by Nicola Mody
“Ship secured, Avalon. Crew either dead or captured.”
“Good,” Avalon stepped through the airlock into the flexible tube connecting the two ships.
The man on guard at the other end looked startled to see her. “Careful, maybe you should wait till we’re sure there’s no-one lurking in ambush.”
“Blake risked his life to rescue me, not once but twice. I owe him this.” Avalon strode determinedly past and down the grey metal corridor. One of her people met her, his face grim. “What is it?” she asked.
“Blake.” He indicated two stasis capsules.
Her heart sinking, Avalon looked into the first. Blake lay there, looking up blankly. It was obvious he was dead; no attempt had been made to treat the three bullet holes gaping like obscene buttonholes down his front. “Ah, Blake,” she whispered sadly, placing her hand on the glass plate. “I’m sorry I came too late.” She turned to the other capsule. A black girl lay in it, her beautiful face still showing her outrage and shock at her death. Hal Mellanby’s daughter, as courageous and loyal as he had been. The whole family gone now. Avalon sighed. “Load them onto our ship. We can at least give them a decent send-off.” She steeled herself. “Just these two?”
“There are four locked cells further down. We can’t find keys, so we’re cutting them open with lasers.”
They had just succeeded in removing the first lock as Avalon got there. The door swung open to reveal Kerr Avon, standing in the centre of the small cell, as poised as she remembered him despite the damaged, disarrayed clothing and the healing pads on his arm and, showing through the open front of his jacket, his chest.
Avon’s face relaxed into a brief look of relief. “Avalon.” He stepped forward, reaching out to steady himself against the side of the door. “Where are the others? Are they all right?”
“You’re the first we’ve freed. But Blake and Dayna—”
“Yes, I know,” Avon interrupted curtly. “What about Vila. They treated him badly...” He stopped as the door to the next cell opened. Tarrant staggered through, holding his shoulder with one hand. Avon looked at him sharply. “Are you all right?”
“Fell against the hand-basin during the battle,” Tarrant said sheepishly. It was obvious he too had been wounded on Gauda Prime; he moved stiffly and limped, and looked as pale as Avon. He looked at Avalon. “If you’ve come to rescue us, I’m extremely grateful.”
“This,” Avon said, “is Avalon. An old acquaintance.”
“Really? Oh, now I wouldn’t say old,” Tarrant gave Avalon an appreciative and dazzling smile.
Avalon ignored the comment, and Avon gave him a withering look.
“You said they hurt Vila,” Avalon reminded him.
“In effect.” Avon closed his eyes briefly. “They knew he could escape if given the opportunity, so they put him on minimum life-support, just enough to ensure he’d be alive to face a firing squad.” He paused before going on, expressionlessly. “He was in considerable pain.”
“What did it matter to them? He’s only a Delta.” Avon sounded bitter. He turned towards the door of the next cell, and was first through it as it was opened, Avalon behind him.
Vila Restal lay immobile, manacled to the bed. His face was ashen, the skin under his closed eyes and at the corners of his mouth bluish and translucent. “Vila.” Avon put his hand against the side of the thief’s face. There was no response. He examined the handcuffs. “Give me the laser,” he ordered.
“They’re cutting through the other door.”
Avalon looked at Vila’s still form and the uncharacteristic concern on Avon’s face, and went to get it. She returned with the man who had been using it. “You’re not well, Avon. Let Seddon do it.”
“I saw the job he did on the doors. He’ll have one of Vila’s hands off.” Avon held out his hand, and Avalon put the cutter in it. He knelt beside Vila, and very carefully began to burn through the cuff on his right wrist. When it came off, he drew in his breath at the sight of the ripped and broken skin there, bleeding, suppurating and infected.
Avalon was horrified. “He must have tried so hard to get loose.” She touched Vila’s arm, and said his name. He gasped softly and his eyelids flickered but he did not wake. She looked up at the people in the doorway. “Get a couple of stretchers from the ship, and tell Orman to be ready in the medical unit.”
When Avon moved down to start work on the manacles on Vila’s ankles, Avalon went to the basin and wet her handkerchief and began to wipe Vila’s face. “Vila?” He whimpered and moved slightly. “Vila, it’s Avalon. Lie still. You’ll be all right.” She dabbed at his forehead gently.
Avon stopped work and looked up, his face tense.
Avalon shot him a questioning look; she remembered the Auronar woman with affection.
“Cally is dead.” Avon said harshly and put his head back down.
Avalon turned back to Vila. His eyes were open, looking up at her, glazed and puzzled. “Hello, Vila,” she said, smiling. “Remember me?”
Avon handed the cutter hurriedly back to Seddon and in one pace was there, leaning over Vila, his face attentive. “Yes, Vila, I’m here,” he said, gently. “You’re safe—”
Vila’s eyes widened in horror. “No! Get away from me!” He tried to move away, his face twisting in pain.
“Vila!” Avon caught his arms and held them. “Vila, please.”
“No! Lemme go, you murdering bastard! Don’t touch me!”
Appalled, Avon dropped Vila’s arms. Still struggling, Vila fell off the bed and landed face-down on the floor, where he lay crumpled and sobbing in agony. Avon stepped back, looking shaken. “I’ll see how Soolin is,” he said. “Look after him, Tarrant.”
Tarrant knelt and placed his hand on Vila’s shoulder, making him flinch. “Come on, Vila,” he said gently, “You’re sa—you’re all right now.”
“Go ‘way...leave me ‘lone...” Vila mumbled brokenly.
“This isn’t like you, Vila. Come on, we’re trying to help you. You always said you wanted to live forever.”
“Not any more...nothing left...”
Avalon stared. This was not the Vila she remembered at all. What had happened to him?
“Is he going to be all right?”
The doctor shook his head. “I did everything I could for him on the way here, but he’s just not responding.”
“Too badly hurt?”
“The wound in his back was serious and they only did what little they had to to keep him alive,” Orman shook his head in disgust, “but he should be out of danger now.”
“We’ve got top medical facilities here. There must be something we can do.”
“Nothing more. We’ve treated the internal injuries, replaced a kidney and fused a couple of broken bones. Admittedly he’s not that strong to start with, but he should be getting better now. He just isn’t responding. All I can say is, he lacks the will to live.”
Avalon drew up a chair and took Vila’s hand. “That isn’t like him.”
Orman shrugged. “I’ve seen it before. People reach the end of their strength, their limits, They just give up.”
Surely not Vila of all people. “All right. I’ll stay here with him for a while.”
“You knew him well?”
“Fairly well. He was a good friend to me.”
The crew of the Liberator were very kind to her when she arrived on board with Blake, exhausted and a little in shock. The only one she had seen before was Jenna, the smuggler she had bought arms from some years ago, and Jenna was her usual cool efficient self, nodding to her from the pilot’s station as she took them away from the pursuit ships.
“Are you all right?” a large man asked her, gently.
“You look like you need a drink,” said the friendly-looking younger man beside him.
“Ah, yes. Vila’s answer to every major question the universe poses,” the saturnine dark man on the couch said. “Our own little grade-4 intellectual.”
Vila did not seem to mind. He gave Avalon a grin. “It’s a good answer to some things,” he said. “Warms you up. It was a bit nippy down there.”
Avalon looked around at them all, swaying a little on her feet. “Thank you, all of you...I just...”
The other crew-woman, the one who had operated the teleport, came forward, looking concerned, and put her arm across her shoulders. “You come with me. I will get a cabin ready for you,” she said kindly. “My name is Cally. You can meet the others in the morning.” Gratefully, Avalon went with her.
It was not till the next morning that the reaction set in. Driven by the need for company, she sat quietly on the flight deck, listening to them exchange what sounded like exasperated digs at each other, but that she recognised as the sort of banter people under pressure used. The cheerful Vila seemed to come in for more than his share of insults, but Avalon did not fail to notice the quiet amusement in Avon’s eyes, and the fond smile Cally threw Vila’s way when he wasn’t looking. She was suddenly struck by the resemblance of these people with their pretence of not caring to so many others she had known, living in constant danger and keeping their feelings for those they might lose to themselves. Friends she had seen gunned down back there in the ice-caves. And all the others she had betrayed when the Federation interrogator had drained her of all the information they had wanted like a wrung-out sponge.
She got up, trembling, and walked out, seeing Blake shake his head at the concerned Cally. Back in her cabin, she sat on her bed, and dully wondered how she was going to spend the rest of her life living with what she had done.
“You all right?”
She looked up to see Vila, of all people, standing there, his soft brown eyes worried.
“May I come in?”
Vila sat down opposite her on the leather lounger, leaving the door behind him wide open. “Look,” he said, “I know what it’s like. Being interrogated. Adjusted. Whatever nice words they like to use.”
“They got everything.”
“Course they did. They always do. It wasn’t your fault, you know. Not if you couldn’t help it, and you couldn’t. I’d say have a chat to Blake, ‘cause he’s been through it too, but he won’t talk about it. But it was the same for him. Told them the lot.”
“I’ve heard you can’t be conditioned.”
Vila looked embarrassed. “Well, I’m a professional coward, see. I just run away in my mind and hide where they can’t find me. Can’t help being like that either, so I have to live with it.”
“You’re not such a coward if you came to rescue me.”
“Even though we got the wrong one? Yeah, well, if I’ve got something to do I’m all right. It’s when I’ve got time to think about it...” Vila held up a bottle. “Avon’s right. It doesn’t solve anything, but it’ll make you feel a bit warmer inside and stop the shakes for a little while.” He got up and got two glasses from a cupboard. “This is some of Avon’s best whisky,” he confided. “Just a little. Here you go.”
“Thank you.” Avalon took a sip. He was right. It was warming and steadying.
Vila grinned, relieved. “Don’t tell him though, will you? He doesn’t know I know where he hides it.”
Avalon smiled at him, touched by his kindness and understanding, then without warning, the tears came. She felt his arms go around her and stiffened briefly, but there was nothing but comfort there. When she stopped crying, he pulled back and asked, “Better?”
“You might not think so now, but it does stop hurting. There’ve been times in my life I almost couldn’t go on, but you do, and well, it’s a bit easier every day. And one day you’ll realise it’s all right. Really.”
“Thank you, Vila.”
“Anytime. I mean that.” He ducked his head, suddenly shy, and went out.
After that, she had spent a lot of time with Vila, simply enjoying his friendship and humour. The others seemed to think he was a nuisance and gave her advice—“You don’t have to be polite to him, you know. Just tell him to go away. Tell him to shut up.”—or ordered Vila outright to leave her alone.
“He doesn’t annoy me,” she kept saying. “I like him.” The looks she got in return ranged from disbelief to amusement.
When it was time to say goodbye, she gave Vila a hug. He blinked at her, surprised and pleased. “Fancy another recruit?” he asked. “I’m easy to look after. Clean and house-trained.”
“Oh, I couldn’t take you from Blake. You’re far too valuable.”
Vila did not look as if he believed that. “You could ask to do a swap, you know,” he said brightly. “They wouldn’t mind here. They’d probably be glad to get someone useful instead.”
Avalon laughed as she turned away to the teleport, assuming he was joking.
But had he been?
Vila floated, not far from the surface. They’d taken the pain away, and he felt as if he were wrapped in cotton-wool, the only discomfort that old familiar ache in the centre of his chest, and he knew that had never been physical. It had hurt that way every time he lost someone, and had hurt a lot since Cally died, and constantly since Malodaar. And then Blake... Just want it to end. Don’t want any more. No more pain...
Funny, he thought distantly, when they went to Gauda Prime, it had been about a week before the Festival of Light. Must be about that time now. Not that he would ever have mentioned it to any of that lot. It was a Delta thing, their own time of joy when people celebrated the Coming of Light, with candles in their windows, a new one lit every evening, exchanging small gifts and tokens of love, usually something needed. He knew it was based on a couple of old religious festivals from long ago, but the authorities had never tried to crush it; after all, light was part of every day life, wasn’t it? He’d loved that time though, just him and Mum and Serrin and Doty from next door, sitting round the table. Belonging. Feeling wanted. How ironic that he should die at Festival time, when he’d lost anything like that long ago.
People came and went, leant over him and spoke to him, faces he didn’t know, medical staff perhaps? He didn’t try to understand what they said; none of it meant anything any more. Then he felt someone holding his hand, saying his name, and that was novel enough to rouse him a little. It was Avalon.
“Hello, Vila.” She smiled at him.
Why would anyone smile at him? Vila was vaguely puzzled at that.
“You were a good friend to me once. You helped me when I needed it. I want to help you now.”
Oh, yes, that’s right. Long time ago now. Hard to remember those days when things were so different.
“You can stay here with me, you know. Remember? You asked me once.”
Did I? Oh, yes. Vila tried to focus on her dim wavering face. He wanted to explain that he just wanted an end to the pain, the weariness, the fear, and the loneliness, He tried to speak, and she leaned closer. “So tired...” he whispered. That didn’t begin to express how he felt, but she looked as if she understood.
“You once said it stops hurting after a while. You were right, Vila. It does.” She squeezed his hand harder.
Not this time. I’ve had enough. But she did seem to care, and it was a long time since anyone had. He owed her some sort of explanation. “Just wan’ sleep...never wake up again...”
He made a last effort. “Sorry, Avalon.” He closed his eyes and fell into the velvet blackness.
“He won’t come round again,” Orman said, looking at Vila’s slowly failing life signs on the display over his head. “It could take a while. You might as well leave.”
“No,” Avalon said, keeping Vila’s hand in hers. “I’ll stay with him. He shouldn’t be alone at the end. I can at least give him that much.”
After a while, Soolin came in, supported by Tarrant. She was pale, her skin hardly a contrast to the bandage around her head. “They said Vila was dying,” she said.
Avalon nodded sadly.
Soolin felt for the chair on the other side of the bed, and sat down. Tarrant stood behind her, looking slightly embarrassed to find himself there. After a moment’s hesitation, Soolin reached out and put her hand on Vila’s arm. “I don’t understand. When I first came round, they said he would be all right.”
“He doesn’t want to live.” Avalon saw that this did not surprise either of them. “But thank you for coming. Perhaps he’ll know we’re here.”
“I don’t think so,” Soolin said sadly, looking at Vila’s face, as cold and still as that of a marble statue. “Wherever he is, he’s a long way away.”
Avalon wished that she could think Vila looked peaceful, but he didn’t. He just looked lost.
Vila gradually became aware of light. The Coming of Light? He had been thinking of that. Or that other light they talked about, all those old jokes—if you see the light, don’t go towards it. He sat up in bed and stared in wonder at the crystal sea glittering before him, at the golden promise of the horizon.
“Vila, beloved child.”
He turned to the glowing figure on the shore, a being almost too dazzling to look at, who smiled at him with infinite love and acceptance.
“Who are you?”
“You know who I am.”
“Where’s this then? Heaven? I didn’t really expect to find myself here, being a thief and all...”
“Those who love much are forgiven much.”
“Me, love? There wasn’t much of that, not for me.”
“You have a very narrow definition of the word.”
“Oh. Well, no-one much ever loved me back, then.”
“You are judged by how you treat others, not how they treat you.”
Vila wasn’t sure how he had passed that test. but it seemed he had. He looked out at the shining sea again. Shouldn’t there be a boat waiting for him? Some said that, others gates of pearl. He used to joke he’d have to pick the locks.
“You are not meant to be here now, Vila,” the being said gently. “Life is a gift, not to be rejected.”
“A gift is it?” Vila asked, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Well, it’s a bit overrated.” Part of him quailed at his temerity, but he felt that for the first time, someone might understand him. “Quite frankly, I’d like to see the complaints department. I’d have preferred cash.” He felt a vast amusement wash over him, and also comfort for the pain behind his words. Encouraged, he went on. “You see, I can’t take it any more. No-one wants me, I’m tired, it hurts, I’m scared all the time, there’s no hope it’ll get better, and really,” he spread his arms, “it’s just no fun any more.”
“Ah. Seven gifts should be just about right then” The being of light turned from him and went away and a mist came down, obscuring the glittering sea and the shore.
“Don’t want me either, do you?” Vila hung his head in defeat. Story of his life. Rejected even by death. Who had ever wanted him, really? Only his mother, but mothers had to love their children, didn’t they? No matter how worthless they were.
“That’s not true, Vila.”
He hadn’t heard that voice since he was fourteen. He looked up at the woman standing there, her hair golden in the light; he’d never realised she was so beautiful, his mother. She stood straight and vibrant as she had not been in life. She had always walked a little bent after that near-fatal stabbing when he was four, and the last time he had seen her, she had been tired, ill, dying, her face pinched with pain. Now she was whole, glowing, and happy, and smiling at him with love.
“Mum!” He jumped up and threw himself at her, and felt her arms embrace him, her hands stroke his hair, his shoulders, his back. He buried his tearful face in her neck and clung desperately. “Mummy,” he whispered, reverting to his childhood speech.
“Vilakins,” she said softly, using the old baby name, “my darling. You’re wrong. Mothers don’t have to love their children, you know. Mine didn’t. She left me outside the orphanage just after I was born. I didn’t want you either, and I was going to do the same thing, but when I saw you, I fell for you. Sweetheart, I loved you more than you can imagine, and I still do.”
Vila closed his eyes and held her, feeling that place in him that had been empty for so long being filled at last.
“I know I wasn’t a good mother in many ways. I didn’t keep you safe when you were small, and you were always so afraid after that. I should have protected you and looked after you, but when I was ill, you had to do all that for me instead. But I did love you, darling. With all my heart.”
“I know,” Vila said. “I loved you too. I tried to get back from CF1 like I promised, but I was too late.”
“I’m glad you were. You wouldn’t have wanted to see me at the end. It would have been one more thing for you to carry with you, and at least you were spared that.”
“Let me stay with you.”
“You can’t, Vila. Suicide stunts the growth, remember?”
“I’m 33. I hardly think it matters now.”
“I wasn’t talking about your height, dear.”
“Oh.” Vila stepped back and looked at her, trying to impress everything about her on his memory. “I suppose I have to go back then. But I won’t forget you.”
“Of course you won’t. But you will forget this when you go back.”
“But you’ll have my gift. They said we could each give you one, and mine is love.” Jandy Restal smiled and wiped the tears from his cheeks. “You’ll always have that. You’ll always know you are loved, and loveable.”
She turned and walked into the mist, and just before she disappeared, Vila could see two figures waiting for her—Serrin and Doty. All three smiled at him, but as he took a step towards them, they disappeared.
Sadly, he went back and sat on the bed; strange that it was still there. What was supposed to happen now?
“Come on, Vila, me old mate. Don’t just sit there.”
“You’ve come to the end of your strength, haven’t you?”
Vila grinned. Good old Gan. “Didn’t have that much to start with. Weak chest, weak constitution, weak pulse to match, weak mind, weak will. D’you detect a common theme?”
“Don’t be like that, Vila,” Olag Gan said reprovingly. “You were strong enough in the hospital when we met. You gave me the will to live, you know that.”
“Didn’t do you much good, did it?” Vila said sadly, thinking of the short time Gan had been with them.
“Yes it did. We’re not meant to turn our backs on life, Vila.”
Yeah, that’s right. Not good for the spiritual growth, suicide.
“That’s what I have for you, anyway. Strength.” Gan put his hands on Vila’s shoulders, and Vila felt a fiery tingling run through his body. “Come on, up you get.” Gan pulled him to his feet, and clapped him on the back with a blow that would have sent him flying back on the Liberator, but hardly rocked him now. “There you go. That should do it.”
Gan winked at him and turned to leave. As the mists parted, Vila could see a tall woman with long dark hair and a square handsome face. She smiled at him, then she and Gan faced each other, linked hands tenderly, and walked off together. Vila stood, looking after them, a foolish grin covering his face. Gan and his beloved Lubov, together again. Made it all worthwhile, that sort of thing. Pity he’d forget.
He turned. Cally stood there, smiling fondly at him.
“Cally!” Vila just restrained himself from rushing at her and hugging her. After all, he never had in real life.
“We hurt you, didn’t we?” Cally said. “I knew you were in pain, but I had nothing left to give you after my people were destroyed. And Avon and I, we wanted you to learn to fight your own battles.”
“Not sure if I did,” Vila said. “But Tarrant and Dayna, they got used to me. I survived.”
“Ah, but at what cost? I’ve come to heal you.”
“Don’t think I need it.” Vila spread his arms wide and spun around. “Gan gave me strength. I can feel my body getting better.”
“Not that sort of healing.” Cally put her hand forward and unerringly touched that place right in the middle of his breastbone where the pain of grief and loneliness and rejection still crushed him, and had done for so long he had almost become used to it. As it left him, Vila gasped and trembled with the release, and for an instant he saw Cally’s face take on a brief look of pain, gone almost before he recognised it.
“There,” Cally said, leaning forward. Vila closed his eyes as she gave him a kiss on the forehead like a blessing. When he opened his eyes, she was already walking away, and he thought he could see, waiting there in the mists for her, a multitude.
Jenna Stannis stood there, one hand on her hip, and a grin on her face like she had those few times he had succeeded in amusing her.
“Jenna!” Vila said, dismayed. “Didn’t know you were dead.”
“I don’t think that begins to describe it,” Jenna said. “I always liked a bit of adventure, and let me tell you—” she paused and cocked her head as if listening. “—no, sorry, I can’t, it’s against the rules. But you won’t be bored when you get here, Vila.”
“Oh, good.” Vila had never fancied the images from the old books of people sitting on clouds playing some sort of ancient stringed instrument. “I’m surprised you bothered about me, though. Didn’t think you had much time for me.”
“You grew on me, fox-features. Here’s my gift.” Jenna held out her hand as if to shake, and Vila clasped it, puzzled. “Courage, Vila.”
“Now there’s something new for me.”
“Come on, you weren’t that bad. You were always cool under fire, and you did well when it counted.” Jenna balled her fist and brushed it against Vila’s cheek. “See you again one day.”
“It’s good to see you, Vila.”
Blake. Vila turned around slowly, afraid that he would see him as he had been on Gauda Prime, but Roj Blake stood there, legs apart, hands on hips, eyes quietly amused. Both eyes. There were no scars, no gaping bleeding bullet wounds.
“Is it?” Vila asked wistfully. “You didn’t even look at me. Only Avon, and he...he...” He could not go on.
“I certainly didn’t mean to ignore you. Do you know how often I talked about you two, Cally as well? Vila, you meant more to me than you know. It was for people like you that I fought, people who never lost hope no matter what the Federation did to them.”
“Well you were wrong, I did. Months ago. Least I thought I did, but when Avon said he’d found you, I did hope. Just a bit.” He looked away. “Fat lot of good it did me.”
“Vila.” Blake put his arm across Vila’s shoulders. “Don’t give up now. Not after all you’ve been through. You never know what the future will bring you. That’s what I have for you.”
“Empty promises, Blake.”
“No.” Blake’s grip tightened into a half-embrace. “A future you can change. Carpe diem, Vila.”
Vila felt his spirits rising irrepressibly despite himself. “Carp what?”
“You know perfectly well what it means. You can’t play that game with me any more.”
Vila grinned. As Blake walked away, he saw that Jenna stepped out to join him.
He knew who the next one would be. It was chronological order, wasn’t it? “Dayna,” he said, turning.
Dayna Mellanby paused in mid-step and pouted. “I was sneaking up on you,” she complained. “Everyone else managed it.” A huge dazzling smile split her face. “Never mind. C’mere, you.”
“Why?” Vila looked at her warily. She stood, lithe and strong and beautiful in a short Greek-looking tunic, her feet washed by wavelets.
“I’ve got something for you.” Dayna put her hands on her hips. “Oh, come on, I’m not going to hurt you.” She paused and a look of regret passed over her face. “I know I did, didn’t I? It made me feel better to take it out on someone. It took me a long time to realise that if I hadn’t been so mean, we could’ve had a lot of fun. Hey, remember Kairos?”
Vila did. He and Dayna embracing and leaping for joy when they took out that Mark 10, and their unaccustomed truce on the planet below.
“By the time I got to know you and like you, and wanted to cheer you up, it was too late, wasn’t it?”
After Malodaar, yes. But she had tried, she and Soolin. “Sorry.”
“It’s me that should say sorry. I watched you lose all your sense of fun. I could have done something, but I didn’t. I can now though.” She darted forward and grabbed Vila’s hands.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
Dayna began to swing him around in a circle, faster and faster, the sea and sky and mist swirling about him, until a bubble of sheer happiness rose up in him and he laughed with delight.
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve got for you, Vila! Joy!” Dayna yanked him into the rippling waves where he stood swaying and giggling, and bent and scooped up some water and threw it in his face.
Vila blinked in surprise. “Hey, two can play that game!” he grinned, splashing her back. Laughing, they soaked each other, leaping about and crowing like two children. Finally, Dayna tripped him and he sprawled in the tide, helpless and weak with happiness. “Lost again, haven’t I?” he said, though it no longer mattered.
“Nah, this time you win.” Dayna ran off, her feet kicking up spray. A blonde girl ran in from the side to join her and as the mist enveloped them, Vila saw a dark man waiting for them.
He got up, still smiling, and found the Light was back.
“It’s time to leave now, Vila.”
He was in the medical unit on Avalon’s base. Surprised, he looked down at the floor, half expecting to see a puddle of seawater forming around his feet.
“You have your gifts now. Use them well.”
“Eh? You said seven. Oh, I get it. I suppose the seventh one is life.”
“You already had that, child. No, the seventh gift is one the living have for you, though the others also gave it to you. Friendship.”
Vila opened his mouth to say he didn’t have any friends, but then he saw himself lying in the bed, with Avalon on one side holding his hand, and Soolin on the other with her hand on his arm, and Tarrant standing behind her. He hadn’t thought they cared.
And he remembered.
All those times he had come round to find Avon bending over him with concern, his eyes dark with worry, so quickly concealed when Vila awoke that he had always wondered if he imagined it.
Tarrant placing a respirator over his face as he lost consciousness during that freezing orbit over Xenon, than falling beside him and linking arms.
Soolin and Dayna helping him up from the green Virn sand...Dayna dabbing his forehead...one of them always with him after Malodaar, finding games to play with him, trying to distract him from his depression...Soolin leaning over him in that hut, relieved he was all right.
He blinked back tears. Perhaps they had cared a little. And a little was enough, wasn’t it? He’d never asked for more. Pity Avon wasn’t there too. But you couldn’t expect much from Avon.
The dark glass of the nurses’ station cleared, and Vila could see Avon standing there, his face expressionless except for his eyes, one hand held against the glass. Probably just making sure he’s rid of an annoying pest at last. But Vila rejected that bitter thought, suddenly remembering Avon’s attempt to console him on the Federation ship, and the pain on his face when it was rejected. Vila had been hurt so much in his life, he was appalled that he had done such a thing to someone else. And Avon wasn’t the only one, now he thought of it, remembering with shame how he’d lashed out at poor Zeeona.
He tried to touch Avon. “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean...well no, I did, but I’m sorry anyway.” Avon continued to stare unseeing past him.
“He cannot see or hear you, Vila.”
“But I might forget later. Mum said I would.”
“You will not forget this, as it belongs to the living. As do you.”
“His pulse is much stronger.”
“He’s getting better.”
“Perhaps he did know we’re here.”
Vila floated, half asleep and half awake, enjoying the feeling of peace. That had been such a wonderful dream, but as he tried to grasp it, it slipped from him and disappeared like smoke. It didn’t matter though; the happiness remained. He opened his eyes and saw Avalon smiling at him. He smiled back. “Offer still open?” he whispered.
She nodded and squeezed his hand. “If you still want it. Though I think some others might have a prior claim on you.”
He turned his head to see Soolin and Tarrant on the other side. They hadn’t been there before, but oddly, he wasn’t surprised.
Soolin patted his arm. “Welcome back.”
“Decided to stay with us then?” Tarrant asked.
“Thought I might.”
But there was someone else, surely. Avon? Why would he think Avon was there? Vila looked past Soolin and Tarrant at the darkened window of the nurses’ station, and smiled tentatively. He wasn’t quite sure how he knew Avon was there but he was right, for the door opened and Avon came in.