliment. "Is there anything on board the ship?"

Cally took a seat on the sofa in the pit, and leaned back. "I'll try," she said, "but ideally I need to be more relaxed." She fired another slightly annoyed glance at Avon, which he ignored. She closed her eyes and rested her fingers on her temples, while the others watched her in silence.

"Maybe," she said slowly, "maybe there is something... I can feel what might be another consciousness, but I can't get a fix on it." She fell silent again, and her breathing slowed until it was barely perceptible.

"Yes," she whispered, "there is something here. I can sense it because it has..." Her eyes snapped open, and they were filled with worry. "It has bonded with one of us, or tried to. It's seeking someone!"

"Who?" Avon asked, a slight huskiness in his voice the only indication that the scenario might just be worrying him.

"I can't tell," Cally said, and four pairs of eyes swung around the pit, each looking the others over distrustfully for any signs of alien possession.

"I'll try again."


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Susannah Shepherd

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