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A Good Team

By Nicola Mody
Page 1 of 5

When he awoke, the first thing he noticed was the pain. He lay still, taking stock. Apart from the stabbing in his head, the dizziness and the nausea, he didn’t feel any different. He still felt like himself. Perhaps it hadn’t worked. But then again, how could you tell if your thoughts had been changed? He moved slightly, and grimaced at the pain and his weakness. This time he didn’t think he would be able to take refuge in sleep. He looked up at the featureless white ceiling.

“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.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

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.

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