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From the Very Beginning

By Marian Mendez

"Drop it!" Gan shouted. He was talking to the London's officers, but for an instant Vila was confused. He came close to obeying the command himself, catching his error barely in time.

Vila lifted his weapon with a boldness he didn't feel. "Do it," he added. "We've got you outnumbered."

The officers reluctantly surrendered.

As mutinies go, Blake's revolt aboard the London was routine. Once Blake's cadre seized the armory, the remaining prisoners joined them in rounding up the opposition. Blake attempted to be civilized about it, but Raiker had been cruel and the prisoners repaid him with interest. After Blake ordered the crew confined Raiker was taken out and killed.

Jenna stumbled over the body in the corridor. She was bothered by the event, not out of any love for the dead sadist, but for practical reasons. The crew had disobeyed the first order given by Blake.

She warned him, "Blake, this gang of cut-throats will kill us too, on the slightest provocation. I vote we get off this flying junk-heap at the nearest port. Let them keep it and welcome to it."

"I need them, Jenna. I can't fight the Federation bare-handed on a frontier planet. I must have men, men who hate the Federation, to join me in my fight. You'll see," he smiled, attempting to jolly her out of her pessimism, "once the suppressants wear off, they'll get back to normal."

"That's what I'm afraid of," she muttered to the broad back as he returned to his planning. "Normal psychopaths." Jenna turned and almost bumped into Avon. "Well, speak of the devil..." She regretted the words the instant they escaped her mouth.

Avon whirled on his heel. "Yes. Well, I'll just leave you to your own company, shall I?"

"No, Avon, wait." She laid a hand on the computer expert's sleeve. "I'm sorry. Blake's being pig-headed and I took it out on you. Did you want to talk about something?"

Accepting the apology, Avon turned back to her. "The same thing, really. Blake wants to investigate the derelict ship personally. I tried to tell him that this charming group can't be trusted without him to watch over them. Naturally, he knows better."

"I'll convince him if I have to get Gan to sit on him," Jenna said grimly.

Avon surprised her with a smile that transformed his dour features. "That might do the trick."

"All right," Blake grumbled, bowing to the combined arguments of Jenna and Avon. "But if I don't go, who's to lead the boarding party?" He gestured around the living quarters. Many of the prisoners were still in a drugged stupor, barely noticing the conference in their midst. "One of them?"

Avon observed the other prisoners, then looked at Gan, Vila and Jenna. "As the only Alpha male besides yourself, it would appear that the position devolves onto me."

"Why does it have to be an Alpha male?" Jenna asked, bristling at his implied dismissal.

He twitched his lips, almost making a smile. "You, I exclude for the same reason as Blake. You are necessary to our survival. You are the only pilot we have. Unless you would care to recruit one of Commander Leyland's men?"

"Sorry I asked," Jenna said.

"Yes, all right then, Avon will lead the party." Blake rubbed the back of his neck. "I'd like you to have two men as back-up. We don't know that the ship is uninhabited."

"I'll take Gan and Vila, then." Avon looked sour. "They're not much, but the best available."

"Not me," Vila protested. "I've done my bit. You aren't going to drag me onto an alien ship to be eaten by hairy monsters."

"By what perversion of logic do you arrive at the conclusion that there are `hairy monsters' on that ship?" Avon asked.

"Because there would be if I was there for them to eat. So I'm not going to be there." Vila crossed his arms and shook his head.

"Vila..." Blake growled.

"Oh, who needs him, Blake. I doubt if whatever is on that ship has any pockets that need picking. I'll take Arco instead. He's reasonably alert. He's certain to be more useful than this coward." Avon sneered at the Delta thief.

Vila flinched at the assessment, but didn't change his mind.

Blake met the boarding party at the transfer tube. "Have you got everything?

"Yes." Avon clipped a gunbelt onto his survival suit and held up the accompanying weapon, sighting along the barrel before he holstered it. "Are you ready, Gan, Arco?"

His companions nodded. They were as nervous as he was and showed it more.

"Keep your communications open. If you need help, yell." Blake operated the lock controls.

Avon sent a running commentary back to the London. Vila listened from his hiding place in the shadows not far from where Blake and Jenna stood. They were suited and armed, ready for a quick rescue if necessary.

"We've got the lock open, Blake. Simple enough. Why, Vila could have done it." Avon's snide remark carried clearly to Vila.

Vila crept further back into the niche.

"It appears to be an airlock...It's turning, Blake!"

"Avon! Is there a problem?" Blake shouted into the intercom link.

"No, no, it's all right. Some sort of lift, I believe. We're on what must be the flight deck. It's remarkable, Blake, highly advanced...what's that?" Avon sounded distracted.

"Avon?" Blake was worried when the technician didn't immediately reply. "Avon, answer me."

"What, didn't you hear him, Blake? He needs me, I must go to him..."

Screams erupted from the speaker, then silence. Blake lunged for the lock controls, only to find Jenna blocking him.

"Wait, Blake," she said.

"No," Blake pushed her aside. "I'm going in."

"I meant, wait for me." Jenna drew her weapon.

"I'm coming, too." Vila's voice wavered. He stepped out of the shadows and displayed the gun he'd kept as protection from his fellow convicts.

"Feeling guilty, Vila?" Jenna asked.

"Don't start on me." Vila took his place behind Blake as the lock opened. "Isn't it enough that I'm going to be eaten?"

They found the flight deck without difficulty. Gan and Arco were there, lying motionless on the deck. Avon was on his feet. He turned toward them, wild-eyed, and screamed incoherently as he attacked Blake.

Blake knocked him out, catching his body as it sagged. He deposited Avon on an upholstered U- shaped couch, then looked at the rest of the room with mingled suspicion and awe.

"What happened to them?" Jenna asked. She held her gun at the ready and pivoted, seeking an enemy.

"Something killed Gan and Arco, that's what happened to them." Vila knelt beside the bodies to confirm his diagnosis. "And it drove poor Avon mad as a hatter."

"Yes, but there's no one here." Jenna paused. "No, that's strange, I hear someone." As if pulled on a string, Jenna walked toward the front of the room.

A globe formed, floating with no visible means of support, flickering eerily.

"Yes," Jenna said, "I hear you. I'm coming."

Vila scrambled to his feet, staring at the globe. "Mum, is that you?" He followed Jenna, entranced.

"No." Blake heard voices and saw images, too, but they did not convince him. "You're dead," he said. "Those tapes are forgeries. No." He saw Jenna and Vila nearing the globe. "No, get back." He shoved the two of them clear and then fired at the globe, destroying it and its influence.

Jenna shook her head. "What was that?"

Blake replied, "I don't know."

Vila was still shaken. "I was me old mum, it was. And she was in trouble. I had to help her."

Jenna said, "That's similar to what I saw. Why didn't it affect you, Blake?"

"It did. But it seems I can recognize dreams."

Despite Vila's and Jenna's advice, Blake took the convicts from the London aboard the new ship, which Jenna had christened Liberator, before he dashed her hopes that the vessel would be a refuge from the London's dangerous cargo.

"Yes, Blake," Jenna said wearily, "Liberator is capable of supporting all of us. It isn't a question of air and supplies."

"I know, Jenna. You feel that the men aren't to be trusted." Blake gazed at her in his let-me-handle-it-I-know-best, fashion, which always set her teeth on edge. "The Federation never gave them a chance. Underneath it all, they're good men. You'll see."

"You just want an army to pursue your private vendetta, Blake. Give it up. Look what it's already cost Nova and Gan and Arco and Avon."

As usual, Blake only heard what he wanted to hear. "Yes." He frowned. "We'll have to do something about Avon. We can't keep him sedated and tied down in the medical unit forever."

"I didn't care much for your solution, Blake," Vila piped up, from the seat behind Jenna's. He stayed close to her, partly to atone for his guilt by protecting her from the increasingly rough advances of the crew, and partly because she was the only one he trusted to watch his back. Without suppressants, the ex-prisoners were returning to their normal personalities, which Jenna had pegged from the start. Blake turned a blind eye to the mayhem, labeling it horseplay, the natural release of pent up frustration. Vila called the beatings and knifings attempted murder. He locked Avon into the medical unit when he and Jenna weren't there to guard him, knowing that the crimos would enjoy torturing a helpless man. Blake wouldn't stop them, judging by the way he'd attempted to `take care' of Avon, right after they acquired LIberator.

"Why? What was Blake's solution?" Jenna was pleased that Blake had even thought about Avon. Sometimes it seemed that he couldn't see anything but his rebellion. Concern for Avon seemed a good sign. At least, it meant his obsession wasn't total.

"He wanted to leave him on the London. Let the Federation take the problem off his hands." Vila looked at Blake sullenly.

"It would have been best," Blake said. "We haven't the facilities he needs."

"I can't believe you would have done that, Blake. You know they don't give a damn what happens to us. The best they would have done was dump him on Cygnus Alpha. More likely, they would have put him out the airlock the instant we left."

"All right, you decide what to do with him, then. I'll abide by your decision." Blake smiled; making magnanimous gestures pleased him. "You and Vila have been taking care of him, so it's your right." He strode off the flight deck, satisfied with his generosity.

"I used to think that Blake was an idealist, and really cared about people," Jenna remarked to Vila once Blake was safely out of earshot.

"He is, and he does," Vila said. "In the abstract. Show him a real, live human being and all he can think is how to use him for the `Cause'." Vila sidled closer to Jenna and lowered his voice to a conspirator's whisper. "I'm jumping ship at the first half-way decent planet and I'm taking Avon with me. Poor bugger can't be any worse off. Do you mind?"

"Not if don't mind me coming with you." Jenna stared down the corridor Blake had taken. "I don't intend to be `useful'."

"We'll have to be sneaky, you know, Jenna," Vila cautioned. "Blake won't care about Avon and me, but you're the only pilot he's got."

"Not any more. I've been training one of Blake's pet crimos how to fly Liberator. Jack should do well enough, he's certainly got fast enough reflexes when it comes to getting in a pinch." She rubbed her backside. "I put up with it because I didn't want to strand Blake without a pilot. This way, I can tell myself, I gave him a chance."

"He won't accept Jack in your place, Jenna. You can fly rings around that baboon."

"I hadn't intended giving Blake a choice. Now, Vila, where had you in mind to take Avon?"

"Freedom City seems an odd choice for a mentally ill person, Vila. Or do you think Avon just needs a night out on the town?" Blake joked, trying to defuse Vila's grim mood.

"Freedom City isn't the only place on the planet, Blake." Vila strapped on a Liberator handgun. "They're neutral. The Federation won't bother Avon there. They have facilities where Avon can be properly cared for, I'm sure." He turned his back on the big rebel and began fussing over Avon. The computer expert had been given a lighter dose of tranquilizers than usual to enable him to walk under his own power to the teleport room and it left him trembling and fearful. Vila soothed him, combed his dark hair neatly and zipped up the thick jacket he'd put on Avon. The man's hands always felt cold to Vila, no matter how warmly he was dressed. Vila hated the cold himself and sympathized with Avon, who wasn't even able to complain about it.

"I'll go with you, Vila." Jenna appeared in the entrance to the teleport room. "You'll need help with him."

"I can send one of the others, Jenna. You needn't go," Blake said, reluctant to allow the pilot off the ship.

"You must be joking." Jenna clipped on a teleport bracelet, then went to help Vila with Avon. "I wouldn't trust one of those scummy crimos to walk my dog. Or are you saying that I'm a prisoner on your ship, and I can't leave it for an instant?"

"No, of course not, Jenna." Blake bit his lower lip. "But you know how I depend on you." He let his voice drop into its most seductive rumble on the last word.

Jenna's heart leaped for a instant, then she hardened herself. //Bastard. Put on a good show and think you can win me over. I will not be used. Especially not by a man who only gives a damn about me when he needs some fancy piloting.// She smiled in return and softened her voice. "I know, Blake. I just want some time to myself. Vila and I need to know that Avon will be in good hands. We have to do this personally. You do understand?"

"Yes, of course." Blake beamed. "We do owe him, after all."

Vila kept his mouth shut as he and Jenna gently guided Avon into position. The last the thief saw of the Liberator was Blake's worried face.

"Doesn't look like much, Vila," Jenna commented after she had called in to let Blake know that they had arrived safely. They were still uneasy about the teleport; Blake's first test had sent out a crewman who never came back. He swore he understood the system now, but Jenna and Vila were understandably dubious.

"Wouldn't be too clever to set down in the casino, would it? People might talk." Vila kept his voice calm. Avon had a disconcerting habit of screaming in terror when people argued. "Dark alleys are safer than some spaceships."

"True." Jenna unsnapped her bracelet. "Let's get on with it, then."

Vila removed his bracelet and Avon's, dropping the teleport devices to the ground at Jenna's feet.

Jenna activated the communicator on her bracelet, holding it open before her. "Blake," she said, flatly.

"Yes, Jenna, is something wrong?" Blake sounded as if he knew what was wrong and hoped to have it denied.

"Nothing's wrong here, Blake. Avon and Vila and I are safe. You're the one in danger. I advise you to watch your back. Oh, and tell Jack to use a lighter touch on the turns."

"Jenna. You aren't coming back, are you?" Blake was quiet. For once, he wasn't trying to jolly her out of her bad-temper.

"Bloody genius, the man is," Vila muttered.

Jenna shushed him, then told Blake in the same quiet tone, "No, we're not, Blake. And you know why. I'm sorry. We wish you luck on your crusade, but it isn't ours and it never was. We're plain ordinary criminals, Blake..."

"Speak for yourself," Vila said.

"...And we just want a chance to live. That didn't seem too likely on the Liberator. Don't come after us, Blake or send any of your goons. We've no intention of going back, ever. Goodbye, Blake." She dropped the band atop the other two and used her blaster on the heap, smelting them into an unrecognizable lump. "That's that," she told Vila, ignoring the sting of unshed tears. "Let's get Avon attended to."

"Your brother will receive the finest care here at the Freedom City Hospital for Nervous Disorders." The man reassuring Vila was white-haired, ruddy-faced and pleasant, polite to a fault. In Vila's opinion the most important point in the man's favor was that Avon seemed to like him, clinging to the man's hand and watching him with wide-wondering eyes.

Avon's eyes reminded Vila of a puppy he'd seen in a rich man's house one evening. He'd been tempted to leave the silver and take the dog instead, but then, as now, he couldn't take the responsibility of caring for it. What if he was caught? So he and Jenna were committing Avon to this nice, clean, well-run institution. Vila still hated the idea.

"For our records, Mr. Acre, I'll need your full name and your brother's."

Vila drew the multiply-lined paper to himself. "Patient- Daven Acre. Next of Kin- Will Acre. Relationship to Patient- Brother." It didn't take long for Vila to fill in what blanks he could. "Doctor, we've just moved here, as I told you. I'll have to fill out the rest after I get settled."

"Certainly." The doctor didn't mind. "Many of our clientele prefer anonymity. As long as the patient's financial records are in order..."

Vila smiled. Before Blake's crimos had sobered up enough to search the Liberator for loot, Vila had found the `treasure room'. He removed what he considered to be three fair shares, one for himself, one for Avon and one for Jenna. Freedom City was an excellent place to turn gems into credits; less than the usual cumshaw went to the authorities, because there wasn't any legitimate government to demand their cut. Avon's share would have been enough to buy him a mansion on Earth, complete with dancing girls dressed in red fur costumes. It should cover his bed and care in a hospital for a while.

"Thank you, doctor. Well, Jaine, I think we have to be going now." Vila leaned over Avon and gently turned the man's head, holding him until his eyes focussed on Vila. "Jaine and I have to leave, Daven, but don't worry, I'll be back every week to visit. I promise." He wasn't sure he'd gotten through, but when he released Avon, the dark eyes continued to watch him.

Jenna knelt and gave Avon a tender kiss on the cheek. "I'll miss you, Daven. You'll be in my prayers." She sighed and stood. "I wish I could say I'll be back, Will, but you know how it is. I've signed on a tramp freighter. Who knows when I'll be in port again?" She kissed Vila goodbye, then walked out of the hospital, head high and back straight. She'd wait until she was alone to cry.

"Remarkable woman," the doctor commented.

"She is that." Vila grinned. While investigating a suitable place for Avon and settling into their environment (checking out ships and rich spots to rob, that sort of thing) Vila and Jenna had become close. He'd miss the blonde, but that was life for a thief, love `em and leave `em.

******

"Now, Daven, that wasn't very nice," Vila scolded mildly. Avon had overturned the bowl of cereal that the Delta had been coaxing him to eat. Secretly, Vila was delighted at the show of temper. In the three months Avon had been in the hospital this was the first time he'd rebelled against authority. The scowl on Avon's face made Vila grin fondly. It reminded him of the old Avon, on the London.

Vila wiped up the mess without calling for an orderly. He'd faithfully visited Avon each week. At first, he'd only come because he felt a lingering guilt that he hadn't gone with Avon to board Liberator, but gradually he'd become fascinated by observing the process of healing Avon was undergoing.

Most of it was natural. The alien attack had done him no physical damage. The doctors assessed his condition as retreat from unbearable shock, a defense mechanism that would fade given time and a supportive environment. Vila thought of Gan and Arco when the doctors explained this to him. //Always thought Avon was a survivor. No matter what it took.// Avon was supposed to make a full recovery, with no memory loss or impaired faculties. Vila doubted at first, but Avon had been making steady, if slow, progress.

Each week, Avon rewarded Vila for his patience with his childish delight at the sight of the thief. Vila liked children and Avon responded well to him. The visits were too short for both of them, but Vila had a dishonest living to make- for both of them. Avon's care was more expensive than the thief had figured. The Liberator's gems were not going to last long enough to finish Avon's recovery.

"Now, Daven, why did you do that?" Vila asked reasonably.

"Didn't want it," Avon answered. "Tastes yucky."

Vila looked at the sticky honeyed mess and shuddered. "You liked it last week." Avon had a finicky appetite, the despair of Vila and the staff, until they'd discovered he'd eat almost anything if it was sweet enough. It didn't seem to make him fat, which Vila rather resented, not having as fortunate a metabolism.

"Didn't taste yucky last week." Avon replied, as serious as a judge. The effect was spoiled by the sticky cereal smeared along his face.

Vila laughed. If Avon's taste buds were growing up, then maybe the rest of him would soon follow suit. Avon had begun to pay attention to the prettier female nurses. Of course at his mental age that consisted of little more than shy smiles and offers to share his toys. It was a start, though.

"Hello. I know you, don't I?" Avon's soft voice roused Vila from a pleasant reverie. He had been imagining himself partnered with Avon once the man was himself again. The combination of computer expertise and his own handiness with physical locks should be amazingly profitable. Also, after seeing Avon as a child, Vila knew he wasn't really the cold-hearted bastard that Blake had discounted.

"Yes, you know me."

Vila smiled. "Jenna - I mean, Jaine, it's good to see you again. Are you staying long?"

"I'm afraid not. I left my ship short-handed to come here, Will. I had something to tell you." She sounded so glum that Avon began to whimper.

Recognizing the signs of an imminent cloudburst, Vila said, "Let's go out into the garden where we can have a nice, private chat."

"Me, too," Avon insisted, distracted from his tears by the proposed outing.

Vila shrugged. "Why not. It'll be all right, Jaine, he likes to watch the birds and bugs and stuff, he won't pay any attention to us."

Avon loved it when Vila took him out to the garden. The hospital had created a serene setting, pruned bushes and well-kept lawns where the patients strolled in safety. Avon didn't stroll. He tracked insects to their nests and climbed trees after birds. Keeping up with him was impossible, but Vila soon noticed that Avon never went beyond sight of Vila. The Alpha often stopped to reassure himself with a glance that Vila was still there.

Vila had a favorite bench that he used as Avon's homebase. Jenna and he sat there and talked of inconsequential things until Avon relaxed and began his explorations.

"He's looking much better," Jenna commented. "For that matter, you seem happier, too, Vila."

"I am," he confessed. " `s funny, Jenna, but I think it was lucky for Avon and me, what happened to him. The docs say he had a bad time as a kid the first time round and it filled him with complexes and neuroses's. We'd all noticed he wasn't a happy person. Well, they said that he would have suffered a breakdown if he was under any kind of long term stress. Revolution's not exactly a rest cure, you know, and Blake didn't strike me as the type to lay back and take it easy...What's wrong? What did I say?"

"You were right about Blake and the Liberator, Vila. I know we hadn't any real choice, but I still regret deserting him that way."

Vila slipped a comforting arm around Jenna's shoulders. "You didn't desert him. He wouldn't listen to us. We wouldn't ever have been able to influence him. He wanted blindly obedient followers. We couldn't give him that, neither of us. Even if it hadn't been for Avon, we'd have had to leave Blake."

"I suppose so, but I can't help thinking that if I'd been there..." She shook her head.

"Been where? What did you come here to tell me?" Vila knew bad news when he read it on a friend's face. "It's Blake, isn't it?"

"Yes, and Liberator, too." Jenna's eyes were suspiciously bright. "I only just found out, but it happened a few weeks after we left him. Blake's crew heard that the Federation had put a million credit bounty on him. You remember how they wanted to use the LIberator for piracy and he wouldn't allow it?" Vila nodded. "Well they must have decided he was in the way. They killed him and turned his body in for the reward. Then they turned Liberator into a murdering pirate. The Federation might have ignored them if they had possessed the rudimentary good sense to stick to neutrals and independents, but the Federation had the fattest prizes and that's mostly what they preyed on. It didn't take long for someone in Space Command to dispatch a fleet of pursuit ships. I'm only glad that they destroyed Liberator instead of capturing her. She was a sweet ship and deserved a better crew."

"I'm sorry, Jenna," Vila said softly. "I know how you felt about Blake."

Jenna wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and tried to compose herself. "Yes, well, that's more than he ever did. He never noticed me, I'm sure."

"Blake was stupid."

Startled, Jenna and Vila looked up. Avon had abandoned his hunt and returned to listen to their conversation. He understood very little of it, but enough to know that Jenna needed cheering up. He was a compassionate child, and it distressed him to see others unhappy. He had tried to say something that would show her he sympathized. Now he added, "You're very pretty." He offered her a flower.

Jenna took it and smiled, tousling Avon's hair affectionately. She was rewarded with another of his bright smiles, open and loving.

"Yes, Blake was stupid." Jenna put the flower in her hair.

Vila said, "It's a shame, though. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I'd gone with Avon in Arco's place. Could I have changed anything by being there?"

"Now, don't start blaming yourself, after the trouble you went to to keep me from falling into that trap," Jenna chided him.

"No, I'm not doing that. It's just curiosity, you know me." Vila sighed and leaned against Jenna. "Silly, really. I'm just a Delta thief. What difference could any action of mine make in the grand scheme of things?"


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