"...as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death."
I Sam. 20:3, King James' Version
With a shiver, he turned over on the frozen ground and sat up. The pounding in his head, until now a minor accompaniment to Terminal's throbbing `heartbeat', immediately became a roar. The icy air lanced into smoke-damaged lungs and wrenched out a painful, choking cough. It made the tiny circle of figures round the fire recede into oblivion while he pressed his head between his knees and waited for the spasm to subside.
Gradually, he became aware once more of the artificial planet's drumming rhythm, then of the snapping sounds and rich woody aroma of the nearby fire.
Snow crunched. Someone to his immediate left was moving about, rummaging through something. He didn't have the energy to turn and see who. Lifting his head, he squinted toward the firelight and eventually identified two reclining figures by their clothing: Dayna's brown jumpsuit, and Avon's black leather. Two were missing. Cally and Vila...
No, he told himself, that was wrong. Cally - wasn't missing. He remembered hearing Avon say it, an eternity of hours ago.
Just before that cold assessment, his own incredulous voice had questioned another of Avon's pronouncements.
"Vila rescued me?"
"You were injured trying to rescue Cally. Vila rescued you. Suddenly I'm hip deep in heroes."
...trying to rescue Cally.
And Vila rescued me. Vila??
When the cough resurged with a vengeance, Tarrant lowered his head once more, starting when a firm hand grasped his shoulder and something soft - a light-coloured cloth - was thrust gently into his fist. The hand kept its grip on his shoulder, retreating only after the coughing fit had done the same. When he could breathe again, Tarrant wiped his mouth, wadded the cloth and shoved it into a pocket, unwilling to look long at the dark stain that marred it. No use to think about that now. There would be nothing for it anyway.
"Here. Take this." The voice - Vila's - came from close beside him. The same hand that had supplied the cloth now placed the neck of a small canteen (where did he find these things?) in Tarrant's hand, folding his fingers over the chill metal.
"Slow and easy. Come on."
The pilot allowed the bottle to be guided to his lips, sipped at the frigid, bitter water inside, then forced it away in near panic when the icy liquid threatened to re-trigger his cough. When it didn't after all, he drew the canteen back, pulling it out of Vila's grasp, and braved several more cautious sips.
"Thank you," he managed belatedly, and for the first time, he saw the Federation paragun cradled protectively under the thief's arm. In the orange glow of the shifting firelight, Vila looked almost ominous. How he'd coaxed their sole remaining weapon out of Avon was still another mystery. But then, mystery had been Vila's middle name, lately.
"No trouble," the quiet voice replied, and Vila shifted the rifle to ready position, settling himself on the frozen ground beside the pilot. "Anyone can melt a little snow."
"That's not what I -" Tarrant arrested the acid retort in mid-sentence, tucked the canteen under his knee and proceeded to clasp his pounding head in both hands. Even if he lived another century, he would likely never understand why a delta thief with a rampaging soma habit and frequent pretensions of grandeur, sometimes displayed a sagacity not bred to a delta at all, yet still played the fool when it suited him. Or why that same thief could defy his own self-proclaimed cowardice long enough to lift an unconscious man and carry him to safety - with death rumbling close at his back all the while.
Continued in Star Two
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