A giant of a man stood at the controls, short-cropped brown curly hair framing a wide, strong face with brown eyes and space-pale skin. He ran checks to occupy his time alone in early ship's morning. For all his outward calm the man was worried. The blinding migraine that had been troubling him on and off for days occurred again, so sudden as to catch him unprepared. Pain spiralled down from his head. It bit into every muscle. He slammed his palms against his temples, fingers spread wide against the crushing slicing feel of it, and as before the pain was gone, so suddenly he might think it imagined, if it had not happened before.
The computer's manifestation was located in the wall ahead of him on his left. It came on line now, lights scattering across the curved ball of its image. Attention: Liberator is entering meteorite storm zone. The man started to reach for the controls when pain suddenly slammed through him. He groaned and fought it, attempting to reach the controls yet again. The pain swarmed his head and drove out all thought except to somehow stop it. The computer spoke. Navigation computers propose immediate evasion course. Directive on manual override is now required. I repeat: directive on manual override is now required! For now came the sound of something striking the ship, and that sound brought a woman running onto the deck.
She took one startled look at the meteors on the viewscreen and dove for her console, shoving the man aside. "Gan, what're you doing?!" He stumbled away, body twisting in the pain that struck through him. The woman was occupied with their danger and did not see. "Manual out! Commit full automatics! Navigation computer take emergency evasive action and get us out of it."
Full automatics confirmed, the computer answered.
Hands racing over the controls to add commands, the woman spoke over her shoulder to Gan. "If you couldn't handle it, why didn't you call one of us? You're not expected to cope yet." Even saying so she was still surprised. She was the only trained pilot aboard and had wound up teaching the others. Simply in self-defense, or she would have been forced to stay at the controls all the time, including for her meals. Even so this was simple, Gan should have been able to handle it. A sudden gasping cry from him startled her, and she turned to see him bunched up in such obvious pain that she ran to his side. "Gan, what is it?! What's the matter?"
Between gasps he managed, "I'm sorry!" pointing at the control station.
Jenna bolted for the ship-wide com. "Blake, I think you'd better get down to the flight deck, it's Gan."
"What's wrong with him, Jenna?" came back tiredly.
"I don't know, he seems to be in some sort of pain, he's obviously g-WHA?!!" she was cut off as Gan yanked her violently away from the com.
"Jenna?" came Blake's bewildered voice. Gan lifted the woman over his head before she had a chance to struggle, and threw her head first toward the deck, knocking her unconscious. Blake called again, "Jenna? Jenna!" in rising panic.
He perceived things around him dimly. Most were simply objects, but one was alive, and as such could only be the source of the terrible pain. He remembered blows being rained on him by people. This had to be one of them, and he had caught the enemy by surprise. Snarling, he grabbed one of the woman's legs and started to drag her across the floor.
"Gan!!" Blake froze in shock for a moment when he stepped onto the flight deck. Gan's normally gentle face was twisted into a snarl as the large man released Jenna and turned on his other friend. Blake edged forward carefully, holding out hands he fought to keep from shaking. He tried to smile at his crazed crewman. It came out very shaky. "Gan, it's me, Blake. Gan, listen to me-" Gan stalked toward him and reached for his throat. Instinct took over and Blake aimed a rabbit-punch at Gan's stomach, but the larger man only grunted, caught Blake and threw him across the room. Blake scrambled around and lunged at Gan, who simply threw him aside again so he tried a kick. Gan caught his foot and spun him, catching him in a headlock, then throwing him at a console.
The crash brought Avon, Vila and Cally running. They arrived on the flight deck to see Gan slam a dazed Blake onto the deck, then as Blake tried to get up slash an arm about his neck and start to strangle him. Blake struggled with the arm as his skin flushed, trying to get a breath. Avon and Vila collided with Gan and pried his arm from Blake's neck. Blake shouted, "Cally get the medical kit, quickly!!"
Gan snarled and threw his arms back, shaking Avon and Vila off like dogs. Vila fell with a cry of pain as Blake spun out of Gan's reach. Gan caught Avon by the throat and started to squeeze. A rather solid blow across the back of his head staggered him, and Avon kneed him in the gut. Gan curled over this new pain and was struck again across the head. Blake had snatched up a chart and was using it to batter Gan down. "Tranquilizers, full strength!" he bellowed at Cally.
Cally was helping a groggy Jenna to her feet. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I think so," she managed.
Cally rubbed Jenna's shoulder understandingly before she took off. "I'll be back in a minute." She hurried to where Blake knelt beside the collapsed Gan.
"Get his sleeve up," Blake told Avon. He snatched a tranquilizing disk from Cally's med-kit and put it on Gan's upper arm, while Avon leaned on Gan's upper back, prepared in case he should suddenly wake. "Put another one on," Blake demanded. Avon snatched one up and put it on Gan's other arm, handling it gently despite the recent fight. "That'll go right through his system. Well the tranquilizer pad should keep him quiet for a while." Blake and Avon both got shakily to their feet.
Cally steadied herself against Avon's arm and stared bewildered down at Gan's body. "Two of them would flatten any one of us for about a hundred hours."
Avon was shaking slightly under Cally's hand. He was also just getting his breathing under control and beginning to get angry. "If he comes 'round he'll flatten all of us for a good deal longer than that. He ought to be put under restraint!"
He stepped away as Vila came over to him. The poor man winced and rubbed the back of his head carefully. "Ooh, my head! What fell on me?"
Avon drew a breath and pointed at Gan. "He did."
Blake had gone to help Jenna and ask her a few questions. She answered him as best she could. "It all happened so quickly. One minute he was crying with pain, then he went berserk!"
Vila knelt to check Gan's head and feel the rising tender spots there. He gathered himself back up and joined Avon to stare down at Gan. "I'm glad he's a friend. Could get very painful if he really didn't like you."
If Avon were a cat, his ears would have flicked back to express annoyance. He shifted to rest hands on hips and glanced at Blake. "It must have something to do with the limiter implant in his brain."
"It's been bothering him for some time. He tried to keep it a secret, but I'm sure he was in a lot of pain." Blake ignored the sensation of irritation Avon often projected at him and joined him to stand gazing down at Gan. "Let's get him to the surgical unit. Avon, stay and check the damage, will you? You three, give me a hand!"
Cally and Jenna exchanged tired glances and came to join the two men. Avon went to stand before Zen's visual reference point and aimed his voice at the computer. "All flight deck systems: full status check! Standard priority listings!" He rubbed his strained fingers as he waited.
Confirm standard priority listings.
Avon jerked his chin in a nod. "Begin."
Priority alpha one. Primary computer links are clear and functioning....
In the medical unit they laid Gan out on a gurney. Jenna cut hair away from the external metal circuitry plate of Gan's limiter, and Blake padded his feverish forehead with a cool cloth, afraid to do anything else but needing to do something. Vila watched over his shoulder. Blake lifted his gaze to Jenna's. "Anything?"
"There's some inflammation around the implant scar; look." Blake peered over her shoulder as she ran a finger lightly over the swollen skin.
He winced at the sight. "Yeah. No other external sign?"
"Blake..! Look at his hand!" Cally's shocked tone caught their attention. She stood at the foot of the table pointing at Gan's left hand. It was clenched, then opened and clenched again, and again.
Blake shivered and ordered grimly, "Jenna, get the diagnostic analyzer."
"We'll run the usual checks-" Blake began. He broke off, seeing Jenna stop and rub her chin thoughtfully. "What's the matter?"
"I don't think it's gonna show us much, though. 'Cept that it's a malfunction in the limiter."
"I hope for his sake you're wrong," Blake said softly. They shared a concerned gaze before she went for the analyzer. Blake and Vila began closing the forcefield restraints over Gan's body.
"What are you doing?" Cally asked.
"I want him secure."
Cally's mouth dropped open in appalled shock. "Surely that is unnecessary! He is a sick man, those are not going to help him!"
Blake steeled himself for an argument. "The limiter is supposed to cut in when stress drives him to the point where he might kill."
"So?" Cally glared stubbornly at him.
"So on the flight deck, he tried to kill me! The limiter didn't even slow him down."
Cally's lips thinned. "Still, among my people such things are considered barbarous."
Blake threw up his arms in exasperation. "All right! Just make him comfortable, but I want him secure!!" He stalked away.
Vila met Cally's pleading gaze, but he remembered all too well being thrown around the flight deck. He closed the last restraint over Gan's legs and activated the force field. Gan's body went stiff, his arms out.
Blake came onto the flight deck to find Avon sitting on the couch, staring thoughtfully at the viewscreen. "Well?" the rebel asked.
"All systems cleared and functioning." As usual Avon did not switch his gaze from the screen to the man he spoke to.
"Well that's something, anyway."
Avon's grim question caught the rebel. "What about Gan?"
"He's still out. We've run the diagnostic tests, it might show up something," Blake let a faint hope show in his voice.
Avon turned and Blake was startled by how pale the man looked. Dark eyes bored into his with silent demands. "Yes. And that something will tell you what you already know. Why don't you face it?"
Blake was stricken with helpless guilt which he knew better than to express aloud with Avon here. Nonetheless: "Because I don't know what to DO about it! And if it IS the limiter, I don't know how we can help him!!" He dropped his waving hands and glared hopefully at the computer tech. "Unless neural surgery is one of YOUR particular talents."
Blake sat across from Avon, his hand curled at his lower lip as he struggled to think of a way. He brightened suddenly and pointed a finger at the tech. "Suppose Zen gave us the necessary information AND detailed instructions!"
Avon was on his feet in one smooth movement, rage telegraphed into stance. "Oh come on, Blake! This is not something you do by numbers, not even highly sophisticated ones!! This is an area that has remained the EXCLUSIVE province of specialists!"
Blake flinched before Avon's fury. He tried to soothe it, but his own grief colored his reply. "Yes, I know. I know."
Avon leaned on the edge of the couch, glaring at Blake. He pitched his tone low. "There are quicker ways that you could kill him, but there are none more certain." Avon flicked a death's head feral smile at Blake, but his eyes showed not the slightest amusement, only cold anger.
The com unit chimed and Vila's voice came over it. "Blake, Avon, do you want to come down? Jenna's running the tests now."
Avon answered the com. "We're on our way." He started for the corridor to medical, paused at the sight of Blake with his right hand tugging at his lip, a grim expression on his face. The tech stepped back to him and leaned over the other man on braced arms. "Well?"
"Are you coming?"
Blake shied from Avon's steady demanding gaze. "I'll be with you in a minute." Avon left then, and Blake lifted his voice to the flight computer. "Zen, reverse thrust and stop."
The engine's hum rose then dropped as Zen complied. Confirmed.
"I want a hard-print on the following information...." *** Vila and Jenna set up the diagnostic scanner. The pilot shifted Gan's table around so his head was in easy reach and began laying the smaller diagnosis instrument along Gan's arms. There was no reaction from the machine nearby, so she moved it on toward his head.
Avon watched like a hawk. Vila edged over to his side, wide brown eyes lost and sad. "Funny, we're all standing here hoping there's something wrong with him. Something ordinary; a nice straightforward disease."
The hatch opening startled them all. Blake came in looking depressed. He joined Avon and Vila. "Well?" he almost pleaded with the tech.
"Nothing, so far."
Jenna brought the scan over Gan's limiter. Immediately a red light blinked on the machine. "Here it is!"
"Read out," Blake demanded. Avon reached down and activated a vocal-read out.
The med-computer's hollow tones began. Severe neurological disturbance centered in the Zero Three zone, Sub-4 section of the cerebrum. Condition must be relieved if permanent brain damage is to be avoided.
Blake gulped against a sudden tightness in his throat. "Prognostication?"
Rapid deterioration to terminal condition.
Immediate investigative surgery.
"So: if we don't get him treatment, he'll be a vegetable," Vila said.
"Or die," Jenna added grimly.
Avon suddenly snapped, "Switch on the Boray Scan."
Jenna moved to do that but Blake took the scan instrument from her. He lifted it over Gan's head. "You two watch the screen, I'll do the probe." The women joined Vila peering over Avon's shoulder. Cally sat beside the tech, who was intent on the screen.
"Right. Bring it directly over the skull," Avon ordered. Blake complied. Avon stared at the blurry images and frowned. "No, that won't do. You'll have to use the radio sensor." Blake changed sensors quickly. With the other one, the image became instantly clear. "Good, that's much better. Yes, there it is. There's the limiter implant, you can see it quite clearly. Give me the side view!" The screen image of Gan's skull and its rectangular circuitry plate shifted around. "Good. Yes, it's in the Sub-4 section all right. Now let's take a look at the limiter itself. Close focus, slowly!" he ordered Blake. The image of Gan's limiter became extremely complex and detailed under the scan.
Jenna eyed the clear image. "Well there's nothing wrong with the connectors," she murmured softly.
"All right. Deepen the focus!" Avon frowned at the intricate circuitry revealed. "More. That's it. Look at the micro-linkages, the fine lines."
Blake craned his head toward them. "Is there a fault?"
"I'm not sure." Avon laid his finger on the screen over a dark strip along the circuits. "That section seems to be burnt out. That could cause a conductivity loss."
Jenna leaned over his shoulder to look. "Would that account for what's happening to him?"
Avon was grim and silent for a moment. At last he said, "It's not my field, but if I am right, then the limiter is feeding scrambled impulses into his brain."
"Can it be corrected?" Cally asked him.
He looked at her, eyes dark. "You've got to get into this first."
"We need a neurosurgeon," Blake spoke up firmly.
"Which we haven't got," Vila pointed out.
Jenna pulled away and went over to Blake. She faced him with determined eyes. "Blake, we can't just let him die. If he needs a neurosurgeon then that's what we'd better get."
"Yes, and quickly. Look," the rebel indicated Gan.
Despite the forcefield, Gan's hands were still clenching and unclenching rapidly. *** Zen had put the star chart on a clear plate. Suns, planets, and their numbers beside them were marked onto the chart. Jenna and Avon gazed at it for a long time. The pilot finally spoke over her shoulder. "Blake, what about Kynesos, an independent Earth colony. Population in excess of seven million. THEY should have some medical expertise."
"What's the journey time?" Blake asked.
Jenna tapped it up on the smaller computer. "Six hundred hours."
Avon folded his arms behind his back. He stared at the screen and announced coldly, "Too long. You haven't anything like that much time."
"What about Oberon?" Blake asked, coming over and pointing to a planet in the upper corner of the chart.
Jenna checked. "Three hundred fifty hours. Only third level technology, though."
The computer tech's voice was ice. "Which means that they won't have the necessary medical expertise."
"Cassian..?" Blake asked with draining hope.
"That's a Federation stronghold," Avon stated.
"We KNOW they can do the surgery!"
Avon continued to stare at the chart. "There's a price on our heads. We are all under sentence of death."
Jenna snapped impatiently, "The difference is that Gan's sentence is being carried out right now." Avon shifted his dark gaze to her for a long moment, then he moved away.
Blake asked, "Any others with the necessary level of technology?"
"Only Ephenol, but the problem there is that they're considered potentially hostile."
"To the Federation?"
"To the species. They don't like humanoids in general, and in particular homo-sapiens."
Avon sat on the couch, commenting with a trace of amusement, "Now that puts their intelligence beyond doubt."
Blake and Jenna rolled their eyes in exasperation. The rebel asked, "How long will it take?"
"Two hundred hours."
Blake raised his voice in Avon's direction. "Two hundred hours? That's our best alternative."
"There is another one... even closer." Avon's cool tone reflected his relaxed appearance. He gazed at nothing, avoiding their eyes.
Blake sat across from him. "Not in the listings WE'VE been given."
"Zen, why is XK-72 not listed?" Avon asked.
The computer came on-line to reply. XK-72 is outside listed parameters.
"Specify!" Blake demanded. He knew better than to discount any suggestion of Avon's, no matter what the computer said.
Flight time from this position is in excess of six-hundred hours.
Avon sounded indifferent as he stated, "Conclusion is incorrect. Re-compute distance and flight-time."
Blake shot the tech a puzzled glance. "What IS XK-72?"
"It's a space-laboratory. A permanent research facility financed by a consortium of neutral planets. Two specialist fields; weaponry, and space medicine. An interesting combination, don't you think." His eyes held the dark humor of a private joke.
"How do you know all this?" Jenna asked him.
"I looked it up in the data banks. It was information that I thought might prove useful to me." He seemed to distance himself from them then.
Vila burst out laughing. "A bolthole! Somewhere to run if things got too hot here!"
"The thought had crossed my mind," Avon sounded put out that Vila had understood what he had been doing.
"Why haven't you told us about this station before?" Jenna asked.
Blake was grinning smugly at Avon. "Well presumably, if he goes there with us he'll be identified."
"You can say goodbye to one bolthole," Vila said cheerfully.
"How far is it?" Blake demanded, back to business.
"One hundred and fifty hours. Confirm!" Avon snapped at Zen.
Flight-time is six-hundred forty-three hours.
Direct flight would necessitate crossing a prohibited space zone, the computer answered him.
Vila pounced on the word. "Prohibited?!"
"Specify...." Blake stared toward Zen's visual reference point.
The zone has been designated as containing unacceptable danger.
"Well what sort of danger?" Blake demanded.
Data is not available.
"To you, or just to us?"
There is no data of any kind.
Avon's voice gained its iciest tone. "Just the unacceptable risk designation."
Blake waved his right hand at the computer angrily. "If the direct route to XK-72 is fifty hours shorter than our nearest alternative then that can be the difference between life and death for Gan!"
Vila leaned nervously forward. "And for us!"
"Realistically it's his only chance," Jenna pointed out firmly.
"I agree with Jenna."
The firm statement from Avon caught them all by surprise. Vila gaped at the computer tech. "You do?"
Avon avoided their gazes and stared at the screen. "I have never taken things on trust, I see no reason to make an exception in the case of a mysterious warning of danger."
"Neither do I." Jenna headed for her station.
"Right, let's get to it," Blake agreed. He and Avon both moved to their stations too.
"Don't I get asked?" Vila asked mournfully.
Blake ignored him. "Zen, set navigation computers for direct route to space laboratory XK-72, speed standard by six."
The computer sounded firm. Rejected.
The blow-up came from a most-unexpected quarter. "You cannot reject a direct command!!" Avon practically yelled, startling them all.
Blake cut in quickly. "Justify that rejection, please."
Your command reduces to an order to self-destruct. This runs counter to prime directive.
"Zen obviously believes there's something nasty in that zone!" Vila said, trying to support the computer.
Avon moved briefly snapping his hand in a dismissive gesture, furious glare still directed toward the computer. "It has no data. It is acting upon an instruction; an ORDER not to enter the zone."
"Then we'll go on manual. Jenna?" Blake turned to his pilot.
Jenna set her hands firmly on the controls. "Ready. Compute course and let's get started."
Blake was about to take his station, when he noticed Avon still glaring fiercely toward the computer. He pitched his voice low to avoid focusing the tech's rather short temper on himself, "Avon...." Avon's shoulders gave a twitch, then he moved for his station, eyes still toward Zen.
"Now wait a minute. If it's too difficult for ZEN to tackle, what chance have WE got?!" Vila objected pleadingly.
Jenna glared at him. "GAN is dying!!"
The thief shied from her gaze and pursed his lips miserably. "All right. Well let's get on with it!" he snapped when she looked surprised.
Cally had chosen to stay with Gan in the medical unit. She put away the tools they had brought earlier. At the rising hum of Liberator's power systems, she checked Gan. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully enough.
Blake paced across the flight deck to Jenna's side. She nodded mildly to him, "We're approaching it now."
Zen came on line, it's voice firm. Attention. Liberator is entering prohibited zone. All primaries and auxillory computer functions are now aborted.
"Zen..!" Blake started to shout. The computer's fascia went dark, and the forward viewscreen irised off.
"Blake, the screen's gone dead!" Jenna called sharply.
"Well check it!"
Jenna tried the controls again and shook her head. "Definitely dead."
"Switch to the secondary." He paced forward to a rectangular screen they had never needed to use and switched it on. The starfield ahead came into sharp focus immediately.
"Well thank heaven that one works," the pilot commented in relief.
Even so Blake gazed into the screen, his shoulders stiff and palms resting tensely on his hips. "Now we really are on our own."
"Let's hope so," Avon spoke up dryly.
Vila glanced around at the tech before staring in wide-eyed nervousness at the screen. "What do you suppose it is that's lurking out there?"
"Maybe Zen's got it wrong," Jenna tried to reassure him.
Avon considered the screen ahead, but responded, "Zen hasn't got it a'tall."
"All right then, whoever programmed him." The pilot rolled her eyes at Avon's continued sullen temper.
"One of these days I intend to find out who that is."
"If you live that long," came Vila's woeful response.
Blake turned around. Taking a deep breath he reminded himself of how just when things seem quite fine, suddenly something disastrous happens. "Anything on the detectors?"
The thief seemed surprised by his own answer. "Not a thing! What you see on the screen is exactly what's there: absolutely nothing!" He lifted his head and gazed at the screen for a moment, his brow furrowed. A reflexive shiver rippled the fabric of his shirt. "Why should I find nothing terrifying?"
Blake tuned out the thief's anxious question and bent over the couch console. Opening a comline to medical he asked, "How's Gan?"
Cally answered him in a sentence laced with anxiety. "No change. Blake, what is the flight-time across the zone?"
After a moment of surprise Blake saw that Cally had been listening to them all along. Avon must have opened the com unit for her. Strange how he thought ahead sometimes. "Avon..?"
"Thirty hours," the tech replied after checking his instruments.
"Thirty hours," Blake automatically repeated into the com.
Vila braced his weight against his chair. "That gives it plenty of time to leap out on us, then."
"Must you keep on about it Vila?" Jenna scolded.
He closed his eyes and shuddered. "Sorry, just nervous."
"We're all nervous," Blake assured him, coming over.
"I thought it was only me!" the thief exclaimed.
Blake almost sighed. Instead he brushed the tip of his nose and asked, "What are your readings, Vila?"
"Um... full-range detector... nothing to report."
"All flight systems normal," she replied.
The tech was clearly troubled, his eyes intent on the forward screen but he answered, "Navigation coordinates set and firm."
"Hmm." Blake sat on the couch and began to chew on his index finger, a nervous habit of his. "Well presumably Zen'll come back to us when we're out of danger."
"Sounds like a good idea, any chance of joining him?"
They all ignored this comment of Vila's, as much a nervous habit as Blake's finger-chewing. Jenna suddenly called out, "Zero-one surge on Primary two, confirm?"
"Confirmed," the thief responded with dread.
"Compensating." As Jenna responded, Avon abandoned his station in all haste and came down to Blake's side.
Avon spoke in a tone of low urgency that had the hairs on the back of Blake's neck rising instantly. "Blake, there's something we hadn't thought of!"
"Systems instability. We have never operated without the auxillory computers before."
Almost against his will, Avon's hand rested lightly on Blake's shoulder. The faint tremor in his fingers convinced the rebel if nothing else could that something had thoroughly alarmed the tech. "You mean they've been compensating for things that got past us!"
"They've made every minor adjustment that the systems require, and the chances are... that they are now going to require a LOT."
Jenna and Vila, hearing this, exchanged frightened glances.
Blake turned a wide-eyed gaze to meet Avon's dark alarmed one. "Because computer control is part of the basic design-"
"-Concept!" the tech finished Blake's sentence.
Blake looked away, his finger again between his teeth. "Damn!"
The low taut voice of Avon betrayed his anguish. "We're going to have to turn back." His trembling fingers left Blake's shoulder as he spun around. "Jenna! Stand by to reverse the course!"
Jenna objected as the tech came to her side. "Look, we set out to save Gan and that's what we're going to do."
"But you don't understand-"
She turned sharply on him and met his frightened dark eyes. "Neither do you, we're committed. I intend to go on flying this ship even if all systems go into a flat spin!"
Avon's control, already frayed, snapped. He caught Jenna's shoulders and snarled into her stubborn glare, "That's exactly what WILL happen!!"
Blake's own control reached a narrow edge and he shouted, "All right Avon, that's enough!!" The tech released Jenna with visible effort and came down to Blake. The rebel met the furious demand of Avon's gaze with his strongest appeal he could manage. It had melted walls before, perhaps it would soften Avon. "The signal to abort the auxillory computers came from Zen, can you override it, BYPASS Zen, and get them working? Again?"
"Possibly," Avon's answer was deathly cold.
Blake bared his teeth and hissed, "Well TRY."
The black fury of the tech's gaze did not falter, but his lips twisted in a bizarre parody of a smile. It held death in it. "All right... but I'm telling you... you should turn back." Blake imagined he could hear snapping from Avon's bones as the tech went from taut challenge to graceful movement and left the deck. Blake released a breath he had not known he was holding, and waited for his heart to slow down.
"Not a chance," Jenna called after Avon.
Vila was completely confused. As Blake took a station the thief asked, "What was all that about? Everything's running smoothly."
Blake was intent on the readings he was getting but he answered. "That was because everything was balanced before the computers went off line. Try and adjust something, you unbalance something else. Try and adjust THAT you unbalance two more and before you know it the ship is out of control-" he broke off as the engine's hum changed pitch to a hoarser tone.
"Blake, we're drifting off course," Jenna announced. And drastically, the stars were flowing past the viewscreen.
Blake held on to calm. "Lateral drift on.. coordinate four." The stars swung back.
"Got it. Compensating."
Vila raised a brow and with mock cheer announced, "I've just had a comforting thought. We may all be dead before we find out why this is a danger zone." *** Having little else to do, Cally was running a careful check on the medical equipment. Absorbed in her task, she did not notice Gan open his eyes and look about in sudden terror. His breathing had been harsh for some time and so that did not call her attention to him. Lips curled into a frightening snarl, he eyed Cally. Suddenly a crafty expression crept across his face. He groaned deeply and shifted back, eyes closed. Cally looked up from her work. Beads of sweat rolled down Gan's brow, and the young woman picked up a cloth to wipe his forehead with. He seemed quiet enough, so she went back to her checks. Gan opened his eyes again and watched her as a hunter watches prey. Clenching his teeth he strained against the force field, but there was no escape from that quarter. *** Avon adjusted controls in the auxillory computer room. He lifted his head every few moments to check three vertical rows of lights. His work was interrupted by a com signal, then Blake speaking over it. "Have you done it, Avon?"
"Soon," he replied curtly.
"How soon?" came a plea.
Avon gathered up a probe from his toolkit and prepared to ignore any interruptions. "I can talk or I can work, but I can't do both."
It was hard to ignore the low, anguished reply. "We're running out of time, Avon."
In response to the tech's probing, a light began to flash. Avon bent to work and blocked out of his mind everything else around him but the task he had been set to. His probing took him around to a panel on the other side of the room. *** Vila looked up nervously. "Blake, we're picking something up on the detectors."
Blake came over to the thief's station. "What is it?"
"I don't know! The signal's very weak." He tapped a finger toward the dim glow on his screen.
"No telling what it is from here," Blake considered slowly.
A rising hum in the ship was followed by Jenna's swift warning. "Our speed's increasing slightly."
Blake looked sharply back at her. "Reduce to standard by three, Jenna!"
"Standard by three," she echoed as she pulled the speed down.
The rebel focused back on Vila. "Can we squeeze any more range on the visuals?" he pleaded.
"It's at the limit now!"
Blake bit his lip and moved over to stand next to Jenna. "We may have to reverse thrust and run," he offered warily.
The pilot shot a brief glare at him and rested her hand on her hip, ready to fight over it. "That would really throw our systems into chaos now."
"Hurry up, Avon," Vila muttered.
"We're moving off course again," Jenna alerted them suddenly.
Blake glanced at the readings, "Lateral drift... coordinate three."
Avon was deep into the computers' circuitry now. Near him were three rows of lights which he was using to gauge the responses to his probing. Two rows were dark and the third was now blinking. Avon moved again to the other side of the machine and opened it up. As he deactivated some circuitry, the third row of lights went out and the middle row turned on. Avon felt more than slight alarm as the hum of Liberator's drive rose.
"Blake...!" Jenna called, startled.
"What is it?"
"Our speed's increasing again!" They both stared at the readings on her screen and neither knew quite what to do.
Cally had left the medical lab for a few moments. Gan, grunting and growling, strained against the forcefield restraints. The sound of Cally returning alerted him and he once again feigned unconsciousness. Cally closed the hatch behind her and set her drink down. She checked Gan, resting an angry hand on the restraints. Everything seemed fine though. As she stepped toward the table, the deck shuddered beneath her feet and all loose items around the medical bay slid or fell from their places. Cally nearly stumbled and braced herself against the wall. When it was over she checked Gan again, but he seemed all right, so she began picking up the fallen supplies.
Avon rapidly adjusted the controls. The middle line of lights began to blink and frustrated, Avon slammed the flat of his hand against the display. It had no effect, not even to make him feel better. He hit the com for the flight deck. "Blake, I can't do it! We must turn back before it's too late!"
Blake answered him from the couch console, voice low with urgency and plea. "We're already too late. We've an unstable magnetic field; we CAN'T turn back. Avon, we NEED those computers!"
"Can you stop us, Jenna?" Vila asked the pilot.
"Without computers? Not a chance."
Blake gathered himself to his feet. "Detectors?"
Vila shook his head. "Same signal, getting closer. But still no telling what it is!"
"We're speeding up again!" Jenna warned sharply.
Cally listened through open-com to the urgent voices on the flight deck. Blake's came next, all sharp with brittle edges. "Well try and compensate. If we get up past standard by 20 we'll be out of control!"
And Jenna: "I think she's holding. We're levelling off."
"Cally..!" a friendly voice she had not hoped to hear called.
"Keep it steady!" Blake was telling the others.
Cally turned around. Gan was conscious and staring over at her with strained control. He looked bewildered and no small amount frightened. She knelt beside him and asked softly, "How are you feeling?"
He gave her an exhausted smile. "Tired. Very tired. What's been happening?"
The young woman was a softy at heart. She told him very gently, "You were ill. We're trying to get to a place where you can receive medical treatment."
"I-I-I'm all right... it's just that I-I can't remember, why am I being held down like this?"
"When the pain was too much for you, you became violent and we were frightened you might harm yourself."
He seemed stricken and bewildered as he lay trapped in the force field. "I'm sorry I-I just can't remember. I-I'd like to sit up, help me, will you Cally?" he appealed to her with a tired smile.
For no reason she could pinpoint the prospect suddenly was less appealing than Cally felt it should be. "I think you should stay where you are until we can get help."
"Oh, I'm all right. But it's uncomfortable! I-I'd like to sit up."
The young woman hesitated. "There is some turbulence... you're safer where you are."
"Please?" Gan's smile would have melted any heart and Cally gave in.
She released the controls and in seconds Gan was free. "Is that better?" Her answer was a deep cough as he sat up. She picked up a liquid solution and added a sedative/pain reliever to the drink for him. Gan's huge hands closed on her shoulders and spun the girl around, circling her throat. She struggled in his hold but her air had been cut off completely, she was unable to draw the slightest breath and Gan had the advantage of height, weight, strength and surprise. He had a horrible serene smile on his face as he began to kill his friend and crewmate.
The Liberator jerked sharply around them startling Gan into dropping Cally's limp form. He bent after her, the same serene smile on his face when pain doubled him over with a cry. He pounded at his temples, face twisting in agony, then fled the room knocking tables and chairs out of his way as he stumbled.
Avon's struggles with the computer system were beginning to generate results to his satisfaction. The indicator lights he was using to check his progress changed again, the middle lights blinking off and the left-hand ones coming on. He raised a brow at them and at his own feeling of relief, then signalled the flight deck. "Blake, I've managed to bypass Zen. I'm now going to see if I can override the command." He started back to the computers. The absence of a reply from the flight deck brought him back to com quickly. "Blake?" Silence. "Blake!"
On the flight deck, the three crew gaped at the sight on their screen. A fiery funnel in the sky aglow with red and gold light. Blake snapped his mouth shut then opened it again. "There must be SOME way we can avoid it!"
"We can't. We're already too close to pull away. With computer backup we might have flown through it," Jenna answered.
"So... without computers?" Vila plead as Jenna returned to station.
"We're dead! It could tear us to pieces."
In the medical unit Cally gathered herself to her feet. She rubbed tentatively at her wrenched shoulder and the tender, bruised skin of her throat. Over and over she berated herself for releasing Gan. There was no time to do that though, she had to warn the others.
Gan stumbled through the Liberator's corridors. He wanted to hide, to find someplace away from the pain, away from all these strangers he had to kill. A hatchway nearby beckoned and he stumbled toward it.
Blake swallowed once to gather his courage as he stared into the maelstrom ahead. "Are you two ready?" he called over his shoulder.
Jenna answered him impatiently. "Ready."
From the other there was silence and Blake demanded, "Vila?"
"Wha - yes, ready." The thief's eyes were riveted to the screen.
"CONCENTRATE, Vila! When I give the order to reverse thrust, you two have gotta stop us from spinning!"
"I know!" Vila snapped.
"Well if you don't get it right it'll be the last thing you DO know!"
Cally stumbled onto the flight deck just then. "Blake!"
"Cally! What happened?" Blake gaped at the pale young woman who stood waveringly in the doorway. Crossing the room he took her arm and helped steady her, taking note of the slightly glazed expression she wore.
"Gan has just tried to kill me..!" she stuttered out.
Cally ducked her head in shame as cold shudders shook her body. "I thought he was normal again."
"You mean you RELEASED him?!"
Blake steadied Cally and called over his shoulder, "Jenna! You take my place; brief Cally!" He squeezed the girl's arm and raced off. *** Blake began his search at the medical bay. He stepped tentatively into the room and took note of loose medical equipment scattered across the floor. He swallowed and moved on through Liberator's halls in search of Gan.
Avon had once again buried himself in his task. The left-hand lights of his gauge blinked whilst the others remained steady. With an irritated sniff, the tech made his way around the computers to work from another angle. He reached into the circuitry with his laserprobe and froze as a crashing sound came from the formerly closed entrance to the room. He quickly untangled himself from the circuitry, a full range of rather colorful curses on his lips to give his unwanted visitor, and gathered himself to his feet. Before he could turn around huge hands crashed down on his shoulders, and he knew who it was even as he was spun and thrown against the computers along the far wall. He impacted shoulders and back against them. For a single instant everything went black then the colors came back, somewhat paler than before. He had fallen and was crumpled against the wall with a deep bruising pain aching in his shoulders and sharper pains along his spine. They faded in sudden terror as Gan came rushing at him. He threw up his hands, unable to think of a way to defend himself and cringed farther back against the wall. Through his fingers he saw Gan stop and look around at the circuit boards exposed along the walls, and as Gan turned to reach for one, Avon forgot his fear and lunged across the room. Not completely rational, the tech caught at Gan's head and shoulders trying to pull the big man away.
"Gan, no! No, you'll break the computer links, we'll never get them started!!" Gan tossed the tech off, sending him headfirst into the wall, and this time when the blessed blackness came, it did not lift. *** "Cally, reverse thrust in five seconds. On my mark.... Five, four, three, two, one, thrust!" At Jenna's command Cally drew back on the controls. Liberator's drive groaned around them and the ship shuddered in a violent leap forward. *** Gan stumbled when the ship shook and found himself unable to gather strength again. He crawled toward the crumpled man he had thrown away from him, intent on bashing the dark head against anything in reach. Just short of his target, Gan's strength failed utterly against crashing pain. He whimpered and clutched his head. That was how Blake found them when he stepped in the door an instant later.
"Are you all right?" he called to Avon.
The tech opened his eyes. He ignored for the moment the spots which danced across his vision and started to rise. The instant he braced himself upon his left arm the wrist gave in stabbing pain, but Avon ignored it except to favor the wrist, suspecting it was bruised rather than broken. "More or less," he finally answered Blake.
The curly-haired rebel gathered sedative disks out of the first aid kit he had brought with him, saying almost apologetically, "He got away from Cally."
"Yes, well I can SEE that!!" Avon snarled. He cradled his injured wrist and blinked to clear his vision.
"What about the computers?" Blake asked urgently.
The ship shuddered around them again sending Avon staggering into the wall. He steadied himself and glared through his daze at Blake. "What is going on?!"
"It's a gravitational vortex, biggest spiral you've ever seen, we're right on the edge of it."
Avon gave him a tired gaze that showed his usual lack up surprise at anything that happened to him. "The auxillory computers are on-line and functioning."
Blake nodded. "Right. Give me a hand with him, will you?" For once Avon did not argue or glare. He steadied himself and went to help. *** After they secured Gan, Blake and Avon joined the other crew on Liberator's flightdeck. Blake came to Jenna's side. The two stared uneasily out at the spinning fires ahead of them. Jenna spoke without turning. "We've slowed the rate of approach, but we'll be drawn into it sooner or later."
"We'll be using power pretty soon," Blake answered her. We'll make it through, somehow, he promised himself.
Avon joined Cally at the pilot's station. The young woman asked him, "What will happen to the ship?"
The black dread in his dark eyes sent a shiver up her spine. His gaze was riveted to the screen but he responded in a low voice, "The forces inside that will not merely destroy us, they will annihilate us." Despite rigid control he shuddered, imagining the ship tearing apart around him, and all because of Blake. The rebel was risking Avon's life when he KNEW the danger they were in!
Blake rubbed his jaw and steeled himself. "Now Avon's repaired the computers, what would be the difference if we went straight for the center of the vortex on maximum power?" Far too late to turn back, might as well dare it all. He aimed a mischief filled gaze at Jenna, who looked startled, then laughed.
"Well, it'd be quick, whatever happens."
The rebel dropped his hand and smiled. You've come up against the wall again, Blake. Now to get past it, if you can! "Well let's take the quick way! Take over, Jenna!"
The pilot dove for her console, Cally ducking out of her way. "Right everybody; we're going through the center of the vortex!" she announced, hands flying over the controls.
Avon wasted no time staring in surprise. He settled his palms on his hips and spoke in his coldest voice. "Blake." The rebel came over to him immediately, bright brown eyes tilted in question, but that would not affect Avon this time. He kept his face blank as he began. "In the unlikely event that we survive this...."
When it looked as though the tech would not go on, as if he did not care to speak what he would have known, Blake prompted him, scared under it, rather doubting Avon would say something kind even now. "Yes?"
Dark eyes flared briefly, hating the prompting. "I am finished. Staying with YOU required a degree of stupidity of which I no longer feel capable."
Cold, cold to the bone, Kerr Avon. Blake managed mildly, "Now you're just being modest." He turned away, feeling Avon's gaze like a blow follow him.
"On my mark!" Jenna called to all. "Five... four... three... two... one...." And the great ship hurtled forward towards the vortex which looked so like a giant fire-storm.
The ship began to shake around them. Blake clung to his position beside Jenna, gripping her chair with all his might. Jenna called above the sounds around them, "Standard by twelve, and still rising." As Liberator plunged into the heart of the vortex, Gan woke from the violent twisting jerks of the hull and screamed in protest to the sounds around him of falling things and tortured metal.
"Stop for a distance?" Blake called to Jenna.
"We'll never hold her, Blake." The pilot was intent on their course and practically ignored the others.
Vila flinched as papers tumbled across the deck, soon followed by panels shaken loose above their heads. He cried out as his body felt suddenly gripped and pulled all ways with violent strength, and the hull screamed around them as the crew clung to their seats struggling to draw breath.
Blake shouted hoarsely, "The automatics..! Hit the automatics!"
"Blake I can't... I-I must keep a straight heading." Jenna's teeth were clenched against the forces pulling at her. She ignored the blackness gathering in her sight and held the ship on course. Then....
Blake fell against the pilot console and leaned there, sweat tracing faint lines across his face. With effort he unclenched his hands from the chair. Jenna released the controls and sank back against her seat, then slumped forward, exhausted. Blake's arm closed over her shoulders to squeeze briefly. "Jenna, look, on the screen." She raised her head and they both gazed at the stars ahead of Liberator. Blake shook himself and began to laugh. "There's nothing there but the stars! We've made it, WE ARE THROUGH!!" They glanced at each other, then both laughed. *** Blake tested the restraints on Gan's unconscious body. He sighed and looked down at his friend. Are we going to lose you? He felt oddly cold at the thought. The com unit beeped and he went to answer it. "Yes, Avon?"
Ice in his veins from the cold reply. "We're coming in range of XK-72. Just had a message from the station administrator. Very polite, but it boils down to 'who are we and what do we want?'"
"Tell him we're an experimental ship out of Earth on a probing flight. Then tell him what we need."
Avon's tone held a sneer. "You think he'll believe that?"
Blake snapped back, "Convince him! Use your charm." He released the com and turned to almost walk over Cally who stood staring at him thoughtfully.
"Why are you angry with Avon?" she asked.
He took a step back, surprised. "I'm not."
"You sound as if you are."
The rebel glared and said stiffly, "He has a decision to make. If he wants to stay with us, it's gotta be for HIS reasons."
She frowned at him. "You'll do nothing to persuade him."
For an instant Blake felt like a child, and here was mother telling him to be nice to another child. It made him chuckle through the hollow pain in his chest. "Nothing a'tall." ***
The station's body was torpedo-shaped, with XK-72 printed in huge letters upon its side. Eight sphere-shaped laboratories were separated from the main body by fragile seeming tubes, four at the front and four at the back. Midway between them were docking cradles for small shuttles, only one in evidence.
Jenna adjusted the collar of her black star-scattered blouse and called to Vila, "Reverse thrust, and stop." The thief complied. Jenna leaned forward and studied the sight in their view screen. "Give me closer vision! I only hope we're not too late," she added as Vila magnified the screen image.
Information! Zen's amplified 'voice' startled them.
"You're back are you?" Vila snapped at the computer.
Status is firm. All systems are functioning normally.
Blake came onto the flight deck just in time to hear that announcement. Evidently the computer had checked its systems promptly upon coming on line. "Where were you when we needed you?" he asked, then headed for Avon's station. He leaned against the console and asked, "What did they say?"
"They have invited the commander to go across. I have got a voice fix... Commander." His tone was low and cold. Blake chewed on his lip in the brief silence that followed.
"Why are we lying to them?" Jenna demanded.
Vila looked over at her. "Why not? No sense in looking for trouble."
She cast a mild glare at him. "They're neutral."
Blake shrugged at the pilot. "That's a term that covers a whole range of attitudes, and some of them not very friendly. What'd they say about a doctor?" he asked Avon, trying to get the man to look at him.
Avon gazed absently away from Blake's eyes. "There's a neurosurgeon, a professor Kayn. He'll be waiting for you."
The com unit beeped and Blake answered it under Avon's now-watchful gaze. Cally's voice came over. "Blake..! It's urgent!"
"What is it, Cally?"
"Gan's life signs are getting very irregular. His time is running out, I think he's beginning to die." She looked down at the near-comatose man. His breathing was harsh and shallow, his skin waxy.
"I'll be as quick as I can!" Blake cut the com and turned to the dark eyed computer tech. "Teleport, Avon."
The tech left his station at almost a run, Blake quick behind him.
Jenna turned to Vila. "I can't see them believing that the Liberator is a Federation ship, can you?"
"Let's hope they don't even think about it," Vila replied. *** In the station master's office there was a large viewscreen he could stand and look at the stars from. This day, however, the screen was filled with a huge spaceship of rather peculiar design, and Farren was in awe. There was an elegance to the white ship that was absent in all the other ships he had seen. Without being decorative it was simply beautiful. He tried to disregard the faint menace of its cannons which extended from each point of body and nacelles.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and rested his weight on his heels. The black uniform he wore had three silver strips of rank on his shoulders. The man beside him was of similar rank, though a different department.
Professor Kayn wore a brown tunic over a white turtleneck shirt. A wide gray belt at his waist held some tools and notes of his trade. He was a tall rectangular man with thinning brown hair, and equally thin lips kept compressed by habit with bare-concealed contempt. Like Farren three silver strips graced his shoulders.
"I've never seen a ship remotely like it before!" Farren blurted suddenly. He turned to the other man. "What do you think, Professor Kayn?"
Kayn's lip curled and he snorted, turning on his heel away from the viewscreen. "I'm a surgeon, I'm not terribly interested in spaceship design."
Farren clasped his wrists together behind his back and followed Kayn. "You're one of our senior men, you share the responsibility for the safety of this station..!" he began a speech he had made many times.
Kayn cut him off. "Farren, I realize there is a place for administrators, but I'd be obliged if you'd remember where it is. Please don't presume to lecture me on my responsibilities."
Farren met the taller man's glare tolerantly. "So sorry, Professor." Speaking of duty... he activated the com unit on his desk. "Have a team of engineers standing by to examine the shuttlecraft these people send across, will you."
"Right," came a man's anxious answer.
"Send the commander straight up; make sure he's not armed."
Farren shut the com off. A high pitched hum vibrated the air behind him, both men turned and stared as a whiteness glowed in the office, became a humanoid silhouette, then faded, leaving a tall, curly haired man who blinked at them before saying with a trace of arrogance, "Don't worry, I'm not armed." He saw the viewport and stepped over to look at his ship critically.
"H-how did you do that?" Farren at last managed.
Blake glanced back and took one of the two bracelets he carried off. "I'm sorry to be so abrupt, but could I see Professor Kayn now, please."
"I'm Kayn," the professor spoke up.
"Ah. One of my crewmen is dying. Could you come with me straight away?" His tone fell just short of a demand.
Farren collected himself and tried to get control of the situation. "I'm afraid there are a few formalities we must sort out first. You can't just - uh -" he trailed off under Blake's blazing gaze.
"I'll come with you," Kayn stated.
"Professor Kayn, I cannot allow this!" Farren managed to protest.
Kayn sighed and said drolly, "Send me a memorandum, Farren, through the usual channels of course."
Blake held out the bracelet. "Would you put this on, please?" he asked anxiously.
"What is it?" Kayn asked as he took the thing.
"It's a teleport bracelet."
"I warn you this is most inadvisable!" Farren tried again.
Kayn ignored him and said to Blake, "I shall need a few things."
Blake shrugged, "Our surgical units are very well equipped, but I'll send back somebody for anything else you might need."
"Ah, Farren, have Doctor Renor standing by to assist me. He'll know what I need."
Impatient with the delay Blake said firmly, "I'll send someone back FOR him, are you ready?"
"I am ready."
Farren's voice rose in alarm. "Kayn, I cannot allow this, it is completely against station policy!!"
"Bring us across," Blake ordered into his bracelet.
"This behavior will have to be noted down in the station log!" Farren yelled as they disappeared in a hum.
Expecting it as he had been, Kayn was still somewhat surprised when the walls around him became the hull of a spaceship rather than the station. He swayed just a little against the faintly heavier gravity aboard Liberator. "THAT is remarkable!"
Blake put his bracelet away in the storage chest, speaking over his shoulder, "Avon, send someone across to collect Professor Kayn's assistant, will you?" To Kayn he said, "Your bracelet, please."
Kayn handed it to him, all the while staring around the room with arrogant fascination. "I thought the matter-transmission project had been abandoned."
"Temporary set back," Blake said coolly.
Kayn shrugged his somewhat sloping shoulders. "But with Federation resources it was just a matter of time, I suppose."
"This way, Professor," Blake gestured at a corridor.
"Truly remarkable!" the professor exclaimed, drinking it all in, and not one bit hurried.
"Professor..?" Blake said a bit impatiently.
"Oh yes, sorry." He met the eyes of the two men sitting there, both watching him with wary suspicious eyes. "One thing about the Federation, when they decide to do a thing, they DO it."
When Blake managed to get Kayn out of there, Vila turned a troubled gaze to Avon. "I didn't like the sound of that much."
"One of the many faces of neutrality," Avon said.
Vila eyed him, made wary because Avon's face was at its most unreadable, though the man seemed to be staring through the ship's walls towards the medical section. "Who's going across to get the assistant? Shall I call Jenna?"
The dark eyes narrowed, and Avon answered so quietly Vila had to lean close to hear. "No. I'll go."
"Oh good! Good idea I mean." Despite his relief at not having to go, Vila watched Avon as the man flowed out of his seat and picked out a bracelet. The hairs rose on his neck when the darker haired man turned an almost haunted gaze on him.
"Why do you stay with Blake?"
"I like him!" Vila answered easily.
Avon seemed to go still for a moment, and Vila wondered what it was that went through the man's head, especially when he flinched like that. "That isn't a good enough reason."
Not for you, maybe, Vila thought. But he said, "It is for me. That and the fact I've nowhere else to go."
That sent a brief amused smile across Avon's face. "All right. Put me across."
Vila tapped in the coordinates and watched Avon waver out. That smile, and the question which had preceded it, knotted his gut. You like him too, that's what hurts, isn't it? he wished he dared ask Avon. If he comes back, I'll ask. In a few years. *** Blake moved at a hurried walk, Kayn beside him. As they passed the open computer bay Avon had been working in, the professor balked. "Just a minute." He stepped into the room and eyed the computer banks visible. As Blake came to his side he raised a brow. "That's interesting. What rank do you hold?"
Blake eyed the professor, his hands on his hips. "I'm a civilian."
"Unusual," was Kayn's comment.
The rebel chuckled. "We tend to be in the majority, even in the Federation."
Kayn's lips thinned even more. "I meant THIS is unusual. What are you up to, proving flight on a military craft? It IS a military craft?" he asked at Blake's silence.
Blake coughed suddenly. "Excuse me, it's still experimental. It's classified. Oh, this way." He ushered Kayn out, to the other man's evident annoyance.
The moment they came in the medical bay, Cally confronted Blake with quiet fury. "Why were you such a long time?" she demanded over Gan's body.
"Cally -" Blake began, gesturing toward Kayn.
Kayn ignored it, thereby cutting Blake off. He stepped forward and began studying Gan's body, especially his head. "My fault, I'm afraid. I needed time to adjust." He knelt at Gan's head to study the inflamed skin around the implant. "You're not supposed to be disconcerted with this kind of work. Oh yes, you're right, his condition is critical. Find out where my assistant is, will you please?" he aimed the query at Blake.
"Of course," the rebel said, glad to get out from Cally's glare. Almost as bad as Avon, he thought in the corridor.
"What's your name?" Kayn asked sharply.
Kayn straightened up and gazed sternly at the young woman. "All right, Cally. Now you tell me why this man has a limiter implant." *** Blake hurried into the teleport chamber and stopped his headlong rush by resting both hands hard on the table in front of a worried Vila. "Where's Kayn's assistant?"
"He'll be arriving any moment."
"Well for the time being keep him here." Blake turned and hurried out.
"Right," Vila muttered. He waited anxiously.
The com beeped and then Avon's voice came over. "Vila, this is Avon. Doctor Renor is ready to come across." Vila nodded automatically. "I won't be coming back with him, though."
"What do you mean you won't be coming back with him?!" Vila nearly shouted.
"I'm staying for a look around." After a moment Avon added in a lower tone, "I'll call you when I'm ready."
"Oh fine, I'll just hang around here and wait for you!" Vila snapped. You're not fooling me, Avon!
"You do that."
Vila sighed and began the recall sequence. "Stand by." In a moment a young man stood in the teleport chamber, staring around with such youthful amazement that Vila almost smiled. "Doctor Renor?" he queried, and received a grin for it. The young man was not very tall, had a thatch of thick brown hair over bright brown eyes, and wore a brown tunic with only one silver bar on each shoulder.
Blake in the meantime was asking Jenna for a small favor. "... So anything you can get from him about this Professor Kayn would be useful."
Sending the pretty woman out to catch a possible enemy off his guard? Jenna was amused. "I'll try. I might not be his type, though."
"We'll just have to take the chance!" Blake grinned at her.
She raised a brow at him. "Thanks."
"Go on!" he tossed his head towards the corridor which lead to the teleport area, then when she left he took the pilot console and raised his voice to the flight computer. "Zen, I want a series of projections from the battle computers." He hesitated, chewing on a knuckle, then specified. "Nearest Federation bases, likely flight patterns, flight times, and possibility of interception."
Jenna walked into the teleport chamber and waited while Renor watched Vila put away the teleport bracelet. When the young man turned around she said mildly, "Hello."
Renor's mouth dropped and he exclaimed, "Hello, hello, hello!" his eyes drinking her in. He took inventory: slender waist, golden blonde hair, intelligent blue eyes - nothing like this graced the station!
Vila seemed to sigh in exasperation. "Ah, Jenna, this is Professor Kayn's assistant, his name is -" he paused, giving the other man a chance to speak.
"Reno! And I had a feeling this was gonna be a good day!"
Jenna smiled faintly. "Yes, well don't let your feelings run away with you."
"Oh..! A sense of humor, too! I love girls with a sense of humor!"
"Yes, I can see where THAT would be an advantage. This way, please." She indicated the corridor behind her with a graceful gesture and put some distance between them.
"Do you believe in love at first sight, Jenna?" Renor asked as she lead him out.
"Not yet," she said coolly.
Behind them Vila sat down chortling. *** Farren thumped into his cushioned chair and gaped at the man who sat across from him. The dark, almost black eyes that met his were unreadable, and he sought an answer in the angular cheekbones and elegant lips. "I don't think you realize what you're suggesting!!"
The dark gaze was steady. "I am offering you... my services. And, among other things, the secret of matter transmission."
"You are offering me classified Federation material! This is an independent, NEUTRAL, scientific foundation!" He could see in his head a fleet of Federation ships coming and destroying the station merely for this man's offer, if not for his defection.
The dark-eyed man smiled briefly as if he could read Farren's mind. Then he drew a breath and his regard became measuring. "Suppose I tell you... that the material does not belong to the Federation, that we are not Federation personnel, and that THAT-" he indicated the ship visible out Farren's viewport, "- is not a Federation ship."
"Then who does it belong to?" Farren pulled his gaze back to Avon's.
The stationmaster felt no easier with the offer. "Who are you?"
The dark eyes narrowed and considered Farren with an even more considering look. Finally the man spoke. "Before I tell you that, I should like your guarantee that the others will be allowed to leave... unmolested."
"Well why should I give you that?"
"You and the Foundation stand to make a fortune. I am merely asking for your guarantee that you will maintain your neutrality... AND protect your investment." The gaze held a chill warning, and Farren felt his life hanging on the answer he gave this man.
"All right, you have my personal guarantee. Now who are you?" *** In the Liberator's medical unit, Professor Kayn paced the floor under Cally's watchful, angry gaze. The hatchway opened and Renor stepped in. Kayn turned and snapped, "At last!"
Renor flushed slightly. "Sorry Professor -" He came to a stop upon seeing Cally. "Hello! This place is full of pretty girls!"
"Prepare for immediate surgery, please."
"Right!" Accustomed to Kayn's general nastiness, Renor ignored it and went to don his surgical clothes.
"I'll get out of your way," Jenna announced and slipped out.
"Won't need you either, Cally," Kayn stated. He gestured toward the hatch and Cally hurried out it, glad to be away.
Renor looked mournfully after the two women. "It would have been helpful to have had ONE of them here," he pointed out.
Kayn turned around radiating smugness. "Do you know who these people are?" he asked.
"Federation research team?" Renor offered timidly.
"It's Blake and his crew."
Renor's mouth hung open. "THE Blake?! How do you know?"
The professor sneered. "They lie badly."
"Stannis! That's who she is, Jenna Stannis!" Renor exclaimed in true joy. Kayn nodded as the younger man laughed. "I've never met a celebrity before!"
"Celebrity!" snapped Kayn sharply. He stalked over to Gan's body. "These people are maniacs! Killers!!"
"Oh, come on-"
Kayn cut him off. "Mindless destroyers!"
"You don't know that!"
"They are destroying the greatest force for order in the known universe!"
Renor gaped at the professor and actually took a step back from him. "Order! Well you've had a change of heart, haven't you? I'm sure poor old Farren would be delighted with your new concern for the rules!"
Kayn took a breath trying to control his temper. That this young girl-chasing fool should argue with HIM! "Farren is a bureaucratic fool! I'm talking about stability, Renor, stability! With no stability there is no progress!"
The younger man flinched back and glanced down at Gan. "Progress to what? BRAIN implantation?"
"For dangerous psychopaths? Certainly! Or would you prefer he'd been executed?" Kayn indicated Gan with a wave of his hand, then stepped over to the table and sat down in a chair. He stretched out his long legs over the tabletop and stayed there.
Renor suddenly realized just what was happening. "That's what you intend to do, isn't it? You're going to delay the operation so that Blake and his crew can be captured!"
"I haven't decided yet."
"Well delay much longer and there won't be any decision to MAKE!" snapped the boy, waving down at Gan. Kayn pulled a small com unit out of his pockets and activated it. "What are you doing?"
"Not that it's any business of yours, I'm going to contact the nearest Federation base."
"I'll WARN Blake!"
At that Kayn laughed. "And lose the chance of working with the greatest surgeon you'll ever see? You're too ambitious for that. Besides, I'm the only one who can save him! IF I choose to." He listened to the signal on his com and told the person on the other end, "XK-72." *** Three Federation ships were on their way to the station. The communication frequencies between them crackled with a determined voice. "Pursuit Leader to pursuit Two and Three. Executive order states that damage to Research Station XK-72 must be avoided if possible. Priority concern is capture of Blake and his crew!" *** "He did WHAT?!" Farren shouted into his com unit.
A worried man answered him from the other end. "Professor Kayn said you knew about it!"
"The communication station is well aware that no one s allowed to send official messages without clearing it first through channels!"
"Professor Kayn said it was a matter of life and death!" plead the other man.
Farren clutched the edge of his table and shook his head. He had an unpleasant duty to perform under the circumstances, and he doubted it would get any easier. "Mm. Ask our visitor to come and see me, will you? I think he's looking around the computer section. His name is Avon."
"Do we know what the Federation is doing?"
There was a momentary hesitation. "The pursuit ships will be here in three hours."
"Then find Avon quickly!" Farren snapped.
On the Liberator Renor had activated the Boray scanner and was studying Gan's limiter implant through it. He looked over at the life monitor, wincing as the readings fluctuated drastically. He turned to Kayn. "We must start the operation!"
"Not yet. The Federation ships need time."
Renor looked again at the monitor. Several of the indicators had dropped just in the last few moments. Years of respect for Professor Kayn were rapidly vanishing beneath anger. "Look at the life-signs, he's practically dead now!"
"NOT yet!" Kayn snapped. He groomed his nails idly.
On the flight deck Vila was pacing while the two women sat on the couch. Cally shifted, breaking the silence. "It's taking a very long time."
"Well at least while they're still working we know that Gan's got a chance. Kayn is supposed to be a genius."
Vila startled the life out of them, suddenly thrusting his head and shoulders down between them and looking from one to the other. "The trouble with a genius is you're never too sure what he's up to! Perhaps Zen can tell us how long the operation would NORMALLY take." He drew himself up and went to the weapons alcove.
Jenna took the hint and turned. "Zen?"
The computer had been monitoring. There is insufficient data for an accurate projection. Within the parameters you have described, the surgeon's skills at operating procedures are unknown variables.
Vila snorted and turned with a laser in his hand. "There you are, thought not." *** Farren watched nervously as Avon paced from end to end of the office. He tried again. "I can only apologize! I-I'm afraid there is absolutely nothing I can do for your friends, now!"
Avon stopped mid-step, cradling a bracelet in his hands. His dark eyes lit upon Farren and condemned the man. "It was naive of me to expect you to keep your word."
Farren flushed, stuttering out, "Oh, that is a little unfair. It's just that... it's out of my hands! Look, Avon... it is against all the rules, and it's - uh - a risk I really shouldn't take, but...." He stood up and met that dark gaze with the best of his courage. "I am prepared to let you stay."
"What about the pursuit ships?"
"When your friends detect them, they will presumably run or fight."
At that, Avon laughed and smiled a cold smile. "They will have no other choice."
He had not released Farren from his dark gaze though, and the other man shuffled under it. "In which case - they may escape, or... more probably they will be destroyed. Either way, the Federation need never know that you're here on the station. You can work here in peace and safety." Avon's eyes narrowed to slits at that, the only change of expression and it told Farren nothing. "Well, what do you say?"
The narrowness cleared with a blink, and Avon looked away from him. When he spoke his tone was faintly hollow but gathered strength. "I shall need to go back to the Liberator to... collect a few things." He smiled a feral, toothy smile.
"Good. You made the right decision," Farren assured him. But did I? he asked himself, skin crawling from Avon's gaze. *** "Pursuit Leader to all crews: Full standby. Check all battle systems. Enemy contact estimated in one hour." *** To Renor's relief Kayn finally put on his operating gown. "Thank you," he said stiffly as Renor tied up the back. The younger man nodded and adjusted his mask. When he looked up, Kayn once again sat with his legs stretched out upon the table. In fury the younger man pulled off his mask, the sound of alarms going off behind him as Gan's lifesigns dropped below the safety line.
On the station Avon spoke into his teleport bracelet. "This is Avon, from XK-72. All right Vila, bring me across!" There was no response and sudden alarm colored the tech's voice. "Vila! Wake up, Vila! Vila!!" On the third summons Cally stepped in and quickly reached to recall Avon.
In the medical bay Renor began gathering up their tools. All respect for Kayn had vanished from his personality. "I'm going to operate myself!"
Kayn sniffed. "You'll kill him."
"Well at least I'll have TRIED! You call yourself a doctor," the young man began.
"No, he calls himself a genius," came Vila's voice from the door. They turned and found themselves faced with the smallish man and his gun.
"Ah!" Kayn sneered at him.
Vila ignored him, pointing at Gan. "All right, genius, time's up."
But Kayn got to his feet and approached the thief. "I wondered how long it would take you."
"Well you can stop wondering and start operating!" Vila waved with the gun toward Gan's gurney.
"Why didn't Blake come himself?"
"Blake doesn't know anything about it, I thought it was better that way. He's got a conscience, he might not be prepared to kill you!"
Kayn measured Vila with a sneer. "And you are?"
The thief looked dismayed at finding himself in this position but he drew himself up. "Yes."
"If he isn't, I am," a new voice spoke from the hatchway. Avon raised an eyebrow at the astonished thief.
"How did you get here?" Vila gaped at him.
Avon refused to dignify the question with an answer. He gazed darkly at Kayn. "He sold us out to the Federation. Pursuit ships are only forty-five minutes away."
The thief turned on Kayn. "Are you going to operate or not?!" he snapped.
Kayn raised his mask calmly. "All right." The frightened Renor followed suit, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Vila turned nervously to Avon. "I have a feeling that was too easy." The tech nodded brief agreement and kept his eyes on the target of Kayn's back.
The other shoe dropped when Kayn turned on them in arrogance. "Any attempt to move this ship while I am operating will certainly result in this man's death!"
Renor spoke up in apologetic agreement. "He's right. Vibration, acceleration, ANY movement at all and it's over."
Avon and Vila exchanged identical looks of frustrated fury, and the tech stepped to the wall-com. "Hold it Blake. We can't leave yet," he spoke into it. *** The Federation ships cruised at high speed for the station. "Pursuit Leader to all crews. Battle stations. Thirty minutes to contact." *** Vila kept his weapon on Kayn as the operation began, his hand never wavering. Avon watched Kayn in much the same manner. Blake came in and paced with clear threat to the professor's side. "How soon can you complete?" he said with no hint of anything but threat.
"Thirty-five minutes," Kayn answered, smirking.
"Do it in twenty."
Kayn paused with the operating tools hovering over Gan's head. He eyed Blake. "Or you'll kill me."
At that Blake laughed, deadly sharp. "Oh, no, no, no. In twenty-five minutes I'm returning you to your station. If you haven't completed your work-"
The professor cut him off with a sneer. "Your threats don't bother me in the least, you know."
"I shall destroy your hands." Blake met Kayn's stunned gaze with a coldness that might beat Avon's worst. "Twenty minutes," he reminded the man, then left the bay.
Avon stared after Blake with a faintly surprised look on his face. He met Vila's eyes and found the thief equally startled. Then with the barest of shrugs he left the room to talk to Blake, leaving Vila who again held his gun on the professor.
"Animals!! Stupid, destructive animals!" Kayn snarled.
Renor pulled his mask off and glared at the older doctor. "Twenty minutes is MORE than enough time to complete!"
The angry man pulled his mask down too. "Are you defending their behavior?!"
"I can't defend OURS!" the younger man snapped back.
They began the operation immediately. Kayn positioned microrods on Gan's head and their tiny points entered his skull. Visible in the computer screen the tiny tips reached the burnt out section and Kayn began the slow work of removing it. Seconds seemed more like hours under such conditions but once begun he worked steadily, forgetting everything but the need to complete. As the repairs progressed, Gan's life signs became stronger until they were finally finished with the operation. There was no blood, they had not cut open either skin or skull. The rods were so thin, they had to be to reach into the tiny limiter. Kayn and Renor shut down the force field and Gan's body went limp. By habit they shut down the machines as well.
In the teleport chamber Kayn handed Blake two printouts, one of a circuit with a burn like a scar. "That's where the fault was, in the limiter, there. And there it is repaired." He showed the other printout. "If you survive, so should he."
"Is there any way we can thank you?"
"You could try getting caught." Kayn turned away from the rebel's amused gaze.
Blake grinned over his shoulder at Avon who sat at the teleport controls. The tech grinned briefly back, watched Blake leave then eyed the doctors. "Ready?" Without waiting for their answer he hit the send coordinates. When they were gone he signalled the flight deck. "All right Jenna, get us out of here!"
On the flight deck Jenna moved quickly. "Zen, reverse thrust standard by point zero one."
Confirmed. There was a hum as Liberator swung away from the station.
Blake joined the pilot at her station. "I'll handle this, Jenna. Go help Avon." She stepped down and headed off deck.
On XK-72 Farren was shouting into his com unit. "And take no further action without orders from me!"
Kayn slammed his hands down on Farren's table. "You pathetic feeble-minded little bureaucrat! Are you going to let them get away?!"
"You exceeded your authority, Professor Kayn! It was not your place to inform the Federation of their presence here! You violated the neutrality -"
"Damn your neutrality!" Kayn activated the com unit. "Get me Weaponry!"
"How dare you! I'm in command of this base!" Farren threw Kayn's hand off the com unit and braved the taller man's fury.
"You have forfeited that command, Farren, you gutless nothing!" Kayn opened the com again.
"Weaponry-" came a voice.
Farren struck Kayn's hand away sharply. "Stop that I tell you! Take no orders-" he began to say into the com.
Kayn lost it completely, his hand tingling from the force of Farren's strike. "You struck my hand!" He lunged for the other man's throat, knocking them both over onto the floor.
"Weaponry?" called a bewildered voice over the com which was not sending any instructions. Kayn grabbed the com unit and slammed it down on Farren's head. He cried out and crumpled.
The Liberator pulled away from XK-72 at rapidly increasing speeds. The pursuit ships were in sight now. On the flight deck Zen alerted them. Battle computers project pursuit ships directly in Liberator's flight path. Avon moved to the couch console and watched the approaching ships.
Blake frowned. "Down zero-one. Maintain heading and speed standard by eight."
Plasma bolt launched.
Blake glanced over at Avon. "Activate the force wall."
"Activated!" Avon replied, for all the universe as if they were just strolling through a park, and NOT about to get hit by the plasma bolt. The impact shook the ship violently. Avon stumbled and fell onto the couch, but got up immediately with his dignity quite intact.
Second bolt launched and running, the computer warned.
"Bearing directly," Blake read out. The ship shuddered as the bolt skimmed their force wall.
"Missed!" Vila crowed.
Avon tensed where he stood. "It missed us, but it's still running."
In Farren's office, a voice burbled through the damaged com unit next to the man's body. "Farren! Plasma bolt bearing directly on XK-72! It's going to hit us! Instructions, please?!" the man calling begged. "Farren! Farren! Farren!!!"
Professor Kayn sat staring at his shaking hands. In his mind he found no way to deny the station master's death by his hands. Frozen into immobility he heard the man screaming for Farren.
The plasma bolt struck XK-72 and in an instant the station was gone, burst into white fire that died quickly in the absence of oxygen. Avon stood near the viewscreen and watched. When Blake stepped near, Avon said hollowly, "Say goodbye to one bolthole."
"It's not funny, Avon."
"It wasn't meant to be." He continued to gaze out as the last pieces became blackened bits of metal. This was my fault. I should never have brought them here. On the heels of that thought came; Ah, but then Gan would have died.
Pursuit ships are turning, Zen announced.
Blake eyed the computer's visual reference point for a moment then turned to Avon. "You know what to do," he said and moved away.
Avon shifted slightly with the pattern of his thoughts. The people of the station had been strangers whose motives were unknown. Gan, as a person who was most certainly trustworthy, was worth more than them. He blinked and took a steadying breath. "Zen, increase speed to standard by eight."
They outraced the pursuit ships as they always did. Gan soon joined them on the flight deck and listened to what they told him had happened. Avon kept his distance as always. Vila handed Gan a drink which he took gladly, shaky as he still was.
"How do you feel?" Blake asked.
"I feel as if someone's been poking around inside my head... with their foot!" He grinned as they burst into laughter.
Vila popped up at his shoulder. "We had to kick your brain a couple of times to get it started!"
"Only twice?" he grinned at Vila. Then he frowned. "They didn't remove the limiter."
Cally replied with soft apology, "It was not possible."
Vila was not about to let them get serious. "They've modified it though! Your ears glow in the dark now."
They burst out laughing again. Blake made his way to Gan's side where Jenna stood and draped his arms over both their shoulders. "Hey, let me know when you're ready for work!"
Gan rolled his eyes, "Thanks!"
"Oh, by the way: welcome back," Blake said in all sincerity. They grinned again at each other and joined the laughter of the others.