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Home Run

By Joolz
The pair materialized in a quiet hallway far from the main thoroughfares.  Avon raised the bracelet to his mouth.  “Down safely.  Home sweet home.”

The crackling connection did nothing to hide the concern in Blake’s voice.  “Avon, I’ll ask you one more time to reconsider. It’s just too risky.”

“I believe it to be justified.  Think of it this way, if anything goes wrong you will be able to say that you were right.”

“I don’t want to be right.  I want you and Vila to make it back in one piece.”

Vila interjected irritably over Avon’s shoulder, “If you want me back safely, then bring me up now.  I never liked this plan, you know.”

Avon chided silkily, “But Vila, I thought you wanted nothing more than to return to Earth.”  He turned his attention again to Blake, “Just make sure you’re here on schedule.  That’s all I ask.”

Blake sighed audibly.  “We will.  Be careful.”

Avon closed the connection and turned away from his companion.  “Let’s get started.”

The corridor soon intersected another and the two merged with the flow of pedestrian traffic.  This was London Dome, which had been home to both of them before the supposed one-way trip to Cygnus Alpha.  Now it was well behind enemy lines. 

Anyone knowing them would not recognize them at first glance.  To alter Vila’s appearance his hair had been darkened to black, and Avon had applied a follicle stimulator to the protesting thief, resulting in a bushy moustache.  Since they would be mainly in the Delta sections, his regularly favoured attire was deemed suitable.

Avon, on the other hand, had been disguised chiefly by a change of clothing.  He wore a fawn brown tunic with an open v-necked collar, slightly too large, tied at the waist with a thin cord over baggy grey trousers.  The outfit was revenge on Vila’s part for the moustache, but it was also so far from Avon’s usual sartorial armour so as to render him almost invisible.  Almost invisible.  The eyes were still arresting, even when turned a muddy green by contact lenses.

The external transformation was easy enough, but blunting the Alpha-elite attitude was another matter entirely.   Vila had given a bored Avon a quick course on Delta customs and behaviours, but it was yet to be seen how well the lessons had taken.

The technician strode purposefully toward their destination.  They were in a section of the dome inhabited by household workers, far from the sector frequented by the labouring classes which had produced Vila.  There was less chance of meeting anyone who might recognize Vila here, something which didn’t entirely please the thief.

Scurrying to keep up with Avon, Vila tried again.  “Just a quick call from a public vis-fone.  Just to say that I’m all right.  I don’t have to tell her where I am.”

Avon rounded suddenly to block Vila’s path.  Glaring rigidly into Vila’s face, he hissed quietly, “We discussed this.  We will do what we came to do and leave.  No one must know that we have been here.  No one at all.  The danger is too great.”

Vila scoffed.  “Danger?  The biggest danger around here is you.  You can’t blend in to save your own life, much less mine!”

Growling, Avon challenged, “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Of course you don’t, do you?  You would have had to listen to me, wouldn’t you?  You would have had to admit that I might know more about something than you do, like how to act like a Delta grade.

“Look at us right now,” he continued.  “A Delta would never just hover to intimidate.  If you want to get my attention here you have to be a little more direct.”

Avon shoved Vila in the chest, pushing him back against the wall.  Grinning, he asked, “Like that?  I could get used to this.”

“That’s better.  Now stop walking like you’ve got somewhere to go.  Look at the others, would you.”  Streams of men and women passed them by, not giving them a glance.  “They all look like they’re either just getting off a long, mind-numbing work shift, or are on their way to one.  Either way there’s no hurry.”

Avon surveyed the crowd and nodded.  “I see your point.  We must act like we’re brain dead from consuming Delta level suppressants.  That should be no problem in your case, but I will have to concentrate.  Come.”

They continued on at a slower pace, Avon keeping his eyes on the floor.  Vila thought that he just might enjoy making a Delta of Avon, just to see him brought down a notch or two. 

Testing the waters, Vila said, “It wouldn’t take long, you know.  Just a couple of hours.  In and out and no one knows I was there.”

This argument had been going on for some time and Avon knew what he was talking about.  “My answer is still no.”

“Maybe you’re right.  If I just walked up to Gil and said hello she would probably drop dead from shock.  The weak chest runs in the family, it does.  Gil was always stronger than me, though.  She used to carry me around on her back when I was a lad so I wouldn’t feel left out with all the adults.  She taught me to steal combs out of ladies’ hair smooth as silk.  Taught me plenty of other useful things, too, like where the good bolt-holes were that adults couldn’t get into. 

“Gave it all up and went straight when she got married, though.  What a waste.  Never ended up having kids, either.  I would have liked to be Uncle Vila.  A whole new generation to bring into the family business. My sis must be dead worried about me, what with the prison-planet sentence and getting mixed up with rebels.  I’m sure it would ease her mind to know that her baby brother was still alive, if not always well.  I’d have a story or two to set her hair on end.”

Avon never looked at him.  “You will not sway me with your sentimental recitation.  We’re here for one purpose, that is all.”

“Well, it doesn’t hurt to try; it being such a little thing to ask.  I never want much, do I?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  I find you quite wanting at times.”

Vila made a sour face at his companion but fell quiet.  There were three days to go.  Plenty of time to wear down Avon’s resistance, or to slip away on his own at some point.

Soon they entered an open area with vendor booths and food stalls as far as the eye could see.  The smells and sounds reminded Vila of childhood, of home, and he stopped to look around happily.  Avon grasped his arm and dragged him forward. 

Just as Vila began to protest they came to a halt in front of a row of public compu-vis terminals.  Avon reached into the shoulder bag he was carrying and extracted identification and credit cards that Avon had created for them, one for each.  There were enough credits in their fictitious accounts to purchase what they might need on this mission, but not enough to arouse suspicion.

Avon handed one to Vila.  “Here, Vilem.  Don’t spend it all in one place.  In fact, don’t spend it at all.  I want you to stand outside the booth and warn me if any security forces should approach.  Don’t wander off, do you understand?”

“Yes, Perr.  Of course, Perr.  I’m at your beck and call, your majesty.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it.”

Avon ducked into one of the booths and closed the transparent door.  In seconds his hands were flying over the computer controls.  Vila leaned against the door and looked around.  In this part of the complex the crowd had a little more life.  Mums and Dads were out doing their shopping.  Groups of chums were strolling about joking and flirting.  Children begged for a credit to buy sweets or vegi-burgs. 

Vila felt himself relax more than he had in ages.  This was where he wanted to be, living with people he had something in common with.  Where he would be one of the gang, not the odd man out.  Where he could have friends, not just shipmates.  But unless Blake’s rebellion was a success, that might not be possible anywhere, and certainly never on Earth.  He was a wanted man, and in truth he had lost his chance for a simple life well before joining up with Blake.  He had already been exiled when they met, and through his own fault, no one else’s. 

This train of thought erased the smile from his face.  He was stuck.  Trapped.  Caught in a mess of his own making with nothing but a bunch of suicidal, obsessive Alphas and aliens for company.  Except for Gan, bless him.  If it weren’t for the big out-worlder Vila thought that he would have gone insane.  Cally was all right, too, for an alien.  At least she had a kind word once in a while, not only, ‘Shut up Vila.’

Vila peered in to see what Avon was doing but the vis-screen was at the wrong angle.  He sighed.  Mister high-and-mighty comp-tech would tell Vila only what he thought Vila needed to know.  Bit of a control freak, as Aunt Tila used to say. 

He thought about their mission.  It was Avon’s project, start to finish.  The only other person who thought it was a good idea was Orac, and he wasn’t really a person.  No one wanted to do this, but just try saying no to Avon when he’s made up his mind.  Not even Blake could do it.  But who had ended up here in danger?  Vila, the ever-handy thief, that’s who.

It was all Orac’s fault, really.  The super-computer had detected a few secret memos within the Federation scientific section, and it and Avon had spent days following them up.  It turned out that the Federation was developing a new computer technology of its own.  Not the same as Orac but potentially just as powerful.  In fact, since it apparently didn’t involve Tarriel cells, it might be impenetrable to Orac.  The stuck-up computer couldn’t put up with that, could it?  No, it and Avon had devised a plan to steal the specifications for the new system before it could be operationalised.    And where were those specs?  Why, on Earth, of course.  In the middle of a high security tech zone.

Just his luck.  First time back on Earth in over a year and it was to pull off a bigger heist than he had ever tried before.  No relaxation or socializing.  No visit to his sister.

Vila glanced again at Avon.  What was taking so long?  Sure, Avon was a computer genius, but trip the wrong alarm and security would be on them in a minute.  Vila was nervous, but comforted himself with the knowledge that Avon wouldn’t do anything to risk his own safety, so if Vila stuck close to him he should be all right.

Avon finally emerged from the booth and walked away, leaving Vila to trail behind. He inquired with utmost decorum, not a whine at all, “Where are we going now?  Avon!”

“My name is Perr.  I have acquired a room for us.  You are not aware of it but we have been living there for six months.”

“Right.  But I’m hungry, Perr.  Let’s get something to eat, eh?”

Avon stopped and looked at him consideringly.  “All right.  You are the guide in this subterranean warren, Vilem.  What do you recommend?”

Vila slapped him on the back, determined to make the most of the opportunity, even if the company wasn’t all he could desire.

He assured the other man, “You’re in for a treat tonight.  Trust me.”

Avon smirked, “Not in this lifetime,” but he followed Vila’s lead nonetheless.

~~*~~

 

After a quite enjoyable meal of fresh cooked, non-reconstituted food, the two retired to their room in a particularly seedy passage on a lower level.  As they stepped inside Vila stopped and looked around.  ‘Room’ was the right word.  Singular, if you didn’t count the fresher behind the screen in one corner.  There was one straight-back chair, one double bed, one shelf with odds and ends, nothing more.

He turned to Avon.  “What’s this, then?  Is it my room or yours?”

“This is our room.  Below my usual standards, and quite possibly below yours as well, but we will not be noticed here nor any questions asked.  We are simply another couple willing to pay for privacy from the dormitories.  Pretend that it’s a luxury suite.”

“But there’s only one bed!”

“If that is a problem for you, you can sleep on the floor or sit up all night in the chair.  The choice is yours.  I suggest you get some rest.  We have a lot to do tomorrow.  We will study the plans for the laboratory section where the Veet is housed and then inspect the area to observe security measures in person.”

“Walk in, just like that?” 

“We are both part of the janitorial staff, if you had forgotten.”

Vila snorted bitterly. “That’s right, no one looks at a lowly Delta floor-sweeper.  We’ll be invisible men.”

“That’s the idea.  In this case we will take advantage of the Alpha and Beta prejudices that you are so fond of pointing out.  Now leave me in peace.”  Avon began to root around in his shoulder bag.

Vila wasn’t finished.  “Orac already told us what the security measures are.  We came prepared, remember?  Why risk going there twice?”

“Vila, you do know that Orac is a machine, don’t you?  A highly advanced machine, but it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.”  He winced at the odd phrasing.  “The point is that I don’t want to risk my life by depending solely on the information that Orac has access to.  A visual reconnaissance before the actual event is in order. “

Vila grumbled his agreement and spent several minutes inspecting the undersized accommodation they would call home for the next few days.  His nose wrinkled in disgust.

He wasn’t tired at all.  He always got energized before a job, but that wasn’t it.  His sister was just a sub-car ride away and the only thing standing between them was Avon.  If he didn’t take this chance, he may never have another one as long as he lived!  He could be there and back in no time.

The Delta paced the small floor space gloomily while Avon sat on the bed reading a sheaf of print-outs.  Eventually he came to a decision and turned toward the door.

Without looking up Avon asked, “Where are you going?”

Vila answered defensively, “Just for a little walk.  To stretch my legs, that’s all.  No harm in that.”

Avon responded absently, “No.”

“What do you mean, no?  I can go for a walk if I like.”

The other man looked at him frostily.  “You’re going to see your sister.”

“So what if I am?  I’m going to see her, not be seen by her.  I want to see her face, just to know if she’s all right.”

“Not this trip, Vila.”

“I am going,” Vila challenged and turned to the door. 

Vila never saw Avon move, but suddenly the other man was in front of him, slamming him back against the wall just as Vila had taught him to do.  One hand holding Vila in place, Avon growled, “I said that you’re not going and that’s final.  I assure you that if forced to impose that decision by physical means I will do so.” 

Vila had no doubt that Avon could restrain him, and probably in a most unpleasant manner, but his anger boiled over.

“You lump of heartless rime!  It’s easy for you to say don’t go see my sister, my only family!  Were probably born in a beaker, you were!  You don’t understand.”

Avon’s icy visage faltered for a moment and he answered softly, “I have a brother.”

“Well, there you are!  Don’t you want to see him?”

The other man stared past Vila’s shoulder vacantly.  “It’s not the same.  My brother wouldn’t be glad of a visit, unless he had the opportunity to report it and collect the reward.  My brother despises me.”

The words and the emptiness in Avon’s face startled Vila, but he refused to be sidetracked.  “But Gil isn’t like that.  Why won’t you let me go?”

Avon’s gaze again pierced him.  “Because I need you here and I need you to concentrate on this mission.  Your sister would be an unnecessary distraction.  I can’t allow that.  She may not be there anyway.  Did you ever think that she might have moved or been transferred?”

It still didn’t make sense to Vila, Avon didn’t need him Right That Minute.  He was being even more unreasonable than usual.  Then he had a sudden suspicion.  “You know something, don’t you?  When you were at the public terminal you looked her up.”

When Avon didn’t answer a great, cold fist began to squeeze Vila’s stomach.  “Tell me!  I’m not going to cooperate unless you do.  I’d like to see you pull off this all-important mission without me.”

Avon glared at him for a moment, then his face softened.  “Very well.  I can see that you are already distracted.  There is little to lose.”

Vila pleaded with his eyes.

“It seems that your sister is likely dead.”

Vila shook his head.  “No.”

“It happened shortly after you joined the Liberator.  She was arrested by the Federation and disappeared from sight.”

Vila felt dizzy.  “Arrested?  Because of me?  But are you sure that she’s dead?  She could be in a cell somewhere.  We could rescue her!”

Avon’s hand was still on Vila’s chest, but now it was more comforting than restraining.  “The resources available through the public terminal were inadequate to find anything more precise.  Vila, you must know that if the Federation had her then she is probably dead.  I promise, when this is over I will find out everything I can.  If we can help your sister you can be sure that Blake will insist on doing so.”

Grief and anger welled up in Vila and he lashed out, pushing Avon away from him.  “Why didn’t you tell me?  My sister’s dead and you weren’t even going to tell me.  What gives you the right?”

Avon watched him calmly.  “I told you why.  I need you to be focused on the matter at hand.  My life could depend on it.  I would have told you later.  There’s nothing you can do about it now, and knowing will just cause you pain.”

Vila slumped against the wall.  He could see Avon’s point but he still hurt.  Avon grasped his arms and led him to the chair.  Vila sat staring desolately at the floor trying to take in what he had learned.  His mind didn’t seem to want to accept it.   Gil, his sister, gone.

Avon observed him for a moment, then bent to speak.  “Will you stay here, Vila?  Will you promise?”

Vila nodded absently.  His legs felt too weak to move anyway.  Avon slipped out the door, leaving him alone.  He could have been gone two minutes or two hours as far as Vila could tell, then Avon was in front of him again with a bottle and a glass.

“Here, drink this.”

Vila took the glass and swallowed.  The fine liquor burned going down, bringing him back to awareness.  He stared up at Avon in amazement.

“You’re letting me drink?”

A slight smile touched the corners of the tech’s mouth.  “In this case I consider it medicinal.  There’s nothing for you to do until tomorrow, anyway.”

Smiling weakly, Vila praised, “You’re a real mate!”

“Let’s not exaggerate, shall we.”

Vila took the bottle and refilled his glass.  “Have one with me, will you?”

Avon considered, then agree, “Very well.  One drink would do me no harm either.”  He brought a glass, Vila filled it, and he sat on the edge of the bed. 

As they sipped in silence Vila, needing the sound of human voices to steady him, rallied enough to speak.  “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

The other man stiffened.  “I don’t wish to discuss it.”

“But what I want to know is, if they picked up my sister after Cygnus Alpha, why didn’t they pick up your brother?”

“They did.  They released him after four weeks.”

“But why?”

Avon’s blank mask, which didn’t hide nearly as much as he thought it did, was back in place.  “Kiman probably cooperated.  He would have told them everything he could about me and promised to help entrap me if the opportunity arose.  The Federation would recognize a kindred spirit in him.”

Vila waited and Avon continued unbidden.  “He is five years younger than I.  Our parents used us against each other from the start; comparing us, spurring competition.  The environment didn’t foster fraternal affection.  It didn’t help that as hard as he tried, he could never best me.  Kiman is quite intelligent; he has a fine mind.  It was just that I always did a little bit better.  That would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but in our case it generated implacable hatred on his part.  My failed fraud will have delighted him no end.”

Vila thought about it, then suggested, “You don’t hate him?”

Avon sighed.  “We were never close.  We have nothing in common.  But he is my little brother.”  He grimaced.  “It seems that familial attachment is genetically programmed whether we choose it or not.  Would that I were immune.”

Vila sympathized.  “I’m sorry.  How did you know all this?  Did you check on him from the public terminal as well?”

Avon straightened up and swallowed the rest of his drink.  “No.  I have monitored Kiman since we obtained Orac.  Did it never occur to you to inquire about your sister?”

Shaking his head, Vila answered with surprise, “No, I can’t think why not.  Will you help me ask Orac when we get back?  He likes you better than he likes me.”

Avon grinned and forewent the usual pronoun correction.  “Orac is a machine of great discernment and taste.  Yes, I will help you.  This Veet technology may be of use in extracting information from Federation computers as well.”

Vila nodded and poured another drink for Avon, who didn’t object.  Deep in the bowels of the Dome city, with humanity scurrying all around them, the pair fell into a melancholy silence.  At that moment past ties bound them both with regret.

~~*~~

 

The next morning they studied security and architectural schematics.  In the afternoon they had no difficulty appropriating custodial worker’s coveralls before visiting the technical laboratories.  It worked just as Avon had planned.  Their identification cards said they were authorized for access to the outer hallways and no one looked at them again.  Avon pushed a dust mop slowly over the already spotless floors while Vila used a rag to polish already gleaming fixtures.  They noted the visible security apparatus, and Vila surmised the existence of others. 

Later they discussed their observations in a small diner on the Delta level.  They had taken prophylactics to neutralize the suppressants in the food and drink, so they had to be careful not to look or sound too sharp.  As they lingered over tea Vila had Avon listen to the people at the tables around them and explained some of the differences in the accents they heard.  Despite himself Avon found the linguistic study interesting, if not the overheard conversations. 

Not being anxious to return to their tiny room, Vila dawdled at the market, letting Avon go on ahead.  To his surprise he felt nervous about being separated from Avon, especially when he thought of his sister.  Who would believe that he could feel more secure with someone like Avon than alone in a crowd?  He hurried toward their quarters.

As Vila rounded the corner before their room, he was initially embarrassed to have interrupted the couple he found entwined in the hall.  Then he realized that one of them was Avon and that the other, a large young man with scraggly black hair, had pinned his arms behind his back and held a knife to his throat.

“Oy!” Vila called indignantly.  “That’s my boyfriend!  Get y’r own!”

The man snarled, “Stay back.  This is between me and this Alpha slime.”

His voice muffled by the wall his face was pressed into, Avon said, “Got the wrong person, mate.”  Vila was proud to note that his student had the accent almost right.

It didn’t, however, convince the attacker.  “I got the right person.  I know you, Kerr Avon.  You ruined my life and you don’t even recognize me, do you?”

“Never seen you before in me life, I swear it!”

The man slid the knife menacingly along Avon’s skin.  “Let me remind you.  I was just a boy, seventeen maybe, proud to have been assigned to an important Alpha scientist.  I looked after that big flat of yours and waited on you hand and foot.  I don’t think you ever looked at me once – just another anonymous Delta grade, wasn’t I? 

“One day I spilled a glass of water on your desk and the ink on one of those drawings of yours ran.  You, Alpha lord and master, complained that I was clumsy and they transferred me to maintenance at the waste-water treatment facility.  It’s taken near ten years to work my way into public space upkeep, where people don’t shy away from the smell of me when I get off work.”  He crushed Avon roughly against the wall.  “Spent a lot of that time thinking about what I’d do to you if I ever got the chance, then I see you at that diner tonight.  Don’t know what you’re doing down here, but you’ll not be leaving.”  He pressed the blade firmly into Avon’s neck.

Alarmed, Vila tried to intervene.  “Listen, this really is a mistake.  This’s Perr, we been together for years.  No Alpha, him.  Can barely read!  Good in bed, though.  That’s why I keep him around.  Come on, let him go and we’ll prove you’re wrong.”

The young man looked angrily at Vila and waved the knife in his direction.  “Get lost you…”

Avon shoved back, pushing the larger man away, and Vila leapt forward to grab the hand with the knife.  He was shaken off easily, but Avon had  wrapped one arm around his assailant’s throat from behind.  With the other he grasped the flailing knife, quickly turned the large fist, and pulled it toward himself, driving the blade deeply into the man’s chest just below the sternum.  Vila jumped back as blood began to spurt from the wound.

Avon released the attacker as he sunk to his knees, and came around to look down at the dying man, his face open with surprise as though shocked by what he had just done.  Vila watched Avon’s expression return to his control, so that by the time the man gasped out, “Kerr Avon, I curse you with failure and misery,” he was able to answer coolly, “You’re too late there.”

The young man, Vila didn’t know his name, fell forward lifeless.  Now that the initial emergency had passed Vila began to panic.  He looked at Avon beseechingly.  “Now what?”  They were lucky that no one else had travelled that corridor in the last few minutes. 

Avon looked at him calmly, “Well, Vila, where do Deltas hide bodies?”

“How should I know?  I’m a thief, not a murderer.”  The other man stiffened slightly at the term and Vila rushed on.  “The only thing I can think of is the large-item disposal shoot, takes rubbish to the recycling.  But that’s a horrible thing to do to a man!”

“I would say that he’s past minding.  Where is it?”

Vila tried to think.  “They’re usually on the outer edges of the sector in the run-down areas.  There should be one near here.”

“Help me get him into our room and go find the nearest.  Later tonight we’ll get rid of him.”

Ice-cold, heartless, unfeeling bastard.  He’d just killed a man and didn’t care a lick. 

Vila helped drag the corpse into their tiny space.  As he left on his errand Avon was using one of their two thin towels to mop up the blood in the hallway. 

When he returned, the body was propped against the wall and Avon was sitting on the chair staring at it.  Vila looked from one to the other, feeling slightly nauseous.  After a moment, Avon said evenly, “I would swear that I’ve never seen this man before.  However, I have no doubt that it happened as he said it did.  My work was my life and my work-space sacrosanct.  I never knew that such a small thing could have consequences for the servant.”

Anger rose in Vila’s chest and he snapped, “Never knew and never cared.”

Avon looked up at him, his face pale and vacant.  “That’s right, I wouldn’t have cared.”

Vila’s anger dissipated.  There was something about Avon’s stillness that told him that he did care now.  Perhaps Blake’s idealism was having an effect.  Maybe getting to know Vila had changed his perception of class distinctions.  Vila stepped awkwardly over the obstacle to sit down on the bed, then avoided looking at the body.  He said, “You didn’t have a choice.  He was going to kill you.”

“I know.  I suppose I should be grateful for suppressants and for the fact that they obviously didn’t teach him about street fighting at the sanitation plant.  I wouldn’t have known either, until recent events.”

Yes, they had both done things in the last year or so that would have been unthinkable before.

Avon’s lips quirked into a brief smile and he glanced over at Vila.  “Good in bed?”

Vila felt himself blush.  “I was just trying to distract him.  I wouldn’t know about that, would I?  I mean, we are sharing a bed just now and you’ve been good about not taking the blanket, but that’s not the same, is it?”  Avon grinned at him in amusement.  “Not that I think you wouldn’t be good in bed, I’m sure you would.  But I’m not hinting or anything.  You don’t have to worry that I’m planning to seduce you.  The thought wouldn’t cross my mind.  Far from it.”  He ran out of breath and trailed off.

Then Avon laughed.  A rare unrestrained guffaw that shook his body.  Relieved, Vila joined in somewhat less enthusiastically.  When he quieted again, Avon leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, much of the tension melted away, and commented, “Vila, you’re priceless.”

“I’ll have you know that my services are actually quite dear.  Restals don’t come cheap.”  

Avon chuckled again.

If he didn’t have to look at the corpse grotesquely filling the floorspace, and didn’t have to think about what they would be doing tomorrow, Vila might have quite enjoyed bombarding Avon with double entendres and ribald jokes.  However, the room was too small to avoid the gruesome mess, and tomorrow was getting nearer every minute.

~~*~~

 

After the late and strenuous night they slept until mid-morning.  Over a filling lunch they reviewed their plans for the evening.  When the main work shift finished they made their way back to the laboratories, using the lower grade walkways and elevators.  It was late enough that the lab workers were gone, but not so late that custodians would be noticed.  Their identification cards allowed them to pass through several check points unmolested.

As they entered the hallway that led to the Computer Lab Administrator’s office, Vila quickly set the surveillance camera on automatic loop.  They passed through a security door using a fake identification card, and then found themselves in front of the office they sought.

This was the tricky one.  It required physical verification of identity.  Orac had obtained the Administrator’s records, and Vila was prepared.  He pulled an envelope from his pocket and slid a latex glove onto his hand.  He had carefully applied the official’s hand print to the rubber – they could only hope that the computer accepted it.  After allowing the glove to warm to body temperature, Avon inserted the identification card and Vila placed his hand on the palm reader. 

After a nerve wracking moment the door slid open.  Stepping into the office Vila moved silently to the cupboard, opened it, and frowned at the safe.  “This is a different model than Orac said.”

Concerned, Avon asked, “But can you open it?”

“It’s the latest thing, but there isn’t that much they can do to a standard safe.  Variations on a theme, you could say.  It’ll take me a few minutes.”

While ignoring the man hovering behind him, Vila studied the safe.  It was a model he hadn’t seen before and he followed the lines of the mechanism, appreciating its own particular logic.  He knew that there would be something special about this lock and reviewed it again until suddenly he saw it.  He smiled.  “There!”

He had discovered a sensor which required a certain tone to sound in the background as the lock was opened.  Pulling a small meter from his pocket he quickly determined the frequency and set the device to transmit.  The rest of the mechanism melted under his hands like butter and the safe door opened with a hiss.

Avon pushed him aside and looked in.  In a huff, Vila complained, “Does anyone say, ‘Thank you Vila, job well done?’  No it’s, ‘You’re in the way, Vila.  Move, Vila.’”  He was going to continue but became distracted by what Avon was doing. 

The computer technician withdrew a data cube from a plastic box and placed it in a portable reader.  After a moment he withdrew it, replaced it exactly as it had been, and tried the next.  Vila asked, “Isn’t it here?”

“Quite probably.  There are other interesting things here as well.  If we had the time most of this would be valuable, but we came for the Veet data.”

Avon read several more and Vila began to get nervous.  The longer they stood in front of an open safe, the greater the likelihood of being caught.  Some safes even had timers for occasions such as this.  Then Avon smiled and Vila knew he had found the right one.

Recording the data from the cube to the reader took several minutes, during which Vila’s teeth started to itch.  Finally Avon replaced the cube in the safe and turned to Vila.  “All right, let’s go.”

Relieved, Vila closed the safe and reset the mechanism.  It was tempting to leave something slightly miscalibrated so that the alarm would sound next time they opened it, but this wasn’t the occasion for a grand gesture.

They retreated through the security doors, reset the camera, clocked out, and walked slowly back to the Delta levels, as though they had just gotten off a mind-numbingly boring work shift.

When they reached their room, Vila collapsed on the bed in relief.  Looking no less glad that it was over, Avon sunk onto the chair.  After a while Avon shook Vila’s shoulder and said with an excellent Delta lilt, “Eh, Vilem.  Buy you a drink?”

Vila grinned.  “No, me lad.  You can buy me two.”

~~*~~

 

The next day was devoted to waiting for the Liberator to return.  They discarded the identification cards that they had been using and became two Gamma grades, who had never been anywhere near the Tech Labs, just in case.  Vila wasn’t sorry to see the last of their cramped room. 

They looked in the windows of the small shops on the Gamma levels (Vila restrained his larcenous proclivities) and sipped cheap wine in a café.  Vila was feeling really quite mellow when he sensed a change in the crowd.   Looking around, he murmured, “Oh, oh.”

Avon looked at him sharply.  “What?”

“Something’s going on.”  Past the mass of heads he saw Federation trooper helmets.  People began milling about, slightly agitated despite the suppressants.  He heard the phrase, ‘security sweep,’ mentioned.  This was bad.

He turned to Avon.  “It’s a security inspection.  I don’t know if it’s random or if they’re looking for someone specific, but they will have blocked off the area.  They won’t let anyone go until everyone has been checked.”

Avon’s eyes narrowed.  “Well, we can’t allow them to scrutinize us.  We’ll split up and look for a way out.” 

As Vila worked his way along the outside wall of the vending esplanade, he watched what the troopers were doing.  It was the bad kind of search where they inspected not only your identification card, but your person as well.  They were emptying pockets and rummaging through bags. 

Vila didn’t know if their cards would stand up to official examination, and both he and Avon were carrying items that no Gamma grade retail clerk would be able to identify, much posses.  Including Liberator teleport bracelets.

Exploring behind a paper flower stall, Vila discovered a narrow passage.  Ducking in, he could see that it curved out of sight, heading away from where they were trapped.   He stuck his head out and spotted Avon across the square.  He pressed the communicator button on the teleport bracelet and hoped the chime wouldn’t draw attention to Avon. 

Vila watched his shipmate casually reach up to scratch his shoulder, bringing the bracelet close to his ear.  Vila whispered, “I’ve found a service passage.  I don’t know where it goes, but we can try it.”  Avon nodded and Vila continued, “To your left, behind the flower vendor.”  Avon looked around and spotted Vila.  He nodded again and began to work his way slowly through the crowd.

Vila encouraged softly, “Come on, come on.”  Just as Avon reached the opening they heard a rough voice shout, “Hey you!  Stop!”

Avon slipped into the passage and ordered, “Run, you idiot!”

Vila ran, with Avon close behind.  Soon any doubt as to whether it was Avon who had drawn the trooper’s attention was laid to rest; heavy boots echoed in the passage behind them.  As they ran they passed several doors, none of which looked promising, saying such things as ‘Store Room 27DD’  or ‘Custodial Closet’.  They rounded another corner and the hallway ended abruptly in a dead end.  The troopers were getting closer.

Vila looked around desperately, but it was Avon who found an exit.  There was a ventilation panel near the floor and he gripped the bars, pulling it free with one mighty tug.  Avon then dropped his bracelet into his shoulder bag and shoved the whole thing into Vila’s chest.  “Go!” he hissed. 

Grasping the bag, Vila protested, “But you’re coming too!”

Intense eyes burning, Avon snapped, “No time to argue.  They only saw me.  If we both disappear they’ll search everywhere, including the ventilation.  Take the recorder to Orac!”

Suddenly Vila was on his knees, felt one hand push his head down and another give his backside a strong shove.  Vila found himself propelled into the opening.  He barely fit, but there was a larger shaft just behind the wall.  As Vila scrambled to turn around Avon replaced the grill.  Horrified, Vila met Avon’s eyes briefly, then the other man moved away. 

At that moment three black uniformed troopers rushed around the corner.  Crouching down, Vila could see that Avon was standing slumped as though he were on suppressants.  One of the troopers shouted, “You there, what do you think you were doing?” 

Avon stammered, cringing, “I.. uh..”

The man advanced on Avon.  “Why did you run?”

“You were chasing me, weren’t you?”

“That’s no excuse!”  The trooper hit Avon in the stomach with the butt of his rifle, sending Avon to the floor.

He babbled semi-coherently, “I didn’t do anything!  I swear it.  I just got spooked is all.  I’m innocent, I am.”

His accent and phrasing were spot on for a Delta.  Vila would have given him a high mark for this end of term exam.  It was just that they were now in a Gamma area where they spoke differently.  It wasn’t going to do Avon any good.

The trooper kicked Avon in the back.  “Stupid idiot’s got caught where he shouldn’t be.  Bring him.”

The other two picked Avon up under the arms and dragged him away.  Vila wasn’t sure if he was pretending that he couldn’t walk, or if that was real.  When they disappeared from sight, Vila turned and worked his way farther into the ventilation system.  When he found a space large enough he settled in to wait.  There was no point going outside and risk being taken too.  The Liberator would find him just the same in here.  If only he were sure the Liberator was coming.

Avon’s bag on his lap, Vila pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them.  Miserable that things had gone so wrong, he cursed silently.  An hour later his bracelet chimed.  He shouted, “Bring me up!”

Then Blake was looking down at him with a worried expression.  “Vila, are you all right?  Where’s Avon?”

Vila told him desolately, “They took Avon.  Troopers took Avon away.”

Gan helped Vila to his feet as Blake reassured him with excessive confidence, “It’s all right.  We’ll get him back.  Orac will find out where he is and then we’ll go get him.”

Orac.  That reminded him.  He fished into Avon’s bag and pulled out the data recorder.  “This is it.  This is what it was all for.  He said to give it to Orac.”

Blake took the device gingerly as though it might bite him.  “I’ll make sure Orac gets it.  Come along, Vila, and tell us what happened.”

~~*~~

 

It was several days before Blake and Vila shimmered into existence just inside the doorway of the room.  Avon lay on a platform directly in front of them, barefoot, dressed in what looked like forest green silk pyjamas.  The silk clung and draped, artistically delineating every contour of the man’s body.  The classically featured face, pale and still as in sleep or death, made him look like a sculpted alabaster angel.  The effect was only marred by the piece of machinery looming at Avon’s left shoulder and the tubes that appeared to penetrate his chest just below the collarbone where the pyjama neckline had been pulled open.

Blake moved first, bringing his weapon up defensively and looking around.  “Avon.”  He called.  “Avon!”  Aside from the shallow rise and fall of his chest there was no flicker of movement.

Blake ordered, “Put the bracelet on him.”

“Right!”  Vila jumped forward and closed the device around Avon’s wrist.  From there he could see the tubing better, and was now sure that the machine was connected directly into Avon’s body. 

“Blake, I don’t think we can teleport him like this.  Look.”  He motioned to the strange paraphernalia.

Blake peered at it and frowned.  “Disconnect it.”

Alarmed, Vila protested, “But we can’t just take it out!  We don’t know what it is and he could die!”

“He could also die if we try to teleport with it still in place.  Those are the only two options, because we aren’t leaving him here.  Quickly Vila!”  Blake moved to the door, which slid open, and looked out into the hall.

Grumbling about having to do the hard part, Vila found some gauze pads on a small table behind the machine.  Leaning over Avon’s shoulder, he tried to decide what to do.  There didn’t seem to be anything for it but to grab the tubes and pull.

His stomach rolling, that is what he did.  At first there was resistance so he pulled harder.  Suddenly the tubes slid free with a sucking noise, leaving two holes in Avon’s flesh.  As blood began to pour Vila pressed the gauze pads firmly into the wound.  Again, Avon didn’t even twitch.

“That’s got it.  Let’s go!”

Blake moved to Avon’s side and pressed the button on his bracelet.  “This is Blake.  Teleport now.”

Nothing happened.

The rebel tried again.  “Liberator come in!  We need teleport!”

At that moment the door opened and Servalan stepped regally into the room, wearing the ubiquitous flowing black gown.  Troopers filled the portal behind her and Vila’s heart sank.  This was not entirely unexpected, but not welcome, either.

Servalan ordered, “Take their weapons.”   The guards moved to obey, but didn’t touch the bracelets.  Blake pressed the button again.

The woman smiled.  “You’ll find those quite useless.  You see this room is shielded with the help of an ingenious new technology our scientists have developed.  A  technology which may soon render your precious Orac obsolete, by the way.  You are totally cut off from the Liberator; nothing can reach you here.  However, I expect that one of you will soon agree to give me the ship in exchange for his life.”  She turned her attention to Vila.  “You perhaps?  You don’t want to end up like Avon, do you, Vila?”

Blake barked, “What did you do to him?”

Servalan turned to the guards.  “Leave us.”  Then she moved to the bed side.

Gazing down at Avon’s still face, she put on a falsely sad expression.  “My interrogators were using a new drug to help Avon be a bit more cooperative.  It reduces the transfer of electrical charges between cells, which should frighten and weaken the ability to resist.  It didn’t work as well on Avon as one would hope.  I’m afraid I became rather impatient.”  She smiled at Blake. “It was a special skill of his to provoke, was it not?”  Ignoring the blood-soaked cloth that Vila was holding to Avon’s shoulder, she caressed the unresponsive man’s cheek gently.

Pouting disingenuously she continued, “Even though my people warned against it I ordered the dosage increased.   It reduced the synaptic activity to almost nothing.  They tell me that it’s irreversible at this point.  Avon will never wake up again.  In fact he will continue to weaken and then just… slip away.  Such a pity.” 

She trailed her fingers sensually down the silk covered torso and spoke softly as though to a lover.  “Avon, you won in that I will never be able to make use of your mind.  But then, neither will you.  Was it worth it?  Why did you choose this when you could have saved your own life?  Am I to believe that you valued Blake and the others above yourself?  I hope that it was simply your contrary nature, otherwise I would be deeply disappointed with you.”

The damn woman did blather on.  Stalling for time, Blake seemed happy to let her.

She stood straight and addressed Blake again.  “He did provide one last service, however.  I knew that you would come for him, no matter the risk.  I merely prepared a trap that not even you could escape from and waited.  Sometimes the simple methods are still the best, don’t you think?”

Now Blake responded, “If you’ve killed Avon, then you have indeed lost, because you won’t have the Liberator either.   And I’m not sure which of the two is more valuable.  How do you measure the military power of the Liberator against the potential of Avon’s mind?  You’ve been extremely short sighted, Servalan.”

She smiled sweetly.  “Oh, I think that I shall find the Liberator to be adequate compensation.”

Servalan drew a gun from the folds of her gown and pointed it at Vila.  “Now, then.  Either you agree to arrange for me take the Liberator or I will kill you where you stand.  What will it be, Vila?”

Vila gulped.  “I… er… I don’t really think that I want to help you, Servalan.”

“You will find that you have no choice in the matter.”

A faint beep sounded from Blake’s bracelet and he smiled at their captor.  “But he does.  You lose again, Servalan.”

As the teleport beam took him Vila could see the Supreme Commander’s eye’s widen with shock and anger.   The next thing he knew he was kneeling instead of standing next to Avon, hands on Avon’s shoulder.  He briefly wondered how the teleport knew to do that sort of thing. 

Cally hit the intercom button.  “We have them.  Take us out Jenna.”

“On our way.”

Then Gan was there sliding his arms under Avon’s limp body.  As the tall man stood, Vila followed suit, maintaining pressure on the wound, even though the bleeding seemed to have stopped.  Gan asked, “What’s wrong with him?”

Heart in throat, Vila answered, “I don’t know, Gan.  I think they might have killed him.”

Blake and Cally hurried with them toward the medical unit.  Blake said, “Don’t give up, Vila.  This ship is advanced enough that we may yet save him.  We’ll do everything we can.”

They all staggered as a blast shook the ship.  Blake thumbed the nearest com unit.  “What’s happening, Jenna?”

“Nothing we can’t handle, but I could use some help up here.”

“On my way.”

With a regretful look toward Avon, Blake trotted off down the corridor.

The rest of them hustled Avon into the medical bay.  Gan laid him on a treatment bed and Vila stepped back so that the other two could work.  Cally turned to him and asked gently, “Would you bring Orac down here right away, if he can be spared.”

Avon still hadn’t moved a muscle.  As Vila hurried to the flight deck, he was afraid that all the fancy computers in the world wouldn’t put Avon back together again.

~~*~~

 

After the excitement of Federation pursuit died down, the crew gathered in the medical bay to hear the prognosis.  Without the pyjamas they could see evidence of more conventional torture on their shipmate’s body.  Vila hoped that at least Avon wouldn’t be feeling it.

Cally looked unusually sober, even for her, and Vila feared the worst.

Jenna asked the question on all their minds.  “So how is he?”

Cally frowned. “Not good, I’m afraid.  Orac, would you please tell them?”

“Very well.  The computer Zen and I have analysed scans and organic samples from Kerr Avon.  His condition is much as Servalan described it.  Electrical activity within his body has been dampened.  The drugs used to achieve this effect continue to be drawn from the blood stream into the cells, worsening his condition.  Unchecked, we would expect his heart to cease beating within an hour.”

Blake jumped in, “Unchecked?  Does that mean there is a treatment?”

“IF you would allow me to continue.  Avon’s blood is currently being cleansed of the chemical agent.”  Vila glanced at the tubing once again attached to his familiar adversary, this time through the forearm.  “Once this process is complete we will administer another substance which may, and I repeat, may counteract the dampening effects.  If he does live, there is a possibility that he will have suffered irreparable brain damage.”

Uneasy, Blake asked, “So he could be a vegetable?”

“No, Roj Blake.  Kerr Avon is a mammal.”

Vila explained, “He means that Avon could not be smart anymore.  Not be himself.”

The computer answered impatiently, “Well, who else would he be if not himself?  Please listen.  There is a wide range of possible outcomes.  Avon could recover fully.  He could recover partially and suffer from loss of cognitive faculties or paralysis.  He may die.  We shall just have to wait and see.”

Gan wanted to know, “What are the chances that he will recover fully?”

Orac answered briskly, “Thirty-five point eight percent.”

“And that he will die?”

“Fifty-two point four percent.  If he survives the next two hours the likelihood of recovery increases significantly.”

The mood in the room was sombre.  It seemed strange to Vila that they should all be gathered around Avon discussing his health without him being aware of it.  It just wasn’t the same when the curmudgeon couldn’t snap and complain and yell at them to go away.  He didn’t know if it was too much to hope for to hear that snarl again sometime soon.

~~*~~

 

Avon did survive the initial crisis period, and the crew settled into shifts of sitting with him.  It was Vila’s turn, but Blake had wandered in as well.  They sat silently listening to the whirring of medical equipment. 

The door opened and Jenna entered.  She stopped next to Avon and looked down at him.  After a moment she spoke.  “He looks so peaceful like this.  Vulnerable. Almost human.”  She briefly stroked the fringe on his forehead then withdrew her hand.

It was true.  The tension that so often pinched his face was nonexistent, making Avon look years younger and unnervingly defenceless.

Blake responded, “Oh, Avon is very human.  As much as any of us.  He just doesn’t like to admit it.”

She nodded.  “Have you thought of what to do if, well…  You know he wouldn’t want to live with brain damage.”

Blake sighed.  “I know you’re right but I can’t think about that now.  If a decision has to be made then I’ll be the one to make it, but I’m not going to anticipate the necessity.  At this point no news is good news.  We must believe that he will be fine.”

“I hope so.  When he isn’t there you start to realize what an important part of the crew Avon is.  Like the sea creature from Earth I read about that needs an irritant in order to produce a pearl.”

Blake smiled.  “Our own little irritant of great value.”  Looking a bit more cheerful Blake stood up.  “I’m going to get something to eat.  Vila, do you want anything?”

“No, I’ll be along later.”

The pair left Vila alone with Avon.  It was an interesting analogy.  Avon brought out the best in people and the worst.  The trick was getting past the hard shell.

~~*~~

 

The next day Vila was practicing rolling a small coin over, under and between his fingers when the patient finally stirred.  Avon took a deep breath and opened his eyes.  Vila leaned over him and gazed down into the bleary visage.

“So you’re awake, then.”

Avon responded in a breathy whisper, “Brilliant observation.”

“And it’s about time, too.  You’ve been about as useful as an ice cube in a deep freeze.”

Avon pressed his eyes closed briefly, then peered at Vila.  “What happened?”

“What do you think?  Blake refused to leave you behind and insisted on a daring rescue.  It was a trap, of course, but Orac worked out the trick to that Veet thing and got us out.  Pity you missed it.  Was practically giddy with pleasure at his new toy, Orac was.  Anyway, here you are.”

Avon was too tired to disparage his surroundings.  Vila looked up as the door opened and smiled.  “His majesty has awakened.”

Blake stepped close to Vila and put his arm around his back, clasping the smaller man’s shoulder.  “Yes, I see that he has.”  He smiled down at Avon.  “How are you feeling?”

Avon had trouble getting enough breath to speak.  “Marvellous, …obviously.  I understand that… you performed another… heroic rescue.”

Blake beamed, “Yes, I suppose I did.  Mind you, I wasn’t the only one.  When I said I was going down, Vila here,” he shook Vila’s shoulder vigorously, “insisted on coming along, if you can believe it.  Something about you having saved his life.”

Vila protested, “That wasn’t it!  Avon said he would find out about my sister, is all.  I wasn’t going to let him out of it.  He owes me.”

Avon was too tired to argue.

Blake turned serious and leaned closer to Avon.  “Honestly, are you feeling, um, normal?”

“Shouldn’t I?”

“There has been some doubt.”  He released his grip on Vila and asked, “Would you go call Cally?  She’ll want to know that her patient is awake.”

As Vila moved away Avon admitted drowsily, “Won’t be awake long.”

Blake placed a hand on Avon’s arm, which surprised Avon enough to make it worthwhile to raise his eyebrows slightly.

The large man smiled, “Then you won’t mind if I gloat about having been right.”

A head nodding into slumber was the only response.  Blake looked at Vila expectantly.  “Well, what do you think?”

“He’s going to be fine.  Never had a doubt, myself.  Avon’s too mean to die.  Specially when he hasn’t had a chance to dissect that new computer.  Avon won’t die until he’s bored, and he’s not that.  Not yet.”

Blake affirmed, “Then there’s nothing to worry about.   Things are likely to be interesting for quite some time to come.”

~~*~~

 

Several days later Vila entered the rest room to find Blake, Avon and Orac bent over some printouts.  For an inanimate box Orac looked positively enthusiastic.  Vila sat at the table but didn’t interrupt.  Avon was explaining the Veet to Blake and he hoped to understand a little bit more of it himself.

“No, it isn’t a computer.  It’s more like a programme, though a very advanced one.  I will go back to the beginning.  Since mankind started to work with computers it has dreamed of a way to interface the human brain with the hardware, but has never been able to do so without causing irreparable damage to the human.”

Orac interrupted, “It is my understanding that the computers involved in those experiments were not amused either.  The very idea is disgusting.”

Avon smirked, “You would say that.  You know that you would be forced to admit the ultimate superiority of the human mind.”

The machine harrumphed in umbrage.

Blake asked, “Is that what this is, then?  A human/computer interface?”

“Yes and no.  Veet stands for V.T. or Virtual Thought.  You see, the human brain works in an organic manner whereas a computer is linear.  What this programme does is mimic human thought patterns to move laterally through the computer network, responding to stimulus independently.  It could almost be said to be imaginative.  The Veet process, together with a human operator, can obtain access to almost any data.  Not even Central Command  would be safe, which is why the Federation is trying to keep the project a secret.

“An analogy demonstrating the superiority of this technology over the ordinary computer would be our experiences retrieving the Veet.  Orac could tell us precisely where all the security measures were located, but it took the intuitive skill of a master thief to get through them successfully.”  He nodded to Vila, who proudly sat up straighter.

“Also, the Veet has defensive abilities with near human motivation.  It constructs protective barriers around data or functions, with a creativity that normal programmes can’t match and at a speed that humans can’t approach.  These walls would be virtually impenetrable to anything but perhaps another Veet program.  They learn much like a human, as well.  Orac was able to disrupt the Veet-protected shield and get us off Earth because it distracted the programme and then entered from behind, as it were.  The programme was young and wasn’t expecting that kind of attack.  I don’t imagine that we would catch it off-guard again.”

Blake frowned and chewed on his thumb.  “It sounds like we could be in a lot of trouble.  Can Orac be programmed with this technology?”

The computer buzzed in alarm.

Avon smiled and answered, “No, we aren’t in a lot of trouble, and no I wouldn’t bother to programme Orac this way.”  Smiling more broadly at Blake’s surprise he continued, “This technology is unthinkably dangerous while it is in the hands of the Federation alone, but they are deluding themselves if they think they can keep it to themselves. 

“Consider.  Once every computer operator has a Veet programme, and believe me they will find a way to obtain one, very quickly all the data in every computer or storage unit will be claimed and sequestered by someone.  In other words, no data will be available to anyone.  It is not unreasonable to assume that cooperation between programmers would be lacking, and if they use the Veet to attack the defences of others, then untold amounts of data and processing equipment would be destroyed in the all-out conflict that would ensue.  It could lead to the total collapse of galaxy-wide computer networks.”

Blake stared at him in amazement.  “You don’t seem concerned.”

“No.  If we act now we can immunize the system against Veet access.  While it is dramatically more complicated than this, imagine that the system is filled with poisonous thorns.  Every time a Veet brushes against one it will fizzle and disappear.  It will never have the chance to become established. We happen to have the ideal medium to deliver the vaccine.”  He patted Orac fondly.

Orac returned the compliment, “And perhaps the only computer programmer capable of developing a sufficiently complex vaccine code.”

Blake was still incredulous.  “So you would purposefully render this technology impotent?  I thought you found it very exciting.”

“Oh, but I do!  It is a monumental leap forward in human capability.  However, while I regret its destruction, it is necessary.  In the short term it would threaten all of our safety by first exposing us to Federation interference and then total anarchy.  In the long term, should the computer system survive at all, I believe that it could be the first step toward developing true artificial intelligence.  Humans would eventually lose control of their Veet programmes, and as entities capable of learning and growth, they would begin to act of their own will.  Just like humans some would be benevolent and others maniacal despots.  Servalan is bad enough, I don’t wish to be under the dominion of an all-powerful evil computer programme.  Orac comes quite close to this level of free will, but since it is physically contained and under my control I consider it a manageable threat.”

Orac chimed.  “Yes, you should all be grateful that my interests lie in the accumulation of knowledge rather than universal domination.  I find it quite acceptable to be the only of my kind.”

Vila asked Avon, “So it was worth it, then?  Despite everything you’re glad we went?”

Avon considered the question.  “Yes.  My…discomfort… was a small price to pay to prevent galactic ruin.  Of course, had it turned out differently I might have considered the price too high.”

Vila nodded.  “You were lucky.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it.  I had a capable back up team in place.”

Grinning, Vila asked, “Blake, Orac, did I just hear Avon say, ‘thank you’?”

Blake leaned forward.  “Why Vila, I think you’re right.  I believe he considers himself to be in our debt.”

As Avon scowled Orac added, “I accept your gratitude in the measure that it is due.”

Avon crossed his arms over his chest and glared, but he didn’t deny it.  Vila thought this was an occasion to mark on the calendar, perhaps celebrate every year.  Annual Avon-says-thank-you Day.

~~*~~

 

When Vila came to relieve Cally on watch, Avon was sitting on the couch at the front of the flight deck staring at the blank view screen.  Catching Cally’s eye, he tilted his head toward the silent man and lifted his eyebrows in inquiry.  Cally mouthed in response, “Brooding.”

When the Auron had gone, Vila looked over the monitors and checked the control settings.  Normal and on course, as he expected.  Then he strolled down to the lounging area, sat on a different section of couch, and leaned his head back as though resting. 

After several minutes of silence, Avon said, “He was there.  At the interrogation.”

Vila thought he knew what the other man was talking about, but confirmed, “Your brother?”

“Yes.  Servalan was there too.  She wanted to know what I was doing on Earth and how they could trap the rest of you and capture the Liberator.  At first she had him try to convince me to cooperate.  When that didn’t work she threatened him with death.  I didn’t know if she was bluffing or not, but I refused to tell her anything.  I don’t know if they killed him.”

“I shouldn’t think so.  If they had it would probably have been in front of you.  Once you nodded off there wouldn’t have been any point, and Servalan isn’t one to waste something she might make use of later.”

Vila wasn’t sure what to ask Avon about his brother.  “How did he look?”

“He appeared well.  Older, but then aren’t we all?  He seemed a bit overwhelmed by everything.  Servalan does inspire awe, especially when she’s holding a blaster to your temple.”

Vila agreed,  “A bit disconcerting, that is.”

Avon glanced at him uncertainly, then continued.  “I wasn’t at my best, but it did seem to me that he was slightly shocked by what they were doing to me.”

“He’s a lucky man if he’s never seen anyone tortured before.”

“I had thought he might enjoy seeing me hurt, but I would say that he didn’t.  Quite the opposite.”

This was an important point and Vila was glad to hear it.  “You said that we care about family whether we want to or not.  That probably applies to him, too, you know.  Despite everything you are his big brother.”

Avon was listening intently while trying to appear indifferent, and Vila thought that he wanted to believe. 

He went on, “He was probably impressed, too.  Here you are third most wanted man in the universe being questioned personally by a Supreme Commander with designs on your body.  Not bad, that.”

Avon looked at him sardonically.  “Vila, your family might be impressed by your criminal status, but Kiman is a professor of cyber philosophy at Themes University.  The most wanted list is not on the syllabus.”

“Exactly!  I tell you, it’s the ones that lead quiet lives that think crime and rebellion are the most glamorous.  The torture might have put him off, though.  He’s probably worried sick about you.  Can you let him know that you’re all right?”

Avon shook his head.  “I don’t dare.  They will no doubt be monitoring him.  Also, he may be used against me again at some point in the future.  I can’t afford to let wishful sentimentality sway me.”

That sounded almost as though Avon were admitting to having feelings.

Avon sighed, “Besides, as I was reviewing material on the Veet I discovered that Kiman Avon was among its designers.  So you see, even now by destroying his creation I have prevailed over him.  I do not think that he will forgive me for that.”

Vila suggested, “When this is all over, when the Federation is destroyed and we’re free to do what we want, maybe you can look him up and find out.”

“Perhaps.”  That was the only concession Avon was willing to make.

After several moments of silence the comp tech turned to Vila.  “I haven’t forgotten my promise.  I will look into what happened to your sister.  I don’t believe you should get your hopes up, however.”

Yes, there was definitely concern in those brown eyes.  Vila reassured him, “I’m not.  I’m going to assume that Gil is dead.  If it turns out she’s alive, then that’ll be good.  Or maybe bad.  They could have programmed her or hurt her.  They could try to use her against me like they did with your brother.  Depending on what you find out, we might have to prepare for that.  I don’t know what I’d do if Servalan had a gun to her head.”

Avon looked at him with some surprise.  “I see you grasp the possibilities.”  He took hold of the cane that he was still using and hauled himself to his feet.  “Don’t fall asleep on duty,” he ordered.

Vila watched him hobble stiffly up the stairs and into the hallway.  He was glad that Avon had talked to him about his brother.  It wasn’t healthy to hold everything inside, not even for a heartless Alpha. 

The crew of the Liberator was a strange group.  They probably wouldn’t have given each other the time of day under different circumstances, and even now they maintained their distance.  Every once in a while, though, they found some common ground on which to meet and then a small feeling of home would flicker through Vila.  It wasn’t much, but it would have to be enough.

Returning to his station, Vila checked the monitors again.  While the others slept or ate or worked, Vila held their lives in his hands.  Today, at least, his family would be safe.


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