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Shadow of the Trojan Horse

By Jean Graham
Page 3 of 3

Belatedly, he remembered the gun, and with trembling fingers extracted it from his pocket. He had to roll over to get at the ammunition, which he'd stowed in a different pocket. While he clumsily loaded the weapon, he saw something long and threadlike begin to flow from beneath the wasp's gun turrets. Whatever it was streaked at Avon, who dodged wisely out of the first volley's path. The filaments struck the wall and slithered harmlessly to the ground. The shiny strands glittered strangely in the harsh glare of the searchlight. Vila's question at that was answered as he slammed the last of his cartridges into place, and the wasp fired another set of glistening fibers at Avon, driving him in the other direction along the wall. These also missed, but Vila could see that the filaments were fitted at intervals with small 'starbursts' -- clusters of thin, razor-sharp needles, in all probability drug-tipped. Whether or not the poison would be lethal would depend on the Federation's whim -- and whether the prisoner had been determined to have any value as a live captive.

Vila fought to steady his hands and aim the gun. If he could somehow hit the bloody thing's fuel supply...

More strands tore from the wasp's underside as Vila squeezed the trigger. His first shot missed, but he saw that the filaments had not. Almost like live things, they had twined themselves around Avon and immediately tightened, tripping him. He fell sidelong, in an ungraceful heap, and his struggling seemed only to tighten the bonding further. In a moment, he had ceased to fight it and lay still, whether unconscious, dead or simply resigned Vila had no way to tell.

He took aim with the gun once more as the wasp ceased its grinding noise and began to descend to street level, presumably to collect its now-acquiescent prize. Vila tried again to hit the fuel tank. This time his shot glanced harmlessly off the thing's metal-plated side. He followed it with two more rounds, still to no avail.

The wasp let out an ear-piercing scream, aware now that it had been attacked, and halted its descent. Retros fired, spinning it round to face Vila, and lifted it once more, the pooling light-beam coming along to rake the rooftops in a frenzied search. In a moment, the entire smoking, screaming mass was bearing directly down on Vila.

Forcing back the almost-uncontrollable urge to run, Vila kept the gun steady and continued to fire, not sure what he would do when the last of the cartridges was spent.

There'd be no time to reload, and he had already seen that there was almost no way to escape this monster once it had you in its sights.

Laser bursts pounded the rooftop, burning a pathway to his hiding place. Vila was forced to roll out of the way as the craft came level with his roof, spewing its blue death. Praying that his weapon was not empty yet, he took aim at the underbelly as it drew overhead, and squeezed the trigger yet again.

He couldn't hear the shot in the din of the engines, and for a terrible moment he was sure that the gun had been empty after all. But the wasp's fuel tank suddenly blossomed a hideous crimson-orange, and bellowing, it overfiew the roof to begin a mad, careening spin toward the ghetto beyond.

Vlta cringed against a concrete pillar as the machine dropped out of view. Seconds later, the explosion of its impact rocked the building beneath him. Greasy smoke belched in ugly clouds toward the sky and blotted out the artificial stars.

Vila refused to ponder how many Delta lives his action might just have cost. He struggled unsteadily to his feet and hunted for a hatch that would lead down to the street. He had to reach Avon before the backup troops were called in to take over.

The computer expert was conscious when Vila reached him, but he was already flushed and perspiring from whatever drug had tipped the fiber needles. Vila severed the tensile bindings in several places with a laser knife from his kit, and, careful not to touch the starbursts, hastily pulled the strands away. Avon gasped as the penetrating barbs were extracted, and began to mutter something.

"Quiet!" Vila whispered urgently. "There'll be patrols here any minute. Don't make any noise."

As he cut and pulled the last of the filaments, Avon said weakly, "Vila?" as though he hadn't recognized his rescuer until then. Vila didn't answer. He was preoccupied with wondering how to get them under cover before the patrols arrived -- somewhere safe enough to wait out the remaining hours until Liberator returned.

Sirens warbled shrilly in the distance, and Vila could already hear anguished cries from the site of the inferno a few short blocks away. He closed his mind to that, and concentrated on maneuvering Avon into a sitting position.

"Come on, now. On your feet. We've got to move and you're going to have to walk."

Feebly, Avon fought the thief's hands away. "I... can't, Vila."

"Oh fine. Just lie down there and die then, will you? After all the trouble I've gone to? In case it escaped your notice, genius, I just saved your over-educated Alpha arse."

Avon's eyelids drooped, and Vila narrowly prevented his effort to collapse back onto the pavement. "Oh no you don't!" Fear crept back into his voice then. "Oh, please Avon. Wake up!"

He shook the other man's shoulders until the dark eyes fluttered open again, then slipped his arms under Avon's and hauled him forcibly to his feet, half-dragging him towards the nearest alley.

"Walk, damn you." He'd almost sobbed the words, his own terror mounting as the sirens -- and the backup patrols -- drew nearer. Choosing a direction away from the crash site, he turned in at the alley's first intersection and pulled Avon after. They wouldn't be able to get far at this rate. Avon's feet scarcely moved at all, and his weight on Vila's shoulder was increasing with every labored step.

Desperately, the thief searched the alley walls for a door, any door. There were none along this passage, only steel-barred windows too far above ground level to reach. He rounded yet another corner, and spied what he'd hoped to find, not far down the way -- a cellar door, with steps leading down.

Manhandling Avon to the doorway, he left him on the steps just long enough to coax the lock open. Then they were inside, a cool, pitch-black place, and the heavy door had thudded shut on the chaos they had left in their wake.

The silence and total darkness was disconcerting after the ordeal of light and sound, but Vila welcomed it. He huddled in the gloom beside Avon for several moments, waiting for any signs of pursuit outside the door. When none came, he risked the dim light of his pocket torch to examine their surroundings.

Oily brick walls... storage crates... ancient plumbing that dripped somewhere with a hollow, pinging echo. The acrid odor of lime assailed Vila's nostrils. His own breathing sounded thunderously loud. Something squeaked, and a plump rat skittered out of the path of the torch beam, eyes flashing blood-jewel red.

Avon's soft moan brought the light around to face him. Vila gingerly lifted an eyelid, found the pupils contracted and unresponsive to light. He wished he knew what the hell that meant. He wished Cally were here. Then he decided that wishing was useless and shook Avon by the shoulders again.

"Come on, Avon. Don't die on me now. Who would I swap insults with then? Avon, wake up!"

It wasn't working. If he'd only had some water, or... wait a moment. He dug into one of his utility pouches, produced the stolen silver flask and hastily unscrewed the cap. Avon coughed and started choking on the potent liquor, giving Vila the fleeting fear that his brainstorm had backfired and merely dealt the death blow. But the coughing fit subsided and blearily Avon's eyes came open, until they were almost focused on him.

"Where..."

Vila set the penlight, still glowing, on the floor between them. "How the hell do I know? Someone's damp smelly cellar by the look of it, and not even a decent wine keg in the lot. We almost got killed back there you know, no thanks to you."

Avon tried to look around him, but promptly abandoned the effort and brought his unsure gaze back to Vila. "Liberator," he said faintly.

"Still several hours away," Vila told him, wishing that it weren't so. "If we're lucky, the crash will keep the stormtroopers busy long enough to delay the search for us. If we're not lucky..." He shuddered and refused to complete that bleak line of thought. No point in it.

Avon was muttering again, a string of half-intelligible phrases about the computer and the program not being complete.

"What difference does that make now?" Vila demanded.

Avon seemed to rally at that. The dark eyes blazed. "All the difference, Vila," he said through clenched teeth. "All the difference in the world. I have to go back... long enough to finish the program."

Vila's mouth dropped open. "You're raving," he accused hotly. "I had to carry you in here. If you think I'm going to carry you back to that place you're even more insane than I am. Forget it!"

Avon's determination held. "Then you go," he said.

"Me? Look, Avon, forget about it. I'm a thief, not a computer programmer, and besides,
walking back into Federation traps is against my religion. When it comes to escaping or dying, I'm a devout believer in running away!"

"You don't have to program," Avon persisted. His words were growing thick again. "Just implement what part is there. Mutoids... stormed the building before I could finish. The codes are in my pocket. Please, Vila."

"I'm telling you I don't know how!" Vila protested. Avon resorting to pleading with him was even more rattling than Avon believing he could manage such a thing. "And why would I want to anyway? It's suicide going back there!"

"...won't be looking for us there," Avon argued. "Three words, Vila. Tell Io... 'Run Trojan
Horse'. A partial program can still damage them enough to..."

His voice failed him, and he slumped against the wall, breathing hard against the soporific effect of the drug. It won the battle scant seconds later, and his chin fell forward to his chest.

Inexpertly, Vila checked for vital signs, and satisfied that Avon merely slept, maneuvered him gently into a more comfortable, lying-down position. He treated himself to a healthy dose of the flask's contents then, and glowered at Avon before fishing the codes from his pockets. Avon owing him a favor had a certain appeal. Still...

"Now I know why I never wanted to be a hero," he grumbled. "Raving loonies, the lot of you. Defect in the Alpha gene stock, probably."

He took another long pull from the flask, then gazed at it before timidly tucking it under Avon's hands, resting on his chest. He did the same with the pilfered protein bar, then rose, leaving the pocket torch glowing on the floor. The gun he kept (friendly was one thing, foolhardy was another), and cursing himself for ten kinds of idiot, he went to find his way back to the FBS tower.

*      *      *

A sound woke Avon. Something muffled... a tinny, musical tone. He blinked, aware that daylight was filtering hazily into the cellar from a high window somewhere. He tried to read his wrist chronometer. The numbers blurred together. He tried to sit up and failed that, too. Something... two somethings... slid from beneath his hands and thumped to the damp concrete floor. Some sort of flask... Vila had had that. Where was Vila? Too hard to think... to remember. His head hurt.

The sound came again, three times in succession. It was close. Very close. At the next persistent series of chimes, he fumbled open one of the pouches on his utility belt and drew out the signalling teleport bracelet. He'd no sooner touched the communications stud than Blake's concerned voice said, "Avon, Vila! Respond please, are you there?"

Before Avon could formulate an answer, Vila's voice cut in from somewhere else. "Where the hell else would I be?" He sounded out of breath, panting.

"Vila!" That was Blake again. "Are you all right? Where's Avon? We've got two separate readings..."

"Will you cut the chatter and just bring us up -- please?" Vila entreated. "There's a squadron of distinctly unfriendly persons on my tail and they aren't..."

The teleport effect interrupted the thief mid-word, and Avon promptly found himself in the somewhat compromising position of lying supine in Liberator's teleport bay with a panting, armed Vila standing poised beside him.

"What happened down there?" Blake's urgent demand came the moment they were solid again.

Vila, still gasping, eased the gun -- and himself -- to the floor. He drew in a deep breath and said, "Do you mind if I talk about it later? I'm in the middle of having a nervous breakdown just now."

*      *      *

'Later' turned out to be little more than two hours. Avon, still disoriented but recovering, sat on the flight deck couch and listened to an incredulous Jenna question Vila.

"You shot it down? An A-14 'wasp' reconnaissance flyer, and you shot it down?"

"Surely," Cally added, "if it were that easy, everyone would have done it?"

"Whoever said it was easy?" Affronted, Vila sat with his arms crossed and his chest puffed out. "One person in a million could have done what I did!"

"And you're forgetting," Avon informed them quietly, "that the Federation are accustomed to dealing with a suppressant-dosed population. One that can normally be depended on not to fight back."

"There you are," Vila said triumphantly. "Came up against more than they could handle when they took me on, I can tell you!"

Avon beamed a rare smile in Vila's direction. "Quite," he said.

Jenna and Cally exchanged puzzled looks. Avon complimenting Vila was a phenomenon for which no-one had prepared them.

"Orac's got the data now." Blake, who had been standing apart from the group on the couches, called their attention to Liberator's main viewscreen, where a series of numerical columns had appeared and begun to travel upward. Avon studied the figures intently while Orac's operating whine continued in the background.

"Orac," Blake said. "Summarize status of Federatiori banking assets. What precisely does all that activity mean?"

*I should think,* the computer replied snappishly, *that would be obvious.*

Rubbing the back of his neck wearily, Blake cast a sidelong look at the rest of his assembled crew. "To you and Avon, perhaps," he rasped. "Would you care to enlighten the rest of us?"

*I fail to understand why you must continually misuse my considerable capabilities for activities which do not--*

Orac's protest died with a decelerating whimper when Avon, coming up off the couch, snatched out the key. The figures promptly vanished along with Orac's power hum. "What this self-inflated electronic pain is trying to say," Avon told them, "is that the currency base on fourteen major Federation worlds has just dissolved into thin air. Not quite the 'blow for freedom' we had planned, but..."

"But it will do." Blake was grinning. "We may not have defeated them yet, but we've hurt them where it counts -- in the pocket."

Avon went back to the couch, Orac's key still in his hand, and studiously avoided meeting the cagey look in Vila's eyes.

Blake leaned on the communications console, his grin still intact. "Well done, Avon."

"Yes," Vila chirped smugly. "I'd say it was. Very well done."

Avon, reveling in the baffled looks this unaccustomed interplay evoked from the others, looked knowingly at the thief.

That's one I owe you, he thought.

But aloud, all he said was, "Thank you, Vila."
 
 


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