Blood, Threats and FearsBy Nicola Mody
“Standard by seven, Zen,” Blake ordered.
“Three hundred spacials and closing,” Cally said calmly, intent on her screen.
“Force wall, Avon!”
“Two plasma bolts launched,” Vila called, and winced as they flared past. “Missed!” he whooped, and blew a raspberry.
“Evasive action, Jenna.”
Vila peeled himself off the wall, and said vaguely, “Uh, some more glowy hurty things coming at us.”
“How many, Vila?” Blake snapped.
“Um...don’t know.” Vila blinked, puzzled, at his screen. “I’ve forgotten how to count.”
“You moronic little thief!” Avon threw himself at Vila, who raised his blistered hands in self-defence.
“Aaaaaugh!” Vila sat up in bed, shaking. Even in the half-light he kept on in his room when he slept, he could see his hands were quite smooth and clear. All the same, he jumped out of bed, turned the light on full, and checked himself all over. “Oh, marvellous,” he said, collapsing back onto the bed. “Fosforon plague again.”
It had been more than two weeks since that terrifying last transmission from Dr Bellfriar, but Vila didn’t think he’d ever forget the chill that went down his spine when Bellfriar realised he could no longer read. He had made a weak joke to convince himself he wasn’t frightened. But he had been, so much so that he’d made Cally check him twice for infection, and had had nightmares ever since. It was the usual story: somehow the intense fear had dredged up all the old and new terrors of his life to trot out every night for the next couple of weeks. Vila checked the time. He’d had three hours sleep. Things were improving.
He yawned and climbed back into bed.
Vila stared at the bloody knife with horror, as the priest slid to the floor.
“Don’t just stand there, Vila. Run!” Blake said urgently.
But the priest’s cowl had slipped off, and Vila could see it was a woman, her blonde hair spilling onto the floor, darkening in the pool of blood there. He knew her. It was his mother...his mother, lying in all that blood...
Vila sat bolt upright again, his eyes wide open with horror. “Oh, no,” he said, sliding his legs over the edge of the bed. “No no no.” He sat there for a few minutes, waiting for his heart to slow down, then staggered into the bathroom. He splashed his face with cold water, towelled it dry, and said to his pale, tired-looking reflection, “Right. That’s it. Time to get up.”
He got dressed and wandered along to the rest room, still yawning, to make himself a coffee. He considered adding a slug of soma, but decided it would be a bit much to handle in his condition. Instead, he made a second cup of coffee, and carried both to the flight deck. He’d forgotten to check who was on watch, but he thought it might be Blake or Cally. That was good: either one of them would let him stay and chat. Jenna usually ignored him till he went away, but Avon was sometimes amusing to annoy.
It was Blake. He looked up when Vila came in, and said, “You don’t look the best. Nightmares again?”
“Yeah. Coffee?” Vila handed a cup to Blake, and took his own over to the couch, where he sprawled bonelessly. “Only had two bad ones this time. It’s getting better.”
Blake was the only one who knew. They had both been through the Federation’s mind adjustment programs, they had both suffered the bad dreams and ‘nerve stress’ that followed, although Blake had only remembered his own experiences after breaking his conditioning. He looked at Vila with sympathy and concern.
“You really ought to see Cally. Perhaps she can help.”
“Nah. Bad enough they all know about the nerve thing. Though I suppose it’s better than them thinking I’m a hypochondriac every time I get stressed. If they knew about this, they might want to dump me.”
“Don’t be silly, Vila. You’re far too valuable. No-one would dump you.”
“Wouldn’t put it past Avon,” Vila said darkly.
Blake smiled. “He’d miss you. No-one else gives him a decent game of chess.” He became serious. “Still, you can’t go on like this. You need your sleep.”
“I’ll catch up on my watch,” Vila grinned, then added hastily, “That was a joke, Blake!”
Vila shivered, huddled on the ground with his arms wrapped around him.
“Freeze in silence, he said. All right for Avon, he hasn’t got a weak chest. Stay alert, he said. Oh, right, that’s a doddle with so much oxygen to breathe. Exbar hasn’t got much atmosphere, get it?...Waits for a laugh, not a sausage. Oh, well. Stay alert and call in to the Liberator every ten minutes he said. Well, that’s an easy one with hypo-bloody-thermia coming on. Shoot Blake’s poor old uncle if you have to, he said. Sod that for a lark, I don’t do that sort of thing, Avon...” Vila’s head dropped to his chest. “No, no, stay awake, you idiot thief...” Vila widened his eyes in a vain attempt to wake himself up, but they were so heavy. Perhaps just a short nap. He might feel warmer if he lay down. He’d been through a lot lately, what with the nightmares and that nerve-wracking battle with pursuit ships. People would understand. Blake had when he’d found him asleep on watch when that message came in. “Good old Blake.” He blinked owlishly at his watch. Five minutes until he had to call Jenna. “Good old Jenna.” He must be growing on her; she’d actually smiled at him as he teleported. “Just a little snooze first...”
He was fast asleep when Jenna’s voice sounded from his bracelet. “Vila. Vila, come in please. Vila.”
He stirred, and mumbled softly.
He woke up, feeling disoriented and a bit guilty. An old man was standing there, looking down at him.
“Chilly, isn’t it?” Vila said inanely.
Oh, no. Avon was going to be right pissed off.
“Bring us up, Cally,” Jenna said.
Cally leaned forward and moved the teleport controls, watching as the rest of the crew materialised. Avon was clutching his arm, obviously hurt. As they stepped forward from the teleport bay, Vila moved towards him.
“Avon, I’m sorry—”
“Get out of my sight.” Avon pushed him aside with his good arm.
Vila looked at him, a picture of abject misery, then ducked his head and stumbled off.
Cally stared after him, puzzled. She had caught a faint trace of his usual stress reaction while he was on the planet—the painful nerve condition he called ‘pins and needles’—and, twice, what she assumed was the stomach cramps he occasionally got under prolonged stress. But there was something else...Never mind, she could worry about Vila later. There were more urgent matters.
“Avon, let me look at that arm,” she said. “Oh, that’s not too bad, but we had better attend to it straight away.”
“Jenna, prepare to break orbit,” Blake said, following Cally and Avon out.
“Two of you are hardly necessary,” Avon said, acidly. Blake smiled slightly and said nothing.
“What is the matter with Vila?” Cally asked as they walked.
“More to the point, what is not the matter with him,” Avon snapped.
“Oh come, Avon,” Blake said mildly. “My uncle told me that Vila stood up very well to Travis.”
“Obviously not well enough.”
“Well, no, but apparently he did his best, even saying at one point that Travis might as well kill him.”
“A pity he didn’t. Nothing excuses his appalling behaviour after that.”
“What did he do?” Cally asked.
“He begged Travis to let him out in an disgusting display of utter cowardice. He even offered to fly the Liberator for him.”
Cally frowned. “That doesn’t sound like Vila.” They went into the medical unit. “Sit down, Avon. Roll up your sleeve and let me look.” Cally swabbed the wound down. “I’d have thought he would have been trying to pick the lock.” She picked up the antiseptic spray and the regenerator.
“He didn’t even look at it,” Blake said thoughtfully. “Though we were tied up at the time. Still, you’re right, it wasn’t like Vila at all. He didn’t even try to get his hands free. And he wasn’t even talking rationally before that.”
Avon raised an eyebrow. “Have you ever heard Vila talk rationally?”
“All the same, he wasn’t himself.”
Cally finished running the regenerator over Avon’s arm. “There. That should be quite all right now, but I’d advise you to stay here and rest for a while.”
Avon shrugged his jacket on. “I should prefer to do so in my cabin.”
“I’ll get Jenna to take us out of here,” Blake said, following Avon through the door.
As Cally tidied up, she wondered about Vila and thought that perhaps she ought to check on him. She closed the medical unit up and went along to his cabin and knocked on the door. There was no response. She flicked the communicator on beside the door.
“Vila? Are you there, Vila?”
“No. Go away,” came the muffled answer.
“Vila?...Vila, are you all right?”
There was no answer.
“Blake’s uncle said you were very brave with Travis.”
“Could’ve killed you.” She could barely hear Vila’s reply. “You and Jenna.”
Cally wasn’t sure what to say to that. It was, after all, quite true. “Well, we’re all still alive,” she said finally. “That is what counts.” She waited a while. “Are you going to come out?” Obviously not. “Will you let me in, then?...Vila?”
Finally, she sighed and turned the communicator off.
Vila lay on his bed, feeling very ill.
When he first got back, he had felt so shaky, he had had a small drink of brandy to steady his nerves, taken off his shoes and surface fatigues, and lain down, curled up, his arms around his stomach where Molok had punched him, and Avon had kneed him not long afterwards. He was sure to have a bad bruise there later, he thought resentfully. Mind you, to be honest, he deserved it; worse probably. He felt slightly nauseous—odd, brandy was supposed to be medicinal—and wondered if he ought to call Cally. No, Cally would be dealing with Avon’s wound, and would hardly have any sympathy for him.
Not long afterwards, Cally had come and tried to speak to him, but he didn’t want to face her, or anybody, and had told her to go away. Strangely enough, it hurt when she did. But why should she care about him; why should anybody? He remembered Avon’s look of utter contempt, and Blake’s lack of interest, and wondered how long he would have to stay out of sight, to give them time to forget how he’d behaved. If they ever did. He closed his eyes in shame at the memory. First Ushton threatened him with a knife—a knife—and then they’d tried to suffocate him, two things out of his worse nightmares. Still, he should have been brave like Blake and Avon, talking calmly as death approached. Never had been though. He sighed and slipped into sleep.
He dreamed of knives, blood, airless darkness. Let me out, Bernid, please...no, it was Travis this time...let me out, Travis, I’ll do anything ...
He woke up, drenched in sweat, and pushed himself into a sitting position, whimpering at the pain in his stomach. How long had he been out? Almost six hours. He slid his legs over the side of the bed, and sat there, fighting the sudden dizziness and nausea. He was so hot and thirsty, maybe he’d feel better if he had a drink. He stood up, leaning heavily against the wall, unzipped his jacket and shrugged it to the floor, then staggered to his bathroom to get a drink of water. He refilled the glass and brought it back with him, spilling half of it on the way, and lay down again, very hurriedly. Perhaps he should call Cally. No, he didn’t think he had the strength to get up again. He’d just have another little nap; he might feel better after that.
When Cally appeared on the flight deck the next morning, Jenna was at her station, Avon was working on one of his gadgets, and Blake was sprawled on the couch.
“Where is Vila?” Cally asked. “Has anyone seen him?”
“I’m glad to say, no,” Avon said without looking up. “We’ve been enjoying his absence.”
“He’s probably sulking in his cabin like he did after that Terra Nostra fiasco,” Jenna said, “waiting for someone to tell him he’s forgiven.”
“He will be waiting a long time,” Avon said.
“Don’t worry, Cally,” Blake said. “He’ll turn up when he gets hungry.”
“He’d better come out in time for his watch,” Avon said sharply.
Cally looked around at them. “Isn’t anyone worried about him?”
“Look, he’s probably still asleep.” Blake said. “He’s been having a lot of nightmares lately, and he was very tired.”
“Oh?” Avon looked up. “And just when were you going to share that little gem of information with us? Or did you think it was quite all right to have a member of your crew wandering around half-asleep as well as half-witted? I took that idiot down as backup, Blake.”
“Vila’s had nightmares before, and it’s never affected his performance,” Blake pointed out.
“Look, something’s wrong,” Cally interrupted what looked like developing into a heated argument. “I can feel it.”
Avon turned his attention to Cally. “I thought you could only read thoughts from other Auronar.”
Cally hesitated. “That is true, but I can sometimes pick up strong emotions and pain from Vila.”
“You never told us this before, Cally,” Blake said.
“It did not seem important.”
That was not really the truth. Cally had often felt isolated in this group of non-telepaths, and she knew Vila felt that way too, for reasons she was unsure of—his Federation grading perhaps? But she had felt his loneliness, particularly since Gan’s death, and his longing for acceptance. She had thought that telling them about his slight gift would only make things more difficult for him.
“You mean Vila is some sort of telepath?” Avon asked incredulously. “Vila, who doubtless has trouble reading his own thoughts?”
“No,” Cally said patiently, “he cannot send or receive thoughts as such. I can sometimes pick up feelings from him, but none of you could. And he is quite sensitive, so I think he is able to read people’s feelings himself, though only at a subconscious level.”
“Thank goodness for that,” Jenna said tartly. “I’d hate to think of Vila rummaging though my mind like he probably does to my room.”
“He’s never done that,” Blake said. “I made him promise not to when he first joined the crew.”
“Oh, and what makes you think he hasn’t anyway?” Avon asked.
“Vila has his own sense of honour, and I believe he would keep his word. Besides,” Blake added, with a slight smile, “I checked with Zen.”
“I had better go and see how he is,” Cally said.
“Wait.” Blake went over to the comms station and keyed in Vila’s room. “Vila. This is Blake.” He paused. “Vila, respond please.” He began to look worried.
“Perhaps he’s not there,” Jenna said.
“Zen, where is Vila?”
"Vila Restal is in his cabin."
“What is his condition?”
"He is unconscious."
Cally left at a run. She heard Blake call to Jenna to stay on watch as he ran after her. She halted at Vila’s door, and hit it, frustrated. “I forgot. It’s locked.”
Blake touched the wall communicator. “Zen. Can you unlock Vila’s door?”
“Why not? The locks are part of your system.”
"The additional lock on Vila Restal’s cabin door is not."
“He added his own custom lock,” Avon said behind them. “Doubtless a very clever piece of work. I’d be surprised if anyone could get through that.”
“We’ll have to cut our way in then,” Blake decided. “Get a laser.”
“Are you sure? That will take at least half an hour.”
“Have you any other suggestions?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. One of us could teleport in.”
“I see no reason why not. It is a destination like any other, except that it happens to be within the ship. It is simply a matter of getting the co-ordinates right. Orac can manage that.” Avon left, walking rapidly.
Blake and Cally looked at each other speculatively. “I suppose he’s right,” Blake said doubtfully.
“We’ll soon know.”
It was not long before they heard a faint rattling, and the door opened and Avon stood there looking disgusted. “He’s drunk.”
Cally could see Vila sprawled across the bed behind him, his pale face glistening with sweat. One hand dangled over the floor beside the small bedside table which held a half-empty glass. Cally pushed past Avon, and stood looking down at Vila. “Are you sure?” She picked up the glass, sniffed it, then took a small sip. “It’s water, Avon!” she said reproachfully, and placed her hand on Vila’s forehead. “He’s burning up. He has a fever.” She patted Vila’s cheek, gently. “Vila? It’s Cally.”
Vila stirred, moaning faintly, and moved his lips. Cally leant forward. “...don’t put me in there...I’ll be good...promise...good boy...please don’t...can’t breathe ...” he muttered.
Cally stepped back, horrified, and leaned against the wall for support.
“What’s wrong, Cally? Are you all right?” Blake held her by the shoulders.
Cally shook her head as if to clear it. “Yes, I think so,” she said shakily. “I got all these images from Vila. Awful things, all mixed up—darkness, suffocation, blood, knives, absolute terror. I’ve never received anything so clearly before. It must be his fever.” She pushed herself upright. “I’m all right now. I’ve blocked my mind against it. Poor Vila.” She went back to Vila, and leaned over him again, stroking his forehead. “Vila, wake up. It’s Cally.”
Vila flickered his eyes open. “Don’t hurt me,” he whispered.
“It’s Cally, Vila. You’re on the Liberator.”
Vila blinked and tried to focus. “Cally?” He looked vaguely round the room at the others. “Why are you all here?...You’re angry with me, aren’t you?”
“No-one’s angry with you now, Vila,” Blake said reassuringly, darting a warning glance at Avon.
Vila sighed and closed his eyes
Cally took his wrist to feel his pulse. Like his breathing, it was light and rapid. “He can’t have caught a virus down there,” she said, puzzled. “Neither of you did. Was he injured at all?”
“Well, one of Travis’s crimos punched him in the stomach,” Blake said. “And then—” he hesitated.
“And then I kneed him there.” Avon said evenly. “Is that what you were going to say?”
“Avon!” Cally was shocked.
“He deserved it,” Avon said coldly. “He could have lost us the Liberator, not to mention got you and Jenna killed.” He turned to go out.
“Where are you going?” Blake demanded.
“To get a stretcher. It does not seem to have occurred to either of you.”
Blake looked down at Vila, who was delirious again, his lips moving silently. “I should have noticed,” he said to Cally. “I was so worried about my own family, I completely ignored him.”
“That is understandable,” Cally said, “and we’re all used to Vila complaining when it is not that serious.” She went to the bathroom and returned with a damp towel, and began to wipe Vila’s face. He stirred, sighed, and said something. Cally thought it might have been ‘mummy’ or ‘mama’.
Avon returned with a wheeled stretcher and helped Blake lift Vila onto it. Despite their care, he cried out with pain. At the surgical unit, when they lifted him on to the operating table, he moaned again and opened his eyes. This time, he seemed to be aware of his surroundings.
“That’s right, it’s Cally,” she said, stroking his hair and reaching with her other hand for an anaesthetic disc.
“Don’t feel very well.”
“I know.” She smiled at him, reassuringly. “But it’s all right now. We are looking after you. You are going to be fine.” As Vila looked up at her trustingly, she slipped the disc onto his forehead.
“Oh, Cally. I hope that wasn’t a lie.”
“What difference does it make, Avon? If he dies, at least his last conscious moments will not be spent in fear.” Cally turned to the medical computer. “Diagnosis?”
"The patient has sustained blunt trauma to the intestines, with internal bleeding and infection resulting from rupture of the intestinal wall. Immediate blood transfusion and surgery are urgently required."
“One of you will have to assist me.”
“I will,” Blake said. “It’s the least I can do.”
Avon left them to it.
He went back to Vila’s cabin, intending just to close the door. He hesitated and, driven by curiosity, went in. Vila’s room had not been what he had expected. He was not quite sure what he had thought it would be like—cluttered with velvet paintings and tasteless plastic souvenirs of various planets, probably. Instead, it was almost austere, the white walls unadorned except for a glass shelf holding a small piece of twisted driftwood and two exquisite jade figurines, doubtless stolen. Unsure quite why he was doing it, Avon straightened the vibrant blue, green and purple raw silk bedcover, picked up Vila’s discarded jacket from the floor, folded it and placed it tidily on the end of the bed. He took the damp towel back to the bathroom. It too was spotless, decorated only with a large spiral seashell and a bottle made of clear turquoise glass. Back in the main cabin, he looked around again. Vila must store his tools and other things in the cupboards. Avon did not open any of them. He quietly closed the door on the oddly peaceful cabin and locked it. He had never thought of Vila as a particularly private person, but now he reflected how little he actually knew about him, despite his almost constant inconsequential babble. Perhaps noisy waters could run deep.
Avon walked to the fight deck, disturbed to find how worried he was. Since Anna Grant’s death years ago, he had been determined never to care for anyone ever again, but somehow, without him noticing, he had become close enough to the Liberator crew to find that the loss of any one of them would matter to him.
“What’s going on?” Jenna asked as he entered. “Is Vila all right?”
“He was injured on Exbar,” Avon replied shortly. “He’s in surgery.” He sat down with his back to Jenna and started work on his device. She should know better than to annoy him with further questions. He was relieved however when she switched on communications to the surgical unit, as he had not wanted to do it himself and reveal his concern.
The surgery over, Cally checked the life support readouts. “His vital signs are still weak, but stable,” she told Blake. “I think he may pull through. He still has a high fever and the antibiotics will take a while to work. I’ll stay with him.”
“All right. I’ll take over in a couple of hours, and organise the others into two-hour watches.” Blake looked down at the pale, still Vila. “I don’t want him left alone.”
When he returned two hours later, Vila was delirious again, and Cally was leaning over him, her face intent.
“What’s going on?”
“He’s back in that nightmare again, the one he had before. I’ve been giving him a light sedative, but he’s too weak to take anything stronger. I don’t think he can hear me speaking, so I was trying to send him comforting thoughts. I think it’s working.” Cally looked at Blake. “It must be the root of all Vila’s fears, Blake. Darkness, claustrophobia, the inability to breathe, knives, blood, violence.”
“Knives,” Blake said slowly. “When I was down on Cygnus Alpha, Vila saved my life by stabbing a priest. I can still remember the look on his face. He was horrified, couldn’t even move. I had to yell at him. And then yesterday my uncle threatened him with a knife. He said Vila went to pieces. I think he was quite ashamed of what he did and that’s why he made such a point of Vila standing up to Travis.”
“Blake,” Cally hesitated, then went on. “Do they—well, do they do that sort of thing when they condition you?”
Blake shook his head. “Not to me, anyway. But none of the standard treatments worked on Vila.” He looked ill. “Who knows what they did to him.”
“Well, going by the sort of thing he says and the faint images I’m getting, I think he was very young at the time. He mentioned the Juvenile Detention Wards once last year. Perhaps it was there.” She turned back to Vila, who had fallen into an exhausted sleep. “His fever is going down slightly. The life support should handle things, but call me if there’s any change.”
Blake nodded and took her place.
Blake called Cally about an hour later. “Cally, before you ask, Vila’s all right, but I think you’d like to hear this.”
When Cally got to the surgical unit, Avon was standing with Blake, holding a plastisheet printout.
“Avon heard us talking over the intercom,” Blake said, “and did some looking around.”
“I got Orac to find all he could find on the so-called therapy the Federation gave Vila,” Avon said. “None of it’s particularly pleasant, but there was nothing that matched what you picked up, Cally. You said he mentioned his mother, so I got Orac to do a search on her matching any of the key words. This is what it came up with. It’s a police report.”
Cally took the sheet and read it through. She looked up, horrified. “Vila was only four! Oh, the poor little boy.”
“Indeed,” Avon said. “However he is now an adult, debatable as that is, and should be quite capable of dealing with it.”
“All the same, thank you, Avon. I think this will help a lot.”
Vila was still feverish when Jenna took her two-hour stint. He slipped in and out of unconsciousness, seemingly unaware of his surroundings, but the few words he muttered were too quiet for her to catch. Once though, he opened his eyes and looked at her, and said quite clearly, “Mummy?” Jenna was annoyed until she reflected that if Vila thought he was still four years old, his mother was only 22, young, blonde and very pretty too, judging by the picture Orac had found and displayed. Mollified, Jenna awkwardly patted Vila’s hand and told him to go back to sleep. She had never become that close to him. He could be very exasperating, but Blake had said once that she had not seen Vila at his best, coolly cracking locks and jokes at the same time, but she could well imagine it—he was efficient and accurate on the neutron blasters despite all his protestations of cowardice and complaints of illness afterwards. She smiled, remembering how funny he had been the day before, worrying about whether he had enough clothes on before teleporting down to Exbar, and asking plaintively for hand-warmers as he disappeared. She had to admit that she would miss him.
When Avon relieved Jenna, he brought Orac and the latest device he was working on, and set them up on the other bed. He checked Vila’s condition and the life support readouts, then turned his attention to his work, looking up occasionally. He wanted to create something which would allow the Liberator to mimic another ship to any Federation vessel, using the tarial cells in the enemy computers. Perhaps he could use the other ship’s own details, modified slightly, or those of all the ships the Liberator had encountered in the local area, averaged out in some way. He was not however having much success. He had read about Soprons some time ago, a life-form which did much the same thing. He resolved to get hold of one to examine if he was ever in the vicinity of their home-planet. As he worked, he was aware of Vila occasionally stirring but mercifully saying nothing. Pity there wasn’t a less life-threatening way of keeping him as quiet at other times.
Avon looked up. “What is it?”
“I’m cold,” Vila whimpered.
Avon sighed and got up. “Yes, one of your favourite complaints,” he said dryly, laying a blanket over Vila. He checked the readouts; Vila’s temperature and blood pressure had both dropped sharply and his vital signs were very low but holding. Letting his breath out in relief, Avon sat, keeping his attention on Vila and the screen.
Avon had never seen the point of lying to make others feel better. He had doubtless exacerbated Vila’s injuries by attacking him, but regretting it was futile. “That is a singularly useless statement. It does not change the past,” he said quietly, but placed his hand on Vila’s shoulder.
“Feel funny…dizzy…” Vila whispered, and closed his eyes. His head fell to one side and Avon took his hand away.
When he heard Cally come in, he turned, deliberately wiping all expression from his face.
“How is he? Oh, Avon, why didn’t you call me?”
“It was hardly necessary. His readings are all in the safety range.” Avon forbore to say that they were only just, and had not always been.
He gathered his things to go, and raised an eyebrow sardonically when he noticed that Cally had drawn up a chair and was holding Vila’s hand. “He’s unconscious, Cally. That is a waste of time.”
“No, it is not.” Cally said. “There is always a level of awareness.”
Avon left, shaking his head at the illogical crewmates he had to put up with.
Vila was now well enough to be propped up slightly in bed, although he was still very weak. He had slept most of the last 24 hours, far enough out of danger to be left on his own with computer monitoring.
“You’re looking a lot better,” Cally said as she entered. “How are you feeling now?”
“Thirsty. Couldn’t have a drink, could I?”
“Just a small one, and only water, mind.” Cally brought a glass and straw over and helped Vila to drink, then sat down. “Now, Vila. Are you feeling well enough to talk to me?”
Here it comes, thought Vila, they’re throwing me off the ship. He nodded, resigned.
“While you were delirious, you talked about being trapped in a small dark place, and knives and blood.”
Vila was horrified. “Oh…I didn’t, did I?”
“Do you remember where those things come from? Why you dreamed of them?”
“Course I do, how could I forget? Though I try to. Look, Cally, I don’t want to talk about it. Even think about it.”
“It might help if you do.”
“No, please.” Vila turned his head away.
“Did you ever talk to anyone else about it? Gan perhaps?”
“Did you and your mother ever discuss it afterwards?”
“Oh, Vila, that is not very healthy. You really must confront it.”
“Cally, I don’t want to.”
Cally took his hand, squeezing it encouragingly. “I know it is hard. Please try. I think it will help a lot if you tell someone else. Vila?”
Vila turned back and looked at her. She was so kind and sweet, and he thought he could remember her holding his hand like that while he was ill. Perhaps he could tell Cally.
“Well,” he said hesitantly, “when I was four, my mother had this boyfriend, Bernid. Took a dislike to me...”
“I don’t like Bernid,” Vila said to his mother.
“Well, I do.”
“He’s fun. He makes me laugh, and he buys me things.”
“I make you laugh.”
“Of course you do, darling, but I need someone to talk to.”
“I talk to you.”
“Someone big. You’ll understand when you grow up.”
Vila trailed his hand along the kitchen cupboard doors. “He yells at me,” he said at last.
“’Cause I’m noisy.”
Jandy Restal looked down at Vila’s big innocent brown eyes, and lifted him up to give him a hug. How could anyone be angry with such a sweet little boy? “You’ll have to be nice and quiet, then.”
Vila put his arms around her neck and burrowed his head under her chin. “And he puts me in the cupboard.”
“I know.” Jandy kissed the top of his blonde head. “But he doesn’t hurt you—does he?”
“Where?” Jandy lifted Vila away from her so she could see his face.
“My arm when he grabs me.”
“Is that all? Are you sure? He doesn’t hurt you anywhere else?”
Mystified, Vila shook his head.
Relieved, Jandy hugged him again, and waltzed slowly around the room with him. If Bernid or anyone ever hurt her Vila…
She had never intended to keep the baby. She was only 17 when she got pregnant, and was afraid of getting an abortion because the medical care available to Delta-grades was minimal and she would not risk it. She was going to leave the baby outside an orphanage, just as her mother had done with her, but when she saw her newborn child, she knew she could not. This little scrap of life needed her—as no-one ever had—and would love her.
And she loved him in return. He was the most important thing in her life.
It worried her that Vila was often locked in the cupboard when she came home, but he always seemed all right, curled up on the floor among the shoes, peacefully asleep. When she picked him up and spoke to him, he would open his eyes and smile at her with such happiness, it made her feel all soft inside.
She wished Bernid liked him better. A pity she had only known Vila’s father for one night—ah, he had been a charmer—but Bernid was better than no-one. And he did make her laugh with his jokes, despite his aura of danger, and he bought her things and made her feel wanted and looked after although she knew she had to be careful never to annoy him. She liked getting gifts—she had received so few in her life—and was as happy with the bunch of yellow paper flowers he had bought her in the market as a bottle of expensive perfume, She grabbed one of the flowers now as she passed and gave it to Vila, who waved it in delight as she swung him round and round.
Vila peered around the door at Bernid, who was slumped at the table with a bottle of beer, his shirt rumpled and his short black hair sticking up in spikes, watching sport on the vidscreen. Even though Vila had not made a sound, Bernid knew he was there.
“Bugger off, kid,” he said, without turning. “One peep out of you and you’re in the cupboard.”
Vila closed the door very carefully and quietly. It wasn’t fair. Why did Bernid have to be out there? The few toys Vila owned were in that room, under the couch he slept on. He looked around his mother’s room. That perfume bottle might make a good spaceship. Vila picked it up and held it up, flying it experimentally around the room, humming quietly. He picked up his mother’s hairbrush in his other hand. It could be a really big battleship, each bristle a cannon.
“Pow, pow, pow,” Vila whispered, shaking the brush to show the recoil from its powerful weapons. The other spaceship escaped, swooping out of range. Vila looked around, considering. He wanted to show the chase, but he knew better than to throw anything in the little flat. What if he climbed on the dresser and jumped onto the bed? That would work. He clambered up and leapt, a spaceship held high in each hand. As he hit the bed, he let the bottle go, and it fell to the floor, breaking.
Vila froze with horror.
“All right, that does it!” Bernid flung the door open. “Why, you little… That perfume cost me a bloody packet.” He hit Vila hard across the face, knocking him off the bed, then yanked him up by one arm and threw him in the cupboard, slamming the door.
Vila whimpered with terror in the darkness, staring at the one small point of light he could see, the keyhole. As always, he was afraid to take his eyes off it—if he did, the nameless things in the dark would get him. There was no handle on the inside, so he could not get out. When the fear became too great though, he could escape in his head. He had learned how to do that the third time Bernid had locked him in, desperately trying to think of good things to keep the monsters away, and had found how to make a twist in his mind so that he could go to where the memories were real. But he had to wait until he was really scared to do that, as turning the corner that wasn’t there was not that easy.
Then the light disappeared.
Bernid had put something in the keyhole. Not the key, because as far as Vila knew there had never been one. The darkness was complete.
“Let me out!” he screamed, pounding on the door. “I’ll be good, I promise, I’ll be quiet, I’ll do anything, please, Bernid, please.” Even when he heard the front door slam, he went on screaming and begging until it became hard to breathe.
Finally, exhausted, he curled up on the floor of the stuffy cupboard and ‘went away’.
His mother picked him up and hugged him, and although he didn’t have the words, he knew he was warm and safe and loved…
He sat in the kitchen, swinging his legs, watching his mother making him toast, savouring the wonderful smell and the way she smiled at him…
He shrieked with delight as he was given a spaceship ride, held by an arm and a leg, spun round and round so that the room became a blur…
His mother leaned over him and kissed him goodnight, whispering “Sweet dreams, my sweetheart”…
When Jandy came home, she was surprised to find Bernid was out. “Vila?” she called. There was no answer—perhaps he was asleep in the cupboard again. She went into the bedroom, but when she saw the scrap of rag stuffed in the keyhole, she knew something was very wrong. She opened the door and lifted the small limp, body, calling his name over and over, expecting he would open his eyes and smile at her as he always did. This time though, he was ashen, his lips were bluish, and he was barely breathing. Sobbing, she crushed him to her and rocked him back and forth until suddenly he drew a ragged breath and coughed. She went on holding him, covering his face with kisses, and telling him that he was safe and loved, that she would never let anything bad happen to him again.
She carried him out to the other room and sat him on the table, then determinedly began to pack Bernid’s things, pausing to hug Vila every time she passed him. She put the two battered cases by the front door, then as a last thought, savagely shoved the bunch of yellow paper flowers into the side pocket of one of them.
At the sound of the key in the door, Vila pushed himself back on the table and pressed himself, trembling, against the wall. His mother stood protectively in from of him, but he could see that her hands, held behind her back, were shaking too.
Bernid stopped at the sight of the suitcases. “What the hell—you’re throwing me out?” he shouted; Vila winced and cringed.
“You hurt my little boy.”
Bernid kicked the cases over, spilling the yellow flowers across the floor. The sight seemed to enrage him further. “You bitch,” he said softly, “no-one does that to me.” He pulled a drawer open and took out a knife. Vila could not see what happened, but he heard his mother gasp as she dropped to the floor. Bernid stood, looking down at her for a moment, then noticed Vila, who was too terrified to move. “What have we here?” He leaned forward, fast as a snake, and lifted Vila by one arm, holding him dangling in from of him, and held the bloody knife in front of his face. “What shall I do with you, eh?”
Vila was too frightened to make a noise, or even blink, as Bernid traced the knife down his cheek, then held it across his throat.
“Nah, I think I’ll just leave you here with your mother,” Bernid said with a snigger, and dropped him. “She can look after you.” He picked up the cases, disgustedly kicking the paper flowers aside, and left, slamming the door behind him and turning his key in the lock.
Vila looked at his mother. She was slumped on the floor, her head against the wall, and a large red patch was spreading across her middle. “Mummy, please, mummy…” Vila crawled over to her and ineffectually pushed his hands against the hole in her tunic, trying to stem the blood.
Her eyes flickered open. “Vila…Vila, darling…get help.” She pushed him away, weakly. “Go…next door...”
Crying now, Vila ran to the door, then, realising he was too small, ran back to get a chair. He looked at his mother for help, but her eyes were closed now, and some of the blood had begun to pool on the floor. He pushed a chair over to the door, clambered onto it, and tried to turn the handle. His hands were slick with blood; shuddering, he wiped them on his trousers and tried again. Of course, the door was locked; he needed the key. He knew where his mother kept it—on a hook over the bench. Vila got down and pushed another chair over to the bench and climbed up to get the key, then went back to the door and pushed the key into the hole. He had to use both sticky hands to turn it, but although he heard a click, when he pulled on the handle, the door still would not open. Sobbing desperately, Vila almost panicked, but realised that the chair he was standing on was holding it shut. He got down, pushed it back a little way, climbed up again, pulled the door ajar, jumped down, opened it, and ran next door and pounded on the neighbours’ door.
When Doty opened it, Vila could not speak, just pull at her hand with his blood-stained one. Doty took one look at him, and picked him up and ran with him, calling to Serrin to follow. Vila could not speak when the doctor came, or when Doty took him back to her flat and cleaned him up, talking softly and gently to him all the while, or when the people in dark clothes came and asked him questions. He remained silent when Doty took him to see his mother, lying very pale and still in her bed with strange tubes in her arms; he just climbed into the bed with her and lay beside her curled up against her, saying over and over in his head, don’t die Mummy, please stay with me. Serrin wanted to lift him out, but Doty said it would do no harm, perhaps even some good, and sat with them both.
He did not speak until his mother opened her eyes and smiled to see him there.
“But Vila,” Cally said, “why did you never talk about it?”
Vila looked away. “Don’t even like thinking about it.”
“Why not? It was a terrible thing to happen to any child, but you were very brave.”
“Me? Cally, it was all my fault.”
“No, it was not. You were just being a child. There is no blame in that, Vila.”
“If I’d been quiet…”
“You must not think that. That man was violent, and sooner or later something else would have set him off. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the reverse.”
“Yes, I have,” Vila said bitterly, turning his head away. “I was so helpless. None of you would’ve been. Story of my life, a coward from start to finish.”
“Stop that, Vila. You were extremely brave and resourceful. You saved your mother’s life. Most children your age couldn’t have done what you did.”
“Yes, really.” Cally squeezed Vila’s hand. “Every time you think of what happened, whenever you’re afraid of blood, or knives, or the dark, or anything at all to do with this—you should remember, Vila, just how courageous and clever you were then. And can be now.”
“Now you go to sleep, and have good dreams. And don’t you forget what I said.”
“I won’t. Thanks, Cally. But I just wanted to say that—well—I made such a mess of things down there, that I’d understand if you all—I mean, I’ll go, but I’d prefer a civilised planet, mind.”
“Oh, Vila, I don’t think you need worry about that.”
“The fact remains, Blake, that we must seriously consider whether keeping Vila is worth the risk,” Avon said, leaning forward on one of the flight couches. “He’s talented, yes, but if he’s that unstable, he is quite simply a liability.”
“Oh, I hardly think there’s much danger, Avon, It was pure coincidence that he encountered so many triggers at once. First the knife, then being threatened by Travis, then almost being suffocated. It’s not likely to happen again.”
“No? What if someone is bleeding from a wound and the lights go out? Not, I would have thought, a completely remote possibility.”
“I don’t think it is a problem any longer,” Cally said. “I have shown Vila how to look at those memories in a much more positive way, and I think he will be much stronger for it.”
“That is a matter of opinion only, Cally,” Avon snapped. “We can’t afford another such collapse. And what else might be lurking in Vila’s past?”
“Vila is too valuable to lose, Avon.” Blake got up and began to pace the flight deck. “Beside we do owe him some loyalty. What he’s done for us in the past far outweighs what just happened.” He shook his head. “And it could have been averted if only I’d taken some notice of him.”
“Spare me the wallowing in guilt, Blake. We shouldn’t have to treat a member of this crew with kid gloves or wrap him in cotton wool.”
“Vila stays, Avon.”
“Oh, I see. Once again we get no say. Keeping a crew member who is both unwanted and—”
Jenna, at her station, rolled her eyes. “You lot will go on for hours like this. Why don’t we just take a vote?”
“If we do, then Vila should have one too,” Cally said.
“Oh, that’s obvious, Cally,” Avon drawled. “Otherwise there could be a tied result.”
Blake clapped his hands together. “Jenna’s right, we vote. I suggest anonymously, so that everyone is free to make up their own mind without being influenced by what others think. Let’s see now..” he pinched the top of his nose in thought. “Ah—blackballing. I think some private clubs still keep up the practice.”
Jenna and Cally looked puzzled, but Avon smiled. “What do you suggest we use?”
“We don’t have black and white marbles…ah!” Blake snapped his fingers. “Where’s the chess set? We could use pawns.”
“Well now, that seems appropriate.” Avon lifted the cover of the storage compartment by the couch and got out the chess pieces. He began to sort pawns to one side.
“I’ll get some pouches.” Blake went out.
“I do not understand.” Cally frowned. “What is this ‘blackballing’, Avon?”
“It’s very simple. Each of us gets a black and a white pawn. We put one in the voting bag—white to keep Vila, black to…not—and the other in the discard bag. As Blake said, it’s all quite anonymous.”
“And rather cold,” Cally said. “Vila’s whole future is at stake.”
“As ours may well be.”
“I will go and explain it to Vila.” Cally picked up two pawns and left.
Avon sat back and considered how the others would vote.
Blake and Cally wanted Vila to stay, that much was obvious. Or was it? Under cover of anonymity, Blake could well decide that it was better for his precious cause that Vila leave. Perhaps that was why he had suggested that particular voting method. And Jenna—what would she decide? She had said very little, but she never wasted time on inconsequential chatter. She was not close to Vila, although she had seemed to warm more to him lately. However Jenna was pragmatic; she would not let sentiment cloud her judgement. Vila of course would vote to stay. What was it he had said? I like Blake, and I’ve got nowhere else to go.
Avon thought about his own vote. Despite what he had said to Blake—really, sometimes that man just invited argument; he was like a red rag to a bull—Avon could find as many logical reasons to keep Vila as to dump him. He was an extraordinarily talented thief whose skills Avon hoped to use for personal gain one day, and he was also surprisingly good at fine technical work, not that Avon would ever tell him so—it would go to his head—and it was always best to keep him on the hop. He was a challenging chess player too, when he kept his butterfly mind on the game, and could be a stimulating and witty conversationalist. Yes, he was very likeable. Likeable? Vila? He could be extremely exasperating, and despite his undoubted intelligence, so incredibly stupid at times that Avon had to stop himself from grabbing him and giving him a good shake. Yet Vila was often an amusing and undemanding companion who never asked for much, never pried, and Avon would miss the quiet gleam of appreciation in his eyes at a particularly well-turned insult. Still, offering to fly the Liberator for Travis was a betrayal that was unforgivable. Cally had told them all Vila’s story, and although it explained his behaviour, it did not excuse it.
Blake returned with two deep pouches, followed by Cally.
“Right, everybody takes two pawns, and puts their vote in this green pouch here. The discards go in the brown one which Cally can bring around. Who wants to go first?”
“I suggest Vila—he can’t pull one of his clever little tricks then,” Jenna said.
Blake gave a short bark of laughter. “You’re right. Come with me, Cally.”
“Right then, let’s count the votes.” Blake upended his bag and tipped its contents onto the flight deck coffee table while everyone leaned forward to see. There were four white pawns and one black. “Cally?” Cally emptied her bag to ensure that it contained the reverse.
“So it’s four to one that Vila stays,” Blake said, satisfied.
Avon and Jenna looked sharply at each other, and Cally telepathed reproachfully, "Oh, Avon!"
“I might remind you, Cally, that the whole point was that each vote was anonymous,” Avon said coldly.
“I’ll go and tell Vila,” Cally said on her way out.
Cally was surprised that Vila had taken the whole thing so calmly. He had made his vote without looking unduly upset, and now he just looked up at her solemnly and expectantly as she came in.
“You’re staying, Vila,” Cally smiled warmly. “It was four to one.”
Vila’s face lit up with surprised delight. “Really?”
”Didn’t I say not to worry?” Cally patted Vila’s hand. “Now you get some sleep.”
She had thought he would be upset about who had not wanted him, but he lay there, smiling up at her so happily, she was reminded of the little boy he had been, and whom she had glimpsed in his face as he had told her about his mother and Bernid. She was briefly tempted to lean over and kiss him on the forehead as his mother might have done, but instead straightened his bedclothes, dimmed the lights, and said, “Good night, Vila.”
Vila lay in the half-darkness, feeling happier than he had for a long time. They had all wanted him to stay. All of them. Vila had voted to go, reasoning that if more than one person wanted to dump him, he might as well leave, and with Cally and Blake on his side (he was fairly sure) it would be obvious whose the third black pawn was, making it clear he was not being forced out. But it had still worked out well—very well. This way, everyone would think it was Avon against him, and he was sure Avon would prefer no-one knew he had wanted Vila to stay. Your secret’s safe with me, Avon. Vila turned carefully onto his side, curled up, and closed his eyes, still smiling.
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