A Good TeamBy Nicola Mody
“You all right?”
He turned his head very slowly to the right. The man next to him had an open, friendly face with concerned brown eyes, but he also had both hands cuffed to the iron rails along the sides of his bed. Must be a dangerous piece of work. “Is that a serious question?”
“Oh, see what you mean. Usual story, isn’t it—come to hospital to get sick. But you really don’t look too good. Want me to call a nurse? Might sound a bit silly, that, I mean here, but if you pick the right one—”
“No. I’m...all right.” He closed his eyes against the onslaught of words.
“You don’t look it. Tell you what, wait till the girl with the ponytail comes by, she’s quite nice. The pretty dark one though, you don’t even want to ask her for a pee bottle. She’s right mean.” The other man paused, and smiled. “I’m Vila Restal. I’d offer to shake, but it’s a bit difficult.”
“Gan. Olag Gan.”
“Pleased to meet you. What are you in here for, Gan?”
Gan sighed and opened his eyes. “I could ask you the same thing. Assault? Murder?”
“Me? I’m allergic to violence. Brings me out in great lumps. Oh, you mean these?” Restal rattled the handcuffs. “I’m harmless, me. This is just so I won’t escape. I’m good at that.” He grinned. “I’m a thief. One of the best, I might add, since you don’t appear to have heard of me.”
He actually seemed to be proud of it. Gan had never knowingly met a criminal let alone one that was so blatant, and he was uncertain of the expected response. Polite surprise? Admiration? Certainly not the disapproval he felt and probably showed.
Restal did not seem to mind. “What’s your line of business then?”
“I’m a rep for a Zephron agricultural supply firm.”
“Well, that’s hardly criminal.”
“No...I killed a guard.”
“Oh.” Restal sounded nervous. “Did you?”
“He was armed and I wasn’t, and they called it murder,” Gan said bitterly. “He killed my...” He couldn’t bring himself to say her name, “...my woman.”
Gan sighed. “Don’t worry. I’m not likely to do it again.” Although I wonder if I could kill myself? Now there’s a interesting question.
“Would it help to talk about it?”
Gan was touched by the unexpected sympathy in the thief’s voice. “No,” he said quietly, “not yet”. Not for a long time.
Restal looked at him with sad understanding eyes, then they both looked away as if embarrassed by each other’s emotion.
Restal was the first to speak. “Well, why are you here? You get hurt in the fight?”
“Yes.” True enough.
“Could tell you haven’t been adjusted. Conditioned. Nice words, those, for a very nasty process. You wouldn’t still be you. I mean, look at those poor sods over there.” Restal rolled his eyes at the beds across the ward. “There’s a glimmer of a light on, but if anyone’s home, they’re hiding under the bed.”
Gan did not have to look. He had seen the ‘readjusted citizens’ on the streets, with their dull eyes and slack expressionless faces. He supposed he was lucky they hadn’t done that to him. Or would it have been better not to remember?
“See,” Restal went on, “that’s what I’m here for. A bit of readjustment. They want to make me into a nice quiet little citizen who’ll be happy to sweep the streets.”
The young man was facing what amounted to the death of his personality with astonishing calmness. Perhaps that was why he talked so much, to overcome his fear. “I’m...I’m sorry, Restal,” Gan said.
“Eh? Oh, it’s Vila. I much prefer Vila. It’s friendlier, and safer too what with that Restal being on all the wanted lists. Not that it matters now they’ve caught me.”
“Vila, then,” Gan said quietly.
“Look, don’t worry about me. I’ve been through this before. Doesn’t work. They tried three times when I was twelve, that’s the law, they have to, and they had another go when I was fourteen. Huh!” He stopped and looked surprised. “Half my life ago, that was. Fancy that!”
It was surprising enough that the Federation’s ‘therapy’ had failed, but it was barbaric to use it on one so young. “Twelve? You were only twelve?”
“Went professional at ten,” Vila said with satisfaction, misunderstanding the question, “but I started at seven.”
Gan shook his head and wished he hadn’t. He grimaced at the pain.
“You sure you’re all right?”
“Yes. Just a headache.”
“I can shut up if you like. I know I go on a bit sometimes.”
No, keep talking. It takes my mind off the pain. And the memories. “I’ll be fine.”
Vila looked at Gan with concern. He didn’t look fine. It was obvious he’d been through some sort of treatment. He had a drip in his arm—plastic unfortunately, no use as a pick—and had been unconscious or asleep for most of the two hours Vila had been in the ward. Pity he wasn’t up to a nice distracting conversation. Vila didn’t think he could take much of more lying helplessly, just waiting for them to come for him.
“Go on,” Gan said. “Your parents wanted you to be a thief?”
“Oh no, not my mum.” Vila wriggled, trying to get comfortable despite being handcuffed. “It just happened, really. Serrin and Doty next door, they looked after me while she was at work. Well, they were home a lot, Serrin being a thief himself and all. Nice short hours. Mind you, you have to keep abreast in that line of work. He used to sit at the kitchen table with the latest locks in pieces to work out how to get through them, and I used to watch him, play with the bits, you know. So he started teaching me, and I was good at it. Still remember picking my first lock. I was all of seven.” Vila smiled, thinking of the delight on Serrin’s angular face, and the warm hug from plump round Doty. “My mum wasn’t impressed though. Didn’t want me to be a thief. The teachers at school said I was sure to get a higher grading, and she fancied me having a nice clean office job.”
“That sounds all right to me, Vila.”
“What, when I could have all the time off I wanted? Be my own boss? Crack the occasional safe and have my feet up the rest of the time?”
Gan looked disapproving. “It doesn’t sound as if they gave you much choice, sending you out stealing at—what was it—ten?”
“No-one forced me.” Vila felt defensive. “Serrin said to wait till I was older. Would have too if my mother hadn’t got sick.” What did Gan know about it anyway, a rep from an off-world company, probably a Gamma agricultural or maybe Beta clerical. Bet his mother didn’t have to ruin her health working in a chemical factory. No, it looked as if he’d have to spell it out. “They don’t give expensive drugs to people like us. Enough of us Deltas already, aren’t there?”
Look out, Vila. Your bitterness is showing. Never let people know too much.
Vila lightened his tone. “Anyway, it wasn’t all that bad. I was always getting beaten up at school for being too smart, and having my lunch taken—stunted my growth, that did—but it got better when I got a rep for being a pro. Gave me a certain social cachet I hadn’t had before.” He grinned. “Didn’t just get to eat my own lunch, kids gave me the best bits of theirs, even cash, to get into lockers, teachers’ desks, you name it.” Well, that was true enough, even if some of the bigger boys had preferred to frighten him into performing.
“Is that why they never promoted you then? Because of your criminal record?”
“Didn’t have one then. No—Gan, this’ll cheer you up, this is a good one—they did! Tried, anyway. When I was eleven, I had to sit the Grading Test. You know how you have to do really well or really badly to go up or down? Well I didn’t even finish the thing. Didn’t know no-one ever had, so I felt a bit down and consoled myself by breaking into the school snack machine. Regretted it afterwards though—I ate so many chocolate bars in one go I had to lie down for a while when I got home.”
Vila sneaked a look at Gan. Ah, at last. A bit of a smile. “So three days later when I got called into the principal’s office, I thought someone had ratted on me. But they wanted to promote me to the Beta technical grades. In fact, they even said I’d be reviewed for further promotion in a couple of years as I had—let’s see now—‘an excellent command of language and an extraordinary vocabulary for my age’.”
Gan wrinkled his forehead. “You could have been an Alpha? So what happened?”
“Oh, I’d have given it a go. I mean, I thought all our troubles were over. After all, Betas get decent medical care. But it doesn’t work that way. It would’ve just been me. I’d have to leave my mum behind...” Vila looked away. “...so it didn’t change anything.”
He still remembered what the official from the Grading Authority had said. She wouldn’t fit in. You’ll be far too busy to miss her anyway. It’s always best to make a clean break.
He sighed, and continued airily, “Anyway, sounded far too much like hard work, and it’s always been my policy never to do any. So I put on my best innocent look—” Vila demonstrated “—and told them I thought I’d be a really good tech as I could already get through a magno-lock and I was very good at alarms. One of those snotty officials knocked over her coffee, the other one looked like he smelled something bad, and the principal yelled at me to get out and not come back. So I did.” He laughed at the memory. Gan however did not. “Oh go on, Gan, it’s funny.”
“I don’t think it is, Vila. I think it’s sad.”
“Oh now look, if you can’t laugh, you’d slit your wrists. It all turned out well anyway. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a little Beta tech jumping every time the boss walks past.”
“And it didn’t change your mind, getting caught when you were so young?”
“Why? Wasn’t my fault. I had to get a doctor for my mother and a different one from usual came. He saw her medication by the bed and called the cops, the rat. So they sent me to the JD wards.”
Gan looked puzzled.
“Juvenile detention wards. They call them wards because they try all these therapies on you. But none of them worked on me, not for long. The drug therapy just made me feel sick, the hypnotherapy didn’t work at all, and the aversion therapy only worked for a short time. So they decided I was compulsive because they couldn’t stop me picking locks. What did they expect? They beat you silly for the littlest thing.” Vila paused. “And worse,” he added quietly. Being small, blond, and one of the youngest, he had been a favourite target.
“Those guards were very happy in their work,” he went on bitterly. “I bet there’s a special sadists’ waiting list for a job. And the older boys weren’t much better. I used to let myself into locked rooms to be safe for a while, other kids too. That aversion therapy, it was meant to make me feel sick at the thought of locks. Did too for a bit, but nowhere near as much as what would happen to me if I didn’t. So they said I was incurable. Compulsive. Sent me for adjustment.”
And Gan was his only hope he might survive it mentally intact this time, now that his mother wasn’t there. He trusted Gan. After all, he had told him more about himself than he had let anyone know since Serrin and Doty died.
Gan was shocked at the story Vila had told in such deceptively light words.
“And that didn’t work either?” he said.
“Might have done if I’d let it. But I have this trick, see? I go somewhere else in my mind where they can’t find me. The thing is, I need someone to call me back. I don’t know if I can come out by myself. Never have before, anyway. So, when they bring me back here, could you, uh, call me?”
“Call you?” Gan was puzzled.
“Yes, no matter what I look like. You know, just say, ‘Vila, come on out, it’s safe now’. Something like that.” Vila looked hopefully at Gan.
“Yes. All right. I’ll do that.”
Satisfied, Vila smiled. “Thanks.”
“You’re very brave.”
“Me? I’m a professional coward, ask anyone!” Vila sounded almost proud.
“Well, I’d kill myself rather than risk that.” Gan nodded at the beds across the ward. Three men lay unmoving and vacant-faced, staring up at the ceiling, one was snoring loudly, and another sat on his bed, staring blankly in front of him, swaying back and forth.
“Suicide’s very bad for the health,” Vila said, alarmed. “It can ruin your whole day. Look, while you’re still breathing, there’s hope, that’s what I—oh, no.” A doctor and an orderly, both in white tunics, were approaching them purposefully. “Here we go.” Vila pressed himself defensively back in the bed.
“Ah, Restal,” the doctor said, consulting a data pad. “You’re a bit of a problem, according to this.”
“Speak for yourself!”
The doctor smiled thinly at the orderly. “I do like it when they put up a bit of a fight. Puts some spice in the day.” The orderly laughed as they began to wheel Vila’s bed from the room. Vila looked back at Gan, and mouthed Promise? anxiously at him. Gan nodded and smiled encouragingly. Poor guy. It was the last he’d see of Vila. The real Vila anyway.
Gan had never met anyone like Vila, and certainly would not have chosen to, as likeable as he was. Vila was obviously very bright to have been offered a two-grade promotion, perhaps even more, yet he was happy to be a thief. Gan could understand that Vila had not wanted to leave his ill mother, but not that he had chosen a life of crime and revelled in it. Maybe he had a point though. Gan had done everything the right way, and look where it had got him. They had both taken such different paths, and here they were, in the same place, without hope, despite what Vila had said.
As they wheeled Vila down the corridors, he wondered if he could remember how to turn that strange corner in his mind, to go away and hide. It had been so long since he had done it.
He’d learned the trick when he was only four, when—no, his mind shied away from that, best not to think about it. But going round the corner that wasn’t there to his happy safe place, that was what saved him when they first tried to reprogram him into one of those zombies when he was twelve...
At first, Vila just stepped back and watched, detached, from behind what he thought of as his force wall as they connected wires to his head, flashed lights in his eyes, bombarded him with sound, and confused him with waking dreams not his own. He watched himself screaming in agony as the fire burned up each nerve. It was finally too much for him; his ‘wall’ crumbled before the assault of the pain, the voices whispering insidiously in his mind, the terrifying darkness threatening to overwhelm him, and he just ‘went away’ as he used to, so long ago.
He had all the happy memories of all his life to choose from, to immerse himself in and relive...
He was a baby again, tiny, trusting, laughing up at the huge beloved face of his mother, lifted, thrown joyfully towards the ceiling, then enveloped in warmth and love...
He was a toddler, swung with delight around the cramped apartment, held tight, crooned to—“My sweet baby, my darling Vila, you’re safe with me, always safe, my love”—delighting in the feel of her kisses on the top of his head...
He lay outside the Dome on a hot summer’s day, sprawled in the long grass, smelling the warm earth, lulled by crickets, gazing up at the huge blue dome above...
He was showing the first electronic lock he’d mastered to Serrin; Serrin was smiling proudly, saying. “One day I’ll boast to people that it was me who taught Vila Restal.”
He knelt, entranced, in clean pure snow, holding a nut out to a cautious squirrel, thinking at it, trust me, trust me; the squirrel took the nut, its soft paws touching Vila’s fingers briefly; he sat back and laughed aloud for joy...
Then he heard his mother calling his name, as she had when he was small, opened his eyes, still half-immersed in dreams of happiness, and smiled up at her. Jandy Restal leaned over and embraced him, and Vila hugged her back, ignoring the pain of his damaged nerves. It was over. He was safe. He could go home.
“Well, well.” The sardonic voice came from behind his mother. “Let him go and step aside.”
Jandy did so, but stayed beside Vila, holding his hand.
“So you’re with us again, Restal. You know what that means, don’t you?”
“No,” Vila whispered.
The doctor smirked at his mother, then Vila. “It means we try again, Restal. That’s what the law says. We get three attempts.”
“Oh, no. Please don’t. I’ll be good. Please, please, let me go home now,” Vila begged as they wheeled his bed away. He could see his mother sobbing as he stretched his arms out towards her. “Mum, don’t let them...”
When he opened his eyes to his mother’s voice the next time, he was in too much pain to move, but he was still able to smile faintly up at her. When they took him away again, she grabbed ineffectually at one of the orderlies who had come for him, and screamed, “Please don’t, please, you’ll kill my Vila!” as she was pushed away and fell sobbing to the floor.
“Your Vila shouldn’t have been a thief then,” the doctor said coldly.
The third time Vila woke up, he was too ill to smile or speak, so they entered ‘success assumed’ in his file and said he could go home.
It was a week before he could get out of bed, a month before he ventured nervously outside, but not long before he was out stealing again. What else could he do? He was all his mother had.
Gan could hear someone screaming faintly in the distance. He hoped it wasn’t Vila. It reminded him of how Lu—no, don’t think of her name—of how she had screamed.
They had been swept up in a flash riot in the Gamma levels, something about the quality of the water and the long working hours, and arrested with hundreds of others. They had both, citing their off-world citizenship, loudly protested their innocence, but they shouldn’t have attracted the guards’ attention for one of them had come in and taken her away. Gan had heard her screaming, begging, then her sudden silence. And when the guard brought her back to the cell and threw her in, laughing, Gan had launched himself at him. It was only after he had dropped the man, his neck snapped, that he confirmed what he already knew—that she was dead.
Nothing had mattered after that. He had told them to kill him. Perhaps that was why they had not.
He tried to block the memory, wanting to remember her as she was back on Zephron, alive, laughing in the sun.
When they brought Vila back, unconscious and very pale but still handcuffed, Gan looked at him pityingly. Strangely, he looked different from this angle. The round, childlike face was, in profile, chiselled, almost handsome. Gan did not think there was much point in trying get through to him, but he was a man of his word.
He waited until the orderlies left, then called softly, “Vila.”
Vila sighed and moved his head slightly.
“Vila, it’s Gan.”
Vila opened his eyes. “Gan?” He smiled weakly. “Gan. Owe you one.”
“How the hell did you manage that?”
“Funny wiring I suppose. Oh, I hurt all over...” Vila closed his eyes. “Thanks, mate.”
Gan found himself smiling despite everything.
“Look,” Vila said, “warn me if they come back, will you? I’ll have to put on my stunned mullet act again. Not that it’s fooled them for long before.”
He had revived enough to feel like talking again, and had begun to regale Gan with stories of his thieving exploits. Gan had deflected his questions about Zephron—he did not want to think about his life there with Lubov yet—but Vila did not seem to mind; in fact he obviously relished an appreciative audience. He had already been interrupted once by the dark-haired nurse, and had given her what he called the ‘O’—he had lain still, his eyes shut and his mouth lolling open while she checked him cursorily and contemptuously.
“Next time,” he confided to Gan, “I’ll try the ‘Q’.”
“Tongue hanging out of the corner of my mouth. If I wasn’t so dry, I’d put in the finishing touch and dribble too.”
Gan chuckled. Damn it, Lubov would have enjoyed meeting Vila.
“Now, where was I? Oh, right, telling you how I got caught. Well, there I was, looking at this lock, and it didn’t look right, I had a funny feeling about it. Now your psycho-physio lock has quite a current running through it, I’ve melted more than one probe in the past, but no problem, they’ve got insulated handles. No, it was when I went to press the switch to intercept the computer response. Must have had a fault—either a loose wire or a static build-up and it all discharged through me. Shot me back against the wall. I’d have been all right if I hadn’t knocked myself out on the safe-deposit boxes. Know what, I was tempted to sue the manufacturers. I tried to tell them in court—”
Vila immediately went dull-eyed and slack-jawed. The doctor and a man dressed in Federation black approached.
“I’m worried about him,” Gan told the doctor, putting on a concerned look. “He was all right this morning, but I think there’s something wrong with him now.”
“Hmm.” The doctor took Vila’s jaw and turned his head so that Vila looked up at him. “Hello, Restal. I’m Doctor Denning.”
Vila blinked slowly. “Uh...hello.”
“How are we today?”
“Don’t know how you are. But me, I’m sore all over. Why does it hurt?”
Denning gave Vila a suspicious look. “You’re in pain because you were very bad. You’ll be good now, won’t you?”
“I am good. Was I bad?”
“You were a thief.”
“Oh. That’s naughty...isn’t it?”
“Yes it is.” Denning moved round the bed, and suddenly leant forward and pinched Vila hard on the arm.
“Ow! Don’t do that, you bastard! That hurts!” Vila rolled his eyes, then squeezed them shut in mortification.
“Yes, I thought so.” Denning stepped back and looked at the other man. “Captain?”
“So, Restal, that makes five times we’ve tried to cure you,” the officer said, consulting a data pad.
Vila shrugged and grinned. “Yep—Vila five, Federation nil!”
“You’ll laugh on the other side of your face when you hear where you’re going.”
“What? Hey, you can’t do that!” Vila tried to pull himself up into a sitting position using the rails he was cuffed to, failed and fell weakly back. “That’s for violent offenders, I’m just a harmless thief. Don’t go away, listen to me, you’ve made a mistake...” He stopped and looked at Gan, wide-eyed with horror. “Cygnus bloody Alpha!”
“What about it?”
“No-one comes back from there. It’s a one-way trip. That’s if they get there at all. Some people say they don’t. And with the types they send there, I’m dead. Dead,” Vila repeated mournfully. “I’m far too young and talented to die...”
“That’s where I’m going.”
Vila looked at Gan with dawning hope. “Really? You are? Hey, we could be a team then, look out for each other.”
“Perhaps it won’t be that bad.”
“Oh, yes, it will. Look, I’ve just had my nerves fried. Know what that does to you? It takes a couple of years to get over that. Any bad stress and you feel like you’ve got red-hot pins and needles shoved into every nerve ending. And as for my pain threshold, well I don’t think I’ve got one right now. How long d’you think it’ll take them to work out how easily they can hurt me? I can just see them, big ugly bruisers, and I mean that literally.”
“Vila. I’m not sure I can help you that much.”
“Why not? I’d look after you too. I can tell you who to watch out for, who to trust. I can always tell. Look, I don’t suppose you think it’s that bad getting knocked around a bit, a big strong guy like you, but violence and me, they just don’t mix. It might be worse—it might be like the JD Wards all over again.”
“All right, Vila. It’s a deal. We’ll look after each other, just like you said. But I really will need you to tell me who’s a threat. You see, I’m in here because they gave me a limiter.”
“A limiter? Gan, what’s that?”
“A thing they put in my head to stop me killing.” Gan saw the expression on Vila’s face change from puzzlement to pity. “But we’ll be all right together, as long as no-one finds out.” And it might even be true. For the first time in days, he felt the beginnings of optimism.
Three days later, two guards came in, dumped their clothes unceremoniously on the floor, and undid Vila’s cuffs. “Right, up you get, you two. You’re off to the holding cells.”
Vila got out of bed and stood shivering in his short hospital gown, rubbing his wrists resentfully. “Well, turn around then,” he said, “I’m shy.”
“What have you got that we haven’t, then?” one of the guards jeered.
“Apart from charm, wit and good looks? Let’s see, taste—”
“Just get on with it, scum.”
Gan dressed with quick efficiency, and watched, amused, as Vila contorted himself so as to show as little skin as possible, and finally stood fully clothed in several rumpled layers, ineffectually trying to smooth out the wrinkles. He licked his fingers and carefully brought his hair forward over his forehead, then made sure that the two brooches on his jerkin were straight and perfectly parallel. He looked up and grinned a bit sheepishly at Gan.
“Look like gold, but they’re only plastic,” he said with a wink. “Still, there’s a lockpick in each,” he added in a confidential whisper.
“Right. Move it, you two,” the first guard snapped, and they both fell in behind Gan and Vila.
Outside the holding cells, one of the guards grabbed Vila by the arm and pulled him towards the armed troopers stationed against the wall facing the bars. “See these men, Restal? You break out and you’ll be dead before you hit the floor.”
“Oh,” Vila said in a very small voice, then visibly pulled himself together. “All for me? I am flattered. You shouldn’t have, really.” He twisted out of the guard’s grip and sauntered along the line. “Stand up straight then, look sharp. I’m the reason they’re paying you.” Vila called himself a coward, but that, Gan thought, was courage of a sort.
“Why you...” One of the troopers took a swing at Vila, but he dodged the blow and ducked behind Gan. Gan raised his chin and looked impassively at Vila’s assailant, who stepped back and fingered his weapon nervously.
“There you go,” Vila chattered happily as they were pushed into the holding cell. “A deterrent’s all that’s needed. Just lean on them a little, give them a hard look or two, maybe toss a couple of them around. A guy your size, who’s going to risk annoying you?” He looked around curiously. “Time to meet and greet, I think.”
Gan leant against the wall in the far corner and watched, amused, as Vila worked his way round the floor, smiling, chatting, side-stepping some of the prisoners with a quick nervous look, stopping for a longer talk with others. He slipped back to Gan after a while, and leant back beside him.
“Couple of guys you’ll have to watch closely, some who’d be mean if riled up but I’ll stay clear of them. See that big guy over there? Put him in his place and the others shouldn’t bother you. There’s a few it might be worth our while to get to know. See that girl over there? That’s Jenna Stannis. Says she’s a free-trader. A smuggler, that’s what she is. Odd that, she’s pretty high-grade I’d say, probably an Alpha. Tough, but I’d trust her.”
“Not sure she trusts me though,” Vila added ruefully. “I think she thought I was making a pass. Got the wrong person, there. She could probably break both me arms with one of hers tied behind her.” He shrugged, and slid down the wall to sit on the floor, legs stretched out in front of him. Gan lowered himself to crouch beside him. “That poor kid over there though, he’s called Nova. First time nicked and they’re sending him to CA. D’you think we could include him in our team?”
“Well, Vila, you’re the expert here. You’re the one who says you can read people.”
“Yeah, well, he’s all right. Bit scared, but to be honest, next to me he’s a rock. The more people we have looking out for each other the better. That’s one thing I learned first time I got sent away. Don’t worry though, the limiter thing stays just between us two.”
“Good. Did you happen to find out how long we’re here for?”
“Till we refuel. Tomorrow, probably.” Vila drew his legs up against his stomach. “Bet they don’t bother feeding us either.”
Several hours later, they brought in an unconscious man and dumped him on a bed. Vila looked up with interest, and immediately noticed the watch on the man’s wrist.
“Nice watch. Time to establish my credentials I think,” he said to Gan, and began to make his way over to the bench.
A visitor began screaming in protest as she was dragged away from the bars by the guards. Vila stopped, disconcerted. He remembered his mother having to be removed forcibly when he was sent to CF1, and it was not a memory he particularly wanted. He blinked a few times, then remembered what he was doing. Good, Jenna was standing near the new prisoner. He made sure from the corner of his eyes that she was looking in his direction before he crouched down beside the man and skilfully removed his watch. Just in case Jenna had not noticed, he began to reach for a wallet. He had miscalculated. It was not Jenna who objected, but the victim himself; he opened his eyes and pushed Vila away.
“Easy! Take it easy! I hate personal violence, especially when I'm the person!” he objected.
“Who are you?”
Well, he seemed a nice guy. What the hell. He held out his hand and said, “I'm Vila Restal.”
Gan was puzzled. “Well, what did that achieve?”
“Not as much as I’d hoped. Still, I think enough people noticed for word to get around.”
“That you’re a good thief?”
“No, that I’m a totally incompetent and utterly harmless fool who’s no threat to anyone—except for the slight possibility I might go a bit strange in the head. Should keep them on their toes.”
Gan shook his head. “That wasn’t very nice though, taking an unconscious man’s watch.”
“He’s the only one with anything worth nicking in here except for Jenna and that snotty embezzler Avon over there. And they’re too dangerous.” Vila sighed. “Still, I’m sorry I did it. That Blake’s a nice guy. If he’s not one for a grudge, he could be one of our team.”
The next day on the London, Vila did not seem so sure. Gan watched him coming back from talking with Blake and Jenna. He looked worried.
“They want to take over the ship!” he told Gan, pulling up a chair beside him at one of the rec room tables. “I don’t like the idea of that. Blake asked me about that palm-print lock, but I said I didn’t know how to open it. Well, I do, but I’d need a decent probe for a start, and I don’t think the guard standing by the door or the one I bet’s on the other side would be very understanding.”
“I’d say so. He’s already got Jenna as the pilot. They might forget about me though,” Vila added hopefully, “since Avon told them how the lock works. Well, anyone would know,” he said dismissively. “Still, I’m for a nice quiet cruise.”
Gan shook his head. “Come on, Vila. You can’t pass up a chance like that. If Blake’s planning something, I’m up for it. Isn’t it better to go down fighting?”
Vila shuddered. “Fighting? Not me; I’d rather go peacefully in my bed.”
Gan stood up. “You stay here. I’ll talk to Blake.”
“Oh ho!” One of the other prisoners, Turley, a stout man with a shaven head, leant over the back of Vila’s chair. Gan remembered that Vila had pointed him out as being the one to intimidate. “Has Blake been upsetting your little friend, then?”
Gan stared at him uncomprehendingly.
“What d’you mean?” Vila asked.
“Child-molester isn’t he? And given that you’re the closest thing to a child on this ship, I suppose he’d go for you, with those big innocent eyes.”
Vila paled and cringed away from Turley, who laughed. Gan looked back towards Blake, and decided he could wait—Turley was more of a threat right now.
“Leave him alone.”
“Jealous, are you?” Turley grinned, showing two chipped teeth. “Worried about your boy?”
Gan stepped forward, grabbed Turley by the front of his shirt, and lifted him with one arm. “I have a life-bond with a woman I love. Vila is my friend,” he said conversationally. “If you’re not sure about what those words mean, then ask someone.” He opened his fist and dropped Turley, who backed nervously away. Gan expected an admiring and facetious comment from Vila, but he was hunched in his seat with his arms around himself.
“Come on, Vila, “ Gan said. “Are you all right?”
“I thought Blake was one of the good guys.”
“Perhaps it’s not true.”
Vila just looked at him, then got up and went over to the sleeping bays where he climbed into his bunk and curled up, his face to the wall. Gan thought about confronting Blake, but did not want to leave Vila alone in case Turley came back. He sat down on his bunk, under Vila’s.
After a while, he heard movements in the bunk above, then Vila’s face appeared upside-down in front of his.
“Time I asked Blake some questions,” Vila said, and slid to the floor. “Gan, will you come too and look after me?”
Gan nodded and followed him in search of Blake, whom they found sitting in his launch chair staring out the porthole.
“Want to ask you something, Blake.”
Blake patted the chair beside him. “Sit down, Vila.”
Vila leant forward over Blake as if he wanted to see the starfield too, resting his arm on the back of Blake’s chair. “Feel that?”
Blake’s face went very still.
“It’s a lockpick, the sharp end of one. I read it in a book once, you can kill someone if you push something small in there, under the ear. Goes between the bones and right into the brain.”
“What are you doing, Vila?” Blake asked, at the same time as Gan said, “Vila, stop that!”
“This is between me and Blake, Gan” Vila said. He put his face close to Blake’s. “Those charges against you. Are they true?”
“No, Vila. They are not,” Blake said evenly. “Although an answer got under duress is hardly valid, is it?”
Vila thought about it. “Oh. I take your point,” he said, palming his lockpick. He paused, eyebrows raised, momentarily distracted by his unintended play on words, then went on. “Well? Did you? Did you...hurt children?”
“No, I did not. The charges were fabricated.”
Vila looked searchingly at Blake, then stepped back. “All right. I believe you. I’m sorry.”
“Sit down, Vila.”
Vila sat with his head down and fiddled with the pick, twisting and flipping it from one hand to the other, almost too fast to see. Gan put his hand on his shoulder, and Vila looked up at him and smiled faintly.
“You see, Blake, I’m smaller and weaker than almost everyone here,” he said finally, “and I know what it’s like to be picked on by people bigger than me. Met a lot of bullies and worse in my time, especially in the JD wards. And there’s a few in here too. Suppose it’s a law of nature, the strong picking on the weak, but I don’t have to like it, do I?”
“I’m sorry, Vila.” Blake said.
“It’s all right. I’ve survived. I just couldn’t...well...work with someone like that.”
“Oh, so that means you will work with me, then?” Blake raised his eyebrows, smiling slightly.
Vila looked disconcerted. “Oh. Suppose it does.”
Blake’s smile widened, crinkling his eyes. “Good. I’m glad about that.” He sat back. “But tell me, Vila, what if I had been guilty? Would you have killed me then?”
“Oh, no, I don’t do that sort of thing. I’m a thief, not a murderer.” He sighed. “Just wanted to frighten you.”
“I thought that was my job,” Gan said.
Blake looked quizzical.
“We have a deal,” Vila explained. “We look out for each other.”
“It’s not as one-sided as it sounds,” Gan said.
“Ah. Just the two of you then?”
“Well, actually,” Gan said, “we were thinking of a few more.”
Four months later, Vila sat morosely in Blake’s old launch chair, his forehead pressed to the coolness of the porthole. “Think they made it away all right?”
“I’m sure they did,” Gan said. “That was a very powerful ship and I think Jenna would be a good pilot.”
Vila sighed. “Me and guns just don’t mix.” He turned to look at Gan. “Sorry I dropped it.”
“Are you going to spend the rest of your life apologising for that?”
Vila thought about how long that was likely to be. “Probably.”
“Cheer up, Vila. Like you said in the hospital, we’re still breathing, so there’s always hope.”
Vila made an attempt at a smile, and turned back to the porthole.
“How about a game, then eh? Come on, Vila. I spy with my little eye something beginning with S.”
Vila sighed again. “Stars.”
“That’s right. Your turn.”
Vila twisted round in his chair. “Gan?”
Vila hesitated. “Look, I know you didn’t want to talk about yourself before, but now...well...you know a lot about me, more than most anyway, and I wondered...”
“What would you like to know?”
“Oh, anything you feel like telling me. I like stories.”
“Let’s see. I grew up on a farm. Is that the sort of thing you want to hear?”
“Yeah, go on.”
“There were six of us children.”
“Six! That must’ve been fun! Or was it?”
“Yes, it was.” Although Vila would have probably thought them rather staid.
“Which one were you then? The littlest?”
Gan laughed. “I was the second child. And two of my brothers are bigger than me. One sister is almost as tall. Perhaps I’ll introduce her to you.”
“Oh, I’d like that! A girlfriend and bodyguard rolled into one. She’d get the short end of the deal though.”
Good, that’s cheering him up a bit. “What else do you want to know? I didn’t have a very exciting life like you, Vila.”
“Course you did. Exotic place like Zephron.”
“I suppose that’s in the eye of the beholder. London Dome was exotic to me.”
“Stun me! All right, tell me about school.”
What would interest Vila? “We lived 20 kilometres from the nearest one, and we had to get there on an AG sled. We used to argue about whose turn it was to drive.” Gan smiled, remembering it.
“Sounds like fun. I wouldn’t mind having a go on one of those. What was school like, then? Bet you didn’t get beaten up.”
“No, but I got teased, just like most children do. I wasn’t as clever as you either, Vila. I had to study very hard to get good marks.”
“Why? I mean, why would you need to, to be a farmer?”
“I didn’t want to be one. I wanted to travel, see a bit of the planet and perhaps the galaxy.”
Vila rolled his eyes at the porthole.
“All right, maybe I’m seeing more of it than I wanted. Anyway, I got a job with a farm equipment manufacturer. A good job with good colleagues...I’m sorry but it’s not exactly a very riveting story, Vila.”
Vila put his head on one side, serious again. “Happy ones aren’t usually. You should be glad it’s not that exciting. I don’t suppose you want to talk about...you know. You never know, it might help.”
Gan looked at him thoughtfully. There was a lot more to Vila than the wisecracks. “You mean Lubov.” Saying her name out loud for the first time since her death was surprisingly hard; for a moment he could not go on.
“Look, you don’t have to, Gan.” Vila touched his hand lightly.
“No, I’d like to. Lu—she was the sister of one of my friends. I went round there one day to see him and she happened to be there. We—just hit it off, I suppose you’d say. We talked all afternoon. I stayed for dinner and we talked half the night away. I knew right then that she was the one. We both did. We were bonded a month later, for life.” Gan drew a ragged breath. “For life.”
“You must have loved her very much.”
“Yes I did. I still do.” Gan turned away to look out the porthole, unable to bear the look of sympathy he knew would be on Vila’s face. “What about you, Vila?” he said finally.
“You never said. Do you have anyone?” Gan looked back to Vila.
“What, with my good looks and charm, need you even—” Vila stopped, somewhat shamefaced. “No, Gan. Not me. Not like that. See, I’m a coward, you know. And if you’re too scared to do the asking, and you’re not exactly—well, the sort women go for, there’s not that much opportunity. I mean, don’t get me wrong, women do like me—just not that way.”
“Oh? You give the impression you’re a bit of a lad.”
“Have to don’t I? Protective colouration. I learned long ago it’s best to pretend you’re just like everyone else, or they’re in for the kill. Look, you won’t let on, will you?”
“Of course not, Vila. You never met anyone special then?”
Vila pulled a sad face. “Oh, now and then, but no-one ever thought I was.” He brightened. “Got lots of friends though. Mates I’d meet down at the pub, have a bite to eat with. Why, I’d just walk through the market and people would call out hello to me.”
“Well, they must miss you.”
Vila thought about it and sighed. “For a couple of days, maybe, they might have wondered where I went. But, well, none of them even knew who I was. Safer that way in my line of work. I was just Vila, always good for the price of a drink and a laugh.”
“No-one close?” Gan asked sympathetically.
“None left alive.” Vila grinned wryly. “Best that way, isn’t it? If you don’t have much, you’ve got nothing to lose.” He winced. “Look, sorry, Gan. I didn’t really mean that. Now I’ll just stick my other foot in my mouth...”
Gan knew he would mourn Lubov for the rest of his life, but it would have been much worse never to have met her, never to have had all those years of happiness with her. He could not imagine living without a big loving family, close loyal friends, and his woman. Poor Vila. It was amazing his life had not left him as hardened and bitter as many of the other prisoners on this ship; quite the reverse.
“That’s all right, Vila. No offence taken.” Gan smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Want another game?”
“Yeah, all right. It was my turn, wasn’t it?”
Another four months had passed, and Vila was slumped miserably on the Liberator’s flight couch with Blake and Gan.
“I know it upset you, stabbing that priest,” Blake said gently.
“I never hurt anyone before, let alone killed them. If I did. Hope I didn’t.” Vila looked down at his trembling hands, and twisted them together. “Knives and blood,” he whispered.
“You saved my life, Vila,” Blake said, patting his shoulder.
Vila looked up, his eyes haunted. “Well, so did you. When that priest was choking me.”
“Then we’re even,” Blake said. “Get some rest. I’m going to.” He got up, stretched, and walked off.
“You saved my life too, Vila,” Gan said.
“I did? When?”
“Back there in the hospital. I wanted to die.”
Vila blinked, then brightened. “Told you, didn’t I, Gan? We make a good team.”
“Oh, we’re more than a team, Vila. We’re friends.”
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