Blake's Seven/The Black Hole

Originally published in Chinook #8, from Blackfly Press

Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: these aren't my characters, I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. That's it, typing practice. I'll return them to their actual owners (relatively) undamaged. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit beyond pleasure was derived from the writing.

Out of the Frying Pan

Susan M. M.

a Blake's Seven/Black Hole adventure

originally published in Chinook #8

"Information," intoned Zen.

"What is it, Zen?" Kerr Avon asked.

"We have intercepted an unusual signal," Zen, the computer brain that controlled Liberator, said.

"What sort of a signal?" Del Tarrant asked quickly. The young pilot turned to face Avon, half-smiling, half-smirking, as though he'd scored a point.

"Unknown. There is no record of previously encountering such a signal in Liberator's memory banks," Zen informed them.

"Orac?" Avon inquired. Tarrant, he noticed, had his mouth hanging open. The curly-haired young man hadn't spoken up fast enough. Avon permitted himself no outward sign of victory. To do so would acknowledge that a conflict existed between the two of them. Since Roj Blake's disappearance months ago, Avon had been de facto captain of Liberator. However, Tarrant annoyingly refused to acknowledge his suzerainty.

"It is a primitive form of communication known as Morse code," Orac announced. Although it looked like a crystalline breadbox with Christmas lights inside, Orac was actually one of the galaxy's most powerful computers. "The message alternates between a simple SOS and a longer, more elaborate message which I have not yet deciphered."

"You mean you're not able to decipher it," Tarrant taunted.

"What's an SOS?" Vila Restal asked, partly from the insatiable curiosity which drove him to open locks to see what was on the other side, but mostly to prevent an argument between their pilot and their computer. It was bad enough when Avon and Orac argued. He was about Avon's age, but looked older, his brown hair already beginning to thin. And although he was nearly Avon's height, both his manner and his posture made him seem shorter.

"An archaic plea for help," Orac answered, ignoring Tarrant's comment.

"Do we answer it?" Dayna Mellanby asked. The dark-skinned woman was the youngest member of the crew, hardly more than a girl.

"It might be a trap," Vila suggested.

"You think everything is a trap," Tarrant scoffed.

"Well, most of the time it is," the thief-turned-rebel defended himself. "Or hadn't you noticed that most of the galaxy wants us dead or behind bars?"

"It's an antique system – given up centuries ago, if I remember my history lessons from the Academy. If someone was trying to set a trap, they'd use a message that would be easier to decipher," Tarrant argued.

"It might be from someone who knows how much Avon dislikes mysteries," Cally suggested. Although she looked completely human, the brunette was actually an Auron. "Someone hoping to catch his interest, and thereby catch us. On the other hand, one of the rebel groups I worked with before joining Blake deliberately used outmoded, discarded weapons. Federation defenses are designed against modern weaponry, and can't always cope as well against variations from their set patterns."

Dayna perked up and paid close attention to Cally. Her late father had been a weapons designer, and ancient weapons were an especial hobby of hers.

Seeing the look in her eye, Avon admonished, "No, Dayna, you may not attempt using a crossbow against Federation pursuit ships."

She mock-pouted at Avon's 'scolding.' Then a thoughtful look came over her face. "What if it's an old signal, set on automatic years ago and still going? Isn't that possible? That could explain why it's Morris code."

"Morse," Tarrant corrected automatically.

"The possibility exists," Orac conceded. "The power source is weak."

"That could be from a crashed ship, if the engines were damaged," countered Cally. She looked toward Avon. "Do we answer their call or not?" To Avon's mind alone, she directed the thought: //Blake would.//

Avon frowned. He had replaced Blake as commander of Liberator, but Cally had replaced Blake as Avon's conscience. Reminding him of what Blake would do in any given situation was her dirtiest – and most effective – trick.

"Zen, track down that signal's point of origin. Tarrant, plot a course to follow it. Orac, decipher the rest of the message." Avon barked out orders like a drill sergeant. "Until we have any evidence to the contrary, we shall assume it is a trap. But knowing where a trap lies is the first step in avoiding it. Perhaps we can turn the tables on them."

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"Any change" Charlie Pizer asked anxiously as he stepped into the makeshift lean-to. He was a handsome dark-haired young man, in his mid-to-late twenties.

"No," Dan Holland sighed. "She's still out. She came to for a few minutes, but she was delirious."

Pizer set down the firewood. Vincent floated over, his lights flickering with disapproval.

"Mr. Pizer, you ought not to strain yourself. You have a concussion; you should be resting," the robot scolded.

"Somebody had to get the wood. Dan's got a broken arm, and we need you to keep an eye on Kate. You'll probably be able to get through to her before we can," Pizer reminded the rotund floating robot.

"Nothing can get through to Dr. Kate at the moment," Vincent announced morosely. "She overtaxed herself saving our lives." The robot did not voice his fear that Kate McCrae might never recover. There was no sense in upsetting Mr. Pizer and Captain Holland over an unconfirmed possibility. Besides, humans put so much store in the intangible they called hope. Being a machine, Vincent could not fully understand hope, but he preferred not to be the one to dash theirs.

"Hell of a way to spend New Year's Eve," Pizer griped.

"Is it New Year's?" Holland asked.

"I think so. Vincent, when is it? What's the date?" asked Pizer.

"Impossible to tell, sir. It was Christmas Eve when we met the Cygnus and ran afoul of Dr. Reinhardt. We have been here five days. However, I am not sure how long we spent traveling through the black hole. My sensors were not functioning properly at the time. I only know it was too long for Dr. Kate to attempt to mindlink the four of us," Vincent replied.

"Couple of hours through the black hole, I'd guess," ventured Pizer, "and than a day or more of semi-normal space travel before we crashed here. So call it Christmas in the black hole, and that makes today New Year's Eve."

"Only a few hours in there?" Holland wondered. "It felt longer." Much longer, the captain thought. Had those nightmares – those hallucinations – lasted mere hours? They'd seemed to go on forever. Unending visions of Heaven and Hell. Delirium dreams. But only dreams … Dan hoped. Harry Booth had compared the black hole to Hell, and he had only seen the outside of it.

Holland glanced at Kate's pale form. No question about it, they owed their lives to her. Holland was sure he would've lost his sanity if she hadn't touched minds, joining him and Pizer in her psilink with Vincent. But her psionic amplifier hadn't been designed for anything like the stress she must have experienced protecting and uniting them. Theoretically, Kate shouldn't have been able to communicate telepathically with humans at all. The implant buried in her skull was designed to amplify her innate (but weak) psychic tendencies enough to communicate mentally with robots like Vincent, who were equipped with similar cybernetic psi-linkages. What had she done? How? Needs must when the devil drives, Vincent would say, Holland mused, a smile crossing his lips for the first time in days. Somehow, she had found the strength to do the impossible. But what had it done to her? Was her implant nothing but a burned-out chunk of metal in her head? And if it were, what would that do to Kate?

No sense in mentioning his suspicions to Charlie and Vincent. After all, worrying was the captain's job. So was keeping up crew morale. He had to put on a brave face for the others' sakes, despite the fact that the woman who kept up the captain's morale was laying unconscious, light-years from medical attention.

"Did you hear something?" Pizer asked.

"Huh?" Holland had been too lost in his thoughts to hear anything.

"I'll go investigate," Pizer volunteered. "C'mon, Vincent."

"There is no need to run into the jaws of danger, Mr. Pizer," Vincent replied. "Walking will get us there quickly enough."

Charlie Pizer could see them the minute he stepped outside the lean-to. Three people, two men and a woman, only a hundred feet away. Three people! Humans. Pizer yelled and waved.

"Odd," Vincent remarked. "How did they get so close without my sensors having heard them earlier?"

Pizer was too excited to pay attention to what the robot was saying. He waved at the newcomers again, and they waved back. They shouted something, but Pizer couldn't make out what they were saying. He hurried forward to meet them, with Vincent tagging along behind.

"Hello, I'm Charlie Pizer off the Palomino. Boy, am I ever glad to see you. We crashed here five days ago, and we're all pretty badly banged up. We could really use some medical aid. Pizer was practically babbling as he seized and shook hands with the three strangers.

He tried to absorb every detail about them. The youngest of the party was a curly-haired man dressed in a light blue tunic and slacks, his own age or maybe younger, who accepted his eager handshake and returned it with interest. The woman was older, in her mid-to-late twenties, possibly her early thirties. She had mousy brown hair and her face was sharp and angular. Eighteen months ago, Charlie would have called her plain. But after a year and a half of not seeing any female except Kate McCrae (who was very much off limits), he thought she was beautiful. She accepted his handshake with an air of amused tolerance. The oldest member of the party had straight, dark brown hair and brown eyes. He was, Pizer guessed, about Dan Holland's age, maybe a little older. He was dressed all in black and seemed … displeased when Pizer grabbed his hand to shake it vigorously.

"Hullo," the man in black said. And then he said several more words, all gibberish.

First Pizer stared, then he frowned, and then his jaw dropped. "Who are you? Where are you from?"

The younger man spoke, but his words were no language Pizer knew. Nor one Vincent could recognize, which was even more disturbing, since the robot was programmed to contain the languages and literature of dozens of Terran cultures.

"Who are you?" Pizer repeated.

The man in black spoke again, first to Pizer, then to the woman. She shook her head and answered him.

Vincent rose a little higher and moved slightly in front of Pizer, to shield him if necessary. The movement startled the strangers, and the man in black drew a strange implement which was obviously some sort of gun. The younger man also drew his weapon, and Pizer pulled out his pistol.

They stood there like that for several long seconds, staring at each other until the woman scolded the lot of them. Pizer couldn't understand her words, but her exasperated tone came through loud and clear.

The young man in blue was the first to holster his weapon. Pizer started to lower his gun, until he saw the older man still had his weapon aimed straight at Pizer's heart.

"Avon," the woman said. She laid a hand on his gun and tried to push it down. The man in black ignored her and held his gun steady.

"Vincent," Pizer ordered quietly, "be ready to cover me." Moving with exaggerated slowness, he lowered his pistol and put it back in its holster.

The man in black's facial expression didn't change, but his body relaxed slightly, and he holstered his own weapon. The woman frowned at him for taking so long.

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Cally frowned. Men! A rescue mission, and they act like little boys. What was the Terran phrase Jenna had taught her? Mocho, macho, something like that? Now that Avon had finally put his gun away, maybe they could get down to work.

"Cally," she pointed at herself. "I am Cally. Avon, Tarrant." She pointed to her shipmates in turn.

"Charlie. Charlie Pizer," the stranger replied. He turned and indicated the robot hovering at his side. "Vincent."

"Charlie and Vincent," Tarrant muttered, "are Terran names."

"Terran?" Pizer repeated. He spoke rapidly in his strange dialect, but the only word they could make out was 'Terran.'

"Who is he?" Avon asked rhetorically. "And what is that thing with him?"

"Unless we can get Orac to translate for us, we'll never know," the Auron replied. She pointed to the lean-to and the wrecked lifepod behind Pizer. He nodded and led them off.

There were two wounded humans inside, a man and a woman. The man had his right arm in a crude sling, and the woman lay unconscious near him.

Charlie Pizer introduced his injured companions. "Dan Holland, Kate McCrae. Avon, Tarrant, Cally."

Cally's mind reached out automatically. Holland's mind felt the same as Pizer's had: the dull blankness of the psychically deaf. But Kate …Cally felt neither the blankness of a 'silent' mind nor the harsh barrier of a shielded mind. Instead, she sensed emptiness, hollowness – a telepath drained of all mental strength! Cally stretched out her thoughts, but felt only a flickering awareness. "She's nearly dead," she murmured. "Avon, we must get her up to Liberator at once. I think we can save her if we can get her up to the medical unit."

Avon raised his bracelet to his lips. "Vila."

"Yes, Avon?" Vila's disembodied voice came through the bracelet.

"We've found three survivors, two of them badly wounded. Get a gurney from the medical unit and meet us in the teleport bay," ordered Avon.

"Only one gurney?" Vila asked.

"Did I ask for two, Vila, or did I only ask for one?" Avon's voice was acid.

"I'll meet you in the teleport bay in just a moment," Vila agreed.

Avon reached into a pouch hanging at his belt and pulled out three spare teleport bracelets. He handed them to Tarrant to pass out.

//I know you can not understand me, but trust me, accept me,// Cally thought. //I am a friend. I am here to help you.// Cally tried to broadcast feelings of safety and security, since she knew Kate would be unable to understand exactly what she was thinking, but might be able to pick up the emotions. That was why she had refused Avon, when he had asked her to try to speak telepathically to Pizer. Why waste the time and energy when they could not understand each other's language? All she would've done was frighten him. But perhaps a telempathic message could give Kate some comfort. And they would learn each other's language, and then they would not be alone. Not alone. It was a joyous prospect, and Cally broadcast her joyful anticipation to Kate.

Holland pointed at the clunky bracelet he now wore. "Communicator?" He spoke several words of gibberish, but Avon and the others unmistakably caught the word 'communicator' again.

"Who are they, Avon? Where are they from?" Tarrant asked. "Human names, but that's no language I ever heard."

"Except for the occasional odd word either in Standard or close to it," Avon finished the sentence for him. Nodding, Avon spoke slowly to Holland. "Yes, it is a communicator and more."

"Avon, I'm ready," Vila's voice came over the comlink. "Oh, by the by, the distress signal stopped a few minutes ago."

"Did it now?" Avon turned to face the barrel-shaped robot. "Vincent, SOS?"

The robot's lights blinked, and its answer sounded disturbingly close to 'affirmative.'

"You think the robot turned the distress signal off?" Tarrant asked.

"We've been watching the people; we would have seen if one of them did it."

"Shall we take it up, too, then?" asked the pilot.

"Yes, I want to see if Orac can communicate with it. This Vincent bears future study. Pizer, Vincent." Avon pointed at the robot and mimed holding something.

Pizer didn't understand. Shaking his head, he spoke a few words in a confused, questioning tone.

"Vincent," Avon repeated. He grasped his left wrist with his right hand. When Pizer took hold of the robot, Avon bent down to pick up Kate. "Tarrant, call Vila."

Tarrant raised his bracelet to his lips. "Bring us up, Vila."

They materialized almost instantly in Liberator's teleport bay. Avon gently laid Kate on the waiting gurney. He led the way, and the strangers, appearing somewhat stunned by the trip, followed him.

"Dayna went to get Orac. She'll meet us in the medical unit," Vila explained as he pushed the gurney down the ship's corridor. "Uh, who are your friends, Avon?"

"I'll introduce you later," Avon said curtly.

Vila looked down at the unconscious woman. Nice, very nice. Then he saw the way the man with the broken arm was looking at her, and with a mental shrug, realized he'd better not waste his time looking at her. Pity.

"Er, I'm Vila, Vila Restal," the thief introduced himself to no one in particular. He had no chance to say anything further, because they reached the medical unit and Cally impressed him into service.

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Charlie stared up at the beautiful Black woman running a scanner over his battered skull. Apparently, she'd found the concussion, because she reported something back to Cally, who seemed to be in charge of sickbay. It was much easier staring at her than trying to think about what was happening. That teleport – that was like something out of the Star Trek stories his grandfather had told him when he was a kid. And now a lovely girl with ridiculously short hair was checking out his injuries, and Cally was tending to Dan's broken arm, and Kate lay on a bed with an IV in her arm. And Vincent – Vincent was beeping and blinking at a translucent box with colored lights.

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"Cally?" Avon's voice was gentle. "You asked to be awakened now."

"I was meditating, not napping," she corrected. "I had to prepare myself."

Avon handed her a sandwich on a plate. "You also requested a snack, I believe."

Cally took it and bit into it ravenously. "This will be difficult," she confessed. "It is vital that I keep up my strength."

"We could hook an IV into your arm, too, I suppose," Avon drawled.

Cally smiled, and Avon smiled back at her. He doesn't do that often enough, she thought. "How are our guests?"

"Holland and Pizer are resting in two of the spare cabins." Avon neglected to mention that he had locked the doors behind them. "Vila went to find clean clothes for them. Orac is attempting to communicate with Vincent, and he is quite annoyed by his lack of progress. Kate is resting comfortably, or seems to be, at any rate. Her physical condition has stabilized."

"Good." Cally took another bite.

"Orac discovered something unusual about her. There's a small metal cylinder implanted in her brain."

"Did Orac have any idea what it was for?"

"No, not yet. Just that it 'appeared dissimilar' to Gan's limiter." Avon paused a moment, then confessed. "There's something I don't understand. If Kate is more badly hurt than the others, why did you wait until after we were done with Holland and Pizer before even beginning her treatment? Why wait until you'd meditated and eaten? I am not medically trained, but that goes against every principle of triage I've ever heard of."

"Her case is more complicated; I must not be interrupted," Cally explained. "It was necessary to deal with the others first, so nothing could disturb or distract me whilst I work with Kate. It could be dan- that is, it might cause complications if I were to be interrupted."

"Just how dangerous is this for you?" Avon demanded, his voice no longer gentle.

"It is just that I must give her treatment my undivided attention."

"You're an excellent demolitions specialist, Cally, but a very poor liar," the computer embezzler informed her. "What are the risks?"

"There is some risk to me," she admitted, "but not a major chance of permanent harm, and it is a necessary risk."

"Exactly what are you going to do?"

"Kate is a telepath. She is mentally wounded – sheer psychic exhaustion by the look of it. I have given her drugs to augment her physical strength, but to deal with her psychic condition I shall have to attempt a very deep mindlink. Almost more of a meld than a link," the Auron explained.

Not a major chance of permanent harm. Avon didn't like the sound of that, but he knew how tenacious Cally could be. He sighed. "What do you want us to do?"

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"Avon, are you sure Cally's all right? She's been in there for six hours," Dayna complained anxiously.

"You didn't disturb her, did you?" demanded Avon.

"No, I did exactly as you said. Brought in food and drinks, changed Kate's IV bottle, and left them alone. She's just sitting there holding hands. She didn't seem to notice my coming in or my leaving."

"She's deep within the mindlink." Avon wished he felt as confident as he sounded. "Orac, how are you coming along with Vincent?"

"We are now able to communicate with each other – albeit slowly – and I am attempting to teach it to speak Standard. However, I believe the unit has been damaged. It is making impossible statements," Orac announced imperiously.

"What sort of impossible statements?" Vila inquired.

"It calls itself Vincent, an abbreviation for Vital Information Necessary Centralized," Orac began. "It claims to have been assigned to the survey ship Palomino."

"Well, what's so impossible about that?" the thief asked. "A survey ship might be equipped with some new type of experimental robot."

"Hardly new," Orac snapped. "It claims – and obviously the Vincent-unit was damaged in the crash and it is giving faulty data – to be six hundred years old."

"What?!"

"Doesn't look a day over five hundred," Vila quipped.

Avon ignored Vila's feeble attempt at humor and Dayna's astounded outburst. "Explain, Orac. Specify."

"According to the Vincent-unit, the Palomino was assigned to look for signs of extraterrestial life. After eighteen months of unsuccessful searching, they met with the Cygnus, a larger survey vessel missing and presumed lost twenty years previously. After an adventure so improbably I shall not waste time repeating it, they went into a black hole. That was six hundred years ago. They emerged from the black hole five days ago."

"I thought that anything that went into a black hole was immediately destroyed," Dayna said.

"The Vincent-unit claims the crashed lifepod you found on the planet was a probe vessel designed by a mad genius for the specific purpose of travelling safely into the black hole." Orac's tone made it clear he did not believe a word of what Vincent had told him.

"Vincent," the floating robot corrected, "not the Vincent-unit."

Avon turned to face it. "Vincent, can you understand me? Can you understand Standard?"

"Imperfectly," the barrel-shaped robot confessed. "Orac teaches."

"By all means, Orac, continue with the instruction. Though I am curious," and a wicked look came into Avon's brown eyes, "why it is taking you so long to communicate with Vincent. Surely his technology isn't beyond you?"

"The Vincent-unit's language banks are hopelessly archaic. The only language we have in common is binary code." Orac sounded disgusted at having to resort to something as primitive as binary."

Avon smiled.

"Vincent," the robot corrected again, "you twit-unit."

Avon laughed.

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Yawning, Avon reached up and turned off the alarm. He glanced at the chronometer and frowned. Oh-four-hundred. Swearing quietly, he got up and dressed.

He walked to the flight deck first. Vila was dozing on watch, as usual, and Orac and Vincent were blinking their lights at each other. Avon looked at Vila and shook his head. "So vigilant. Vincent, come with me."

"Yes, sir." The robot rose a foot into the air and followed him.

"Can you understand me better now?" Avon asked.

"Yes, sir, I believe so."

His manners are a pleasant change from Orac's, Avon thought. "Do you know who I am?"

"You are Kerr Avon, a computer programmer by profession, and currently in command of Deep Space Vessel Liberator," Vincent recited obediently. Orac had told him a few other things about Avon, but Vincent did not consider it prudent to mention them just now.

"Orac says you were assigned to a survey ship which entered a black hole six centuries ago and emerged – more or less in one piece – five days ago." There was a note of challenge in Avon's voice. "Would you care to explain that to me?"

"Unable to at present, sir. Perhaps if – when Dr. Kate recovers …."

"Dr. Kate?" Avon repeated.

"Dr. Kate McCrae is an astrophysicist," Vincent explained. "She spoke at length with Dr. Hans Reinhardt when we were on board the Cygnus, and he had spent almost two decades studying that particular black hole and how to nullify the effects of its gravity."

Avon had never heard of Hans Reinhardt, but from six hundred years ago that didn't mean the man hadn't existed. Perhaps a modern physicist would recognize the name, just as he knew of Norton Drake and Bryce Lynch. So much knowledge had been lost in the various purges over the centuries. It had been widely rumored on the teleportation project on which both he and Blake had worked that the Federation had been trying to rediscover lost technology rather than invent something new. And Cygnus itself – Tarrant had said the name was vaguely familiar; he thought he'd heard of it.

"So Kate McCrae was your astrophysicist. What about Pizer and Holland?"

"Captain Holland was commander and pilot of the Palomino. Mr. Pizer was first officer and co-pilot."

"Only three people for a survey ship?" Avon questioned. "That seems a rather small crew."

"Our other two crew members were killed by Dr. Reinhardt. Dr. Alex Durant was the scientific leader of the mission. Harry Booth was a reporter."

"A reporter?" Avon was surprised.

"Yes, sir, a journalist chosen by lot to accompany us and record the journey and our discoveries," Vincent amplified.

A journalist? Avon's conservative soul was shocked. Survey vessels were crewed by government scientists and military personnel, not civilian journalists. Granted, Blake had always advocated an uncensored press. He and Blake had debated the point, Avon considering such a thing dangerous in the long run, a lovely notion but impractical for the new government if and when Blake ever succeeded in his revolution. But for the Terran government to permit a reporter – Bemused, Avon shook his head and realized he'd just passed the medical unit door.

"Come with me," Avon ordered, "but be quiet."

"Yes, sir." Vincent followed him into the medical unit.

Kate lay on one of the beds. Cally sat slumped in a chair next to her, holding hands.

"Dr. Kate!" Vincent exclaimed.

"Quiet," Avon ordered sharply. Then, in a much gentler tone, "Cally? It's time to stop now."

The Auron woman did not stir. Avon called her name over and over, trying to coax her out of her mindlink. Finally, gingerly, he laid a hand on her shoulder.

//Avon?//

"Yes, it is I. Let go. You can try again later if you have to."

Cally opened her eyes. "Avon? What are you doing? You made me break the link. I told you I wasn't to be disturbed."

"You also said to stop you after ten hours if you didn't come out of it on your own before then. It has been ten hours," Avon informed her.

"No, it can't have been. Not yet," Cally protested.

"It can and it is. Let me make you a vitamin solution," Avon offered, "or perhaps some of Vila's soma-and-adrenalin, and then you go get some rest."

"Ma'am, how is Dr. Kate?" Vincent asked.

"Better, stronger. She still has a long way to go," Cally replied. "Maybe it's because she's human instead of Auron, but I get the impression she isn't a very strong telepath to begin with."

"She is not a true telepath," Vincent confirmed. "However, she scored high enough on ESP tests to be chosen for the psilink program."

"Psilink program?" Cally repeated. Avon handed her a glass and she gulped its contents down. She grimaced. "Ugh. How can Vila drink this stuff?"

Vincent explained about the psionic amplifier that permitted Dr. McCrae to form an esplink with him. "She mindlinked the four of us as we went into the black hole. Such a thing was theoretically impossible. And now Dr. Kate is, to quote Tolkien, 'like butter that has been scraped over too much bread'."

"I beg your pardon?" Cally was not used to robots that made literary allusions.

"Like too little butter spread over too much bread," Vincent clarified. "Dr. Kate was tremendously overtaxed. She will be all right, ma'am?"

"Did you say you were quoting Tolkien?" asked Avon.

"Yes, sir, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, a 20th century linguistic scholar and fantasy author."

"Tolkien is a banned author. You are familiar with his works?"

"Banned?" Vincent was shocked. At least, as shocked as his programming would permit him to be. "Yes, sir, I contain a complete collection of his works within my memory banks."

Avon swore. "The only thing that remains of Tolkien is his name on a banned authors' list. I'm willing to bet all copies of his writings were destroyed years ago, possibly centuries ago. If you could reprint his books from your memory banks, we could make a fortune."

"Count your credits in the morning, Avon," Cally said irritably. "I'm going to bed as soon as I call Vila or Dayna to sit with Kate."

"I shall stay with Dr. Kate, if you'll permit," Vincent offered.

Cally looked at the robot a moment, then agreed. She explained to him what to watch out for and how to contact her if anything changed. Wearily, she let Avon lead her out of the medical unit and back to her cabin.

//Dr. Kate, it's Vincent. Are you all right? Can you hear me?//

The robot received no answer.

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"Captain Holland? Are you awake, sir?"

Hearing Vincent's voice, Holland opened his eyes and looked around the cabin, but saw nothing. "Vincent, where are you?

"In the medical unit with Dr. Kate, sir. I asked Zen to patch me through to your cabin. I hope I didn't wake you," Vincent apologized.

He had, but Holland wasn't going to complain about that. "Who's Zen? The man who seemed to be in charge, the one in black?"

"No, sir, that's Avon. Zen is the ship's computer. One moment, Captain. Let me try to patch Mr. Pizer in," Vincent said.

A minute later, Zen had the medical unit, Pizer's cabin, and Holland's cabin hooked up in a three-way comlink. Vincent brought the two men up to date.

"Is Kate going to be all right?" Holland asked.

"It is too early to be sure, sir, but Ms. Cally seemed hopeful," Vincent said. "May I inquire as to the state of your injuries, sir? Are you and Mr. Pizer all right?"

"I'm fine, except for being locked up. Reinhardt tried to kill us, but he didn't lock us up without any explanation," Pizer complained.

"That may have been a security measure rather than an overt act of hostility," Holland suggested. "If they only have a five person crew, then they don't want three strangers wandering loose around the ship. Not when they don't know who we are, or what we're likely to do, and we're wounded and likely to collapse on them. Besides, without a way to speak to each other, they had no way to explain. It's at least partially for our own protection. They'd have no way to tell us how to stay out of potentially dangerous areas, like the engine room or a weapons console."

Pizer stopped pacing. "You mean you like being locked up?"

"No, Charlie, I don't like it," Holland kept his voice calm, although the strained tone made it clear that doing so took considerable effort. "But they rescued us and tended our injuries. Until I have reason otherwise, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt."

"All very logical points, Captain," Vincent congratulated him. "Especially since from the way Captain Avon and the others were acting, Ms. Cally endangered herself by treating Dr. Kate. However, I regret to inform you that we may have reason otherwise."

"What do you mean, Vincent?" Pizer demanded.

"Orac informs me that this is a rebel vessel, engaged in active treasonous rebellion against the lawful government of Earth," Vincent reported. "Hardly better than a terrorist ship."

"Is that the way Orac phrased it?" Holland inquired dryly.

"No, sir, the phrasing is mine," Vincent admitted. "I do not doubt Liberator's crew, if questioned, would refer to themselves as freedom fighters. Such people usually do. But they are in rebellion against the Terran Federation."

"Do you know anything about this Federation?" Holland asked.

"No, sir," Vincent confessed.

"It might be like the American Revolution," Pizer suggested. "Or Mexico fighting against Maximilian and Carlotta."

"It might, or it might not. We're not going anywhere for the moment. And until Kate is healed," and you and I are better, Holland thought, "we can't do anything. So let's just take it easy and play it by ear. We don't want to upset our hosts. We don't do anything until we know what's going on," Holland ordered. "Understood?"

"Yes, sir," Pizer and Vincent replied.

"Vincent, how are you doing on their language?" Holland wanted to know.

"I am now fairly fluent, sir. I spent most of the night chatting with Zen and Orac. Orac and I have devised a modern English – well, modern from our point of view – to contemporary Standard translation guide, which we have input into Zen's memory banks. He should be able to print out a hard copy for you to study."

"Well done, Vincent," Holland congratulated him.

"Sounds like you had a busy night, Heart o' Steel," Pizer added.

"Thank you, sirs. I -- Someone's coming. Zen, please maintain the comlink between Captain Holland and Mr. Pizer."

"Confirmed," a strange voice intoned, and then Pizer and Holland lost contact with Vincent.

"What happened?" Pizer's voice was anxious.

"I don't think Vincent wants our hosts to know how much we know yet. Being underestimated can be a valuable too." Or weapon, Holland thought. He wondered if the Zen computer was eavesdropping, and if so, for how long.

B7/BHB7/BHB7/BHB7/BHB7/BH

An hour after their breakfasts had been delivered, Dayna came to Pizer's and Holland's cabins to let them out.

Pizer stared appreciatively at the young girl. Her white tunic-like dress showed off her lithe figure to its best advantage.

"I'm Charlie Pizer. You're Dayna, right? I never really got a chance to thank you for taking care of me in sickbay," Pizer said.

Dayna smiled at him. Giving an unintelligible reply, she gestured for the two men to follow her.

"Where's Vincent when I need him to translate?" Pizer complained.

"Vincent would probably tell you he wasn't programmed to play Cyrano," Holland informed his infatuated shipmate.

Dayna led them to the flight deck, where the others were waiting. Holland and Pizer looked around the room. They recognized everyone from Vincent's descriptions: the brown-haired, black-garbed leader, Avon; the young pilot, Tarrant; an obviously colorblind man in a shriekingly polychromatic tunic, Vila; and a translucent box sitting on a counter, Orac. Vincent hovered next to Avon.

Vincent translated as Avon introduced himself and his crew, explained what had happened, and when they were. Pizer's and Holland's facial expressions did not change, and they showed no sign of surprise. They already knew, he realized. He glanced at Vincent, wondering how the robot had informed them. He would not underestimate it again.

"We're grateful for the rescue and your hospitality," Holland said, "but as soon as Dr. McCrae is well enough to travel, we'll need to report to the proper authorities."

"Better late than never," Pizer quipped.

"Whatever agency or authority organized your mission very probably no longer exists," Avon reminded them.

"Probably not," Holland agreed. "But there's bound to be some sort of authority we should report to. Whatever branch of the government is responsible for space exploration. Of course, we lost most of our data with our ship, and the little Vincent saved won't be new information, but it is my final responsibility as commander of the Palomino."

"The modern Terran Federation is undoubtedly very different from whatever government you remember," Avon warned.

"They're likely to throw you into a laboratory for the rest of your lives and study you like a trio of rats," Tarrant suggested. "And they'll probably dissemble your Vincent to see what makes him tick."

"We'll have all the physicists in an uproar, I'm sure," Holland conceded mildly, "and every historian on the planet will probably want to interrogate us and test out their pet theories, but that won't last forever."

"You don't know the Federation," Dayna informed them.

"Well, look at the bright side," Vila offered. "If they don't kill you, they'll probably make you Alphas."

"Alphas?" Holland repeated.

"Members of the Alpha class, the upper class," Vila explained. "You being scientists and pilots and all. Betas at the very least – if they don't decide it's easier just to kill you than to deal with unclassified personnel. The Federation likes everything classified and catalogued neatly."

"Everything and everyone," Avon continued. "Vila should know. He was a Delta. That's the lowest of the free classes; only slaves are lower."

"Slaves?" Pizer was shocked. "Slavery was outlawed centuries ago."

"It's legal on most worlds of the Terran Federation," contradicted Avon.

"Space Command loves it," Tarrant added. "Lets them raise funds and keep the troops under control at the same time. If anyone deserts, his family is seized and sold into slavery."

"Nice," Pizer muttered, once Vincent had finished translating.

"You don't seem enthralled with your government," Holland noted.

"Enthralled with, no. Enthralled by, unfortunately," Avon agreed.

"You referred to Liberator as your ship. It's a private vessel, then?" Holland kept his voice deliberately casual. "Freighter, yacht, courier, what?"

Avon looked at Holland, his clear brown eyes staring at him and through him, as if to say why are you asking me a question we both know you already know the answer to? "This is a ship of war, Holland. We are rebels against the Federation."

Holland nodded, digesting the information. "Then you're not likely to turn us over to the authorities."

"While your Dr. McCrae is in the medical unit, the point is moot, is it not?" Avon raised one eyebrow. "At any rate, I doubt you would enjoy being turned over to Federation authorities."

"Perhaps not. But I do have a duty to report."

"Such devotion to duty is admirable," Avon complimented him, with just a hint of mockery in his voice. "But as I said, at the moment, it is a moot point."

"Are you our host, Captain Avon, or our captor?" Holland's voice was firm, but polite.

"I'm sure I don't need to tell you to keep your hands off the controls," Avon said, ignoring Holland's question. "I would suggest you limit yourselves to your cabins, the medical unit, and the rest room. The flight deck and our engine room are off-limits unless a member of my crew is with you. These rules are for your own protection; accidents can occur easily on a strange ship."

"Are we guests or prisoners?" Holland asked, his voice not quite so polite now.

Avon turned and stared at him again. "That's really a matter of semantics, isn't it?" He changed the subject. "Your Vincent is a fascinating machine. I'm tempted to ask for it as payment for your rescue."

"Hey!" Pizer protested.

"Easy, Charlie," Holland cautioned.

"Tempted, I said. We discovered last night that it contains copies of banned books," Avon announced.

"Tolkien is a banned author," Vincent interrupted.

"Tolkien? Why on Earth would anyone ban Lord of the Rings?" Holland asked.

"Lord of the Rings? What's that?" asked Vila.

"J. R. R. Tolkien's most famous work, a fantasy trilogy," Holland said. "Why would anyone want to ban that?" He couldn't imagine anyone banning Tolkien's translations of Gawain and the Green Knight or other Old English literature.

"Never having had the opportunity to read the book, I am unable to say," Avon replied archly. "I am curious what else is in its memory banks."

"Vincent's microchips are loaded with the equivalent of a small library," Pizer bragged.

"Not a small library," Vincent protested. "My microchips contain the equivalent of a major metropolitan or university library."

Holland tried to keep his face impassive and hide his reaction to Pizer's and Vincent's revelations. Avon didn't need to know that.

"Excellent." Avon smiled, and Holland couldn't help being reminded of a wolf that had just sighted a lamb separated from its mother. "Then the information in Vincent's memory banks will be the price for your rescue and medical care."

Holland thought it over a moment. Until he knew what was happening, he didn't want to get involved with Federation or rebels, but the request seemed innocuous enough.

"Unless, of course, you favor censorship?" Avon prompted.

"Of course not!" Pizer exclaimed. "This is just like the Third Russian Revolution."

Holland frowned at Pizer, wishing he'd rein in his exuberance. "Vincent, cooperate fully with Captain Avon."

"Yes, sir."

B7/BHB7/BHB7/BHB7/BHB7/BH

Holland frowned as he sat by Kate's bed. For two days Charlie Pizer had done nothing but prattle about the American Revolution and the Polish Uprising and the Third Russian Revolution. If Dayna were ten years older and thirty pounds heavier, maybe Charlie wouldn't be so quick to side with Liberator's crew. Holland just couldn't believe that it was that black and white: evil Federation, good rebels. Damned few things were that uncomplicated. And didn't he and Pizer have a responsibility to the modern government? They'd sworn oaths to its predecessor.

Was he betraying this Terran Federation by allowing Avon access to Vincent's memory banks? The equivalent of a metropolitan library – what was in there: biographies and memoirs of Ché Guevara, Adolf Hitler, Yasir Arafat, Osama bin Laden? And Robert Heinlein – at least a third of Heinlein's books gave step-by-step instructions for revolutions and resistance. It was all very well for Charlie to joke that half of Vincent's memory banks consisted of nothing but Bartlett's Quotations. Were they providing aid and comfort to the enemy? Yet surely any texts on ordinance or chemical engineering would be too obsolete to do any harm … wouldn't they? And if Avon and the others were telling the truth about the Federation, then what?

Holland turned away from Kate to look at Cally, asleep in the corner. She was the only one of Liberator's crew who had bothered trying to learn English. He and Pizer were both studying Federation Standard, but it was slow going. But Cally wanted to speak – to think – to Kate, if and when she recovered. The alien woman had worn herself to a frazzle, attempting to mindlink with Kate and lead her back to consciousness. He and Cally had spent a lot of time together in sickbay, no medical unit, he corrected himself, taking turns watching Kate, trying to communicate by gestures when they couldn't find the words they wanted in the dictionaries Zen had printed. Avon refused to spare Vincent for translation duty; he had the robot entering its memory banks into Zen almost nonstop.

"You're the most human one of the lot," Holland whispered to the sleeping Auron.

"Thank you," Cally replied. "I'll assume it was meant as a compliment."

"I thought you were asleep."

"Just dozing. Any change in Kate?" she asked.

Holland shook his head. "Not yet."

Cally struggled with the words, consulting her dictionary frequently. "She is more to you than just a crew member, isn't she?"

He nodded. "If we get out of this alive, I'm going to try to find a preacher, if she's willing."

"What, pray tell, is a 'preacher'?" Avon asked from the doorway.

Holland concealed a scowl as he looked up. "A minister, a clergyman."

Avon listened as Vincent translated Holland's words for him. "A professional religious person?" Religion was permitted in your time?"

"Of course." Holland didn't go into the matter further. He was never sure when Avon was telling the truth about the Federation's totalitarian nature, or if he were exaggerating to win their sympathy. "Not that it's any of your business, but when she recovers I intend to ask her to marry me?"

"Why would that require a 'preacher'?" Avon seemed honestly curious.

"I don't know how you work it here and now, but in my day a wedding involved oaths exchanged between a couple, before God and in the presence of witnesses. It was customary to have a clergyman administer the ceremony in a church. Some people had civil services, performed by a judge instead of a minister, but I think Kate would prefer a church wedding."

"That will be difficult to arrange," Avon informed him. "Religion is strictly prohibited. There is a substantial fine for the first offense, and mind-adjusting if necessary, and a prison sentence for the second offense. And of course, no one knows where mutoids come from."

Holland didn't bother asking what 'mutoids' were. Avon was trying to frighten him into joining them again. Mind-adjusting indeed!

"How is Dr. Kate doing?" asked Vincent.

"Physically, much stronger." Cally yawned. "Excuse me; it's not the company. Her bruises and internal injuries are nearly healed. Mentally, I can't tell whether or not I'm getting through to her."

"Let me try again," Vincent volunteered. //Dr. Kate, please wake up. We need you.// He broadcast along the same vein for a full two minutes, but there was no response.

"She needs time to heal," Cally announced.

"You need to rest," Avon told her sternly. "You will not be doing her any good if you collapse from exhaustion."

Cally smiled, knowing the concern behind the severity. "I shall, in a little bit. Don't worry."

Avon cocked an eyebrow at her, as if to suggest he was not the worrying sort. "Vincent, stay here a while and assist Cally and Holland."

"Yes, sir."

Cally watched Avon's retreating figure as he stepped out of the medical unit and down the corridor. A thoughtful expression came over her face. "Vincent, we're tried taking turns 'pathing to Kate. What if we were to send the same message simultaneously?"

"Would that make a difference?" Holland asked.

"It might. I should have thought of it before." Cally apologized to Holland, "I've had first aid training, so I play doctor for Liberator, but I've never been trained in psychic healing techniques. Most of what I've done so far with her had been guess work and common sense."

"Like you said, she needs time," Holland consoled her. "Maybe if you try now that she's stronger and healthier?"

"What message shall we transmit, ma'am?" asked Vincent.

Cally glanced toward the closed door. "If it were me, I know what message would bring me around." She told Vincent. Holland blushed, but nodded his consent.

//Kate, Dan is here and he loves you. Kate, please wake up and be well. Dan is here waiting for you.// The Auron and the robot repeated the message over and over.

"Da-" a groggy voice muttered from the bed.

Holland exclaimed her name. "Are you all right?"

"Dan? I was dreaming …." Her voice dropped off and her eyes closed again.

"Is – is she all right?" Holland demanded anxiously.

"She should be now." Cally sighed, exhausted. "She came to; she was lucid. Let her rest now. She's been bedridden for a full week. She will be very weak. She won't be able to leave the medical unit for a few days, but now that she's regained consciousness, I think the worst is over."

"All downhill from here?" Holland asked, afraid to believe. Cally nodded. "Thank God. And thank you. I owe you, Cally. We both do."

"I'll let you be alone with her awhile. Don't worry if she doesn't wake up for a bit." Cally yawned again. "I'll be in my cabin if you need me. Oh, and don't tell Avon she's recovered yet."

"Why not?" Holland asked, quick to probe for a chink in Avon's armor.

"If he found out Kate didn't need Vincent, he'd put him back on library duty. And the poor thing needs a rest as much as I do." Cally smiled.

"I should like to stay with Dr. Kate, if I may," Vincent said. He did not add that he found pouring his memory banks into Zen a thoroughly boring task.

"Yes, by all means stay with Dan, in case she wakes again. And thank you for your aid, Vincent." Cally looked at Dan Holland, holding hands with Kate, who was now sleeping normally, and smiled again.

B7/BHB7/BHB7/BHB7/BHB7/BH

"Dan! Put me down!" Kate ordered. "I can walk. Put me down before you hurt your arm."

"My arm's fine. The healing ray fused the bone whole," Holland soothed her. "Whereas you have been bedfast for nearly two weeks, and you're not to strain your muscles. Cally said so."

Ignoring her protests, Holland carried her down Liberator's corridors and into the flight deck where the others were waiting. Everyone except Avon broke into applause as Holland carried her in and set her down on the couch next to Cally. A chorus of greetings and congratulations assailed her from all sides.

"Finally out of the medical unit. About time," Vila told her.

//Kate.// Cally thought a welcome to her, then aloud, "Holland, you didn't strain your arm, did you?"

Kate shot him an I-told-you-so look.

"I'm fine," Holland reassured both women. "Besides, I need the practice for thresholds." Kate blushed at that, and Pizer bit back a chuckle. The rebels exchanged confused glances, not catching the reference.

"Dr. McCrae, you look much better." Avon and Vincent approached the couch where Cally, Kate, and Holland sat. Avon lowered his voice. "Have you considered my offer?"

"I don't have sufficient facts. I can't make an informed decision. Yet." Holland, too, kept his voice quiet.

"Dan, what offer?" Kate wondered why she was whispering.

"Captain Avon wants us to join his crew," he told her quietly. He didn't want Pizer to overhear and volunteer. Right now, Pizer was frantically flipping through the pages of his dictionary, trying to talk with Dayna. She was wearing the white tunic with the blue trim again, the one that showed off her legs – not that Charlie Pizer needed any encouragement to look at Dayna Mellanby's legs. "I couldn't make any decision one way or the other with you comatose. And now …I don't want to rush into anything. All I have on the Federation is your story, Avon, and as a rebel, you can hardly be expected to be objective about the government. I need to know both sides of the story."

If only Blake were here, Avon thought. Blake knew the right things to say to make people agree with him. Avon wanted Palomino's crew to join them. He needed them. He hadn't realized how lonely Cally was for her own kind until they'd found another telepath. Cally desperately desired for Kate to stay, for another telepath with whom she could share thoughts. It would be too cruel to force Cally to give up Kate when she'd only just found her. He wanted Vincent; he could make a fortune selling the contents of the robot's memory banks. Not only banned political and religious texts, but lost fiction and history and poetry, either purged or simply forgotten over the centuries. Pizer and Holland were both pilots. It could be useful to have extra pilots, to relieve Tarrant occasionally. It should be fairly easy to appeal to Tarrant's vanity to get him to teach them how to handle Liberator's controls. And once they were trained, if that made Tarrant expendable, well it might teach the arrogant pup some manners if he knew he wasn't irreplaceable. Blake would know how to ask them, how to cajole them. Avon wasn't sure what to say. He was far more skilled with computers and guns than he was with people.

"Admittedly, our view of the Federation is a trifle subjective," Avon agreed, "but I think you'll find it an honest portrait. We can protect you, provide you with a home. You can't fit into modern life. You don't know our culture. You can barely speak our language. You'd be noticed, turned in, picked up, interrogated. The Federation is not noted for its gentleness."

"Holland, the Terran Federation isn't the government of Earth you used to know. It's not worth your loyalty," Cally told him. "But perhaps you – who remember better things – can help us recreate it as it used to be, as it should be."

"Just for curiosity's sake, speaking purely hypothetically, what would you do if we refused to join you?" Holland didn't completely conceal the note of challenge in his voice.

"Set you down on a neutral planet, of course, and give you enough money and supplies to start life," Cally said quickly, before Avon had a chance to say something threatening. "But we would much prefer you join us." She took Kate's hand in hers. "We're friends. We want you to stay."

//Avon, stop trying to bully Holland,// Cally scolded. //You can't order them to join the crew.//

Avon glared at her, unable to answer without Kate and Holland hearing him. "I honestly doubt you would like the Federation. As Cally said, it is not worthy of your loyalty."

And you are?, Holland wondered. "I –"

Zen interrupted. "Information. A squadron of pursuit ships is approaching rapidly."

"Battle stations," Avon ordered.

"Kate, we must get you back to the medical unit," Cally insisted.

"No time," Avon countermanded. "She'll just have to stay here. If you won't join, Holland, at least keep out of the way."

Cally released Kate's hand. She stood.

Kate grabbed Holland's hand, and they watched as Liberator's crew hurried to their posts, all business. Meek, gentle Vila stood grimly at the weapons console.

"Evasive action," Avon told Tarrant.

The pursuit ships drew closer, their weapons firing.

After watching silently a few minutes, Pizer joined Kate and Holland on the couch. He whispered, "I know you're trying to be fair and impartial, Dan, but those Federation ships attacked without any warning. They didn't give Liberator a chance to surrender."

Holland nodded. They hadn't even hailed the rebels to confirm their identity. He and Pizer watched carefully, professionally-trained eyes automatically observing, evaluating, and judging as Tarrant dodged the pursuit ships' fire.

Vila returned fire, destroying one ship and wounding another. No look of triumph crossed the thief's face, only fear and determination.

Then Liberator was hit.

The ship rocked. Holland grabbed hold of Kate to keep her from falling off the couch. Tarrant cried out as he fell. There was no one close enough to catch him, and he went down, hitting his head on a console as he fell.

"Tarrant!" Dayna called.

Cally rushed to help him. A communications officer wasn't really needed in the midst of battle, and scalp wounds tended to bleed profusely. If she waited until after the fight ….

No one was flying Liberator.

Avon looked up, realizing that. He stepped away from the command post to replace Tarrant. He knew he wasn't Tarrant's equal as a pilot, but he could manage in a pinch. This, Avon thought, certain qualifies as a pinch.

"Vincent," Pizer yelled as he beat Avon to Tarrant's place. "Translate for me."

Stunned, Avon watched as Palomino's co-pilot took over his ship's helm, with Vincent coordinating with Zen on directions and interpretation. Then he returned to his own post. If Pizer didn't have it under control, there wasn't time to replace him.

Kate closed her eyes as Pizer flew the ship straight toward the squadron. Vila fired relentlessly, and the squadron gave way, just as Pizer turned sharply and lammed out of there, too fast and far for the Federation to catch.

"Nice flying," Dayna congratulated, awe and admiration in her eyes.

Pizer grinned at her.

"He'll be all right." Cally helped Tarrant up. "Mostly the breath knocked out of him, and a nasty bruise and cut on his forehead. "Nothing too serious."

"At least he hit himself in the head, and not anywhere he'd do any damage," Vila wiped the sweat from his face.

Avon smiled in agreement. He turned to face Pizer, smiling wider, his teeth dazzling. "Nicely done, Pizer." Avon looked over to the couch, where Holland was scowling at Pizer as he steadied Kate. "Welcome aboard."

Holland sighed, giving in to the inevitable …at least for now. "What are your orders …Captain Avon?"

The End