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An Oath of Fealty

By Jean Graham
Page 1 of 4

When the storm broke, Vila would rather have been anywhere else but the flight deck. It was, however, his watch, and that left him no convenient place to run.

For two days, the 'charge' had been building, ever since XK-72 had gone up in a fireball from that stray plasma bolt. Ever since Avon had tried to opt out. Though Blake had claimed to make no effort to influence the decision, it was plain enough he was displeased with the result. The two of them had barely spoken since the smoke of XK-72's remains had cleared from the screen.

Vila could only guess that Blake had waited this long out of deference to Gan, still recovering in his cabin from his limiter surgery.

Or maybe that wasn't it at all. Maybe they'd both just been waiting for the first spark to fly.

Hardly surprising, then, that Avon should be the one to launch it.

"More crumbs thrown to the rabble," he'd said, or some words to that effect. Vila had been dozing when the two of them came on deck, and Zen had announced Liberator's arrival at Blake's preset coordinates -- the rebel stronghold on Kearnea.

Blake pivoted, a movement so sharp and furious it seemed to take even Avon aback, if only for a moment. Vila watched Blake apply visible constraint to his reply. "They've asked for our help," he said, each word coming out a sentinel unto itself. "I agreed to give it."

"How terribly democratic of you." Blake's choice of pronoun had been hard to miss, a fact Avon wasted no time pointing out.

"The others have agreed as well," Blake asserted, and that was news to Vila, who hadn't been asked at all. "Their loyalty has never been in question. Yours, on the other hand..."

The background throb of Liberator's drives had suddenly grown ominous, the heartbeat-measured countdown to a neutron reaction.

Avon waited the space of a full breath before hurling the return barb. He finished Blake's sentence. "...has never been anything else. Your 'followers' see to that as well." He fixed the other man with a murderous look that would have sent Vila scrambling for cover. Blake never flinched. "Well I'm afraid you can forget about homage from this particular quarter," Avon went on coldly. "I am hardly inclined--"

"Yes, so you've said," Blake cut him off, short and vehement. "And so you've also demonstrated, more than once."

Well, there it was. The taboo subject of Avon's convictions dragged into the open at last. Vila swallowed and slid a little further down in his flight chair. Better to be out of the line of fire, he reasoned, though neither of the challenging titans seemed aware of his presence anyway.

Blake faced his adversary across the bulk of the weaponry console, a placement Vila saw as anything but accidental.

"I need a crew I can rely on. That includes you, Avon." The warning in the computer tech's dark eyes failed to slow Blake an iota. "Damn it, I'll have you with me or I'll not have you at all. Is that phrased clearly enough to suit you?!"

Jenna had come onto the flight deck in the midst of Blake's speech; Vila gave her his best "stay out of it" look, gratified when she nodded once in agreement and slipped quietly into her flight position.

Avon had turned, paced away, turned sharply back again. "Save the politico-manipulation for your fawning sycophants," he said, and his words were all the more menacing for the tranquil contrast they posed against Blake's unsheathed anger. "I make my own decisions."

"I'm delighted to hear it." Blake's broad hands went to either side of the upright console. "Because a decision is precisely what I want from you, right here and right now. Once and for all, I will know where your loyalties lie."

These earnest histrionics earned nothing more than the flat indifference of Avon's eyes.

"In exactly the same place they have always lain," was the nonplussed response.

Vila knew well enough what that meant. Avon trusted Avon, and that was the end of it. If Blake expected any more than that, well, perhaps he really was the fool Avon had always claimed him to be.

"I want your word." Plain and simple, that. Leave it to Blake to lay it on the line.

"Ah, yes. Fealty above all." That was Avon's sarcastic circuit kicking in. "A pledge of troth to the beloved liege lord?"

Vila didn't understand any of that, though he caught the smirk that crossed Jenna's face. Darned Alphas read too many antique books.

"If you like," Blake deadpanned his reply, no trace of humor in it. "One way or the other, though, I'll have it. I can't afford less."

"Oh, I agree." All sarcasm gone, Avon's lethal tone had returned in force. "But then, there will come a time when you will not be in control."

The tacit threat struck its intended mark: Vila could see it reflected in Blake's iron-edged gaze. It had a hint of both sadness and resolution in it -- the rest was anger; anger and sheer thick-headed Alpha obstinance. He'd seen a vid-film once, of two long-extinct creatures called bull rams...

"Don't push your luck, Avon."

Now where had Blake picked up that bit of Delta bluster?

"Oh, I shan't..."

The opponents stared one another down until the bleating of a communications beacon forced Blake to look away. A series of long and short tones echoed over Liberator's comm speakers, repeating in sequence twice before the transmission cut off.

"That will be Arman's signal."

Walking deliberately away from the statue that was Avon, Blake acknowledged Jenna's presence with a nod. "Tell them we've received, and that we will meet them as arranged in forty minutes' time. Avon, Vila..."

"Eh?" Vila started, aware of Avon's terrible visage stalking toward him -- toward Blake.

"I do not recall making any 'arrangements,'" the precise Alpha tones announced.

Blake ignored him. "Both of you get kitted up and meet me in the teleport bay in half an hour." With a glare that defied either of them to argue, he turned and marched off the flight deck, leaving a prolonged silence in his wake.

Jenna finally took a breath; Vila let go of one and looked up at Avon entreatingly. "Do you have to provoke him like that? Didn' your little term as a guest of the Federation penal system teach you anything at all about catipal... capitch... getting along with people?"

That got him a chilled stare that unmistakably translated to 'mind your own business, Vila.' Well, he was minding it, hang them all, and they never failed all the same to drag him straight into the middle, sooner or later. Get your gear, Vila; open this lock, Vila; give us a hand here, Vila. But of course, when it came to the decision-making and he offered an opinion, it was always, Shut up, Vila. Liberator might well be free of the Federation's drugs and mind control, but the castes were as firmly entrenched here as ever they'd been at home.

"It wouldn't kill you to cooperate, you know," Jenna was saying, and Vila saw an opportunity to leap on the admonition with one of his own.

"You don't even have to mean it, just so long as Blake's happy. 'S'easy. All you have to say is 'Yes Blake, certainly Blake, anything you say Blake.' Is that so difficult?"

Avon's appraising look made Vila feel like a cheap street-sale purchase on a slow day. "Obviously not," came the scathing reply. "...for you."

Jenna made no effort to hide her smile as the computer tech stalked away, and Vila sneered at her. "Go ahead, laugh," he said before Avon was completely out of earshot down the passageway. "It isn't you they're dragging off to get caught in the crossfire, is it?"

The pilot's laugh was short and acerbic. "No one will ever catch you in the middle," she said. "You'd be far too busy on the sidelines -- taking bets, probably."

Vila put the lie to her words by glowering at her. But he couldn't shake a sense of dread that when the final showdown did come, he wouldn't have the first idea which side to put his money on.

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