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An Oath of Fealty

By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 4

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.

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