"I don't believe this," he said at length. The incredulity was still there in his voice, but more in puzzlement now, than hostility. He dropped back again on his elbow and shook his head, brows drawing together in a faint frown. "I won't pretend I'm at my best, Soolin, but all things considered, I don't feel that unwell."
"Part of the problem." She studied him, holding herself still. "Most of feeling ill, if you did, would amount to your immune system being at work."
"And it isn't." Something froze in his face, and his tone went blank. His gaze slipped again to his splinted hand. "So it seems this has to stay."
"I'm afraid so." She drew in a slow breath as he leaned forward and pushed himself up. "For now, it's the best we can do."
His lips tightened, but he nodded. Getting his balance, he pulled his good arm in across his body to hold the other, sighed and looked down again at the IV line. Touched it lightly, shifting it imperceptibly under the bandage around his wrist.
"You'll have to forgive my wishing you could have waited," he said. "I had hoped to be done with having needles stuck in me, for a while."
"I don't doubt it."
She waited, but for the moment he seemed to have no more to say, only shifting his hand to steady his arm more solidly. From the way he moved, something in that shoulder still hurt.
She watched his fingers tighten in the folds of his sleeve as he looked back at the screen, his gaze going through it now, eyes going dark. Moved on impulse, sidestepping to block his view; ignored him when he started, lifting his head to look at her, and spun the monitor back on its arm, out of his immediate line of sight.
"If you want to sit up," she said casually,"it might be easier for me to bring up the head of the bed for you."
"Probably." He dropped his hand to steady himself as she reached deliberately past him, to shake his pillow. He eased back carefully, not meeting her eyes, when she touched his shoulder. "I expect there's more I need to know?"
"One or two things." Soolin straightened, letting her hand slip to the bed side‑rail. "We've made contact with a virology centre on Mycenae, a neutral planet in Sector 4, and we're about thirty hours out. There's at least a chance they'll be able to help."
"If I have that long." He frowned, preoccupied. "Virology is hardly my field, Soolin, but according to that report, I am dealing with a multiple infection in which two of the three strains involved are mutating rapidly, and there is a potential for genetic recombination among them. That could produce any number of infectious variations in a very short time."
"That's right." She folded her arms again, nodding when he looked at her. "The way Orac put it, was that it should take at least two days to produce a recombinant against which none of us might have any resistance."
"A recombinant of which you might have no warning."
She shrugged. "So life's uncertain."
"Under the circumstances, I could repeat my original question."
"The answer hasn't changed, Avon." She drew in on herself, shook her head slightly, when his lips tightened. "I won't expect you to understand."
"Then I won't disappoint you." He looked away, then back at her, his expression guarded. "Would you care to try explaining it to me, anyway?"
Not willingly.... She pulled back, turned towards the end of the bed. "Let's just say I felt it was the least we owed you, that you not hear the bad news from a machine."
"The least you owed me?" There was real surprise in that, and she glanced over her shoulder before turning back to face him.
"That's what I said," she said flatly. "I won't pretend I trust you, Avon, or that I've ever done. You've never encouraged it, and I think you've only been honest in not doing. It doesn't change that I won't say I think we've been especially fair with you, lately, either."
"Fair?" From the shock in his tone, it was the last thing he might have expected, and that, unexpectedly, stung. She tensed, lifting her head, then shook it slightly at his blank expression, and went on.
"I don't think that in the end, you were any more responsible than any of us, for what happened on Xenon, and I don't really think you endangered us on Gauda Prime, either, past taking us there in the first place."
Almost imperceptibly he stiffened, his expression becoming wary. "You would hardly have gone, otherwise."
"No, I wouldn't have, not there." She shook her head. "I can't speak for the others, they hadn't my ugly youthful memories of the place. But I don't believe you set us up for anything there. Not the blockade spotting us, not the ship being shot down, the crash, not any of it. You couldn't have known about the bounty hunters, either, or that it was us they were hunting, in the woods afterwards—"
"But I did."
"You did—" She stared at him. "Did what?"
"I knew about the bounty hunters." He had relaxed, and his gaze held hers now, dead neutral. "And I was virtually certain of where you were."
"Orac." He gestured toward the computer. "I had it simulate an official distress beacon. When the first two flyers came in on it, and their transmissions told me what they were, I cut it immediately and got under cover, but by then it was dark. Their infrared sensors picked up that fire you'd built, in seconds." He half shrugged. "It was obvious no one locally would have taken such a risk. That rather limited the possibilities."
"To us," she said flatly. "So you came."
"Once the first ship peeled off toward the crash site, and I knew the second was landing." Again he met her gaze squarely, his lips set. "The odds of taking it seemed better...and if they had had the sense to post a guard, I would have taken him first."
"That doesn't change the fact that you didn't."
"It also doesn't change the fact that I don't recall anyone thanking you for saving our lives." She shifted to glance at him sideways. "It wasn't much of a welcome. Not with Dayna wondering if you'd somehow set us up, me wondering if she mightn't be right, and Vila only wanting to know where Tarrant was..."
"Soolin, I don't see much point in belabouring it. We were all at rather less than our best."
"And we didn't give you much chance to get better, between then and dawn." She studied him quietly. "Did you sleep at all, that night?"
His gaze fell away from hers. "Not much."
"And then the morning brought us Blake, and everything else along with him." She ran her hand back through her hair. "I'm sorry. There are times when it would help if you were more forthcoming, Avon—but we might have credited that you'd been through as much as any of us, and we didn't."
"Making this a matter either of guilt or sentiment." From his tone as he looked down at his hands, he might have been disappointed.
"Call it trying to treat you as human, for a change." She folded her arms, half hugging herself, and stared at him a moment, then relaxed and let them fall, and deliberately held out her hand. Stopped short of touching him as he lifted his own, looked down at hers, then lightly, almost gently, drew back.
"Under the circumstances, it might be safer if you didn't." His turn to shake his head, softly. "Safer, and easier for both of us." Leaning back, he met her eyes with a sigh. "If you don't mind, Soolin, I could stand to be alone for a while. I need to think."
"First and foremost, to decide just how much of any of this I believe."
At the whisper of the unit's outer doors closing, Avon rolled onto his side and leaned across the side‑rail of the bed to push the bedside monitor further back on its extending arm, out of the line between his hand and Orac's case. Bracing his arm against the low barrier, he reached to catch the edge of the box and dragged it close enough to push in the computer's key.
"If you expect me to process that as a question, Avon, you must clarify your requirements."
"You are capable of deducing them," He swung back to sit cross‑legged under the covers. "And don't try to pretend that being turned off makes any difference. We both know you listen."
"I record, and hold recorded material for later review as seems useful," said the computer. "Your point remains unclear."
"You are aware of this report?"
"If you are referring to the medical computer's evaluation of your condition, yes." "I am." Avon glanced at the machine. "Is it accurate?"
"I see no reason to question it."
"You don't." He drew a slow breath. "Well, you might not, you are hardly as intimately concerned as I am." I do not, cannot believe...
"You are human, and it is in the nature of humans to resist the consciousness of mortality."
"To the death." Something drew tight, high in his chest, and he raised his hand to press the bandage at the base of his throat, forcing a breath past it. Pressure said it lay deeper inside, than the shallow soreness of a healing incision. "I have to know."
But know what? He let his hand fall and stared at the bed. No answers in the rumpled grey expanse of blanket past his knees, or its faint warm roughness under his hand. Only a kind of bloodless emptiness. Shock? Perhaps. But he was warm enough as yet. Fever‑warm, possibly. A degree or two, low‑grade pyrexia according to the medical report. Not enough to distort the sudden sensation, if that was what it was, of a bone‑deep shaking chill. Head bowed, he held himself still through it, right hand pulling his left arm close against his body, against an urge to shiver no less there, for not reaching the level of muscle and skin. It must pass and it did, leaving him numb.
Able to lift his head, unthinking, to face the shadowed wall beyond the bed, and think at last that if any of this were real, he must think. Must see through this clearly, past the turmoil of emotion, find that clear ground within, from which to reason. From which to question everything.
"Orac," he said softly.
"This doesn't make sense." He turned to look at the computer. "Where am I meant to have picked up this infection?"
"You are most likely to have contracted it through exposure to medical personnel aboard the Federation cruiser," Orac replied. "The H2N3 strain has been prevalent aboard Federation ships for some time, and the presence of the H7N2 variant, while unexpected—"
"It may have been present among the prisoners."
"That is not unlikely."
"Sethi said Dayna had been ill." He stopped. "I hope I don't have her to thank for it."
"In light of the time required for incubation, the highest probability is that you acquired it from the ship's medical personnel." The computer's tone was astringent. "The question, Avon, is hardly relevant."
For a moment he stared at the machine. "It is hardly irrelevant, to me."
"On the contrary," was the testy reply. "Your immediate problem is not that you have acquired any of these infections, singly or cumulatively. It is that you appear to possess no material resistance to any of them, and cannot have done for a minimum of four standard days."
"Which is equally questionable!" Avon drove his fist down into the tangle of bedclothes at his side, and pushed himself straighter. "How, Orac? How is that even remotely likely to have happened? Complete immune suppression, in an otherwise healthy individual? I don't believe it."
"It is not a fact that you have any rational option to disbelieve!" Orac said sharply. "It is a specific medical finding based on analysis of your blood chemistry—"
"It makes no sense!" he said in frustration. "Orac, nothing has happened to me, which would justify it!"
"It is not open to question!" If Orac breathed, it might have drawn a breath. "It is also by no means incredible, Avon. Immunosuppression associated with extreme physical and psychological stress is a well established phenomenon in humans. In view of the high levels of stress hormones and fatigue poisons persisting in your bloodstream as of nine hours ago—levels which are likely to have fallen substantially in recent days, from those you would have presented following your experiences on Gauda Prime—a degree of impairment might well be anticipated, even to a constitution as hardy as yours."
"A degree of impairment, perhaps! But that isn't what we're talking about, is it?" He leaned forward to rest his arms across his knees, free hand sliding again to the bandage over his wrist, and the hard flexibility of the line under it. "We're talking about a near‑complete shutdown of immune response, and 'well established phenomenon' or not, Orac, I assure you it is not normally part of the human response to misadventure! Not in me or any other human." His lips set. "If it were, I wouldn't have survived this long."
"You might do well to consider how much you have survived."
"Your recent adventures may not be causative of your condition, but it is reasonable to regard them as having brought matters to a breaking point."
"You're not serious." He let his gaze slide again into the shadows at the foot of the bed. "I can't regard anything that happened on Gauda Prime as worse than anything that happened on Xenon, or anywhere else I've been in the past year."
"That is precisely my point," Orac said. "In the past fourteen months you have been subject to an array of physical, mental, and emotional stressors unprecedented in your experience. Your loss of Liberator as a secure base of operations—your home for three years—the death of Cally, the destruction of Terminal, your assumption of greater responsibility for the surviving crew under adverse conditions which were only marginally stabilized by the taking of the Xenon base, and a succession of dangerous and largely unsuccessful enterprises, culminating in the failure of your efforts to forge an alliance of non‑aligned worlds in this sector—"
"Enough!" Avon glared at the machine. "You might remember the help I had from Zukan of Betafile, in that enterprise."
"—and your decision to pursue a renewed partnership with Blake, which you would hardly have elected to do if you had seen any alternative," Orac finished.
"Evaluating recent events in terms of their impact on your physiology," it continued, "it is reasonable to project that since learning of Zukan's sabotage of your base, and concluding that flight was again necessary, you have been under extraordinary pressure. In that context, your misfortunes on Gauda Prime need only have provided a final blow, to produce the results you are experiencing." The computer paused. "The only unexpected element is the form that your response appears to be taking. My review of available data suggests that statistically, you would have been more likely to suffer a fatal heart attack within the first two to four days following the event."
"I can suggest a more credible explanation."
"The report of what may be an untried computer." He leaned back, twitched the bedclothes straight, and pulled his arms in to hold them. "The test results. Orac, I want you to check the system and evaluate the likelihood of error."
"I have already done so."
"I detect no material errors. The technology is adequate to its purpose."
"And your own programming has not been interfered with?"
"No!" The computer's lights pulsed in a sudden, rapid burst. "Had it been, Avon, I would have informed you immediately upon your activation of my vocal facilities, in accordance with your directives against such interference."
"Unless that interference were not sufficiently explicit." Avon studied the machine. "A sufficiently simple‑minded approach might do it."
"That is an irrational suspicion!"
"Not in my view!" He let his tone sharpen into a command. "Orac, secured mode. I want a full analysis of your contacts for the period since our escape from Servalan's cruiser, and a summary of your results."
"The results are irrelevant!" Despite the irritation in Orac's reply, it replied as it must. "Excluding your own contacts with me, Avon, during the specified period I have been addressed directly on three occasions by Tarrant, by Soolin on eleven, and once each by Vila and Yudhisthira Sethi. Tarrant has made three specific requests for information in the context of our escape. Soolin has addressed me a total of eleven times, the first flippantly, and the remaining ten times in the context of evaluating your medical condition and determining the best course for response. Vila has queried me once seeking confirmation of the seriousness of your condition, and Sethi once also, regarding your lack of response to the second and third viral strains present."
"Were either of those queries in any way directive?"
"No. I have received only four directives, all from Soolin."
"In three instances she requested that I evaluate your condition and relay information to her about it in terms she could herself evaluate, and in the fourth she requested that I refrain from a specific action."
"Which was?" he asked, when the computer hesitated.
"The content of her directive is now irrelevant," Orac said.
"Not if I was its object," he said grimly. "And I was, wasn't I?"
When the machine remained silent, he turned to study it, then lay back against the pillow. "Orac, I think it's time to adjust your programming. I am making it a priority directive, effective immediately, that you do not interpret as irrelevant to my interests anything that any member of my crew says regarding me. Especially not if it's Soolin, or if she is present." He turned his head to watch the machine. "That should be sufficient to release you from any constraint she has succeeded in placing on you."
"It would be, if she had placed any!" said the computer. "Her request was no more than that I withhold from you certain information—information she has since communicated to you herself."
"She asked that I withhold from you the findings of the ship's medical computer, regarding the unstable and potentially lethal consequences of your illness, until she had spoken with you personally."
"The material in the report?"
"And nothing more?"
"No." Orac's tone was flat. "I can only deduce that her motive was to protect you. It would seem to have been a futile effort."
"I would have said uncharacteristic of her, too," Avon murmured, "though in light of the performance we just witnessed, perhaps not. It could be consistent with her emotional state."
"As I interpret these suspicions consistent with your own," Orac replied. "Are you satisfied now, that neither my analysis nor that of the ship's computer are open to question?"
"For the moment."
"That is not sufficient!" Again the lights rippled inside Orac's case. "Avon, I was aware that denial might be part of your response to your condition, but you cannot rationally expect me to support you in it."
"Then tell me what I'm meant to do about it! Either that or shut up." The machine fell silent, and he waited. At length he forced down a long breath, and went on. "My prospects for surviving this appear to depend on my ability to raise an immune response—the one I don't have—"
"That is correct."
"I see no way of doing that, to order!" He stopped. "I need to know what options I have, Orac."
"At present, I perceive only one," said the computer. "You must accept that you have exceeded your capacity to tolerate fatigue and stress, and comply with the measures identified by the medical computer to address your condition. Until your system is cleared of the toxins inhibiting its proper function, you will be unable to resist the infection, and until you are able to resist the infection, you will be unable to overcome it."
"The problem being, that it could overcome me at any time."
"It is unlikely to do so within the next two standard days."
"'Unlikely' isn't good enough." Briefly, he hesitated. "How long have I got?"
"That is unanswerable."Orac's tone was acquiring an edge of frustration. "Interpreting your question in its most general form, how long you will live is beyond my capacity to project, being dependent on information I do not yet possess, and psychological factors I am not able to evaluate with certainty."
"And, in any case, it isn't what I need to know." Staring up again into the shadows, Avon drew his arms in closer across his body and sighed. "Within your ability to project, Orac, I need to know how long I have, before this affects my ability to act. To function, at any level where I can hope to resist interference, if I wish it."
"If you are referring to physical resistance, between ten and twenty hours."
"I am." His lips set in a grim line. "As little as that?"
"Potentially." The glow of the computer's lights was unwavering. "Whether or not you have recovered sufficently to become symptomatic in that time, it is likely that in twelve to fifteen hours you will have begun to experience a degree of pulmonary congestion, and once process that begins you will have little choice but to rest and comply with available medical treatment, if you hope to survive."
"In other words, lie here and wait to die." He sat up, reaching back to brace himself against the head of the bed. "That isn't an option."
"It is your only rational option!" Orac paused in another burst of lights. "And I would submit that it is only your choice—your emotional choice—to construe it in the terms you have, which renders it unacceptable to you."
"Well, I've never claimed to be perfect." Avon spared the computer a glance before pushing himself forward to grip the side‑rail of the bed. A sharp tug upward and it fell, released.
"You will not improve your prospects for recovery, by compromising any of the efforts your companions have so far made, to assist you!"
"I don't expect I'll much worsen them, either." He pulled in his encumbered arm, turning it to look for the end of the binding. "If I've that little time, I can't spend it here."
"What do you imagine you will do elsewhere?"
"I'll tell you when I find out." Stripping back the tape that held the bandage in place, he whipped it swiftly free of his arm and shook out the splint bracing his wrist, letting it fall to the covers. Steadying his arm again against his knee, he closed his fingers carefully around the i.v., braced again, and pulled the needle slowly free. "It becomes a question now of what I can do, that may stand some chance of making a difference past my death."
"An unfounded and bizarre conclusion."Orac hesitated. "You appear to find it preferable to expect that you will die, than to accept the possibility that you will not."
"It's a matter of being practical," he said. "I prefer not to risk dying without the satisfaction of having avenged myself as far as possible."
"And how do you conceive vengeance?" The machine's incredulity was plain. "Your circumstances, Avon, are almost entirely the product of chance! I fail to see how you can construe any reasonable object for retributive action."
"I'm not talking, Orac, about avenging my death." Avon dropped back, twisting to loop the discarded i.v. line over the head of the bed. "I'm talking about avenging my life..." He rolled to his side, facing the computer, and pushed up again sitting. "To answer your question, killing Servalan would naturally be my first preference—though it seems now I may have to leave that to Dayna."
"Indeed." The lights in Orac's core had resumed their slow pulsing. "I fail to see any means by which you might accomplish it yourself."
"That makes it a question of how I can help to keep her in range." He frowned. "The essential thing being to discredit her in her new identity—and I still have the power to do that." He swung around, throwing back the covers, and stood. "Orac, there has to have been a security camera in the hold."
"Two cameras, Avon," Orac said. "One facing forward, and one aft."
"And that's the key." He smiled and turned to look for his clothes. "Extract the record of our arrival to storage, Orac—every frame that has Servalan in it. Then find me the nearest terminal that isn't on the flight deck, or anywhere else the others are likely to be exploring in the next few hours. What's left of my life will undoubtedly be the simpler, the longer what I'm doing goes unnoticed."