By James I. Ide

X, Continued...

Cally heard the sound of a flitter and took one last look in the mirror. The dress and shoes were simple and pretty, and though she hadn't done anything special with her face or hair, she felt comfortable and she was satisfied with her appearance. Georgie was right, it felt good to dress like a woman again.

She reached for the teleport bracelet. She knew she should take it, but it was so unwieldy and there was no place to conceal it-- what did it matter? She'd only be gone a few hours.

* * * * *

Avon nearly had it. It had taken all day, but he had worked out the basic structure of the security systems, and now, with a little more finagling, he'd be eavesdropping on the Federation's Communication Network.

Marian had been very obliging about letting him use her comm station and he had found that Marian's comm station was, very obligingly, connected to every other system on and off the planet. Barram had very sophisticated communication and security systems, but not tamper-proof ones-- in fact, in some ways, it was laughably easy to get to information. Perhaps easier than it should be... No matter, he'd be able to get the status of the pursuit of Liberator and find out just how interested the Federation was in Barram--

But then Marian seemingly materialized out of the darkness in front of the desk. "Georgie was right," Avon said, without looking up. "You should have considered a career as a spy."

Not answering, she came around the desk and stood behind him to study the screen. Avon sat very still and waited to hear what she would say.

"Do you realize what you're doing?" she asked. Her voice was low and calm, the question almost matter-of-fact.

"I need to know what has happened to Liberator."

"Is it so important?"

"They are being pursued. I need to know."

"They'll trace it. To us."

"Perhaps not. I've been careful."

"Perhaps, perhaps not. But if they do trace it? Do you need to know at the expense of my family?" She rested her hands on his shoulders. "Think about it, Avon. Think about it."

Avon tensed, withdrawing into himself, shutting Marian out, but, he couldn't avoid her touch unless he moved away from the terminal, away from his chance to know and he wanted the information. Information is power; power means survival; survival is of paramount importance-- the logic was irrefutable. He continued keying the access sequence--

Marian didn't speak, but while his hands played over the keyboard, her hands were lightly massaging his shoulders, subtly breaching the physical barrier and insinuating her presence into his solitude--

It was distracting-- a deliberate intrusion. She had no right to intrude and it was making him angry. What of Marian's family? Who were they? What were they to him? Why was he even thinking about them? One did what one must to survive, devil take the hindmost-- but he wasn't alone any more--

"Damn you! Leave me alone!" he hissed between clenched teeth, then, slapping both hands down on the desktop he pushed himself away from the desk, out of the chair, beyond her reach.

She watched him quietly for a few moments before she spoke. "It must have been a very hard world you learned to survive in."

"What the devil do you know about survival?" he asked, turning to face her.

"You tell me." Marian reached behind her back, under the loose jacket she habitually wore, and drew forth a weapon. Avon froze, expecting her to level it at him, but, she only held it out, unthreateningly, to admire it in the dim light. "Barram was a very different place fifty years ago," she said, and she tossed the weapon to him.

Avon caught it. It was an old scourge gun: nasty-looking and deadly. The revelation was stunning-- and so were the implications. "You've been carrying this since we arrived," he stated without rancor.

"Of course."

Avon started to laugh. He was appalled that he'd been outwitted, but he had to admire her. "Do Georgie and Rafe go armed, too?"

"No. Suspicion and distrust have never been required of them. Eve and I-- they don't know about... that." She nodded at the weapon and smiled. "Eve gave me that when we signed our first Companion Contract."

He held the weapon gingerly at first, taking its measure. It was loaded, and it was obvious that it had known long use and good care. It had been customized, too, and though it didn't fit his hand properly, it felt good. Solid, warm and-- comforting. The weapon was a reliable companion in itself.

"Look closely," she said, "it's very worn, but you can still see the inscription."

Holding it under the light, he read the faint lettering: Tomorrow we'll be free.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you tomorrow never comes?" he asked, handing it back.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you there's no such thing as free?" Marian countered, taking her weapon from him. From the back of one of the desk drawers she brought forth the case, and, with a last fond look, she put her weapon in it and returned the case to the drawer.

"Aren't you afraid you're going to need that?"

"Not now. You've made your decisions. Besides, I've begun to grow quite fond of you. You remind me of someone I used to know."

"Where I come from the survivor's motto is Trust no one."

"Where I come from the survivor's motto is Trust everyone, but cut the cards. It's no less effective. And a lot less lonely. I'm going to bed. Good night, Avon."

As Avon watched her go he found he couldn't reconcile the two images he had of Marian; couldn't quite believe-- "How many?" he asked quickly, before she reached the door.

Marian paused, stiffened as if the question had hurt her. Without turning, she asked, "Do you keep count?" Marian waited for his answer, but Avon didn't have one handy. "I lost count, too," she said, and then she left.

Avon went back to the desk and sat down. The access command sequence waited patiently for completion; Marian had gone to bed. Now-- he paused, leaned back in the chair, and stared at the unwinking screen.

He couldn't do it. She hadn't asked him not to break into the Fed Comm Net, but she'd stopped him as effectively as if she'd shot him.


This Survival Game was getting more complex by the day-- and it had used to be so simple: the winner was the last one left standing and winning was everything--

It was galling, but, he had to do it. A few deft keystrokes and the screen went dark. And now he felt tired. He leaned back in the chair again and closed his eyes. There had to be another way to find out about Liberator-- an untraceable way. It would just take some thought, a little thought...

The house was quiet and the only sound was of rain dripping rhythmically from the eaves. Just before he fell asleep, it occurred to him that he hadn't noticed what security level Marian's computer operated on.

* * * * *

Tarrant was tired and worried and frightened. "Somehow they know where we are," he said, more to himself than to anyone as he fidgeted with a handful of the checkers from that game he and Dayna had played so long ago, "somehow they know..." The headlong flight had seemed to be a success at first, but an hour later the Federation was back, playing games. At least the systems had recharged. But how the deuce had they--

"Who'd've thought Barram would want to go to so much trouble over one lousy shuttle?" said Vila.

"Vila, this has nothing to do with Barram," Tarrant said, and shied a checker at him.

Vila ducked and the checker missed him. "That's how much you know-- hey!" he said, ducking too late to avoid the next checker. "We've been in nothing but hot water since we left that planet."

"He's right, you know," said Dayna, trying to lighten Tarrant's mood. "Maybe if we gave back the shuttle they'd leave us alone."

Tarrant ignored the attempt. "The only way they could know our position is if Liberator were sending out a signal."

"They've probably got a homing device on the shuttle," said Vila.

"Right," laughed Dayna, "Barram is so worried about pinched shuttles that they have a homing device built into each-- "

"Right. There's a very long range homing device in each shuttle-- "

"Don't be stupid," said Tarrant, "nobody has a homing device with a range like that." And he shied another checker at Vila.

Vila managed to knock this one aside. "Maybe Barram does," he said, doggedly pursuing the topic just to annoy Tarrant. "Probably lost a lot of shuttles before they developed it, too. Just the way they lost-- ow! And I bet the Federation would pay a small fortune for-- "

"Federation!" Tarrant exclaimed, readying to throw another checker. "If anyone had such a-- "

"We could sell it to them," said Vila, ducking.

"They were there... of course! It has to be!"

"It has to be what?" asked Dayna.

"If it were a tracking network," said Tarrant, "it would be the talk of the spaceways, right?"


"So. It has to be something else. What's different about Liberator since Barram?"

"New parts," said Vila.

"Supplies," said Dayna.

"No Cally, no Avon-- "

"The shuttle!" said Tarrant.

"The shuttle?"

"The shuttle!"

"Of course, the shuttle! Come on!"

Draughts © 1999 Leslie Mundy

* * * * *

Avon awoke with a start just as the little old grannies surrounding him opened fire with their scourge guns. His neck was stiff and his head ached from sleeping in the chair. Rubbing his neck he thought, Tarrant, Tarrant, where in hell is my ship? Bring back my ship, damn you! I want off this planet. Now. Before the grannies get me.

Reaching to turn off the desk light he became aware of the sound of a flitter outside. Cally must be back from dinner. He glanced at the chronometer, turned off the light, and went out of the study and down the passageway towards his own room. When he reached the bend in the passageway, he glanced through the doorway and was just in time to see Cally coming quietly into the house.

Wes was with her. They were saying goodnight in the open doorway and Avon watched as they kissed. He was surprised to see that she was wearing a dress. He hadn't seen her before she left and he hadn't pictured her in a dress-- hadn't known she had one to wear. It was a pretty shade of blue-green that became her well. In fact, she was looking very well, smiling and glowing, raindrops sparkling in her hair and--

She wasn't wearing her teleport bracelet. He'd told her to keep the bracelet with her at all times-- and it certainly wasn't concealed in the tiny gold purse she carried. She knew they might have to leave at any moment. His expression hardened.

Wes didn't linger, but Cally watched until the flitter took off. Then she came inside and shut the door, shaking the raindrops from her hair.

"Oh!" she exclaimed softly when she looked up and saw him watching her. "Hello," she said, smiling tentatively, wary of his mood. When he didn't respond, she glanced away and walked on past him towards her room.

No, she most certainly didn't have the bracelet with her. She probably hadn't thought about Liberator once all evening. "Have a nice dinner?"

"Oh, yes. Lovely-- delicious," she answered, turning back to him, relieved that he had decided to be civil; glad to have someone to tell about her enjoyable evening.

"Oh, good. Nice restaurant?"

"Very elegant. One whole wall was a waterfall. You should've seen it-- "

"It's too bad the service was so slow."


"The service. It must have been dreadfully slow. You've been gone for seven hours."

Cally felt a fool. She should have seen it coming. Avon would never change. "Oh, yes," she agreed sweetly. "It was slow. But you wouldn't be used to that. I'm sure they serve you immediately-- just to get rid of you! Good night."


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