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Cheap at Any Price

By Nicola Mody
Page 3 of 13

Vila awoke to see Tarrant looking down at him with uncharacteristic sympathy. “Wha...what’s going on?”

“I’m sorry, Vila.”

That alone was enough to frighten him. No-one ever bothered to apologise to him. He tried to sit up and gasped at the sudden agony in his hands and feet. “Tarrant? Tarrant, what’s happening?” His throat was so dry it hurt to talk.

Tarrant turned aside in what looked like shame. “You tell him, Avon.”

Avon was sprawled at his station, holding a gun, his face expressionless. “I’m doing what you asked, Vila. I’m dropping you off on a neutral planet. Remember Domo?”

Vila did. “Oh, no. Not that, please.”

“Well, get on with it, Tarrant.”

Tarrant lifted Vila under the arms and dragged him over to the teleport bay.

“You’ve got five seconds to get his bracelet off him before I teleport you back. Oh and Tarrant—if you have any other ideas, may I remind you that Verlis’s people are armed, and I’m sure a pilot of your calibre will fetch an excellent price.” Avon smiled as he teleported them.

The dry heat hit Vila like a blow. Tarrant lowered him gently to the floor, unclipped his bracelet, and looked down pityingly. “Vila—” But whatever he had been going to say was lost as he shimmered and disappeared.

“So you’re Vila Restal.”

Vila stared up at the middle-aged woman in flowing robes and an elaborate silver headdress who stood over him.

She nudged him with her foot. “Not very impressive, are you?”

Her communicator buzzed. “Verlis—Avon. Have you received the package?”

“I have the merchandise. Why is he bound?”

“Think about it, Verlis. I suggest you leave him that way if you want a thief to sell.”

“Very well.” Verlis nodded to the two large men who flanked her. “Take him out. The bidders are getting impatient.”

They took Vila by the elbows and carried him out into the sun. He squinted against the glare from the sand and the harsh metallic blue sky. They were in a large pit with a display screen at one end which showed a close-up of his pale frightened face; disgusted, he looked away. He was shoved into a chair facing the other end of the pit, where a group of people in bright clothes were shaded by stretched canvas. The bidders. He was close enough to see their faces. Vila hung his head and stared miserably at the sand. One of the men grabbed his chin, pulled it up roughly and held a baton in front of his face.

“They want to see what they’re buying. This is a neural whip. You stay like that or you’ll get to feel it.”

Vila obediently kept his head up but his eyes lowered. He felt ill, faint, desperately thirsty, and so unhappy the pain in his chest threatened to overwhelm him. Avon should have killed him back on Scorpio or on that damned shuttle; anything was better than being discarded and sold like used goods in a second-hand market. With that bounty on his head, he knew what would happen. Well, if the Feds got their hands on him, he had his way out. He could take it now, but as he’d said to Gan once, while you’re still breathing, there’s hope. Not that he’d dared to hope for much at all for a long time.

“And now, the item many of you have been waiting for—” Verlis’s voice rang out. “—a somewhat unusual offering: the well-known thief Vila Restal. You may notice he is tied hand and foot. This is, after all, the young man who escaped from the CF1 penal colony at age 14, and the only man living who has ever got away from Cygnus Alpha. I would remind you: caveat emptor.” Verlis approached Vila so closely he could smell her cloying perfume, then dropped her hand on his shoulder, making him jump involuntarily. “Restal is an extraordinarily talented thief, and I’m sure would return your investment many times over. He is the only person ever to break into the Federation’s Central Control, a feat they said was impossible, and is one of only a handful of people in the galaxy who can get through a physio-psycho lock working alone. At the request of the vendor, all prices will be quoted in Federation credits, which is only appropriate as there is, I must remind you, a million-credit bounty posted for him. I am now opening the bidding at 100,000. Do I hear 100,000?”

Vila sat still, trying to keep his face expressionless. It was pretty sad, he thought, that Verlis had just given him more compliments at one time than he had heard in the last few years.

“100,000 from number 26. Any advance on that? 150,000, thank you 41.”

Vila listened to the bidding and counter-bidding, dully watching the numbered signs lift and fall. They’d make a good profit on him when they sold him to the Federation. Up to 300,000 now. He swayed slightly in the heat which was so intense he was felt it had weight, crushing him. This was a nightmare; surely it wasn’t really happening. Half a mill now. Vila looked blearily towards Verlis, remembering the five he had in a numbered account from that time he and Avon—it hurt to think of it now—had taken the Freedom City casino. He wondered if he could bid on himself. He tried to speak, but he could barely manage a croak. The effort made him feel dizzy. Perhaps he could buy himself from whoever bought him...

“One million.”

There was a brief silence, then a hubbub of voices. Vila blinked, trying to focus on the woman who had spoken.

“Well, well. Things begin to get interesting,” Verlis said. “One million is the bounty on Restal. A first bid from number 73. Do I hear an advance on one million?”

“One and a quarter.”

“One and a quarter to number 41.”

The Terra Nostra, thought Vila. Or some other villains who planned to use him on a big job. The thought was frightening, but almost anything was better than the Federation.

“Two million,” came the same woman’s voice again, slow and languid. This time, Vila saw her—young, dark-haired, dressed in turquoise.

The shocked silence stretched almost to a minute. Then at last number 41 answered: “Two and a quarter.”

“Three million,” said number 73, sounding bored.

“Any advance on three million?”

Vila doubted it. It was obvious that number 73 would just go to four if there was. He was afraid to wonder why she wanted him so badly.

“Sold to 73 for three million then.”

The young woman rose and sauntered over to Verlis, followed by a huge man in a turban. A body-guard or her enforcer? She keyed in her funds transfer codes, then came over to inspect her purchase. Ashamed, Vila lowered his eyes again; he could see only her voluminous trousers and jewelled pointed high-heeled shoes, and, as she walked slowly around him trailing her hand lightly over his cheek and round to the back of his head, making him wince, the shining fall of her waist-length black hair. She stopped in front of him, and leaned forward; Vila closed his eyes.

“Don’t worry, Vila,” she whispered. “I haven’t bought you—only your freedom.”

She stepped back, turned on her heel, and arrogantly snapped her fingers. The turbaned man flung Vila over his shoulder, and followed her across the hot sand. The combination of the heat, the agony from his hands and feet, and the position of his head, bobbing upside-down above the desert, was too much for him and he passed out.

 

When he came round, he was strapped into a leather recliner on a luxuriously appointed flight deck which rivalled that of the Liberator although it was only a quarter the size.

“Three ships in pursuit. Space pirates like you expected.”

“Not for long. I doubt if they can do time distort twenty.” The woman’s hands flew over the pilot’s controls. “Hold tight.”

“We’ve lost them.”

“All the same, I think we’ll go the roundabout way, through a nebula or two...courses laid in. The computer can handle it from now on.” The woman leant back, stretched, and kicked her high-heeled shoes off. “Ah, that’s better. I don’t know how people can wear those bloody things.” She put her hands to her long hair and pulled it off, revealing a bright red mop which she shook out. “Right, better see how our guest is.” She got up. “Hey! You’re awake!”

She was not what Vila had expected. Her manner had changed completely—she had shed her studied languor for a bright perkiness which suited her real appearance. She was not beautiful, but her thin pointed face was attractive, friendly and likeable. She smiled down at him.

“Hello, Vila. I’m Lenya Tamak, and underneath the fancy dress is Gultis.”

Gultis removed his turban, revealing dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and grinned at Vila. The man had to be over two metres tall, and was built like a prison cellblock. Vila stared vaguely from one to the other.

“You don’t look at all well, do you.” Lenya frowned and placed her cool hand on his forehead. “Gultis, get him to the med unit. And be a bit more careful this time.”

“All right, but I did look the part though, didn’t I?” Gultis lumbered over.

Vila felt his restraints removed, then he was lifted as gently and easily as if he were a child. This wasn’t so bad. He supposed they had to protect their investment. Might as well go along with it, easier that way. He was put down on a bed where he lay passively while they put a drip in his arm and gave him a painkiller.

“You’ll be all right,” Lenya said. “You’re very dehydrated and you’ve got a bit of sunstroke, that’s all. Feeling a bit better?”

Vila tried to lick his lips. “Thirsty,” he whispered.

“Here.” She offered him a tube and he drank, savouring the coolness of the water in his mouth and throat. He hadn’t enjoyed a drink so much for a long time.

“That’s enough or you’ll be sick. I’d better deal with those hands now.” Lenya picked up a surgical knife, and grinned at his reaction. “Don’t worry, I’m just going to cut the bindings. Gultis, you do his feet.”

“He one of your slaves too?” Vila asked bitterly.

Lenya looked up, shocked. “Certainly not! He came along as my bodyguard, to make me look good. What makes you think that—because he’s doing your feet? I’d do them myself to prove a point, but it’s faster with two of us.” She ran a regenerator over Vila’s hands. “Gultis works for the resistance like me,” she said with dignity.

“What d’you want with me, then?”

“Absolutely nothing, Vila. Like I said, I bought your freedom, not you.”

“Why?”

“To stop others getting hold of you. Look, when you’re recovered, you’re perfectly free to do what you like, but I do have a friend who’d like to see you again. He’s the one who heard you were up for auction and asked me to go to Domo.”

“A friend? Who?”

Lenya grinned with anticipation. “Roj Blake. I’m going to call him right now. You can talk—”

“No!” Vila was surprised at the violence of his own reaction. The thought of Blake seeing what he had become was unbearable. He pushed Lenya away with his numbed hands, and sat up, flailing at her. “He can’t see me like this, leave me alone, what would you know anyway, how would you know what it’s like to be rubbish, just a piece of Delta scum only fit for dumping...”

Lenya stepped back, shocked, and called for Gultis who grabbed Vila’s arms and forced him back down.

“Sorry, Vila,” she said, putting a tranquilliser disc on his forehead.

 


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