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A Good Team

By Nicola Mody
Page 2 of 5

Gan was shocked at the story Vila had told in such deceptively light words.

“And that didn’t work either?” he said.

“Might have done if I’d let it. But I have this trick, see? I go somewhere else in my mind where they can’t find me. The thing is, I need someone to call me back. I don’t know if I can come out by myself. Never have before, anyway. So, when they bring me back here, could you, uh, call me?”

“Call you?” Gan was puzzled.

“Yes, no matter what I look like. You know, just say, ‘Vila, come on out, it’s safe now’. Something like that.” Vila looked hopefully at Gan.

“Yes. All right. I’ll do that.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Satisfied, Vila smiled. “Thanks.”

“You’re very brave.”

“Me? I’m a professional coward, ask anyone!” Vila sounded almost proud.

“Well, I’d kill myself rather than risk that.” Gan nodded at the beds across the ward. Three men lay unmoving and vacant-faced, staring up at the ceiling, one was snoring loudly, and another sat on his bed, staring blankly in front of him, swaying back and forth.

“Suicide’s very bad for the health,” Vila said, alarmed. “It can ruin your whole day. Look, while you’re still breathing, there’s hope, that’s what I—oh, no.” A doctor and an orderly, both in white tunics, were approaching them purposefully. “Here we go.” Vila pressed himself defensively back in the bed.

“Ah, Restal,” the doctor said, consulting a data pad. “You’re a bit of a problem, according to this.”

“Speak for yourself!”

The doctor smiled thinly at the orderly. “I do like it when they put up a bit of a fight. Puts some spice in the day.” The orderly laughed as they began to wheel Vila’s bed from the room. Vila looked back at Gan, and mouthed Promise? anxiously at him. Gan nodded and smiled encouragingly. Poor guy. It was the last he’d see of Vila. The real Vila anyway.

Gan had never met anyone like Vila, and certainly would not have chosen to, as likeable as he was. Vila was obviously very bright to have been offered a two-grade promotion, perhaps even more, yet he was happy to be a thief. Gan could understand that Vila had not wanted to leave his ill mother, but not that he had chosen a life of crime and revelled in it. Maybe he had a point though. Gan had done everything the right way, and look where it had got him. They had both taken such different paths, and here they were, in the same place, without hope, despite what Vila had said.

---

As they wheeled Vila down the corridors, he wondered if he could remember how to turn that strange corner in his mind, to go away and hide. It had been so long since he had done it.

He’d learned the trick when he was only four, when—no, his mind shied away from that, best not to think about it. But going round the corner that wasn’t there to his happy safe place, that was what saved him when they first tried to reprogram him into one of those zombies when he was twelve...

***

At first, Vila just stepped back and watched, detached, from behind what he thought of as his force wall as they connected wires to his head, flashed lights in his eyes, bombarded him with sound, and confused him with waking dreams not his own. He watched himself screaming in agony as the fire burned up each nerve. It was finally too much for him; his ‘wall’ crumbled before the assault of the pain, the voices whispering insidiously in his mind, the terrifying darkness threatening to overwhelm him, and he just ‘went away’ as he used to, so long ago.

He had all the happy memories of all his life to choose from, to immerse himself in and relive...

He was a baby again, tiny, trusting, laughing up at the huge beloved face of his mother, lifted, thrown joyfully towards the ceiling, then enveloped in warmth and love...

He was a toddler, swung with delight around the cramped apartment, held tight, crooned to—“My sweet baby, my darling Vila, you’re safe with me, always safe, my love”—delighting in the feel of her kisses on the top of his head...

He lay outside the Dome on a hot summer’s day, sprawled in the long grass, smelling the warm earth, lulled by crickets, gazing up at the huge blue dome above...

He was showing the first electronic lock he’d mastered to Serrin; Serrin was smiling proudly, saying. “One day I’ll boast to people that it was me who taught Vila Restal.”

He knelt, entranced, in clean pure snow, holding a nut out to a cautious squirrel, thinking at it, trust me, trust me; the squirrel took the nut, its soft paws touching Vila’s fingers briefly; he sat back and laughed aloud for joy...

Then he heard his mother calling his name, as she had when he was small, opened his eyes, still half-immersed in dreams of happiness, and smiled up at her. Jandy Restal leaned over and embraced him, and Vila hugged her back, ignoring the pain of his damaged nerves. It was over. He was safe. He could go home.

“Well, well.” The sardonic voice came from behind his mother. “Let him go and step aside.”

Jandy did so, but stayed beside Vila, holding his hand.

“So you’re with us again, Restal. You know what that means, don’t you?”

“No,” Vila whispered.

The doctor smirked at his mother, then Vila. “It means we try again, Restal. That’s what the law says. We get three attempts.”

“Oh, no. Please don’t. I’ll be good. Please, please, let me go home now,” Vila begged as they wheeled his bed away. He could see his mother sobbing as he stretched his arms out towards her. “Mum, don’t let them...”

When he opened his eyes to his mother’s voice the next time, he was in too much pain to move, but he was still able to smile faintly up at her. When they took him away again, she grabbed ineffectually at one of the orderlies who had come for him, and screamed, “Please don’t, please, you’ll kill my Vila!” as she was pushed away and fell sobbing to the floor.

“Your Vila shouldn’t have been a thief then,” the doctor said coldly.

The third time Vila woke up, he was too ill to smile or speak, so they entered ‘success assumed’ in his file and said he could go home.

It was a week before he could get out of bed, a month before he ventured nervously outside, but not long before he was out stealing again. What else could he do? He was all his mother had.

***

Gan could hear someone screaming faintly in the distance. He hoped it wasn’t Vila. It reminded him of how Lu—no, don’t think of her name—of how she had screamed.

They had been swept up in a flash riot in the Gamma levels, something about the quality of the water and the long working hours, and arrested with hundreds of others. They had both, citing their off-world citizenship, loudly protested their innocence, but they shouldn’t have attracted the guards’ attention for one of them had come in and taken her away. Gan had heard her screaming, begging, then her sudden silence. And when the guard brought her back to the cell and threw her in, laughing, Gan had launched himself at him. It was only after he had dropped the man, his neck snapped, that he confirmed what he already knew—that she was dead.

Nothing had mattered after that. He had told them to kill him. Perhaps that was why they had not.

He tried to block the memory, wanting to remember her as she was back on Zephron, alive, laughing in the sun.

---


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