Just Beyond ReachBy Frankie Lyndon
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|Tarrant stood for a long time outside the medical unit before working up the courage to go in. It would have been easier had Vila not been present. Normally, he spared the thief not a thought, but at this moment, Vila was one of the last people he wanted to see. However, in the past several hours the pilot had come to realize that if he waited until the thief removed himself from his self-appointed post, he might never confront his nemesis--and for some reason this confrontation had become vitally important. He felt compelled to assuage the guilt that was tearing him apart and, more importantly, he had to have an answer to the question of why.
Moving soundlessly, Tarrant stepped into the dimly-lit room only to freeze when the thief spoke without turning around. He'd thought Vila asleep. He was certainly entitled: he'd been holding his vigil for almost twelve hours.
"I was wondering when you'd show up." The words, while not actively unkind, stung the younger man's already lacerated conscience.
"I did have a ship to fly and pursuit ships to evade." Even as the words left his mouth, Tarrant cringed at their petulant tone.
Turning to look at the pilot, Vila noted that sometime in the last several hours the younger man had found time to shower and change out of his blood-covered clothes. Hardly surprising--Vila wouldn't have wanted to walk around in that gory reminder a moment longer than necessary either. Seeing Tarrant begin to fidget under his intense scrutiny, the thief took pity on the younger man, and turned his attention back to the diagnostic couch before him.
As Vila turned away, Tarrant gulped in a deep breath--it seemed he'd forgotten the basic necessity of breathing during the last few seconds. But the look in the thief's eyes had been so...knowing. As if he were able to look into Tarrant's troubled heart and mind, and see and understand things of which the young man himself was uncertain. Now, even with the searching gaze directed elsewhere, the pilot was beginning to question the wisdom of this visit and slowly began edging to the door. After all, he rationalized, Cally had assured them all that help had been in time, that the injuries were no longer life-threatening. If the Auron were comfortable enough to be out of the med unit, everything must be fine. His retreat was halted by a few well-chosen words.
"You've probably been driving yourself crazy trying to figure out why." The thief's words, spoken in a soft contemplative tone, had a hypnotic effect on the taller man. Drawn to the bedside almost against his will, Tarrant gazed down on the focus of Vila's unwavering attention. The only light in the room was at the head of the diagnostic couch. It weak illumination was barely enough to hold the encroaching shadows at bay, and this small oasis of light underscored the importance of the bed and its occupant. While the dim light was kind, hiding lines of weariness and age, it also cast weird shadows giving the face of the man an almost skeletal appearance. Studying the relaxed features of the bed's occupant, the pilot was struck by the sudden realization that Avon was no longer a young man. Oh, he wasn't old, not by any standard, but he would certainly never see thirty again. And the overwhelming vitality and powerful personality that normally shielded this fact were temporarily lost to pain, injury, and deep unconsciousness. The very blankness of the computer tech's pale face began to frighten Tarrant. Cally's prognosis aside, the still, colorless features appeared totally lifeless and, in his sudden panic, the pilot was no longer certain that the older man's chest rose and fell in the gentle rhythm of sleep.
Correctly identifying the sudden tension that filled the room, Vila spoke in an apparent non sequitur.
"He's much stronger than he was a few hours ago. Even Orac is satisfied with his progress. 'Course, he's going to be some time getting back to himself," the thief nattered on as he felt Tarrant begin to relax. "Cally replaced most of the lost blood and the Liberator's magical medical equipment sealed the wound-- even so, he's not going to be getting out of that bed for at least a week. After all, a spear in the chest is not the sort of injury a body can throw off lightly. Even his body."
Those words served to trigger the images Tarrant had been fiercely suppressing for the last several hours, allowing them to flood into his conscious mind. With them came a sudden nausea; the pilot's knees buckled and he collapsed into a convenient chair.
* * *
Zen had said the native life forms on Mardis were extremely primitive and timid. While "primitive" had turned out to be accurate (the Mardins wore animal skins and carried flint-tipped spears), "timid" could not have been less the case. The rebels had already collected the minerals they'd needed and were preparing to call for teleport when a large group of Mardins sprang a surprise attack. Always one to put survival first, Vila had called for emergency teleport even as the trio scrambled for cover. Tarrant, stumbling in his haste to get out of the open, had looked up to see a Mardin mere meters away, his vicious spear rushing in with incredible speed. Off-balance and out of time, Tarrant had, with that strange calm which sometimes occurs in moments of extreme disaster, acknowledged the inescapable imminence of his death. The next instant, the blur of black flashed by and the young man had found himself thrust out of the path of his attacker. Between the space of one heartbeat and the next, the scene around Tarrant had changed and he'd found himself in the teleport bay, confronted by one of the most grisly sights he'd ever seen. Avon lay on his left side with the sprawled grace of total unconsciousness. Jutting from his chest like an obscene appendage had been a spear, the spear which had been meant for Tarrant. Blood pulsed from around the shaft in sluggish surges, widening the ever-growing pool that surrounded the tech. Kneeling in the sticky red mess, Tarrant had checked for the pulse and finding it, weak but there, ordered Cally to medical and, with Vila's surprisingly competent help, carried Avon from the room.
Then, as if in proof that bad luck never comes singly, they'd been discovered by several pursuit ships. Leaving Vila and Cally to fight the battle for Avon's life, Tarrant and Dayna had raced for the flight deck, rapidly putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the Federation.
It wasn't until things had calmed down that the young pilot realized that his clothes were dark and sticky with a liberal coating of blood--Avon's blood. In a moment of near hysterical giddiness, Tarrant had almost laughed out loud at the realization that Avon's blood was red--not blue as he'd always half-expected. The urge to laugh, hysterically or otherwise, was instantly washed away when the tall man glanced down at his hands. The blood that covered them as completely as gloves had dried to a brownish hue marked with thin white lines where the normal stretching of skin over knuckles had cracked the inflexible covering. A glance at the pilot's controls confirmed that he'd transferred a liberal smattering of blood to his station as well. Even as he watched, Liberator's auto-repair units began to eradicate the little brown splotches that covered the console. If only his feelings of guilt could be so easily removed. Refusing to give in to the surge of sickness that nearly overpowered him, Tarrant rushed from the flight deck, leaving a confused and concerned Dayna behind him.
* * *
Gradually the memory faded, leaving only the icy sickness. Swallowing against the lump in his throat, Tarrant turned his head to find Vila watching him with a look of quiet concern. The younger man bristled slightly; he didn't like being the focus of concern or, even worse, pity from someone as essentially pathetic as the delta thief.
Seeing the storm clouds brewing in Tarrant's blue eyes, Vila, rightly assessing the cause, spoke quickly to distract the pilot from his rising anger.
"You should see all the drugs Cally's feeding him; they make adrenaline and soma look like mother's milk. It's too bad he's not awake to appreciate them. Would almost be worth trading places to try that combination out." As expected, this inane and totally in-character chatter distracted the younger man.
Giving the thief a contemptuous sneer, Tarrant snapped, "You know you don't mean that. You think a hangnail is a mortal injury." Appropriately, this comment earned no response and silence fell as the two men returned to their contemplation of their unconscious companion. After several minutes, no longer able to stand the quiet, Tarrant felt moved to speak. But when he opened his mouth the words that emerged were the last ones he'd intended.
"He looks like hell." This statement of the obvious earned Tarrant Vila's attention and a raised eyebrow.
"He nearly died." This garnered a small nod.
"I should be the one lying there." This last statement, said in tones of agonized guilt, finally earned a real reaction.
"Ahh," the thief sighed knowingly, "now we get to the heart of the matter." Vila's tone, quietly satisfied and redolent in deeper understanding, immediately put the pilot's back up again. The thief's next statement aggravated the situation further, but this time Vila didn't seem to care. "That spear was meant for you; there was no way you could have avoided it on your own, yet here you are, not a scratch on you, while Avon struggles for his life. You feel guilt at the way things worked out."
"Well, of course I do," Tarrant snapped, anger loosening his tongue. But the anger was damped down as it was submerged under a wave of confusion. "But what I really don't understand is why. Why would Avon save my life at the possible expense of his own?"
"Oh, I don't think Avon intended to end up with your spear in his chest, Tarrant." Vila's tone was gently mocking and it caused the pilot's anger to flare. The older man gave the impression that nothing that had occurred surprised him, as if everyone involved had reacted exactly as expected. And how could that be when Avon's behavior had been so atypical for the irascible, self-centered computer tech?
"I realized the injury wasn't intended," the pilot all but snarled, "but he had to know there was a risk, that he might not be able to get himself and me out of the way in time."
Surging to his feet, Tarrant began to pace in ground-eating strides. "Avon has always said his two goals in this world are the acquisition of vast wealth and his continuing ability to enjoy it. He's always said that everyone and everything comes after his own self-interest."
"And you believed him?" the thief questioned, his gaze sharp and assessing as he watched the young man pace.
"I did. Now I don't know what to believe."
"Well, that's a start," was Vila's surprising reply. "At least your mind's no longer made up in advance."
At the pilot's blank look, Vila continued. "You have a tendency, Tarrant, to stick labels an people and to place them in neat, orderly compartments. Trouble is, you never bother to open those boxes again to reassess the accuracy of the original label. You're having trouble with what Avon did because loyalty and self-sacrifice aren't traits you've allowed him. Is it so impossible to believe that he might have grown to care about, or at least respect, the crew he's gone through so much with? That he might have chosen to save your life because that life meant something to him?" It was apparent, even to the somewhat unobservant pilot, that Vila had "taken off the gloves." He was out of character, no longer the lazy, whiny thief, and he didn't care who saw it. For a moment, all thought of Avon was pushed from Tarrant's mind by the realization that there was apparently more to Vila than the younger man had ever suspected. It was a measure of the pilot's confused arid distracted state of mind that he shoved the realization away as quickly as it came. He couldn't think about it right now; one major upheaval at a time.
Silence reigned for several minutes as the young pilot gazed at the unconscious computer tech. Scenes from the past few months replayed themselves in his mind. The older man had never offered Tarrant praise or overt friendship, but he'd always demonstrated a grudging respect for the pilot's ability. And his vicious tongue, which had ripped flesh from Tarrant on more than one occasion, usually had the effect of giving them all a brief pause. A moment in which to determine whether the rash and precipitous action Tarrant had been about to leap into was actually the wisest course of action. Perhaps that demonstrated the sort of loyalty to crew the pilot had been trained to show and to expect while in the military.
"Maybe that's true; maybe, in his own way, he does care." Tarrant paused, finding the words to voice the vague, half-formed thought was difficult. "But how are we supposed to know? How are we supposed to recognize his caring and respect when he buries it under sarcasm and caustic put-downs? How am I supposed to reconcile that man with this," he gestured to the figure on the bed. "I mean, he risked his life for me and, as recently as twelve hours ago, I'd have been willing to bet that he'd kill me himself if given the opportunity."
Vila met the troubled pilot's gaze for a long moment. "Perhaps sarcasm and caustic barbs are the only way he can show it," the thief replied at last. "Perhaps something basic to his personality will not allow him to admit to his finer feelings and generous impulses. You're not the first member of this crew Avon has risked his life for, you know. He saved Blake more times than I can count and he's been there for each of the rest of us on at least one occasion. Granted, this," he gestured to the supine tech, "is a rather extreme example, but I don't see why it should come as such a shock." Vila didn't seem to realize that such words coming from the resident delta thief were almost as big a shock as Avon's behavior.
For a moment Vila thought he was getting through; he could almost see the gleam of understanding in the pilot's eyes. Then the younger man shook his head, unable to reconcile the evidence before him with his preconceived notions. Sighing, the thief rose and stretched, joints popping with stiffness. Smothering a huge yawn, he patted the pilot's shoulder in a kindly, almost fatherly manner.
"Think about it, Tarrant. There's sense to be made of this situation, you've just got to look for it." Heading out the door, Vila added over his shoulder, "Call Dayna or Cally to take over when you're tired. I'm going to get some rest."
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