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Limiters

By Nicola Mody
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Gan watched as Avon removed two data cubes from the read-write unit, pocketed one, and put the other back in its place on the shelf.

"That was fast," he said. "Copying all that data."

Avon inserted two more. "If you can't be useful, be distant. It's like working under a cliff."

Gan shrugged and moved away. He wasn't sure what it was he did that always annoyed Avon. He sighed and looked towards the door where Vila was standing, or rather, slouching guard.

Vila gave him a wry and sympathetic grin. "Don't mind him. Insulting people's just one of his hobbies, along with chess and— " he suddenly turned back to the corridor. "Now let's not be hasty," he said to someone Gan couldn't see. A projectile hit the wall behind Vila, and he squeezed his eyes shut and fired.

Gan rushed out, drawing his own gun. The next bit happened quickly, but later, when he went over and over it in his mind, it seemed so slow. Vila's eyes flew open with surprise as he fell against the wall, dropping his gun. He clutched one hand to himself, looked down at his gun lying on the floor, then back to Gan in mute appeal.

There were two guards in the corridor, one sprawled on his back, and the other about to fire on Vila again. Gan had his gun aimed in an instant, but when he tried to pull the trigger, he couldn't. Pain lanced through him and he cried out, staggering, trying to will himself to shoot, to at least save Vila. At first he thought he'd succeeded when through a red mist he saw the guard jerk and fall, but Avon pushed him aside and was firing again and again.

Then it was quiet. Avon turned and gave Gan a searing look of contempt, then bent and picked up Vila's gun. "Fool," he said, straightening up and, in the same movement, catching Vila as he fell forward. "Teleport! Teleport now."

 

Later in the surgical unit, Gan wondered about that word 'fool'. Was it meant for him, or Vila for dropping his gun, or for Avon himself for taking them on the mission? He stared down at his traitor hands, not wanting to see Vila lying there so pale and still.

"Come on." Blake rested a hand on his shoulder and sat down beside him. "He'll be all right."

"No thanks to me."

"Oh?" Blake raised his eyebrows. "I don't agree. You were a great help to Cally."

"A first aid certificate," Gan said bitterly. "Not much, is it? Handing Cally instruments and doing what she told me to doesn't make up for Vila almost dying down there because of me."

Blake was silent for a moment. "You can't change the past, Gan," he said quietly, "but you can learn from it. You could have winged that guard."

Oh, yes. That had occurred to Gan—once he was back on the Liberator. He sighed. Fast thinking wasn't one of his talents, as Avon told him often enough. Nor was that sort of marksmanship. "I'm not that good a shot." He clenched his hands into fists. He wasn't much use to them, was he?

Blake stood up and patted his shoulder. "Get some rest."

Gan shook his head. "I'll stay with Vila for a while."

 

Avon was waiting right outside. "Well?"

"Vila will be fine. He was lucky."

"That isn't what I meant, Blake."

Blake suppressed a smile; he'd seen Avon's shoulders relax considerably at the news. "Oh?"

"No." Avon clasped his hands behind his back as they walked towards the flight deck. "I was hoping for an apology."

Blake stopped, frowning. "From me?"

"Who else arbitrarily chooses mission teams without bothering to consult anyone?"

"I see." Blake looked sideways at Avon as they resumed walking. "So you'd prefer not to have Vila with you in future?"

"Vila," Avon said loftily, "is useful. And occasionally amusing."

"We wouldn't have got that cipher machine loose on Centero without Gan, you know."

"That may well be true. However I hardly needed a weightlifter for a handful of data crystals. Vila would have been quite enough. He got me into the room and cracked the safe very efficiently." Avon paused, his eyes unseeing.

Blake remembered how he had appeared in the teleport bay with Vila slumped in his arms. He had been staring straight ahead, his face set with anger, but one hand was gently cradling Vila's head. "Avon—"

"Tell me again, Blake," Avon said evenly, "Why was Gan there?"

"To keep an eye out for you and Vila."

"If by that you mean cover us, then kindly send Cally or Jenna next time."

Blake pinched the bridge of his nose. "Gan knew Vila was nervous and asked to go."

Avon glowered. "Vila is always nervous. He knows he's safe with me. And he would have been today if that walking mountain hadn't been in my line of fire."

"Very well." Blake lifted his hands in surrender. "Point taken."

"Oh, good. I'm sure that makes it all worthwhile."

***

It was some time later that Vila stirred and opened his eyes. He stared up at the ceiling, puzzled, then screwed up his face, either in pain or memory.

"Vila?" Gan leaned over him.

Vila focussed blearily on him, then smiled and closed his eyes.

***

"Dunno why they call it a flesh wound," Vila said. It was the next day, and he was propped up on pillows, looking much better. "I mean, what if they'd got me in the ticker, eh? Without hitting any bones? I can see it my tombstone now: Vila Restal. Just a flesh wound, they said'."

"I think it's called that if it doesn't hit anything vital," Gan said.

"Speak for yourself. All of me's vital to me." Vila wriggled to get more comfortable, and winced at the pain.

"I'm sorry," Gan said.

"If you mean making me drink this stuff—" Vila scowled at the vitamin solution Gan had brought him "—then I'm not surprised. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"I meant what happened down there." Gan couldn't meet Vila's eyes.

"Oh, that. Turned out all right, didn't it? Avon was there."

"What if he hadn't been? Vila—"

"I never worry about things that didn't happen," Vila said. "It's a fulltime job worrying about all the bad things that might."

Gan couldn't speak for a few moments. He didn't deserve that; it would have been easier if Vila had blamed him. "I'm going to ask Blake to leave me somewhere," he said abruptly.

"Don't do that!" Vila looked dismayed. "You're my friend!"

"I'm a liability."

"And I thought that was me! Well, according to Avon, anyway." Vila sobered. "Look, Gan," he said quietly, " I know what happened down there. You couldn't shoot, could you?"

Gan felt like breaking something.

"You're not the only one with a limiter, mate."

"What?"

"We've all got 'em. Take me fr'instance. I couldn't kill anyone face-to-face any more than you could."

"Is that why you close your eyes?"

"Nah." Vila grinned, embarrassed. "I opened up my gun and lowered the energy setting so it only stuns. Or maybe gives you a nasty burn—I didn't exactly try it on myself." He pulled a face. "It's just that I can't look. Like when Cally gives me an injection." He stopped. "What's the matter?"

"Could you do that to my gun?"

"All right. As long as you don't let the others know."

Gan smiled. "But you, well..." he hesitated, "...you don't have any problem firing the neutron blasters."

"Yeah." Vila picked at the sheet. "Same thing, isn't it? What I can't see can't hurt me. I mean, I know there are people on those ships, but it's easier to just think of them as targets." He looked defensive. "Yes, I know it's illogical, but it's like when I was doing over this rich Alpha bastard's place on the top level and I had to hide up in the ceiling of his two-bloody-storey reception room. Now I knew if I didn't stay on the joists I'd fall right through the panels and hurt myself, but I wasn't scared because I couldn't see how high I was."

Gan frowned.. "So it's all right if you can't see?"

"More or less. You've got to work round your limitations, see?" Vila sipped some of his drink and pulled a face. "If you want to, mind. I can't steal from anyone who couldn't afford it, or hurt anyone deliberately, but I'm quite happy about that."

"That's your conscience, Vila." Gan smiled.

"All right, all right, don't spread it round." Vila grinned back at him. "Doesn't matter what you call it, it's still a limiter."

"In that case, what about Avon?"

Vila gave him an appreciative look. "Avon? Oh, I think he's got a small one somewhere, nowhere near the size of the others'. But he's got another limiter, a really big one. He'd rather die than admit he gives a damn for anyone."

"He likes you."

Vila shrugged. "I entertain him. We understand each other and don't expect much. I'm not sure if that's the same thing."

"You didn't see the look on his face when you were shot."

Vila blinked and recovered. "Wouldn't want to lose a good cracksman, would he? Nah, the ones he likes are Blake and Cally. Much more his social equals, aren't they."

Gan thought about this. So the two of them played the same game; it explained a lot. Not that he'd ever understand; it was much simpler just being nice to the people you liked.

"Gan?" Vila said anxiously. "You're not really going to leave, are you?"

"No," said Gan, realising he'd made his decision already.

"Good." Vila smiled at him. "'Cause I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you looking out for me on the London, you know."

Gan shrugged. "That's what friends are for."

"And we are, aren't we?" Vila beamed at him. "Look, couldn't get me something tastier to drink, could you?"

Gan thought about it. "How about I do you a hot chocolate?"

"That'd be nice. And bring one back for yourself too, mate."

***

Just after Gan left for his watch, Avon put his head round the door. "Still malingering?"

"You mightn't believe it," Vila said, "but I'd rather be working than feeling like this."

"You're right. I don't." Avon came in and sat down on the chair Gan had vacated.

Vila gave him a sidelong look, wondering how to thank him. To do so outright would be embarrassing for them both. "Lucky for me you've improved your aim."

"Yes. However you're still in the habit of dropping guns, I see."

"I had a hole in me at the time," Vila said indignantly. "Tends to put a person off, that sort of thing. Makes me leak for a start."

Avon looked amused. "I noticed. I daresay the stains will never come out."

"No great loss. That tunic made you look like an overgrown sailor-boy."

"Whereas you were dressed most appropriately in that patchwork thing."

Go on, give him a thank-you gift. Vila grinned. "As a jester?"

"I prefer the word 'fool'."

Vila looked suitably crestfallen. "Oh. Surprised you bothered to bring me back, then."

"You play better chess than Jenna." Avon stood up. "Want a game this evening?"

Good old Avon. Vila shrugged. "Why not?"


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