Author's Note: Amazingly enough, I'd actually dated this manuscript, so I know I completed it in September 1994, after which it was published in Gambit 12. It's archived here with the editor's permission. I don't think this story is altogether bad, but the fact is that I got almost no comments on it when it was published…just one male Cally fan said he liked it. So I can't help but think it's missing something, and in retyping it for the archive it strikes me there is too much concept for such a relatively short story.. But I had fun with it and am using a variation on the genetic manipulation theme in another, adult story, involving Cally and Auron.

 

What Rough Beast

By Pat Nussman

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?"
--W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

 

"Does she know?" The woman's voice was low, breathless, tinged with a mixture of excitement and fear. She glanced around the small room nervously, as if the flickering shadows would overhear and reveal her words.

"No one knows, except the four of us."

"And the child."

Franton laid one hand on his teenaged daughter's dark head. "And the child. She will see it through."

"Does the Council suspect?"

Franton smiled, a flash of white teeth in the candlelit gloom of the tiny chamber. "Does the council see anything not thrust under their noses? Not in my experience."

A murmur of agreement swept around the small circle like a dry autumn wind.

"They didn't suspect when we first bred the clones," said the old woman to Franton's left. "Why should they suspect now? Besides, we've shut down our secret laboratory. The clones we breed now for Auron's august council are simply…clones."

"But should we have stopped the replication?" asked the fourth member of the group. He plucked at the hem of his tunic nervously. "What if she's not the one?"

"She is the one." Franton's voice, low and soothing, seemed to calm the nerves of the other man, if only for a moment.

"But there are--were--twelve clone sisters…and none of them turned out as planned." His voice was quieter now, but still uncertain.

"Gene manipulation is not an exact science, not yet. To breed in the telepathic capabilities, the intelligence, the aggressiveness, I had to introduce potentially unstable elements." Franton stared into the darkness that pooled in the corners of the room. "We tried to compensate with a stable upbringing , but that was not always successful."

"Eight died."

"Or were killed," added the woman opposite Franton.

"Some committed suicide," Franton said reluctantly. "Others…had to be destroyed. Without excess publicity."

"And of the ones who survived, is there only one who fits our purposes?" asked the man. He didn't ask if it were a purpose too bloody to be fulfilled, too dark to be desired. They'd all traveled too far along this path to question the destination now.

"We compensated too much with the upbringing," admitted Franton. "Three have become too peace-loving, too passive…they'd never leave Auron voluntarily." He paused. "Not that they're total failures, of course. Zelda is being groomed for duty in the Replication Plant."

"And Cally?"

"Cally is a warrior. And one of our most talented telepaths to date. She is the one who will leave us, the one who will complete our plan and fulfill the destiny we have worked toward for almost two hundred years."

Franton's hand moved slowly, rhythmically, smoothing down his daughter's hair, then spoke again, more softly than before. "Wait a few years for Cally to grow, to rebel. Then you will see. You will see I am right."

*

A few hours later

"Cam." Cally's slender hand seized Franton's wrist as the teenager left her father's suite of rooms. "I've got it." Triumphantly, she brandished a slender disc with the logo of one of the independent--and outlawed--news organizations.

"Have you watched it yet?"

"I was waiting for you. Come on!"

The two girls raced down the hall to the quarters Cally shared with her twin Zelda, two similarly coltish figures, one with straight dark hair, the other's curls glinting lighter in the artificial light. Cam looked no older than Cally, though she was in fact senior by two years, and a non-clone.

But Cally felt no prejudice against her. Cam was her friend.

The older girl shifted from one foot to another with impatience as Cally entered her code to unlock the door. "Is Zelda in?"

Cally shook her head quickly. "She's in the library, studying. I made sure." They exchanged looks of perfect understanding. Zelda didn't share what the others termed Cally's un-Auron enthusiasms. None of the adults did.

Somehow that made Cally's interest all the keener.

The door slid open, and she pulled her friend through hurriedly. "Come on. We don't have much time." Until Zelda got back, she meant. If her sister caught them, her precious disc would be turned over to the nearest adult, and outlaw discs were too hard to obtain to let one meet that fate.

Giggling nervously, the two girls settled onto the floor in front of the viscast screen, folding their overlong arms and legs out of each other's way. Moments after Cally depressed the remote control, the screen leapt into slightly-fuzzy life.

Cam leaned forward, peering at the screen. "What's happening?"

"A battle, silly." Cally grinned at Cam's look of disdain. "All right, all right. It's supposed to be the rebels on Magron Five, carrying out a mission against Space Commander Jarvis' crack troops."

The two girls watched the action avidly. The vid jumped about, as if the remote camera had difficulty following the battle or, more likely, was trying to avoid Federation detection. To tell the truth, Cally could seldom truly understand the battlevids she so earnestly collected, but just watching them filled her with excitement and anticipation.

"Cam." She took her friend's hand. "I'm going to do that someday." She pointed at the screen, where the guerilla battle still raged. 'I'm going to fight the Federation. Do you want to come with me?"

Her companion looked doubtful. "But the Council…"

Cally snapped her fingers. "That for the Council. They'll just give in and give in until the Federation has taken Auron, as well as the rest of the galaxy."

The other girl looked away, a little nervously. "But maybe you could find other ways to fight, other than with a gun." Leaning forward, she whispered. "You've heard of the prophecy?"

Cally frowned a little. The question hardly seemed to call for secrecy. Everyone had heard of the prophecy. "We Aurons will breed a messiah, who will become a leader and go out into the galaxy," her voice became a bored singsong, "and bring fire and blood." She shrugged. "It hasn't happened yet. I think I'd rather fight than wait."

The fingers she held tightened over hers. "It could happen." Cam's head turned toward the door, cocked in a listening pose, then she looked back again. "The problem is the genetic material. Auron's been isolate for too long…there are," her voice sunk even lower, "other genetic factors needed."

For some reason, Cally found herself shivering. She spoke in a voice as low as Cam's. "So what will they," somehow she knew Cam spoke of a 'they' who were trying to bring the prophecy to fruition, "do?"

"Send someone away from Auron to…mate with an outsider."

"Mate?" A few weeks ago, she wouldn't have caught Cam's reference. But the tape her teacher had shown on natural reproduction made certain physiological facts of life quite clear. "Ugh." Cally wrinkled her nose. "Did you see that tape, Cam? I wouldn't do that for a thousand credits…no, a million credits!"

Cam looked at her doubtfully, obviously still ready to argue the case for the prophecy. "Yessss. But they say it's…pleasant, even if you don't want to reproduce. All the adults do it. Even clones."

"But to have a man do..ugh!" Cally shook her head defiantly. "No, Cam, just forget the prophecy. I'd much rather fight."

*

Fifteen years later

Luckily, Cally had gotten over her revulsion. Even if she'd forgotten her friend's furtive talk of prophecies and messiahs. A merciful forgetfulness, Cam Franton thought…her father would have been aghast at how much she'd revealed.

No matter. The Project rested on her shoulders now. She'd not fail.

She stared at the overhead above her bunk, unable to sleep, despite her fatigue and the soft, somehow soothing hum of Liberator's air recyclers. The light was dialed down to a soft glow, so that the overhead seemed vague and far away, as far away as the ruined, diseased world they had fled just hours before.

Franton shook her head, pushing away the thought, pushing away the memory of pain as Auron after Auron died. She must think of the future. She must think of Cally and the next step that Cally must take, whether of her own volition or not.

Her father had known that the Gene Project's future lay outside Auron's circumscribed, inbred borders and thus encouraged Cally in her quest to help the rebellion, had indeed been the one to feed her the forbidden tapes and to send her to Saurion Major, the first step of the journey. He hadn't known what she would find there or, more importantly for the Project, who she would find there.

But now Cam Franton did.

From the moment she'd seen him, a prisoner in the control room, she had known. She hadn't even needed to run the gene scan, though naturally she had done so. And found what she had expected to find.

Perfect. Perfect.

Clearly Cally was already attracted to him, with that preprogrammed instinct designed to draw her to her genetic match. Tough Franton had spent only minutes in their company, she had sensed that, without even telepathic talents to drawn upon.

But, also clearly, the attraction hadn't progressed. Yet.

Franton swung her legs off the bunk and levered herself to her feet, pacing the deck from door to desk and back again. She had to decide now whether to take the next step. If she failed that step, no one would know, of course, because there was no one else left who had worked in the Project.

She would know. Every day of her life she'd know how she'd failed her father, failed the small circle of conspirators who had brought the plan this far. She'd worked for this all her life. How could she give up now?

The answer was that she could not.

With slow, almost reluctant steps, Franton went to the closet. Opening it with a touch, she scooped up the modest carryall that held all her worldly possessions, snatched up when she'd hurriedly teleported back to her quarters. She took it off the bunk and shook it out over the silvery spread, releasing a shower of neutral-hued fabric, along with a more solid object which had been lodged securely in the bottom of the bag.

Franton picked it up carefully between forefinger and thumb. The oblong metal was shiny with age and with the imprint of many hands..it had been years in the development and building stages. And despite those many hands and many owners, the device had never been used. Until now.

Carefully, she studied the small slide controls set into the side of the device. Her father had made her memorize them at an early age and she could run over the settings in her mind as easily as a schoolchild reciting her multiplication tables. The telepathic trigger developed by Auron exiles was crude and obvious compared to this device, created by Auron's top geneticists, working in secret.

She set the control to the same frequency as the smaller--very small--matching device planted in the young clone's brains just before decanting. Now it was only a matter of stimulating certain portions of the brain, of reinforcing a desire which already existed, and of planting a trigger word that would provoke the required action. She'd allow a month or so to pass before she contacted Cally again, slip the word into a casual communication between the new Auron colony and Liberator.

Finishing the settings, Cam Franton brought the device to her lips in an unconscious pantomime of a light, grazing kiss, uttering a single word, a name, that would push Cally into fulfilling her destiny.

"Avon," whispered Clinician Franton. "Avon."

*

The next day

Franton stepped briskly over the threshold of Cally's cabin. She found it, to her surprise, as plain and impersonal as the guest quarters she herself had been installed in, as though Cally were but staying overnight in this vast, traveling hotel, and would move on to her ultimate destination in the morning.

Cally turned her head listlessly to face her visitor. In her hand she held a finely-taped lead pencil of the type artists used and under her other hand was a sheet of paper half-filled with some image Franton couldn't exactly make out.

Putting her medical bag on the edge of the desk, she tilted her head to see the drawing taking place under Cally's hand. "What is it?"

Cally hurriedly covered the paper with one arm. "Nothing." She hesitated a moment, then said again, "Nothing."

Franton worried at her lower lip. The shock of Zelda's death had not yet begun to fade. But perhaps it was as well, for the moment, that Cally not fully take in her surroundings, or discern what her friend Franton was about to do with her. With fingers that trembled slightly, she took a laser scalpel from the bag, concealing it in her cupped hand. "I thought I'd examine you before I left…you wont' have another chance at an Auron doctor for some time."

"No need." Cally stared into middle distance, as if communing with some spirit heard only by her. "Liberator's medunit can treat Aurons, Terrans, almost any known race. The System liked to prepare for any eventuality."

"But I want to look you over. I'm about to be flooded by pediatric business, so I'd like the chance to keep my hand in with adults." With her free hand, Franton dipped into the medbag again, scooping up an anesthesia spray and misting it lightly over Cally's upper arm. The other woman appeared not to notice, staring straight ahead at the empty bulkhead.

Good. Now she wouldn't feel the light incision of the laser.

"What…?" Cally turned her head muzzily. The healing action of the suture spray must've jerked her out of her shock, at least for the moment.

"Nothing. I just gave you an injection to make you sleep." Swiftly, she suited the action to the words, so Cally would believe she only felt the slight initial touch of the instrument. "I don't think you slept at all last night, am I right?"

"No." Cally propped her chin on one hand, as though it were to heavy to keep upright any longer. "Thank you, Cam."

"No problem. I have to take care of what few of us are left." She snapped closed the bag and moved toward the door, glancing behind her as she left. Her last glimpse of Cally through the closing door showed her still motionless, still staring at the blank bulkhead, a few random tears streaking down her face.

She'd require a few months to start to recover. After the signal had been sent, Franton reflected, at least she wouldn't be so alone. It was a gift, really.

No need to feel guilty.

*

Two months later

Cally found herself in the middle of an empty passageway on the aft side of Liberator, not certain how she had gotten there or where she had originally intended to go. Only that she had to be…somewhere…for a reason unknown.

How stupid. Perhaps the isolation of the past months had affected her.

She pressed one hand to her forehead as if to force back to not-quite-headache that had plagued her this week or more. Whatever had caused the headache, perhaps, had also produced this strange not-quite-sleepwalking.

The Alien was dead, dissolved by Avon's action--and her own stubborn resistance--into so much dust, fit only to be swept off the plates of the flight deck. She felt not even the faintest echo of that malevolent but seductive force.

So, what was it? She felt as if some unseen presence were whispering in her ear, just below the threshold of perception. Like listening to a conversation being conducted on the far edge of hearing range.

She walked quickly down the corridor, not really caring about her destination, simply trying to escape that low, constant voice. Passing Tarrant's cabin, she glimpsed Tarrant and Dayna through the half-open door, lounging around a viscast screen set up in one corner, wine glasses held loosely in their hands. Laughter filtered out to the corridor, half-smothered by the sound proofing…one of the tapes Tarrant had picked up during their last planetfall must've been a comedy.

A few paces further and the sound of the vistape and the laughter faded, becoming as faint as the scent of a pressed flower. Companionship on Liberator was so precious and so rare. They each stayed as isolate as if they were in a ship of damned souls, bearing them to their own private and solitary hells.

Cally rounded a corner, her feet directing her to an even more deserted set of cabins where no members of the crew save one ever ventured. Avon's cabin stood alone at the very end of the corridor, surrounded by the force field of his personality, all the more palpable and forbidding for being unseen.

Halting in front of the door, she found her hand hovering over the call button. Why was she here? And what would she say to Avon even if he did bid her enter his refuge?

As if another person directed her body, Cally watched her hand press the button, heard the almost-distant sound leak from inside his cabin. A moment passed as the occupant perhaps froze in surprise at the intrusion or debated with himself whether to pretend he simply wasn't within.

Then the barrier slid aside. Hesitantly, Cally stepped over the high threshold.

"Cally?" Avon rose a little awkwardly from the chair by his desk, a thick printout in one hand. Papers, tapes, and various tools littered the flat surface in front of him, making his desk messier and more random than she'd always imagined. "What's wrong?"

She stood uncertainly before him, not knowing what to say, not knowing indeed why she had come. She found herself projecting a single word to him, charged with all the pain she had felt since she'd left Auron and since the Auron she remembered from childhood had been ruthlessly destroyed.

Alone.

Avon's hand flexed, as if he wanted to reach out, but was restrained by an equal and opposite reflex. "You must keep it a small part. The regret. I told you that, Cally."

"I know." She closed her eyes. The voices whispered louder now, a soft clamor that set her heart beating faster, sent impulses racing along her nerve endings, impulses she could neither admit…or resist. Her body swayed forward in half-conscious invitation.

"Cally." She felt, rather than saw, Avon's self-restraint loosening from the bonds of his intellect, felt his hand graze her jaw, settling feather-light on her shoulder. Leaning forward, she breathed in the faint spice-edged scent of his breath for the few seconds before lip met lip, chest brushed against breast, and peace descended over her, mixed with the first stirring of passion.

The voice ceased, falling into a deep, velvet silence, like the black void between the stars. And, physically at least, and for the moment, she was no longer alone.

*

One month later

She felt tired, so very tired.

With dragging steps, Cally made her way toward the medunit. The weariness had plagued her for a week or more, so that she nearly fell asleep on watch and twice had begged off from her usual practice bouts with Dayna. It was as if some parasite had taken hold of her body, leeching her of strength.

Reaching the quiet haven of the medunit, she quickly dialed the equipment from Terran physiology to Auron and stood in front of the sensor grid. Almost immediately, the readouts lit into flickering life, information crowding the edges of the tiny screen. He scanned through quickly, scrolling through the irrelevant sectors of information so rapidly that she almost missed the primary diagnosis.

No.

Automatically, her hand went to her flat stomach, pressing inward as if to detect some sign of what the computer told her.

How could this happen? She'd renewed her contraceptive implant just before she'd departed Auron for Saurian Major. The implants lasted no less than ten standard years, unless surgically removed.

There must be a mistake.

She reset the sensors and ran the scan again, this time scrolling slowly and carefully through the densely-written readout. Again, in stark letters on the screen she saw the diagnosis…first trimester pregnancy. She kept scrolling, hoping for something, anything that might negate that verdict.

Abruptly, she froze the screen and leaned forward, her hand going from her stomach to rest on the back of her head.

"My brain," she whispered. Her voice echoed back to her in the confines of the small cabin. She not only had a child in her womb, she also had an implant in her brain.

*

One week later

Cally's cabin was eerily quiet except for Orac's quiet electronic whir. One couldn't consider Orac to be companionable, exactly, but she found herself grateful that he at least broke the oppressive silence.

Wresting Orac from Avon's possessive grasp had presented a challenge, especially since she had no intention of telling him the object of her research. She suspected that if she had been Tarrant or Dayna or even Vila, he might have denied the request. As it was, he had given her one of his long, searching looks, then simply nodded and returned to his conference with Zen. Perhaps his mysterious flight deck project distanced him from speculations on her purpose.

Or perhaps it was simply a tacit admission that she had the right to ask favors of him where none of the others did. If so, he made no other reference to their relationship, verbally or by implication, outside the confines of his cabin.

No matter. She expected nothing more. And too much closeness right now could be revealing, given Avon's sharp eyes. If not now, then certainly in the weeks to come. With a sign, she lay back on the pillow, hand resting on her stomach, as it often did these days. A bad habit, and something Avon could very well notice.

"So, Orac," she said quietly. "Am I mother to a prophecy?"

The computer seldom deigned to answer rhetorical questions, but zeal for its research into the Auron colony's computers apparently overrode Ensor's anti-social programming, at least this once. "So it appears. Fascinating. Fascinating. Unfortunately, I am unable to discern from Franton's records whether this prophecy predated or resulted from what they call the Project, though I would theorize the latter."

A knot of rag built up in Cally, replacing her initial shock. She chose to fight the Federation, true, but that was a decision freely taken. This… Even had she wished to user herself--or Avon--for such a purpose, she had grave doubts about what was in effect a projected jihad built around a single person, rather than a cause. The prophecy spoke of blood and fire and she feared that would indeed be the result, with possibly a new tyranny waiting at that war's end.

"Why Avon?" she murmured.

"I must presume his genetic stock is considered to complement your own."

That tightly-focused brilliance, that iron will, harnessed to telepathy and perhaps even an inborn streak of rebelliousness. Could these traits be passed on? The geneticists obviously thought the answer to be yes. Not a naturally pessimistic person, nor one to predict dark futures, Cally nonetheless felt a primeval chill at the thought that she and Avon could prove unwilling progenitors to a war more bloody than any the Federation had dreamed of waging.

"What shall I do?"

She spoke, really, to herself, but Orac answered. "If you do not wish to bear this messiah, abortion appears a logical alternative."

Her breath caught in her throat. "I see you haven't studied telepaths with your usual thoroughness, Orac."

"That area of interest is presently twenty-third on my list for further research. I take it there is a particular fact you believe would affect my conclusion?"

"After the first ten days of pregnancy, I began to be psychically linked with the fetus, and the link will grow closer with time. I hardly notice it at the moment…but if I broke the link, if the child died…"

"It would damage you psychologically," the computer concluded.

"Yes, I would go mad."

"Your other alternatives are limited," Orac observed.

"Yes." Cally rose and crossed to where the plastic rectangle sat on her desk. "Thank you, Orac." She pulled the key and stood looking at it for a long moment, as if she didn't know how it had gotten into her hand.

Her choices were limited, indeed. In fact, they came down to only one.

She must leave Liberator and leave before her pregnancy became obvious. This responsibility--whether she decided to let the child live or not--belonged to her alone not to Avon or anyone else.

If she stayed, Avon would take on the obligation despite any protest of hers. As he had taken on the burden of Liberator and Blake's crew and even of the two young people not of Blake's choosing. She didn't know whether Blake had instilled that responsibility or whether some trait hidden in Avon had emerged at Blake's departure. But she knew that reluctant sense of duty existed, and that it would keep him shackled to her, and to the child in her womb, if she didn't leave now.

"You've enough of fire and blood, Avon. I'll not burden you with more."

Cally took a deep breath, then glanced at her watch. She'd promised to meet Dayna for a game, a distraction from the mystery of Avon's prolonged vigil on the flight deck. No doubt they'd resolve that mystery when and only when Avon himself decided to reveal the answer.

Shrugging, she picked up Orac. In a sense, it no longer mattered, for she had already left them, mentally if not yet in body. And the body would follow soon enough. At some point, Avon must make planetfall and then she would leave, without arguments or explanations.

It would make her departure easier for them (him, a voice in her mind whispered), if not for herself.

*

Cally pressed herself flat against the wall of Terminal's underground complex, letting the shadows cover her like a shroud.

A few minutes before, she'd separated from Tarrant, ducking down a narrow side passage that branched off the main corridor. She could hear Tarrant moving around in the distance, calling her name.

She had no intention of answering. But she feared the search would prove long and tedious to wait out. Propping herself against the smooth concrete wall, she closed her eyes, expecting nothing but a stretch of boredom.

Suddenly, the wall against her back began to tremble, as if in an earthquake, and she heard a bass-noted rumble from beneath her. Around her, the walls seemed to sway and tremble, and she found herself flung to the ground, bruising hands and elbows with the impact.

After lying motionless a stunned minute, Cally scrambled to her feet. Servalan had done it again…laid a trap which none of them had guessed at. And nothing was more certain than that other bombs lay hidden as well, ready to explode and destroy this place utterly.

She had to find Tarrant, get him and Orac to the surface. Her own plans could wait awhile longer. An unformed, inquiring mind touched hers and she shuddered.

But not for long.

Shouldering her way through the rubble, she found the main passage once more. But a half-seen movement halted her just short of the broken entranceway.

Vila was already in the passage, shuttling anxiously between the unconscious Tarrant and Orac, which lay on its side nearby. Cally couldn't help but smile a little, despite their danger. Vila was caught between, as the Terrans said, the devil and the deep blue sea. The deep blue sea being his nature desire to rescue Tarrant, the devil being Orac's self-declared owner. And he had yet a third worry, she knew, for he kept raising his head and peering around, obviously hoping she would materialize out of the shadows.

Perhaps she could tip the scales. Vila, take Tarrant. I'll follow right behind you.

Vila shook his head slightly, as if rattling his brains into place, looking around the dim passageway, obviously hoping to see her. With a slight grimace, he seized Tarrant by the shoulders and began dragging him with painful slowness toward the ladder which lead to the surface. She listened while Vila somehow hauled the larger man up the rungs, step by awkward step, past the threshold and into the clearing beyond.

Biting her lip, she glanced uncertainly at the entrance, wondering if she should climb the ladder herself. Vila would certainly come down after her and then what? She didn't wish to lead him into danger, nor did she particularly wish to court that danger herself. Suicide wasn't her goal.

Again, she heard a deep rumble just below her. Vila's voice drifted down to her and in a reflexive moment of pure fear, she called out to him in return, "Vila."

But then the entrance above closed, cutting off the weak winter light from above, shutting her away from the outside world. The concrete walls around her quaked and shuddered as if trying to tear themselves from their earthen roots. She was going to die. She was going to die. The child within her womb sent sharp telepathic jolts of fear to her mind, distracting her, shredding any semblance of control.

Unbidden, her mind cast forth one final, telepathic cry, a cry which she managed, at the very last second, to change…to twist into another name. Not the name which would bring forth guilt after she'd gone, guilt for what they'd had and now lost, but the name of a man Avon both admired and detested and who had brought him to this disastrous artificial world. When Avon heard the cry, he'd be angry, he'd be hurt…

BLAKE!

…And he'd never, ever search for her again.

*

To her surprise, Cally awoke to find herself alive.

She opened her eyes to semi-darkness, the shattered remnants of Terminal's corridor rescued from total night by a few stubborn emergency lights that had also, against all expectation, survived the explosions.

Slowly, painfully, she picked herself off the stone-hard floor and examined herself as best she could in the gloom, flexing each limb carefully. Nothing appeared to be broken, the worst injury being a variety of surprisingly painful bruises. She pressed carefully down on her stomach, feeling for that other presence. He? She? Seemed unhurt, though perhaps a bit stunned by the experience.

Well, so was she.

Before Cally could think of her next move, the hatch above creaked open, and she automatically pressed herself against the broken wall, concealing herself in shadow from the figure that descended down the metal ladder, his very outline heartbreakingly recognizable at a single glance.

Of course. He needs Orac, she told herself. He's come to look for Orac.

But Avon passed by Orac with only a light touch and a cursory glance. He paced forward, swinging his torch slowly over the unlit corners of the passage, all the way to the blocked end, a few meters from where she stood. Once there, he set the torch so that it angled upward and began pulling apart the rubble, looking for something--someone--underneath.

Oh, Avon, if only you cared as little as you claim to. Even that last, calculated cry had made no difference. Had she really thought that it would?

The impulse to reveal herself was so strong that it actually carried her several steps forward from the shelter of the cracked wall before she stopped herself. No. I must see this through. I must free him once and for all.

She took a shallow breath, knowing of only one way to deter Avon's search, and that an uncertain course, possible only with a difficult, unpredictable skill never revealed to her fellow crew. Closing her eyes, she spent a long moment constructing the picture she wished to project, then pushed gently at Avon's mind with a fragment of thought, like a telepathic clearing of her throat.

Avon spun around, a heavy fragment of the wall still in his hands, searching for the source of what his brain interpreted as sound.

And saw her. Or rather saw the projection she'd constructed.

The body lay crumpled against the wall, limbs at odd, impossible angles, the skull half-crushed, leeching blood, bone, and brain material. Open eyes stared upward in that fixed star so characteristic of the dead.

"No." Avon half-whispered the denial, stretching out one hand as if to blot out the broken flesh. He remained in that position for perhaps a minute before the negation faded and he moved forward to kneel over the body.

He stared into the dead face, not wincing away from the sight of broken bone and flesh above the lank curls. After a moment, his gaze moved down the body, over the thin arms and modest swell of chest to the broken, awkward angle of the shattered legs. He seemed to be memorizing the scene, absorbing into himself the darkness and the pain.

For an instant, one hand hovered over the dead face and Cally held her breath. She found it a difficult enough task to hold the illusion against his piercing, too-knowing gaze…the lightest touch would certainly splinter her chimera, revealing it as an empty sham.

Death…nothing more to do…nothing…nothing….

The subliminal suggestion did its work. Avon's hand fell back onto his leather-clad thigh. But he did not move away, instead continuing to look down at what he believed to be her corpse, his expression for once entirely readable in its mixture of regret and sorrow.

Then at long last he rose, brushing the grit from his knees in an automatic gesture. With a single, lingering backward glance, he turned aside from the broken body, stooped to pick up Orac and began the climb back to the outside world.

Cally sank to the ground, letting the grisly image dissolve from her mind. Fine beads of sweat ran down her forehead and her limbs felt shaky and as weak as an unstrung marionette, from the effort and, yes, from the emotion.

Avon would find a ship, she reassured herself, a way off Terminal. If not Servalan's promised ship, then another. He was a survivor and she had to trust him to know his job. Her own escape from this unstable world was perhaps more problematical.

Except…she felt sure her implant had a homing device. Wouldn't Franton wish to know where her brood mare had gone? And if the implant transmitted in one direction, from Cam to her, then it would certainly also transmit in reverse, with some telepathic encouragement. Auron's technicians were among the galaxy's best.

Painfully, she dragged herself over to the supporting wall, half-lying, half-sitting against the broken concrete in an unconscious imitation of the position in which Avon had discovered her unreal corpse. She put one hand to her forehead, focusing a call to go over light years of space to the tiny colony of Aurons.

Then, tilting her head toward the unseen stars, she closed her eyes and waited for Franton to come.

*

Afternote: As the discerning reader will have no doubt noticed, "What Rough Beast" is in part written as a homage to Frank Herbert's sf classic Dune, with Franton's Project bearing a striking resemblance to the Bene Gesserit, Cally as Lady Jessica and, yes, Cally and Avon's child the long-awaited Kwisatz Haderach ("Shortening of the Way"). As Vila might say, if you're going to steal, er…I mean borrow, why not take your plots from the best?

 

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