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Vila Rides

By Willa Shakespeare
Page 2 of 11

Blake stood up, gun held at the ready, still mostly hidden behind the thick brush. "I'm here. Where are the rest of your people?"

"Like yours; waiting to see how things go." Fil said. "Would you mind not pointing that at my horse. Guns make him nervous."

Blake looked at the animal which was standing with its head lowered, eyelids drooping in boredom. "Yes, I can see that. You can put your hands down," he said, as he let his gun dip slightly.

Fil dropped his arms and eased back in his saddle, looping one leg casually over it so that he could turn to face Blake fully. "Really, Blake, do I look Federation to you?"

Blake surveyed the man. Fil was short and stocky, with powerful arms and chest. He sported a ginger- coloured beard and mane nearly as tousled as his horse's. He had a deeply tanned face that broke into creases with his grin at Blake's intense scrutiny. "No, you don't," Blake admitted. "Fil, I'd like you to meet my crew." He holstered his weapon.

Fil slid off his horse. He met Blake's firm handshake with a matching strength.

Vila came out of hiding after Avon and Cally joined Blake. Fil's horse was uncomfortably near Vila's box. The thief retrieved his hand from the rebel's over-enthusiastic clasp, then winced again when the horse shifted, one large hoof scraping against the box. "Er, Fil, would you mind not letting that dirty great beast step on my kit?"

Fil reached for the dangling reins and tugged. The horse shuffled a metre or so away from Vila's possessions in response. Fil dropped the reins again, forgetting the horse, and Vila, as he talked to Blake and Cally.

Vila looked at the horse, judging the length of its neck, and considering his chances of snatching the box before the animal noticed. When Vila neared, the horse lifted its head and opened its mouth in a gaping yawn. Vila stepped back hastily from the large yellow teeth. He wanted to get his tools, yes, but he didn't want them that badly.

Avon was no more interested in rebel small talk than Vila, so he'd left Blake, Cally, and Fil engrossed in earnest conversation while he observed Vila's dilemma. "Is there a problem, Vila?" Avon came close to laughing out loud at Vila's jump and startled expression. The thief had been concentrating on his endangered property and hadn't noticed Avon's quiet approach.

"Of course there's a problem," Vila snapped. Avon might find the situation amusing, but he certainly didn't. "That hairy monster is going to squash my kit flat."

"Then why don't you move the kit?" Avon remarked.

Vila muttered something, and Avon said, "What was that, Vila?"

"I said, because I'm not going near that brute, and you can't make me!" Vila said defiantly, expecting Avon to tell him to buck up and be brave, with a lot of rubbish thrown in about how silly it was to be afraid of a horse.

Avon tilted his head. "Well, now, I would imagine that you have had negligible contact with domestic animals. It is only natural to be unsure of yourself."

"It isn't me I'm unsure of."

"All right. If I hold the horse, do you think you can get your kit then?"

Vila was suspicious. Avon in a generous mood- hah, he'd believe that the day Blake joined the Federation Civic Boosters Club. On the other hand, Avon had given him his gloves... and Avon might take offense if Vila refused his help. He took a deep breath. "Yes. If you think you can control that thing."

"Oh, I believe I can manage." Avon eyed the somnolent animal with barely repressed amusement. Vila was an inexhaustible source of surprise. Avon had always seen the Delta classes as stolid, unimaginative labourers, plodding through their dull lives without the spirit to desire, or deserve, anything better: a worse description of Vila he'd be hard-pressed to invent. Avon appreciated Vila's skills and lively wit. It was a pity the man did not possess the backbone to complement his intelligence; as exemplified by the present circumstance, in which he was frightened of the most phlegmatic plug Avon had ever seen. Fil had obviously chosen the beast because it could be relied upon to remain calm no matter the provocation. He certainly hadn't selected it for its beauty.

Avon strode forward and grasped the horse's reins, leaving the animal enough slack to shake its head without yanking his arm. "Come, Vila." Avon only intended to humour the thief so far, and having this slovenly animal drool over him was nearing the limit.

Vila scuttled in, grabbed the kit and retreated. "Got it." He settled down at a prudent distance to examine the contents of his toolkit. "It's all right. Nothing's been damaged." He glanced up to see Avon wiping down an ugly green smear on the dark brown jacket's suede sleeve. "Yech, what's that?"

"Horses, Vila, are herbivores. They eat, among other things, grass. Not always neatly." Avon gave up the cleaning attempt. So much for any attempt to impress the natives with his sartorial splendour.

Vila decided not to apologize. After all, Avon hadn't seemed surprised, so he was probably used to strange creatures slobbering over him. Vila looked at the horse, remembering those enormous teeth. Maybe it wouldn't swallow him, if it wasn't a meat-eater, but he wouldn't put it past the animal to try him out for taste and then spit out the pieces. "Right." Vila snapped his case shut, all business now. "I'm ready. Where's this vault I have to open?" He spoke loudly, trying to catch Blake's attention.

Fil broke off his conversation with Blake to answer Vila. "About two hours away on horseback."

"Wha-a-at!" Vila sputtered. "You can't be serious."

"This is a poor planet. The Federation tends to notice folks who use fliers, as there aren't many of them. What roads there are in this area are too rough for mechanical ground transport, so we rely on fellows like him." He patted the horse's shoulder.

"I'd rather walk."

Fil took Vila's comment as a joke. He said to Blake. "My people should be arriving any moment. We're eager to have you look over our organization. We know we've got a lot to learn."

Vila appealed to Avon, since Blake and Cally didn't seem to understand him any better than Fil. "Avon, I meant it."

"I can't see Blake allowing you to walk to Fil's base, can you, Vila?" He noticed that Vila was sweating despite the cool air and gentled his tone. "It won't be for very long and then we will return to Liberator, where you will be safe from horses, if not from Pursuit Ships."

" 's not funny," Vila muttered. Nobody ever cared what he wanted; it was just 'do the job, Vila', never mind that Blake expected him to do all sorts of things a self-respecting thief would normally avoid- like shooting at people who were shooting back. Now this. It was too much. Vila wasn't going to do it.

Vila announced his decision when Fil's rebels arrived. There were a dozen rough-dressed, thick-set men and women mounted on horseback, leading extra animals for Blake and his people. Vila sat down on his toolkit and refused to move. "I'm not going, and that's flat."

Finally realizing that Vila was deadly serious, Blake said, "Stop this nonsense, Vila. We have to get to the vault, and this is the only way."

"No, it's not. Jenna can drop me off by teleport once you get there. If you knew the co-ordinates we could do that now, and save time."

"Fil can not allow his base's location to be known to outsiders," Cally said. "Surely you must see that. It is a matter of security."

"Well, this is a matter of security to me. I'm not going to be secure on a horse and I'm not going. And," he added, seeing Blake glower, "if you do get me on one, say by knocking me out and tying me on, then you'll never get me to open that safe for you. Never." He shook his head and settled more solidly onto his box of tricks.

"Perhaps, Blake," Avon said, "if this mission is so important, Fil can trust us with his base's location."

"Vila can ride a horse. Fil has a very gentle one for him. I see no reason why he is making such a fuss," Blake replied. He was extremely annoyed. Vila's obstinacy was not only embarrassing, it was potentially dangerous. Even on a backward world, a large group of rebels out in the open was a target for Federation hunters.

"Yes, normally Vila opposes missions and complains, but he seldom means it," Cally noted.

"That's just the point, Blake," Avon said. "He means it this time. If you push him, he'll be useless." Unspoken, but in his mind, was the thought that if Blake did force Vila then he might choose in future to browbeat others into doing his will. The tactics he used now, Avon found distasteful; force would be intolerable.

"He's merely putting on an act, Avon," Blake protested. He was surprised that Avon was on Vila's side. It would have been more in character for Avon to sneer at Vila for his cowardice. "He wants attention, for us to beg him, so that he'll know how important he is to us." He turned to Cally for confirmation, "Don't you think so?"

"No." Cally frowned. "This is different, Blake. He is truly frightened. It may seem ridiculous to you or me, but he is. Forcing him to do this will not work. If he can not face the fear on his own, then we can not make him do so."

Blake looked at the huddled thief whose face was pale and set in unaccustomed determination. Then he studied his computer expert whose expression was carefully schooled to disinterest. Finally, he met Cally's worried eyes. He capitulated. "All right. Jenna will take Vila back aboard Liberator. Fil will have to decide which is more important, his secrecy or getting that safe open."

Fil wasn't happy about Blake's judgment, but he had to agree. Without Vila the vault was useless. Besides, if he couldn't trust Blake, then he might as well give up the idea of revolution.

"Jenna," Blake spoke into his teleport bracelet. He frowned at the lack of response. "Jenna," he repeated, louder, as if that could make a difference. He shook the bracelet and snapped the communicator button several times. Still no answer. The others tried their communicators, but were no more successful. "That tears it," Blake said. He hid his concern for Jenna under a brisk manner.

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