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Songs of Innocence and Experience

By Nova
Page 1 of 8

1. It is universally acknowledged that, wherever life is reduced to routine tedium, minor events assume a disproportionate significance. Life on Xenon Base was tedious in the extreme, especially since the crew's afternoon walks through the surrounding hills had been cancelled when the neighbouring Hommiks, deprived of their traditional enemy, took to gathering round the main door and shouting challenges at the scanner. So the first day of every month, when Avon distributed the mail order catalogues, was a red letter day. The catalogues didn't, in fact, arrive simultaneously but after some crew members (notably Vila) started a round of quarrels by flaunting their printouts at others whose catalogues hadn't yet been transmitted, Avon had instructed Orac to withhold all the catalogues and print them on the same morning.

'A very ingenious solution,' Vila said bitterly, for the twentieth time. 'I particularly like the bit about only being allowed to order one item a month. I thought we were supposed to be freedom fighters, Avon. How about letting us feel free to order what we bloody well like?'

'I have told you before,' Avon said, without looking up. 'We are not in a position to justify weekly jaunts to Valoonica. If your supply of pornovids exceeds the space in our alloted locker at the delivery centre, we run the risk of attracting the authorities' attention. Therefore, you will continue to limit yourself to one item a month - unless you wish to give the Xenon Base address to **Naughty Nights Holos**, on the assumption that they rate your continued custom more highly than the chance to sell us to the Federation.'

Vila muttered and subsided, flipping pages with an intentionally irritating rustle. Beside him, Soolin suppressed a grin. Somewhere along the line, she'd formed the impression that Avon restricted their mail order activities as a way of prolonging the entertainment, just as much as for security purposes. After all, keeping the crew occupied and amused was one of the responsibilities of leadership.

**Rather Avon than me. I don't envy him the job of playing nanny to this bunch of rampant egos.**

She lounged back on the couch and watched the others pore over their catalogues. Tarrant sprawled in an armchair, leafing through the Federation Space Academy Gazette and reading out paragraphs from the gossip column about his fellow students from the academy, with equal amounts of scorn for those who were diligently working their way up the Space Command hierarchy and those who had failed to fulfil their potential.

I don't think Tarrant's ever really decided whether he rejected the Federation ethos or whether he's still a good little officer ... for the other side.

Dayna sat cross-legged on the floor, absorbed in Laserguns & Ammo, sniffing disdainfully at armaments that fell short of her own experiments, yelping with excitement when she came across a new development that she could use. And Vila was curled up on the couch, presumably assessing the latest pornovid stars, although when Soolin peered over his shoulder, she caught a glimpse of - **good god, is that a rubber chicken?** - before he whisked the catalogue away.

'Actually, I asked Orac for the Comedy Collection this month,' he announced, glancing round impartially but pitching his voice at Avon. 'They've got an interesting ad here for a course that teaches you to invent your own jokes. I made up a joke myself, from reading the examples in the catalogue. Want to hear it?' He smoothed a hand across his receding hairline and said, before anyone had time to answer, 'What's more tragic than a balding man without a hairdryer?'

Avon ignored him. Dayna rolled her eyes at Soolin, who giggled. Tarrant sighed and stretched his long legs.

'Oh, all right,' he said. 'Anything for a bit of peace and quiet. What is more tragic than a balding man without a hairdryer?'

Vila eyed Avon sideways. 'A balding man with a hairdryer,' he said snidely.

Avon lifted his head and aimed an impassive stare at Vila. As he turned the next page of his catalogue, an elaborate performance designed to ensure that he didn't smooth his own hair, Soolin craned her neck and tried to read the catalogue's title. Intensive research in the Xenon Base shredder basket had convinced Vila that Avon sampled a different catalogue each month - anything from astrogation to zoology - but, since Avon adamantly refused to share his catalogues, Vila's theory remained unproven.

Avon's monthly packages provided their only clues so far, containing memory tapes on asteroid geology, cybernetics and selsium ore processing, along with recurrent evidence of his passion for first calendar crime novels. They had all read their way through his collection of Agat Xti reprints, drawing ironic parallels between Xti's hermetically sealed country villages and life on Xenon Base.

'Long periods of boredom, interspersed with short periods of acute terror,' Tarrant summed up, quoting the definition of a soldier's life from his set of FSA mugs.

Soolin sometimes wondered whether Avon's free-range reading habits were part of a crash course in rebel leadership or merely a symptom of boredom. She knew the symptoms well. At other times - right then, for example - she wondered why she remained on Xenon Base, even though she already knew the answer. Neither Helotrix nor Casper, Bucol-2 nor Domo had exactly enticed her to jump ship and, while there were more attractive options in the galaxy, Soolin had never summoned the energy needed to make a choice and then pressure Avon into ferrying her there. So she stayed out of a general sense of ennui, not - **absolutely not** - because she felt part of the gestalt that Dorian had claimed to sense.

**My life's work ended on my twenty first birthday, when I killed the last of my family's killers. From that moment to the day I die - which on current estimates may not be too far distant - I'll just be marking time.**

'Come on,' Vila urged, cutting across her thoughts. 'Time to pool the catalogues. There's nothing new in mine. I'll have to see whether I want something to improve my mind from Soolin's catalogue - or a nice FSA scarf, to keep the draughts out - or a gun, to shoot myself.'

Tarrant scowled, Dayna groaned and Avon produced another impassive stare. Satisfied by having provoked a reaction, Vila flicked his wrist and sent his printout skidding across the floor, like a stone skimming a pond. The others tossed in their catalogues and pounced, elbowing and jostling each other under Avon's monitoring gaze, as they fought to grab the catalogues they wanted - although, when Soolin returned to the couch with **Laserguns & Ammo**, she found herself wishing that Vila had asked for **Naughty Nights** as usual. After three years with Dorian, she'd assumed she had outgrown the need for sex but over the last few weeks she'd observed a wash of warm secretions plumping her vulva, as though her body disagreed with her mind. In which case, a suitable pornovid seemed to be her only option, given that the Hommiks didn't appeal and she'd already explored the other possibilities.

Convinced by Dorian's theory that sex was the quickest way to get to know anyone, Soolin had slept with Tarrant (eager, guarded, posturing) and Vila (inventive, guarded, lazy) during their first week on the base. She'd then proceeded to beam the same signals at Avon, who hooded his eyes and said, in that indescribable voice that contrived to be both smooth and abrasive, 'I don't fuck crew.' By the time Soolin had come to terms with the juxtaposition of Avon and obscenity, she realised she'd missed the moment when she might have added Dayna to her list.

**Not that it mattered, of course. Sex may be the best way to understand men but there's a whole range of ways to get to know another woman.**

'Change catalogues again,' Tarrant commanded, pitching the **Comedy Collection** onto the floor with a grimace of distaste.

Soolin glanced up, running a quick systems check, to see whether she could be tempted to change her rules and try him a second time. No, not really. As she turned to run the same check on Vila, he hurled the **FSA Gazette** onto the pile and Dayna reached out to scoop it up. Fluorescent light powdered her tawny arm with silver: and the world changed, although Soolin didn't register it at the time, because she'd just noticed Avon setting his catalogue aside.

'Avon,' she said, claiming his attention before it was distracted, 'what should I order from the **Universal Education Compendium**? I've worked through their memory tapes on mathematics, physics and geography but I can't decide whether to learn history or literature next.'

Avon's hand swung out in one of his edgy flourishes. 'Oh, marvellous,' he said. 'Academicians spend their lives mastering a single aspect of a single discipline but **you** can encompass the whole of human knowledge in a matter of months.'

'I'm very focused,' Soolin said, unperturbed. 'It only took me three years to make myself the best shot in the galaxy. I don't see why getting the education I missed should be so much harder.'

'All right,' Avon said, losing interest. 'Start with history. You'll find it more useful in -'

Then he broke off, because Dayna was reading a retrospective tribute to President Servalan from the **FSA Gazette**, spitting the words out with full-throated venom. She and Avon launched into their ongoing competition to establish which of them hated Servalan more, while Soolin - who couldn't have cared less about Servalan's past record or her current incarnation as Commissioner Sleer - tuned out the sense and listened to the sound of their voices. Dayna's voice was, in its own way, as remarkable as Avon's - deep, melodic and infinitely expressive, a lilting counterpoint to his stylised precision. And her face transformed itself continuously, illustrating her points with widened eyes or a twist of her full mouth, while her hands shifted and settled, catching the light on their tawny skin ...

Soolin swallowed a gasp and braced herself against the back of the couch. **Oh. What's happening to me? The world's changing. For the first time in years, something seems important.

Correction: Dayna seems important.**


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