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An Isolated Incident

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GAN: Cally told me her people can share any experience. And telepathy means they never have to be alone. Makes them very strong. (Shadow)

 

It was a simple mission, or at least (like many of Blake’s exploits) it should have been.  

Gan and Cally, posing as a married couple, had been tasked to rendezvous with a local rebel group on the planet of Barataria. The planet was in uproar due to the recent assassination of its king. Interestingly the Federation seemed not to be behind the assassination itself, but they were certainly keen to capitalise on it. Barataria occupied a key strategic position on the edge of the alpha quadrant. It had always been neutral, but not neutral enough to allow Federation ships to stop there before heading out into wider space. With a Federation puppet ruler in charge, though, that could change.  

The rebel group had somehow managed to smuggle the infant son of the dead king out of his castle. The same information that had pinpointed Sarkoff as a major lynch-pin in Lindor’s political history (information harvested using the cipher machine Blake had stolen from Centaro) had mentioned this child, too. In fact, Blake theorised the plan to impose a puppet here was probably the work of the same puppeteer who had worked on Lindor. If the child remained alive, and could be proved to be so at court within a week of his father’s death, it was unlikely the people would accept another ruler. His aunt (a woman Avalon believed had sympathy with the rebellion) would act as regent. If, however, the child was not presented, then a number of rival factions would fight it out to see who would gain control. The Federation’s choice would have better weaponry (supplied by the Federation) – they would ensure she won.  

Blake had sent the Liberator to Barataria to ensure the child reached the castle safely, and the planet’s neutrality thus preserved. Avalon had been able to provide a contact in the rebel group, who had confirmed that they did have the infant prince, but that soldiers of all the rival factions were crawling the countryside, all of them intent on cutting off that claim to the throne. It was simply too dangerous for the Baratarian rebels to venture out with the prince – their faces were known as supporters of the king, and anyone with a baby would be immediately suspect.  The contact Blake had spoken to had said, rather reluctantly, that they’d decided in lieu of a better option that they should simply raise the child as a farmer. When he was old enough to defend himself, he could return to the castle and challenge its new ruler - say, in eighteen years or so. His iconic birthmark would prove his parentage. Blake had repeated the words “Eighteen years?” in a tone that implied it was completely unacceptable to give the Federation a hold for that long. He had then volunteered himself to transport and protect the child.  

The ideal solution would have been to teleport down, collect the child, teleport back up, and then teleport down in the castle again. But the planet was surrounded by Federation pursuit ships, waiting to take advantage of the newly opened planet. The Liberator could only risk remaining in orbit a short time. The transportation would have to be on-foot (after a quick drop off), and undercover.  

Blake had reluctantly agreed not to teleport down himself, after Avon had snidely pointed out that Avalon’s contact had used the phrase “I know you from your reputation – and your reward posters, of course!” while expressing his surprise and (“Frankly unlikely”) delight at speaking to the famous rebel leader. Roj Blake would have been no more likely to avoid detection than Barataria’s own rebels. Jenna had been needed at the flight controls, Vila had discovered another illness that would sadly keep him from another mission, and Avon had refused to engage with the question of whether he was going or not. Instead he’d simply left the room. That left Cally and Gan to volunteer. (“Well now, a man who can’t kill: the perfect protector,” Avon had said when he’d seen who was going. “I thought you’d given up on suicide missions, Cally.” Gan had asked whether Avon would rather go instead, and Avon had said no thank you. He had given up suicide missions.)

They’d collected the child without trouble. They’d also managed to pass through two villages. At the second Gan had bought some food for the three of them, thinking it would lend credibility to their cover as travellers who wouldn’t be carrying many possessions. Perhaps it would have done, but the food vendor had tried to joke with him about how most of the other recent travellers (soldiers of the rival factions, presumably) had only been hungry for power, and only interested in eating the young prince’s heart – possibly with a little bit of garlic.  

“I don’t think jokes about eating babies are very funny,” Gan had said darkly, “do you?”  

The vendor had backtracked, as people who thought they’d upset all six and a half foot of Gan generally did. (“Well no – I mean, you’ve got a nipper yourself, haven’t you?). As they’d exchanged money and food, the vendor had darted several nervous looks at Cally, who was holding the baby, as though hoping she would hold back her murderous husband.  

I would have done the same, Cally had sent telepathically, but that does not mean it was wise.

Gan had felt similarly. He’d known his image would be impressed on the vendor’s mind now. If anyone came asking about people carrying babies (and they would, if the vendor’s stories could be believed), he and Cally would be described.

But Gan had never been able to easily tolerate bad manners. The same instinct had led him to protect Vila from the other prisoners aboard the London, and he knew that (wise or not) he would take the same actions again in both cases.  

“Let’s just get going,” he’d said to Cally.

The men arrived at sunset. The castle was in sight, and they’d stopped for a rest before the final approach. Cally had been singing a strange and beautiful song in a language Gan didn’t understand to the baby in her arms while Gan had been building up the fire. Then  suddenly Cally’s voice was in his head.  

Take the baby.  

Presumably, Gan thought as he accepted the gurgling bundle, she’d heard a twig snap, or had sensed something using her telepathy. He pushed the baby inside his cape, pulling it tight around the child with his left hand – not a very effective disguise, but better than nothing. It was also a chilly night, and while not much protection against weaponry, the cloak was probably some use against the cold.  

Cally drew her gun, which had been hidden beneath her own coat until now. Gan drew his too, for appearance more than anything, though, he thought (with so much at stake) perhaps he might be able to use it this time.  

The men attacked. There were five of them. Cally killed one immediately, and Gan ducked a shot, and fired deliberately to the side of one of the others. If he didn’t aim to kill, the limiter let him do that much – better they think him incompetent, than incapable.  

He lost track of what Cally was doing as he dodged another two blasts, moving in closer so he could at least use his fists. This move took one of the men by surprise, and Gan managed to smack the butt of his gun against a man’s head. Another gun went off close, probably by accident, grazing the edge of his shoulder.

Inside his cape, the baby began to cry.  

As Gan had feared, someone shouted:

“Forget the girl! Get the prince.”

He considered running, but he and Cally had discussed this earlier. It made no sense to get separated, and remove himself from Cally’s protection. He’d taken the assassins by surprise by attacking once where he could have fled; it could work again. He charged, feeling a gun-blast make contact with his other arm, and crashed into one of the men left standing. The other man stumbled back into the fire that Gan had man earlier – a small thing, but the heat was enough to make him stumble and cry out.  

“Cally!” Gan shouted smacking the man again with his free arm. If she didn’t come soon, he would be in trouble, but then the man gasped suddenly and Gan saw a knife emerging from the assassin’s chest. It was ripped away, and without the support the man fell. Another Liberator gun fired, and then fell silent. No further gunshots followed, and Gan realised all the assassins were dead.

The baby was still crying.  

Cally was stripping one of the corpses of his weapons: more knives and a Federation blaster. She noticed Gan staring at her as he tried to rock the baby back to contentment. She was covered with blood.

“It isn’t mine,” she explained, sensing his disquiet. There was certainly a lot of it. Gan had always known she was a guerrilla fighter, and people had killed animals with knives in Gan’s colony, but it was unsettling to put the two together and see gentle Cally covered with the blood of her enemies. She’d killed all five in less than five minutes.  

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Gan said truthfully. He tried to hold the baby out to Cally, but she shook her head.  

“You should carry him from now on,” she said, and this time when they walked on she didn’t trouble to conceal her weapons.

*

They delivered the prince safely to the castle early the next morning. The two of them stayed long enough to see the prince crowned and his aunt sworn in as regent, and then Vila’s voice came through the teleport bracelets asking if they were ready for pick up.  

Gan said they were, and Cally stepped forward to kiss the infant king on the forehead. Whether this was allowed or not was unclear, but the teleport whisked them away before Gan could find out.  

“Hey – Oh, wow,” Vila said as they appeared, his voice sliding quickly from typically perky Vila to typically alarmed Vila. “Remind me not to get on your bad side, Cally.”  

Two further groups had attacked them during the night, and Cally had increasingly relied on the knives as their power-packs dwindled. Her clothes, which had been moss green when they’d gone down, were now brown with what Vila had clearly realised was dried blood.

“Did you need reminding?” Cally asked evenly.  

“Er,” Vila said, clearly thinking fast, “no. Would you look at the time?” he said, consulting the chronograph he didn’t wear, “I’m late for my watch. Blake’s going to kill me. But not … literally,” he said, thinking about what Gan and Cally had just endured, before scarpering – presumably not towards his watch.  

As usual whenever Vila did something like this, Gan began to smile. He was going to remark on it to Cally, but she was already leaving, and he knew he needed to talk to her before they separated.  

Cally,” he called after her.

She turned back, framed by the hexagonal doorway. She looked almost uneasy, which was unlike her. Gan had only seen her look that way early into her time on the Liberator. Then, she’d been unsure she belonged with them, and when she spoke Gan realised that she felt that way again now.

“I’m sorry what I did disturbed you," she said.

“Oh, I’ll recover,” Gan said trying to sound more than usually cheerful so she’d know it was all right. “I used to like fighting,” he smiled ruefully, “when I could fight. And these were bad people, Cally. Men who would kill a child for power. The universe is better without them.”

“I do not regret their deaths at all,” Cally said. “But I would regret losing your friendship.”

Gan shook his head. “Never,” he said. Then he said, “Do you have children, Cally?”  

This was what he’d wanted to ask her. He’d never considered it before, but watching her protect the baby had made him wonder. It was the sort of question he should have asked earlier (he knew Vila didn’t, for example), but she was an alien. The others were alphas and Gan hadn’t asked them either. None of them talked about their pasts, and for all Gan knew it wasn’t something that aliens or alphas did.  

But he thought he could risk it right now. After all, hadn’t Cally said she would regret losing his friendship?

She seemed to consider the question before answering. Odd, Gan thought, because the answer was either a yes or no, but perhaps he’d accidentally stumbled into a difficult situation. This was why he hadn’t asked before. Perhaps aliens didn’t think it proper to talk about children. Or perhaps she'd had a child, but it had died, or she didn’t like talking about them for some other reason.  

He thought about taking the question back, but that would look more awkward, so he said,  

“I’d always wanted to. I don’t suppose I ever will now.”  

This, he hoped, he would ensure that, if she didn’t want to answer the question, they could both pretend it had just been Gan talking about himself. It was also the truth, and he was willing to trust Cally with his past, just as he had trusted her with his life down on the planet.  

Eventually Cally said, “My sister works in the bio-replication plant on Auron. I worked there too before I left.”  

“Bio-replication plant?” Gan asked, feeling stupid. It wasn’t the answer he had expected, and he was working it out in his head (Replication of … biology, meaning…) as Cally answered:

“The Auronar have perfected cloning technology. My task was to look after the offspring born at the plant, including those who share my genetic material, so you could say – yes, I do have children, six of them.”

“Six? That’s a lot of mouths to feed,” Gan said, joking slightly. He’d never known anyone to have so many children, and even if Cally’s experience meant that the way she’d had children was different than he’d expected, it still seemed a very high number.

The more important element of the story was too much for him to take in yet, and even though he had questions about it, he wasn’t sure how to ask them.

“The young are supported by the community until they can support themselves,” Cally explained, answering Gan’s joke seriously. “Numbers of offspring are carefully monitored by our elders, so that their needs do not exceed the available resources. My role in the ecosystem was merely to maintain and improve the gestation machines we used, though I did look in the children while they were with us.”

“And I expect you still missed them when they left,” Gan said.

This, at least, seemed clear to him from the way Cally had acted the day before. It was why he’d asked the question in the first place, but oddly Cally smiled – ruefully, but it was still a smile.  

“Clones on my planet are born with telepathy. So I would sing to them, like I sang to the young king, and hear them singing back to me inside my mind. However far away they went on Auron, I could still hear them; share their hopes and dreams. I always felt connected."

“On Auron?” Gan said.  

“That’s right,” Cally said. “I can’t hear them anymore.”

She gave him another sad smile, as though to say that these things happened, and you lived with it, and turned again for the exit. She got to the top of the stairs this time.                                                                                                                             

“Cally,” Gan said, calling her back – sure he’d missed one other important thing, “aren’t you telepathic?”

“Yes,” Cally said simply. “Does it make you think of me differently?”

It would certainly take some getting used to.

Gan had understood that various civilisations had cloning technology, and that there must therefore be people who were clones, but he’d never expected to meet any of them in his farming community back home. The idea of Cally being raised by a commune, rather than a mother and a father; of there being other Callys, some older, some younger, was deeply bizarre. Was it stranger, though, Gan asked himself, than Cally having brothers or sisters? Identical sisters? He’d known naturally born identical twins before.

Cally didn’t look as though she was daring him to speak, or even worried about his answer. But it seemed like there was a brittleness to her as she waited for him to reply that hadn’t been there a moment ago but had when she’d asked him how he felt about her actions on the planet. Gan considered telling her that he could see why her elders had chosen to replicate her – she was smart, brave and beautiful - but he had no idea whether that was an appropriate thing to say to a clone. Instead he focused on the brittleness in the warrior woman, and the things she’d actually chosen to tell him about herself when she’d inadvertently revealed the circumstances of her birth.  

“It makes me think … you must be very lonely here,” Gan said truthfully. “None of us sing, at all, except Vila and he only knows awful songs. I could try,” he offered.

Cally smiled, and this time there was no trace of melancholy in it. She leaned forward, her position at the top of the stairs giving her the extra height she needed, and kissed him on the forehead as she had with the young king.  

“I have a new family,” she told him.