The flitters were automatic and after he watched Georgie punch in the address code, there was nothing to do but sit back and watch and listen. He hadn't seen much of the city during his visit, and now the flitter didn't fly high enough or long enough for Avon to get a comprehensive overview of the entire city and environs, but they flew several miles south of the city, over rolling wooded country, over a series of long, connected lakes, and Georgie's commentary was informative.
This area was residential, but the houses were not close together. In the distance, beyond the trees, there were cultivated fields which provided for most of Barram's basic needs. There were few roads visible, since almost the only ground traffic was agricultural equipment. "There. That's our home," said Georgie, pointing to a sprawling house not far from the shores of the fifth lake. The flitter slowed and hovered waiting for the ambulance to get clear.
Avon was nearest the door and when the flitter landed he got out quickly and, out of habit, began a visual recon, leaving Georgie to follow as best she could.
"Cousin Galen," Georgie interrupted him sharply, "if you please!"
Avon turned back to the flitter to see Georgie still sitting where he'd left her.
"If you please," she said again, more moderately and with a smile, "I would appreciate some assistance. It is really too undignified to have to roll myself onto the floor when there is an able-bodied man present." And she held out her hands to him.
It took him a moment to comprehend her predicament, but when he did he took her hands, hoisted her out of the seat and helped her to alight. Then, for good measure, he gathered up her things and carried them for her as he followed her into the house. Georgie really was astonishingly pregnant.
"Thank you. Please just put everything down," Georgie said when they got inside. "It has been quite a day already-- and we haven't even had lunch. Come, I'll show you to your room and you can collect your thoughts."
The main entrance to the house opened into a Great Room. It was spacious and light, divided into overlapping areas of use, the wall opposite the main entrance was of divided glass and opened onto a stone terrace which faced south. To the right was a doorway opening into an L-shaped passageway off of which all the private rooms were located. Cally's room was the first on the right, at the heel of the L, and Avon glimpsed Marian busy making Cally comfortable as he followed Georgie past that room and into the second guest bedroom, at the toe of the L, which was to be his.
"If you go back up to the main passageway and turn right," Georgie said, "you'll come to the study, our room, and then Doc's-- Marian's suite which has two doors. Turn left at the end and you're in the kitchen." She cast a critical eye about the room and then went into the bathroom to satisfy herself that all was in order there, too. "Well. You should be able to find all you need. Is there anything else?"
"Lunch. Yes. I'd like some, too. I'll call you when it's ready."
* * * * *
Luncheon was a quiet meal until the sound of an approaching flitter intruded. Instantly, Avon was on the alert. "Rafe?" he asked, casually.
"Yes, probably," Georgie said.
"We'll know in a moment," said Marian dryly, without looking up.
"Is there someone else it might be?" Avon asked, very casually, a little alarmed by her comment, wondering if the few things Rafe had to take care of included alerting security. Surreptitiously he began reaching down to draw the stunner from his boot.
"We're not expecting anyone else," Georgie said, looking from him to her mother with a slightly puzzled expression. Marian looked calmly up at Georgie and Georgie looked from Marian to Avon and back again before she asked uncertainly, "Are we?"
"Of course not, dear," Marian said.
"Oh," she said, still puzzled.
Avon had the stunner in hand now and was resting it on his right knee while he listened to the landing flitter. He tried to appear relaxed, but he was extremely uncomfortable. If it was a trap, it was a dangerous one for both sides. Marian's comments would have alerted even an idiot, but, by the same token only an idiot would have been stupid enough to say anything. And he didn't think Marian was an idiot--
"Mama! He's got a gun!" Georgie exclaimed and Avon was out of his chair covering them both before she had straightened up from peering under the table cloth. He looked from one to the other, expecting them both to be alarmed, but he was surprised to find that they were both ignoring him.
Georgie was looking at Marian with the most ingenuous expression of delighted discovery on her face. And Marian was sitting calmly, hands in her lap, saying, "Yes, dear, I believe it's a stunner."
"Is it?" she asked, quickly turning to Avon, all curiosity.
"Yes," he said, matching Marian's calm, but not sure yet whether to lower his guard.
"But-- where was it?" Georgie asked.
"In his boot, Georgie," she said, sounding a little exasperated, almost as if Georgie should have known.
"Doc! You knew?" she asked, astonished. Avon was a little astonished, too.
"Yes, dear-- "
"Well! Doc, you should be a spy! I never noticed."
"Didn't I tell you? I am a spy."
Georgie grinned at her mother's joke and Avon realized that she was indeed completely oblivious to the danger she had been in, but Marian, though she hid it well, was shaken.
Marian and Avon exchanged a look of understanding, and the crisis passed. Marian then dismissed Georgie by saying, "Now, why don't you go see what's keeping Rafe?"
"Very well," Georgie said, giving them each a look that said she knew she was being gotten rid of, but that she was amused none the less.
"Did you know?" Avon asked, still on his guard, but coming back to the table to resume his seat.
"I suspected... I'm glad you aren't one to overreact. I should have realized the flitter-- I wasn't thinking. Georgie certainly has a faculty for... creating excitement."
"She doesn't seem to have gotten it from you."
"It's her upbringing, I'm afraid," Marian said, wearily drawing a hand across her eyes. "No on has ever taught her that there really are people who would kill her."
"And she still doesn't believe it."
"No, she doesn't," Marian said slowly, sounding as if she didn't want to believe in Georgie's naiveté. "She never believed for a moment that you might harm her. The thought never crossed her mind."
"In other circumstances, that could get her killed, but, this is only a stunner, after all."
Marian looked at him for a moment before she said quietly, "It's true, but in her condition, you could have killed them both."
That was something that had never occurred to Avon. "I didn't know," he said simply.
Marian seemed to measure his response and then, with a nod of acceptance, she resumed her brusque manner, and said, "If you'll excuse us for a few minutes, my family and I need to have a conference. We won't be long. Please make yourself comfortable." She got up from the table and Avon rose with her. "By the way," she said, "that's the wrong pair of boots for..." she gestured at the gun, "and don't let them catch you with it-- "
"I know," he said.
* * * * *
Avon had been looking at the wall hangings and contemplating the furnishings in the Great Room for half an hour before the others joined him. It reminded him of something, made him feel... uneasy, but he couldn't put a name to it. Rafe sat down on the sofa and Georgie perched on the arm of it next to him. Marian took her place in the rocking chair. But nobody asked him to sit down and this house seemed to demand manners, so he stood quietly. He liked the house, it was spacious and comfortable, but he didn't like the look Marian was giving him-- that was it! Pi Grant. The place reminded him of Pi's rooms and Marian was giving him the same look Pi used to give him when he got called onto the carpet at home. What a thing to think of! Avon's lips twitched in a fleeting smile.
"Now then," Marian began. "Your friend is safely bestowed, we have been fed and... had time for reflection, and I think it's time you tell me exactly who and what you are."
"I am Avon. And she," he said, gesturing in the direction of Cally's room, "is Cally. We are from Liberator."
"Obviously. Blake's ship." Marian did not sound or looked pleased.
"I have heard that the crew of Liberator is made up entirely of convicted criminals. Are you a convicted criminal?"
Avon smiled. "Bank fraud, with violence."
"And your friend?"
"Her only crime is idealism."
"Supposedly that's one of Blake's crimes, too. That might explain why she is with Blake, but why are you? It seems to me that rebellion might not... pay very well."
"It doesn't." He said, choosing to ignore the question. He didn't have a good answer anyway. One day he'd have to sit down and think about it.
Marian paused to consider. And Georgie and Rafe just watched, seemingly amused by the inquisition.
"Why are you on Barram?"
"Repairs, R and R... rebellion is hard work."
"And dangerous, too. Hard work, danger, little pay. I'd try another line of work, if I were you."
"Perhaps, one day, I shall."
"Do you know how long it will be before your ship returns?"
"No. When will Cally-- "
"She will awaken in two to three hours. After that, her needs will depend on the problem."
"We have good medical facilities on board. She will be well cared for."
"But she was completely hysterical and there was no sign of physical trauma. What if the problem is psychological? Can your medical facilities handle that?"
Avon hadn't thought of that. "I don't know-- "
"Of course they can't," Marian cut in. "Machines can't do a damned thing when it comes to sorting out someone's head. Only people can do that. Have you got a psychologist on board?"
"Well, you should in your line of work. Hard work, danger, low pay-- stress, that's what you're dealing with."
"How long will it take you to make a determination?"
"I'll know more when she wakes. I want you to be there; she'll need to see someone familiar. I'll call you." And she got up and went out of the room.
"In case you haven't guessed," Georgie informed him, "Doc is a psychologist first and a physician second. If you'll excuse me, I have some things to do."
"You may as well relax, Cousin Galen," Rafe said. "If Marian were going to throw you out or turn you in, she'd have done it by now. And that goes for the rest of us, too. Would you like a drink?"
"No, thank you. Tell me... why are you aiding us?"
"To get back at the Federation. They've been crowding us lately and I don't like it."
"Aren't you taking an unnecessary chance? Even if you are a Barram?"
"We are completely autonomous. The Federation has no political force here. And yes, I am a Barram, but not one anybody notices.
"We tolerate the Federation; any Federation ship that calls here is treated no differently from any other ship that enters our neutral zone." Rafe paused, his expression turning grim. "But this harassment has got to stop."
"But what political position do you have to protect you from the Federation?"
"Barram's neutral zone is granted under charter by the Federation," he said, as if it were an absolute.
"Yes. But charters can be revoked."
"I'd like to see them try. Barram Pharmaceuticals has many friends in high places; and it pays taxes. Lots of taxes. This planet may be the smallest holding in the corporation, but it is also the pet project of the head of Barram Pharmaceuticals. And Uncle Jake isn't going to let it go. If the Federation moved to take over Barram...well, it would be interesting."
"Yes. I will admit, though, that I hope they don't find out you're here. Not that the Federation can actually do anything, but I wouldn't care to have them singling me out in future."
"You should have minded your own business."
"I should, of course," Rafe said, grinning ruefully, "but Krager and Elston rub me the wrong way."
"It occurred to me that Krager and Elston may have recognized me."
"It occurred to me, too. That is why the names of Galen Senat and Leah Hilary, both of Garth, have been added to the passenger listing on my ship. Senat, by the way, is Marian's family name."
"I don't think she'll be pleased to have acquired me as a relation."
"Don't let Doc fool you. She's hard on everyone at first. Covers up for being such a softy.
"The official records show that you traveled separately and that you were my guests, and that your passport numbers were verified by customs on arrival along with those of the other passengers. If they think that they recognized you, they will have to think again, cousin Galen."
Rafe fell silent and it made Avon uneasy. He had the feeling that there was something Rafe didn't want to tell him.
"Is there something else I should know?" Avon asked.
"Well, there's the bad news."
"I thought we'd come to that."
"Control is very put out. Your ship left orbit with our shuttle."
"An unfortunate necessity, I assure you."
Rafe nodded. "But that's not all."
"When my ship came in Control was having the devil of a time with some kind of interference raising havoc with local communications. They routed around it and kept communications open, but... well, when they traced the source of the interference, it was-- "
"Exactly. They thought you were responsible and they weren't pleased. Do you know what was causing the interference?"
"No. Did they contact Liberator before it left orbit?"
"No. By the time they traced the source, your ship was out of range-- "
"Out of range? They couldn't be out of range."
"Out of range of Barram's neutral zone communications system. To contact them we would have to go through the Federation's Communication Network, which is monitored, and if we did that we'd be consorting with and or aiding and abetting known criminals and jeopardizing our neutral status. Period."
"Well, cheer up, I'm sure it's nothing serious. The Federation will be gone in a day or two-- if not as soon as your ship is out of range-- your ship will be back in no time."
* * * * *
Avon had a lot to think about. He was sitting out on the terrace letting the sun warm his back, letting himself enjoy the feel of weather for a change, while he thought. There wasn't much else to do in the present situation.
The terrace was surrounded by beds and borders of flowers. There were tall, spiky plants covered with tiny, dusty purple-blue stars and in front of those grew bright orange-red and yellow flowers with feathery dark green foliage. The air smelled sweet and tangy.
"Well, Galen Senat, you are looking very well for your age," said Georgie, sitting down on the bench next to Avon.
He cocked an inquiring eyebrow at her.
"Didn't Rafe tell you? Galen Senat is Doc's great uncle. He's one hundred and twenty-four."
"Days like today I feel that old, but..."
"Silly. You're his great-grandson of the same name. Cousin Galen."
"I don't think Krager and Elston believe that."
"Why ever not? Why would Rafe lie?"
"I think they recognized me."
"They may think they recognized you, but, consider: if you are an easily recognizable person, you would have to be a complete idiot to let yourself be seen by people who will recognize you-- you agree?"
Avon just looked at her.
"But think. It would be so easy to change your appearance. A few credits at a salon and your eyes would be a different colour, your hair would be different, you could even have your features altered somewhat. All in the space of an hour." She smiled and waved her hand over him as if working a magical transformation. "Could you not?"
Avon began to think about it-- what she said was true.
Georgie nodded decisively and continued. "Therefore, since you have done nothing to disguise yourself, you must be someone else. Cousin Galen's resemblance to that person they're looking for must be a coincidence," she concluded, triumphantly.
It made a certain kind of sense--
"Now, enough thinking. Look," she said, pointing to his shadow on the stones before them. "You see?" The thermal currents rising off his dark hair were casting shadows like smoke rising from his head. "Too much thinking. You need to take a walk. Come, I'll show you the path to the lake."
Avon didn't want to go.
"Please? I've been given strict orders not to go alone and I need to go for a walk. Please?"
"How do you know you can trust me? I'm a convicted criminal, remember."
"Oh, yes..." she said, considering. Then she smiled. "But I haven't any money, so I shall be quite safe."
"Your logic leaves much to be desired."
"But my intuition is never at fault."
"You and Cally should get along famously." Avon couldn't quite believe Georgie was as ingenuous as she seemed, but she was certainly energetic and determined.
They went for a walk.
He told himself that he went with her to familiarize himself with the terrain and to glean what information she might inadvertently impart through her incessant chatter.
In metaphysical terms, a self-styled immovable object had met a naturally irresistible force and, this time, the irresistible force had the edge.
* * * * *
"Yes, Doctor Farnum?" Rylah asked.
"We've done the trick, Captain. The signal is moving away from Barram rapidly and-- "
"Yes, Captain. Course and speed-- "
"Thank you, Doctor. Continue to monitor it," she said abruptly breaking the connection. She stared at the blank screen for a moment and then placed her call to Taggert.
Like it or not, the game was on.
At least Krager was gone.
* * * * *
Cally awoke in a strange room, in a strange bed, to a strange sight: Avon sitting comfortably in a sunny window seat, arms clasped about his knees, staring out the window. The frilled and ruffled pillows he was sitting on and the lavender drapes that framed the picture made him look so out of context that she thought she must be dreaming and she laughed.
He turned his head to look at her and said, "I'm glad you find the situation amusing."
It was the note of sarcasm that reassured her. "Avon. It is you," she said, sitting up. "I was afraid I was dreaming."
"No. This is real," he said, standing up, but staying by the window.
Cally nodded, accepting the reality of the room and the beribboned nightgown she discovered she was wearing, but wondering how it had all come about. "What happened?" she asked. "Where are we?"
"Couldn't you ask something more original?"
"Sorry," she said, and then she paused trying to piece together what had happened. "Are we in trouble?"
"That's somewhat better."
"Yes, well, what's the answer?"
"I don't know yet. But, for the moment, you needn't be alarmed. We're still on Barram, though Liberator has departed-- "
"Departed! But-- "
"At my request. You needn't worry."
Cally frowned, but let it go.
"And I've been adopted."
"My adopted name is Galen Senat. Your name has changed, too, by the way."
"Was I adopted, too?"
"Sorry. They wanted a boy."
"They'll be sorry."
"Probably. Your new name is Leah Hilary."
"That's a pretty name... we were in the spaceport... and you went away... and a woman tried to help me..."
"Marian. She's a doctor. And this is her home."
"Is she your mother?"
"No. She's my cousin."
"You'll have to draw up a family tree for me to study."
"You can sort all that out later," Marian said from the doorway. "Right now, cousin Galen can go amuse himself while I talk with you."
* * * * *
Taggert stood up and straightened his uniform before he put the call through. She had to be fifteen years older than he, and he outranked her, but, somehow he always wanted to... impress her. He remembered his posture just in time and when her face appeared on the main viewscreen, the smile on his face was genuine.
"Captain Rylah, Doctor Farnum and his equipment are aboard. We must be on our way."
"Good hunting to you then, Commander."
"Thank you. And thank you for your assistance, Captain. I'm sorry that you and your ship cannot be a part of this mission."
"I, too, Commander. But I understand. This old bucket of mine may be slow, but she's reliable."
"She is that. And it is a virtue."
Rylah nodded graciously. "Oh, Commander, I meant to tell you, you were right about the three day sweats. They do go away."
"Of course," Taggert laughed, "they always do."
"But tell me, Commander, can one be quite certain that one won't catch them again?"
"I should think you may be quite certain, Captain."
"Thank you, Commander. You reassure me."
"Good flying, Captain."
"Good hunting, Commander."
The screen went blank and Rylah quietly but clearly ordered her ship on its way and went about her duties. The closer to home she got, the more she smiled; the more she smiled, the younger she looked.
If Taggert could have seen her--
But perhaps it was just as well he couldn't. After all, there was no guarantee that she could ever have seen him.
* * * * *