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A Step Between

By Jean Graham
Page 1 of 1

"...as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death." I Sam. 20:3, King James' Version

      

Tarrant groaned.

      With a shiver, he turned over on the frozen ground and sat up. The pounding in his head, until now a minor accompaniment to Terminal's throbbing `heartbeat', immediately became a roar. The icy air lanced into smoke-damaged lungs and wrenched out a painful, choking cough. It made the tiny circle of figures round the fire recede into oblivion while he pressed his head between his knees and waited for the spasm to subside.

      Gradually, he became aware once more of the artificial planet's drumming rhythm, then of the snapping sounds and rich woody aroma of the nearby fire.

      Snow crunched. Someone to his immediate left was moving about, rummaging through something. He didn't have the energy to turn and see who. Lifting his head, he squinted toward the firelight and eventually identified two reclining figures by their clothing: Dayna's brown jumpsuit, and Avon's black leather. Two were missing. Cally and Vila...

      No, he told himself, that was wrong. Cally - wasn't missing. He remembered hearing Avon say it, an eternity of hours ago.

      "Cally's dead."

      Just before that cold assessment, his own incredulous voice had questioned another of Avon's pronouncements.

      "Vila rescued me?"

      "You were injured trying to rescue Cally. Vila rescued you. Suddenly I'm hip deep in heroes."

      ...trying to rescue Cally.

      Cally's dead.

      And Vila rescued me. Vila??

      When the cough resurged with a vengeance, Tarrant lowered his head once more, starting when a firm hand grasped his shoulder and something soft - a light-coloured cloth - was thrust gently into his fist. The hand kept its grip on his shoulder, retreating only after the coughing fit had done the same. When he could breathe again, Tarrant wiped his mouth, wadded the cloth and shoved it into a pocket, unwilling to look long at the dark stain that marred it. No use to think about that now. There would be nothing for it anyway.

      "Here. Take this." The voice - Vila's - came from close beside him. The same hand that had supplied the cloth now placed the neck of a small canteen (where did he find these things?) in Tarrant's hand, folding his fingers over the chill metal.

      "Slow and easy. Come on."

      The pilot allowed the bottle to be guided to his lips, sipped at the frigid, bitter water inside, then forced it away in near panic when the icy liquid threatened to re-trigger his cough. When it didn't after all, he drew the canteen back, pulling it out of Vila's grasp, and braved several more cautious sips.

      "Thank you," he managed belatedly, and for the first time, he saw the Federation paragun cradled protectively under the thief's arm. In the orange glow of the shifting firelight, Vila looked almost ominous. How he'd coaxed their sole remaining weapon out of Avon was still another mystery. But then, mystery had been Vila's middle name, lately.

      "No trouble," the quiet voice replied, and Vila shifted the rifle to ready position, settling himself on the frozen ground beside the pilot. "Anyone can melt a little snow."

      "That's not what I -" Tarrant arrested the acid retort in mid-sentence, tucked the canteen under his knee and proceeded to clasp his pounding head in both hands. Even if he lived another century, he would likely never understand why a delta thief with a rampaging soma habit and frequent pretensions of grandeur, sometimes displayed a sagacity not bred to a delta at all, yet still played the fool when it suited him. Or why that same thief could defy his own self-proclaimed cowardice long enough to lift an unconscious man and carry him to safety - with death rumbling close at his back all the while.

      "I meant..." He paused to breathe in more chill air. "...thanks for pulling me out."

      "Oh, that." With a loud pop, one of the fire's embers collapsed, spewing out a flurry of glowing sparks that reflected in Vila's eyes. "It was nothing."

      Tarrant managed a wry smile. "Not to me." He stared long and hard into the fire and tried to picture those final moments in the underground complex. "I was trying to reach Cally. After that, I... can't remember."

      "No surprise there," Vila murmured. "You got hit by a falling wall, y'know."

      "Ah." Tarrant hesitated, then had to ask. "And Cally?"

      "She..." The thief's voice broke, and he had to wait a moment before going on. "I couldn't see her anymore after the wall came down. Only you. I tried to go back after, but..."

      "I'm sorry." The words came out naturally enough, though it wasn't a thing he'd said to Vila often. Only once before, in fact, after Keezarn...

      He heard Vila's strained voice say, "No use being sorry now, is it? We both of us failed her this time."

      That comment left a cold silence hanging between them, while the fire crackled on, too far away to warm them. An arctic wind tugged at Tarrant's damp clothing. He shivered, and at last glanced back at the blackened and splintered remains of the access shaft. The hulking, broken shards `danced' with the shift of the flames reflected in them. They made an ignoble excuse, Tarrant thought, for a tombstone.

      "It could have been me down there," he said quietly, not even certain that his preoccupied companion was listening. "I wish I had the noble nature to say it should have been - only I haven't."

      Vila's look turned sage, losing all trace of the fool and the coward. "As thy soul liveth," he recited, "there is but a step between me and death." At Tarrant's curious glance, he explained, "I read that once, in a very old book."

      Tarrant stared. Vila's occasional `slips' out of delta persona never ceased to amaze. "And what book was that?" he wondered aloud.

      "Oh, I dunno. It was by a Samuel someone-or-other."

      "About an Ancient Earth hero named David?"

      "That's the one, yes. You know it?"

      Tarrant nodded. "Yes. King Saul was jealous of David's success and was trying to murder him. David knew just how close he was to death - and he didn't want to die."

      Pilot and thief sat eye-to-eye in the dying firelight, assessing one another for the first time as equals. Tarrant declined the question, asked one of his own instead. "Tell me Vila... just how does a delta grade `ignorant' come to have read part of the most proscribed text in the history of the Federation?"

      Vila's eyes glittered in a smile that wasn't quite a smile. "Same way an Alpha grade space captain comes to read it, I expect."

      Tarrant laughed, a short-lived chuckle that relieved some of the tension, but made his head and lungs ache still more. Beyond them, Dayna stirred in her sleep and muttered something - the only discernible word was: "Cally."

      The sobering reminder of their Auron companion sent Tarrant into a prolonged silence that lasted until the fire receded to glowing ashes. Only after Vila disappeared briefly, returning with fresh branches to rekindle the flames, did they speak again.

      Tarrant waited until the thief had settled beside him once more, the paragun still tucked under one arm. The not-unpleasant odour of the burning wood filled the frigid night air, and Terminal's heartbeat drummed incessantly on.

      "You didn't have to come back for me."

      To his left, Vila shifted noisily and grunted. "Eh?"

      "You could have run, saved yourself, and never given a particular damn about me. That's what everyone would have expected, you know."

      The thief looked hurt at that. "Well then, everyone would have been wrong, wouldn't they? Wouldn't be the first time."

      "No," Tarrant conceded. "I just thought... perhaps... you'd like to tell me why."

      "Eh?" Vila said again. The silence lengthened, broken only by the snapping of the new twigs as the fire greedily consumed them.

      Tarrant shrugged, feeling the warmth begin to push back the chill at last. "I guess not," he said resignedly. "All the same, Vila... that's one I owe you."

      A footstep crunching in the snow startled both of them; they looked up to see Avon's dark figure blocking the light.

      "I'll take the watch now, Vila," the familiar toneless voice announced. A gloved hand extended itself toward the thief; Vila promptly surrendered the weapon to it.

      "Fine by me," he mumbled, and in another moment had stretched himself out on the ground in the perfect guise of a man fast asleep. Then again, knowing Vila, perhaps it wasn't guise.

      Knowing Vila...

      None of them, it seemed, had known Vila very well at all.

      Tarrant laughed again, prompting a curious look from the newly-armed Avon.

      "Are you feeling all right?" Considering the source, the question had to be more expedience than concern, but Tarrant could never be certain. Knowing Vila was difficult; to know Avon was decidedly impossible.

      "I'll live," he answered noncommittally.

      Avon had strolled away to take up his vigil on the opposite side of the fire before Tarrant added softly, "Thanks to a delta grade ignorant who isn't so ignorant."

      The muffled voice that responded from the ground to his left was all but lost in the noises of the fire and the wind and the planet's rhythmic pounding. It might have said, "Don't mention it." Or it might have said, "Shut up, Tarrant."

      He never did determine just which it had been.


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