Avon was bored. All there was to do on this blasted planet was wait. Rafe had gone to the city early in the morning; Marian had gone to the hospital; and Georgie and Cally had been chattering and giggling and busying themselves at-- the heavens only knew what. And that had left him to his own devices.
He had thought about the Fed Comm Net some more and finally realized that there probably wasn't anything to be gained from tapping it anyway. He had thought about leaving Barram, but, while it was an alluring idea, it didn't make any sense yet. He had set himself some intellectual exercises on the computer, but the urge to be up and doing was strong and he couldn't concentrate.
So far, luncheon had been the high point of the day and that was now over. Georgie and Rafe had excused themselves from the luncheon table and gone off to the kitchen; Cally had gone inside to take a call from Wes; and Marian was only waiting for her flitter. As he contemplated the expanse of afternoon stretching interminably before him, he began to wonder if he should seriously consider turning himself in--
"About your ship..." Marian said.
"At present, your ship is at liberty."
Avon looked his next question at her.
"That is the word. And I believe you will find that just as reliable as anything you could hear by tapping the Fed Com Net."
"I'm glad you agree. Eve used to be head of Security."
Avon nodded as he arose from the table; he picked up his plate and utensils.
"I have been thinking," she said. "If it remains at liberty, your friends will return for you; if it is destroyed, you may do as you please, stay or go. But, if it is captured..."
"Someone will come looking."
Marian nodded. "Tell me, what do you estimate your ship's chances to be?"
"Liberator is one of a kind and faster than anything the Federation has; Tarrant is a good pilot, but hot-headed and impulsive-- " He broke off when he noticed Marian's frown.
"Surely that's not a recommendation."
"No, but it's to our advantage," he said, sardonically. "If he engages the Federation, chances are even that he and Liberator will either escape or be totally destroyed."
"We must hope Liberator remains at liberty. Until we hear to the contrary your wisest course of action may be to remain here. And, if your ship has not returned for you by Saturday, attending my party will further establish your identities as Galen Senat and Leah Hilary. I'm sure that will be useful to all of us."
"A passport would be even more useful."
"I'm sure it would. We must also hope there will be no need of passports."
Avon nodded and turned to leave.
"By the way, Galen," Marian said, "if you do plan to attend my party, get yourself some new footwear. I don't allow campaign boots at my parties."
* * * * *
Avon gave the plate and utensils to Georgie in the kitchen, then went out onto the terrace to think. Marian was right, information about Liberator would come quickest through the space chatter. And there wasn't any message he could send even if there were a way to send it.
The Federation had put something on that shuttle. And done it in a hurry, too-- done something opportunistic. It probably wasn't explosives or poison gas or a controller or anything like that, otherwise they'd have used it and Liberator wouldn't be at liberty now...
A tracking device? Perhaps...
Whatever it was, it just might be that it hadn't worked. Liberator might be on the way back to Barram now...
Or not. Perhaps Tarrant and Dayna had decided to carve out a career as pirates--
Or-- Avon looked down at the bracelet on his wrist. Perhaps Liberator had been taken-- perhaps Tarrant and Dayna-- Vila!-- had sold out! And any moment now he might find himself teleported into captivity--
With any luck at all, Tarrant would have gotten them all killed long before that happened--
"Cousin Galen," Rafe said, sitting down beside him, "I'd like to have a word with you, if I may... we have a slight problem."
"Yes." The sarcasm was lost on Rafe. He looked at Avon blankly for a moment then he looked away again saying, "It seems I have been something of a fool."
And that is something of an understatement, Avon thought as he watched Rafe, wondering what he had discovered now.
"I took a look at the charter and... well..." Rafe said, nervously rubbing his palms together. "I have found out that... your safety is not assured by our charter once your ship has... abandoned you."
"That's a nice way of putting it."
"Yes. Well," Rafe said, grinning a little in embarrassment, "we're supposed to turn you over to the Federation authorities."
"Why don't you?"
"I should, of course, but... I got you into this and... well, it wouldn't be right," Rafe said simply.
Avon was sorry he had asked.
"Anyway... it's just that, well, if it were discovered that we had sheltered you, we could-- would be prosecuted for aiding and abetting-- "
"A Barram? Prosecuted?"
"Well... yes, of course..." Rafe said seriously, "and the way things are these days... I don't know what might happen and..."
"Do you want us to leave?"
"No, of course not," he said quickly. "I mean, you can't leave, can you? And you shouldn't leave. That would make everyone suspicious. Now everyone thinks you're cousin Galen from Garth."
"I can't be your cousin Galen from Garth forever."
"No. But no one suspects you aren't-- "
"Except Krager. I know. Krager keeps snooping around and that worries me... though, without proof..."
"Don't let him get a look at the family album."
"Yes," Rafe smiled a crooked smile, trying to appreciate the joke. "I suppose there's really nothing he can do but voice his suspicions. He can't prove anything. I know you'll careful of... I just wanted to... if anything happened to Georgie or Doc because of me..."
"I'll stay out of his way. Will that do?"
"It would help," he said smiling in relief that Avon understood the precaution. "And Doc's party will help, too. After that everyone will know you as cousin Galen."
"Perhaps you should invite Krager to the party."
"Krager? Kra-- of course! That's a very good idea. Pearson's coming and... yes! We'll invite Krager and Elston."
"By all means Elston," Avon said faintly. These people were... incredible. Rafe wasn't stupid; Georgie, wasn't stupid-- Marian wasn't at all stupid. But, even she was guilty of being too trusting. And only Marian had the least glimmer of an idea of how serious the danger could be or of the possible consequences to themselves. It must be true, he thought, that the Anthropomorphosized Universe has a soft spot for drunks, fools, and idiots. Something is watching out for this lot--
"Cousin Galen," Rafe said, much more cheerful now that the burden of worry had been shared, "would you like to come with me this afternoon? You must be getting quite bored..."
Rafe was becoming a master of understatement. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to inspect the farm. It's harvest season and there's a lot to be seen."
There couldn't be anything more boring than that. He was opening his mouth to decline the offer when the memory of the interminable morning came back fresh to his mind. The only entertainment at the house would be in hoping each moment that the next moment would bring teleportation--
"I think you'll find it interesting."
Avon heard the sound of giggling laughter coming from the house and suddenly, boredom had been redefined. "Yes," he said. "I was getting a bit bored."
"Good," Rafe said, "Come on, I've already called a flitter."
For the first hour Avon followed Rafe listlessly around the farm, the bracelet chafing at his wrist and his thoughts, but when they reached the computer center Avon's curiosity stirred. The farm was much more technologically sophisticated than he would ever have dreamed. And as he began to question the complex ways the computer center interacted with the natural environment, Rafe's knowledge and enthusiasm stopped being an annoyance, and he became astonishingly entertaining and intelligent company. Farming as practiced on Barram was a very complex science. Soon, curiosity fully engaged, Avon forgot to wonder about Liberator. And later, when the bracelet began getting in his way, he just took it off and put it inside his tunic.
* * * * *
"Told you so," said Vila, but Tarrant and Dayna both ignored him.
"Now what?" Dayna asked. "Just shut it off?"
"No. I don't think we should let them know we've found it yet."
"We could space the shuttle with the device on board," suggested Vila hopefully.
"And have to pay for it?" said Tarrant. "No, there's got to be a better way... a way to get back at them."
"But, we can just turn it off and go merrily on our way. Why take the chance?"
"Because they've been playing games with us since we left Barram and I want to get even, that's why. Orac, about this device..."
* * * * *
Cally was packing the last of the provisions for her midnight sail with Wes when Avon came into the kitchen.
"All ready to go?" he asked.
"Nearly," she replied coolly.
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
"I don't think so." Be damned to you, Avon, she thought, you are not going to run my life.
"Where's your bracelet?"
"In my room."
"Hadn't you better get it?"
"No! Hasn't it dawned on you that maybe they're not coming back for us? That maybe we're free to do as we please?"
"Is that what your intuition tells you? Is it? Or is that what you want to believe?"
"Leave me alone. What does it matter to you, anyway?"
"So. You've decided to stay. Stay, marry, raise a family and live happily ever after."
"Yes. Maybe I will."
"And just how long do you think that will last? How long will you be able to live with yourself?"
"Why shouldn't I be able to live with myself? I don't owe anyone anything!"
"No? Well, think about this: How long will it be before they find you? How long before they find your family?"
"Why should they even look? I'm nobody-- "
"Don't be so modest. They'll look for you. They'll look for you just because they know you aren't dead. The only way you'll be safe from them is to be well and truly dead."
"Then you can tell them I died-- tell them I died of the pip!"
"If you want to be dead, tell them yourself!"
* * * * *
"You know what Avon will say if you-- "
"Vila, if anything goes wrong, I promise you I'll get us all killed. Then we won't have to listen to Avon."
"Right. We know where they are and they know where we are. Battle stations, everyone. Let's find that space junk to play in and start the chase. We'll let them chase us until we catch them."
* * * * *
"Look at all that junk!" Tass said, watching the screen. "Pieces four and five kilometers in diameter and they've run right into it."
"Sir, shall we follow?"
"Is there a way around it?"
"Yes, sir, but it will put us at a disadvantage if-- they've shielded and we've lost the signal, sir, but we still have them in range."
"Shields," Tass sighed. "And they'll need to keep them up in this."
"They're maintaining speed, sir."
"The strain must have finally gotten to them, Mister Selden," he said shaking his head. "But it hasn't gotten to me yet. Follow them in, but let's make our flight a little less headlong, shall we? We'll keep them in range as long as we can."
"Mister Gifford, call Taggert and tell him our situation. Maybe he and Jeffers can be in range when they come out-- if they come out."
* * * * *
"They've slowed," said Tarrant, grinning. "No guts."
"No brains," Vila mumbled under his breath.
"Vila," he said, casually taking Liberator within inches of a small planetoid, "you can take the shuttle from here, if you'd rather."
Vila eyed Tarrant resentfully. "No, thanks. I don't want to be the only one left alive for Avon to yell at."
"I tell you what, when we get out of this we just won't go back for Avon. I've never liked his company."
"Neither have I, but at least he didn't think he was invin-- yiyee! Mind where you're going!"
Tarrant grinned. "Now I'll show you some piloting." The anti-fatigue drugs were making him feel euphoric and, yes, invincible. Somewhere in his mind he knew it was the drugs, but just this minute, he didn't care. He was enjoying the feeling too much.
Dayna watched Tarrant anxiously. She knew he was reaching his limits and hoped that he wouldn't come down too soon. She and Vila had been taking anti-fatigue drugs, too, but the effect wasn't the same at all. "Tarrant," she said quickly, "they'll be out of range in four minutes-- "
There was a jarring sensation--
"Ooops!" said Tarrant, grinning.
Involuntarily Dayna and Vila both looked at the viewscreen and then looked away again just as quickly when they saw the field of junk Tarrant was dizzily flying them through.
"Ooops?" said Vila, disgusted.
"Listen, why don't you two just keep quiet and let me concentrate?"
Vila and Dayna traded looks and decided to let Tarrant have his way. Maybe he'd slow down when they were out of range.
* * * * *
"They're out of range, sir."
"Steady as she goes, Mister Selden. Keep a sharp eye out."
* * * * *
For the moment Liberator sat still, pretending to be space junk. Once out of detection range, Tarrant had taken them, still at speed, up and around to approach the Pursuit ship from behind under cover of space junk.
"You see? There they are. All unsuspecting. Ready, everyone? We're going in."
* * * * *