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An Oath of Fealty

By Jean Graham
When the storm broke, Vila would rather have been anywhere else but the flight deck. It was, however, his watch, and that left him no convenient place to run.

For two days, the 'charge' had been building, ever since XK-72 had gone up in a fireball from that stray plasma bolt. Ever since Avon had tried to opt out. Though Blake had claimed to make no effort to influence the decision, it was plain enough he was displeased with the result. The two of them had barely spoken since the smoke of XK-72's remains had cleared from the screen.

Vila could only guess that Blake had waited this long out of deference to Gan, still recovering in his cabin from his limiter surgery.

Or maybe that wasn't it at all. Maybe they'd both just been waiting for the first spark to fly.

Hardly surprising, then, that Avon should be the one to launch it.

"More crumbs thrown to the rabble," he'd said, or some words to that effect. Vila had been dozing when the two of them came on deck, and Zen had announced Liberator's arrival at Blake's preset coordinates -- the rebel stronghold on Kearnea.

Blake pivoted, a movement so sharp and furious it seemed to take even Avon aback, if only for a moment. Vila watched Blake apply visible constraint to his reply. "They've asked for our help," he said, each word coming out a sentinel unto itself. "I agreed to give it."

"How terribly democratic of you." Blake's choice of pronoun had been hard to miss, a fact Avon wasted no time pointing out.

"The others have agreed as well," Blake asserted, and that was news to Vila, who hadn't been asked at all. "Their loyalty has never been in question. Yours, on the other hand..."

The background throb of Liberator's drives had suddenly grown ominous, the heartbeat-measured countdown to a neutron reaction.

Avon waited the space of a full breath before hurling the return barb. He finished Blake's sentence. "...has never been anything else. Your 'followers' see to that as well." He fixed the other man with a murderous look that would have sent Vila scrambling for cover. Blake never flinched. "Well I'm afraid you can forget about homage from this particular quarter," Avon went on coldly. "I am hardly inclined--"

"Yes, so you've said," Blake cut him off, short and vehement. "And so you've also demonstrated, more than once."

Well, there it was. The taboo subject of Avon's convictions dragged into the open at last. Vila swallowed and slid a little further down in his flight chair. Better to be out of the line of fire, he reasoned, though neither of the challenging titans seemed aware of his presence anyway.

Blake faced his adversary across the bulk of the weaponry console, a placement Vila saw as anything but accidental.

"I need a crew I can rely on. That includes you, Avon." The warning in the computer tech's dark eyes failed to slow Blake an iota. "Damn it, I'll have you with me or I'll not have you at all. Is that phrased clearly enough to suit you?!"

Jenna had come onto the flight deck in the midst of Blake's speech; Vila gave her his best "stay out of it" look, gratified when she nodded once in agreement and slipped quietly into her flight position.

Avon had turned, paced away, turned sharply back again. "Save the politico-manipulation for your fawning sycophants," he said, and his words were all the more menacing for the tranquil contrast they posed against Blake's unsheathed anger. "I make my own decisions."

"I'm delighted to hear it." Blake's broad hands went to either side of the upright console. "Because a decision is precisely what I want from you, right here and right now. Once and for all, I will know where your loyalties lie."

These earnest histrionics earned nothing more than the flat indifference of Avon's eyes.

"In exactly the same place they have always lain," was the nonplussed response.

Vila knew well enough what that meant. Avon trusted Avon, and that was the end of it. If Blake expected any more than that, well, perhaps he really was the fool Avon had always claimed him to be.

"I want your word." Plain and simple, that. Leave it to Blake to lay it on the line.

"Ah, yes. Fealty above all." That was Avon's sarcastic circuit kicking in. "A pledge of troth to the beloved liege lord?"

Vila didn't understand any of that, though he caught the smirk that crossed Jenna's face. Darned Alphas read too many antique books.

"If you like," Blake deadpanned his reply, no trace of humor in it. "One way or the other, though, I'll have it. I can't afford less."

"Oh, I agree." All sarcasm gone, Avon's lethal tone had returned in force. "But then, there will come a time when you will not be in control."

The tacit threat struck its intended mark: Vila could see it reflected in Blake's iron-edged gaze. It had a hint of both sadness and resolution in it -- the rest was anger; anger and sheer thick-headed Alpha obstinance. He'd seen a vid-film once, of two long-extinct creatures called bull rams...

"Don't push your luck, Avon."

Now where had Blake picked up that bit of Delta bluster?

"Oh, I shan't..."

The opponents stared one another down until the bleating of a communications beacon forced Blake to look away. A series of long and short tones echoed over Liberator's comm speakers, repeating in sequence twice before the transmission cut off.

"That will be Arman's signal."

Walking deliberately away from the statue that was Avon, Blake acknowledged Jenna's presence with a nod. "Tell them we've received, and that we will meet them as arranged in forty minutes' time. Avon, Vila..."

"Eh?" Vila started, aware of Avon's terrible visage stalking toward him -- toward Blake.

"I do not recall making any 'arrangements,'" the precise Alpha tones announced.

Blake ignored him. "Both of you get kitted up and meet me in the teleport bay in half an hour." With a glare that defied either of them to argue, he turned and marched off the flight deck, leaving a prolonged silence in his wake.

Jenna finally took a breath; Vila let go of one and looked up at Avon entreatingly. "Do you have to provoke him like that? Didn' your little term as a guest of the Federation penal system teach you anything at all about catipal... capitch... getting along with people?"

That got him a chilled stare that unmistakably translated to 'mind your own business, Vila.' Well, he was minding it, hang them all, and they never failed all the same to drag him straight into the middle, sooner or later. Get your gear, Vila; open this lock, Vila; give us a hand here, Vila. But of course, when it came to the decision-making and he offered an opinion, it was always, Shut up, Vila. Liberator might well be free of the Federation's drugs and mind control, but the castes were as firmly entrenched here as ever they'd been at home.

"It wouldn't kill you to cooperate, you know," Jenna was saying, and Vila saw an opportunity to leap on the admonition with one of his own.

"You don't even have to mean it, just so long as Blake's happy. 'S'easy. All you have to say is 'Yes Blake, certainly Blake, anything you say Blake.' Is that so difficult?"

Avon's appraising look made Vila feel like a cheap street-sale purchase on a slow day. "Obviously not," came the scathing reply. "...for you."

Jenna made no effort to hide her smile as the computer tech stalked away, and Vila sneered at her. "Go ahead, laugh," he said before Avon was completely out of earshot down the passageway. "It isn't you they're dragging off to get caught in the crossfire, is it?"

The pilot's laugh was short and acerbic. "No one will ever catch you in the middle," she said. "You'd be far too busy on the sidelines -- taking bets, probably."

Vila put the lie to her words by glowering at her. But he couldn't shake a sense of dread that when the final showdown did come, he wouldn't have the first idea which side to put his money on.

*      *      *

Gan and Cally were both in the teleport room with Blake: Vila could hear their voices over the rattle of his toolkit as he hurried down the corridor. Avon wasn't there yet. More than a little odd; Vila was usually the last one to arrive.

"...of such anger is no help to you," he heard Cally say as he came in. "Nor to Avon."

Blake spared Vila a brief glance before turning back to draw his teleport bracelet from the rack. "He still has a decision to make. And I still need to know which it's to be." The bracelet snapped resoundingly into place: in the same moment, the object of Blake's ire, armed and clad entirely in black, appeared in the entryway. Neither spoke. Vila snatched his own bracelet and promptly shuttled himself out of the way to give Avon free access to the rack. Blake moved aside as well, to take his position beside Vila in the bay.

"You keep an eye on the two of them, Vila," Gan said from behind the console. If he'd meant it as a joke, no one would have known it from the sincerity of his tone. "Keep your head down."

"You three do the same," Blake cautioned while Avon moved wordlessly into place on the other side of Vila. "We'll call in on the hour. And Gan..."

"Yes?"

"Stay off the watch rota. Jenna and Cally can handle things until we're back aboard. Understood?"

Gan's shy grin crept slowly into play. "I'll be all right," he said.

Cally nodded. "Just see that you three are."

Vila didn't miss the look she gave Avon, to which he responded (an accident of timing?) by drawing his gun. Maybe it meant nothing. Avon almost always drew his gun before a teleport landing...

"Put us down," Blake ordered, and the white field of the teleport took them.

*      *      *

Strategic negotiations bored Vila. Kearnea proved no exception to the rule. It was a soggy planet without much to recommend it as a vacation spot -- just the sort of place where a rebel stronghold would set itself up. Now this Arman fellow had ushered Blake off to some resistance-planning enclave; Avon was already ensconced in the computer center programming a perimeter security system for the rebel complex, and Vila was left, as Vila often was, to twiddle his thumbs in the B-level common room until someone -- anyone -- remembered that he existed. He'd spent most of the time wondering what he was doing down here in the first place. Blake hadn't needed any locks opened, the complex had no pubs or bars, and there was absolutely nothing to do.

Not that it was such a bad set-up they had here. Large base, out-of-the-way (if somewhat soggy) planet, high-grade technology and computer systems. Even Avon seemed impressed by it -- and it took a lot to impress Avon. Maybe as an added favor, when he'd done with redesigning Arman's security system, Avon could also show him how to program his common room food and drinks dispensers not to surrender all their wares free-of-charge to indelibly bored thieves.

"Vila..."

Three drink cups toppled noisily off the table. Vila barely saved a fourth from going over as Blake came charging on into the room.

"I wish you wouldn't do that..."

"Do what?" An oblivious Blake gave the room a rapid scan, hands planted on the rim of his broad belt. "Where's Avon?"

"I'm supposed to know?" Now they really were going too far.

"He was to meet us here ten minutes ago."

"Well he didn't. For that matter, neither did you. Are we going back to Liberator now?"

Blake slapped the comm switch on his bracelet and raised it to his mouth. "Avon... Avon, respond please."

No one did. Vila couldn't quite read the expression on the bigger man's face, though disgust was clearly part of it.

"Avon..."

"I'll just go on ahead up then, shall I?" Vila tried. "You can find Avon and--"

"We'll go together." Blake scowled, heading back for the door. "You wait here."

Oh no he didn't. Not again! Vila started after him. "I've been waiting here all day. There's nothing to do!"

Blake cast a jaundiced eye at the table littered with the remains of Vila's pilfered feast, and a wry smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "All right, come along then."

No need to be asked twice, Vila trotted into the corridor, complaining the while. "I dunno why I should be stuck here in the first place -- I mean there aren't any safes to crack or locks to open, so why choose me to--"

"Arman's message asked for help with a security system," Blake replied from ahead of him. "It didn't mention what kind."

Oh, so that was it. No one had bothered to ask, of course, whether Vila's talents ran to computer security systems as well as conventional locks, and maybe, just maybe, he'd prefer to let them keep their ignorance in the matter. You never did know when an ace in the hole might come in handy.

They found three engrossed technicians in the main computer lab. No Avon.

The auxiliary section was unoccupied, save for an array of tools laid out on the workbench in meticulous Avon fashion -- with a teleport bracelet at the end of the row. Vila didn't like the look of that. Avon never removed his bracelet...

"...certain we can come to an equable arrangement."

The voice preceding Avon through the door belonged to the resistance leader, Arman, a balding, reedy sort whom Vila recognized only by virtue of having been told the man's name. No one had seen fit to introduce them. The pair hesitated briefly on sight of Blake and Vila, then Arman strode forward with what looked, to the thief's practiced eye, very much like manufactured confidence. It made Vila wonder what he might have to hide.

"Ah, Blake," the man effused, "we have been mapping out the most incredible security system. Do you know with enough time and funding we could conceivably shield the entire planet. It's really most impressive; I do hope you'll stay awhile and watch it go together?"

Vila met Avon's impassive gaze with one that openly wondered just what bill-of-goods he'd sold this fellow. Did Avon plan to give these rebels a crash course in how to fund a project by bankrupting the Federation treasury? Maybe he'd worked out, in the meanwhile, just how to get it right this time.

"I'm afraid not," Blake was answering. "But if you need more time to program the system, I'm sure we can arrange for Avon to stay on a few more hours."

Arman looked confused for a moment, then shot a nervous glance Avon's way before he said, "Oh I see. Yes, well, I'll just let you work that out amongst yourselves, shall I?" He gave Blake's hand an ardent shake. "You have my thanks. If ever there's anything I can do for you..."

"I'll keep that in mind." The cautionary tone in Blake's reply escaped Arman entirely. He was too preoccupied with getting out of the room. Vila recognized the need. Apparently Arman was storm-sensitive, too.

"Will six more hours be long enough, do you think?" Blake's soft query evinced a condescending glare.

Clouds before the storm, Vila thought dismally. Oh, for a way out of here...

"Six days would not be long enough," Avon said. "There is considerable potential to the system -- an admirably well-equipped facility overall, but it will require the long-term ministrations of an experienced professional."

"Yes, well, we don't have six days. If you've given them enough to get them started, then surely their own techs can take over from there. We need to be getting back."

Vila felt a distinct sense of relief when Avon turned to pluck the teleport bracelet from the workbench -- until he thrust it into Blake's hand with a vehemence equally imparted to his words. "Don't be deliberately obtuse. You made your preferences more than clear aboard Liberator; now I am doing the same. In case it has genuinely failed to penetrate that imperfect vacuum you utilize for a brain, I am not going back. It's finished, Blake, and so am I. Now get out of here."

Vila needed no diagrams to tell him this was not the option Blake had wanted the computer tech to exercise. As ever, Blake's idea of a choice was either to do things his way, or do things his way. And whether Alpha pride would let him say it or not, what he really wanted was for Avon to stay aboard the Liberator. Of course, it was more than that, too. He wanted Avon to be part of a team, and that, Vila knew, was one thing Avon would never be.

"You could be making a mistake," Blake cautioned. "Arman is--"

Avon would have none of it. He'd turned to go before Blake had got the first word out, prompting the rebel leader to make a rapid change of tactics. "Avon--"

The computer tech paused in the doorway, but did not turn around.

"Avon, I never meant--"

But Avon was gone -- for good probably, Vila thought dismally, and was surprised at just how mixed his own feelings about it were.

Blake's hurt look said more than his abbreviated words had done. But the anger, Vila noted, remained, evident in the heaviness of his stride as he headed for the opposite door, the one that led into a short access corridor and ultimately out into Kearnea's humid afternoon.

Vila followed in silence, struggling with what he ought to say, if anything. It wasn't your fault, Blake? Well it was, really, so that wouldn't do, would it? You couldn't push Avon into a corner and expect any less than this in return; a lesson Blake should have learned long before now. In truth, the miracle was that it hadn't happened sooner. Maybe he ought to point out that Avon had, after all, tried twice before to run, and Blake had known it in each case. Jenna said he'd wanted to take Liberator and leave them all to rot on Cygnus Alpha. And only a few days ago, the debacle of XK-72 had begun with Avon's revelation of the station -- or the 'bolthole,' as Vila had christened it -- and his subsequent decision to leave Liberator and remain there. Blake, in fact, would never even have known about that if he hadn't happened to walk into the teleport room just as Avon announced that he planned to stay 'for a look round,' and Vila complained loudly about sitting by the teleport to wait. Avon had signed off with a sarcastic, "You do that." The expression on Blake's face had been bleak.

"You need'nt bother waiting, Vila," he had said.

The thief blinked at him, confused. "How's that?"

"Bring Kayn's assistant across and keep him here a few moments, will you?" He turned to go.

"Eh..." Vila's hesitant sound made the bigger man pause. "What about Avon?"

Blake spoke over his shoulder. "Avon isn't planning to come back," he said and was abruptly gone.

Except, of course, that Avon hadn't stayed, if only because Kayn had sent the pursuit ships after them and the station was no longer a safe place to hide. If things had worked out differently...

That idea led to speculations Vila would rather not have made. What Avon might have offered to sell the supposed neutrals aboard the station, for example. He pushed the thought away. Blake stalked on ahead of him, plowing noisily through the ground-cover of sodden leaves, outstriding the smaller thief with every broad step. Vila had to scurry to keep up with him.

"Are we going back to the ship now?" he pleaded, but the final word came out a half-squeak when a rock hidden under the mulch tried to trip him.

"Not just yet." Blake tramped down a hillside into a copse of scrawny trees, showing no signs of slowing down. He was thinking, Vila realized, the way he frequently did aboard Liberator, after quarrelling with Avon. While the latter buried himself somewhere in the bowels of Zen's computer circuitry, Blake would tread the ship's corridors for hours on end, until most of his frustration had been walked out. Vila wished he'd chosen to take this particular hike back aboard ship instead of out here in the wet. He also wished he'd paid closer attention to Zen's report on native Kearnean animal life of the carnivorous variety. Though he'd learned well the dangers posed by human animals in the inner city domes, the great outdoors was something still altogether alien to him. Nature hikes were thus not included on Vila Restal's list of favorite pastimes.

"Blake..." The bigger man had left him several meters behind again. "Blake!" Vila stopped, panting with a not-entirely-exaggerated weariness. "Would you mind too terribly much slowing down a bit??"

The complaint brought an apologetic smile to Blake's lips. "Sorry," he said, and Vila had every reason to believe he meant it. "Sometimes I forget myself."

The thief resisted the urge to point out that it was Vila rather than himself Blake had forgotten; instead he used the respite in their hike to perch on a convenient rock and empty the entirety of Kearnea's gravel and twig population from his boots.

"Anyway, I dunno what you're on about. You wanted him to go, so he's going. Simple solution, no more arguments, and life gets a lot easier for the lot of us. So what's to be angry for?"

At the sudden sagacity of Vila's tone, Blake's bemused smile gave way to puzzlement. "I'm not angry," he denied.

"Uh-huh." Vila said nothing at all for a very long moment, then plunged in with both feet, certain that if he did not ask now, while he had Blake 'cornered,' he would never have the chance to ask at all. "If you didn't want to get rid of Avon, why issue him an ultimatum, then? I mean, you couldn't honestly expect he'd pick up your banner and march alongside, could you? Well, could you?"

Arms crossed, Blake leaned on a neighboring rock while Vila pulled his boots back on, regarding the thief with something akin to suspicion. It made Vila acutely uncomfortable. "It isn't that," Blake finally said. "He's made the wrong decision, though."

"Oh, yes." Vila nodded sagely. "Not the decision you'd already made for him, you mean?"

It was more than he probably should have said, but Blake didn't react with any overt anger at his boldness, merely with surprise at this side of Vila he so rarely saw. "No," he said, "I mean it's the wrong decision staying with Arman."

Either that leap of logic had lost Vila entirely, or Blake was repeating himself. "How do you mean?"

"I don't quite trust him somehow."

"Oh..." Vila's mild discomfort began mutating into something far more sinister. "I thought it was only me..."

Blake's look wondered how Vila could distrust a man he'd scarcely met. "During the enclave," he explained, "Arman tried several times to convince me that Liberator should remain here, that we should make Kearnea our permanent base. He knew I'd considered that alternative at one time. But he became rather... agitated... when I turned him down."

Vila frowned. "He could be a Federation sympathizer."

"No, no." Blake's denial was adamant, if not entirely satisfied. "He's just a very... ambitious... man."

Vila finished what may have been an incomplete thought. "And so is Avon?"

Blake drew in a long breath. He didn't answer the question, but there was a concern behind his eyes the thief thought he recognized. He wondered if Blake did. You never knew with Alphas whether they wanted to hear the truth, or if they were just as likely to shoot the messenger.

Vila decided the risk was warranted. "You want to know what it is that really has you worried?" he ventured, and hurried on when the bemused smile tried to return. "'Cause I can tell you. You're only just seeing it for yourself, only maybe you don't know it yet."

"You're not making sense, Vila."

"Oh, yes I am. Put you in quite a fix, hasn't it? Can't live with him, and can't do without him either."

Blake vented an exasperated sigh. "Just what are you getting at?"

"Avon, as if you didn't know."

Forced patience laced the response. "What about Avon?"

Dropping any pretence of Delta servility, Vila looked the other man squarely in the eye, and was remotely disappointed that Blake seemed as disconcerted by it as any other Alpha. "You can't afford to let Avon go," he said evenly.

"Can't I?" A tone of disbelief, condescension.

Vila held Blake's gaze with a self-assurance he hadn't displayed since the day they'd met one another on Earth in the pre-launch holding cell. "If the Federation ever gets its hands on Avon, we're as good as dead. Zen, the teleport, the blueprints to the whole bloody ship for all we know -- the lot of it's in that oversized brain of his by now. You should worry enough they could torture it out of him, only they wouldn't have to. You know as well as I do, he'd sell it all in a minute to save his own skin." Blake's mouth opened; Vila rushed on before he could speak. "You can't let him go because we none of us can afford the risk, and if that means you have to convince him to stay by downing a twelve-course meal of stuffed-crow-pie, then you'd better get out your knife and fork, my friend. Because I don't think you have a choice anymore. You're as trapped as he is."

Anger flashed in the brown eyes, dissipating rapidly to grudging acceptance. "Vila, you're a savant in fool's clothing."

"A what?"

Blake's laugh was intersected by a signal chime from his teleport bracelet and Jenna's anxious voice. "Your call-in is forty minutes overdue. Are you all right down there?"

With a grimace and a passing glance at his chronometer, Blake said, "Perfectly all right, thank you Jenna. We have some... unfinished business to attend to, though. I'll be in touch." He signed off and promptly shifted frequencies. "Avon--"

The name was out before he remembered, and before Vila could remind him, that Avon's bracelet resided at the moment in Blake's utility pack. The sigh Vila heard belonged to someone far older than the man beside him. "Let's go."

And without waiting for Vila's reply, he set off toward the complex once again. Vila's feet thanked him for the fact that at least the walk back went more slowly.

*      *      *

Arman's sentries re-admitted them readily enough, but there was something about the way they did it that made Vila's flesh crawl -- as though, the moment they were able, both guards would head straight for a comm unit. To report what, he wondered? Just that Blake had come back again, or perhaps that Blake was aiming for the computer center bent on reclaiming his wayward technician? They couldn't possibly have known that, and yet... Something distinctly... unfriendly... was afoot here, and Vila's instincts didn't like it one bit.

This time the outer control room was unoccupied; they walked in and crossed to the auxiliary door, which mysteriously refused to open at Blake's touch.

"I don't like this..." Vila began.

He started to draw a precautionary weapon from his holster, but never got further than touching the handle: the muzzle of a blaster pressed itself to his back, and a harsh voice demanded, "Take off the weapons." The gun jabbed him for emphasis. "Slowly."

Vila complied, aware of Blake, held at bay by a second gunman, doing the same beside him -- except that Blake, being Blake, was not content to surrender in silence.

"I trust Arman has an explanation for this," he said ominously.

The door slid open on his remark and the man in question said, "Oh, he does. Couldn't quite believe my luck when they told me you'd gone for a walk instead of back to the ship. There might have been just enough time... ah, but now you're back again, there is something you can do for me." His smile was not pleasant. "Inside, both of you."

Just before the door had opened, Vila had inobtrusively turned his right wrist to wedge the teleport bracelet's transmit stud to the open frequency. He held it there as they were ushered through the door, praying that Jenna would be savvy enough not to broadcast a reply. Neither Arman nor the guards paid the bracelets any heed, for which he was grateful.

Unprepared for what greeted them inside, Vila barely suppressed a gasp. Two more of Arman's rebel guard looked up as the group entered: they held Avon half-upright between them. The computer tech was on his knees, breathing heavily and bleeding from the mouth. There was blood on the floor as well, Vila noted sickly, and on the hands of the burly man to Avon's right.

Blake swore and started forward, only to be blocked by Arman, who placed a splayed hand on his chest while the man behind him took a savage hold on his collar. Neither action curbed his temper. "What in hell do you think you're doing?" He snarled the words into Arman's skinny face, and the man backed away -- a single, startled step. His composure returned almost immediately, though Vila thought it a pity he couldn't see the glare Avon had been directing at him from the floor just beyond. If looks were neutron blasters, Arman's back would have sported at least a dozen tidy, smoking holes by now.

"Surviving." The base leader sneered his answer to Blake's question, and inclined his head toward Avon without turning. "Your erstwhile crew member here was more than willing to peddle the security system, quite a number of other items -- even the secret of your teleport device. When it came to the ship, however..."

Blake's glare collided with Avon's briefly before turning its wattage on Arman. "Liberator is not for sale," he breathed. "I told you that in council; I'm telling you again now."

"Everything has its price. Your mistake was in not leaving when you had the chance. Gave me time to realize, there was another way..."

"Might makes right?" Blake quoted bitterly.

Arman laughed. "If you like. You should have gone." He wheeled and strode toward Avon, motioning for the guards to pull the seething tech to his feet. They obeyed, but not without effort: Avon fought them every inch of the way. "On the other hand," Arman went on, "I wouldn't have been too eager to let this one walk away if I were you. Not with all he's got on you. A lesson you'll need to learn, if you want to survive at this game, Blake. Loose ends can be deadly."

The more callous echo of his own admonitions made Vila wince.

Arman's fingers snapped. Vila jumped at the sound, almost losing his hold on the clandestine transmit switch. Why hadn't Jenna -- or Cally, or Gan -- done anything yet? Horrified, he watched the man on Avon's right, wearing a smug, satisfied expression, draw his sidearm and place its muzzle firmly under Avon's chin. The tech merely affected boredom at the action, and Blake, to Vila's astonishment, appeared equally unmoved.

"That won't help you," he said flatly.

"Oh, I think it will." Arman's ambitions came to the fore. "I need that ship. With it in orbit, Kearnea would be virtually invincible." The gun pressed itself to Avon's throat, as if to emphasize his words. "This one will go first, I think. And then..."

He turned his ugly gaze on Vila, who shuddered and backed unintentionally into the guard's gun. "Oh, now wait a minute. I never..."

Blake's hiss of "Shut up, Vila" was cut through by a sharp, electronically filtered warning. "I wouldn't, if I were you."

Jenna's voice. Coming from Vila's bracelet. Blake gaped at him in utter astonishment as Arman marched forward to wrench the bracelet from Vila's wrist.

"Liberator," he said, "you have precisely thirty seconds to bring me aboard and surrender the ship, or your friends will--"

The floor heaved under them in tandem with the rumble of a nearby explosion. Its echo hadn't quite died away before alarms began screaming all over the base.

Jenna's precise words rose above the din. "Warning shot, eight-point-five meters off your proverbial port bow," she said coolly. "The next one goes straight up your afterburner."

Leering, Arman called the bluff like an inveterate player. "You expect me to believe you'd kill your own people?"

So callous -- and prompt -- was Jenna's response that Vila had pause to wonder whether she was honestly bluffing or not. "They're nothing to me," she said. "Is your base to you?" Her voice faded minutely. "Zen, bearing four-four-two, mark four..." Heedless of the guards, Vila dived for the cover of the nearest table. "...narrow beam. Fire."

This time the floor tossed Vila sideways -- right into one of the metal table legs. "Ow! You don't have to be quite so convincing, you know," he muttered to an imaginary Jenna, but in all the din he couldn't even hear himself. The base's overtaxed alarm system abruptly strangled itself, dying with a short, anemic whimper that was followed close on by a choked human cry. Vila crawled out of hiding to find things changed for the better: the guard who'd held Avon lay dead on the floor; another sprawled near Blake's feet, either dead or unconscious; the remaining two were in the process of dropping their weapons -- because a certain rather irritated computer tech had Arman by the throat, and the dead man's gun to his ear.

"Leave him, Avon." Blake picked up one of the fallen sidearms as Vila scrabbled after and retrieived his teleport bracelet from the rubble on the floor.

Avon's answer was a snarl. "Give me one good reason."

Blake didn't. He spoke into his own bracelet instead. "Hold your fire, Jenna. Stand by the teleport."

Cally's voice confirmed that last as someone -- several someones -- began rapping on the lock-jammed door. Blake had taken Avon's bracelet from his belt pack and now held it out to him. Not surprisingly, Avon disdained to reach for it. Arman's face, beside the gun, had gone the color of beer foam, and the pounding on the door grew more arduous.

"Blake," Vila urged. "Come on."

They ignored him -- no surprise again -- but with a savagery Vila had seldom seen him display, the tech threw Arman aside, and brought the gun to bear on Blake instead.

Vila's mouth fell open, though no sound emerged. Blake merely stood there, still proffering the bracelet as though Avon had extended nothing more lethal than a handshake.

"We can settle the rest of it aboard ship--" he started to say, but Avon's heated reply cut him off.

"We will settle it now. I am not, nor do I intend to be one of your slavering devotees. I will make my own life, my own decisions."

Somehow, Blake compressed a thousand needed words into only two. "Fair enough," he said.

And that's as close to an apology as you're ever going to get, Avon, so put the damned bracelet on and let's get out of here!

With a splintering crunch, the frame around the beleaguered door began to give way. Vila watched the contempt on Avon's face as the gun swung aside, his free hand all but snatching the bracelet from Blake's grasp. As the teleport took them and the door came crashing in, Vila's own words to Blake resounded in his head, echoes of the same realization he could see now, plainly etched in Avon's desolate expression.

You're as trapped as he is...

*      *      *

Cally had never looked better to him, nor for that matter, had Liberator. Vila released a heartfelt sigh of relief, only to draw it in again when Avon hurled both gun and teleport bracelet at an unprotesting Blake, and with a dismissive glance at Cally, stormed from the room.

The Auron turned bewildered eyes on Blake and Vila. "What's the matter with Avon?"

"Nothing." Blake held a hand out for Vila's bracelet, replaced all three in the rack, then turned toward the flight deck with the gun tucked under his arm. "Tell Jenna to take us out of orbit, Cally, standard by four. Oh, and Vila..." He did an about-face on the stair, only to meet the thief's expectant frown. Another 'assignment' now was the last thing he needed. Blasted Alphas never let you have a moment's peace...

"...Thank you," Blake finished. His eyes were smiling.

"Oh... yes," Vila stammered. "Any time..." But Blake had already gone.

"And what was that about?" Cally wanted to know. Watching Blake recede, the thief had scarcely heard her. "Vila?"

"Eh? Oh... nothing," he echoed. "Just... what makes it all worthwhile, I suppose you could say." He set off down the corridor with a bounce in his step and the mystified Auron trailing after. "You know, I really could do with an adrenalin and soma just now. It's been a very rough day, advising Blake, rescuing Avon..."

Cally laughed. "All in a day's work?"

"No, no. Only half a day. I spent the other half saving the galaxy."

"For once, Vila, I almost believe you."

"Almost? Almost?" Vila was sorely affronted.

But then, she wasn't to know, was she, that it was all true?

Well, most of it, anyway.    


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