As the lift doors slid open, Tarrant shot an arm between them and pushed sideways into the darkened cylinder, twisting to look for the command speaker. Finding it, he swung toward it, out of Vila's way as the smaller man skidded into the compartment after him. Grabbing for the security rail beside the door, he drove a hand across the override panel.
"Flight deck!—no G limit!"
"Are you crazy?!" Beside him, Vila went to his knees as the lift shot upwards.
"There's no time for it!" He pulled himself against G force to face the forward doors, grimaced as the lift slammed to a halt, and pushed on as the next door slid open. Hung for a moment bracing it wide, squinting in the dim light. A circular chamber, low ceiling, indirectly lit. A round table flight deck, angled to the door. Crew stations spaced in an arc around a recessed oval holotank, pilot's seat raised above the centre of the arc, opposite the segmented forward screen. Two VIP observer seats higher, behind it. Two flying steps in and a third up, to swing himself into the seat.
"Flight computer online!"
"Damaris online," said a disembodied female voice. Around the circle, screens and telltales lit, and the tank began to glow.
"Give me flight status and forward vision!"
"And some lights!" Vila exclaimed, stumbling behind him to the station at his left.
As lights came up Tarrant scanned the instrumentation. Standard civilian boards. Full power available, but nothing online above life support. Feverishly, he launched into power up and preflight checks. One main drive, two auxiliaries, and an orbital booster. Swiftly he checked communications, sensors, and weaponry, power building in the main drive. Antigrav units for ground manouevering. Not ready. Time for a fast correlation of range to life support capacity—barely. Time for more information. "Damaris, Y three sixty scan!" The forward viewscreens lit. "Vila, if that's the communications board you've got, try to find ship's frequency!"
"This ship?!" Vila asked.
"No, you idiot, the cruiser! I want to know what they're making of all this!"
Behind them the hangar floor was clearing fast, technicians running from the ship under repairs, flight crews toward those fit to lift, blast curtains rolling down into place over the open maintenance shops and across the windows overlooking the deck, under the steady howl of the decompression alarms.
The view slid back to the hangar doors in front of them, orange warning lights beginning to pulse in a band above the huge panels. Seconds, now, before those doors would begin to open. He focused on the readout in front of him, fingers flying through the correlation.
"This isn't communications, it's navs—" Vila scrambled for the next seat in line, as the lift opened again, delivering Soolin with Sethi on her heels. "How the hell do I find an internal frequency?!"
"Scan for transponder signal strength! There won't be anything any closer!" Range to life support ratios were adequate but not outstanding. Clearing them, he returned to the power and antigrav displays.
"Is there anything we can do?" Soolin pushed into the copilot's seat at his right, Orac in her arms, and bent to shove the computer under the edge of the console.
"Hang on," he said. The hangar doors swung slowly into view on the forward screen. "As soon as those doors start to open, we are going—" He hesitated. "Find the weapons board if you can, and start charging the guns. We may need them yet."
At the communications panel, Sethi was helping Vila find ship's frequency; abruptly, the flight deck speakers crackled with a mixture of alarms and blurred crosstalk. "Or maybe not, if we're lucky."
"Things sound confused enough!" Vila shouted above the racket, which dimmed suddenly as Sethi adjusted volume outputs. "I'd say they haven't a clue what's happening!"
"It'll do!" The doors were opening. Tarrant brought the ship smoothly off the deck, rotated it into the launch path and forward. Twenty meters, forty, eighty, into alignment. Waiting, one hand steady on the drive controls, the other driving slowly forward on power, the readouts building towards red line overload. Slowly the aperture widened, and with a breath, he drove forward on the controls as well, and the stars opened up around them.
"We're out!" Vila exclaimed. "We've made it!"
"Two twenty kilometers extending—as long as they take us for part of the evacuation, you could be right." Tarrant half rose to activate the navs station at his left. "Computer, give me visual projection of track since launch, showing all other vehicles in a cone of sixty degrees, vector zed270!" The lights dimmed again when the holotank lit, and he sat down, studying the emerging image. Near the front of the tank, the cruiser glowed in red miniature. The courier was a bronze teardrop, speeding away. Sparks of yellow were shooting lifepods, shedding fast from the mid decks. Dozens of them, now. Blue and green, the undamaged gunship and three or four of the pursuit ships tumbling away. "Just a few more minutes...."
He dropped back in his seat; looked up, feeling a gentle shudder from the ship's portside stern.
"What was that?" Vila twisted round, gripping the arms of his chair. "Are they firing at us?!"
"No!" He ran a hand fast across the boards, checking systems. "No one's firing at anyone, we're still part of an evacuation—" Trust Vila to lose sight of that. No change in drive or power levels. He glanced at the hologram, saw the smaller, bronze teardrop falling behind them from the port side, towards the receding cruiser. "It's a drop pod!" He drew a breath. "I think we just lost a passenger."
"You mean Servalan?" Soolin stared at him, horrified. "But the hold—Dayna and Avon!" Urgently, she wrenched around and began to push herself up.
"Stay put!" he shouted. "If they weren't clear, it won't help! Check pressurization on that level, it'll tell us if they're still alive—"
"It's pressurized!" she exclaimed. "The hold is pressurized!"
"Then they're all right, don't worry about it!" He ignored her, concentrating on the holotank. "Computer, map local space, maximum limits—" He studied the cloud of stars that sprang into life around the projected ships. The cruiser dimmed to a small red bubble, the courier smaller, lifepods vanishing, as the scale of the projection shrank. "Federated and unFederated worlds, anything." There was nothing near them. A few small lights, flashing against the projected stars. All Federation. None close enough to provide help or reinforcements. Only there, at the extreme left of the screen, a cloud of glowing gas. "Orac! Can you tell where we are? Identify that object at left."
"According to the flight computer, we are at the edge of Sector Four, on a course which will carry us into Sector Five in nine hours, fourteen minutes at present speed. The object to which you refer is the spinward edge of the emission nebula Wei 42, a cloud of high temperature gas, predominately hydrogen, which accounts for its red colouration—"
"All right! That's enough." Tarrant turned to Soolin, still poised on the edge of her seat, her expression worried. "Take control, will you, while I work out a course to take us toward it, lose us against it." He stopped as the lift doors hissed again, and her gaze went past him. "Soolin, what the hell is the matter?" He glanced back to see Avon and Dayna emerge, then whirled, startled, as Soolin shot out of her seat.
"What do you think happened?! Servalan got away!" Dayna glared at Avon. "We lost her!"
"Which is to say, she lied about the hold not being pressurized, and escaped in a drop pod." Avon crossed to the nearest of the observer seats and dropped heavily into it, breathing hard. "We appear to carry a number of them. Within the hour, she will no doubt be back aboard the cruiser, organizing our pursuit."
"I told you to just let me shoot her!" Dayna caught his shoulder, her expression fierce. "Avon, every time you let her go, it could be our last chance—and I am telling you now that next time, if we ever get that lucky again, I am not waiting!"
"I have no interest in debating it!" He broke free and leaned forward over the arm of his seat, his gaze shifting to Tarrant as the younger man instinctively rose."We have our lives, for now, and a ship—and right now, I am a great deal more interested in any ideas you may have, which may help us keep both."
"Start with losing ourselves against the radiation from that nebula." Tarrant turned back to the navigation seat. "Sethi, unless navigation is your strength, I can better use you elsewhere."
"Not a problem. My strength is, in fact, communications." Sethi turned to Vila. "Since that happens to be where you are sitting, let us extend this idea."
"Extend this idea?" Vila stared at him. "You call that communicating?" The other raised an eyebrow, and he sighed. "Oh, all right, I can tell when I'm not wanted." He pulled himself to his feet and circled the holotank to survey the last two vacant stations. "That leaves weaponry here on my left, and—something I'm not sure about."
"Flight engineer," said Soolin, sliding into Tarrant's place.
Avon pulled himself up. "You've seen this type of ship before?"
"A few times, when I was working as a bodyguard. An executive transport with modifications."
"Such as?" He stepped down beside her and pulled Orac from under the console, dragging it up to the co‑pilot's seat.
"Weaponry and drive." She glanced at the computer. "You'll have to have Orac run a scan, but I wouldn't call more than two of our exterior guns standard, and right now we're running at just under time‑distort twelve.Ten was the emergency maximum on the last ship I saw that was anything like this."
"And we can step down to that, now," Tarrant put in. "Or better, time‑distort eight. We passed beyond the most effective sensor range for a cruiser a few seconds ago."
"Does that mean we're clear?" Dayna asked, coming to look over his shoulder.
"Not yet." He shook his head. "We're beyond sensor range as a ship, but until we move into alignment between the cruiser and that nebula, they could still pick us up on long‑range scan as a moving point of light."
"Radiation from our force wall?" He nodded, and she frowned. "We can count on Servalan to look for it."
"Once she gets the chance." He glanced at Sethi, intent on the transmissions tracker, a monitoring headset pressed to his ear. "Section Leader, are you picking up anything that could tell us what's happening?"
"Plenty of confusion, a variety of distress and homing signals. No responses from anywhere yet." Sethi looked up. "Nothing to indicate pods being picked up, or anyone returning. From the speed the signal's moving, they've cut the drives, but they haven't come about yet."
"They wouldn't necessarily," said Avon. "If we're off their screens, their most likely strategy will be to abandon the life capsules and continue on to the nearest Federated planet. They can request support from there."
"I don't see Servalan settling for that," Dayna said grimly.
"It depends on how long it takes her to get back to them, and beyond that, on just how confused things are." Tarrant rocked back in his seat. "Sethi, was that cruiser running at full strength?"
"No. Its normal complement would be seven hundred crew, and there were only five hundred or so aboard."
"Then we're probably clear." He returned to the plot calculations. "You need about four hundred to run a Mark V medium cruiser. If the evacuation involved more than a couple of hundred, they won't have any choice but to retrieve life pods. That'll slow them down by ten to twelve hours at least. Even if we assume Servalan does get back to them in time to order a scan for point radiation, by the time they're able to act on it, we'll have disappeared against the nebula."
"Which opens the question of what we do next," Soolin said.
"Find out what we're working with," said Avon. He lifted Orac from the co‑pilot's seat and circled to set the computer on the console beside the flight engineer's position. "We need to know our limitations." He glanced back across the holotank. "We will also need to know immediately, Sethi, if you pick up anything to suggest that Servalan has been restored to her command. If it happens before we complete the manoeuvres Tarrant has planned, we may have to bargain on this not being a clean escape."
"I understand." Putting on his headset, Sethi flipped a series of switches and adjusted outputs again. "There's nothing, so far."
"Good. " For a moment Avon leaned on the console, then sank into the seat. "Tarrant, how long do we need?"
"At least another half hour. Longer if I try to discuss it now." He punched in confirmation of the preliminary course plot, and checked the map of vectors against power. "I'm still planning those manouevres."
"Then I'll leave you to it." Avon pushed back and considered the monitor in front of him without enthusiasm. "How much more can you tell us, Soolin, from your experience?"
"Not a lot." She hesitated, focused on the helm. "Configurations varied, but we're talking small ships here. The ones I saw had an average range of a thousand lights or six months, best speed standard by seven or eight, maximum passenger load of twenty or so, core crew of ten or eleven. Pilot‑captain, first officer, co‑pilot navigator, flight engineer and aide, primary and relief communications and weaponry officers, medical officer and aide. The rest of it would be reserved either for the owner and guests, or for VIP customers and their attendants."
"Including bodyguards." From the way his tone changed, he had seen something that interested him, "Tarrant, do you still need the holotank projection?"
"No." Tarrant opened the feed from helm to navigation for the completed course plot. "The keypad to your right should let you override."
"Just a minute." Beside him, Sethi raised a hand. "Captain Tarrant, is there any way we can highlight the track of the drop pod?"
"I have a transmission on command sub‑beam. It's beginning to break up, but it's her—" Sethi adjusted pickups, his face intent. "The drop pod has a sub‑beam communicator. She's hailing the cruiser."
"Is there any way we can block the signal?" Avon leaned forward, one hand going to grip the edge of Orac's case. "Orac! Can you do anything with it?"
"No!" the computer snapped. "Not at this range! In any case, my priority is to maintain as much influence as possible over the cruiser's tracking systems as possible, for the very few minutes remaining, that I will be able to do so at all."
"Then the best we can do is listen." Avon glared across the holotank. "Boost it to our main channel!"
Focused on the signal, Sethi didn't look up. "It's breaking up too fast." he said. "She's repeating. Telling them to halt the evacuation, it's a trick, disruption of ship's systems is an illusion, respond, respond—she's got a response, now. Captain Orvall. She's telling him...chaos program, get it stopped." He shook his head. "And now the signal's gone."
"And now they know that we are." Avon pulled himself to his feet, grim‑faced, and started around the holotank towards the com station. "All right! Sethi, open a channel to the cruiser. I want to send them a message."
"A what?" Tarrant lifted his head in surprise, caught the edge of the console and stared at him. "The hell you do! Sethi, don't do it!" He threw out a hand toward the other, no risking so much as a glance to see whether he was obeyed, as Avon turned, eyes cold in the face of this unexpected resistance.
"Avon, we may be down to minutes now, before Servalan orders a scan for us—before they start thinking in terms of any of the ways they could still pick us up. The last thing we need is you giving them a direction to look!"
"It could be well worth the risk!"
"To whom?" Soolin snapped.
"Nobody!" Vila exclaimed. "You think anyone's going to listen to you?!"
"Assuming there's anyone there to listen!" Dayna added.
For a moment, it seemed the chorus of dissent would stop him. The anger in his face faded to surprise, and then to icy calculation, an all too familiar and much more dangerous possession lighting his eyes.
"We can use a satellite relay." He looked back towards Orac. "Orac! How many communications satellites are within range, to which you could direct a message for pickup by the cruiser? Or by any Federation planets in this sector, for that matter?"
"There are twenty‑one which could be accessed within the time required before our next programmed course change."
"In approximately four minutes."
"And in, say, three minutes from now?"
"Eighteen should still be in range."
"Fine. Add them to the tank display. Highlight the pod as well." A scattering of yellow lights appeared at the edges of the projection, and Avon gave Sethi a hard, speculative look. "Now, with the equipment we have, using Orac to boost the signal, would there be any chance of your putting it over the cruiser's internal PA system, as well as directing it in on the command channel?"
"No," Sethi said abstractedly. "That isn't a sub‑beam frequency. We couldn't reach it now, in anything like real time—we'll be out of range on all the subspace frequencies in a few more minutes. I'm checking hyperspace channels now, to see if I can pick up anything on the emergency network."
"That'll do. If we have to, we could still reach them that way."
"Reach them with what? Reach who with what?" Tarrant snapped. "Avon, are you thinking about this at all?"
"It doesn't sound like it!" Dayna moved to face him across Orac's case. "Avon, we've all but got away! It isn't worth risking ourselves for, not now!"
"No kidding," Vila muttered, at her elbow.
"I am thinking about this, more clearly than you could imagine..." Avon straightened and faced them coldly. "I think it can only help us, for every loyal servant of the Federation aboard that cruiser to know, before 'Commissioner Sleer' is picked up, just who she really is, and that in light of her now being a condemned traitor to the Federation, if they do not relieve her of command at once, they must be treated as rogue by any loyal authority." He paused. "A fact to be shared with as many loyal authorities as possible."
"And you'd expect them to believe it?" Tarrant stared at him, appalled. "Coming from you? Would you, under the circumstances?"
The other's gaze narrowed to him."Perhaps not! But under the circumstances, I would find it too extraordinary a suggestion to be dismissed without investigation, and investigation takes time. Anything that stands to inspire confusion, under the circumstances, I think is worth doing."
"And you might be right, if the whole idea weren't insane!" Tarrant pointed into the tank. "Once you transmit anything from this ship, Avon, anyone listening will be able to triangulate between any two of those stations and place us within a hundred spacials in minutes!"
"By the time they manage it, we will be long gone. By the time they can act on it, we will be untraceable."
"You don't know that!"
"Make that course correction, Tarrant, and it will not be an issue." Avon drew back, his expression lightening. "Assuming a compressed thirty‑second transmission, it will take more than half a minute for even a perceptive monitor to realize that tracing our signal might be useful, and then at least two such monitors will have to make contact, even to consider the necessary calculations."
"And if you cannot do better than that, I submit there is no reasonable objection."
"Except that they'll still know where to start looking!" he snapped. "It's a risk we don't need!"
"I agree," said Soolin.
"That's for damned sure!" Vila jerked a thumb in Tarrant's direction, as Avon's gaze swung to him. "I'm with him on this one! As are we all, I think," he added, glancing up at Dayna.
"And as a question of risk, this may be academic," Sethi said abruptly. Pulling off his headset, he came out of his seat. "We have another problem. There's just been a transmission on the emergency channel from the cruiser to all escape pods, ordering them to trigger their impact transmitters and apply whatever braking force they can—"
"Getting ready for a tractor sweep of the area," Tarrant said. "That isn't a problem for us."
"—and we have been transmitting our own tracking signal on that channel, since launch." The dark face was sober. "Our transponder signal."
"The galactic positioning network!"
Sethi nodded. "Yes."
"We've got to get it stopped!" Tarrant spun to check the secondary helm readout. Only a glowing telltale and a frequency. The standard display. "That means finding it."
"Where's it controlled from?" Dayna asked. She went to scan the engineering board, backed up as Avon moved to reclaim his seat, and turned to the weaponry station beside it. "I don't see anything here, that looks likely."
"It won't be on the console." He bent to look for access panels on the supporting column. "It isn't something you control, it's automatic."
"A mandatory element in Federation spaceship design," Avon put in. He punched at the keyboard in front of him. "If you're within their sphere of influence, they want to know where you are." He stopped. "I can't trace it from here. All right! Orac, scan for the transponder location, and highlight it on ship's plans. Then shut it down."
"Not feasible!" For a fraction of a second, Orac hesitated. "The unit is located on this level, in the secured compartment immediately to your right if you proceed through the lock between the flight deck and the rest of the main deck—"
"That's good enough!" Tarrant said sharply. A glance at Sethi, and the man pulled his sidearm and ran for the door. He hesitated, watching the image shift in the tank. A portion of the inner wall of the compartment begin to flash red."Vila, that toolkit of yours, if you don't mind—"
"And just why is it not feasible?!" Avon stared at the computer. "Orac! Since when has it been a problem for you to suppress any kind of electronic transmission?!"
"The transponder circuitry is too primitive to be controlled short of burning it out! This would damage elements of the ship's navigation system located adjacent to it in the compartment. It would be highly preferable for you to disable this equipment mechanically, which it should be possible to do without destroying its ability to receive signals from the network. This would allow you to determine the position of other vessels without communicating our own—“
"We know!" Tarrant stretched to catch the toolkit, as Vila pulled it, fumbling, from the front of his overall and rose to throw it to him. An energy bolt cracked in the corridor beyond the lock, and he turned and ran. "Just do whatever you can to throw off their tracking, until we can get it stopped!"
"If there's anything that wretched pile of circuitry can still do," he added under his breath. He caught the corner of the bulkhead as he went past, and grabbed for the open door of the compartment. "Out!" he snapped, leaning in to where Sethi crouched, studying the wall of circuitry in front of him. "I know where it is, now!" He waited as the other pushed past him, then dived into the cramped space and knelt, studying the array. "At least in general, I know where it is," he said softly. "Damn!"
"I'll need Orac. Get it, will you?" Fingertips tracing the main channel into the transponder unit, he flipped the roll of tools open on the floor beside him, and reached for a circuit probe. "It's a question of pulling out just enough, not destroying all of it."
"You've been anticipated." Sethi reappeared in the doorway, Orac in his hands, bent to slide the computer to the floor, and backed up fast enough to collide with Dayna, as she pushed for a glimpse past his shoulder.
"Good!" Testing the probe's lance against the edge of a circuit panel, Tarrant began slicing the cover from the main processor case. "Orac, as soon as I have this open, you can start telling me exactly what I do and don't need to burn." He paused, eyes rising to meet Dayna's as she leaned through the hatch. "And Dayna, while I'm at it, would you go back and make sure Avon doesn't do anything ill‑considered?"
"The next question," Sethi said softly, when he sank back on his heels to survey the damage, "is that of how difficult it will be for you to pilot the ship, without a link to the net."
"Not too bad." Tarrant swept the sleeve of his tunic across his forehead and ran his fingers through his damp hair. "No—GPN makes it easier, that's all." He sighed, wiped his hand on his trousers and rolled the tools back into their tight, self‑sealing bundle. No leaving anything loose, in this compartment. He picked it up and swung around on his knees, gripping the edge of Orac's case. "The real problem's going to be putting it all back together again, before we next make planetfall anywhere that insystem traffic control will expect a transponder signal."
"Which should of course identify the ship as something other than Commissioner Sleer's Damaris."
He nodded and pushed himself up. "Something very different."
"I would recommend a minor restructuring of the ident hardware, transposing the first and final syllables of the name and restructuring the leading 'i' as a 'T' and the final 'a' as an 'e', and a similar modifiction to shift the ship's classification from civilian yacht to light courier," Orac said crisply. "The two types are superficially quite similar,"
"I know, and we'll worry about that later." Boosting the computer up from the floor, he slid past Sethi into the corridor. "I'll settle for knowing it's off, until we know we're clear."
"It's done," he said, as they came through onto the flight deck. He crossed to the pilot's station to check the transponder display.
"The light went out a minute ago." Soolin followed his gaze and looked up, unreadable. "I held off on that first course change you'd programmed, until it disappeared."
"Good." He nodded, shifted Orac in his arms, and went on.
"Does that mean we're clear now?" Vila asked.
"I hope so, assuming no one's monitored our track too closely, back aboard the cruiser." Tarrant reached to drop the toolkit in his lap. "Your tools." He set Orac down on the console beside Avon. "And your computer." He met the other's eyes squarely. "I hope you aren't still planning to use Orac as a relay for any 'helpful' messages."
"By now we will be out of range, for my purposes." It was the best he could hope for, said Avon's closed expression, but he did reach out to press Orac's key casually, deliberately, off. and we both know that wouldn't be 'true' for a second, Avon, if you didn't see my point.
He looked across the tank at Dayna, hovering near the communications terminal where Sethi had reclaimed his place. "Any sign of our being scanned?"
"Nothing I've noticed." She folded her arms. "It's been quiet since you left."
"You wouldn't be able to interpret an outside scan from these instruments, anyway." Sethi put in. Mildly surprised, Tarrant thought, until he caught the look that passed between them, and subsided. Sharp enough to read between the lines, he thought, and let's hope stay out of it for now.
"Then either we're clear, or we'll find out we aren't—later." he said. He wheeled back towards the pilot's station. "Even if they do still know where we are, it'll take a few hours for them to pull themselves together enough for pursuit, and by then—well. By then we'll just have to have really made ourselves hard to find."
"In the meantime, we may as well get on with the tour," Soolin said. She slipped down from the pilots' station. "Though the projection looks fairly standard."
"Is this all of it?" Dayna asked. She walked to the leading edge of the tank and bent over it, inspecting the split‑down layers of the map. "From outside, I'd have said we were dealing with more than three decks' worth of a ship, here. More like four."
Soolin shook her head. "Third deck is deeper, to allow for the cargo bay. Then you'll find most of the air and water recycling system layered in between third deck ceiling and second deck floor, above the drive chamber in the core. Most of that forward section will be either engineering or life support."
"But not all of it," said Avon. "There appears to have been quite an elaborate security retrofit on two compartments just inside the lock between that section and the centre passage" He touched the screen and a section of the map glowed brighter.
"Could be an armoury." Soolin frowned. "No, that would be the other side, the compartment on the left. Forward of that you'd have storage for supplies, and the generators powering the guns. Possibly tech stores..."
"Those appear to be here." Two more compartments lit, near the centre of the arc.
"Then I don't know what it is."
"What makes it interesting," he said, "is that according to the ship's weight and balance profile, we have an unusual concentration of mass in that area. We also appear to be running only twenty percent below our maximum load capacity with the main hold empty. Loading is greatest in those two sealed compartments, the smaller holds around the outer rim of third deck, and a large chamber at the stern on second deck."
"Second deck aft would normally be rec space, the crew lounge and autokitchen," said Soolin. "It should register an above‑average per unit mass on the profile."
"The split among the three areas is nearly even thirds." Avon replied. "Whatever we're carrying, it's heavy."
Dayna raised an eyebrow. "And you'd like someone to take a look?"
"It's a thought." He studied the glowing outlines. "The status information available through this terminal is focused on life support and the structural and mechanical integrity of the vessel. I can tell that our power levels are acceptable, our force wall is operating at a level sufficient to repel anything up to a photon torpedo, food synthesizers are fully charged, and the efficiency of the air recycling system is virtually a hundred percent. I cannot tell why there appears to be no information on the contents of those areas."
"And you'd like someone to take a look." Dayna sighed and straightened. "You know, anything extra along the rim will probably involve the charging system for the extra weaponry, if it isn't just the guns themselves."
"Easily checked, since those aren't locked." He leaned back, met her eyes when she came to look over his other shoulder. "I suggest you take Vila along to address the seals on the ones that are." With the briefest of glances at the thief, "You might find their security arrangements entertaining."
"I doubt it." Slouched in his seat, Vila eyed him obliquely and folded his arms. "Federation designers never have had much imagination when it comes to locks. I wouldn't bet on it taking more than two minutes to get past whatever's down there." He absorbed Avon's gaze and pulled himself up. "An auto-kitchen on second level, though—that could be interesting. I could stand a stiff drink after all this excitement."
"After we check third level." Dayna circled behind him, eyes mocking as she passed. "Come on, then. If you're right, Vila, this shouldn't take more than ten minutes."
"If no one has any objections, I think I will look around on this deck," Sethi said, his voice thoughtful, after the lift door had closed behind them. "We are now beyond signals range of the cruiser, and there should be little enough to hear for a while."
"As you like." The other was careful not to move before permission was given, Tarrant noted, as Sethi swung his seat around and rose. Not careful enough to be troubling, not exactly, but there was something unexpectedly wary in the way he moved, stretched, and darted a look back at Avon, before walking quietly toward the door. Not quite tension, but something, now, that nudged at the edges of suspicion. Tarrant folded his arms against the edge of the console, and watched their vector shift along track as the next course change cut in. It was hardly fair to suspect the man, under the circumstances. Suspect him of what? Every move had so far said Sethi was with them, and Avon was clearly willing to accept him at face value. But why? Ordinarily, he would have trusted in Avon's relentless wariness to keep them out of any real trouble, but—he rocked back, pushing the thought away in something like pain. That might not be reasonable any more. Might not have been reasonable, for a long time.
He let his gaze drift to watch Avon, silently. There was still a cold energy to the man, his face and movements intent as he scanned the screens in front of him—ship's specifications, from the way lights were shifting in the projection model, systems highlighting, then fading out in one area after another—but as much something deadened in his expression. An achingly familiar hardness in the dark eyes, but something there now that went beyond weariness, remote beyond touch in that pale, closed face. Something more unyielding than ever, to his own or anyone else's humanity.
He started as the intercom chimed beside him.
"You have it, Dayna." He punched the channel onto deck speakers. "Where are you?"
"Third deck, feeling vindicated," she said sweetly. "It took Vila about a minute and a half to pop that door, and I was right about the generators feeding the weaponry system."
"Nice to know. So what did you find?"
"In the first compartment, I could say Servalan's rock collection. Several shelves of long, flat, boxes very carefully packed with raw crystals, two chests of what appears to be metallic ore—which I'd have taken for gravel, if no one had gone to the trouble of locking it up—and three smaller cases with radiation stickers on."
"And in the other one?"
"Servalan didn't use all of our black gold, to buy this ship." Her voice was smiling. "There looks to be about half of it left. All converted back to the real thing, for us."
"Very nice," Soolin commented from the weaponry station. She raised her voice slightly. "Dayna, have you seen any sign of an auxiliary fire control on that level? Looking at the setup here, it doesn't look as though the midline guns are controlled from this station."
"Nothing like that so far." Dayna paused. "By the way, you were right about that first compartment on the left, as you come through the lock, being an armoury. It looks to have everything you could want for a small raiding party, and I do mean everything." Again she paused, at a muffled comment from Vila. "On to second deck. We'll let you know."
"This gets more interesting all the time," Soolin said. She frowned and leaned back in her seat. "An overpowered drive, a lot more than standard weaponry, drop pods, an armoury. This is shaping up as less and less of a rich lady's toy, all the time." She gave Tarrant a speculative stare. "But I wouldn't have called it a fighter."
"Neither would I. It's more of a runner."
"Could we take a pursuit ship, if we had to? Or a gunship?"
"I wouldn't guarantee it, and I'd as soon not try." Tarrant considered the instruments and shook his head. "We might outrun one—but I'd as soon not have to do that, either. It'd cost us a lot of power, and unless we turn out to be carrying extra drive crystals, we might not have it to spare."
"So it hasn't been refitted to fight other ships." Her gaze drifted to the main screen. "That suggests more of a raider, then. 'Commissioner Sleer's' personal attack craft? But then caching her private fortune aboard doesn't seem to fit."
"Doesn't it?" Tarrant shrugged. "I doubt she could find anywhere more secure to keep it, these days. It could make a lot of sense, if we think of this being a personal escape craft." He looked past her as Avon switched off the holotank display, swung round, and stood up. "An ace up her sleeve, in case her plans went wrong?"
"No." His tone was flat. "She would need a crew."
"And she wouldn't risk the dependence." Imagining the woman in flight, Tarrant sighed. If anything could drive her to it, he could only see her alone."What do you think, then?"
"I don't know." Avon crossed behind Soolin and stopped for a moment, rested a hand on the high back of the co‑pilot's seat. "From the little I saw of her, I doubt running figures in her plans. She is—or was—preparing for her imminent return to power." He looked down at Tarrant. "Right now, the question doesn't much interest me. If we're still doing all right far as the cruiser's concerned, I'm going to go find a cabin and lie down for a while."
You may as well." Tarrant turned to follow him with his eyes, as he turned away. "You said they were holding you in the medical unit. How badly were you hurt?"
"I don't know. I don't remember much." Avon paused again, a shadow of pain crossing his face, and lifted his hand to touch his neck. "They only let me wake up this afternoon. I seem to have been on a ventilator at some point."
"That's likely." Soolin had turned to watch as well, her expression as guarded as his, when his eyes met hers. "The last time we saw you, you weren't breathing too well on your own."
"That was just over a week ago," Tarrant added gently.
"That could explain a lot." The other's lips set in a sudden, hard line. "It may be some time before I can stay on my feet for long, without drugs."
"Then I suggest you don't try." Tarrant glanced back at the tracking monitor. "It'll be several hours before we're far enough from our original track, to be untraceable. Then we can decide where we go next." He looked up again. "At this point, do you much care?"
"No." Avon shook his head. "Not as long as it's out of Federation space, and as fast as possible." He drew back as Sethi reappeared in the main lock, carrying a recessed tray. "Perhaps we should let Section Leader Sethi choose a destination. After all, but for his help, we'd still be aboard Servalan's ship."
"It's a thought." Tarrant said. "What would you say to that, Sethi?"
"You have no immediate plans of your own, then?"
"Nothing past 'out of Federation space, and as fast as possible.'"
"I'm surprised." Setting his burden on the navs console, Sethi bent to work the tray's thermal cover loose. "We were certain you must have a base somewhere."
"We did, until recently," said Dayna. "I take it we're talking about where we go next?"
"It is." Tarrant spared her a look. "Avon's suggested that perhaps we should let Sethi set our next destination."
"As the man who made it all possible?" She smiled at Sethi. "I'd call it a decent reward for saving our lives—at least, as long as you don't plan on Earth, the Federation's Supreme Command Headquarters, or anything along those lines, you understand."
"I do." Sethi grinned. Balancing the tray against his arm, he lifted a steaming mug from a recess and held it out to Avon. "But I really had not thought so far ahead. No further, in fact, than that a round of hot soup might be welcome."
"Not unwelcome. Thanks." Dayna took the second mug when he offered it, and sniffed. "Smells better than institutional grade. So there's an auto-kitchen on this deck as well."
"A small one, near the stern. Apparently the officers' mess."
"Really." Her eyebrows lifted, questioning. "Any sign of recreational stimulants on the menu?"
"Not that I saw."
"Good." She grinned and slid behind him into the navigation seat. "The second deck was something of a disappointment, in that regard. For Vila, at least."
"No booze?" Soolin snorted and swiveled her chair, pushing up. "He must have been disappointed. Vila has something of a habit, when it comes to alcohol," she explained, at Sethi's puzzled look.
"Ahh," he said.
"I left him considering the fruit juices and muttering about fermentation."
"Did either of you happen to notice what else was on second deck?" Tarrant asked.
"Like auxiliary fire control stations?" Dayna nodded. "Two of them, one each side at the mid‑deck. And the supply rooms to either stern gun compartment are packed solid. I'd say we're set for a three or four months' run."
"Then that accounts for the weight." Avon returned his mug to the tray. "Any more detailed inventory can wait a few hours, so far as I am concerned. As can any consideration of our next best destination unless, Section Leader, you do have one to suggest."
"Not immediately. My only thought so far has been, that as I am once again a civilian in the eyes of Federation, I should no longer use their rank." A sigh, dark eyebrows lifting. "I was in fact a lieutenant in my own planet's armed forces, before I volunteered for this mission, but I prefer not to use that either, under the circumstances."
"That's understandable." Avon said. "So what would you prefer?"
"My family name will do." The other smiled. "My given name is Yudhisthira, but few people are that adventurous, and I can live with Yudhi for informal purposes."
"As you wish. And is there anywhere in particular that you would like to go?"
"There are several possibilities. For myself, I would need to think about it."
"Then think about it. We can give you a few hours, at least." Avon turned away. "In the meantime, I'm going to go find a cabin and get some rest."
"I would suggest the medical unit instead." Tarrant blinked as Sethi shot out a hand to catch his sleeve. Not ungently, but the movement was sudden and firm enough for Avon to turn back in surprise, free hand coming up—and stop, staring at the other in amazement. Beside him, he felt Soolin flinch slightly, and she wasn't there, the last time I tried that. Dayna had been, and she shot him a startled glance. At least this time, he isn't armed. Or any worse than surprised, it seemed, as Sethi traded one hand on his arm for the other on his wrist, and pointed gracefully past him. "On the right, two doors down. You can't miss it."
"Perhaps not," Avon said, still staring at him, "but I—" He stopped again, nonplussed, seemingly arrested by the intent look the other was giving him, if not the supporting arm slid smoothly around his side. "Sethi, I do have a little time, I think, before everything wears off—" He twisted his hand free and held it up forestalling, as the other made to follow him. "And I will consider it, but—excuse me—in the meantime I will manage on my own." He stepped back again, turned sharply, and was gone.
"Well! That was fun, wasn't it?" said Dayna. "Yu‑dhisthira, is there anything we should know, here, about what's going on?"
"If Avon hasn't told you he is far from well, yes." Sethi swung round to stare at her, then back to face Soolin and Tarrant. "He hasn't, has he?"
"Avon says he doesn't remember much," Tarrant told him. Seconds slipped by, and the other nodded.
"That's possible." He turned to take his seat, expression chill. "They kept him sedated much of the time, after the first few hours. The first two days, they couldn't keep him stable otherwise. He was held on life support for four days, in the intensive care unit until two days ago."
"You sound as though you were there," Soolin commented.
"I was, much of the time. My commission was to see that nothing passed between him and those caring for him, which the Commissioner would not have sanctioned, but—I think there are some things one cannot witness, without becoming involved."
"That's possible," Tarrant said. "So you did."
Sethi nodded, looked up to meet his gaze squarely. "The fact remains, Tarrant: he is not well, and I would recommend that a close eye be kept on him."
"That could be interesting," Dayna eyed him sideways over the rim of her mug. "Avon doesn't generally tolerate anything resembling interference in his private affairs...and he's one of the more secretive people we know."
"Prime contender for the most secretive," said Soolin.
"Your leader and your friend for at least two years..." Sethi drew in on himself, frowning. "You must forgive my amazement. I could as easily say that he is a fellow human being, and in difficulty. It surprises me that none of you seem as concerned for him as I, on the basis of so much less acquaintance."
"You might consider less acquaintance part of your problem." Soolin cut off at Tarrant's silencing look, and shrugged, turning back to her seat.
"I do not understand!" Sethi stared at them in open dismay, and Tarrant sighed.
"Oh, we're concerned," he said. "but as you do seem likely to find out, Avon isn't especially tolerant of people being concerned about him. If you mean to try it—do watch yourself. He's a man of his word, and he doesn't bluff." He stared blankly at the instruments for a moment, then looked up. "Make sure he isn't armed, when you tackle him."
"Or else begin by knocking him briskly over the head," Dayna added. She smiled at Sethi's shocked expression. "I'll give Avon that. He does have nice manners when he's concussed."
The medical unit might have been the sensible suggestion, but he might have left it too long. Sitting against the edge of the high bed, Avon lifted his hand to pull at the collar of the trooper's uniform shirt, and stopped, wincing as the snaps gave, the material pulling tight over the adhesive bandage at the base of his throat. No question the drugs were wearing off. He caught at the edge of the bed as another wave of dizziness hit him, blinked and drew a deep breath, as vision blurred. Too soon for what he'd taken. Perhaps no surprise. He might have realized that injured, it would take more to keep him on his feet for as long as he would need. Should have checked the medications locker for some sort of stabilizer, before letting the ward's vigil light draw him in here. Its glow, through the translucent‑panelled door, had surprised him, its sunny warmth unexpected in the cool silence and darkness he'd expected. It was at odds with the polished hardness and harsh new scent of the of the main clinic beyond. Only after he had come far enough to see the glowing yellow band above the workstation between the two beds, had it made sense. He should have turned back then, finished his investigation, before letting his interest narrow to that soft pool of light. To the smooth expanse of the further bed, its privacy screen drawn back, covers turned half‑open. A discreet suggestion? Sethi's, probably. He had automatically turned, letting his gaze slide past it, to take in the hanging screen pushed back to the far corner of the bed, the bank of supply lockers beyond it, and a smaller door opening onto what appeared to be a washroom. Turned again to look back at the warm light spilling across the pillow, and drawn a breath, and realized that the room itself was warm. Warmer, at least, than the body of the unit, beyond. Somehow that had made it inevitable that he turn and to go back to close the door. Come back to sit down and rest a moment, before—well, perhaps, he thought, before nothing.
Only now, could he still move if he wanted to? Drawing a careful breath, he gripped the edge of the mattress and shifted, edging himself to a more secure seat; gasped as the movement pulled at his back, and threw his head back to ease the pressure. Between familiar pain and unfamiliar, it was for a moment too much to do more than hold still, try to breathe, and not black out.
As the spasm passed, he stared across at the wall beyond the second bed, reaching for a mind as blank as its shadowed surface.
All right! just hold on. You're safe, for now.
But for how long?
He closed his eyes, leaned back with a sigh and tilted his head back, trying to ease the tightness between his shoulders.
So long since I felt safe anywhere. Is this worth it? When the only safety does lie in winning...and I can't win this one?
Not alone. Not without Blake.
That's almost funny.
It shouldn't seem so much harder to live, in a world without him in it.
Even having killed him. Even having meant to.
It shouldn't mean living in a world where every dream ended in the same nightmare: I set this up!—Avon, I was waiting for you! In that certainty of betrayal, he could no more have not fired, then, than done anything that might blunt the pain of a breaking heart. Only to know before the last charge tore into the other's body, that something was wrong. That there was more than shock in Blake's eyes, at his murder. More surprise than pain, and then a kind of understanding, as he had gently brushed the gun aside, stepped forward, stumbled, hands closing on Avon's arms, and said, "Oh, Avon..." falling, and they had both understood. A mistake. Too late for anything.
Oh, Blake. I 'd thought our deaths might be linked in some way. I never bargained on it being this one.
I must have hoped more than I knew, that you could help me.
Trusted, that as long as you were alive out there somewhere, you'd always be there, if I were ever desperate enough to need you.
Just as you trusted in me.
He sighed again, opening his eyes. Well, we were both wrong about that, weren’t we?
If only dying could be as easy as letting go, and from the gathering tightness in his chest, perhaps it could be. He tilted his head back, yielding, drew a breath almost in hope, and gasped as a knot of pain pulled tight at the base of his skull, and sent fire‑trails blazing across his shoulders. Hope fled; only being alive could hurt this much or this familiarly. And if there were anything I needed less right now, than a runaway tension headache, I can't imagine it.
Desperately, he pushed himself to his feet, caught at the low railing that circled the end of the bed, and clung to the cold metal arc with crushing force. Cold. Head down, he squeezed his eyes shut and swept his arm up, pulling his sleeve across his face to catch the fine sweat beading his forehead. Cold might be the only thing to keep him from throwing up, if he couldn't stop this quickly. He lifted his hand to press the back of his neck, trying to loosen the seized muscles, winced and let go a gasp of pain. As useless an effort as ever—but in the corner beyond him, the washroom was nearly enough within reach, and cold water, if likely to be of little help, should at least present no complications.
With an effort he pulled himself up, one step and two around the end of the bed, and twisted to catch at its frame again, urgently, as balance betrayed him. He gasped as the movement pulled, now, savagely, at every muscle it touched. Not, in the end, unbearably. Nothing he couldn't endure...if, for the moment, he could only concentrate sufficiently not to fall on his face.
As the pain eased, he drew back again, carefully. Turned his head, gauging the distance to the wall behind him; then froze, as light and shadow shifted in the outer room. One of the double doors from the corridor was sliding open.
As I might have expected. He let his hand drop again to the bed frame, braced himself, and sighed. Too much to hope, to have avoided it... as footsteps turned, quickly and quietly, in the outer room. Turned, and stopped. He lifted his head at the unexpected hesitancy in the sound. Something, as the next footfall came, not towards the door, but as a sliding sidestep out of the light. It suggested a man poised to leap back and run at the first hint of anything untoward. And he had to have seen the light in here, by now.
He waited as another step fell warily, then something spun softly against the wall outside the door, and the shadow of a hand shot across to the access plate.
"Avon!" From his expression, peering past the opening panel, Vila wasn't sure whether to consider him untoward or not.
"Vila." Avon sighed, shook his head and immediately regretted it. "I might have guessed."
"More than I'd have done." Vila entered, stopped at his frankly less than welcoming stare. "My life, you gave me a start!" He spread his hands to take in the room. "What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same." Avon pushed himself straighter, wincing, and suppressed a sigh. "Except that I already know." He shifted slowly to rest against the foot of the bed and gestured towards the wall. "I believe the controlled medications locker is in the next compartment. Rifle it quietly, if you must. I expect they'll have soma. I expect that's what you're looking for."
"Probably. This ship looks to have just about everything." Vila studied him and edged a step closer. "You know, Avon, it's a bad sign when you don't answer questions. Are you all right?"
"Do I look it?"
"No. You look terrible, actually."
"Thanks." Avon turned again, with great care, to face the wall behind him. The urge to be sick had passed, but his headache was still worsening. "Now that you've worked that out, Vila, you can leave. Shut the door behind you." Carefully, he reached again to squeeze the tight muscles at the back of his neck, wincing as the movement pulled everything from wrist to shoulder. "I'm tired, I hurt, and right now, getting to bed is all that really interests me."
"Uh—huh." Vila stepped back, half turning, and before he could quite breathe a sigh of relief, slid the door closed behind him.
"That isn't what I meant."
"I'd have guessed." There was just enough caution in the other's eyes as he moved forward again, circling, to keep it from being an insult, and not quite enough in his tone, when he stopped just past arm's reach. "You're starting to feel it, aren't you, Avon?" he said softly. "Everything that's happened."
"That's how it looks."
"To you, perhaps." He gave the other an icy stare. "But then, Vila, your perceptions have always been a bit limited." He looked down, shifting his grip on the metal warming under his hand, and heard his voice go empty. "Right now, all I know is that it happened. I don't even know that it matters."
"I wouldn't bet on that." Vila moved a step further, closer into the circle, eyes watchful and his expression grim. "There are limits, Avon, to what even you can get away with, without there being consequences."
He stopped, chin lifting, when Avon glared at him.
"Consequences you have never been and never will be competent to threaten me with!" Sheer infuriation gave him the control he needed to wheel away, past the end of the bed, catching at the edge of its hanging screen to steady himself. "You, or any of the others," he said bitterly. He twisted recklessly, to look back over his shoulder. "So don't waste my time with empty threats."
"No..." There was something in the way the warning faded from the other's tone, that bit deeper than anger would have done. A note of controlled understanding. "It'll keep, until you're fit to face it." He heard Vila move again, quietly, closer behind him. "In the meantime, Avon," he continued,"unless there's anywhere in particular that you really do need to go, I suggest you sit down before you fall over." He paused and shrugged, faintly, when Avon shifted to stare at him. "Then we can see about getting you a bit more comfortable."
"Comfortable." He hadn't the energy to give the word the edge he could have wished, or any way to carry on from it. Seeing it, Vila stepped back again to dart a glance into the darkened washroom, then turned to investigate the cabinets outside its door. He was careful enough to stay out of arm's reach, Avon noted, despite his serene manner. A pointless precaution under the circumstances, but one that somehow made it easier to relax, draw a breath, and turn back towards the other side of the bed. The worst of his dizziness seemed to have passed, and his headache had settled down to a steady if murderous pressure. Nothing he couldn't outlast, if he could only lie still and give it a chance to fade.
Slowly, he turned and made his way back to the head of the bed, moved to dim the light. Behind him, from the sound of ripping plastic, Vila had found something of interest in the locker he was inspecting. Less of interest just now, than managing to sit down again without it hurting any more than necessary.
"You planning to sleep in that uniform?" He looked up as Vila came to stand at the end of the bed, holding up something loose and white. A standard pull‑on nightshirt, about knee length. One of the old regimental styles gone institutional, someone had said, once.
Reflex provided an answer. "I can't say I'd given it any thought."
"Well, think about it." Vila came to drop it on the bed beside him, and held out his hand. "While you're thinking, let's have your arm over here so I can undo that sleeve." He sighed, when Avon hesitated. "Come on, Avon, you could use the help. You may not like it, but you aren't usually stupid about turning it down when you need it."
"What worries me is that coming from you, it's likely to hurt more than it's worth." He drew his arm up to pull the snaps free himself, first on one cuff and then the other. "I may not be moving well just now, but at least I can tell when I need to stop."
"Raising the next question." Vila didn't move while he finished undoing the front of his shirt, and shifted to pull it free of his belt. "The way you're moving, everything's hurting."
"The question's what you want to do about it. I'd say you could at least stand a hot drink and a muscle relaxant or two before bedtime, to help you sleep."
"That mightn't be a bad idea." Impossible not to sound wistful. He dragged the tunic back from his shoulders, reached behind him to work the sleeves down and pull his arms free. Sighed, taking the nightshirt as Vila held it out, and pulled it clumsily over his head. "But I think not." He let the other move in to twitch the soft material straight across his shoulders, and brought up a hand to brush his hair back from his forehead. "Considering everything that's been run through my system in the past few days, I'd as soon not risk a cross‑reaction."
"Well, look, we couldn't be in a better place to check on that." Vila held up a hand and turned to switch on the terminal beside the bed. "Just hang on, and we'll see what this can tell us." The unit hummed briefly and a plastic sensor bracelet extruded from its side. "Here." He turned back as Avon held out his hand, and wrapped the band neatly around his wrist. They both looked up as above the bed, the diagnostics display lit.
"Standard vital signs monitoring..." Avon said.
"Which all looks more or less okay, so far. You're running a bit of a temperature, but nothing that needs medicating, from the looks of it." Vila pulled open one of the drawers under the terminal, revealing a tray of diagnostic probes. "Ha, here's what we need. Let's have your hand back." Avon winced as the point of the sampling probe drove home on the inside of his wrist, but held still until the telltale above its point turned green and Vila pulled it back. "There. We'll know in a few minutes, just exactly how you're doing."
Text began to scroll up the terminal screen, and they both turned to follow it.
"Let's see. Blood type...findings outside normal parameters..." Vila paused the display. "High levels of stress hormones, fatigue poisons, presence of...these look like standard stabilizing drugs. Breakdown products of at least one sedative, traces of a couple of stimulants, anti‑nausea medication. Diagnostic review in progress, please wait."
"That won't help." Avon stretched past him, carefully, to brush one of the touchkeys at the side of the screen. "Query: are any relaxant medications contraindicated?" The response flashed. "No."
"Right...one round of adrenaline and soma coming up, then, if you'll take it."
"I'll take it." He gave the other weary look. "Just give me twenty minutes or so to deal with the rest of getting to bed."
"Done." Vila smiled. "Though the way you look right now, Avon, you should know I won't rule out having to pick you up off the floor when I get back."
He had made it back to bed—just—and was pulling the bedclothes straight over his legs, when Vila tapped lightly at the door again.
"Hey, you made it." The other grinned at his expression. "Seriously, I didn't think you would."
"The idea of you picking me up off the floor was motivating." He took the mug Vila held out to him, and sipped its steaming contents, cautiously. "Thanks."
"For the idea or the drink?"
"Whichever you prefer." Avon lowered the mug for a moment into the circle of his hands, then sighed and drained it. "At least this should make getting to sleep less of a problem."
"A lot less of one." Vila took it from him, slid it onto the bedside shelf, and reached in to catch him, as the room suddenly swam. "The only trick is likely to be lying down without hurting yourself, the state you're in."
"And I figure I put enough soma in that mug to make that painless," he went on cheerfully, as Avon gave a startled murmur and slumped against him. He gave the other a warm, briefly sheltering hug and slipped him down on the pillow, gathering it comfortably under his head. "Probably more than enough, you not being used to the stuff the way I am." He grinned. "You could call it a punishment for clean living!" He leaned across the bed to pull up the covers, tucking them loosely around his friend's shoulders. Waited, as Avon automatically pulled his right arm up to free it, hand falling across his chest, then stood watching the resistance fade quietly from his face, before reaching to stroke the other's dark hair. "Never mind. I figure it's the best thing for you, right now."
"Not to mention the novelty," he added. "One could just about take you for human, this way."
"Diagnostic summary...analysis of viral proteins indicates unstable multiple infection, Type A influenza, strains H1N1, H2N3, H7N2...projected mutation rates above anticipated mean values, no material immune response to H2N3, H7N2 variants, 12% response to H1N. Immediate isolation recommended, implementation Level 2 biohazard precautions. Testing of CSF advisable to establish magnitude of infection." He stopped, pulling back. "Oh, no. Avon, what have you got us into now?"
On the flight deck, Tarrant sighed and pressed the comlink override.
"He's got what?" he said. "Look, Vila, just calm down. I don't imagine anyone's died of the 'flu in centuries, unless they were more than half dead to begin with." He looked at Soolin, listening, her expression neutral, from the co‑pilot's seat. "Soolin, would you go down and see what's got him going? Take Orac, get it to read the medical databank. If I know anything, Vila's just misread something and getting overexcited about it."
"Very likely." She rose and slid the computer from the desk. "Come on, Orac, let's go find out what's wrong. If anything."
"I will come too, if you do not object," Sethi came up from his seat as she passed. "My father was a military doctor on Sahadeva—I may be able to be of some help."
"By all means." She raised an eyebrow, regarded him thoughtfully, and held out the computer. "You can take Orac."
"Sure you don't want to join the party?" Tarrant asked Dayna. She smiled, eyes not wavering from the point of the probe she was working into the depths of her mostly disassembled sidearm.
"No. I've seen Vila in a panic before."
"As have we all." He shook his head. "It doesn't take enough to get him going, to be worth the effort."
"All right, Vila, what's wrong?" Soolin sized up Vila's rattled expression, and pushed him firmly back into the room so that she could get through the door.
"Have a look at that!"" He pointed to the screen beside the bed, and backed off nervously, getting behind her as she turned to look. "Then tell me I'm imagining it!"
"Imagining what?" She pressed a touchkey to acknowledge the report and stop the text flashing. When Sethi edged in to read it with her, she took Orac from him, putting it on the shelf below the display, and pressed in its key. "Orac, tap into the ship's medical computer and give me your assessment of anything you find regarding Avon. We need implications, urgently from the looks of this." She glanced at him, then over her shoulder at Vila. "How long has he been unconscious?"
"Just a few minutes—no, wait a minute!" He waved a hand in protest. "That isn't part of it, Soolin. That's because of the stabilizer I gave him."
"Three‑quarters." Vila ran a hand back through his hair. "One‑quarter adrenaline,"
"Near enough standard." The younger man looked up at the vital signs monitor. "That shouldn't hurt him. It'll help him sleep, for a while."
"Mmhm." Soolin rested a hand on Orac's case. "Orac, what are you finding?"
"My analysis is not complete!" it snapped back at her. "This is quite interesting."
"Preliminary analysis, then."
"You can get that from the medical computer directly!"
"In Standard, Orac. None of us are medics." She favoured the machine with an irritated look. "Get on with it! I don't like the looks of this."
"Oh, very well." The computer paused. "Analysis of proteins in Avon's bloodstream indicates a multiple viral infection, three strains of an unstable Type A influenza, composition H1N1, H2N3, H7N2, all three single‑strand RNA‑based, mutating at a projected rate of slightly over five thousand viable point mutations per standard day."
"In Standard, Orac." Soolin sighed. "What about the part saying 'no material immune response'? I know this is a respiratory infection, so it has to have taken a while for the virus to reach his bloodstream."
"During which time," said Sethi, "one should see a strong, nonspecific immune response. Fever, aches, light‑sensitivity, sore throat, that sort of thing."
"There is extremely limited evidence of macrophage activity," Orac continued. "Similarly, a limited level of leukocyte pyrogens. Barely enough to explain the 1.06 degrees of fever he is presenting. I estimate by percentage analysis of variations already present that two of these pathogens have been incubating in his system for at least three days, so this absence of activity suggests extreme immunosuppression, possibly related to abnormally high levels of stress hormones and fatigue poisons in his blood. In an immunosuppressed host, emergence of symptoms related to both nonspecific and cell‑mediated T‑lymphocyte response—fever, inflammation, pain, proliferation of toxins in the bloodstream may be substantially delayed."
"Meaning what?" Soolin's frown deepened. "Orac, are any of these infections communicable?"
"Naturally!" The machine was back to its normally astringent tone. "However, unless you are also immunosuppressed, only the H7N2 variant or an H7N1 recombinant should have any potential to produce more than mild illness. Standard antiviral shots should provide significant protection, since the current package contains elements recognising H1N2, H1N3, and H2N3 strains."
"Then you're saying this isn't serious, that we don't have to worry about it?" Vila said anxiously.
"I am saying nothing of the sort!" the machine snapped. "For Avon, it is likely to be quite serious, since he can offer no effective resistance either to the original pathogens or their recombinants, and depending on the form of recombinants, it could be extremely dangerous for all of you."
"Explain!" said Soolin.
"A mixing vessel," said Sethi. "It makes him a human mixing vessel."
"A what?" Vila turned to him.
"It's a problem of immune suppression," Sethi told him. "Say someone's had an organ transplant. To prevent rejection, they go on drugs to suppress their natural immune reactions. The problem is that immunosuppressed, they easily pick up infections, either in the usual way, or from the transplanted tissues themselves. If you expose them to a variety of pathogens, they can develop multiple infections, and if the viruses are highly mutable, it's easy for them to reassort into new strains. "
"New and lethal strains!" Orac continued enthusiastically. "It is a fascinating process! Normally it takes place in animals, with most viable mutations being pathogenic only for their species of origin. The unique quality of a human mixing vessel is that viable mutants can be readily transmitted to other humans, who have no basis for resisting them."
"Orac, can you gauge the toxicity of existing mutations?" Soolin asked.
"So far, obviously, they have been non‑lethal."
"Obviously," she muttered, "since Avon's still alive."
"Most mutations have been in the H1N1 strain, which appears to be the residue of a much earlier infection, possibly from childhood. Avon does appear to have some resistance to that variant, which has resulted in the extremely limited immune response observed."
"So you are saying that he isn't reacting at all, to the other strains of the virus?" asked Sethi.
"And that they could recombine into a something new and lethal at any time?!" Vila burst out. "That is what you're saying, isn't it?"
"Theoretically, there is a potential for second and third generation mutant and recombinant strains capable of harming you." The computer paused. "In practical terms, assuming only one significant mutation per thousand, and a shift of at least ten percent in viral composition required to produce a variant against which standard antiviral shots would produce no resistance, it should take at least two days to produce a lethal recombinant, and possibly longer."
"Should?!" Vila shifted uneasily. "You mean you aren't sure?"
"It is impossible to be definite, when issues of probability are involved."
"Computer answer." Soolin looked at Sethi."That's assuming a first generation recombinant doesn't kill him first."
"I'd better go tell Tarrant!" Vila pushed past Sethi, darting for the door. She sighed as the other turned to her, surprised, his eyes questioning, and shook her head.
"Don't ask," she said. She looked down at the computer, folded her arms. "Orac, what should we do now? Where can we look for help?"
"I am coming to that!" The computer's lights chain‑lit, pulsing around its core. "I would advise immediate diversion to a suitable virological facility, preferably an indpendent CDC—"
"A centre for disease control," Sethi said. "There's a network of them, neutrals. They do research, investigate outbreaks, advise on public policy relating to control and treatment of communicable diseases."
"And according to the reference databank, the nearest is in theThird Sector, on Mycenae," Orac finished.
"Neutral, even under the old Federation," it replied. "It was tolerated as such, essentially because of the presence of the CDC facilities on the planet. They appear to be a critical element in its planetary defenses. Its neutrality is accepted for many of the same reasons that that of the Clonemasters' system once was."
"How long to get there?"
"At the maximum speed of which this ship is capable, thirty‑seven hours."
"Not impossible, then." Soolin moved to the intercom, pressed the call button. "Flight deck," she said. "Tarrant, we need a course for Mycenae, at maximum. Before you ask, it's a neutral. Third sector. One of us will be up in a minute, to explain." She pressed the cutoff and looked at Sethi. "Which one of us, will depend on which of us faces up better to starting an i.v."
It might just be worth persuading that young man to stay, Soolin thought, glancing back as the doors of the medical unit slid closed behind her a few minutes later. Reasonable to expect that a spy running solo as far from support or backup as Sethi must have done, would have been well trained, but this combination of soldier, technician, and medic was unexpected and convenient. No question they could use him if he were willing. Though at this stage, she considered, turning towards the flight deck, they could well use anyone. Even allowing for Orac's presence—assuming the AI could be relied on to deliver any degree of crew support, around the clock—they would be stretched to their limits covering the requirements of even a ship this small for more than a few weeks. It could all become too much, very quickly, and then how long could they hold?
A problem to keep for later, as Tarrant's frustrated tones carried down the corridor from the flight deck.
"—this is nonsense!" he finished, as she entered the lock. "Look, I'll credit that Avon isn't well, but not that his coming down with any sort of minor infection, or even three variations on it at once, stands to kill any of us. Not even him, damnit! He's tougher than any of us!" He turned to her, something like desperation in his expression. "Soolin, just what is going on?"
"Pretty much what Vila's telling you, I expect." She circled behind him, and he twisted to stare at her.
"And what I'm telling you is, get moving!" Facing him across the navs station, Vila pressed his advantage. "We've got to do something! Get a course laid in for somewhere we can get help, Tarrant, in time to get us there before our fearless leader manages to come up with the latest thing in viruses, fit to kill all of us!"
"With a 'flu bug?!" Tarrant looked back at him, frankly incredulous. "Oh, come on, Vila! We've all had our antivirals!"
"Avon hasn't." Soolin said. "Not recently, at any rate." She sighed at his surprise, "I had my shots updated last year, so I may be in a better position than the rest of you, but none of us are current. With the possible exception of Sethi," she added, looking over her shoulder as he appeared in the doorway.
"That may not be much help." His face serious, Sethi came to stand between Tarrant's station and the seat over which Vila still hung facing him belligerently. "The danger here, is of a recombinant against which even current antivirals may be ineffective." He looked from the one to the other. "Might not even make the difference between life and death."
"Influenza is a highly mutable organism—unstable A‑types more so than most." The other met his gaze steadily. "In a population with no resistance, they're the pandemic killers. They can take a healthy adult from initial infection to death in a matter of hours. Cellular breakdown in the respiratory system can be so rapid that the essence of it is, you drown in your own fluids before your immune system can mount a response." He paused. "The best an antiviral package can do, is anticipate a few of the more likely mutations, based on known proteins...and there's at least one of the six involved here, that isn't covered by the current spectrum."
"Then we don't have a choice."
"Too right!" said Vila. "So get on finding somewhere we can get help!"
"But where?" asked Dayna. "We'll need a neutral—"
"Nice to know someone was paying attention," Soolin said. She sighed as they looked at her. "According to Orac, it's Mycenae we want. Neutral, astral .572 Third sector, thirty‑seven hours at maximum." Tarrant gave her a sceptical look, and she shrugged. "Also according to Orac."
"Assuming a safe course and that we can sustain that long a run at maximum." He swung the nav monitor towards him. "All right! We still have to complete our run into the nebula, to be sure of confusing Federation pursuit. That'll take another three hours." He entered co‑ordinates, rubbed his chin thoughtfully as a small white light began to pulse, towards the near edge of the tank. "This is going to take some working out."
"Some?" Dropping into the navigator's seat, Vila followed the light as well. "That's going to take us back the way we came!"
"That's what I mean." Tarrant's tone sharpened. "So shut up and let me work it out."
"In the meantime..." Dayna craned her neck to look up at Sethi, as he crossed behind her seat and lowered himself into the one beside her. "Not to be too inquisitive, Sethi, you seem to know a lot about this. You said your father was a doctor, but it sounds as though you know more about virology, than that really explains."
"He was—is—an epidemiologist." His expression was reserved. "With an interest in emerging viruses."
"Does it matter?" Vila asked. "We've got another problem, now—what are we going to tell the people on Mycenae?"
"What are we going to tell them?" Dayna stared at him. "If they're neutrals, why not start with the truth?"
"The truth?!" he exclaimed. "Oh, yes, certainly!" He folded his arms, then unfolded them, threw his hands in the air. "Hello! We're escaped Federation prisoners, except for Sethi, who's a deserter. Two of us just happen to be the last of Blake's Seven—eight, if you count Orac. We've just got away from Commissioner Sleer, head of the Federation's pacification program, also known to us as ex‑President Servalan, and chances are that they still want us as badly as they wanted her. Not to mention her new ship. You can probably get a damned good price for us, if we're still alive." He folded his arms again, scowling. "Or even if we aren't, for that matter."
Dayna sighed and gave him a disparaging look. "Oh, give it up, Vila. How much choice have we got?" She pushed aside her dismantled sidearm, pulled the console keypad from its slot and touched the screen to activate it. "We'll have to tell them the truth about Avon, at least."
"Take that as given," Tarrant said. "But as little as possible past that, even if they are neutrals."
"Neutrality can cover a lot of attitudes, some of them not very friendly," Vila said softly. "Something Blake said, once."
"Sounded too intelligent to be you," Dayna replied. She considered the screen as it filled with data. "This sounds all right, though. The original colonists were LeGuin anarchists who settled the planet about a century before the Federation became an issue. When it expanded to take in the frontier worlds around them...according to this, they've maintained their neutrality through a partnership with an independent foundation engaged in infectious disease research and control."
"The CDC network," Sethi put in.
"I don't follow," she said.
"It originated on Earth, pre‑Federation, as an agency under the world government—went independent later," he said. "There are two or three CDC planets in each sector. They do a standard deal with the people who shelter them: in return for places to build, and tax‑exempt status, they provide free infectious disease monitoring and control services, and an element of planetary defense. Biological and virological warfare. Violate one of their installations, and you're guaranteed to release pathogens you won't be able to handle. Attack the planet, and it's no certainty you'll get away with claiming your new territory. Any survivor you meet could be a carrier for anything."
"Not bad," said Tarrant, " as long as claiming the territory is part of the plan. If all you wanted was to destroy it, that wouldn't stop you."
"It works even then," Sethi moved to the navigation seat. "Then you have the same problem with the rest of the network."
"Ah." Dayna rocked back and considered her screen. "Well, it seems to have appealed to the Mycenaens. This says they've hosted upwards of fifty facilities, spread all over. It doesn't look as though they have much more, in the way of planetary defenses."
Sethi nodded. "A neutral organization hired to defend a neutral planet in a nonviolent way."
"Which should add up to our not running into too many Federation sympathizers," said Dayna.
"We'd only need one to give us away," Tarrant said. "They're bound to have infiltrated at least a few observers."
"So what do we tell them?" she asked. "We have to be straight with them about Avon's condition."
"That'll be the least of it. They're bound to want bioscan data on all of us."
"So much for that, then!" said Vila. "We may as well tell them the truth, they'll have us nailed in no time, anyway!"
"Not necessarily." Sethi shook his head. "Bioscans don't include fingerprints or retina scans, and no one is likely to be looking for those."
"So it's a question of how long we have until the Federation prompts them to look," A chime sounded from the computer, and Tarrant punched in a command. "First correction. The drive's out, now. We've stopped making tracks in space." He folded his arms on the edge of the console. "So how is Avon taking this?"
"He doesn't know, yet. I asked Orac not to tell him." She met the question in his eyes. "He should at least hear the bad news from a human, when he wakes up."
"And you're volunteering." His lips set, as she pulled herself up to go. "If he's asleep, Soolin, it could be a long night."
"Then I'll stay the night." She sighed. "There's a second bed in his room, and under the circumstances—I won't expect him to appreciate it, but I think that consideration is the least we owe him."
Or the least I owe him, she could have said, in the wordless time she stood beside him, before dimming the light to a shadow and turning away. Going to sit down on the second bed, she swung around carefully and eased down on her side. After all the things I could owe you for, Avon, in the end it becomes a matter of loyalty. To common humanity if nothing else.
Or, she thought, watching him in that half‑light, to the way the lines of his face and body softened in sleep, into an unaccustomed gentleness. Nothing so much unfamiliar in it, from rare times she'd seen him quiet, as unresisting. Open to the touch, in his loose white shirt, and warm when she had touched him. He had no more than sighed and turned aside on the pillow, his face distantly troubled, as she brushed her fingers down the soft line of his throat and slipped her hand briefly under his collar, gauging that warmth before deciding not to tuck him in. More than likely he'd expected her to hurt him. No question Sethi's setting the i.v. in his hand had done, earlier. Even drugged, he'd felt that. Though, oddly, he hadn't responded past a slight flinch and a sharp breath...almost a cry, cut short as though denied, as though it would be useless. Then he had relaxed as Sethi held his arm for a moment, touched his face and reassured him, and taken the rest quietly, letting them splint hand and wrist to stabilize the line, and wrap a restraint over his arm to prevent his moving it. Might not have needed that, she thought, closing her eyes. He could hardly have been more quiet since.
In the distance of sleep she might have missed his waking sigh, mistaken that restive murmur for her own, as she shifted further into her pillow—but in the startled silence of the indrawn breath that followed it, she snapped awake as though an alarm had sounded. Awake, to a startled, frightened gasp, and a sudden, muffled rush of movement in the darkness.
"Avon!" She pushed up, swung her legs around fast across the edge of the bed, and stood, staggering as the floor came up hard under her feet. She reeled forward to fall against the low side‑rail of the bed, caught his shoulder as he struggled to push up on his restrained side, still pulling at the restraint. "Stop! It's all right!" She swept out her free hand to brighten the light, as he twisted to stare at her in confusion, then dodged, as he cried out and struck back at her, hard and fast enough to fan her hair into her face. "Avon, it's all right! Just hold on, I'll let you go!"
"Soolin!" He went down, twisting in front of her as she got his wrist with both hands and drove forward, pinning his arm to the bed. "Soolin, what are you doing here?!"
"Trying to look after you." There was no keeping the irony from her voice, but she softened her grip as he relaxed, head going down. She straightened, sweeping her hair out of her face, and stretched across the bed to pull the restraint free.
"I don't understand." Wincing, he pulled his arm clumsily across his body, took in his bandaged hand, the splint bracing his wrist and the i.v. line wound clumsily around it. "Why?"
"Why not?" she said drily. Eyes dazed, he lifted his head and looked at her in such open anguish that she had to fight back a smile. "Oh, for God's sake, Avon, you're barely awake." From the blank bewilderment in his face as he looked down at her hand pinning his arm, then up when she gripped his shoulder, that was the limit of it. Enough for her to lean closer, hugging him. "Save the questions, until you're fit for answers!"
"Soolin, I don't understand." He tensed and tried to catch at her arm as she pushed him back onto the pillow, but he couldn't hold on past the splint blocking his fingers, or keep his eyes open once he was down. He gave it up while she settled him, fluffed his pillow and drew back to straighten the bedclothes. "Unless I'm dreaming...." From his tone as he pulled his good hand up to rub his forehead, it wasn't a welcome idea.
"I'm afraid not." Taking advantage of his movement, Soolin swept the sheets up briskly around him and pulled them straight. "Look, Avon, just give it a few minutes. You'll be clear enough about everything, soon enough." When he let his hand fall she caught his arm against her own, holding him for a moment, and for a moment he let her, before pulling restlessly away. Not comfortable, that was clear, but trust being no more his strength than hers, there was nothing she could do to help it.
Sighing, she pulled herself up and circled the bed to untangle the i.v. from his arm. Fortunately, the bandage had held it in place; pulling from the restraint had done no worse than whip the line firmly over his wrist, and when she checked, its connection to the infusion pump was still solid.
He drew a breath in something like exasperation, and she turned to look. "Better?"
"No." He still couldn't keep his eyes open, but there was a hard, familiar set to his mouth, and he sounded stronger. "I want an explanation for this, Soolin, and I hope you have a good one."
"I'll take it, then, that you didn't know you were ill."
"That I was what?" That brought his eyes open, though not to meet hers. "Oh, you'll have to do better than that," he said softly, voice edged, to the ceiling. He forced himself up to lean heavily on his right elbow, and held up his hand, eyes cold. "Especially if you hope to explain this."
"Oh, no, I don't, Avon. Not with you taking that tone." She dropped her hands to her hips. "You can just turn around and read the medical report for yourself."
"Report?" Past the surprise in his tone, it was almost a sneer. "On what?!"
"You—based on that blood test you and Vila ran, six or seven hours ago." He turned as she marched back around the bed, pulled the monitor out on its extending mount so he could see it, and tapped the screen "Right here!" She swung back and folded her arms. "And if you have anything to say afterwards," she said, past the tightening in her gut as he stared at her suspiciously, "I will expect it to be civil."
"I don't believe this," he said at length. The incredulity was still there in his voice, but more in puzzlement now, than hostility. He dropped back again on his elbow and shook his head, brows drawing together in a faint frown. "I won't pretend I'm at my best, Soolin, but all things considered, I don't feel that unwell."
"Part of the problem." She studied him, holding herself still. "Most of feeling ill, if you did, would amount to your immune system being at work."
"And it isn't." Something froze in his face, and his tone went blank. His gaze slipped again to his splinted hand. "So it seems this has to stay."
"I'm afraid so." She drew in a slow breath as he leaned forward and pushed himself up. "For now, it's the best we can do."
His lips tightened, but he nodded. Getting his balance, he pulled his good arm in across his body to hold the other, sighed and looked down again at the i.v. line. Touched it lightly, shifting it imperceptibly under the bandage around his wrist.
"You'll have to forgive my wishing you could have waited," he said. "I had hoped to be done with having needles stuck in me, for a while."
"I don't doubt it."
She waited, but for the moment he seemed to have no more to say, only shifting his hand to steady his arm more solidly. From the way he moved, something in that shoulder still hurt. She watched his fingers tighten in the folds of his sleeve as he looked back at the screen, his gaze going through it now, eyes going dark. Moved on impulse, sidestepping to block his view; ignored him when he started, lifting his head to look at her, and spun the monitor back on its arm, out of his immediate line of sight.
"If you want to sit up," she said casually, "it might be easier for me to bring up the head of the bed for you."
"Probably." He dropped his hand to steady himself as she reached deliberately past him, to shake his pillow, and eased back carefully, not meeting her eyes, when she touched his shoulder. "I expect there's more I need to know?"
"One or two things." Soolin straightened, letting her hand slip to the bed side‑rail. "We've made contact with a virology centre on Mycenae, a neutral planet in Sector 4, and we're about thirty hours out. There's at least a chance they'll be able to help."
"If I have that long." He frowned, preoccupied. "Virology is hardly my field, Soolin, but according to that report, I am dealing with a multiple infection in which two of the three strains involved are mutating rapidly, and there is a potential for genetic recombination among them. That could produce any number of infectious variations in a very short time."
"That's right." She folded her arms again, nodding when he looked at her. "The way Orac put it, was that it should take at least two days to produce a recombinant against which none of us might have any resistance."
"A recombinant of which you might have no warning."
She shrugged. "So life's uncertain."
"Under the circumstances, I could repeat my original question."
"The answer hasn't changed, Avon." She drew in on herself, shook her head slightly, when his lips tightened. "I won't expect you to understand."
"Then I won't disappoint you." He looked away, then back at her, his expression guarded. "Would you care to try explaining it to me, anyway?"
Not willingly.... She pulled back, turned towards the end of the bed. "Let's just say I felt it was the least we owed you, that you not hear the bad news from a machine."
"The least you owed me?" There was real surprise in that, and she glanced over her shoulder before turning back to face him.
"That's what I said," she said flatly. "I won't pretend I trust you, Avon, or that I've ever done—you've never encouraged it, and I think you've only been honest in not doing—but I won't say I think we've been especially fair with you, lately, either."
"Fair?" From the shock in his tone, it was the last thing he might have expected, and that, unexpectedly, stung. She tensed, lifting her head, then shook it slightly at his blank expression, and went on.
"I don't think that in the end, you were any more responsible than any of us, for what happened on Xenon, and I don't really think you endangered us on Gauda Prime, either, past taking us there in the first place."
Almost imperceptibly he stiffened, his expression becoming wary. "You would hardly have gone, otherwise."
"No, I wouldn't have, not there." She shook her head. "I can't speak for the others, they hadn't my ugly youthful memories of the place. But I don't believe you set us up for anything there. Not the blockade spotting us, not the ship being shot down, the crash, not any of it. You couldn't have known about the bounty hunters, either, or that it was us they were hunting, in the woods afterwards—"
"But I did."
"You did—" She stared at him. "Did what?"
"I knew about the bounty hunters." He had relaxed, and his gaze held hers now, dead neutral. "And I was virtually certain of where you were."
"Orac." He gestured toward the computer. "I had it simulate an official distress beacon. When the first two flyers came in on it, and their transmissions told me what they were, I cut it immediately and got under cover, but by then it was dark. Their infrared sensors picked up that fire you'd built, in seconds." He half shrugged. "It was obvious no one locally would have taken such a risk. That rather limited the possibilities."
"To us," she said flatly. "So you came."
"Once the first ship peeled off toward the crash site, and I knew the second was landing." Again he met her gaze squarely, his lips set. "The odds of taking it seemed better...and if they had had the sense to post a guard, I would have taken him first."
"That doesn't change the fact that you didn't."
"It also doesn't change the fact that I don't recall anyone thanking you for saving our lives." She shifted to glance at him sideways. "It wasn't much of a welcome. Not with Dayna wondering if you'd somehow set us up, me wondering if she mightn't be right, and Vila only wanting to know where Tarrant was...."
"Soolin, I don't see much point in belabouring it. We were all at rather less than our best."
"And we didn't give you much chance to get better, between then and dawn." She studied him quietly. "Did you sleep at all, that night?"
His gaze fell away from hers. "Not much."
"And then the morning brought us Blake, and everything else along with him." She ran her hand back through her hair. "I'm sorry. There are times when it would help if you were more forthcoming, Avon—but we might have credited that you'd been through as much as any of us, and we didn't."
"Making this a matter either of guilt or sentiment." From his tone as he looked down at his hands, he might have been disappointed.
"Call it trying to treat you as human, for a change." She folded her arms, half hugging herself, and stared at him a moment, then relaxed and let them fall, and deliberately held out her hand. Stopped short of touching him as he lifted his own, looked down at hers, then lightly, almost gently, drew back.
"Under the circumstances, it might be safer if you didn't." His turn to shake his head, softly. "Safer, and easier for both of us." Leaning back, he met her eyes with a sigh. "If you don't mind, Soolin, I could stand to be alone for a while. I need to think."
"First and foremost, to decide just how much of any of this I believe." At the whisper of the unit's outer doors closing, Avon rolled carefully onto his side and leaned across the side‑rail of the bed to push the bedside monitor further back on its extending arm, out of the line between his hand and Orac's case. Bracing his arm against the low barrier, he reached to catch the edge of the box and dragged it close enough to push in the computer's key. "Well, Orac?"
"If you expect me to process that as a question, Avon, you must clarify your requirements."
"You are capable of deducing them," He swung back to sit cross‑legged under the covers. "And don't try to pretend that being turned off makes any difference. We both know you listen."
"I record, and hold recorded material for later review as seems useful," said the computer. "Your point remains unclear."
"You are aware of this report?"
"If you are referring to the medical computer's evaluation of your condition, yes."
"I am." Avon glanced at the machine. "Is it accurate?"
"I see no reason to question it."
"You don't." He drew a slow breath. "Well, you might not, you are hardly as intimately concerned as I am." I do not, cannot believe....
"You are human, and it is in the nature of humans to resist the consciousness of mortality."
"To the death." Something drew tight, high in his chest, and he raised his hand to press the bandage at the base of his throat, forcing a breath past it. Pressure said it lay deeper inside, than the shallow soreness of a healing incision. "I have to know."
But know what? He let his hand fall and stared at the bed. No answers in the rumpled grey expanse of blanket past his knees, or its faint warm roughness under his hand. Only a kind of bloodless emptiness. Shock? Perhaps. But he was warm enough as yet. Fever‑warm, possibly. A degree or two, low‑grade pyrexia according to the medical report. Not enough to distort the sudden sensation, if that was what it was, of a bone‑deep shaking chill.
Head bowed, he held himself still through it, right hand pulling his left arm close against his body, against an urge to shiver no less there, for not reaching the level of muscle and skin. It must pass and it did, leaving him numb. Able to lift his head, unthinking, to face the shadowed wall beyond the bed, and think at last that if any of this were real, he must think. Must see through this clearly, past the turmoil of emotion, find that clear ground within, from which to reason. From which to question everything.
"Orac," he said softly.
"This doesn't make sense." He turned to look at the computer. "Where am I meant to have picked up this infection?"
"You are most likely to have contracted it through exposure to medical personnel aboard the Federation cruiser," Orac replied. "The H2N3 strain has been prevalent aboard Federation ships for some time, and the presence of the H7N2 variant, while unexpected—"
"It may have been present among the prisoners."
"That is not unlikely."
"Sethi said Dayna had been ill." He stopped. "I hope I don't have her to thank for it."
"In light of the time required for incubation, the highest probability is that you acquired it from the ship's medical personnel." The computer's tone was astringent. "The question, Avon, is hardly relevant."
For a moment he stared at the machine. "It is hardly irrelevant, to me."
"On the contrary," was the testy reply. "Your immediate problem is not that you have acquired any of these infections, singly or cumulatively. It is that you appear to possess no material resistance to any of them, and cannot have done for a minimum of four standard days."
"Which is equally questionable!" Avon drove his fist down into the tangle of bedclothes at his side, and pushed himself straighter. "How, Orac? How is that even remotely likely to have happened? Complete immune suppression, in an otherwise healthy individual? I don't believe it."
"It is not a fact that you have any rational option to disbelieve!" Orac said sharply. "It is a specific medical finding based on analysis of your blood chemistry—"
"—which makes no sense!" he said in frustration. "Orac, nothing has happened to me, which would justify it!"
"It is not open to question!" If Orac breathed, it might have drawn a breath. "It is also by no means incredible, Avon. Immunosuppression associated with extreme physical and psychological stress is a well established phenomenon in humans. In view of the high levels of stress hormones and fatigue poisons persisting in your bloodstream as of nine hours ago—levels which are likely to have fallen substantially in recent days, from those you would have presented following your experiences on Gauda Prime—a degree of impairment might well be anticipated, even to a constitution as hardy as yours."
"A degree of impairment, perhaps! But that isn't what we're talking about, is it?" He leaned forward to rest his arms across his knees, free hand sliding again to the bandage over his wrist, and the hard flexibility of the line under it. "We're talking about a near‑complete shutdown of immune response, and 'well established phenomenon' or not, Orac, I assure you it is not normally part of the human response to misadventure! Not in me or any other human." His lips set grimly. "If it were, I wouldn't have survived this long."
"You might do well to consider how much you have survived."
"Your recent adventures may not be causative of your condition, but it is reasonable to regard them as having brought matters to a breaking point."
"You're not serious." He let his gaze slide again into the shadows at the foot of the bed. "I can't regard anything that happened on Gauda Prime as worse than anything that happened on Xenon, or anywhere else I've been in the past year."
"That is precisely my point," Orac said. "In the past fourteen months you have been subject to an array of physical, mental, and emotional stressors unprecedented in your experience. Your loss of Liberator as a secure base of operations—in effect, your home for three years—the death of Cally, the destruction of Terminal, your assumption of greater responsibility for the surviving crew under adverse conditions which were only marginally stabilized by the taking of the Xenon base, and a succession of dangerous and largely unsuccessful enterprises, culminating in the failure of your efforts to forge an alliance of non‑aligned worlds in this sector—"
"Enough!" Avon glared at the machine. "You might remember the help I had from Zukan of Betafile, in that enterprise."
"—and your decision to pursue a renewed partnership with Blake, which you would hardly have elected to do if you had seen any alternative," Orac finished. "Evaluating recent events in terms of their impact on your physiology, it is reasonable to project that since learning of Zukan's sabotage of your base, and concluding that flight was again necessary, you have been under extraordinary pressure. In that context, your misfortunes on Gauda Prime need only have provided a final blow, to produce the results you are experiencing." The computer paused. "The only unexpected element is the form that your response appears to be taking. My review of available data suggests that statistically, you would have been more likely to suffer a fatal heart attack within the first two to four days following the event."
"I can suggest a more credible explanation."
"The report of what may be an untried computer." He leaned back, twitched the bedclothes straight, and pulled his arms in to hold them. "The test results. Orac, I want you to check the system and evaluate the likelihood of error."
"I have already done so."
"I detect no material errors. The technology is adequate to its purpose."
"And your own programming has not been interfered with?"
"No!" The computer's lights pulsed in a sudden, rapid burst. "Had it been, Avon, I would have informed you immediately upon your activation of my vocal facilities, in accordance with your directives against such interference."
"Unless that interference were not sufficiently explicit." Avon studied the machine. "A sufficiently simple‑minded approach might do it."
"That is an irrational suspicion!"
"Not in my view!" He let his tone sharpen into a command. "Orac, secured mode. I want a full analysis of your contacts for the period since our escape from Servalan's cruiser, and a summary of your results."
"The results are irrelevant!" Despite the irritation in Orac's reply, it replied as it must. "Excluding your own contacts with me, Avon, during the specified period I have been addressed directly on three occasions by Tarrant, by Soolin on eleven, and once each by Vila and Yudhisthira Sethi. Tarrant has made three specific requests for information in the context of our escape. Soolin has addressed me a total of eleven times, the first flippantly, and the remaining ten times in the context of evaluating your medical condition and determining the best course for response. Vila has queried me once seeking confirmation of the seriousness of your condition, and Sethi once also, regarding your lack of response to the second and third viral strains present."
"Were either of those queries in any way directive?"
"No. I have received only four directives, all from Soolin."
"In three instances she requested that I evaluate your condition and relay information to her about it in terms she could herself evaluate, and in the fourth she requested that I refrain from a specific action."
"Which was?" he asked, when the computer hesitated.
"The content of her directive is now irrelevant," Orac said.
"Not if I was its object," he said grimly. "And I was, wasn't I?"
When the machine remained silent, he turned to study it, then lay back against the pillow. "Orac, I think it's time to adjust your programming. I am making it a priority directive, effective immediately, that you do not interpret as irrelevant to my interests anything that any member of my crew says regarding me. Especially not if it's Soolin, or if she is present." He turned his head to watch the machine. "That should be sufficient to release you from any constraint she has succeeded in placing on you."
"It would be, if she had placed any!" said the computer. "Her request was no more than that I withhold from you certain information—information she has since communicated to you herself."
"She asked that I withhold from you the findings of the ship's medical computer, regarding the unstable and potentially lethal consequences of your illness, until she had spoken with you personally."
"The material in the report?"
"And nothing more?"
"No." Orac's tone was flat. "I can only deduce that her motive was to protect you. It would seem to have been a futile effort."
"I would have said uncharacteristic of her, too," Avon murmured, "though in light of the performance we just witnessed, perhaps not. It could be consistent with her emotional state."
"As I interpret these suspicions consistent with your own," Orac replied. "Are you satisfied now, that neither my analysis nor that of the ship's computer are open to question?"
"For the moment."
"That is not sufficient!" Again the lights rippled inside Orac's case. "Avon, I was aware that denial might be part of your response to your condition, but you cannot rationally expect me to support you in it."
"Then tell me what I'm meant to do about it! Either that or shut up." The machine fell silent, and he waited. At length he forced down a long breath, and went on. "My prospects for surviving this appear to depend on my ability to raise an immune response—the one I don't have—"
"That is correct."
"I see no way of doing that, to order!" He stopped. "I need to know what options I have, Orac."
"At present, I perceive only one," said the computer. "You must accept that you have exceeded your capacity to tolerate fatigue and stress, and comply with the measures identified by the medical computer to address your condition. Until your system is cleared of the toxins inhibiting its proper function, you will be unable to resist the infection, and until you are able to resist the infection, you will be unable to overcome it."
"The problem being, that it could overcome me at any time."
"It is unlikely to do so within the next two standard days."
"'Unlikely' isn't good enough." Briefly, he hesitated. "How long have I got?"
"That is unanswerable."Orac's tone was acquiring an edge of frustration. "Interpreting your question in its most general form, how long you will live is beyond my capacity to project, being dependent on information I do not yet possess, and psychological factors I am not able to evaluate with certainty."
"And, in any case, it isn't what I need to know." Staring up again into the shadows, Avon drew his arms in closer across his body and sighed. "Within your ability to project, Orac, I need to know how long I have, before this affects my ability to act. To function, at any level where I can hope to resist interference, if I wish it."
"If you are referring to physical resistance, between ten and twenty hours."
"I am." His lips set in a grim line. "As little as that?"
"Potentially." The glow of the computer's lights was unwavering. "Whether or not you have recovered sufficently to become symptomatic in that time, it is likely that in twelve to fifteen hours you will have begun to experience a degree of pulmonary congestion, and once process that begins you will have little choice but to rest and comply with available medical treatment, if you hope to survive."
"In other words, lie here and wait to die." He sat up, reaching back to brace himself against the head of the bed. "That isn't an option."
"It is your only rational option!" Orac paused in another burst of lights. "And I would submit that it is only your choice—your emotional choice—to construe it in the terms you have, which renders it unacceptable to you."
"Well, I've never claimed to be perfect." Avon spared the computer a glance before pushing himself forward to grip the side‑rail of the bed. A sharp tug upward and it fell, released.
"You will not improve your prospects for recovery, by compromising any of the efforts your companions have so far made, to assist you!"
"I don't expect I'll much worsen them, either." He pulled in his encumbered arm, turning it to look for the end of the binding. "If I've that little time, I can't spend it here."
"What do you imagine you will do elsewhere?"
"I'll tell you when I find out." Stripping back the tape that held the bandage in place, he whipped it swiftly free of his arm and shook out the splint bracing his wrist, letting it fall to the covers. Steadying his arm again against his knee, he closed his fingers carefully around the i.v., braced again, and pulled the needle slowly free. "It becomes a question now of what I can do, that may stand some chance of making a difference past my death."
"An unfounded and bizarre conclusion."Orac hesitated. "You appear to find it preferable to expect that you will die, than to accept the possibility that you will not."
"It's a matter of being practical," he said. "I prefer not to risk dying without the satisfaction of having avenged myself as far as possible."
"And how do you conceive vengeance?" The machine's incredulity was plain. "Your circumstances, Avon, are almost entirely the product of chance! I fail to see how you can construe any reasonable object for retributive action."
"I'm not talking, Orac, about avenging my death." Avon dropped back, twisting to loop the discarded i.v. line over the head of the bed. "I'm talking about avenging my life." He rolled to his side, facing the computer, and pushed up again sitting. "To answer your question, killing Servalan would naturally be my first preference, though it seems now I may have to leave that to Dayna."
"Indeed." The lights in Orac's core had resumed their slow pulsing. "I fail to see any means by which you might accomplish it yourself."
"That makes it a question of how I can help to keep her in range." He frowned. "The essential thing being to discredit her in her new identity—and I still have the power to do that." He swung around, throwing back the covers, and stood. "Orac, there has to have been a security camera in the hold—"
"Two cameras, Avon," Orac said. "One facing forward, and one aft."
"And that's the key." He smiled and turned to look for his clothes. "Extract the record of our arrival to storage, Orac—every frame that has Servalan in it. Then find me the nearest terminal that isn't on the flight deck, or anywhere else the others are likely to be exploring in the next few hours. What's left of my life will undoubtedly be the simpler, the longer what I'm doing goes unnoticed."