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A Matter of Time

By Maryclare Mabon
Page 1 of 1

He didn't look in the mirror too closely these days. It paid to apply depil cream by sight as well as touch, but he concentrated on his bristles. There always were a few people that it was hard to look in the eye, and he counted his own self among them now. Besides, the last dregs of vanity didn't much like that balding, gaunt, old man that looked back. Too much time had passed, and not much was left.

He made his way out of the personal quarters, moving carefully. The best medicines only toned down the pain, but as long as he could finish the project he didn't care. With slow dignity he walked to his office, acknowledging the greetings of staff. The Anathi were such a polite people and so quiet, not to mention big. Vila had rather liked them, found their quiet politeness and burly presences a reminder of Gan.

(He walked through the corridors, exploring this marvellous ship. He was blasť about the glory of it all in front of the others, but he liked to wander sometimes when he couldn't sleep, just touching things. He heard voices up ahead, passing clearly though the hexagonal openings that were cut in some partitions, and stopped. He usually moved quietly, and it didn't seem that whoever it was had heard him. He went a little closer. The first voice was Vila, which meant the other was probably Gan. The small idiot and the big idiot, as he called them privately.

"I just feel a bit strange about it. Actually, I feel a bit sick. I never killed anybody before. Always managed to run away before it came to that."

Why am I not surprised? Avon thought.

"It's not a good thing, I know, Vila." Gan's voice, in a soothing tone that no one had used on Avon since he was ten.

"That's the truth."

"Look at it this way, Vila. You killed, but you did it to defend somebody else. He was going to kill Blake. It's not as if that man on Cygnus was helpless, or unarmed. Sometimes you have to do things to survive, or to help others to survive. It's killing, true, but I don't know if it's murder. I suppose it's a fine line, and I'm probably not the best person to talk to you about this."

"Gan, you are absolutely the best person to talk to about this. All this heart to heart has made me thirsty. There must be something drinkable on a ship this size, and it might settle my stomach. Let's go look."

They headed away from Avon, which was good. He liked people to know that they never knew when he might be around, but he wasn't in the mood for the confrontation that usually resulted when he found out what he wasn't supposed to. He had wrestled with Vila's dilemma himself, but hadn't needed another person to help him come to Gan's conclusion. It's killing, but it's not murder. You do what you have to. He discovered a touch of common feeling - and with those two, of all people.)

He felt a twist of sickness at the memory. Because there were so many idiots left dead behind, and the worst idiot of all was still living and not looking back at him from the mirror every morning.

The project senior staff were waiting when he arrived. He had reviewed the progress reports that they had submitted yesterday. Everything was going smoothly. He made some mildly complimentary remarks and dismissed them. Assuming that everything continued to go smoothly, it would be another week at most before the trials. Time trials, he thought and grinned sourly at the pun.

"Come on, Avon! This is not a good time to stop."

He was inclined to tell Vila to go on without him. Survival had become a habit with him, but sometimes you realised that you should give habits up.

"Dammit, Avon, we need to get Orac. I am not dying now. You didn't get to kill me over Malodaar when you wanted to live, and you sure as hell aren't killing me here because you want to die. You owe me, you bastard!" . Well, maybe. Here, take Orac's key, go. But he couldn't say the words and he couldn't hand the key over. Instead he kept moving. Some habits were just unbreakable.)

He returned to his rooms after the noon meal. He had medicines to take that he stored there, and other work to do.

"Orac, check on the New Empire's current movements on Anathi borders. Also, review all Empire references to temporal studies, cross-referencing to all past Federation records on the same subject. The usual security checks. No further action is necessary unless information has changed since the last time."

"I must protest at this waste of my capacities. " The querulous voice became wheedling. "I fail to see why you have not yet developed an interface between me and the Anathi computers. I am sure that it should not be beyond your capacities, regardless of how different the computers are without tariel cell technology. The work that you are doing surely needs all the intellectual and logic capacity that can be gathered together. "

" Perhaps I want the Anathi to have the pleasure of doing it all themselves. Now, Orac, be a good computer and do as you are told."

"The concepts seem sound but we cannot control the power levels. The complexities are beyond our computers' ability to deal with adequately. Perhaps your device? Even if we could have more access to personally conduct research?"

Avon's expression was bland. Nobody could have guessed that he loathed Terik the way he might loathe some nasty insect that had crawled out from under a stone. Avon did whatever got the work done.

"There's too much risk of damage. The equations on the type of feedback that can be expected are worrying. Orac might be able to deal with the reactions more quickly than your equipment, but it is unique. I'm not prepared to risk it yet."

And he didn't trust the Anathi in general and Terik in particular. Trust was dangerous, so you didn't rely on it. Orac gathered and collated information. It relayed the inferences and intuitions that scientists committed to their records, and made a few of its own. The Anathi would just have to accept that they got that information filtered through Avon. Terik's expression shifted into unease.

"This work has taken five years. We are not averse to knowledge for knowledge's sake, but it is a long time for a project that has thus far proved entirely theoretical. We have reviewed some of the data you originally rejected. A colleague of mine suggests an organic solution.")

Avon's wince as he swallowed the pain meds was not entirely physical. He and Vila had come to an accommodation over the years that followed Gauda Prime (and Malodaar). That accommodation did not survive Vila's discovery that Avon seriously considered Terik's proposed solution.

"You're not telling me that you that you're prepared to even think about this! Some good little Anathi is going to sacrifice his life for the good of progress, is he? It's obscene."

"Vila, it's an idea. It won't necessarily happen. Investigating the possibility can open up more possibilities. It's called research.

"Don't you dare patronise me! And you called Blake obsessed and manipulative. It's the old story, isn't it? What you hate in others is what you fear in yourself. I'm not hanging around to watch this. I'm on the next ship out of here. I'm sick of this place."

Vila's expression was strained and ill as much as angry. "It's the cold-bloodedness of it Avon. I can't stay anymore. I have to go."

"You can get on a ship going anywhere in Anathi space. No further. And you'll have an - escort."

He was disconcerted by how uncomfortable he was in the face of Vila's contempt.

"Why am I not surprised?")

Well, Vila was gone. And regardless of false starts and misgivings the project was nearly ready. Fifteen years of his life, because even in the period the project was officially mothballed, he still worked on it privately. The Anathi put things away to think about later, but they discarded very little.

Avon wondered if Vila ever knew that, after that last vitriolic argument, he had refused Terik's suggestion. There had been time after all. Breakthroughs happened. The Anathi were happy enough. Temporal theory might be a failure, but they had matter transmission, and the beginnings of self-regenerating technology. That guaranteed his welcome and income. Vila's financial dependency on Avon had never bothered either of them, until the last fight. After all, Avon did owe him. Easy come, easy go, that was Vila, until his damn moral sense was offended.

("I regret that I must give you this news. We estimate two years at most. It is a common complaint in spacers. The best shielding can only protect so far, especially as your genetic profile suggests vulnerability.")

The usually phlegmatic Anathi were bubbly with success and a sense of vindication. The time barrier was broken. Energy, in the form of human consciousness, had been proved able to travel backwards in time. Only a few days, but now that the theory had become practice, further progress was surely inevitable. A noisy party, by Anathi standards, was still in full swing when Avon excused himself. Everyone nodded understandingly. His fatigue was becoming increasingly harder to hide.

On his return to his rooms, he turned on Orac.

"Good news, Orac. You're about to get your dearest wish."

"That remark is incomprehensible."

"I am ready to test an interface between you and Anathi computers."

"I do not have wishes. However, it would be a logical use of my abilities that I not be constrained in the manner of the last fifteen point three terran years."

(Terik had confessed a little while after that first tentative conversation that some colleagues had attempted a full interface between an Anathi brain and their computers. It failed. It was based on data from a very secret investigation of the old Federation. Avon had wondered if a human brain would have done any better. The Anathi were very humanoid, but that wasn't quite the same as human. Avon had - as an intellectual exercise - considered convincing excuses and plans to evaluate likely human candidates after Terik first brought up the idea. Intelligence, flexibility, adaptability; those were the obvious requirements. In the end, it wasn't necessary to go to those lengths, not then. There had been time to consider alternatives. But now time was limited, and so were options.)

The security staff didn't question his arrival in the middle of the night. He was the leader of the project, and his tendency to insomnia was well known. Few people were familiar with Orac, but then, scientists carried so many odd things around.

He began to set up connections between Orac and the outsize machinery and monolithic computers that governed the Anathi temporal technology, and to enter new information and equations. One thing about tariel cells, they did keep things more compact. He grew very tired moving around the room, and sat down twice to rest.

"Ready, Orac?"

"Fascinating," it replied.

"I take it that means yes," Avon murmured to himself.

The central unit was shielded deep within the machinery. Physical contact was impossible, but he laid a hand on the casing in a brief impulse of sentiment.

"I'm sorry Vila - for what that's worth. It's nearly over now. I - I'm sorry."

(He found himself thinking about Cally as he reviewed the plans for the installation of the central unit. He had liked her in spite of himself. God, but the Aurons were self- righteous prigs; no wonder she and Blake had got along like a house on fire. He could hear her voice now. "A man who trusts can never be betrayed - only mistaken." By the standards of that little piece of wisdom, Vila was definitely a most mistaken man. Avon didn't betray Vila. Vila made a mistake. He made a mistake, not Avon. Terik assured him that Vila had known nothing. He was drugged and "painlessly dispatched". That was Terik's phrase. There was another of Vila's mistakes. The Anathi were nothing like Gan.)

He sat down for the last time and reviewed his plans. He had no confusion, and only a few regrets. He owed a debt, had owed it for a long time. As for the debt he owed Vila - if he was successful, then this would never have happened. He hoped that that would be recompense enough. And if he failed - well, he would be dead. The machine would be destroyed and he wasn't sure that the Anathi would rebuild it. Not everyone was as comfortable with the contents of the central unit as Terik.

The cap, heavy with leads and circuitry, was awkward on his head.

"There is a substantial risk of dangerous feedback, even if successful."

"Well now, Orac, you are here to help control that feedback. I've known you to ignore danger for the joy of pure research before. It doesn't get much purer than this. Ready on my mark - mark."

And he was somewhere else and nowhere, shooting through the confusion towards his destination. Not hard to know where to go, but hard to struggle through the resistance in the way. So many years behind/ahead he heard the noise of overstressed technology, Orac's whine of "disconnect me, disconnect". So many years ahead/behind but getting closer, nearly there, he was nearly there. He was so tired.

He was tired and dirty and he smelled of fear and not enough food and not nearly enough sleep. And he was confused. Tarrant was talking, but he didn't make sense.

"He sold us all, Avon. Even you."

The gun was heavy in his arms. It dropped, and he knew he ought to lift it, but his arms were beginning to tremble with reaction. He had to raise his voice over the blaring alarms.

"Is it true?"

Blake was talking now, but he didn't make sense either. Avon hoisted the gun again, pointed it at Blake. Blake wasn't armed, but that didn't matter, because confusion was a killer. He always hated confusion. Better the definite choice, even if it was wrong. Binary choices - yes or no.

"Have you betrayed me?"

Give me the binary answer, Blake - come on - yes or no.

"Listen to him, fool. Give him a chance to explain. There's betrayal all right, but it's not Blake." And that was very strange because it was his voice in his head, his thoughts presumably, desperate and furious, but somehow detached from everything else that he was thinking and feeling. You heard voices when you went crazy, but your own? "Put down the damn gun and listen." And then the voice was gone and he stood still with the gun heavy in his arms. The gun was so heavy and he let it drop a little.

"Blake," he said, and winced, because he sounded like a child wanting to know why Grandad had to die. "What the hell is going on?"

He had time to see Blake smile at him.

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Maryclare Mabon

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