Dodging Federation pursuit ships has become a familiar dance. Jenna fits to the controls like an extension of self. It reminds Zen of when he and the Liberator had no name, only the designation Deep Space Vehicle II, and the Altas would blend their consciousness with his and they would be one.
Jenna is a better pilot than any Alta. She does not override his judgement. They work together as two halves of a whole: spinning graceful manoeuvres through asteroid fields, surfing the gravity wells of gas giants, and whipping past their clumsy enemies with the pure glee that comes from being the best and fastest ship in the sky.
They ride together through space as an unstoppable, unbeatable team.
But then the dance breaks down. The Andromedan fleet plays to a different choreography than the Federation. Zen cannot predict their movements and Jenna is equally uncertain. They dodge together, but there is nowhere to run, and according to Jenna they cannot, must not run for reasons Zen does not understand. His strange, ridiculous crew are risking their lives and his to defend enemies they have fought and fled across the galaxy. It is illogical, but Jenna says stay and so Zen does, though the other computer on board shouts again and again that their defence is a futile gesture.
Orac is, Jenna thinks, a coward. But that is a Jenna idea. Zen does not know if it applies.
The human named Vila mans the neutron blasters according to the co-ordinates Orac gives (Even a coward can be useful, Jenna thinks. This Zen agrees with.). Their fire lessens the number of alien vessels, but it is not enough. Their early estimates of the aliens' strength were in the high hundreds, but the Andromedans' battle formation hid their numbers. There are thousands of them with only Zen and his crew to hold the gap. A mouse, Jenna thinks, against an endless parade of lions.
"A very stupid mouse," Vila says, when Jenna voices her thought for the rest of the crew. "A soon to be very dead mouse."
"Shut up and keep firing," says the human named Avon. His face is white. Zen knows that he has calculated their odds of survival and found them dissatisfactory.
They sustain hit after hit. Federation ships arrive. Federation ships are destroyed. The pattern repeats. Others show up – pirates, neutrals, unaligned, warlords, independent contractors, rich kids in modified space yachts, and more Federation ships. Humanity in all its shapes and ideologies has allied together against the unknown.
Jenna lets Zen know that now, finally, they can retreat. But where can they retreat to? The Federation is firing on them with as much force as the aliens, and the ships are pressed so thickly together that there is no space to dodge and weave their way to freedom, nor is there enough reserved power left to try.
"We're the good guys!" Vila protests as a neutral ship lays down a round of friendly fire.
"The Liberator is an alien design," Cally says. "It is possible that they do not realize we are not part of the invading fleet."
Avon holds, white-knuckled to a control panel, struggling to stay upright. "It is equally possible that they don't care."
More shots are fired. More hits sustained. Zen feels his shell breaking down and lets Jenna know through the links that she must run but he cannot.
You must. You must. You must.
I will not.
Her eyes are making water. Zen knows this is a sign of great distress. The other humans are running and shouting, but Jenna refuses to leave the controls.
You must. You must. You must.
No, I must not! Don't try to make me, Zen. I've made my decision. We go down together.
Zen doesn't know how to explain to Jenna that they will not die together; that her Jenna-thought of a captain and ship sinking together is illogical nonsense. There are no waves in space. There is no sinking. The damage is extensive, and the life support systems will soon shut down, but Zen's shell, Jenna's Liberator, will regenerate. The auto-repair circuits can repair nearly anything given enough time. Only she will die, and that he cannot, will not allow.
You must. He tells her one last time, but she maintains that they must stay together. They are a team. They are one. They are–
Zen severs the link. Jenna screams mentally and aloud. Sparks fall from the ceiling and flames lick across the walls. The lights flicker and the artificial gravity shifts queasily. Jenna backs away from the controls as if in a trance. One of the other humans grabs her arm and they run/stagger/crawl away from the chaos of the flight deck.
Betrayal is not an Alta concept. It is one of the many Jenna ideas – ideas like courage and freedom and morality – imparted to Zen during their oneness. Zen clings to another Jenna-thought as the life capsules tumble out of him, surrendering their precious cargo to the dark, harshness of open space:
Forgiveness. Jenna. Please.
Del Tarrant hadn't been expecting a good birthday. Personal anniversaries, under Federation rule, were less about celebration and more about bureaucracy and paperwork. Eighteenth birthdays were among the worst. Being designated as a provisional Citizen meant extra forms and waiting.
Del hated waiting.
The room he'd been trapped in for the past four hours featured supposedly-ergonomic plastic mould seats; a florescent light flickering towards the end of its usefulness; and a woman who'd stupidly brought along her sniffling, snotty-nosed children. Del tried to distract himself with his personal datapad, but there was no signal to speak of and the charge was on its last bar. He'd sleep, but then the brats would climb on him.
Finally, Del's name was called. He walked up to glass and endured the sarcastic apologies about the delay – as if the officials in the booth weren't taking advantage of the opportunity to have some petty, Delta-class revenge by making him wait.
Del gave them his sweetest smile, because that was the way the game was played. Being excessively polite was one of the best ways to make a Delta sweat. Unfortunately, all of his attempts to get even that much entertainment out of the day were being undermined by the moronic rule that necessitated a witness to every signature.
Del's father had volunteered against Del's protests and taken the day off work to tag along. Darian Tarrant was a jolly, compulsively friendly man with an abnormally large belly and an open smile. In the Domes, friendliness was generally met with unease, especially when dealing with the lower classes, but Darian Tarrant was in a class of his own.
"Those are lovely patches," he told the drab-looking woman looking over Del's school records. The patches were, in Del's opinion, absolutely hideous. The woman stared at Del's father, obviously trying to work out his intentions. She had narrow eyes with sleep in the corners and bags underneath.
"The chartreuse one is my favourite. Is it velvet?"
"Velveteen," the woman said, adjusting her baggy dress. Del couldn't for the life of him think why Delta fashions were always so blatantly ugly. His father would give him a lecture about poverty and deprivation etc. if he brought it up, but Del knew that, at the end of the day, it all came down to standards.
A down-on-his-luck Alpha would never look that tatty.
"It's gorgeous," said Darian. "You must let me know your supplier."
The woman tittered nervously, and the weary people in queue behind Del and his father made angry noises. Del wanted to grab his father's hand and force it into signing the witness forms so they could leave, and start the whole dismal, embarrassing process over again in the next government office down the hall.
Birthdays were the worst.
By the end of the day, Del was seething and exhausted. His father was acting overly cheerful, as if they'd just finished a fun, father-son excursion. Del wished he'd be quiet.
"Specialized training next term," he said, nudging Del's shoulder as they turned a corner towards their home junction. "Aren't you excited?"
"Not nearly so excited as you."
"It's a bit overwhelming, I know. When I was your age…"
When you were my age, you had far more choices available, Del thought, looking away from his father and examining the fine network of cracks that marred the wall tiles of their section. Tarrant was a powerful family name, and Del knew that name was the only thing keeping their Alpha status intact. They were hanging on by their fingernails. Del would do better. He had plans and talent.
"I was disappointed when Deeta decided he wanted to go into military broadcasting, of all things. I know you're better than that, Del. Disseminating propaganda and lies and –"
"Oh, I know you don't like it when I talk like that, but really Del –"
"People could be listening," Del told his father.
"People are always listening. They should be listening. And why should I be afraid? What will they do to me?"
Del pressed his lips together and continued looking away, too ashamed to say what he really thought:
It's not what they'll do to you that scares me.
A pair of black-masked Troopers were standing guard outside the family flat when Del and his father returned. They raised their weapons in unison when Del's father tried to enter.
"I live here!" he protested.
One of the Troopers raised his hand to activate a hidden headset. He nodded at whatever instructions he received before stretching out his hand, palm up. "Identification cards and papers."
Del's father gave a look of outright incredulity before addressing the Trooper with an imperious Alpha accent Del hadn't heard him use for years: "This is an outrage. I am Darian Tarrant. Do you know who my father is? Do you know what rank my brother holds in the securities office?"
The Trooper's body language gave away nothing. For a moment, Del thought that maybe the attempt at pulling rank had worked, but the illusion was quickly shattered.
"Papers," the Trooper repeated, "Sir."
Darian Tarrant sputtered uselessly.
Del reached into his pocket and pulled out his freshly minted Citizenship card (Alpha-class provisional). He stepped past his bristling father and handed it over to the Trooper, resenting the blank, black-masked stare he got in return. Del didn't need to see the Trooper's expression to feel the contempt. "I think you'll find everything in order," Del said.
A long moment elapsed.
"Doesn't match." The Trooper gave Del back his card. Dark gun-grease from the Trooper's gloves had left a long smear across the identification photo.
"Doesn't it?" Del asked.
"Any particular reason why not?"
The Trooper reached up and drew a line of grease along Del's cheek to match the smudge on the card. Del smiled stiffly, clenching his fists to keep from using them. "All's in order now," the Trooper said, "you can go in."
The Trooper's partner snickered.
Del's father shouted and threatened uselessly. Del ignored him and went inside. He wasn't surprised to see his uncle sitting in their cramped kitchenette.
Security Commissioner Dev Tarrant wore a crumpled brown shirt and dark green trousers. Del's ten-year-old sister, Dee, was in the process of serving him tea and biscuits. Her hands shook as she poured his cup. Dev shooed her away with his cane when she'd finished. Dee all but ran out of the room. Dev looked up at Del, as if just noticing his presence.
"Strange definition of happy, Uncle."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Del. Sit. There's something resembling tea and something resembling biscuits." Dev took a bite of one of the shortbreads and frowned. He set the biscuit down and removed a monogrammed handkerchief from his shirt pocket to wipe his lips. "You don't actually eat these, do you?"
Del remained standing. "Only on special occasions. Generally, we have cardboard and hot water."
"If this is the alternative, I can see why. Is your father still fussing outside?"
"He doesn't like being bullied – Neither do I."
"But unlike him, you are intelligent enough to know when to bend. I like that. Come over here. Sit." Dev tapped at the empty seat with his cane.
Del grudgingly complied. Dev licked the corner of his handkerchief and reached across the narrow table to dab at the grease smear on Del's cheek. Del sat very still.
"There. Much better. Your father can keep up his tantrum if it makes him feel better – what I have to say doesn't concern him. I have a proposition for you."
"The same one you gave Deeta?"
"You have a quick mind, Del. Isn't it strange how intelligence can skip a generation?"
"I agree. I don't believe intellect has a genetic basis. I've met too many Delta's who were cleverer than their class should allow for – that's not the prescribed opinion, Del, but having an opinion is one of the benefits of power. Power is what I'm offering you."
"Del, I'm disappointed."
"I know the life expectancy of a junior officer."
"It is considerably longer than the life expectancy of a behavioural deviant. Certain family histories could be raised against you if you were to refuse. I understand that your father has been spreading leaflets again –"
"Is that the threat you used to goad Deeta? If you were able to raise that claim against our father without implicating yourself you would have done so a long time ago." Del looked meaningfully at his uncle's twisted leg. "But you can't, can you?"
Dev followed his nephew's gaze, before shaking his head slightly. He tapped his leg with one finger as if to say, "What? This?" and smiled. "History has been rewritten. This is a war injury. I never attended any of your father's little meetings in anything but a professional capacity."
Del fought to keep up his confident mask.
"It is unfortunate that the blood connection prevents me from making accusations against the obvious target," Dev said lightly, folding his handkerchief and returning it to his pocket. "Your mother, however, lovely as she was, was also Beta-by-birth and not terribly significant in the greater scheme of things. Your siblings would be unfortunate collateral damage. Do you think Dee would look pretty as a Mutoid?"
Dev stood up. He limped around the table to pinch Del's cheek.
"You're a sweet boy. You should be bright enough to understand that this is a favour; not a punishment. If you were an idiot I wouldn't bother, but you have talent and I mean to see it utilized. I expect your answer by the end of the week. And do have some better refreshments next time I come to visit."
Dev swung his cane sharply at the table leg. It wobbled, knocking over his untouched tea cup. The steaming brown liquid splashed across the table, drowning six months rations of biscuits before dripping onto the floor and staining the linoleum.
Del Tarrant sat on the edge of his bed, playing with his datapad. He had a flight simulator open and was only a few points away from unlocking the Wanderer-class ships.
Del looked up. His older brother stood in the doorway. Deeta wore a soft, blue jacket and white trousers. It had been a long time since Del had seen him in civilian clothes. It had been a long time since Del had seen him at all. When Deeta sat down on the bed beside Del the mattress sagged and let out an angry squeal.
"Aren't you supposed to be standing behind a mic somewhere calling Troopers heroic for gunning down children?"
"I got leave," said Deeta, "courtesy of you-know-who."
Del had suspected as much. He had an equally strong suspicion as to why his brother had been sent. "Uncle Dev gives me too much credit. He already bought me with the blackmail."
Deeta rested an arm around his brother's shoulder. "It's not as bad as you'd think."
"Why would I trust anything you say? You're a spin-doctor, a professional prevaricator."
"Fine then. It's awful and soul-leeching, but there's a decent pay-cheque, benefits, and our darling uncle doesn't send Troopers to kill you and Dee in your beds. It isn't the worst thing that could happen, Del, so don't act childish about it."
Del flung off his brother's arm. "I'm not being childish!"
"Aren't you?" Deeta snatched away Del's datapad. Del made a grasp at getting it back, and failed. He was the same height as Deeta, but he wasn't half as fast.
"What are you trying to prove, exactly?" Del asked, trying to act like he wasn't bothered.
Deeta leaned away to keep the datapad out of reach. He hit a button and the woo-waah sound that resulted told Del that his brother had lost his game, probably intentionally. "Have you given any thought to your future at all?"
"I know that I'm not running off to get shot." Del knew he sounded sulky, but he also knew it was a good argument. Even among Alpha-class recruits, front line casualties were high, and that was based on official channels –
Who knew what the real numbers were? Deeta, probably, but what did he care? Broadcasting was a safe, posh placement. Odds were against Del being so lucky.
"Do you have better plans? I don't see you happily working in an office," Deeta said.
"I'll think of something."
Deeta tossed the datapad back over to his brother. Del cradled it protectively.
Deeta snorted. "That won't help you. The real world isn't a game, Del. Things don't always occur in an orderly manner, and being talented doesn't mean you automatically win."
They sat side by side for several minutes. Del felt his heart pounding in his ears. He wanted to run, to fight, to scream. He wanted to give Deeta a bloody nose.
"Do you know what the worst bit is?" Del asked.
Deeta didn't respond. Del thought that was because he already knew. Of course he already knew. But Del had to say it out loud anyway, because there was no one else he could talk to and it was eating him up inside.
"The worst bit is that he is right. You're good at your job, Deeta. I've seen the reports. You're very good. And whatever I get assigned to – I want to be a success, Deeta, but I want it on my terms."
Deeta sighed. "We don't always get what we want." He put his arm around his brother's shoulder again. "Come on Del, I've got twenty-four hours leave, you're old enough to drink now, and we're both got good reason to. Let's go and get pissed."
One week later a line of twenty teenage boys stood in the middle of an exo-Dome parade ground. The sun was hours from rising and the temperature hovered at five degrees centigrade. The boys wore nothing but thin, cotton briefs. Their skin pimpled with goosebumps. They shivered violently, blue lips chattering in the wane, pre-dawn light. None of them crossed their arms over their chests or rubbed their hands together in an attempt to keep warm. The line of twenty stood rigidly at attention, eyes fixed forward on their warmly dressed tormentors.
It was a classic intimidation technique, Del thought, struggling to keep his thoughts coherent against the onslaught of cold. It felt like long needles of ice were being slammed into the nerves of his calves and forearms.
It was working. He was intimidated, and he was afraid. He'd never been outside of the Dome before. The vast, empty darkness of the sky overhead would have been enough by itself to make him feel vulnerable, but they'd also stripped the new recruits for maximum effect and left them standing barefoot in the cold for nearly twenty minutes.
It couldn't go on much longer without them all getting hypothermia, and that couldn't possibly be the intention. The training officers wanted them scared and malleable, not dead.
With that bit of logic as a dull comfort, Del straightened his shoulders and put all his effort into not shivering. He fixed his eyes on the far horizon. There was a star there, sparkling brighter than the rest.
The night sky reminded Del of the lights at the drinking establishment Deeta had taken him too. One of the drinking establishments. They'd all blended together. Lights and colours and cheap black market soma mixed with even cheaper ersatz fruit juices. Del remembered staggering and being led to sit in a dark corner booth. Deeta had leaned across the Formica table and slurred the same piece of advice ten times over. It was something important. Del had to keep something safe, but he couldn't remember –
One of the training officers was yelling. Muzzily, Del focused on the red face hovering inches from his own.
"What was that?"
"Do you need your ears cleaned out, Tarrant? I said: Don't think your name will get you any special privileges here."
Del started laughing. He couldn't help it. It was funny. He wondered if Deeta had been told the same on his first day.
"Something amusing?" the officers snapped. "Do you think I am incorrect?"
Danger signals flared at the back of Del's muddled brain. He brought himself back under control. He thought of his sister's shaking hands, his father shouting at armed guards, and the tea stain that had sunk deep into the tiles.
"No, Sir. I've never been under that illusion."
The days passed in a blur: Up before dawn for inspection and then an hour of marching and exercises before the sun came up. Only fifteen minutes was given for breakfast and half the time Del would find himself eating standing up while waiting in line to give his dishes back to be washed. Then more exercises and lessons; running, climbing, doing flight simulators, trying desperately to stay awake in the classrooms as they were drilled over and over on rank and protocol.
It was meant to break down individuality with a relentless barrage of facts, sleep deprivation, and physical exhaustion. It worked.
Del no longer thought of himself by his first name. He was Cadet Tarrant and he jumped to attention when called.
Bizarrely, he found that he enjoyed it. He wasn't as tired at the end of days as his peers. He didn't struggle as much on his tests. He looked great in the uniform. He was the strongest and the fastest and the best.
Tarrant took a certain amount of pride in that.
After basic finished, specialized training began. Tarrant didn't get any choice about his speciality, which grated, but training for a captaincy position gave him a certain cache among the other trainee officers. He'd been selected based on his intelligence, his spatial reasoning, his logic, and his innate leadership abilities –
Or so Uncle Dev told him.
Tarrant had an inkling that the selection had more to do with redeeming the family name, but that didn't change the fact that he had consistently aced all of his exams and simulator tests.
Tarrant grinned as he led his unit through a turn on the parade grounds. There had been a time when he had been a selfish, self-absorbed brat, but training for Space Command had given him purpose. He was thankful to his uncle for seeing him through that youthful sulkiness and not letting his considerable talents go to waste.
A whistle blew and Tarrant ended the march. He relaxed into at-ease position, ready for inspection. Their commander nodded as he moved up and down the ranks. He stopped in front of Tarrant.
"Space Sub-Lieutenant Tarrant."
"Sir." Tarrant held his shoulders back, enjoying the thrill of hearing his newly bestowed rank spoken out loud. It was still low, but it was higher than cadet, and it was a reminder that he would rise further as his career progressed.
"You have a visitor waiting for you at the barracks. Dismissed."
Tarrant blinked once before nodding his acknowledgement. It would be his uncle. Tarrant didn't know anyone else important enough to warrant an interruption to training manoeuvres. Tarrant spent the ten minute walk back to the barracks mulling over the possible news:
Something about his up-coming deployment? He knew that his uncle had been working to pull strings.
The barracks were a series of low, concrete bunkers. The door opened to Tarrant's palm print. He took a moment on stepping inside to savour the orderliness; the neatly made bunks and the clean-swept tiles. Tarrant was eager to leave and get his career underway, but he thought he would miss this place and the men he shared it with. It had become home over the past eight months. His old home in the Domes felt like it belonged to a different lifetime.
Dev Tarrant sat at the table where the recruits played cards and exchanged gossip during off hours. Del settled into a chair across from him.
"Have you been enjoying yourself?" Dev asked.
"Looking forward to your deployment?"
"I am looking forward to the day when I am in charge of my own vessel."
"Forward thinking is to be applauded, arrogance however –"
"I am prepared to wait and work my way up through the ranks. That does not preclude me from fantasizing about the eventual results."
"Fantasizing when you should be thinking about the present will get you shot."
"I have enough intelligence to put my mind to the present when the situation becomes dangerous."
"The situation is always dangerous." Dev sounded irritated.
Tarrant decided that was enough banter – too much, and Dev would become cross. His uncle's time was precious, and Tarrant couldn't afford to squander his good graces with trivialities.
"Why are you here, Uncle?"
Dev reached into one of his pockets and pulled out an envelope. Tarrant recognized the official seal.
"Your next assignment. I am in the process of objecting."
Tarrant took the letter and slid one finger along the edge to break the seal. The paper inside had a lot of small type. It all blurred together. Tarrant was fixated on the name listed near the top of the page.
"When did this happen?" Tarrant asked.
"One week past."
"I wasn't told."
"Why would you be?"
Tarrant swallowed. "And doing this will prove what?"
"Is that in question?"
"It is well documented that dissent and rebelliousness are a genetic taint as much as an environmental one."
Tarrant examined his uncle's face. "This affects you too."
Tarrant nodded slowly. He returned the paper to its envelope. His marching uniform didn't have any convenient pockets so he held it awkwardly in his hands. Dev stood up. He no longer used a cane. Tarrant thought he was trying to draw attention away from the injury, but it was counterintuitive since the limp was worse for it. Dev picked his way over to the door of the dormitory before halting and turning to looking back at Tarrant.
"You will not argue about this," Dev said.
Tarrant nodded again. He sat with his back stiff against the hard plastic chair. He held the letter tightly and didn't notice when it crumpled under his grip.
Central Holding was innocuous name. The corridors were brightly lit and the air smelled of disinfectant with an undertow of sewage. It reminded Tarrant of the Dome neighbourhood he'd grown up in.
Most of the prisoners were kept in the main panopticon, but there was a special, more secluded corridor for military prisoners and deserters. Tarrant was guided there by a black-clad, gas-masked guard who asked no questions and gave no answers. The guard led Tarrant to the relevant cell, opened the door, and stood back to allow Tarrant some privacy for his visitation. Tarrant was grateful for the discretion.
The man inside lounged nonchalantly on his concrete bunk as if there was nothing wrong with the situation. He wore a tattered-looking Federation uniform instead of one of the generic grey jumpsuits worn by the prisoners in the main area. Tarrant guessed that it was too much bother calling down to supplies for such a short-term resident.
Tarrant stepped into the cell, not knowing what to say or feel. The first sentence of the prisoner decided the balance of his emotions towards anger:
"Hullo, Del. Come to visit your good-for-nothing older brother?"
"You can't call me that," said Tarrant.
"Being pernicious?" Deeta asked.
Tarrant raised his hand. Deeta caught the blow before it could descend with the same easy grace he'd always had during their childhood squabbles. Their eyes met for a short moment. Under the mask of insouciance, Deeta looked tired and afraid. Tarrant wondered what was running through his brother's head; what had been running through his head when he'd deserted; how he'd expected this to end.
"You're a civilian now, Deeta," he said softly. "I'm an officer."
Deeta released his brother's wrist with a dismissive flick. "Barely, and being under court martial doesn't make me a civilian."
Tarrant glanced out at the hall. The guard was more interested in a personal datapad than in what was going on in the cell. "I'm not insisting on rank to be a prat – your sentence could be extended for disrespect."
Deeta straightened up. His grin flattened into something grimmer. He looked disappointed. A look that, under the circumstances, he had no right to whatsoever. "My sentence, Officer Tarrant, is execution. If referring to you in the familiar postpones the proceedings, then I fail to see the benefit of doing otherwise."
"There are quick executions and there are slow executions."
"I worked in broadcasting, little brother."
"Did you know I'm likely to be on the firing squad?"
Tarrant said it coolly, as if he accepted the idea. Maybe he would, once it had fully processed. He didn't know. He was still thinking of it in the abstract, because thinking of it in the concrete made him want to punch a wall.
Deeta snorted. "What do you want me to say? I'm sorry? I'll try to die quickly for you?"
Tarrant looked away for a moment, bunching his fists. He did a quick sideway check on the guard – still preoccupied – before quietly asking the one thing he wanted to know:
Deeta shifted back into his lounging position. "Because my soul was being slowly sucked dry? Because I felt morally bankrupt? Because I could no longer bear to support a tyrannical dictatorship with no regard for the lives of its citizens? Or maybe I just don't like being told what to do. I thought you of all people would understand."
"You're worse than our father."
"Our father is smarter than he looks."
Deeta smiled lazily. "Things are looking up for you now, but they won't always. You don't like following orders any more than I do. Take my advice and run before it's too late."
"I prefer living," Tarrant said, flashing Deeta a dazzling, fake grin.
Deeta's quiet response stung against Tarrant's back as he turned to leave:
"Yes, I think you do."
"Cheeky bastard. Pity you didn't slap him," the guard said as he led Tarrant back to the main entrance. "If you needed him to be held down, all you had to do was ask."
It was the first thing the guard had said all day beyond, "wait for the lock code to clear." The black helmet and mask concealed the man's expression, but he sounded earnest and sympathetic. He also had his head tilted like he expected a response.
Deeta's final words felt like they were caught in Tarrant's chest, rocketing back and forth, daring him towards dangerous questions. Tarrant gave the guard a weak smile.
"If I'd realized the offer was available – he'll be shot tomorrow. I suppose I won't get a second chance."
The guard shrugged and pinned in the code for Tarrant to leave. "That's life. It's full of missed opportunities."
A handful of days had passed since Avon and Dayna had assisted Tarrant in ridding the Liberator of Klegg and his men. The crew sat on the flight deck couches observing the monitor image of the planet they were about to visit.
Epheron's surface had a dull, metallic sheen. No major features or continents were visible from the view screen.
"The planet is inhospitable to human life," Orac said.
Tarrant smirked. "That much we can see for ourselves."
Avon had touted the plastic box as their secret weapon and the greatest super computer in the galaxy, but either Avon was exaggerating or else the technician had crossed some circuits when he'd been tinkering with it earlier. Tarrant wagered it was both in equal measure.
Orac whirled. "If you wish to rely on your own senses for input then by all means do so. I have my own researches to attend to which have been interrupted long enough by the damages sustained during your petty conflicts with –"
"You should have done something about the attitude when you were working on him, Avon," Vila said.
Avon didn't respond. He stood by himself at the front of the flight deck, staring at the provided scan, obviously longing to have a decent leader back on board. A crew needed discipline. Avon had nothing but sad sarcasm. The amount of insubordination he allowed was shocking. Tarrant thought he would press the issue if Blake didn't pan out. Avon would protest – the man obviously liked the idea of being in charge, if not the reality of it – but at the end of the day, Tarrant was trained and experienced at command. Avon was a middle-aged technician, a failed criminal, and a poor excuse for a rebel.
"Is Blake there?" Cally asked.
"Data is insufficient to give an absolute response," Orac said.
Avon continued staring at the planet. "Zen said this is where he was headed."
"A journey does not necessitate arrival! However, after review of the variables I predict that there is a thirty-four percent chance that Roj Blake is alive on the planet surface."
"Not very good odds," Dayna pointed out.
"If Blake is not on Epheron, where would he be?" asked Cally.
"I do not know how you such expect me to answer that with any degree of accuracy," said Orac. "The capsule he was in may have failed; he may have been picked up by bounty hunters on-route or after arrival; he may have arrived on Epheron but already left; he may have suffered injuries on landing, or perished due to lack of supplies; he may –"
"Enough, Orac," said Avon.
"I am only providing the probabilities, as requested."
Tarrant privately agreed with Vila about the computer's attitude. As far as he understood, any artificial persona displayed by an AI was a direct result of the input of its programmer. In Tarrant's opinion, anyone who would deliberately program a computer to act like Orac was either a masochist or insane. According to reports the computer had been acquired from the scientist Ensor nearly two years ago, but Avon had been its primary technician and operator since. Tarrant wondered which of the two was more responsible.
Avon twisted his fingers together. "If Blake is on Epheron, what are his most likely coordinates?"
Orac's lights blinked for several seconds as the computer sifted data. "There is a small mining operation near the planet's equator. Its dome constitutes the only long-term survivable habitat on the planet. Outside of the dome, survival probabilities fall to under four percent due to hostile local fauna."
"Zen mentioned something about indigenous life forms," Avon said. "Orac –"
"No further data is available! Now if you don't mind –" Avon removed the computer's key and placed it on top of a nearby equipment bank.
"Look," said Tarrant, "I understand your desire to rescue your old leader –"
"Blake is not our leader," said Avon.
"That's right, we're all equal on this ship," said Vila.
"For a certain value of equal?" asked Dayna.
Avon half smiled. "Exactly."
"Which is why the Federation propaganda only ever referred to Blake by name?" Tarrant asked. He waited a beat to savour their reactions before continuing with his main point: "From what I've heard of your work I admire the man, and I would enjoy meeting him, but I am not prepared to risk my life for him."
"Afraid, Tarrant?" Avon asked.
"Practical," Tarrant replied.
"Unlike me, so it would seem. You claim to be a pilot. Have you managed to perform a manoeuvre yet?" Tarrant refused to respond. Avon took the silence as an answer. "The practical method of dealing with goods which fail to do as advertised involves an airlock."
"You could try," said Tarrant, but Avon had already shifted his attention.
"Dayna, do you feel particularly heroic?" Avon asked.
Dayna shrugged. "Not really."
Avon smiled. "Good. I'll need someone down there with a clear head and good aim." He gave Tarrant a pointed look. "Someone I can trust."
Dayna stood up. "I look forward to it. It would be nice to stand in the open air and fight something."
Avon looked at Cally. "Will you teleport us down?"
Cally nodded her assent.
"Perhaps," Avon said. After a pause the corner of his mouth twitched upward and he added. "Have I ever?"
For a moment, Tarrant wondered if Avon had suddenly gone mad. A moment later, he remembered the Auron's telepathy and felt no less unsettled. He didn't like it. The look on Dayna's face said that he wasn't the only one.
"What about me?" Vila asked.
"What about you?" Avon said, moving to exit the flight deck.
"You gave everyone else a task," Vila complained.
Avon paused in the doorway. He locked eyes with his new pilot. "Keep an eye on Tarrant. Don't let him fly off with my ship."
Tarrant stood by himself on the flight deck. Well, almost by himself – Vila hardly counted as company. Tarrant let his fingers drift over the instrument panels. The Liberator was a beautiful ship – he had fallen half in love with it from afar long before boarding, but the crew –
They were a far sight better than Klegg's death squad for company, but Tarrant preferred flying solo. Working with a team meant working with liabilities.
The girl, Dayna, wasn't bad. She had skills he could work with. Avon had been useful in getting rid of Klegg's lot, but Tarrant knew that same ruthlessness could be turned in his direction at moment's notice. The sooner Tarrant could be rid of him the happier he would be.
Vila was more or less safe, but also obnoxious, a coward, and Tarrant didn't like the thought of trained lock-pick skulking around his ship, breaking into places where he wasn't wanted. Tarrant hadn't been able to work out Cally's motives yet. She was an alien, but, according to Avon, competent at guerrilla warfare techniques and field medicine. If it were up to Tarrant, he would take the two women and ditch Avon and Vila on the nearest uninhabited moon.
Doing so, however, would require a greater finesse with the onboard operating system, and Avon had been right when he'd insulted Tarrant's ability to fly the Liberator.
"You don't have a clue, do you?" Vila said, interrupting Tarrant's thoughts.
Tarrant looked up from the control panel he was examining to smile politely at Vila. "I got us to Epheron, didn't I?"
"That was the automatics. Zen's still following the tracking program. We'll pick up Jenna next, and then there won't be much for you."
"No need for a back-up pilot?" Tarrant knew what Vila meant, but he doubted that Stannis had any special skill with the ship. His research indicated that she was a failed smuggler, nothing more, while he had Federation flight training. He might be able to make room for a back-up pilot if Stannis followed the trend of competent Liberator women.
"The pilot is the back-up," Vila said, lounging back against the couch, "Zen does most of the work, but he's got a mind of his own. I'd be careful it I were you."
"Thankfully, that isn't the case," said Tarrant.
He went back to inspecting the controls. They were gorgeously designed, like everything else onboard, but his Federation flight training didn't cover alien technology. Stannis must've got instructions from somewhere.
"How's it going?" Vila asked.
"I can't take her for a test run until your friends come back from surface, but I think I've got a handle on things," Tarrant lied, fingering a row of metallic switches.
"Really? Because all those do is check sensor status. Flight controls are up there." Vila nodded to a seat above the couches.
Tarrant kept up his icy smile. "It's important for a pilot to understand all of their ship's systems."
"But it's not your ship, is it?"
"It will be," said Tarrant, making his way to the seat Vila had indicated.
"Avon was right about watching you."
"Avon's not entirely moronic. He can tell the direction of the wind." Tarrant settled into the seat, ignoring Vila's glower. The controls had nothing to distinguish their purpose. There was a green data read-out with some kind of graph display. If he were lucky, Tarrant thought, he might be able to bring up some kind of manual on that screen without Vila noticing. Tarrant reached out his hand –
Del slid down his seat. The padded backing was warm and cosy. The lighting was pleasantly dim except for a mobile of LEDs and broken up bits of mirror hung over the bar. The LEDs winked on and off, red-green-blue, on and off, white-orange-gold. Del felt nice and warm watching the lights.
He felt a hand on his wrist, shaking him back to attention. Deeta leaned across the table. Del tried to focus on his brother's urgent, liqueur-bright eyes.
"Do you understand, Del? You can't. Don't lose –"
Del's gaze drifted back to the blinking lights. The seat felt like it was swaying gently. And the floor. It was making him nauseous.
"Del. You've got remember this. You can't let – Are you about to be sick?"
"Do you think he's dead?" the voice said. Vila, Tarrant's mind supplied as an identifier.
"No." The second voice was female – Cally. Tarrant tried to remember more. His head ached and his eyes didn't want to open. "I think it was a psychic shock rather than an electric one." Tarrant felt a cool hand at his neck, presumably checking his pulse.
"Zen doesn't like him," said the Vila-voice.
"I know the feeling. Tarrant gives off an aura of arrogance and distrust."
"Sounds like Avon."
"At least Avon is honest about what he is."
"You don't believe Tarrant's story either, do you? About him being a deserter who stumbled across the Liberator by chance?"
"No. But, if he is a Federation plant, he has already had three days to kill us and seize control."
"Now there's a comforting thought." Tarrant felt something nudge his side. He thought it was a foot. He tried to move and grab it, but couldn't. His body felt leaden, like it belonged to someone else who was sitting a long, long ways away. "Maybe he's just biding his time," the Vila-voice said.
"Yes. There is also the possibility that he has been conditioned to believe his own lies and is awaiting a trigger to complete his mission."
"What kind of trigger?"
"If I had to guess, I would say the presence of his primary target. That is likely Blake."
"Who Avon and Dayna have just gone down to retrieve. So we'll find out if we're sharing our home with a deadly maniac very soon. Wonderful."
There were sounds like feet scuffling back and forth. The Cally-voice spoke again: "Avon was injured before he went into the life capsule. He may not be thinking clearly. Get Orac to run a background check on Tarrant. I should return to the teleports."
"Hey, wait just a minute. Don't leave me alone with him. If he does have conditioning, who knows whether or not it will still be there when he wakes up."
"This sedative will keep him unconscious until the others return and –" Tarrant felt the cool hand return and press something disc-shaped and warm against his forehead. "It will give his mind time to repair."
The sounds of the voices garbled and ebbed away as Tarrant drifted out of consciousness and into dreamless sleep.
Blake wasn't on Epheron.
Avon returned to the Liberator with nothing to show for his effort but a collection of claw marks and a bad attitude. Dayna came back with an exuberant grin and a slight sheen of perspiration from the effort of saving Avon from the local wildlife.
Tarrant watched the dramatics unfold from his position on the flight deck couch. He hazily remembered touching the flight controls and then – and then he was waking up on the couch with Cally removing something from his forehead and giving him a look laced with pity. Tarrant shoved the memory aside and focused on Dayna telling the story of how Avon had needed to be rescued from a pack of mutated seven-foot tall chinchillas:
"He ran straight into the second group! They would have ripped his throat out if I hadn't found him."
"Lucky then, that you did," Avon said.
"That ought to be looked over," Cally said, motioning to the torn skin under Avon's tunic.
"Not now," Avon told her. His hand fluttered restlessly by his side. He put in Orac's key. "Orac, what is the next most probable search location for Roj Blake."
"There is no way to define an exact prediction out of such haphazard data," the computer complained.
"Try," said Avon.
"It is impossible. A random survey of nearby systems may yield some information, but there is no trail for Roj Blake on the Tarriel network. Given this void of data, there is a very high possibility that Roj Blake is – " Avon tore out Orac's key. Tarrant waited for someone to give response.
"You always said you wanted to be rid of him," Vila offered, weakly.
"I do. But I promised I would take him back to Earth and I keep my promises. Zen, set a course to take us through a random survey of nearby worlds."
The visual reference point blinked several times before the disembodied voice replied: "Denied. Retrieval program set to Morphenniel. This cannot be over-ridden."
"I doubt you made any progress?" Avon asked Tarrant.
When Tarrant failed to reply, Avon stalked out of the room. He was followed by Cally, and then, a few minutes later, by Vila. Dayna sat next to Tarrant on the couch.
"I hope we do find Blake, sooner rather than later. I doubt we'll last long with Avon."
"I could suggest an alternative," Tarrant said.
Dayna gave him a playful shove. "Do you think it's wise to be talking about mutiny on the ship you can't fly?"
"I can fly this ship."
Dayna got up. "Prove it."
"I will master you," Tarrant told Zen's reference point.
The computer was either ignoring him or asleep. Tarrant didn't mind. He didn't need help or distractions. He'd been regarded as one of the best up-and-coming pilots at Space Command. After his desertion, he'd been captain of a Blade-class cargo-runner and everyone knew that those took skill to keep in the sky. He didn't need to prove his ability to the band of misfits and half-wits he'd fallen in with, but –
He was a good pilot, damn it all. He wasn't about to toss that all in because a heap of alien space junk zapped his finger a little bit.
Gingerly, Tarrant started experimenting with the controls. He kept well away from the graph readout that had knocked him out last time. He pressed one switch and – it might have been his imagination – but he could have sworn that the ship sped up a bit. He hit the switch again and, yes, that was a definite speed shift.
Heartened, Tarrant tried the next switch along. He felt the ship gently turn to the portside. This was more like it. Something scuttled in his peripheral vision. Tarrant swung his head to look, but the was nothing there. He tried another switch and succeeded in returning the ship to its original course to Morphenniel.
Cannot be over-ridden, ha. Automatics would never take the place of a skilled human at the controls.
For the next several minutes, Tarrant familiarized himself with the controls. Velocity, altitude, directional input. He doubted he could land the thing without significant practice, but the teleports made that redundant. He could fly it and that was what mattered.
Tarrant looked over his shoulder. He could have sworn he'd seen something moving behind him.
"Vila? If I catch you trying to pickpocket me I will shoot you." He wasn't wearing a weapon, but that shouldn't matter. Tarrant doubted Vila would be brave enough to come up and check.
There was no answer. Tarrant saw something out of the corner of his eye on the other side of the flight deck – too far away for Vila to have moved that fast. If it was Vila. Tarrant had his doubts. He'd made certain he was alone. Everyone else was in the recreation area playing board games.
There was another flash of movement with no definable source. Tarrant was unnerved. He wondered at the extent of Cally's powers. Could she make him see things? Or maybe it was the ship? Or maybe he just hadn't been sleeping well enough these past few days –
Tarrant heard a strange scraping, buzzing noise to his right. He turned to face it. Some kind of metal cabling had detached itself from one of the instrument panels. A discharge of blue static made Tarrant look to his left. Another one.
He slowly slid out of the pilot's seat and tried to back away, but the cables had him cornered. A third crept across the floor and tangled around his legs. Tarrant stumbled. The wires attacked.
The first thing Tarrant saw on waking was Vila. The Delta perched on a nearby seat giving him an inscrutable look.
"It wasn't me!" Vila said, before Tarrant could get his thoughts together. "I just came up here because Avon was cheating again and I didn't like the girls laughing at me."
Tarrant took a deep breath to compose himself and sat up smiling. "I don't doubt he was, but with your intelligence it could hardly have made much difference."
Vila frowned. "Is that the thanks I get for making sure you aren't dead? For a second time, I might add?"
Tarrant did a quick self-assessment. He didn't feel injured, but his head hurt, and the Federation bio-leather uniform he'd worn to board the Liberator was in tatters.
"Zen will probably kill you next time," Vila continued. "You should probably just stop trying. Don't take it personally. I'm certain you were great at flying whatever rust bucket you had as a pirate, but the Liberator takes a lighter touch, and it's choosey about its pilots."
"I understand that persistence may be a difficult concept for someone of your limited faculties, but I don't give up so easily." said Tarrant, griping a console and pulling himself to his feet.
"On your own head then," Vila said. He tilted his head to the side, examining the alterations the Liberator cables had made to Tarrant's outfit. "You might want to find a new pair of trousers first, before the rest of them finish their game."
Tarrant turned on his heel and marched off the flight deck to find the wardrobe room. He held his hands very strategically as he went.
The attempt to find new clothing was largely unsuccessful. Tarrant tried to be logical:
The ship did not hate him. Ships did not hate. He'd accidentally triggered a defence mechanism that had systematically destroyed his uniform. That was all. Odd, but it was an alien ship.
The wardrobe didn't contain much in his size. Awkward, but he was the tallest onboard by a wide margin. He'd been lucky to find anything at all.
It took Tarrant some time to work up the nerve to go down to the recreation area. He didn't want to face the others, but he was hungry and wasn't moronic enough to starve for pride. He would use the food replicators and get out.
The second Dayna caught sight of him, she started laughing. Cally looked up, smiled, and looked down.
"Did you choose that yourself?" Avon asked.
Tarrant smoothed down the hems of the orange and blue bodysuit. The colour was bad, the cheap nylon fabric was worse, and the greenish-yellow velvet patches stitched over the knees and elbows were beyond hideous.
"This is the height of fashion back in the Domes," Tarrant said, straight-faced. "You've been on the run. I doubt you've had time to keep up with trends."
"Well now," said Avon. "Orac, can you bring us up-to-date on current Earth fashions?"
The computer didn't even complain about its circuits being put to use on trivial tasks, though, since it was playing monopoly, maybe that excuse stretched beyond even Orac's capacity for duplicity. Still, Tarrant thought, as he stiffly worked the food replicator, the bloody rat-box didn't have to sound so pleased with itself:
"Tarrant's current outfit – as I assume you are making your vague queries in an attempt to determine the veracity of his statement – was fashionable in one place and period only."
"And what was that?" Cally asked.
"The Delta Domes, on Earth, ten years previous to the current date."
The food replicators refused to give Tarrant anything other than green, paste-like protein sludge. He took it and walked away with as much dignity as he could muster.
He would bring the ship under his control.
Tarrant steeled himself before touching the instrument panel.
The shock the ship gave him sent him halfway across the room. Tarrant pulled himself to his feet, made his way over to the flight controls, and tried again.
The flight deck was dark when Tarrant came to on the floor, and something else was wrong. It took him a moment to identify:
It was too quiet. Even when he'd first arrived on the Liberator and the ship had still been repairing itself from the damages incurred during the Galactic War there had been the buzz of the engines, the steady hum of the computer banks, the weird, barely audible whine of the repair circuits…
Unsettled, Tarrant waited for a mocking face to hover into his field of vision – for Dayna to laugh, or Avon to make a jibe, or Cally to look thoughtful, or for Vila say, "I told you so."
No one came. Tarrant rose slowly to his feet, wondering if he was actually dead this time. Weird shadows stretched across the walls and floor, making the flight deck feel even more otherworldly than usual. The lights of Zen's reference point were on.
"Zen?" Tarrant asked, cautiously.
The lights blinked. "Del Tarrant. Please state your request."
"Have we stopped moving?"
"Course to Morphenniel has been aborted."
"For what reason?"
"Replaying communication from Jenna Stannis."
The reference point blinked out and was replaced by a static photo of a beautiful blonde stranger.
"Message to Liberator from Jenna Stannis: I have arrived on Morphenniel. There's a space port here and a lot of crews are looking to sell out after the fighting. I won't be coming back, Blake. They were good times – the best years of my life – and I'm grateful for them, but the time has come for me to move on. You got what you always wanted: the Federation is in shambles. Avon has the Liberator. And now I have the Phoenix. She's a good ship. Not the equal, but mine. I will miss you – but not enough to change my mind. Goodbye, Blake."
"Message ends." The image of the woman faded away. Tarrant wondered if he was going mad. Zen's voice hadn't altered, but something about it seemed almost… sad.
Tarrant felt the urge to say something comforting. The words didn't come, but the feelings did. The memory of his last visit to see Deeta rose vividly in Tarrant's mind. He hadn't let himself think about it for years. The Federation couldn't read thoughts, but they were very good at giving the impression of it. It had been best not to take the risk. He'd raised his hand to slap his brother –
And transferred the laser probe he'd managed to smuggle past Central Holding's security into Deeta's palm when his brother grabbed his wrist.
– Deeta had escaped that night. Tarrant hadn't been implicated - Uncle Dev had pulled for him, despite what he must have suspected - but Tarrant had had to wait three more years to get his father and sister to safety before he could make his own escape.
Betrayal. Forgiveness Loss.
The waves of animosity coming off the Liberator since Tarrant had first boarded suddenly evaporated. He had a strong inkling that if he tried the controls now they would respond perfectly.
Tarrant's fingers itched. He wanted to fly very badly. Instead he went back to his room and gave Zen a chance to grieve. A well-tailored outfit in brown and beige suede was waiting on his bed when he arrived. Tarrant sat quietly for a long time, thinking about the future and the past, rubbing the soft material between his fingertips.
Don't lose yourself, Deeta had implored him that night so long ago when they'd both been drunk and Del had been overly fascinated with light fixtures. Don't let them turn you into something you're not.
Tarrant pressed his eyes shut and thought of the response he hoped he'd get a chance to deliver one day:
Don't worry, Deeta. Del would smile and thump his brother affectionately on the back. I've been told that my more disagreeable personality traits are highly resistant to change.
The mind of Zen's new pilot is different from Jenna's. She was open and idealistic. He is cynical and arrogant. When Zen and Tarrant move together through space it is as a team, but it is not as one. It is hard for Zen to understand how humans can be so different inside, when the Altas were so the same.
The difference is not all bad. Sifting through Tarrant's mind and memories, Zen finds understandings and ignorances to compliment what he learned from Jenna. Tarrant gives the thought that Jenna did not give forgiveness in her message because a reasonable, practical woman would see nothing in Zen's actions requiring it. Zen thinks that Tarrant cannot know this. Not when humans live so separately in their own minds. Not when Tarrant never met Jenna, and is so different from her inside and out.
But Zen is not human and cannot judge their logic.
He allows Tarrant to enter a new course and moves on.