Tarrant grimaced as her abruptly deposited weight jarred him. He reached to rub his knee. "For a whole lot of nothing, it was sure painful." He flexed his leg, testing the dislocated joint that had recently been snapped back into place.
"You'd better go and put a cold compress on that so it won't get swollen," Dayna advised.
Tarrant evidently preferred to remain on the flight deck and complain. "I thought the natives were supposed to be friendly." He craned his neck to look accusingly toward Avon at his station. "Isn't that what you promised?"
Avon shot him a venomous look. Dissension among the Liberator's crew was not a novelty, but Tarrant was proving to be particularly difficult; to Avon, if not the attitude, being on the receiving end of it was a novelty. "Even if I were given to promises, I have more sense than to promise good will on anybody's part."
"Including his own," interjected Vila's mumble from the end of the couch, where the thief had started to doze.
Avon ignored him and continued. "I merely said the natives, in general, were not Federation sympathizers. It does not necessarily follow that they must be friendly to us. My mistake was in assuming you capable of prudent judgments-a mistake I will not repeat."
"Your mistake was in taking the Liberator to that backwater hole for no good reason, and I, for one - " Tarrant started, bristling.
Cally's soft voice interrupted in a tone that managed to be conciliatory and firm at the same time. "It was not Avon's decision, but a vote by the majority. You don't have a grievance, Tarrant."
The pilot turned on her instead. "Oh, very fair and proper, Cally. In this matter, you, Vila, and Avon agree, and that automatically constitutes a majority. What chance do Dayna and I have in this 'democracy' of yours?"
"It is only natural for us to agree," Cally said reasonably. "We've been on this ship together for years, and Blake is our friend."
"Exactly my point!"
Avon spoke up. "So what do you want, Tarrant, that you and Dayna be granted more than a vote each by virtue of neither of you having enough seniority to agree with us? That is a novel approach to democracy." He cast a look in the Auron's direction. "On the issue of 'friend,' Cally, speak for yourself." He looked away quickly before she could aim one of those disapproving looks his way - or worse, a tolerant one.
"And you also speak for yourself, Tarrant," Dayna said. "I don't have any objections."
"Didn't you just say that was a whole lot of nothing? That wasn't an objection?"
Dayna propped her legs on the table and stretched languidly. "No. When you're looking for a needle in a haystack, a whole lot of nothing is simply what you expect as a rule. You get pleasantly surprised if you actually do find it."
"Why look at all, then?"
Cally answered the pilot. "We look because we must, that's all."
"Must we?" Avon asked, making Tarrant turn toward him in surprise. "I agree with Tarrant. It was a backwater hole and there was no good reason to go there." With some satisfaction he noted that he had managed to leave the young man speechless, at least for the moment. "It is not only foolhardy to continue this futile search, but downright dan - "
"How can you possibly know it will be futile?" Cally interrupted.
"The odds. I agreed to scouring Epheron because Blake himself told Zen he was there. I agreed to checking out Sylvan as it is the closest planet to Epheron that boasts any sort of technology. I went along with diverting to Lindor and to Horizon because, yes, they could have given Blake sanctuary. I even agreed to approaching Earth so Orac could monitor transmissions just in case Blake had managed to make his way home. Since then we've been operating on diminishing odds, on nothing but wild rumor. We could be missing Blake by a hundred yards or an hour, or we could be missing him by a million spatials or a whole month; there is no way to tell."
"So we're going to give up?" Cally asked.
"If we have any sense. While odds on results are diminishing fast, odds on danger are multiplying even faster."
Vila's head popped up. "Danger? What danger?"
"Use your head," Avon snapped, then mumbled, "Sorry, my mistake." He explained, "We're not being circumspect during landfalls. We're staying stationary and visible so if Blake is close by he'll know we're there; we're establishing a pattern by following rumors. Servalan might have been busy so far trying to make sense of the shambles she's inherited, but how long do you think it's going to be before she remembers how useful the Liberator is and starts yearning for it again in her greedy little heart? Very soon now we're going to follow one rumor too many and walk straight into a trap."
"You know, you're right, Avon." Vila was alarmed. "He's right, Cally; I mean, I hate to say it, considering it's Blake and all, but Avon's right, and we should - "
"Oh, shut up, Vila." Cally spoke to the thief, but her expressive eyes, full of reproach and no small measure of hurt, rested on Avon.
"Looks like you've just lost your majority, Cally." Tarrant sounded insufferably smug.
"Not necessarily," Avon found himself saying, more to snub the pilot than anything else. "I am only advocating discretion. Don't mistake me for your advocate, Tarrant - ever."
"Wait a minute; hold it a minute; what are you saying, Avon?" Vila asked. "Are you saying we're going to keep on looking for Blake even though it's dangerous?"
"I think he's saying we're going to judge each situation on its own merit, Vila. We shouldn't rush in blindly, but we'll keep on looking," Cally explained. "Am I correct, Avon?"
Cally sounded as if she could live with that compromise, and Tarrant looked as if he couldn't, so Avon affirmed it. "Yes."
Tarrant glared at him sourly for a long minute. Avon answered the glare with a mildly amused, mostly unconcerned look, guaranteed to aggravate the young man. It had always served to infuriate Avon when Blake had used it.
Dayna broke the impasse. "Right now, I vote in favor of slumber. Come on, Tarrant, I'll help you to your cabin; you shouldn't put too much weight on that knee yet." After one last scowl at Avon, Tarrant let her support him off the flight deck.
"Thank you, Avon," Cally said when they were gone.
"Why, for not totally cutting off a suicidal avenue? I meant what I said, Cally. The priority will be our safety, not Blake."
"Blake would've never given up on you, Avon."
"He wasn't terribly bright, that's true." Avon sighed and turned to his board. "I'll take the watch. Go to bed." He indicated Vila, who was nodding off again. "Kindly take that useless lump with you and deposit it somewhere out of my sight."
A self-repairing ship was a mixed blessing. It certainly made life easier. It also made it boring. Avon decided he should dream up another project to keep his hands busy and brain cells functioning. He should also give some thought to a mission with a more or less reasonable-sounding purpose so he could have a counter-proposal when Tarrant became vocal with his less-than-bright ideas of turning the Liberator into, essentially, a pirate ship.
Perhaps they should again attempt to establish a base, a sanctuary. Blake had tried it off and on, without accomplishing anything. He hadn't been exactly wise in his choices. Maybe... Obsidian? Dayna claimed some familiarity with the ruler of the Obsidian society, and they had certainly managed to keep the Federation off their backs for a very long time. Of course, as he had told Tarrant, unfriendliness toward the Federation hardly guaranteed a welcome for the Liberator's crew, but it was worth a try. If nothing else, it might be interesting, maybe even useful, to find out exactly how Obsidian managed to evade the clutches of the Federation; and besides, there was a rumor that Blake had been seen on...
Avon shook his head, disgusted with himself. Hadn't he finally decided he was through jumping at the whim of rumors? Vacillating was not a proper way to uphold a decision. Let Cally carry the burden of obligation, friendship, loyalty, whatever she named the feelings that she insisted on owing to Blake. Avon preferred to disclaim familiarity with them, and indecisive decisions were not his style.
Of course, dismissing a possible place of refuge without investigation just because he had determined not to let rumors of Blake rule his life was also giving Blake too much import. They'd go to Obsidian. Because it was promising as a base. Period.
He was idly watching the ship's status report, deck by deck, running on the readout screen at his station. He hadn't asked for it, but Zen offered it routinely whenever anybody manned a station and did nothing there in particular. Perhaps the computer's way of keeping the organics occupied, or humoring them by giving them a pretense of being involved in the matters of the ship, which in fact could run itself just fine with or without them.
Avon's eye caught something. He had never before paid the status report on living quarters any attention, and he only now realized the extent of routine surveillance Zen conducted all over the ship. The interiors of the cabins were sacrosanct, of course. But the computer did take note of how many occupants were in each cabin, and announced it.
Vila was alone in his cabin. Cally's cabin showed two occupants, which meant she was also alone, except for the Moon Disc she had adopted. It didn't think, but it felt, or so Cally claimed, and that was enough for the Auron to specify it to Zen as a 'life form.' Dayna's cabin was empty, while Tarrant's contained two people. Avon didn't think Dayna was that interested in Tarrant. Not that it was any of his business if she was, but it was a safe bet she was playing nurse with the pilot's knee injury. However, something that led to even that much speculation was too much snooping in Avon's opinion. Another feature of Zen he'd have to block.
Blake's cabin, of course, was empty. Maybe it was time to take it off the 'occupied' list by which Zen determined the areas that had to be kept livable in the event of power disruptions. It should be sealed and left undisturbed, just in case. But there was no sense in leaving it as though its occupant were due to walk in any minute now. He wasn't.
Avon ordered the computer to designate minimum maintenance as the only requirement of the cabin, seal it, and list it as 'vacant.' That was when he noticed the power consumption of the cabin.
"Hold on that order, Zen," he said. "What is it in Blake's cabin that's drawing so much energy?" As soon as the words left his mouth, he anticipated the reply.
*That information is not available.*
So the choice was to leave it alone or go take a look. Avon considered for a long time, then left the flight deck, mostly because he had gotten tired of considering.
He was expecting to spend time on the monitor at Blake's door before it would allow him access, but as soon as he touched the panel it flashed "Mode: Free Entry" at him and the door slid aside obligingly. He frowned at the monitor. Blake hadn't so much as programmed a personal code into it, leaving his cabin wide open, for all purposes. Well, to each his own.
I should have known, Avon thought as soon as he stepped into the cabin he was seeing for the first time, careful not to touch or disturb anything. It was the biggest of the cabins, and certainly the only one that had a separate sleep alcove. But if it had a sleep alcove, why did the couch hold a pillow and a blanket and have a robe tossed across it? That wasn't all the clutter, either. Belts and clean shirts hung from the backs of chairs; boots peeked out from here and there; no less than four readers lay abandoned, one on the floor next to the couch. Avon had always thought Blake very fastidious. Obviously tidy didn't necessarily follow fastidious. In any case, this was evidently where Blake did most of his living. Reserving the sleep alcove for what?
Avon pushed the panels open and looked in.
He had no idea what the contraption that greeted his sight was, except that this had to be the source of the power drain. It was big. stretching from one end to the other of the room, which seemed to have been emptied out for the purpose of holding it.
And it was beautiful.
Even Avon, who first looked to the utility value of things, couldn't deny it was beautiful.
Unbidden came snatches of a long-forgotten memory of a voice reading some frivolous tale: "...a castle of fantasy, floating on the air like the lightest feather, built from sun rays and secret whispers, twinkling with the colorful faerie lights as tiny creatures played tumble inside the transparent walls, their fragile wings beating a..."
It hadn't been read to him. He had overheard it. Even out of a child's eye Avon hadn't let his imagination give form to the words. But if he had, he probably would have visualized something close to what he was looking at now. But of course, this was no faerie castle.
Lightbridge was the first thing Avon could think to call it, as he tentatively reached to touch it. The whole feeling about it was light, airy - free. It was shaped like a bridge and it was, for all purposes, made up of lights.
No, not quite. It wasn't yielding to touch. For all its transparency, it felt solid. Force fields, then. A scaled-down model of...something.. made up of force fields. Where had Blake found this thing? Had he found it on the ship, or brought it in quietly from somewhere? Or had he..built it?
This room was cluttered as well, a stylus in one corner, two others underfoot, crumpled and discarded plasti-sheets as well as those neatly stacked to one side - it all gave the impression of work-in-progress. From all indications, Blake had built the thing.
Maybe Avon wasn't the only one who had to invent projects to keep boredom at bay.
It was a bit inconceivable, though, to think of Blake - a man best suited to action - on his knees or sprawled all over the floor patiently fiddling with the intricate model for the interminable hours it must have taken to construct it. It was even more inconceivable that his large, clumsy-looking hands had fashioned and installed the fragile strands of nearly invisible fiber that made up the network of its skeleton.
Avon found himself sinking to the floor in front of the model, trying to get past the ethereal feel of it and find its purpose. It couldn't possibly be a pretty toy despite the elegance of its sweeping lines, gently curving concentric arches, the seemingly superfluous spirals. Blake was an engineer - or such was his claim - not an artist.
Once he blocked the attraction and studied the components, Avon had a firmer idea about the construction. It seemed to be a model of, yes, a bridge, at least something meant to bridge a gulf. It had various levels. The lower ones were straight, parallel to the floor, and seemed to be transport tunnels, perhaps meant to carry people and supplies across a chasm in automated conveyors. The topmost level was more problematical. It was a gently sloping arch, fanning over the length of the model like a...well...like a rainbow, for want of a better analogy. It looked more like decoration than anything else, but it was as solid to the touch as the rest, and why waste energy on force fields when with a fraction of that power an arc of lights would have served for decorative purposes? No, the thing was meant to be utilized, although Avon could see nothing that could be done with or on it, except perhaps walk on it.
The thought gave him a slight shudder. A few years ago he knew he wouldn't have so much as thought of walking on something like this. The possibility of doing so outrageous a thing wouldn't have occurred to his dome-bred sensibilities. Even now, after years of traversing open land and space, he cringed from the idea of walking on thin air, for that was how it would feel. It would be scary.
Intrigued now, he picked up the plasti-sheets to study them, wondering where Blake had thought he could go with this concept.
Typically, nowhere far, he saw. It had worked as a model, but enlarging it to life size would set up real problems, and the crumpled and discarded sheets, all covered with Blake's impatient scrawl, bore testimony to the man's frustration with it. So it was, after all, nothing more than a pretty toy. Except, of course, Blake, being Blake, had been too stubborn to give up.
Avon looked over the specifications that would have to be met: the soil, water, and air conditions that had to be allowed for, the elements that had to be countered. So Blake had thought to build this thing on...
He threw his head back and laughed, letting the sheets slip out of his fingers as the useless things they were.
A dream. Another ill-conceived, impossible, grandiose dream.
It had to be Earth. The specifications pointed to Earth, and to many other planets, but knowing Blake, it was Earth. With a galaxy to choose from, the man still had a fatal fascination with that one, plundered, miserable place. Avon could even speculate where on Earth Blake had wanted to build it. Across the waterway that divided the island of his dome-city from the continent to the south. From time beyond memory that coastline had belonged to the smugglers, the insurrectionists. That was where the escapees from the dome-city ran to, as Avon had done once himself, whence came the weapons and the reinforcements to the dissidents. Not all that great a stretch of shore, but there had never been a government yet that could totally control it.
And only Blake could think to erect a functional monument on it. A bridge of lights across air. In direct contrast to the hard containment of the domes. Symbol of a new order, a free world.
Shape of things to come, eh, Blake?
Avon rose and went to the outer room. He hesitated a moment with his hands over the button that would cut off the power to the model, glanced back at it. Blake had always seemed to Avon a man of destruction. He had never thought of the rebel as a builder, creator. So the man who wanted to cut open the Federation to tear out its heart could also conceive of breathing new life into it.
A new life that suited him, of course.
Avon cut off the power.
It didn't blink out of existence, leaving only its quite mundane skeleton. The miniature generators started to wind down instead. At first the lights dulled, then it started to break down in pieces, bits of it clinging to existence, other sections giving up. Another one of Blake's as-yet-unrealized dreams falling apart.
Then it seemed to reconstruct itself. Its arches connected again, the ghosting spirals firmed, colorful lights once more daringly skittered along its lines.
Startled, Avon looked down and realized that, quite without his volition, his fingers had fed power back into the tiny generators. He stared at his hand as if he were seeing it for the first time.
When he turned out the lights of the cabin and left, the lightbridge remained, intact.
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