Anything to declare, Captain?"
"That I'm glad to be home," Rafe responded, ritually. "How goes it, Devon? Georgie shown up yet?"
"Not yet-- you don't really expect her to meet you way out here in her condition?"
"The indefatigable Georgie? But of course."
Devon laughed. "You're right. She's probably up watching the circus." He perfunctorily examined Rafe's duffle and checked him off the list.
"Circus?" Rafe asked picking up his duffle and taking it over to the doorway where he could wait and watch for Georgie.
"Surely you noticed on your way in that we have some very distinguished, not to say notorious, visitors?"
"Yes, I had noticed. Hard to miss that ship. Well?"
"Well, McAran's Jolly-Fly-Boys showed up a while ago and have decided to have some fun. Somebody must have tipped them, too, because they're ahead of schedule. The way they're behaving, if I didn't know better, I'd say they are trying to flush our visitors off planet and out of orbit for a game of Catch-Me-If-You-Can."
"Not playing by the rules, exactly," Rafe said, irritated by the thought of the liberties the Patrol was continuing to take here on Barram, trying to compromise their neutrality.
"No. But, but if you ask me, I don't think the Federation ever meant the rules to include... well, they don't want them to be taken seriously by visitors of..."
"Such high calibre?"
"Precisely. But, Pearson's up there now reading them the riot act. And control is ticked with them, too, for having come in blind side-- which is not against the rules, but..."
"Indeed. And not much we can do about it. Well. It's still good to be home. Am I the last one through?"
"I wonder what's keeping Georgie," Rafe said looking down the passageway again. "Got everything you need from us?"
"Everything. Enjoy your stay. Say hello to Georgie for me."
"Thanks and I will," said Rafe. "By the way, have our distinguished visitors left, yet?"
"Don't know. No shuttles have gone up in the last half hour, but then, from what I've heard, they might not need to use the shuttle. Want me to check with control?"
"No, it's none of my business." Rafe stood looking down the passageway, watching for Georgie, thinking. There had been too much interference from the Patrol lately, too much bending of the rules, too much interest. There had to be something they wanted, but he couldn't imagine what. "Well," he said at length, "she must have been delayed. I think I'll go the long way. Take it easy, Devon," Rafe said, and, picking up his duffle, he turned and headed for the exit to the lower level. "If Georgie shows up tell her to meet me at the flitters."
* * * * *
His ship, a larger passenger and cargo ship, had docked at the furthest bay out and he had to walk the entire length of the docking corridor-- but he always enjoyed the walk: it gave him a chance to note the comings and goings of ships and shuttles and cargoes: it brought him back in touch with home.
Today the place seemed deserted. Two ships in: his own and a Patrol cruiser in the next to last bay; no shuttles in sight at this end. There were cargoes stacked and waiting, but no activity. His own cargo wouldn't be off-loaded until customs finished with it.
He meandered among the stacks, checking on this and that, and had almost forgotten about the Patrol and visitors both when he heard the low rumble of a shuttle moving out to the lift area. Curious, he hurried along the corridor to look and saw a man come out of the moving shuttle and throw the hatch closed. The man watched the shuttle for a moment before he turned and walked off down the corridor towards the exit, moving casually, but as if he were taking advantage of cover. It was unusual behavior. Rafe couldn't help wondering if this had something to do with the game the Patrol was playing. He decided to follow along and observe.
As the man neared the exit at the end of the corridor he slowed, making his approach very cautiously, keeping well out of sight of anyone on the other side of the exit. Then positioning himself just inside the doors, he assumed the demeanor of someone who was listening.
As Rafe watched the man drew a stunner from his boot and a moment later he saw his two favorite fly-boys, Krager and Elston, saunter by the entrance, talking-- Krager was talking, Elston was listening, as usual. They seemed to be maintaining a casual guard on the corridor. And the very cautious fellow in the corridor just stayed put, listening.
Seeing Krager and Elston started Rafe thinking again. It must all be connected with the visitors. The Patrol couldn't possibly be up to any good-- and, if they weren't, he wanted to even things up. It would be such a pleasure to put one over on Krager and Elston, too...
The man must be gotten out. Krager and Elston probably couldn't be drawn off until they were ready to go, but why not take him out right under their noses? Say the man had just come in on the ship with him-- say he's a friend-- no, a relative. Cousin Galen, from Garth, Rafe decided, picking the most distant relative he could think of. But, what if they recognized the man? All the better. Bluff it out. Krager and Elston didn't have any authority and they wouldn't have the guts to call him a liar. No matter what they thought, they'd have to let it go. Excellent. Rafe grinned, pleased with his plan. Now then, he thought, let me see what kind of cooperation I can get.
Waiting until Krager and Elston had sauntered out of sight again, Rafe removed his identity badge from his tunic, knelt down and sent it sliding across the corridor towards the wall where the listening man stood.
The clink was just loud enough to draw Avon's attention. He looked down at the badge, knowing that he hadn't kicked it or dropped it, that it had come from somewhere else. Stooping cautiously to pick it up he read the name then scanned the area looking for Captain Raphael Barram.
Rafe let himself be seen, hands out, palms empty. They regarded each other for a moment. Then Rafe slowly raised a finger to his lips to indicate silence.
Avon was wary and more than a bit puzzled. This man couldn't possibly know him; couldn't possibly have any idea-- or could he? Captain Barram. His ship must be the one that just docked. And any ship that just came in must have seen Liberator in orbit-- and I must look exceptionally suspicious to him, he thought, yet he has gone to the trouble of drawing attention to himself instead of sounding an alarm. Curious. Very curious. And now I can't escape inconspicuously unless he chooses to let me...
Now that Rafe had the man's attention he had another problem: further communication. Giving a mental shrug, he picked up his duffle and began walking slowly towards the man, keeping one eye out for Krager and Elston. He pantomimed putting the gun away but, when the man didn't move, he stopped and spread his hands as if asking for indulgence.
Avon had a decision to make. He knew the Federation couldn't actually do anything, couldn't arrest him here, but he didn't want to be recognized, didn't want to be trapped here. If the captain could offer some camouflage, he may as well take the chance. After all, being befriended by a Barram could have advantages. Nodding acceptance, he slipped the gun back into his boot.
Rafe nodded back decisively and began walking towards the man again. He smiled-- reassuringly, he hoped-- and mouthed, as distinctly as he could, Just follow my lead.
"Ah, here we are, Galen. Georgie should be looking for us." And he gestured to Avon that he should accompany him in the direction of the Patrol.
Avon's heart leapt into his throat when he heard that name, but he willed himself to be calm. It had to be a coincidence, nobody could know his full name here.
From around the corner a voice called, "Is that you Captain Rafe?" A moment later Krager and Elston came around the corner. "Seen any suspicious looking types?" Krager asked, running a critical eye over Avon.
"No," Rafe replied. "No one but you. Why?"
"You've had desperate criminals loose here, don't you know," Krager said, transferring his attention back to Rafe. "Criminals from Liberator-- surely you must've, ah... seen her as you were making your approach."
"Now, gentlemen, you know that naming names here is considered indiscreet. But what business is it of yours who our visitors are? Have they done something that our own Security couldn't handle?"
"Well-- ahem-- they haven't done anything criminal on Barram that we know of, but they aren't the, ah... sorts you would want here and... well. Not to worry, I do believe that was their shuttle just leaving. You must have gone right by it, Cap'n."
"Yes, I do believe it was," Krager said, peering down the corridor for a moment. "They seem to have decided to leave rather, ah... abruptly."
"Why was that, do you suppose?"
"I couldn't say. You'd almost think they didn't want to associate with us."
"I can't imagine why not."
"It's very nearly insulting to the Federation, I should say. As if we'd violate Barram's Charter."
"But there! That's your hardened criminal types for you: untrustworthy and untrusting. Elston and I just thought we'd, ah... do you the favor of taking a look about, d'you see. Make sure they've, ah... all gone."
"I see. That's very considerate of you."
"Always happy to oblige."
"Ah. Yes," Rafe said. "And are they all gone?"
"We think so. You didn't, ah... see anyone, you said?"
"No, no desperate criminals."
"No. It'd be a pity, getting left behind," he said, eyeing the corridor behind them again. "But, I think we can safely say they've, ah... gone.
Avon had heard quite enough and said, "Well then, why don't you go chase them?" Both Patrol officers looked at him, wondering how to take that remark. Avon favored them with his best go-to-hell smile.
Rafe grinned, saying, "Krager, Elston, this is cousin Galen."
"Cousin Galen? Would that be, ah... Barram then?" Krager asked.
"No, no," Rafe said. "Cousin of Marian's. Here to, ah-- he's here to look us over, see how he likes the place. We're going to try to-- " Rafe stopped himself from echoing Krager's speech pattern again-- "persuade him to stay, if we can. We need all the... help we can get nowadays."
Avon cocked an eyebrow at Rafe, amused by his susceptibility to the cadence of Krager's speech. "Tell me, gentlemen," he said addressing Krager and Elston, "is the Federation going to pursue the, ah... criminals?" And then he was surprised at himself. That cadence was insidious-- it was almost as if the man were contagious--
"Now that would be a violation of Barram's charter, you know. The Charter is very clear," Krager said, unconsciously assuming an "at ease" posture to recite: "No Federation ships not bound for Barram may pass within established detection range of Barram; neither may any Federation vessel bound for Barram deviate from it's course; nor may any Federation vessel on or in orbit around Barram lift or leave orbit until any protected vessel is out of established detection range. And the Federation has always abided by the very letter of the Charter, as Captain Rafe here can tell you."
"That's true enough," Rafe said.
"But surely you could send a message-- " Avon ventured.
"The rules about, ah... communication are very strict, too."
"Then there is nothing you can do?"
"No... no. Pity, but rules are rules. And we always abide by the rules."
Neither Rafe nor Avon liked the way Krager and Elston were grinning and they were both wondering what Krager wasn't saying when someone shouted, "Rafe!" and they all turned to look.
"Georgie!" Rafe exclaimed enthusiastically, dropping his duffle, and rushing forward to meet her. Sweeping her off her feet and into his arms he swung her around, giving her a hearty kiss. "Georgie, you weigh a ton," he said. Georgie smiled at him, laughing. It was a moment or two before they remembered that they had an audience.
"If I'm such a burden, put me down."
Grinning, Rafe set her on her feet again and she reluctantly turned her attention from him to the others, greeting Krager and Elston by name, before turning her attention to the fourth man. "Well!" she exclaimed, her expression changing abruptly from affability to indignation, "I've been looking for you!"
Georgie's voice was amazing, sliding up and down the scale, like a reed instrument talking. But Avon was at a complete loss as he regarded the little blond woman standing before him, arms akimbo, glaring like a basilisk. How in the world, he wondered, does this extremely pregnant woman know who I am? Rafe couldn't possibly have communicated with her-- does Rafe even know who I am? Does everybody on Barram know everybody else's business? Or is everybody on this damned planet telepathic?
"Well!" Georgie said again, grabbing him by the elbow and dragging him off towards the lifts. There was nothing to do but go with her. "Doc wants to talk to you. How you could have gone off and left that poor woman in such a state-- men!" With relief Avon realized that the woman she was referring to must be Cally.
Rafe had watched the exchange with interest. He was puzzled that Georgie seemed to know "cousin Galen," but not unsettled by it. He'd been married to Georgie too long for anything she said or did to surprise him. "Krager, Elston, if you'll excuse me," he said, and, picking up his duffle, he followed calmly in Georgie's turbulent wake.
"Well," said Krager to Elston, shaking his head, "for a moment I thought we might have had one of them: the resemblance was certainly there." Krager watched them go, then looked at Elston. "Let's go have a chat with customs." And they turned to saunter down the corridor, past all the cargo, looking, but not expecting to see anything of interest. Not now.
* * * * *
As soon as Rafe got to the upper level, he called customs.
"Devon," he said, without preamble, "Krager and Elston are on their way to see you, I think."
"Ah, yes? And is there something I should know?"
"If they mention seeing me-- only if, mind you, just ask them if I've found cousin Galen, will you?"
"Cousin Galen. Of course."
"I'll talk to you tomorrow."
* * * * *
Tarrant, adrenalin flowing, was all eyes and ears, monitoring instrumentation and visuals, alert for the smallest hint of threat. He had allowed Zen and Barram control to handle the rendezvous with the shuttle, but the automatics seemed to take forever and now that the shuttle was aboard he was impatient to take control and break orbit. "Come on, come on," he said. "Release the shuttle and secure so we can get out of here."
"It's only been a minute," Dayna said from her station.
"A minute too long. Come on, come on-- we're secure!"
"Go!" Vila shouted, running onto the flight deck. "Avon said go!"
That was good enough for Tarrant. "Right. We are out of here." Too impatient to waste time communicating with Zen, he took Liberator out of orbit on manual and with relief watched Barram dwindle on the viewscreen. He kept a sharp eye on the instruments for a few minutes, but detected no pursuit behind and no obstacles ahead. "Zen, maintain present course, standard by six. Where is Avon?" he asked Vila.
"Back there," Vila gasped, still trying to catch his breath.
"On Barram. He's on Barram."
"What in hell is he doing there?"
"Looking for Cally."
"Oh, good lord! Vila, what's going on?"
"I don't know... Avon said Cally was ill-- "
"Ill!" Dayna exclaimed, staring at Vila.
"Ill. And she had disappeared... he stayed to find her... said that once Liberator left he could search for her in peace. We're supposed to put them off the scent, then come back."
"Oh, hell..." Tarrant said, and sat down to think.
"Vila, do you know what was the matter with Cally?" Dayna asked.
"No. I didn't see her. Avon told me."
"I hope she's all right."
"Well," Tarrant said at length, having thought it through, "I suppose it makes sense. But, you'd better hope we're going to be all right. I can't believe the Federation is just going to let us go. We'd better stay alert."
"Some charter. What now?" Dayna asked.
"Once we clear this system we'll do some running, get ourselves lost for a day or so... they won't expect us to come back here-- unless-- Vila, is there any chance that the Federation got Cally?"
"Avon didn't think so."
"Let's hope he's right..."
"Avon will see to Cally," Dayna said. "I'm sure they'll be fine."
"Then we should have no problem picking them up... as long as there are no more communication problems. That must have been the Federation's doing, too. We'll give them a day or so to clear things up and then we'll go back in."
* * * * *
"Doc! I've found him," Georgie called as she pushed Avon ahead of her into the infirmary.
"Well, young man," said Marian looking up from Cally's bedside, "will you please tell me what made this young woman so hysterical?"
Avon stepped closer and looked down at Cally, touched her wrist lightly, watched her breathe just to assure himself that she was alive. "I have no idea," he said looking at Marian. "Will she be all right?"
"She's heavily sedated now. She won't wake for another few hours. But I would like to know what happened so that I can be prepared for when she wakes up. She was completely hysterical when we found her, but there's no obvious cause, no physical trauma." Marian was watching Avon closely, gauging the degree of his concern, weighing the possibility of his being the cause of the young woman's hysteria. "Are you the cause of her hysteria?"
"No. She was-- there was something wrong when I found her, but she wasn't hysterical."
"You left her. Why?" Marian wasn't going to make it easy. This man seemed concerned enough, but that didn't mean he wasn't a danger to her patient. And the fact that he wasn't volunteering information was making her suspicious.
"To get help."
"But you didn't come to the infirmary. Again, why?"
Avon and Marian regarded each other stonily. Avon resented the questioning and the tone this woman was taking with him, and he wanted to tell her so, but Cally needed her help so he held his tongue.
"Ease up, Doc," said Rafe, coming quietly into the infirmary, taking in the situation at once. He gave Marian a hug and a friendly kiss on the cheek. "I think these people have problems enough without you putting them through an inquisition." Rafe picked up the teleport bracelet from the table and, after examining it for a moment, handed it to Avon. "You are free to do as you wish, but, there will be less... awkwardness if you allow us to handle the situation."
Avon had already thought about the awkwardness. There would be no end of questions and problems if he had to find help for Cally himself. He nodded his assent to Rafe.
Marian looked at Rafe hard, but, failing to elicit any further explanation said only, "Very well. Wes has called an ambulance. We'll settle this later." Then looking at Avon again she said, "At least tell me her name."
Good question. Well, Rafe had christened him with an appellation that resembled the last half of his own name, so-- "Leah. Her name is Leah."
"Hmmm," was Marian's response.
Wes returned just then. "Rafe, welcome home," he said giving him a smile and a nod, as he continued purposefully over to the gurney.
"Hello, Wes," Rafe said. "Having some excitement today I see."
"Never a dull moment," Wes said, his attention focused on the patient.
Rafe made sure he had caught Marian's and Georgie's eyes before he said, "Wes, I'd like you to meet cousin Galen."
"Cousin Galen?" Wes said, reluctantly turning his attention away from Cally and remembering his manners. "How do you do?"
"And this young woman is, Leah."
"Oh. Your wife, Galen?" Wes asked, looking intently at Avon.
"No. Merely... traveling companions."
"Oh, good," he said, smiling delightedly down at sleeping Cally for a moment before he remembered himself. "Well," he said becoming quite affable. "Friends of the family. I'm very pleased to meet you both. You didn't tell me you were expecting visitors, Marian."
"Rafe wanted to give us a surprise," said Georgie, playing along unquestioningly. She had already decided that she liked the young woman-- she looked familiar, somehow-- and she found the man intriguing. Rafe undoubtedly knew more about them and her curiosity was aroused. And her intuition, which she trusted implicitly, hadn't sounded any alarms.
"And it certainly was," said Marian, dryly.
"Yes. We never expected cousin Galen and his friend."
"Well-- Marian, the ambulance is outside. Let's get Leah aboard. She'll be much better off at home with you."
"Leah, the weary one. Well, she won't be weary after this sleep," Georgie quipped. "Doc, we'll meet you and Leah at home."
"Georgie," Rafe said, looking pensive, "I have a few things to do before I go. You take cousin Galen home. I'll be along shortly."
"Can't it wait?" she asked. The look on his face told her it couldn't. "No. Very well. Then we'll see you at home," she said, standing on tiptoe to give him a quick kiss. She took his duffle, then, gathering up her belongings and handing them to "cousin Galen" to carry, she grabbed Avon's elbow again and steered him off towards the flitter pads.
Avon felt uneasy about Rafe's unfinished business, but, he followed Georgie without protest. He would need time to work out a plan-- and he couldn't abandon Cally again. Not yet.
* * * * *
"Tarrant," Dayna said, "I've been thinking. What if we can't pick them up? They're safe as long as the Federation thinks they're on board Liberator, but, if we go back they may get suspicious-- "
"And start looking. You're right."
"If we go back they'll probably arrest us, anyway," said Vila.
"For what?" asked Tarrant.
"Larceny," Vila said.
"Vila, what have you done now?"
"Nothing," Vila said, affronted by Tarrant's tone. "It's that shuttle. They probably think we pinched it."
"The shuttle," Tarrant said, laughing, "I hadn't thought of that."
"Do you think they'll charge us?" asked Dayna, laughing too.
"What difference would it make?" Vila asked.
"Well, we'll just have to return it," said Tarrant.
"And quickly, before they issue the warrant," Dayna laughed. "Come on, Vila, let's go unload the shuttle so we'll be ready to send it back."
"I've got all my stuff off," he said.
"Good. Then that's less stuff we'll have to unload. Come on," she said, grabbing him firmly by the elbow and dragging him along.