Barram Control welcomed them cordially, inquired as to their needs, assigned them a stationary orbit and sent a shuttle up. Finances were arranged by providing collateral (gems) for a line of credit. For the first two days the crew took turns going down to Barram on the shuttle to attend to both the business of picking up needed parts and to the pleasure of escaping from the ship. But no one actually got to relax while repairs remained to be done.
* * * * *
"Lieutenant Krager to see you, Captain."
The words hung in the air. The mission was nearly complete; another twenty hours and-- Captain Rylah had hoped, but hoped in vain. Damn Taggert and his games.
Turning, Captain Rylah was surprised to find Krager already standing at ease. Her disapproval showed clearly, but she said nothing.
"Sorry. Cap'n," Krager added, not very convincingly, sketching a salute.
Rylah made him wait, but it didn't seem to disconcert him in the least and she said, "Well, Lieutenant, what is it?"
"Captain," he said, all proper deference now, "I've had a, ah... communication from... an old acquaintance."
"I hope it was important; you know the regs."
He grinned at that and said, "Liberator is at Barram."
Rylah didn't want to hear this; didn't want complications. Retirement was only months off and she wanted to go out quietly. "And since they're in the neighborhood and we're in the neighborhood, you thought I should bake a cake on the chance that they'll be dropping by for a visit, is that it?"
"Something like that, Captain. I was thinking that we might, ah... entertain them. Since they are in the neighborhood."
"Krager," Captain Rylah said wearily, "you're from Barram, you know the rules and they've been pushed as far as they're to be pushed for now. Word is: no interference."
"Well... we weren't thinking of interfering, Cap'n, not at all. We were thinking, Doctor Farnum and I, that they might like to, ah... play a little game, d'y'see?"
"A little game?" Combat was one thing, but games were bad luck-- not politics, she thought, please don't let it be politics--
"Yes, Cap'n. A little game of, ah... Catch-Me-If-You-Can. Doctor Farnum is quite enthusiastic about it. He seems to think that since the, ah... field trials in the Rift have gone so well, it would be a fine, ah... practical test of his device."
"It would, indeed, but, quite honestly, Krager, I don't think Liberator will want to play."
"P'raps not, but... well, I was thinking that we shouldn't exactly, ah... tell them that they're in the game, d'y'see? Keep it for a surprise, like," grinning conspiratorially.
"Cut line, Krager. I'm listening. Tell me what you've got in that devious little mind of yours. Tell me how we get them to take aboard Doctor Farnum's transmitter."
"Well... Cap'n," he said, remembering his own game again, "it seems, that they've, ah... put in for repairs, d'y'see, and naturally they've been using a port shuttle..."
* * * * *
Everything was taking too damned long. Repairs and system checks of the ship were going much too slowly and because, for the last eight hours, the life support systems could only be run intermittently while Tarrant, Vila, and Dayna made the repairs in the teleport room, everyone felt hot, tired and short-tempered. Avon, with Cally's and Orac's help, had spent those eight hours trying to track down the problem in the computer circuitry. Now they were on the fifth repetition of the circuit check routine and Avon was about ready to take a blaster to it. His back ached from the hours of hunching over the control console and his head was pounding from the tension and the heat. "Run that one sequence again."
"Nothing," Cally reported. "Avon, I just feel we're looking at this problem the wrong way." She was hot and tired and frustrated, too. And while she knew she wasn't an expert in electronic circuitry, she knew she was developing a feel for the way the ship's systems operated and this system felt different.
"Well, yes," she admitted.
"Zen's problems have been increasing ever since that entity shot up the flight deck," he said, frowning at the readouts. "It was probably your intuition that got us into this mess in the first place. Try two."
"My intuition?" Cally asked as she initiated the second sequence. "You were the one who wouldn't leave well enough alone. You practically forced me to go aboard that-- that flying mausoleum-- nothing again."
"Forced you? You went willingly enough-- hit three-- and brought back souvenirs that nearly got us all killed."
"I brought you back, too, if you remember. You knew there was something wrong from the moment we encountered that... thing, and you made me walk right into it." She paused to recheck one, two, and three. "Nothing, nothing and nothing. And it was just to satisfy your curiosity."
"Damn it," he said, glaring at the readouts again, resetting them. "I didn't hear you objecting. Try four."
"How could I object? I didn't know there was anything wrong. You did." Cally paused to look at her readouts and said with a sigh, "Nothing on four." She was fed up with the tests and now, rehashing the encounter with the psychic entity, she was beginning to feel downright miffed. "And you knew I was having a psychic reaction to it and you didn't warn me."
"How was I supposed to know you'd just let that thing take you over without a fight?"
"Let? Let? Did I let it kill you?"
"Did you do anything to stop it?"
"If you had warned me-- "
"I had to provide all the distractions to get that psi booster away from it. Try five."
"Distrac-- don't tell me you believe that it was your irresistible charm that made it let you go!" said Cally, forgetting about the circuit checks. "'You're so beautiful when you're angry.' Honestly! Do you really believe that your kiss alone was enough to distract it?"
Avon started to grin, remembering. An outright attack wouldn't have worked and the entity, having taken on Cally's form, chucking energy bolts all over the place, had looked so like her at her most fierce and self-righteous, that he hadn't been able to resist the alternative approach. "It worked, didn't it?"
"Well, it didn't distract me!"
"It wasn't meant to."
"Just as well." Cally was flustered now. "But I didn't throw that psychic booster into the circuits, you did. That means you're probably the one responsible for our present difficulties!"
"Just run five," Avon said, exasperated.
"I think I need a break," she said, and she almost ran from the flight deck.
Avon was... irritated. Again. It seemed that he and Cally couldn't keep from irritating each other these last few days. Her intuition was troublesome; her psychic abilities made her, and everyone on board, vulnerable. But-- she was right; it wasn't her fault. Not exactly. It had been his curiosity that had gotten them into trouble, not her intuition. He did know something was wrong; he should have... been more cautious in meddling with things he didn't understand-- no matter how bored he was. And if she hadn't given a damn about the rest of them and fought like hell that entity would've had the lot.
And if the entity hadn't looked so much like Cally he might never have thought of that distraction-- or have been able to carry it off so easily. Really, it was amusing.
He finished the fifth circuit check by himself and then very deliberately he put aside his tools and went to find the others.
* * * * *
Cally was irritated. Avon could be so unfair-- and bringing that entity aboard was his fault. Him and his insatiable curiosity. He'd cheerfully manipulate anyone and everyone to get his own way and-- just as cheerfully bail them out. Even if he only did it to prove he could.
Oh, he'd defeated that entity, but why did he have to kiss it? Why couldn't he have just shot it outright? He'd never had any compunction about shooting people-- much less evil entities-- before! And why did he have to kiss it while it was linked with her? Damn it. He may as well have kissed her-- no, this was worse. The feeling of that kiss and the entity's longing response to it were burned into her senses and she blushed every time she remembered it. As she did now. Her face burned.
It wasn't his fault. It was the loneliness. She was lonely and the kiss had reawakened sleeping longings. It wasn't his fault, but she wished he hadn't done it.
She stopped in the galley to get some of her elixir before she went down to the teleport room.
* * * * *
"All right, Krager," Captain Rylah said, staring down at the innocuous looking box on the deck, "is there anything else?"
"No, Captain, I think not. If Doctor Farnum will, ah... notify you when I've switched on, I'm sure there'll be no problem."
"Very well. We're in position. If your pilot is as good as you say-- "
"Oh, yes, Captain, Lieutenant Elston is very good. We've flown together often."
"Yes." And that was an interesting bit of information. Krager had only just requested the pilot who had been flying the scout during the testing and it turned out to be an old friend. Quite a coincidence. "Carry on."
"Captain, Doctor Farnum," Krager said, and motioned to Elston who picked up the box containing the transmitter and the jamming device. With a nod and a grin, off they went down the boarding passage to the waiting scout.
Frowning a bit, Captain Rylah watched them go.
"This is a wonderful opportunity, Captain," said Farnum beside her.
"Yes. And such a simple plan. It would be a shame if it came to naught." With any luck at all there would be no need for any game of Catch-Me-If-You-Can.
"They may be using the teleport."
"No need to worry, Captain. As long as some of the crew are still planetside when Lieutenant Krager arrives we should be able to bring it off."
"How is that, Doctor?" Rylah asked uneasily.
"The jamming device, of course."
"The one for jamming the teleport, Captain. Didn't Lieutenant Krager tell you?"
"No. He didn't mention it."
"It was Lieutenant Krager's suggestion. He thought we might need some insurance in case Liberator decided to leave without using the shuttle."
"Of course. A jamming device. I am surprised to hear that you just happened to have a jamming device that will work, Doctor Farnum."
"Well, ah, one can't be one hundred per cent sure of anything, Captain, but, this one should work. I was fortunate enough to have participated in a research project that was very enlightening. The frequencies involved in teleportation and the wave patterns can only-- well, it's quite complicated. Suffice it to say that we will be jamming a wide enough range of frequencies that-- "
"But what if you've jammed too many frequencies? What if you prevent them from leaving Barram altogether?" One could hope--
"Oh, there isn't any danger of that. Lieutenant Krager has assured us that Barram's communications system is sophisticated enough to cope with our interference-- "
"What of Liberator? What if they can also cope?"
"With ordinary communication, surely they will cope as easily as Barram. But, with the teleport, that's another story. There can be no alternate teleport frequencies-- not without major equipment readjustments. The beam must not be interrupted, and its integrity must be maintained throughout transmission. And even if the teleport did still function, if a shift were possible, I wouldn't want to chance being reassembled from a distorted signal, would you?"
"With any luck, it won't be needed, anyway, Captain."
"As you say, Doctor." When Taggert had informed her of Krager's assignment to this mission he had likened Krager to a case of the three day sweats: one got them; one suffered through them; they went away. The three day sweats always went away, he assured her. One could only hope he was right. She'd know in two days.
* * * * *
"Finished up already?" Vila asked when he saw Cally.
"Hardly. I just needed a break and thought you might need one, too," she said, setting out the glasses and pouring for them all.
"You are right," said Dayna. "Thank you."
"Yes," said Tarrant. "This is miserable work and the sooner we're done with it the better pleased I'll be."
"It's being upside down that makes it so much fun," Dayna said.
"Yes, I expect you're right. It's rather like being..."
"In a circus?" Vila offered.
"Tortured is more like."
"Cally," said Dayna, "as long as you're here, will you give me a hand for a moment?"
"Speaking of torture, where's Avon?" Vila asked, eyeing the glasses set out and wondering what was in the carafe.
"Still on the flight deck, I expect," Cally said, going over to help Dayna. Cally hadn't noticed herself doing it, but she had set out five glasses.
It was Vila who saw Avon's approach. Dayna and Cally were heads down in the duct to the left; Tarrant was head down in the duct to the right, and Vila was lounging at the console. Noting that Avon looked more than usually grim he whispered, "Watch out: here's trouble." Then, out of pure habit, he began baiting him. "Ah, Avon, got the computer system squared away already, have you? Knew with your genius you'd have it solved in no time. Come to give us a hand or just to watch?"
Ignoring Vila, Avon unhurriedly walked over to the weapons locker, and opening it, withdrew a blaster.
Dayna, Cally and Tarrant had emerged from the ducts and they were watching Avon intently. His back was towards Vila, but the others could see his profile. Tarrant had just about decided that Avon had run amok when Avon turned just enough to give them a very deliberate glance and an unmistakable wink. Intrigued, they continued watching as he checked the charge, then, holding it ready, he turned directly to Vila and said, "If you will just move away from the console, I will be happy to assist you." Vila's jaw dropped and he stared, unable to move or speak. Tarrant, Cally and Dayna began to laugh and a satisfied grin spread slowly over Avon's face. "You can shut your mouth now, Vila," he said.
"Fire away, Avon! Please. It's what I've been longing to do this past hour," Tarrant said, still laughing.
Vila recovered quickly, but he was smarting and more than a bit puzzled. Until now, baiting Avon had had predictable results: one was either quashed verbally or pointedly ignored. If Avon was going to begin responding unpredictably-- and enlisting the others to complicity, Vila would have to be more careful. "Very funny. And why don't we just open an airlock while we're at it?"
"Go right ahead. It could only improve the atmosphere."
"Here," Cally said, handing Avon a glass of elixir.
"Have you solved the problem?" Tarrant asked, coming over to take a glass himself.
"No," Avon replied. "I-- we've been over every circuit five times and can't find a thing wrong, but the damned thing does not respond properly. And I'm hot and tired... and I needed a break. How are things going here?"
"We're nearly done," Dayna said. "Another half hour-- "
"-- and we'll be able to breathe again," Avon finished for her.
"Yes. And perhaps, now you've had a break, you'll be able to identify your problem."
"I hope you're right," he said, putting the blaster back in the weapons locker, "or I may really use this. I'll be on the flight deck. Shout when you've finished up here. Cally?"
"I'll be right there."
"Well, what did you make of that?" Dayna asked when Avon was out of earshot. She was still amused by the incident and surprised that Avon was the perpetrator.
"It's one for the books," said Tarrant, shrugging, also amused.
"You don't suppose he's turning human?" asked Dayna.
"What? Avon?" Vila said.
"Idiots," Cally said, not unkindly, pleased at the feeling of camaraderie Avon's joke had engendered among them. "He always has been. You just never noticed." Smiling, she went after Avon.
Cally's heart was lighter as she went back to her task. Her plan seemed to be working. It wasn't easy being everyone's personal advocate, smoothing over personality conflicts, trying to promote understanding, but, she was working hard at it and, for the first time in a long time she felt they were behaving like a crew.
* * * * *
Avon's head felt clearer now, and the tension had lessened, too. When he reached the bridge he went to his console again and waited for Cally. When she was at her station he asked, "Do you have any suggestion as to where we should begin checking the circuits for the sixth time?"
"As a matter of fact," she said watching for his reaction, "I've been thinking that our entire approach is incorrect."
Avon nodded, inviting her to continue.
"We've been assuming the computer system has an electronic problem, but I believe it's the self-repair system that's causing the problem: it hasn't functioned properly."
"If it is the self-repair system," he said, but giving her idea due consideration. "Zen hasn't diagnosed any problem, how do you propose to do it?"
"I have a feeling we should approach the diagnosis as if the system were a biological one."
Avon was surprised, but, it made sense. A lot of sense. And he hadn't seen it. "Very well. Where do we begin?"
"We need to take a look at how the repair system is functioning, how it carries out repairs... look at it as if it were a living being-- "
"If it's repairing itself as an organism would, there must be some equivalent of chromosomes, genes, DNA-- "
"Exactly. Or, if it's curing itself, we might find the equivalent of an immune system-- "
"An analogue. We need an analogue. Zen, show me a schematic of the self-repair circuits on the main screen. Now then..."
* * * * *
By the time Tarrant and Dayna and Vila finished repairs to the teleport room and life support functions were restored, Cally and Avon were so completely engrossed in the process of diagnosing Liberator 's self-repair system, that they offered no objection to the announcement that the rest of them were taking the shuttle down to Barram.
"As long as the teleport is working again," Avon said, glancing up at Tarrant.
Tarrant nodded and said, "Everything checks out."
Avon nodded and turned back to what he was doing, saying unconcernedly, "Take bracelets with you then. We'll use the shuttle as a base and then bring the bulk of the supplies we acquire up on it when we're ready to leave orbit."
"All right," Tarrant said, surprised he hadn't gotten an argument.
"Call when you're ready to come up," Cally said, absently.
"Are you two going to be all right here alone?" Dayna asked, receiving an elbow in the ribs from Vila for her trouble.
"You are of no use here," Avon informed them in his most imperious tones. "Go."
* * * * *
The analogue was running. It had been difficult at first to discover the right questions to ask-- even with Orac's help, since one needed to find the right questions to ask him, too-- but it had gotten easier. Now, ten hours later, as Zen presented the incomprehensible schematics of the self-repair system the analogue program translated those schematics into a humanly understandable dynamic biological analogue and Cally and Avon were effectively observing the functioning of the "living organism" that repaired Liberator .
"It works wonderfully," Avon said. "But is it telling us anything?"
"It's telling us exactly what Zen told us: there's nothing wrong." As she watched the viewscreen there was a change. "Look," she said.
"What is it?"
"Watch. Remember you're looking at a biological system..."
After a few moments Avon said, "So, that's it."
"Exactly," said Cally. "Zen was right."
"There is nothing wrong because-- "
"The immune system is functioning-- "
"And it's healing itself," they concluded in unison.
As they watched, the "cancerous" circuit sections contaminated by the particles of psi booster, were being systematically attacked, isolated, starved, and sloughed by Liberator 's immune system, and regrown by its regenerative system.
"At this rate of repair the contamination must have been very widespread."
"It may have metastasized..." Cally said, still watching, "or, perhaps, the system had to learn to manufacture the correct antibodies."
"Thank you, doctor."
It was said in fun, but a faint note of sincerity in his voice made her laugh selfconsciously.
"And what is your prognosis?"
"It's nearly healed," she said turning to look at him. "Another day and Liberator will be well again."
"I think that calls for a celebration, don't you? Come on, I'll treat you to dinner planetside. Orac can mind the store."
Avon smiled at her and, meeting his eyes, she suddenly felt very uncomfortable. "Thank you, but-- " she said, looking about, trying to think. "I'm feeling rather tired... I wouldn't be very good company." She made herself look at him again and felt even worse when she saw that his smile had faded completely. "I-- it's just--"
"Very well," he said cutting off her excuses; turning away, he began tidying up his area, packing up the tools and equipment. After a moment Cally began doing the same in her area. They worked in silence and when Avon finished he picked up Orac and as he went out, he said, "Get all your shopping done tomorrow, we're leaving the day after."
Cally lingered a few minutes putting the last of her things in order, then she went to her cabin, indulged in a good cry, and went to sleep.