Scratch 3: The Nightmare ContinuesBy Susannah Shepherd
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came down on to the flight deck with some trepidation. Tarrant, haggard and
dishevelled in the pilot's seat, signalled at her to be quiet, and she
She wondered whether Avon had moved at all since she'd left, many hours ago, to get some sleep. He was still half-wedged under the panels which housed some of Zen's key circuits, and his tools were scattered untidily around him on the floor. Among them was a small regenerator, its recharge light blinking insistently. Oh dear.
Dayna made up the rest of the flight deck complement, Vila having prudently decided to make himself useful elsewhere. She looked as tired as the rest, leaning against the console beneath Zen's display, where Scratch lay curled up asleep around the base of the analysis dome. They'd discovered the cat was a pretty good mirror of Zen's moods when in such close proximity. She petted the cat lightly with one hand while the other played Avon's tickler gadget across the dome. Cally went to her side and Dayna gave her a grateful smile as Cally took over cat-pacification duties.
Avon pushed himself out carefully from Zen's circuitry, and Cally was worried by his appearance. His face was drawn and ashen, the paleness broken only by the dark smudges beneath his tired eyes. She hadn't seen him looking this bad since the Andromedan War. The only proper rest he'd had in the last three days was the bit he'd snatched when he fell asleep under the casing out of sheer exhaustion.
Avon nodded to Tarrant, and the pilot readied himself. "Cally, tickle the dome," Avon said hoarsely, and Cally obeyed. Scratch woke up and rolled over, and Cally started to tease him as well with her free hand.
"Now, Tarrant!" Avon's whisper carried across the flight deck.
"Switching to manual," Tarrant confirmed in a low voice. Zen's screen flickered for a moment, then Tarrant relaxed and spoke a little louder. "I have manual control."
Avon dived back under the housing and worked frantically with a laser probe for a few moments. He emerged again looking a little less tense. "Right, let's see if the bypass holds this time."
"Changing course back to the original," Tarrant said as he manipulated the controls. Dayna sat beside him, helping to re-plot the course. It was going to be quite a task to get themselves back on track for the Pacorex system.
They'd already tried using the link panel, of course. While Avon and Tarrant had been arguing over whose ship it was and who should do it, Cally had stepped in and tried it herself. There was no response to any of them, and Cally had suggested that the ship would only bond with one crew-member at a time. Tarrant had responded with a terse proposal involving the airlock and the cat, but had shut up as Vila started to wail and he received a loud telepathic rebuke.
Avon had gone over to Orac while they were arguing and asked the computer to start an urgent search for Jenna Stannis. It was a measure of how bad things were, Cally thought, if Avon was actively looking for Jenna. Tarrant didn't look too happy with the prospect, either. But Avon was right, Zen--the old Zen--might just respond to her.
Once he'd given Orac its orders, Avon's face turned grim and he advanced on Zen. He'd received his first burn before he even got the unit open. At that point it became a battle of wills, and as Avon swore and sucked his fingers for the umpteenth time, Cally handed him the small regenerator from the flight deck first-aid kit.
The next day, Zen's forward sensors had picked up an asteroid belt. It had been quite a ride for the Liberator crew as the ship streaked across space at standard-by-ten and slewed into the middle of the formation. They'd had to endure several minutes of barrel-rolls through the asteroids and wild and gleeful firing of the neutron blasters before an impact had knocked them back into open space. The brief respite had allowed Avon to unplaster himself from the flight deck floor and manually activate the force wall and grav stabilisers before they plunged back into the fray again. Then, almost as suddenly as they'd started, the ship rolled back into the void and Zen shut down all systems except life support, auto-repair and the sensors. They'd drifted for several hours, unable to get any response at all.
It was at about that time that Avon's eyes had taken on a slightly wild glitter, and he'd started to grip his laser probe tight enough to make his knuckles whiten. Cally cut down the amount of adrenaline she was putting in his adrenaline-and-soma.
"Come on, Avon," Tarrant had said as Zen continued to do nothing but give Avon the odd electrostatic nip when Avon tried to wake him up, "we should just get Orac to override Zen and relay all our commands through it."
"No!" Avon hissed, his eyes narrowing in a way that made even Tarrant nervous. "I will get this computer back online and obedient. After all, I am only up against a machine and something with a brain the size of Vila's."
"No wonder you're having trouble, then," Vila replied from the doorway. "Really, Avon, you shouldn't underestimate cats. Look at who does all the work on this ship, and who lies around all day sleeping." His reflexes were fast enough to get him away before the pliers came flying in his direction.
Tarrant had consulted Orac anyway, when the faint snoring from under the console made it clear that Avon wouldn't be disturbing him for a bit. The little computer had been placed in a cupboard at its own insistence after Scratch had batted delightedly at the flashing lights along its sides and then tried to climb into the casing to explore them in more detail.
Orac hadn't been much help. "Fascinating!" it kept repeating, as Tarrant first asked and then ordered it to find a way to override the link between Scratch and Zen. "Shut me down," the imperious voice ordered. "I wish to investigate this phenomenon in greater detail."
Tarrant fumed, but pulled the key. The damned thing only ever listened to Avon. He shuddered as he remembered the last time Orac had decided it wanted to investigate interesting phenomena in more detail. They'd been lucky to get out of that one alive.
Scratch chose that moment to jump down from Zen's dome on to floor, via Avon's prone body. Tarrant heard Avon's pained forced exhalation, followed by the crash of skull against the inside of the casing. He correctly surmised that the cat had landed somewhere painful, and looked over his console to see Avon rolling on the floor, one hand clutched to his forehead while the other cradled his groin.
Scratch was sniffing curiously at Avon, and Tarrant felt a moment's trepidation. True, he'd suggested spacing the thing, but Cally and Dayna seemed fond of it, and he didn't want to see Avon rip it limb from limb. If nothing else, it had entertainment value when it was doing things like that to Avon.
Tarrant was rather surprised when, a few minutes later, Scratch nudged his nose into the computer expert's ribs and Avon's hand snaked out, not to strangle the cat, but to fondle it while he worked. It might be sensible to pretend he hadn't seen that gesture.
"Manual course set for the Pacorex system, speed standard-by-six," Tarrant announced in triumph.
"Yes!" Dayna said, punching the air in delight. "Well done, Avon!"
Avon didn't celebrate quite so quickly, but he did push himself to sit upright, his arms draped around his knees. He looked up at Zen's fascia, now completely dim, and allowed himself the indulgence of a faint smile. Scratch jumped down from the dome again and gave an annoyed meow, but soon started to purr as Avon reached out absentmindedly to stroke his ears.
Both man and cat jumped as a loud bang came from the area Avon had just been working on, and a plume of smoke billowed outwards. They all heard the faint whine as the Liberator's drives powered up and the ship started to accelerate, and Zen's fascia started flashing erratically again.
"No," Avon moaned, "no, no, no..." He fell back on the floor, groaning.
"Zen, give me forward visuals!" Tarrant shouted. For once, Zen complied right away. He didn't mind showing off his hunting skills.
"A comet," Dayna cried. "He's found a comet!"
Down on the floor, Avon started to laugh. It progressed quickly from maniacal to hysterical, and all but drowned out the sound of him banging his head against the decking. Just as Cally reached him, his eyes rolled upwards into his head and he fell limp.
"He's only fainted," Cally said, checking him quickly. Scratch jumped on to Avon's chest, curled up, and began to wash himself.
Vila had reappeared as Liberator reared out of control again, and Cally sighed as she spoke to him. "Vila, Tarrant, can you carry him to his cabin? I'll sedate him for a while."
"Come on, Scratch, off you get." Vila tried to brush the cat off the unconscious man, but he refused to budge. "Oh, all right, then, if you insist," Vila said.
As the two men grabbed Avon by the wrists and feet and lifted him from the flight deck, his head lolling, Scratch dug his claws into Avon's leather tunic and went along for the ride.
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