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Friendship

By Nicola Mody
Page 1 of 6

Vila slapped down the crystals he had been clutching in his hand. He stepped back and stood silently, head bowed and arms hanging limply at his side. Those bright little shards of solid fire were poor payment for the loss of someone who had cared for him, however briefly.

“Avon!” Dayna cried.

Avon came over and slowly picked up the crystals. Surprised, he turned to Vila, who raised his head to meet his eyes.

“That enough?” Vila demanded bitterly.

“Yes. I’m impressed.”

“Wonderful,” Vila said flatly, turning away. “That makes it all worthwhile.”

“Welcome back, Vila.” Avon said quietly, and went out.

Tarrant came up behind Vila. “Vila!” he said heartily, a little loudly to cover his embarrassment. He paused and continued more gently. “I’m sorry for what I said to you. I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t true.”

Vila did not even bother to look at him. Tarrant sounded like he meant it, but he had before too when he’d threatened to throw Vila off the ship. “To tell you the truth, I don’t really care. It’s not important any more.”

Offended, Tarrant looked at Dayna. “What’s the matter with him?”

“If I thought that was a serious question, I’d be very worried about you,” Dayna said tartly. She went out with him, leaving Vila there.

Thinking he was alone, Vila said out loud, “I think I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life.”

Orac’s lights flickered, as if in amusement. “In the light of your previous record, that seems unlikely. Hah! I would predict that there are far greater mistakes waiting to be made by someone with your obvious talent for them.”

“Shut up, Orac.” Vila pulled his key out. “Still,” he said, trying to smile and make light of it, “it’s a comforting thought. Let’s hope they’ve all got good legs.”

The attempted joke did nothing to make him feel better. What he really needed was a drink—several in fact—to numb the pain in his chest and soothe the tightness in his throat, then a long sleep. Things always felt better after a sleep. Put things in perspective, that did, made them seem smaller so you could push them away and try to pretend they didn’t matter.

As he left, he could hear Dayna and Tarrant arguing. Wanting to avoid them, he peered cautiously around the corner. They had stopped in the corridor on their way to the flight deck, and Tarrant looked somewhat defensive which was fair enough—Dayna on the attack would unnerve anyone.

“Of course he was upset,” Dayna said scornfully. “He just lost someone he cared about.”

“Oh, come on. After a few hours? Not even Vila could be that susceptible. You’ve been reading too many romances.”

“I don’t even like romances,” Dayna growled. “And you treated him very badly.”

Vila, about to continue on to his cabin, hesitated, surprised that Dayna was defending him. That was novel enough to make him want to hear more.

“Look, I told him I was sorry and he threw it back in my face,” Tarrant said, aggrieved.

“I’m not surprised. You almost got him killed.”

“Yes, well, I’m sorry about that too, but the fact remains that we need those crystals, and we don’t need Vila.”

“Avon might disagree.”

“Think so, do you? He said he finds Vila as annoying as the rest of us. He only keeps him around for his ability as a thief, and this is the first time we’ve needed one. In fact, Avon admitted he despised him.”

Did he? Oh, that hurt. Vila had always thought Avon liked him in his own way.

“Well, if you try to trade me or Cally for spare parts, you’ll be sorry,” Dayna said.

“I wouldn’t do that.” Tarrant sighed in exasperation. “That’s the whole point—you and Cally have useful skills.”

“What a relief.” Dayna’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I seriously doubt you’ve got any people ones though.” She stalked off towards the flight deck. Tarrant shrugged and followed her.

Vila didn’t just need a drink now. He needed a plan. He had to prove that he was worth keeping.

***

Avon was working on adapting his artificial Sopron program. The Liberator hardly needed to appear more powerful than its enemies—it already was—but it might be very useful at times to look a lot less. Instead of feeding back the observer ship’s own specifications, suitably augmented as he had done at Kairos, he hoped instead to project an image just under the minimum readings which would set off scanner alarms, and thus convince the enemy ship’s computers that the Liberator was of negligible importance.

Tired, he rubbed his forehead and sat back to ease the tension in his spine. It was Tarrant’s watch, and the only other person on the flight deck was Vila, who was being uncharacteristically unobtrusive. Avon frowned slightly. Vila had not annoyed him for some time with his babble and inane jokes, and he rather missed it. In fact, Vila had been very subdued since that incident on Keezarn. If he was pining for a woman he’d hardly known, he really was a fool.

Avon looked at him curiously. Vila sat on the couch bent over Orac, his voice too low for Avon to hear what he was saying. All he could detect was the impatient irritation in Orac’s replies. Undoubtedly he was up to some mischief. Avon found himself hoping he was, as it would be a sign that he was feeling better.

“What are you doing, Vila?” he asked.

Vila jumped. “Nothing, just making sure there aren’t any nasty surprises coming up.” He threw a resentful look at Tarrant. “Any psychopaths in the market for clever thieves for example. Any spare-parts merchants who’ll take humans instead of cash.”

Tarrant grinned. “Well, that’s just what you are, Vila. A spare part. It would be a fair swap.”

“At least there’s some demand for me,” Vila retorted. “There’s an oversupply of arrogant pilots.” He turned back to Orac. “Right, any planets with horrible climates up ahead? Any hairy or slimy aliens?”

Avon smiled briefly. Vila seemed to be back to normal and quite able to look after himself. He went back to work.

 

“Ooh! Better not tell Avon!”

Vila had spoken much too loudly and Avon heard him. He looked up and caught Vila giving him a very furtive glance. “Don’t tell Avon what?” he asked silkily.

“Nothing,” Vila replied, too quickly.

Avon got up and went to lean over Vila, who looked very nervous. “I have a suspicious nature. Do tell.”

“It’s just a planet, not a very nice-sounding place, it’d probably be very boring actually with all those scientific types on it, best avoided really, I wouldn’t want to waste your time telling you about it,” Vila babbled as his hand moved slowly towards Orac’s key.

Avon picked up Orac and moved it out of his reach, then sat down beside him. “Vila.”

“Oh, all right.” Vila looked resigned. “I was asking Orac about Federation outposts in the area so we could steer clear of them, and he said there’s one on Talron. It’s a bit like that Q-base we went to on Fosforon, only it’s more research than communications. Um—it’s a bit out of our way actually. Best not to stir up a hornets’ nest.”

“Research on what, exactly?”

Vila shrugged. “Lots of things, but mainly a replacement for the tarial cell. I think Orac’s a bit worried he’ll have no-one to talk to if they do it.”

“Talk to?” Orac said indignantly. “If you think that culling inferior computers, mere repositories of information, for data relevant to my own researches is talk—”

“Orac!” Avon interrupted the familiar litany. “I want details on what they are doing on Talron, the security they have there, and any advances they might have made.”

A brief look of triumph flashed across Vila’s face. His plan seemed to be working.

“This menial task is far below my—”

“Oh and spare us your usual complaints. Vila is quite right. It would be to your advantage to ensure that tarial cells remain in common use. There would be little point to your existence otherwise.”

Vila’s satisfaction was replaced by sympathy. Orac too was only valued for his usefulness.

***

“You have those coordinates set, Cally?”

“Yes,” Cally said patiently. “And I have checked them.”

Avon was about to press the intercom button and call for Vila who was undoubtedly up to his usual delaying tactics, when he appeared, complete with tool belt and handgun. Avon raised his eyebrows in surprise as Vila went straight to the teleport bay and stood there ready. “No pleas of ill-health or sudden pains? You seem extraordinarily eager.”

“Orac said they had the latest security system there, that’s all. Something to add to my CV.”

Avon considered him for a moment, not entirely convinced. “I should have thought Central Control was your crowning triumph, Vila.”

Vila pulled a face. “Might’ve been if there’d been something there,” he said resentfully. “Well, except for a one-eyed maniac, and...”

He looked away, and Avon remembered they had lost Gan there, and although Avon had cared little for him, Vila had considered him a friend.

Vila cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Put us as close to the buildings as you can, Cally. Zen said it’s a bit chilly down there.”

“Learn to be tougher,” Avon said. “The climate is Earth-like.”

“That’s what you said about that Sopron planet,” Vila said resentfully. “And you were right—it was just like the bloody Arctic down there. You sure we don’t need thermals or anoraks?”

“We won’t be outside long enough. Which would you prefer—the risk of having your teleport beam disrupted by the shielding, or a little discomfort?” he asked mildly. Vila gulped and shook his head. Avon smirked. “All right, Cally. Put us down.”

They both gasped as the cold air hit them. “Down and safe, Cally. Wait for our call.” Avon turned to Vila who was already shivering in the wind. “Let’s go.”

They ran towards the dome under a low grey sky, slipping occasionally on the icy rocks poking through the sparse grey-green tundra. Vila huddled at the door and blew on his hands. “Miserable place. I’ll be surprised if I don’t get frostbite.”

“Be quick about it,” Avon said impatiently. “The sooner we’re inside, the sooner you’ll be warm.”

In five seconds, Vila had the door open. “So much for that,” he said, nodding at Avon. “There aren’t many who could crack that in under a minute, you know.” He blew on his fingers.

Avon pushed him aside and closed the door behind them. He opened a closet full of outside gear and boots, then the next one which contained white lab-coats on hangers. “All right, put one of these on.” He handed Vila a lab-coat and took one for himself.

“Better than those horrible things they wore on Fosforon,” Vila said, putting his on. “You look the part, just like a real scientist.”

“Yes, well. You look like a beaker-washer, and an under-qualified one at that. Come on.”

“Oh, very funny. Might’ve known you’d have a retort handy,” Vila muttered, following him out. Unseen by him, Avon smiled appreciatively.

The base was a large one, the tarial-cell research not being its only function, and the people they encountered in the corridors ignored them. Avon had memorised the route from the layouts he had obtained from Orac, and they were at the entrance to the restricted area in less than five minutes.

Vila looked at the door with misgivings. “I’m having second thoughts.”

“I wasn’t aware you’d had first ones,” Avon said automatically. “And I thought you could open anything.”

“It’s not the lock that worries me. It’s that—” Vila pointed to the sign on the door, which read ‘Authorised Personnel Only’. “If anyone sees us, they’ll know we don’t belong.”

“People see what they expect to see. Get on with it.”

“No, wait. I checked the surveillance system before we left. Sensors, cameras, automatic sono-vapour release—”

“As did I. Leave it to me, that’s my department.”

Unreassured, Vila took out his tools. While he worked, Avon leant against the wall, supported by an outstretched arm, hoping that they would look like two people having a chat if anyone happened to walk by.

Vila opened the door and hesitated.

“Come on.” Avon pushed past him. “Just look confident and follow me.”

Vila drew himself up to his full height and walked beside Avon, trying to match his long strides. “Look confident he says,” he said under his breath. “All right for him, he was born looking confident.”

“Here we are.” Avon stopped at a door labelled ‘Top Level Clearance Only’. While Vila probed the lock, Avon lifted his teleport bracelet to his mouth. “Cally?”

“Yes, Avon. What is it?”

Ah, good, the building’s shields were down. If all went well, they could be teleported out from the computer room. “We’re almost there. Stand by.” He looked at Vila, who now had the lock open and was delicately adjusting the circuitry, his face rapt with concentration. “How’s it going?”

“Eh? Oh, very nice piece of work, this. A magno-lock with fingerprint recognition as well, plus Klyber fastenings.”

“That is not what I asked. Can you do it?”

“Can I do it?” Vila looked up briefly from his work. “Course I can do it! You forgotten who you’re talking to?”

“Hurry up!” It was only a matter of time before someone saw them on one of the ceiling cameras.

“You can’t hurry artistry...ah, that’s got it!”

“Well? What are you waiting for, then?”

“All right, all right, just got to release the Kly—”

“You! Who the hell are you?”

Avon whirled, drawing his gun. Two guards had appeared from a branch in the corridor, one training his gun on them, the other talking rapidly into a communicator. Avon shot the first one, who managed to get off a return shot off as he was thrown back against the wall. Ignoring Vila’s startled yelp, Avon dropped the second guard as he turned to run. Keeping his gun on the still figures, he backed towards the door, sparing Vila a quick glance. The idiot seemed frozen in a defensive crouch, his eyes wide with shock. Avon debated briefly whether to ask for teleport now or continue with the plan, and decided the risk was worth it.

“Get on with it, you fool!”

Vila did not move.

“Vila!”

“Oh...right.” He sounded faint, but went back to work. “It’s open,” he said after a few seconds.

Avon pulled him through the door and as he closed it behind them, he heard the wail of alarms. Damn. The shielding would be up and he would have to use his backup plan. “Reset that lock so they’ll have to blast their way in,” he said to Vila as he ran to the nearest monitor.

There wasn’t much time—before he could do anything else, he had to ensure their safety. As he had suspected, he had access to everything from here, including security and environment. Working quickly, he isolated the room from the sono-vapour, then triggered its release throughout the rest of the complex. He then turned the alarm and shielding off, and erased all recorded images of himself and Vila from the surveillance records before taking that system down too. All so easy and no computer security to speak of. Complacent of them to assume no-one could break into the heart of the research section. Vila really was a genius in his field. Vila...he frowned, suddenly realising he had not received an acknowledgement to his order.

“Have you fixed that lock yet?” Not that it mattered now that everyone was out cold.

There was a noticeable hesitation before Vila answered, “Yes.”

He sounded strained, but Avon had no time to soothe his nerves. He took a data-cube out of his pocket and downloaded the worm program he had written on the flight there. It would introduce random untraceable tiny errors into research results, preventing any real progress. Then he installed what Vila had called ‘Avon’s mole’, an innocent-looking background process which would transfer regular encrypted reports on the hardware using the experimental tarial cell replacements to the base admin computer which Orac could read. That done, he had to provide a reason for them having been there: a bomb which would fail to go off due to a deliberately faulty timer. He carefully attached it to the main processor and set the timer for 30 minutes. Blake, he reflected, really would have blown the place sky-high, and the Federation would only have re-established the research elsewhere. Much better to let them continue here while sabotaging their efforts.

He sat back, satisfied. Everything was complete. However, while he was here, he might as well inspect the technology, even if it was still in development. He crouched and examined the casing of the new computer. “Vila!” He snapped his fingers, expecting Vila to put the right tool in his hand. “Vila?” He turned, puzzled. He could not see him, and now he thought of it, Vila hadn’t been breathing over his shoulder and contributing inane comments as he usually did. He stood up.

Vila was sitting to one side of the door, legs drawn up and arms wrapped tightly around himself. His eyes looked too big and his face was very pale. Remembering his sharp cry during the shooting, Avon and went to him and knelt down.

“Are you all right?” Silly question. Vila just stared at him. Avon gently pulled his arms away and saw the spreading stain, dark on his brown jacket and startlingly bright against the white of the lab-coat. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Had to open the lock,” Vila mumbled. “Show you.”

Show him what? Avon deferred that question until later. He placed his hand briefly on Vila’s cheek, and lifted his bracelet. “Cally.” There was no answer. “Liberator!” He had turned the shielding off, so that was not stopping communication. He went back to the monitor he had been using and checked the logs. Damn! When the alarms had gone off, they had launched pursuit ships under the correct assumption rebels were involved.

He went back to Vila and carefully began to undo his jacket and shirt. Judging by the angle of entrance and exit, he probably had a punctured lower lung and at least one broken rib. It could have been worse, but the bleeding was considerable.

“It’s just a scratch, Vila,” he said, trying to make his voice light.

“You’re a rotten liar.”

“You could at least try to believe me.”

Vila’s answering smile was more of a grimace. Avon took off his lab-coat and used his laser to cut it into strips. He folded a thick wad of material and bandaged it tightly against the wound. Vila winced and squeezed his eyes shut but did not complain.

“Does that feel better?” Avon asked, carefully closing Vila’s shirt and jacket.

Vila opened his eyes. “Better than what?” he asked weakly.

Avon gave him a brief smile and put his hand on his shoulder. “Listen to me, Vila,” he said, speaking slowly and clearly and, he hoped, calmly. “The Liberator is no longer in orbit. I am not sure when they will be back for us, but we will have to wait outside. The sono-vapour I released will wear off in less than half an hour, so we can’t stay here. Do you understand?”

“Don’t leave me here.”

Avon was taken aback. “I have no intention of leaving you here. After all,” he added dryly, “I need you to open the locks on the way out.” Vila should have understood the unspoken meaning behind the words—he always had before—but he looked even more apprehensive.

“Take me with you. Still useful, aren’t I?”

Avon stared at him.

“Won’t find another thief like me.”

Is that what this was about? Proving his worth? Surely he had done so on Keezarn. “Indeed I won’t. Certainly not one as...entertaining.” He was rewarded by a brief gleam of hope in Vila’s eyes. “Can you stand?”

“Don’t think so.”

“With my help?”

“Maybe.”

“Good.” Avon worked Vila’s arms out of the lab-coat, which would show up all too well against the dark landscape outside, then stood, lifting him carefully. Even so, Vila cried out sharply in pain. Avon stood still, supporting him in place. “All right?”

“Yes.”

“Can you get that lock open again?”

Vila nodded, taking out a probe, and began to work on it while Avon held him upright. It took considerably longer than the first time, but Avon refrained from making any comments even though he could feel his own tension rising. It was fortunate that the door opened inwards as besides the two guards he had shot, there were several more armed with blasters and laser cutters, sprawled unconscious just outside the doorway. He put Vila’s arm across his shoulder and carefully stepped over the bodies, stopping to close the door carefully behind them. With the surveillance off-line, he hoped that it would be assumed that they had teleported out.

The door out of the restricted area had been left open by the guards in their rush to get to the invaders, which saved valuable time. Vila leaned heavily on him but was still able to walk, though oddly silent. Avon found the absence of complaints disturbing; if Vila had cut his finger or stubbed a toe, he would have kept up a constant stream of grumbling. He obviously reacted quite differently to real injury.

When they got to the outside door, Vila’s walk had become a stagger. Avon had hoped that the lock could be opened from the inside, but he needed Vila’s help one more time.

“Vila.”

“Uh?”

“Can you open this door?”

Vila lifted his head wearily. “Yeah...easy one.” He fumbled one-handed for his tools and dropped a probe on the floor. “Sorry.”

Damn. If that was found, they would know to look for them outside. “It’s all right. Can you stand on your own?” He propped Vila against the wall and quickly knelt to pick up the probe, just getting up in time to catch Vila as he fell.

“Sorry,” Vila muttered again.

“Can you do it?” Avon turned him to the lock.

“Think so.” Vila took the proffered tool, but just held it.

Patiently, Avon lifted his arm into position. Vila manipulated the lock until there was an audible click, then sagged against him, and this time Avon was quick enough to catch the tool as he let it go. “Well done, Vila,” he said.

Outside, it was now late afternoon and even colder than before, but once again Vila made no complaint. Avon pulled the door shut and headed into the biting wind, making for an area to the north which was strewn with large rocks. Beside him Vila made a valiant attempt to walk, but he could now barely place one foot in front of the other. By the time they were among the rocks and out of sight of the dome, he was completely limp and Avon was dragging him. It was however a good place to hide; the gaps between the rocks made a twisting maze which would be hard to search.

Avon stopped at a large rock which would shelter them from the wind at least. Carefully he lowered Vila to the ground, and knelt, gasping with exertion, beside him. Vila was very pale and so still that Avon, suddenly afraid, put his hand to his neck. His pulse was faint and rapid but detectable. Avon closed his eyes briefly in relief, then called the Liberator again. There was still no answer. He checked Vila’s bandaging and found that the padding over the wound was now soaked with blood. If the Liberator did not get back soon, it would be too late.

Now he was no longer moving, Avon was shivering and could feel the cold biting into the exposed skin of his hands and face. He looked at Vila, lying there on the frozen ground and thought for a moment. He considered removing his leather jacket and wrapping Vila in it, but the thin polo-neck jersey he was wearing underneath it would not keep the cold out for long and he would not be much use to Vila if he got hypothermia. He decided on a compromise. He positioned himself with his back against the rock, undid his jacket and lifted Vila carefully onto his outstretched legs to get him off the ground, then propped him up against his chest, enclosing him in the open jacket as well as he could. He rested the arm supporting Vila against a smaller rock beside him and changed his position slightly to get more comfortable, or rather less uncomfortable.

Vila’s eyes flickered and opened. “Still here,” he said, but Avon was unsure whether he was reassuring him he was still alive or noting that Avon had not left him. “Cold.”

“Yes. I’m cold too.”

“You won’t...leave me here?”

“Vila. I promise you I will not leave you here.” It was after all an easy promise to make. If the Liberator did not return, they would both be stranded, and if it came back too late, Vila would not be in any position to care. “Do you believe me?”

Something relaxed in Vila’s face. “Yes.”

This neurotic fear was obviously the reason for his behaviour. Despite being shot, he had been determined to prove his worth, which, after all, he had had little chance of doing since Blake’s departure. Looking back, Avon wondered if Vila had even thought up the whole mission. Surely not; he was incapable of such manipulation

“What made you think we would dump you?”

“Tarrant.”

His sudden rage made Avon forget about the cold. “Tarrant? He threatened you with that?”

“Said no-one would stop him.”

“When was this?”

“Keezarn.”

Ah. That explained a lot about Vila’s mistrust of them all at the time. He’d half-kill Tarrant if he got back. “He was wrong, Vila. I would have stopped him, and so would Cally.”

“Said you despise me. Only keep me ’cause I’m a good thief.”

Avon remembered saying something like that, though he thought he’d avoided answering Tarrant’s comment about his supposed contempt for Vila outright, unwilling to admit his feelings to anyone let alone a young man he hardly knew. “Tarrant misunderstood.” There was another flash of anger. “He actually told you that?”

“No...told Dayna. Heard them.”

Vila was trembling, either from the cold or shock and Avon tightened his hold on him. Vila closed his eyes, and Avon looked down at him, astonished at the depth of emotion he felt.

Three of these people had managed to get through his defences. He missed Blake—Blake the person for whom he felt an unwilling respect and liking, not Blake the stubborn, obsessed rebel who had so infuriated him. He had already lost Blake, or perhaps more accurately just temporarily mislaid him, and he’d come damned close to losing Vila and Cally at the same time. He still remembered the despair he felt when they materialised in the teleport bay unconscious. For one terrible moment he thought they were dead, and when he realised they were not, he had channelled his relief into a joke at Vila’s expense, trying to convince himself that these people did not matter as much as he had just discovered they did. If he lost either of them, he wasn’t sure he could stand the pain of losing the other. If Vila died now, he would have to build a wall around himself too high to let anyone else through, even Cally. Better not to care for anyone than to go through that again.

Vila sighed and opened his eyes again, blinking to focus them. “Is it getting dark?”

“Yes. The sun is going down.”

“Good...not me then.”

For a moment, Avon was unable to speak put his suddenly tight throat. “No, Vila, not you.”

Something must have shown in his face, because Vila looked at him with glazed concern. “Don’ worry, Avon. Blake’ll come for us. Always does.”

He was confused, perhaps feverish. “Yes, Vila. The Liberator will come back for us.” For a moment, he wished that it was true, that Blake was still with them. He didn’t want the responsibility of the ship and crew, but neither did he want Blake’s lost bloody cause. If he got out of this, he was taking charge. He’d find Blake, take him to Earth, fulfil his promise, then find a good safe bolt-hole to spend his money in. A nice quiet life. Odd though, that he couldn’t imagine it.

“Feel better now,” Vila said.

“Oh?”

“Not hurting any more. Nice ’n’ warm ’n’ sleepy.”

“Vila—”

“Bit dizzy though...” Vila’s eyes closed and his head fell to the side against Avon’s chest.

“Vila!” Avon fumbled for his pulse. Still there, faint, rapid, but still there. His hand felt cold and clammy, or was that his own? The cold had now seeped so thoroughly into him that he was shivering, the movement making hard to tell whether Vila, too, was trembling.

As the light faded further, Avon began to feel numb rather than cold. He considered calling the Liberator again but did not have the energy to lift his bracelet to his mouth. In the dying light, Vila’s face looked serene, carved of marble. Perhaps he was holding a corpse in his arms, but the effort required to feel Vila’s pulse again was too much. Besides, if he did not know, there was always the chance he was alive. Heisenberg uncertainty principle—don’t collapse the possibilities to one just yet.

It was dark when his bracelet chimed, and he was dozing. What was that noise; it was familiar somehow.

“Avon? Vila?”

“Ca—” His voice was croaky. He tried again. “Cally?”

“Avon, we are making a fast approach, then out again. Pickup in one minute. All right?”

“Yes!”

When it came, the teleport was disorienting. He blinked in the dazzling light, slumping against the wall of the bay which was further back than the rock face had been. Cally was staring at him in horror from behind the controls.

“Avon!” She ran towards him. “What happened?”

“Help Vila first,” he whispered. “Shot...”

It was all right now. He had kept his promise. He could sleep.

***

He opened his eyes to a featureless white ceiling, feeling warm and rested. He turned his head sideways and saw Vila lying on the next bed surrounded by tubes. Cally sat beside him, looking serious.

“Is he all right?” Avon sat up cautiously, then stood, swaying a little.

“You should rest. You had hypothermia.”

“Answer my question.”

“I think he will be all right. We had to give him a transfusion before we could do anything else. It was touch and go for a while, and he is still very weak.”

“He always was. And who is ‘we’?”

“Dayna helped, but she is back on the flight deck.” She paused, seeing the concern on his face, at such variance with his words. “We did our best for him, as did you. It is up to Vila now.” Avon did not seem to hear her. He looked...stricken. “You saved his life, Avon,” she said gently. “The extreme cold slowed the blood loss and his metabolism.”

Vila stirred and his lips moved. Avon leaned over him to hear the whispered words. “Avon...where are you? Don’t leave me...”

“I’m here, Vila.”

“Let me stay...”

Avon straightened, tightening his lips.

“Don’t be angry with him,” Cally said. “He is feverish. He doesn’t know what he is saying or where he is.”

Avon turned and strode out.

“Vila,” Cally said softly. “You are safe. Avon brought you back. Lie quietly.” She took his limp hand and squeezed it, but Vila did not respond.

In a few minutes, Avon came back with a music cube in his hand. “Here, play this. It’s one of his. It might get through to him and convince him he is in his cabin.”

Cally took it and put it into her player, and tilted her head in appreciation of the soft, delicate sound.

“It surprised me too,” Avon said. “Mozart. A little light for my tastes. I prefer Bach.”

Slowly, Vila’s face relaxed and he slept more peacefully.

“It was a good idea,” Cally said.

Avon shrugged, turning aside.

Cally smiled fondly at his back. She knew how much he cared for Vila, but she suspected he would rather die than admit it. Wanting to leave him his defences, she had kept silent while he had pretended indifference to Tarrant. She shook her head. If Tarrant and Dayna could not see that his actions counted more than his words, then they did not know him very well.

***

“One of us will see you in a few hours,” Cally said, checking Vila’s drip. She and Avon had taken turns sitting with him while his condition had been so serious, but at last he was stable enough to no longer need constant monitoring. She was looking forward to a good sleep while Avon was so exhausted he could hardly stand.

“You’re going off and leaving me?” Vila looked mournful. “Just when I’m finally awake?”

“Has it occurred to you that the two events might be connected?” Avon asked.

Cally glared at him. “Don’t worry,” she said to Vila. “You’ll be up in a couple of days and you can join us on the flight deck.”

“It is advised that the patient be confined to bed for at least three more days as the recovery phase will take longer than is usual,” the medical computer announced. “There is previous damage to the lungs which the wound has exacerbated and there must be sufficient time for healing.”

“Told you I had a weak chest,” Vila said.

Avon regarded his smug but pale face thoughtfully. He had indeed told them, but in such a way that everyone had assumed it was one of his jokes. Had he been covering himself in case it was important later? Vila was no better at outright lies than Avon himself was, but it appeared he was very skilled at misdirection. “Yes, Vila,” he said. “Just as you told me about the Talron research project while trying not to. Or appearing to.”

Vila looked guilty, just as he had then. It seemed that safety was not the most important thing in his life after all.

“You really are a fool,” Avon said softly.

“Probably.” Vila pulled a wry face. “But I proved I was worth keeping. Still useful, aren’t I? To you, anyway.”

“Vila,” Avon said deliberately. “I neither put up with your constant presence and inane remarks, nor play chess with you because of your talents as a thief.”

Vila thought about that, and his eyes widened. “Oh.”

“And if you recall, all of us came to rescue you from Keezarn.”

Vila scowled. “Yeah, Tarrant probably just felt guilty and Dayna wanted to test her bombs.”

“Vila!” Cally said reprovingly.

“Well, neither of them could be bothered to come and see me.”

“They offered to sit with you,” Cally said, “and Dayna did help with your operation. Avon and I thought you would prefer more familiar faces while you were so ill.”

“Oh. Right.” Vila looked abashed.

“We can send them in to keep you company if you like.” Avon raised his eyebrows.

“Don’t bother,” Vila closed his eyes. “Bit tired, really.”

Cally gave them both an exasperated look. One was as bad as the other. Would it kill them to admit their feelings? She sighed, realising that it almost had.

***

“Hello?” Dayna put her head around the door. “All right if I come in? Cally said you were ready for visitors.”

Vila looked at her warily. He enjoyed her warmth and vitality but he wasn’t up to any verbal sparring yet. “Suppose so.”

Dayna stopped just inside, looking uncomfortable. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of antiseptic.

“Thanks, Dayna,” said Vila shyly.

“What for?”

“Helping Cally fix me up.”

“Oh, that.” Dayna shrugged. “Made a change from taking animals apart, putting one back together again.”

“You really now how to cheer someone up, don’t you?”

Dayna took a step to the bed and held out her hand. “Here,” she said gruffly.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a flower, you berk.”

Vila turned the pale pink dried and pressed wildflower in his hand. “It’s nice. Where’d you get it?” He hoped not from Sarran—that would be too big a gift.

“Obsidian. I try to get at least one from every planet we go to. I’m not used to being indoors all the time and I miss growing things. I know they’re dead, but they remind me.”

Vila considered asking her where she concealed them in those tight jumpsuits she wore and decided against it. “Thanks,” he said sincerely. “It’s beautiful.”

“Thought you might like it. I remember you telling me you went outside the dome a lot back on Earth.”

Overcome, Vila could not think of anything to say.

“You’ll crush it, you idiot,” Dayna said, taking it from him and putting it on the bedside stand. “See you soon, Vila. I’m looking forward to trashing you at Galactic Monopoly again.”

“Probably.”

Dayna paused at the door and flashed him a sunny smile. She was like a piece of the big outside herself. Vila drifted off to sleep feeling happier than he had for a while.

***

“Awake then?” Tarrant asked, coming in. He shoved his hands in his pockets, and leaned against the wall. “I hope you feel better than you look.”

“I’m not sure I do now.”

“Look, you might as well have this.” Tarrant tossed something onto the bed. He rubbed his nose, looking embarrassed. “It was left over. Too small to use.”

Vila picked up the small glowing piece of Homeworld crystal. “Thank you,” he said inadequately. It might have been a discarded piece, but someone had cut it into a pleasing teardrop shape.

Tarrant cleared his throat. “I didn’t mean it, what I said back then over Keezarn.”

“Yes, you did,” Vila said without rancour, turning the little crystal to catch the light.

“All right, perhaps I did. But I wouldn’t now.”

Vila looked up, but Tarrant had already gone. He tightened his fingers around the crystal. When he was better, he’d make a clasp for it and put it on the chain he wore round his neck. A little bit of solidified sunlight against his skin to remind him of who he’d been with when he’d found it.

***

“I am sorry we’ve left you so long without any company,” Cally said. “Have you been lonely?”

“Been asleep most of the time.”

“I brought you something.”

“Another present?” Vila asked eagerly.

Cally saw the crystal and dried flower on the stand beside him and smiled. She could guess whom they were from. “No, just a loan. Some company for you.” She put a small tray of sand down on the stand

Vila sighed with pleasure. “The moon-disk.” His face relaxed into enraptured peacefulness as the little creature vibrated and hummed a wordless song to him.

Cally, picking up the edges of his delight, smiled as she pulled the covers up to his chin. “Good night, Vila.”

***

When Avon went to look in on Vila the next day, he was sitting up, or more accurately, propped up against pillows. He was still pale and weak, but looked a lot better than he had the last time Avon had seen him.

“Would you care for a game of chess?” Avon asked.

“Maybe another time,” Vila said. “Feel like a bit of overcooked spaghetti right now.”

“I’m sure Tarrant can oblige,” Avon said. “Boiling the taste out of everything seems to be his preferred style of cuisine.”

Vila sniggered, and winced from the pain. “Suppose he’s used to Space Fleet food.”

Avon, about to put the chess set down on the bedside stand, paused, seeing the moon disk in its tray. “I see you have some company,” he said. “A meeting of minds?”

“Oh, ha ha,” Vila said. “We happen to like each other.” He looked at Avon sideways. “Wouldn’t mind a bit of a chat though,” he said tentatively.

Secretly pleased, Avon shrugged and sat down. “Why not. In your absence as lightning conductor, the flight deck is less than pleasant with Tarrant and Dayna sniping at each other.”

He had to move the objects on the beside stand to make room for the chess set, and raised his eyebrows in surprise. As well as a now empty glass and the moon-disk, Cally had obviously fetched him some things from his cabin: a dead flower and a piece of crystal, doubtless souvenirs of his visit to the new Keezarni home world. Avon would not have thought Vila so sentimental. But then he had kept the last note Anna wrote him, and still had it, although he could quote the matter-of-fact words by heart: See you tonight. Good luck with the visas. Anna.

“Why didn’t you go with her, Vila?” he asked quietly.

“Me, a pioneer on a new planet? Can you see me hunting food and growing crops and whacking nails into bits of wood?” He looked at Avon’s serious face and dropped his eyes. “Well, it’s true. Saw me at my best, Kerril did, being brave—well, I was—and clever and all that. Would’ve been down-hill from there on. I’m a good thief, you know that, not a bad technician either, but I’m not much cop at anything else. She wouldn’t have been impressed at what was left.”

“You could have asked her to come with you.”

“Oh, yes? You lot only gave me one bracelet and I didn’t have time anyway once Bayban turned up.” Vila bit his lip. “Might’ve changed my mind though, gone with her anyway I mean, when she said...” he twisted a piece of his sheet in his hands and mumbled so softly Avon could barely hear him, “...said she loved me.”

After only a few hours? Yet Vila had obviously believed it. “Surely you’ve heard that often enough before, with all the women you’ve known.”

“No. I was never more than a diversion.” Vila sighed. “And there weren’t that many. They have to want me first, see?”

“Yes, I quite understand that would narrow the field considerably. However I’ve always had the impression you got a frequent user discount at the brothels and strip joints.”

Vila went paler than he already was. “I never said that!”

“Not in so many words, no.” Avon had always suspected as much.

“Look, I might’ve given the impression, I mean just to fit in, but I never said anything outright.”

“I did notice. All form and no substance.”

Vila stared at Avon and must have seen something sympathetic in his face because he went on, encouraged. “See, in the JD wards, it was pretty bad, almost enough to put you off for life really. Not just...what happened to me, but all of us, the others too, girls and boys. Things I wish I hadn’t seen.” His brown eyes were unfocussed, remembering the horror, and the moon-disk keened softly. Vila heard it and reached out to stroke it comfortingly. “So I couldn’t...go to one of those places. It would be too like, you know.”

“You don’t have to explain, Vila,” Avon said gently.

“Well, after that, I couldn’t, not unless the girl made the first move...”

“Vila.”

“And not that many did. And I never meant anything to any of them, not like with Kerril. Anyway,” Vila swallowed, “you’ve got to pretend you’re like the others, don’t you? Fit in? So I worked out how. Saying things without really saying them.”

Avon remembered his cleverly vague talk of the entertainment available at Space City and the Federation Rest Centres; skilful if miscalculated.

“Worked well too,” Vila went on. “But not with you lot. I saw the way you all looked at me.”

“There was nothing wrong with the execution, just the content.”

“Oh? What do Alphas say then? Or don’t they ever need to pretend to be something they’re not?”

“Oh, yes. We’re just a little more subtle about it.”

“Really?” Vila gave Avon the first real smile he had seen from him since Keezarn. “Go on then. What sort of things?”

Avon leaned back. “Always saying ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, which implies a partner or membership of an exclusive group, as in ‘we like opera’. The display of an expensive item which you can explain casually as a gift from a close friend. Never admitting that you don’t have someone, that you are alone. That sort of thing,” he said contemptuously.

Vila cocked his head. “Bet you never had to.”

“I never wanted to. I fail to see the point of conforming to society’s petty conventions.”

“Wish I had your confidence,” Vila said wistfully.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Vila,” Avon said quietly.

Vila blinked, surprised, then tried to cover up with a joke. “I’m not that much shorter than you.”

“That might be true if you were sufficiently evolved to walk erect.”

Vila’s eyes sparkled in appreciation. “I’m evolved enough to see through you. I’ve caught you out. You do play the game after all. Down there in the cold you said Tarrant misunderstood what you said to him about me. Well, if you don’t care what people think, why did you bother?” he asked triumphantly. A thought struck him and his face crumpled. “Oh, yes, you care all right. It was because I’m a Delta. You were ashamed, weren’t you.”

Avon looked at him in genuine surprise. “Your grade ceased to matter some time ago. Look, Vila, I don’t care what people think of me, but I do prefer to keep what they know of me to a minimum. As do you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. You talk the most on this ship and you’re the one we know the least of.”

Vila shrugged. “I only like being laughed at when I’m being funny.” He wriggled in the bed to get more comfortable and screwed up his face in pain. “Anyway, you know more about me now.”

“Yes,” Avon said quietly, “and it won’t go any further.”

“I know. That’s why I told you.” Vila reached over for his glass, wincing again. “Couldn’t get me a drink, could you?” He held out his empty glass.

There was a carafe of green liquid on the medical equipment trolley. Avon sniffed at it suspiciously—as he thought, adrenaline and soma.

“Helps with the pain,” Vila explained as Avon filled his glass. “And Cally put some vitamins in it. You almost can’t taste them.” He took a sip. “What about you then?”

“If you had some decent brandy I might consider joining you.”

“Didn’t mean that. I told you about me, so what about you? I meant, did you have someone? Well, you must’ve, a person like you, but someone special?”

Avon was about to tell Vila to mind his own business, then on consideration decided that was unfair given what he had told Avon. He obviously did not know, but then how could he? Avon had only ever told Blake, and just the bare bones at that, and Blake would not have said anything. “Yes,” he said distantly. “Her name was Anna. Anna Grant.”

“Oh,” said Vila, then, “Oh! That fellow Grant we met on Albion, he knew you, didn’t he?”

“He was her brother.”

“Did he tell you how she was, then?”

Avon began to pick up the chess pieces with slow deliberation. “She’s dead, Vila.”

“I’m sorry,” Vila said softly.

Avon glanced up. Vila’s eyes were full of sympathy. Avon quickly looked away and busied himself packing the chessmen into their box. “Yes, well. It was a long time ago. Before I met you.” He closed the lid and sat looking down at it for a moment. “We’ve all had our losses. There is no point in regretting the past.”

“Doesn’t stop us though, does it?”

“No,” Avon said, very quietly.

They sat in companionable silence.

 

Vila swirled his drink around in his glass. It had already taken the edge off his pain, which was now just a dull ache he could ignore. He’d sip it slowly, make it last.

Poor old Avon. Might’ve known there’d be something like that. Wasn’t just that Anna though, he bet. He never talked about his family. Probably got everything money could buy but a bit of affection. Still, Vila never talked about his own mum either. She was the great shining good in his life, someone who had loved him so much he still missed it. He wouldn’t tell this lot about her and have them sneer or laugh.

Apart from her, there’d been Serrin and Doty next door, nearest thing to a family even if they weren’t blood. Uncle and aunt he’d called them when he was little, then just their names once he was big enough to go out on jobs with Serrin. He’d loved them too, but that hadn’t been enough, had it? When Serrin died, Doty just gave up on life and followed him only a few weeks later, If Vila really had mattered to her, she’d have wanted to live for him, wouldn’t she?

Story of his life though, that. He always cared more for people than they did for him. Except his mum of course.

He thought about Masha. She’d been his first. He was 23, not that he’d ever admit that to anyone here. It was after a successful job they were both on, and she was so hyped up, so excited and impressed with his expertise, she wanted him. She was beautiful—tiny, and vibrant, with long shining straight blonde hair—and had an widely-known and wild reputation. Vila had been both flattered and terrified by her attentions, and had told her the truth, expecting to put her off. Instead of laughing though, she had been intrigued; she’d never met a 23-year-old male virgin.

Three months they were together in the end. She was a good teacher, and apparently he was a good pupil, but when the novelty went, so did she. Vila felt vaguely guilty that he wasn’t as upset as people expected him to be, but in a way it was nice to get his independence back, do what he wanted without always thinking about what Masha wanted. Besides, they hadn’t been friends, not what he called friends, someone you could tell anything to, someone who was just happy to be with you and not do anything.

Same with the other girls, both of them, Sal—great sense of humour, Sal, and Klivia, bright girl, but always so competitive, wanting to be—and have—a somebody. Nice enough while it lasted, but no tragedy when it ended. Both times they’d both known it didn’t mean anything, not like what Serrin and Doty had had, skinny little Serrin and big plump Doty who loved each other so much they couldn’t live without each other. Mind you, that would be frightening, to care that much.

He wasn’t sure if it might have been like that with Kerril once they got to know each other. They’d talked there on that planet, and he knew that going back to nature on a new untouched world and living the simple and good life was her big dream. She’d chosen it without even thinking, before thinking to ask Vila to go too. Just as well he hadn’t. He’d have had to live up to what she’d already seen of him, doing what he did best, and he’d have failed. Best to feel sad about what might have been than to see her stop loving him.

Nah, on the whole, friendship was better. Lasted a lot longer too. A friend didn’t expect anything, just a bit of conversation now and then, just some company. You didn’t have to be ambitious and clever and brave to be a friend, just listen a bit, share a joke or two.

Gan had been one, even though they’d been so different. Sometimes Vila thought Avon was one too, like now. Maybe Avon didn’t see it that way, but you had to take what you could get.

 

Avon thought about Anna, the first person to make him feel as if he belonged. He had not been quite honest with Vila when he said he did not care what others thought of him. He always had, but pride made him refuse to conform to their expectations.

He had tried once. As far back as he could remember, he had been apart, a quiet aloof child watching life being played out from behind his invisible shield wall. He wanted to be part of it, but did not know how. Theoretical knowledge was no help—according to the books he read, children had lots of fun with their friends, doing things which did not interest him in the slightest, and had parents who loved them. His parents only took any notice of him when he did something to make them proud, like winning a prize at school, but disconcertingly the other pupils disliked him for it. He did try to act like them so he would fit in. He tried to use their slang (but got it wrong), and tried to talk about music and sport, but his lack of knowledge or interest always gave him away.

In the end he decided not to bother. Why play a losing game?

He fitted in no better at university. Why should his intelligence mean that he was one of that group of pitiful losers commonly derided as swots? He remained apart in what he liked to think of as splendid isolation, but there was still a traitorous part of him that wanted to belong.

It was at university that he discovered he was considered good-looking. His brother said that he had finally grown into his nose. Tynus, who was in his electronics classes, said it was the attraction of the unattainable (speaking personally no doubt; Avon had seen the way Tynus looked at him). Apparently the girls called him the Ice Prince, watching him as he walked by, giggling behind his back. He was 22 before he slept with a woman—just as well no-one knew that, even Vila. Lusy was in his maths classes, a lively bubbly girl who asked him for help, and looked at him with dancing eyes. It hadn’t lasted long. She said he didn’t know how to live let alone love, and she hadn’t been talking about his technique which her successors found more than adequate.

By the time Avon had graduated and was working, he no longer cared whether he was accepted. He and Tynus and that fat fool Keiller (useful because no-one suspected him) had already pulled a few very neat little frauds, and Avon could feel superior to the mass of obedient dull sheep he considered most people to be.

That was what attracted him to Anna. He met her at a social gathering in honour of some boring local official whose name he could no longer remember. She had been as bored as he, and they had spent a pleasant evening exchanging witty and sardonic remarks at the expense of the other guests. Captivating, brilliant Anna. She seemed always to be slyly amused at life as if it were a vast game that only she knew the rules to, but it was an amusement than included him, and for the first time he felt he felt as if he belonged. In return, he included her in his own life, in his plans for the big one, the embezzlement of five million credits from the Federation Banking System.

They told him in prison that she had died under interrogation. They made a point of the interrogator’s name—Shrinker—and laughed at him as if that had some special significance. It was one of the things he had Orac look up, but there was little of use on file about the man.

Vila might know. He had been interrogated, adjusted, readjusted. Astonishing really that he had come through it all relatively untouched.

 

“Did you ever hear of a man called Shrinker?”

The question came out of the blue and made Vila jump. He dabbed uselessly at the green stain of spilled drink on his sheet. “Shrinker? Why would you want to know about him?”

“You know who he is then.”

“Oh, yes. Heard of him, anyway.”

“Have you met him?”

“Course not, wouldn’t be here to tell you abou—” Vila looked at Avon with dawning horror, remembering their last topic of conversation. “Actually, I don’t know much at all.”

It was the sort of comment Avon would normally rise to, but not this time. “You know more than I do.”

“Just prison talk.” Vila drained the last of his drink and put his glass aside. “Can’t go by that.”

“Vila.”

Vila pulled a face. “You don’t want to know.”

“As I’m asking, I obviously do.”

Vila sighed. “Well, all right. There’s two types of interrogators, and I’ve had both. There’s the dry little bureaucratic type that finds the whole thing just another chore, or maybe even a bit distasteful, but it’s a job that has to be done for the good of the Federation and all that.” He wished he had another drink but he didn’t think Avon would get him one.

“And the other kind, Vila?” Avon sounded quiet and dangerous.

Vila looked away, feeling sick. “The ones that enjoy it.” Avon did not answer, and finally Vila risked a look at him. He looked sad rather than angry.

“How did you survive it, Vila?”

“Me? Oh I’ve got different techniques.” Vila tried to sound casual and put his hands under the covers where Avon wouldn’t see them shaking. He stared at the ceiling because it was easier that way. “Number one is tell them everything but what they want, your whole life story, drown ’em in words. If that doesn’t work, then I hide a bit in my mind. Turn reality down so it’s, well, not so real. That’s usually enough, but if they try to muck about with my mind, I have to really hide. So far away someone has to call me back. Haven’t done that one very much. After all, there’s always a chance no-one will.”

Avon was silent for a while and finally Vila stole another glance at him. Avon looked...sort of naked and open and, well, as if he cared. Vila looked quickly away. Sympathy was too hard to deal with. It was too rare for him to have built defences against.

“Vila.”

“Don’t.”

Avon paused, then went on in a matter-of-fact voice. “Is ‘Shrinker’ his real name?”

“Don’t know really. Everyone calls him that, the guards too. There’s different theories. Some people say it’s because he chips away at you till there’s not much you left. Other say it’s from ‘shrink’, you know, a head-doctor, because he plays with your mind. Then again, could be his real name. Nominative determinism. After all,” he tried to change the subject, “I’ve known a doctor called Gash, pity he wasn’t a surgeon. And a lawyer called Bull for that matter. The best one was—”

“Not now, Vila.” Avon said. “You implied before that Shrinker’s...victims do not survive.”

Vila closed his eyes. He wished he hadn’t blurted that out.

“If that’s so, how does he extract the information required.” Avon sounded quite dispassionate. “The usual incentive is the promise of freedom. What does Shrinker offer his victims?”

Vila kept his eyes closed, not wanting to see Avon’s face. “Death.”

***

Avon brought Vila his evening meal, a bowl of soup that Cally had made for him, and sat down to wait for him to finish it.

“Missed my scintillatingly witty conversation at dinner, did you?” Vila teased.

“It would be more accurate to say that I noticed the absence of your usual stream of semi-consciousness.” So, it seemed, had the others. Without Vila to keep it going, every attempt at conversation had bogged down.

Avon watched Vila as he ate. He was going to need everyone for his plan, but he needed Vila most of all, for reasons he found difficult to acknowledge. Because Vila understood? Because Avon trusted him? He trusted Cally too, but she would disapprove, and Vila never expected more of Avon than he was. Blake had and Cally did, but Vila accepted him just as he was. But then, discrimination had never been one of Vila’s finer points.

After his initial enthusiasm, Vila was slowing down.

“If you don’t eat it all, you can’t have any ice-cream,” Avon said.

Vila gave him a sidelong look. “Cally said I could, did she?”

“No. I did.” Ice-cream had been their shared pleasure, ever since they had both encountered it at Freedom City.

“All right.” Vila had a few more spoonfuls and leaned back against his pillows. “Actually, maybe tomorrow.”

Avon took his plate. “Will you help me get rid of Shrinker?” he asked abruptly.

Vila’s eyes widened in shock. “You must be joking!”

“It would be in somewhat poor taste.”

“Look, I’ll help you do a lot of things, Avon, but not that. I’m a thief, not a murderer.”

“Oh, I have no intention of killing him per se. I merely intend to offer him the same way out he gives his victims.” He explained his plan.

“Um, well, firstly I don’t go in for revenge. I don’t see the point.”

“You’ve never wanted to get back at those who’ve hurt you?”

“Doesn’t change what happened, does it? And then they’d have to get revenge on me for getting revenge on them and so on and on. I’ve met people who hate other people for something their ancestors did. It just makes things worse.”

You’re a better man than I am, Vila. “What about prevention then? Stopping Shrinker for good.”

“I suppose I can live with that.”

“And secondly?”

“Eh?”

“You said ‘firstly’ before.” Avon said patiently. “Do you have a second point?”

“Oh, right. The whole thing’s too dangerous. What makes you think you’ll survive to meet Shrinker anyway?”

“I already told you. Do try to listen, Vila. I shall have a slow-release drug in my system which will block pain for two weeks. I hardly expect it to be that long before they realise their techniques are not working.”

“I did hear you actually. But look, it doesn’t matter if you can feel it, Avon. If you can’t, they’ll try harder to hurt you and that’ll be worse.” Vila’s voice rose in panic. “Ever hear of lepers?”

Avon had considered the problem. “I can act as if I’m in pain, but not tell them anything. A challenge like that is certain to flush Shrinker out.”

Vila sighed. “All right. I’ll do it to stop him, and to help you, but I hope it does.”

“Your grammar is even more mangled than usual. What do you mean?”

“I hope it does help you, that’s all.”

Oh, so do I. Avon stood up. “Are you ready for sleep?”

Vila nodded, and while Avon lowered his bed and removed his extra pillows, he wondered how to thank him. Words were, as always, inadequate, but they were all he had. “You’ll be up in a few days. Believe it or not, you are indeed missed on the flight deck.”

“Am I?”

“Oh, yes. All your chores are waiting for you.”

Vila’s face fell. “Sounds about right. It’s not me anyone wants, just my delicate touch.”

Avon paused at the door. “Don’t worry, Vila. When Dayna and Tarrant get to know you better, they’ll like you too.”

He stopped, appalled. That last word was one too many. Had Vila noticed? But seeing the warmth in Vila’s eyes, he realised that somehow it did not matter after all.

 

The end


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