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By Sheila Paulson
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It was Vila, of course, who started the entire thing. Who else but the thief would be so excited by the frivolous, the purposeless, the sentimental, and who else would insist that the others take an interest as well? It was easy to ignore Vila, or at least to pretend to ignore him, but he buzzed around like a particularly annoying fly, and sometimes it took less time to hear what he had to say--so that one could cut it down to size--instead of avoiding him entirely.

It wasn't a long time after Gan's death in the futile search for Central Control that Vila began it. He had been playing--one could not designate the random and scatterbrained dipping into computers here and there as research--with the help of a remarkably tolerant Orac. Though it was not his nature to worry about computers, Avon had nearly decided to take Orac away with some pretend research. He could always claim he feared Vila would do irreparable damage to the computer's circuits. Just before he would have risen to do so, Vila let out an excited cry of triumph.

"The very thing, Blake. Let's have a Christmas party."

This suggestion solicited a round of blank stares. The name would mean nothing to Cally, of course, Aurons coming from a different tradition, and Avon would have been greatly surprised if Jenna had ever heard of such a thing before. Blake's eyes lifted from the particularly boring section of deck he had been contemplating for the past twenty minutes, a momentary gleam touching the dullness in his eyes--all too easy to guess what he had been thinking about. Avon watched him, waiting, but the gleam faded and he said, "Christmas, Vila?" without a trace of interest. "That's a religious holiday, isn't it? From the Old Calendar?"

Avon would have expected Blake to know of Christmas. For all his fuzzy-headed idealism, he had received a sound education and possessed a ready intelligence that he masked beneath his obsessive concern for his rabble.

"I hardly think we want a religious holiday," Blake continued.

"No, but Blake, it wasn't just religion," objected Vila. "There were gifts, Christmas trees . . . " Cally's eyes widened in puzzlement at that . . . "parties, food and drink. Good fellowship." He hesitated a moment, a shadow darting across his expressive face. Almost immediately it was gone again, leaving Avon to wonder if he had imagined it. He doubted it. He was hardly the imaginative type. "We could have a party right here on the flight deck. Stop at some planet along the way and get an evergreen tree and decorate it. It would look--"

"Decorate it, Vila?" Jenna asked, perplexed. "Why?"

"I don't know why. Because it would look nice. Put us in the mood."

It would take more than a decorated fir tree to put Blake in a better mood. He'd been snapping at everyone who came too close to him for the past week. Gan's death had clearly been his fault, and his sojourn on Zil's planet and the attack on Space Command Headquarters had not really made him feel any better. Caught up in the reckless tide of his enthusiasm, Blake had bulldozed them to Earth, into the center of Federation power, on an insane quest. Gan had paid the price, and since then the atmosphere on the Liberator had been oppressive, even to Avon who was good at ignoring other people's sulks unless they interfered with his own business. It wasn't that the others blamed Blake for it particularly. None of them could ever have blamed him as fiercely as he blamed himself.

"Nobody cares about religion now, Vila," Blake informed him. "Gan--Gan didn't even know what a church was."

Vila flinched. He had been closer to Gan than anyone else had, and it took little effort to see that he wanted his preposterous holiday to cheer himself up, to help him chase away the shadows that surrounded them all. If it came to that, they all wanted cheering. Avon intended to take this ship for his own one day, but at the rate they were going the corridors would be flooded with tears by then. Taking it from Blake in this state of mind would hardly be satisfying. It would be more like stealing candy from children. He grimaced.

"Perhaps Vila has a good idea," Cally said gently and rather hastily as if to fend off trouble. "I think we could use a party."

"An excuse for food and drink always managed to arouse Vila's executive abilities," Avon put in, being careful to sound sour and bored.

It worked. Vila's head shot up and he favored the computer tech with a scowl. "More than food and drink," he insisted. "The Christmas spirit. Ever hear of that, Avon?"

Avon had once read a remarkably maudlin book about three spirits of Christmas and someone called Tiny Tim, but that seemed something entirely different. "Hardly, Vila," he replied. "Surely you don't expect me to display any trace of it?"

"Might do you good instead of standing there glaring like a sourpuss. We need to celebrate, Avon."

"Celebrate what? Blake's latest idiotic scheme to defeat the Federation?"

Blake looked at him solemnly and didn't bother to defend himself. It was worse than Avon had thought. While the last thing in the word he wanted was to become involved in a foolish and festive celebration, neither did he wish to endure any more of Blake's dark humor and bitter self-reproach. He had half expected that his criticism of the party idea would win Blake over, and once committed, Blake was likely to become a zealot, prepared to defend his plan to the death--but this time it had not quite worked. Avon grimaced and sought out Jenna's eye.

She looked startled but the message he sent her was clear enough. Astonished, Jenna joined in the fray. "It might do us all some good, Blake. I think I'd enjoy a party too. We've all been working far too hard, haven't we, Cally? What must we do, Vila?"

The thief brightened. "They used to sing Christmas carols. I don't know any, but Orac can find out, can't you, old chum?" He patted Orac on the casing. Imagining Orac's discomfiture, Avon had to struggle to conceal his amusement. "Then there would be a big dinner, all sorts of rich foods. And presents. They gave each other presents." He looked around hopefully, an expectant and greedy gleam in his eyes.

"Now we come to the heart of it," Avon replied. "You expect us to shower you with gifts, Vila. I should rather doubt we carry a supply of gifts to hand. In any case, I seem to recall that Christmas gifts went to those who deserved them, and I hardly think you qualify."

"But that's the most important part," Vila insisted. "One of them, anyway. Giving gifts to all one's friends." He favored Avon with a bright, mischievous smile as if daring him to deny Vila's right to befriend him if he chose."

"It seems rather excessive," Blake said dampeningly. "Gaudy decorations and trees all over the flight deck. It will get into Zen's workings and we'll never hear the end of it."

Vila eyed his opposition with some defiance. "Don't be a spoilsport, Blake. Have some fun for once. Celebrate the season."

"It seems a remarkably uncelebratory season to me." Blake gnawed on his forefinger, his eyes going blank again.

Vila glared at him. Avon could see he was going to make his main pitch and he rather doubted it would work, but it turned out to be as effective as a neutron blaster at five paces. "Gan would have liked it," Vila flung at him defiantly, waiting for the resultant explosion.

Blake's eyes lifted, huge and hurt, and he stared at Vila like a child who has just learned that grown-ups habitually strangle puppies and pull wings off butterflies. Avon knew Blake had vulnerabilities but they seldom showed when he was bullying Avon into helping with his Cause or dragging his crew into danger. This Blake was far harder to deal with than he had expected.

Sympathy was not Avon's style and neither was it likely to be of any help to Blake. Helping Blake was hardly Avon's first consideration but he heard himself say in bracing tones, "You may as well give in, Blake. Vila is one of the most annoyingly persistent men I've had the misfortune to meet. Get it over. How bad can it be?"

Vila's eyes lit with gratification as he heard this support from a truly unexpected source, and he spun around to Blake, hesitating briefly as he realized how accurate--and mean--his last barb had been. "See, Blake?" he said, rather too brightly. "Avon agrees with me."

"I am prepared to tolerate you," Avon corrected. "There is rather a large difference. Besides, the spectacle of Vila leading the rest of you in a group sing along should set music back five hundred years. How could I forgive myself should I deny myself such a pleasure?"

Slight amusement trickled into Blake's eyes. That was better. "All right," the rebel replied. "Plan your party, Vila. I think it's a mistake, but I won't stop you." He looked as if he meant to get up and walk away, and Avon forestalled him by rising abruptly and reaching for Orac.

"Where are you going?" Blake asked him.

"As it's not my watch, I see no reason why it should matter to you," Avon said coolly.

"Short of common courtesy," Blake snapped. Ah, better yet. A testy Blake was a familiar Blake. One could deal with him in that mood. Avon smiled to himself.

"I shall be in my quarters," he remarked. "I do not expect to be disturbed.

As he left the flight deck he heard Vila enlarging on the 'pleasures' in store for them on the night of the Christmas party. Avon shuddered. What had he managed to involve himself in this time?

*****

Unknown to the others, Avon possessed a secret interest in music. He found the notes and their myriad combinations as fascinating as mathematics, able to blend and combine in a thousand moods. There was a precision about music well done, be it by instrument or synthesizer, and a concert performed by an orchestra, though such things were rare, had been one of the few extravagances he had allowed himself when working for the Federation Banking System. Sometimes he and Anna had . . . He let that thought slip away from him. Music: he preferred instrumental music to vocal, for the lyrics often rendered well designed music sentimental and saccharine, an offense to his sensibilities.

Still, there was that music cube he'd been given by President Sarkoff the last time the Liberator had called at Lindor on one of Blake's so-called goodwill tours. Having engineered Sarkoff's return to his people and thwarted the Federation in the bargain, Blake rather enjoyed returning to the scene of his triumph. On the last visit, Avon had discovered one thing he and Sarkoff had in common, their love of music. He had spent a day making copies of Sarkoff's Twentieth Century music, and there was one piece in particular . . . He flipped the cube into the player and activated the directory, studying it as the list of songs scrolled before his eyes. Yes, there it was.

Avon set to work, enjoying himself immensely. Had anyone questioned him about it, he would have made some ready excuse, but no one disturbed him. At the realization that the others had taken him at his word, he paused, smiled a crocodile smile, and returned to the task at hand.

*****

The night of the party came around before Blake was quite ready for it. It was obvious in his expression as he stood in the middle of the flight deck, looking around at the gaudy display Vila had engineered so enthusiastically. The tree was as big as would fit through the corridors, and Avon, who had been roped into going down to a pastoral planet with Vila and Cally to fetch it back, had not enjoyed the task of gripping its trunk in concert with the other two whilst they teleported back to the ship.

Vila had dangled strings of lights cobbled together from the electronics stores and tied a chain of glittering jewels from the strongroom in a myriad of colors to drape around the branches. He had done a thorough job of research this time, and the flight deck vaguely resembled some old pictures of Christmas celebrations that Avon had read about back in the days of his youth when his father had access to the occasional banned book. Looking across the bright and glowing flight deck Avon had stood there in disbelief, unable to imagine the lives of the people who had done this routinely.

Cakes and candies were assembled on a table in front of the main screen, and another table nearly groaning under the weight of appetizing and savory delights tempted even Avon, who seldom paid much attention to what he ate. Vila had produced several bottles from his secret liquor store, and hew as passing glasses to anyone who would take them. Blake had a glass in his hand but he hadn't tasted it. Perhaps that was just as well. Avon had a horror of the maudlin drunk Blake would all too likely become in his present frame of mind.

Nagged into the proper spirit, Cally and Jenna had decorated their gifts in bright, shimmering paper and festooned them with ribbons. Avon eyed the small stack of gifts under the tree uneasily, with mixed feelings. This occasion was too sentimental. He wanted to turn his back on it all and disappear to the safety of his own cabin.

It was too late. Vila had spotted him and was surging forward with a glass in his hand. "Here you go, old man. Eat, drink, and be merry."

"For tomorrow we die?" Avon finished the quotation under his breath. He felt an idiot standing there, his gifts for the others under his arm. Not one to resort to the fancy decorations used by the women and, evidently, Vila, if that particularly garish stack was anything to go by, Avon had simply put his presents into boxes. Gritting his teeth, he gave them to Vila to stow under the tree. The thief found his immediately, shaking it carefully against his ear and weighing it in his hand as if to judge its contents without looking.

"What did you get me, Avon?" he asked brightly, making no attempt to conceal his delight in the fact that Avon had deigned to give him a gift. He'd probably have been pleased to receive a dead rat, insisting it was the thought that counted. Avon regretted the whole party already.

But Blake was standing there holding his drink, glancing around him in some confusion. He looked as if he'd wandered in by mistake and would have taken himself away again if he could have extricated himself without notice.

Avon strode over to join him. "Grin and bear it, Blake. If I can endure this, you can."

That roused Blake's curiosity, bringing a bit of life to his eyes. "Why are you enduring this, Avon? It seems out of character."

"Perhaps," he replied. "Had I avoided it, Vila would have pestered me for days."

"And of course you are incapable of ignoring Vila." Blake smiled a little, as if the spectacle of Avon fleeing the thief to avoid his persistent importuning was amusing him.

"Let's open our gifts," Vila cried brightly. "I'll go first, shall I?"

"Oh, of course you will go first," Avon replied. "Why should I have expected anything else."

Vila hunted around under the tree and distributed gifts to everyone, hoarding his own in a little pile beside the tree and exclaiming with delight when he encountered another one. Cally and Jenna received theirs with evidence of pleasure, Blake took his with studied indifference that Avon could not have bettered, and Avon, his reaction preempted, decided to join in the game and received them as if they were his due. It surprised him to discover that he had one from everyone, even Blake. He was astonished the rebel had actually bothered.

Vila opened Avon's gift first and cried out in surprise, turning to look at Avon, startled out of his studied antic attitude into betraying real delight. Avon had given him a series of finely tuned probe tools that would be invaluable to a thief no matter the type of lock. Avon had acquired them some months ago and had used them himself, but they would do Vila more good. He had half expected Vila to protest the obviously second hand gift but Vila made no protest at all. He looked curiously touched, then he caught himself. "Couldn't get them to work right, eh?" he teased.

"I simply couldn't be bothered," Avon replied.

He watched the others opening their gifts and gradually reverting to childhood in their pleasure. While he despised sentiment, it occurred to him that many people did not, and that allowing them their occasional simplistic pleasure might be an effective leadership tool. Odd that Vila would know that when Blake, the prime manipulator, didn't.

His own gifts were less important to him, but he opened them anyway, discovering that Vila had given him a recording of Ocasarian performing live and was startled that Vila not only knew his interest in music but had found a cube he would enjoy so well. For once he permitted the thief to see his pleasure in an exchanged look.

Blake had put less effort into the gifts than the others, but he had not done them thoughtlessly. He paid no attention to the rest of them as they opened the gifts but he had cared enough to give them. Avon wondered that Blake had managed to survive life's wounds as long as this, leaving himself so open to caring. Perhaps he had finally reached his limits. Avon would have suspected it from the rebel's gloomy mood of late, until he opened his gift from Blake and found a complete set of book disks on the history of computer science. He'd once possessed the set, back on Earth, and had lost it at the time of his arrest. Pleased with the present he tried to catch Blake's eye but Blake had begun to open his own presents.

Drowned out by the exclamations of pleasure from Cally, Jenna, and Vila, Avon shifted closer to watch Blake. He had opened Avon's gift first and was staring at the music cube curiously. Avon wanted to urge him to play it immediately, but such was not his way and it was left for Vila to pounce curiously. "What's that, Blake? Music?" He looked for a label, and finding none, said brightly, "I hope we won't be treated to Avon singing. In chorus with Orac, perhaps." He shrugged elaborately. "Why don't you play it?"

Jenna looked sharply at Avon, then she nodded. "Yes, Blake, let's hear it."

Vila jumped up and produced a player for the cube, snatching it from Blake's unresisting hand to insert it. There was a moment of silence as it loaded, then the music began, Twentieth Century music, something that Sarkoff had called a 'showtune.' Blake listened in puzzlement.

                    "To dream the impossible dream,

                    To fight the unbeatable foe,

                    To bear with unbearable sorrow,

                    To run where the brave dare not go . . ."

It was Jenna who understood first, and she turned to Avon in realization, her expression surprised and elated, her face warming. The music gained in strength, the long-forgotten singer pouring his soul into the song, spinning it out into a tale of the man, 'scorned and covered with scars' who found the courage to face the impossible odds he had set for himself, just as Blake had set himself the task of overthrowing the Federation against even greater odds.

As he listed, Blake tensed at first, then he began to relax, the abject misery that had dogged him for days retreating to the back of his eyes. His head came up, slowly at first, as if he didn't care to risk it, then he gradually straightened to his full height, his shoulders back, his face alight as he realized the music was intended as a tribute. Though Avon might scorn the Cause, might deny its remote hope of success, he could not bring himself to scorn the man. These past days, watching Blake refuse to rise to the challenges Avon had flung at him had irritated him. He preferred his Blake stubborn and foolhardy and bullheaded, determined to conquer against all odds, no matter how ludicrous they might be. That was the man he could happily fight with and hold out against and try to resist. That was the man the music had brought back.

When the last notes finally faded away, Blake turned to Avon, his eyes bright and alive again. He said no more than, "Thank you," in a quiet voice before turning to open the next gift, but Avon needed no more than that.

Vila had watched the whole thing with more perception in his eyes than Avon had expected--no, than he had been willing to expect. Now the thief proved it was more than a fluke. "Well, that was better than Avon and Orac's duet, wasn't it?" he said brightly to ease the intense emotional pitch of the moment. "Hurry up, Blake, and open the rest of your presents. All our food will get cold."

"And your drinks will get warm," Avon added. "Don't let us stop you, Vila. But remind me to avoid you in the morning when you go to the medical unit for terminal indigestion."

Vila made a face at him. "Spoilsport. I always knew you were no fun, Avon."

"And for once you were right. A novel experience, surely." He set his presents aside and moved with Blake toward the tables. The rebel had regained his enthusiasm and was ready to pitch in and enjoy himself. Avon remembered the threatening Christmas carols yet to come and shuddered at the idea. Perhaps he could play Scrooge and flee before the assault upon his ears began.

Blake met his eyes and smiled with eager challenge. "What, Avon, planning to escape? If I can endure this, so can you?"

"You enjoy throwing my words back in my face, don't you, Blake?" Avon asked with exaggerated sarcasm.

Blake laughed out loud. "That I do," he agreed as he began to pile food on his plate.

Avon shook his head. Impossible as it seemed, Vila had been right about his Christmas party, but Avon gave no sign of acknowledging that fact. The last thing he intended was to admit that Vila had really had a good idea.

Joining Blake, he began to fill his own plate. He'd need all his strength to endure the singing.


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