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Scratch 3: Desperate Remedies

By Susannah Shepherd
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As Avon drifted back towards consciousness, he was aware of rumbling vibrations running through his body. He idly wondered whether he'd fallen asleep in the engine bay, then realised what it was. Purring. Cat. Cat. He shot upright in his bed, dragging in a huge shuddering breath. Scratch landed on the floor with an affronted yowl as he was tumbled off the bedcovers.

" Steady on, Avon," Vila said from a chair pulled up to the bedside. He'd come in to keep an eye on the sedated man, and to defuse his anger if he figured out he'd been sedated. " You passed out on the flight deck--just exhaustion, Cally reckons. 's all right, everything's under control for the moment."

Avon fixed him with a baleful stare. " Define 'under control'," he snarled.

" Tarrant managed to convince Orac that if Zen skidded us into the nearest star, Orac's chances wouldn't be much better than ours. He's got Zen on override, and Tarrant's piloting on manual."

" It, Vila, Orac's an it," Avon said, almost absentmindedly.

" Him, it, whatever. We should be fine until Orac decides to do more animal psychology research. Huh, I've always said Orac was a performing rat in a box, no wonder he wants one back over the cat."

Now that he'd established that his favourite human wasn't about to make any more sudden moves, Scratch leapt back up on to the bunk next to Avon, sat down and began to wash himself.

A sulky frown passed across Vila's face. " It's not fair, Avon, Scratch is my cat. I rescued him, and I'm the one who feeds him."

" I can't help it if the animal shows some discernment and taste." He wasn't about to admit it to Vila or anyone else, but Avon actually quite liked having the cat about.

Scratch chose that moment to perform a manoeuvre involving a complex balancing act and one hind leg stuck high into the air. He began to lick himself enthusiastically, flaunting his tom-cat assets, to Avon's disgust and Vila's amusement.

" Then again, Vila, you and the cat appear to have a similar grasp of the social niceties."

" Admit it, you're just jealous that you can't do that." Avon shot him a foul look. " Well, I'm sure as hell jealous that I can't, and I reckon any man in the galaxy who says otherwise is lying."

" Get out. And take him with you." Vila laughed again as he swept up the disgruntled cat and headed for the door."

Avon lay back on the bed for a moment after Vila had left. " Thank you, Scratch," he murmured. " I think you may just have given me an idea."

Avon felt much better for a shower and a meal as he headed for the flight deck, his brain buzzing with tentative ideas to wrest back control of the Liberator, but his improved mood quickly evaporated when he moved to his flight position. Pinned to his seat was a blown-up holo-pic of himself, fast asleep on his bunk with a half-smile on his face, curled around a sleeping Scratch.

Dayna couldn't suppress her gurgle of laughter as Avon stood frozen, staring. He turned around to survey his smirking crew.

" Who took that?" he said in a honeyed voice which deceived no-one.

Cally had the straightest face, but laughter danced in her eyes. " We have decided to take joint responsibility for it," she announced. " Thank us all."

" What's the problem, Avon?" Tarrant broke in, his voice dripping with mocking sarcasm. " You look just lovely, all little-boyish. I never realised you had such long eyelashes." He blew him an ironic kiss, hoping to annoy the hell out of the older man. The eyes between said eyelashes narrowed.

" Very cute," Dayna confirmed. " You're very beautiful when you're unconscious, I've said so before."

Vila put the final boot in. " So irresistible," he said, " that we've already sent off a copy to 'Sentient Beings" Weekly', you know, for the Readers" Corner? It'll make a change from all those snaps of cute kids doing fetchingly stupid things. 'Rebel and Friend', we called it."

Scratch stirred himself from Zen's dome, trotted across the flight deck, and jumped up on to Avon's chair to sniff at the holo-pic and see what all the fuss was about.

" Good," Avon said in calm, even tones, pretending that the last minute or so simply hadn't happened. " I'm glad you've all been using your time productively while I have been otherwise engaged."

He turned sharply on his heel to look at the pilot, then swept his glance around the rest of the crew. " Have you come up with anything more permanent than relying on Orac's rather narrowly focused sense of self-preservation?"

" Sorry, no," Tarrant said. He gritted his teeth and added, " You're the only one here capable of reprogramming Zen. The only one outside the Alta, I seem to recall you claiming."

Avon gave him a bleak grimace of a smile, then his eyes turned away to stare into the middle distance for a moment. " I'm not sure that reprogramming is the answer, not just yet. Zen will not let me attempt any major changes." He rubbed at a swollen knuckle. " It has become a little... irrational in that regard." He spat the word out, as though it pained him greatly to ever apply the term irrational to a computer.

Scratch gave a meow from his seat on Avon's flight position, annoyed that he was being neglected by the humans. He hadn't had the same level of attention since his friend Zen had stopped playing with him, which just wasn't good enough. As he'd hoped, Avon turned to take notice of him and tickled him in that good spot just under the chin. He refused to purr, though. He had a nasty feeling that the humans had something to do with Zen's long sleep.

" Fortunately, I've had a different idea," Avon said, looking at Scratch. " Vila, fetch your field kit, I need to use some of your tools."

Vila looked for a moment as if he was going to protest at Avon's high-handed tone, but then he looked across at Zen's dimmed fascia and left. Dayna let out a huge yawn, and Avon turned to her.

" Go and sleep now, while you've got the opportunity." She left the flight deck without protesting. It had been a long few days for all of them.

Avon said nothing while he was waiting for Vila to return, but leaned on the flight console and looked at Zen with a trace of a smile playing about the corner of his mouth. Cally and Tarrant exchanged glances.

//He's up to something.// Cally telepathed. //He's got that look on his face.//

Tarrant nodded at her and gave her a toothy grin and a wink. She responded with a knowing smile. Vila then bustled back, lugging his box of tools.

" Mind telling us all what you plan to do with these?" he asked the contemplative Avon.

Avon paced down to stand in front of Zen's viewscreen, and addressed the others as if he were in a lecture room.

" It's clear to us now that when a new species activates the bonding or linkage control, whatever we want to call it, Zen reformats his interface and auto-responses to reflect that species" instincts and thought patterns. So," he said dryly, " we have a ship that thinks it's a cat."

" I think the rest of us had figured that out by ourselves," Tarrant said.

Avon flashed him an irritated look, but continued. " Now, Scratch isn't just a cat. He's a tom-cat, and proud of it. I think it's safe to assume that Zen's personality reflects that as well. Now, it's well known that male domesticated animals can be made more biddable and manageable by performing..." he gave a thoroughly evil grin, " a little surgical procedure."

He stepped over to Vila's toolbox and rummaged around for a moment, then pulled out a pair of old-fashioned bolt-cutters with herculanium-edged blades. The grin widened into an even more evil smile.

Tarrant gave an involuntary shudder, and Vila dashed to sweep up Scratch into a protective embrace. " No way," Vila said, " not on your life."

" Not the cat," Avon said with a sigh, " he's not the problem. Zen." He paused and looked hard at Tarrant. " You know, if this technique works, I may consider broadening its application. Quieter and more obedient sound like attractive qualities in a crew." He bared his teeth at Tarrant. It wasn't entirely clear whether he was smiling.

//Avon!// Cally's voice whipped angrily into his mind. //That is not funny.//

" Not to mention the decreased tendency to roam, and get distracted from the tasks at hand." Tarrant was starting to go slightly red in the face, not quite sure whether Avon was joking or just being plain malicious. It was often hard to tell.

//Avon, I mean it. I believe you and I need to talk, later.//

" You're telling me," Vila said incredulously, ignoring the tension between the other three, " that you can isolate parts of Zen's circuits that are, well, his tom-cat bits?"

" Yes, strange as it may seem," Avon said. " It became apparent to me that, when Scratch was sitting on the dome, different parts of Zen's circuits activated when Scratch was doing different things. So..."

" We've got to get the cat on the dome doing something, um, masculine?" Cally asked, not quite believing what she was hearing. She blushed, and resolutely avoided Tarrant's eyes

" Ah," Avon said with a softer smile, " you've isolated the difficult part of the plan."

The four of them sat for ages watching Scratch, who had been placed on top of the analysis dome in a soft bed made out of one of Vila's old tunics. Avon had rigged up a camera to record the cat, linked in to a diagnostic device which showed areas of circuit activity. It was clear that Zen was still running in the background, even if Orac was in control of the Liberator.

Tarrant's patience wore thin first. " How long do these creatures sleep for?" he asked with irritation. Scratch opened his eyes and looked over at the noisy person. He yawned and shook himself, then settled down again.

" Hours," Avon said, sounding almost as bored as Tarrant.

" Can't we make it do something?" the pilot added.

" Well, as we seem to be lacking a female cat in heat, probably not. Unless you are volunteering to smear the appropriate parts of Scratch with fish oil."

Cally screwed up her nose. " Avon, that's disgusting."

" Quite," he said pointedly. " Which is why I'm not volunteering."

Scratch decided then to get up for an all-over stretch, and prepared to leap off the dome. It was time for a bit of a chase around the flight deck. There were all these people sitting around doing nothing, surely he could persuade one of them to tie something to a piece of string and trail it around for him. A cat had to keep his paw in, after all. You never knew when something small, fast and edible might appear.

" Vila, stop him!" Avon hissed. " Keep him on the dome!"

" How?" Vila asked as he quickly got to his feet.

" Just do it!"

Vila started to give the cat a vigorous tickle, and Scratch responded by playfully rolling around Vila's hand and kicking at him with his back legs. There was a muffled ouch from Vila as a careless claw ripped at the base of his thumb, but he kept going manfully.

" I know!" Cally leapt to her feet and went over to join Vila. " Quick," she said, " rub his tummy up the wrong way." A light dawned in Vila's eyes and he began to rub the cat's fur against the natural nap. He got nipped for his troubles, but while Scratch was distracted, Cally did the same to the fur around his tail and flanks.

" Now let him go!" she said.

They both stood back, and Scratch gave them a vexed look. He sat down and began to reorder his ruffled fur with his tongue, deliberately and comprehensively. The four humans all watched with bated breath.

" Yes!" Avon whispered triumphantly as Scratch finished his ablutions by rocking back awkwardly to clean those hard-to-reach places. The cat then gave them all another aloof, disdainful look and jumped down from the dome. He stalked stiffly across the flight deck, ignoring them all, and started to lap at the bowl of synth-milk in the corner.

Avon replayed the recording of the cat and the circuit sensors, and isolated a detailed schematic diagram. " There," he said, " that part of the circuit only activates when the cat..."

" Yes, we get the picture," Cally said.

Avon went to the cupboard in which Orac had been hidden, and carried the computer out to the pit.

" Orac," he said, " I want you to analyse this diagram, and tell me whether you can suspend auto-repair should I disconnect that section of circuitry."

" Of course I can," Orac huffed. " I must tell you that your extended demands on my time are delaying valuable research."

" Later, Orac," Avon broke in. " If I disconnect these circuits, will it endanger the survival of the ship or the crew?"

" No, they serve no vital function. I must insist that you resume control of this vessel yourselves, and allow me to get on with tasks more fitting to my capabilities!"

" If you recall, Orac," Tarrant said smoothly, " last time Zen was in control, he put us in a tight slingshot orbit around a star."

" And it was an opportunity for gathering much valuable data concerning the performance of this vessel under stress!" Orac responded. " Really, the solution to this problem should not be beyond your admittedly puny human intellectual capabilities. Now kindly leave me to get on with my work! I shall resume control if the navigational computers show imminent danger."

" Five minutes, Orac," Avon said, looking put out at Orac's assessment of his problem-solving skills. " Give me five minutes, suspend the auto-repair where indicated, and then you may relinquish control of the ship."

" Oh, very well," Orac grumbled, and Avon pulled out the key.

" Right," Avon said. " Time to work quickly. We may have to dispense with some of the niceties." He went to his tool locker and pulled out a pair of thick silicone gloves and an insulated foot mat. " No time to isolate the circuits properly."

Tarrant had ripped off the bulkhead panelling and found the right part of the circuits for Avon. " Are you sure about this?" he asked.

" I have to do something before I can start reprogramming," he responded. " Now get out of the way, all of you." He pulled on the gloves, stood on the mat, and made one last check of the schematics. He picked up the bolt-cutters and bent over.

+NOOOOOO!+ Zen boomed, his lights flashing brightly and erratically. There was a bright blue flash, and a ball of energy hit Avon square in the chest. He crumpled to the deck, and there was a loud clatter as the bolt-cutters went flying across the floor.

Cally dashed to his side and skidded to her knees. " It's all right," she said, " he's still breathing. He's only stunned."

" Shouldn't have tried to do it without any anaesthetic, Avon," Vila said, shaking his head.

Cally stroked Avon's hair back from his forehead with a gentle hand, and looked up at Tarrant. " You're right, you know. He has got long eyelashes, hasn't he?" She sighed. " Oh well, it would have been a good idea if it had worked. I think I'd better sedate him again, he needs more sleep if we're going to get this situation fixed. Vila, Tarrant..."

The two men hefted Avon once again, but this time Scratch stayed curled up on the flight deck sofa. Dayna, refreshed after her sleep, passed them as they left. She went over and fondled the cat's ears until the other three returned.

" All this reminds me of an old joke," Vila said as they all sat down on the sofa for a moment's respite.

" There's this bloke, you see, and he buys this camel. Problem is, it's a stroppy camel, won't do what it's told. So he asks around all the other camel owners, and they all tell him that he's got to get the camel fixed. They give him the name of this camel fixer, so he goes to see him, but he just about faints when he finds out what it's going to cost. Still, he doesn't see he's got much choice, the camel just won't obey him, so he pays up. The next day, the camel fixer comes around, carrying this pricey-looking shiny metal case. 'Okay,' the camel owner thinks, 'he must need some expensive equipment to do this job, perhaps that's why it costs so much'. The two of them, they get the camel all tied down so it can't bite or kick, and the camel fixer goes round the back end of the camel with his case. The owner's curious, he follows him, and when the case is opened up he's amazed to see that there's nothing inside but these two old bricks. The camel fixer stands behind the camel, picks up the bricks and hefts them, one in each hand, and the owner's horrified as he realises what he's going to do with them. 'My God,' he says to the camel fixer, 'doesn't that hurt?' The camel fixer looks at him and says...," Vila paused for a beat before his punch-line.

" 'Not unless I forget to get my thumbs out of the way.' "

Tarrant groaned, and Cally just looked at the grinning man with a faint air of disbelief.

" What's fixing mean?" Dayna asked, puzzled. " And what's a camel?"

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Susannah Shepherd

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