When Zen was ready, Tarrant smoothly brought the ship around for a close pass and fired a neutron blast at the Pursuit ship while rapidly accelerating away.
"A hit-- " he said, "but they're still coming."
The Pursuit ship followed, firing once more at close range, and Liberator shuddered throughout.
* * * * *
"A hit, Commander."
"It must be their shields, Commander," said Doctor Farnum frowning at his instruments. "Their battle shields must be blocking transmission."
"Are you sure?"
"I can't be absolutely certain, of course, but the problem isn't ours... we'll know once they drop their shields... as long as they're still within range. "
"Within-- " Taggert hit the com switch again, saying, "Jeffers, break off pursuit. Repeat: break off. Now." And again he abruptly flicked the com switch off. "Now, Doctor Farnum, this tracking device of yours is supposedly not outrunnable, even by Liberator. Exactly what range are we talking about?"
"Yes... well, up to a distance of one parsec the signal will remain clear-- "
"One parsec? Exactly one parsec?"
"Well, I have found that the signal tends to become diffuse and unpredictable after twenty trillion miles-- "
"Doctor, do you know what the maximum range of Liberator is?"
"No, Commander, but-- "
"Let me tell you..."
* * * * *
As they watched the Pursuit ship suddenly dropped back and veered off.
"That was close," Dayna said, when she remembered to breathe.
"Very," said Tarrant, breathing hard. "We must have got them."
"Yes, but, did they get us?" Vila asked faintly.
Tarrant and Dayna looked over at him, unmoving, seemingly welded in place at his station, a look of terror on his face, and they both began to laugh.
"Don't ever do that to me again," Vila said, feelingly.
"You're lucky I was flying," said Tarrant.
"You're lucky Avon wasn't here," Vila said.
"He's right," Dayna said, still laughing. "Imagine what Avon would have had to say-- "
"I can imagine-- " Tarrant said, and both he and Dayna began laughing all the harder.
Gradually the laughter stopped and they settled down to the business of watching the instruments. Once the Pursuit ship was left safely behind, Tarrant changed Liberator's course again and let her settle into a more dignified pace.
"Tarrant..." said Dayna, "do you think they were looking for us? Could they have followed us from Barram?"
"But how would they know where to look for us? We detected no ships on the way out and we would have detected anyone who could detect us."
"But... that may have been the ship they intended to chase us with. Judging from it's course, it could have come from Barram..."
"And they arrived too late, decided to head home, and Murphy's Law brought us together."
"It wouldn't surprise me," he said, grinning.
* * * * *
"The signal is back, Commander."
"What's their position?"
"One seven nine mark two three six; at one point three seven seven light-years, steady."
"Excellent. Tass should be ahead of them, and coming within their range in the next few hours. Be sure he has their position and heading-- and remind him: under no circumstance is he to approach within firing range. For the time being we only want to keep them nervous."
* * * * *
That evening Wes came to dinner. He was affable and amusing and as comfortable to the family as an old shoe, and if he was particularly assiduous in his attentions to "Leah," no one thought it was anything more than a family friend trying to make the guests feel welcome. But if Georgie hadn't placed him next to Cally, he would have spent the entire meal gazing at her across the table.
"Here you go, Georgie," Wes said, handing over his dishes to her in the kitchen. "Is there anything else I can do?"
"No, thank you. Go relax. I know you have to work this evening."
"Good. Thank you, Georgie," he said giving her cheek a kiss. "We're dismissed, Leah," Wes said, taking Cally's dishes from her and relaying them quickly to Georgie. "Would you like to come for a walk with me?" He had a charming smile.
Cally found herself smiling back. "Yes," she said. And almost before the word was out, Wes had taken her arm and escorted her out the kitchen door.
"I called Marian earlier to ask how you were," he said, as they crossed the veranda.
"You did? Why?"
Instead of turning toward the terrace and the paths that led to the lake, they turned right towards high, wild ground.
"You're the prettiest patient I've had in months."
Cally laughed, surprised. "Thank you for that. And what did Marian say?"
"She said I should come to dinner and ask you myself." Wes led her to a rocky outcropping that seemed to be a dead end until one got close and noticed the natural stairway of rocks and roots. "Up you go," Wes said, helping her onto the first and highest step. Mounting the step behind her he asked, "How are you?"
"Very well, thank you."
"I must say you look very well," he said, grinning appreciatively, then, after a moment, "Onward and upward," he said, indicating that she should precede him up the rock and root stairway.
From the top there was a beautiful view of the lake. Cally stood still, drinking in the view. The lake was all shades of blue, sparkling with orange and gold as the wind ruffled the surface. Below she could see the house and the others gathered on the terrace. As she watched Georgie looked up at her and waved. Cally waved back. The sun was lowering in the west, casting a red-gold light that mellowed the world and calmed the mind; the shadows were long.
"Would you care to go sailing with me tomorrow?" Wes asked.
"Yes... on the lakes... in my boat... we could make a day of it. Please say yes. Sailing is just the thing for convalescing." Wes stopped himself, feeling that he had begun to babble.
"I've never been sailing," Cally said, turning from the view to look at Wes who was leaning against a tree behind her. Everything was suffused with the liquid red-gold of the setting sun. Wes's hair was shining as if it were on fire and he was smiling again, charmingly.
"You'll love it."
"How do you know?"
"I can tell. There's a look about people who love to sail. It's a light in their eyes, a glow..." Cally's hair looked as if embers were smoldering there and-- "...the way they wear a sunset in their hair..." Wes was having trouble breathing-- "you're a natural."
"So are you!" Cally laughed, a little embarrassed, not used to compliments. Sailing? Why not? she thought. After all this time it was good to feel the wind and the sun again, to watch a sunset. And Wes was very nice. "Very well. I'll come sailing with you."
They watched the sun until it settled below the hill across the lake, then they watched the changing colours of the sky and the water. They watched in companionable silence until the ground below was in shadow and light and colour was fading from the world.
"We'd better go down," Wes said. "It's getting dark and I have to go to work. Here, let me go first." Taking her hand he guided her down the stone stairway and back to the house, never once letting go completely.
Wes stopped in the shadows on the veranda, still holding her hand, just looking at her. They could hear the others inside, talking.
"What is it?" Cally asked.
"Nothing," Wes answered. Then the sound of a flitter intruded and he said, "That's my ride. I have to go. Tomorrow," he said, squeezing her hand before he let go. "You bring the lunch. I'll be at Marian's wharf second hour sharp. Don't be late." And he turned quickly from her, striding along the veranda, as if the flitter wouldn't stay a moment for him.
"Wait! I don't know what you like."
"Ask Georgie-- or surprise me!" he said over his shoulder and he was gone, shouting his good-byes as he went through the house.
Cally stayed in the shadows on the veranda, thinking. It was very flattering to inspire such admiration. And Wes was very nice... and handsome, too. She smiled and hugged herself. And it was so touchingly sweet to be treated so solicitously--
"Do you think it's wise?"
"Avon! You startled me. I thought everyone was inside."
"Not everyone," he said, coming over to sit on the railing. "How is the view from the summit?"
After regarding her for a moment he continued, "Do you think you should encourage him?"
"Where's the harm in it?"
"We're here under false pretenses, for one thing."
"He's only-- being nice."
"And we don't know when we'll be leaving, for another."
"I expect you mean we may have to leave abruptly. I'll take the bracelet with me."
"Of course. I hope your departure doesn't come as too much of a shock. You wouldn't want to startle the natives."
"Honestly, Avon, you make such a piece of work out of everything."
"Do I? I thought I was just being practical," he said, rising. "There's just one other thing. If you must go, do try to remember who you are, Leah."
Nothing was ever simple. Not lately. After a while Cally went to find Georgie to ask her what sort of lunch should be packed for hungry sailors.
* * * * *
"Well, what do you think of Wes?" Georgie asked.
"He's very nice. He's almost a part of your family, isn't he?"
"Yes. He and Rafe and I grew up together. I've known him all my life."
"I thought so. He asked me to go sailing tomorrow."
"Well! You've been honoured. He won't take just anyone sailing with him, you know. He prefers solitude to company when it comes to sailing. He says most people don't know how to relax and go with the wind."
"I said I'd go with him. I hope he isn't disappointed with my company."
"I don't think either of you will be disappointed."
"We'll see. Now, I'm to bring lunch, Georgie. What do I bring?"
* * * * *
Zen was "on watch" as Liberator made its way sedately and circuitously back towards Barram. Vila was lazily polishing off a second bottle of Barram's Spring Wine and Tarrant and Dayna were playing speed checkers when the approach of another vessel was announced.
"Vila, go see what Zen's spotted," Tarrant said, concentrating on the game.
"I don't know how to read those things," Vila complained.
"Just go look," he said, making his move and hitting the timer. "Our game's nearly finished."
"Then go look when you're done."
Dayna made her move, clearing the remainder of Tarrant's checkers from the board in one masterful stroke. "I'll go look," she said, grinning.
Tarrant glared at the board for a moment, then said, "Vila, you would really be more help if you didn't-- "
"Not another one!" Dayna exclaimed.
"Another? It can't be," said Tarrant, coming quickly over to look at the instruments. "It is. How many Pursuit ships does the Federation have? They can't possibly cover this much space!"
"Are we finding them, or are they finding us?" Vila asked.
"I wish they'd find you," said Tarrant, testily, as he scanned the telltales. "What do you suppose the odds are of us running into Federation ships three times in twenty-four hours?"
"Very high," said Dayna.
"I suppose that means we're lucky."
"If it weren't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all," said Vila.
"Good lord! There's another one-- well, that's it. They must be holding manoeuvres."
"Then we can't get back-- "
"Not unless we go the very long way round. Zen, course change: zero three zero mark zero seven five, standard by six."
"Here we go again," said Vila.
"As of now, watches are in effect. Vila, stow that bottle and get sober. Now. We are all in for a very long night."
"You're telling me."