Nowhere Else to GoBy Jean Graham
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|Why do you stay with Blake?
To Vila, it seemed an eternity ago Avon had asked him that single, leading question.
"I like him," the thief had replied with confident simplicity.
The sneer in Avon's voice had almost equalled its facial counterpart. "That isn't a good enough reason."
"It is for me. That and the fact I've got nowhere else to go."
And he hadn't -- then.
A rock, guided by resentment and anger, rebounded off the concrete wall of the drainage ditch. Xenon's day was waning, shadows lengthening across the dried mud of the old aquaduct. Vila had been here for the better part of the day, from almost the moment Scorpio had touched down after returning from Malodaar. But he was unaware of the passage of time.
Another rock flew at the wall, cracked at the impact and tumbled, broken, into a miniature Everest of its companions. Vila followed it with a fierce volley, giving voice for the first time to the object of his fury.
"Damn you, Avon. Damn you, damn you."
Rage had followed bitter hurt, and both emotions threatened now to erupt into tears, a prospect he found appalling, but was fast losing the ability to control. He fought it just the same. Giving in reminded him too much of other voices, other times, too long ago.
Oh, do stop snivelling, Vila!
Does he always whine so much? Irritating child. Don't know why you put up with him.
Get up, you whimpering idiot, or so help me I'll kick you again. Get up!
The modern-day echo that came forward to confront these was stern, passionless, equally cruel.
As you always say, Vila. You know you are safe -- with me.
Vila's eyes stung. He pelted the wall until there were no more stones within easy reach, then slumped against the dirty embankment and silently allowed the tears to come.
Shadows crept deeper into the little gorge.
"Wrong choice at every turn, that's what I made," he muttered into the gloom. "I was wrong to get mixed up with any of you to begin with, wrong to ever set foot on Egrorian's bloody shuttle, and wrong..." His voice caught, becoming a hoarse whisper. "Wrong not to go with Kerril when I had the chance."
The scuff of a shoe on the path above made him jump, and he hastily dragged a sleeve across both cheeks as a feminine voice called from behind him.
He tried to melt into the soil at his back, willing her not to see him.
Go away, Soolin. Please, go away.
"It is you. I thought I heard someone." Her boots dislodged a tiny avalanche as she made her way down to his level. Vila huddled miserably against the damp earth and turned his face from her.
"Go away," he said aloud.
"Vila, what are you--? Half the base has been out looking for you!"
Oh yes. And I know exactly which half, he thought bitterly. You and Dayna. Can't the lot of you just leave me alone?
He heard the chirp of the comm circuit on her teleport bracelet. "It's all right," she said to the device. "I've found him."
"Where?" Dayna's voice, anxious, came over the circuit.
"I'll be in touch." Soolin cut the connection, and an awkward silence ensued. He'd begun to wonder if she'd gone away after all when her voice, uncharacteristically tender, said, "What is it, Vila?"
He didn't answer. Her feet moved closer, grinding dry, loose mud, and a hand came gently to rest on his shoulder.
"Are you hurt?"
Oh, that's funny, Soolin. Very funny.
Angrily, he brushed the hand away. "Leave me alone. Please just leave me alone!"
Her voice regained some of its natural sharp edge then. "Pouting is hardly going to help, you know."
Vila's expression hardened, though he still did not look at her. "What would you know about it?" he snapped.
"Maybe more than you think." The gentle tones again. He'd never heard Soolin be gentle before. It was more than a little disconcerting, and altogether unwelcome at the moment. He didn't need her, didn't want her. There was nothing she could do; nothing anyone could do...
More lose soil crumbled as she sat down near him, deliberately ignoring his request to be left alone.
"Vila," she said after another lengthy silence. "It hardly requires a genius to add two and two."
"What," he murmured into the shadows, "is that supposed to mean?" He still wished she would go away, but then no one ever honored Vila's wishes. He ought to be used to it by now.
"You don't have to look far to see it." She waited a full half-minute before adding quietly, "He tried to kill you, didn't he?"
Vila turned enough to look at her for the first time, and found the concern in her eyes even more discomfitting. "Did Avon tell you that?"
"Avon didn't have to. I can add. The shuttle couldn't reach escape velocity without shedding weight, ergo everything superfluous would have to be jettisoned. In Avon's book, that would undoubtedly include his erstwhile friends."
"Erstwhile," Vila echoed dismally. "I like that."
"You didn't really think being with him since the London would grant you any special immunity, did you?"
"Since before the London ." He eyed the abused wall and pile of rocks resentfully. "And no, I didn't. Not exactly. I just never thought..."
The words caught painfully in his throat and abruptly he found himself fighting back a new onslaught of tears. He'd barely controlled them by the time Soolin spoke again.
"Why do you stay with him, Vila?"
He winced at the echo of Avon's long-ago question. But he gave it the same reply. Half of the same reply.
"I've got nowhere else to go," he said.
She shook her head slowly, blonde braids catching double moonlight.
"Everyone has somewhere, Vila."
"Well I haven't. Not anymore."
Anger flashed in her eyes then, cold and diamond hard. "Avon does not own you. You can go where you please, do as you please. Why let him control your life? Why don't you ever fight back?"
Fight back. Oh, that was funny, too, though he didn't know the words to tell her so. No one had ever fought Avon and won. Not the Federation... not Servalan... not even Blake.
And certainly not Vila Restal.
He shivered at the thought, remembering the distant, hollow tone of Avon's voice above the roar of the plunging shuttle, calling his name again and again. That tone was one he had never heard before, and hoped never to encounter again. Avon pleading, soft-voiced, desperate, deceptive...
Soolin's concerned query broke into his morbid reverie.
"Are you coming back with me, or not?"
Vila drew his knees up, wrapped one arm around them in a foetal position.
"Not," he said bleakly. "I told you..." Then, beseeching rather than angry, he added, "Please. I just want to be alone."
He heard her sigh, at last conceding defeat. "All right." She stood, brushing dirt from her slacks with swift, sharp gestures. He felt her eyes on him for one final prolonged moment.
"Sooner or later, Vila, you will have to stand up to him."
Then she was gone, crisp footsteps receding down the path.
"Easy for you to say," Vila muttered. "He never tried to put you out an airlock, did he?"
Still, something she had said nagged at him, refusing to go entirely away.
Everyone has somewhere, Vila.
Everyone but him. Nowhere to go and no one to care. Not since Kerril.
If only he could know where Keezarn's terminus had taken her; where in the vast, wide universe Vilaworld -- Homeworld -- was located.
He'd go to her if he knew. He'd find her again, right the wrong, correct his mistake. If only he knew...
You can go where you please, Soolin had said, do as you please.
Only he couldn't, could he? Even if he knew where to find Kerril, there was little chance Avon would let him go.
Bitterly, he thought about the rest of what Soolin had told him, and pondered another dilemma. If he ever found the nerve to do as she suggested, would she support him? Would any of the others?
* * *
It was after 3 a.m. by Xenon's time when Vila approached the base's northern access hatch. Orac's waspish tones came immediately over the intercom unit.
*Yes,* the voice said peevishly. *What is it?*
"Whatta you mean, 'what is it'?!" Vila snapped back. "It's me, you plastic-brained moron. Let me in or I'll laser scramble all your lock circuits."
There was a lengthy pause, during which he imagined the computer might be sulking, then the door hummed open to admit him.
Xenon's corridors were empty, night-dimmed, and tomb quiet. Only the ops room showed any sign of activity -- and that was just Orac, buzzing contentedly to itself while it monitored security and computer functions.
Vila dropped into a chair, and stared glumly at the multi-colored lights. "Thanks for waiting up," he told it. "Didn' know you cared."
Orac clicked softly, lights chasing random patterns through its transparent casing. *Is this another riddle?* it inquired. *If so, it does not follow the prescribed pattern. If we are to continue studying the idiomatic nature of wordplay, I must ask that you--*
"Oh, shut up, Orac." Vila's head had begun to throb. "Please?" He made his way into the nearby lounge area, tripped the lock on Dorian's liquor cabinet (why did Avon bother?) and came back cradling one of the few remaining bottles. He toasted the little computer with the opened wine.
When there was no response, he shrugged, tipped back the bottle and downed a generous portion of the wine. The joke had worn thin so long ago, he supposed, not even Orac responded to it any more. If he ever had...
He took another long swallow, then sat scowling at the flashing computer.
"For a box that can supposedly do anything, you're a hell of a disappointment, you know that?"
Orac went on clicking and flashing, completely ignoring the outburst. Still, Vila could almost have sworn that his operating whine had grown just a trifle more smug.
"Smirking perspex junk pile. If you could really do anything, you'd..."
He let the sentence die, but a sudden thought had brightened his eyes. The bottle was thrust onto a table, promptly forgotten, and Vila was at Orac's side, hands resting eagerly on the casing.
"Orac... Orac are you in there?"
*I have a great deal of work to complete,* the computer complained. *If you have nothing better to do than prattle nonsense and repeat the obvious, kindly do it somewhere else! I do not wish to be disturbed!*
He sounds more like Avon every day, Vila thought, but aloud he said, "Orac, I have a job for you."
*My circuits are currently fully occupied researching--*
"Well clear one! This is important."
Clearly annoyed, the computer whined for a few moments before it announced, *Very well. What is it?*
For the first time in days, Vila smiled. "All right. Here it is..."
* * *
Avon's glacial response pinned Vila to the lounge area couch. He looked at his hands, the floor, anywhere but into those eyes. After two days spent... well... hiding in his quarters while Orac worked on the assignment, it was the first time he had spoken to Avon at all since Malodaar.
"I said I've decided to leave," he repeated, hating the tremor that refused to leave his voice. "We could opt out any time. You said that."
"Blake said that."
Vila flinched at the venom Avon had applied to the name.
"All right, so Blake did." The words came out in a nervous rush. "The point is, I'm exercising my option. I want out."
He waited then for the vitriolic tongue-lashing he'd been sure would follow. Soolin's words rang in his ears.
Sooner or later you will have to stand up to him.
But Avon had said nothing, and the look on his face wasn't at all what Vila had expected. It spoke somehow more of hurt than anger; the same wounded expression he'd worn after the debacle on Earth with Anna Grant... The look confused Vila. He'd anticipated rage, rebuke, refusal -- just about anything else. He'd prepared himself to confront the old, cynical Avon he had known since the holding cells, before the London, and this wasn't that same Avon at all. But then, it hadn't been, had it, ever since Blake had vanished...
"And just where," Avon's monotone voice inquired, "did you intend going?"
His use of the past tense had not been lost on Vila. But all he said was, "To Kerril. I'm going to Kerril."
Seated behind the alcoved bar that dominated the room, Avon lifted a skeptical eyebrow.
"Orac's found her," Vila explained. "It wasn't hard, really. I asked and he found her."
"It seems unlikely. The computers on Keezarn were destroyed."
"Well he would've talked to them first, wouldn't he? You know Orac; never misses a chance to expand that overstuffed brain of his. Took him two days to analyze the data on Homeworld and correlate a reference point. But he did it." Vila paused, wishing fervently for another bottle of Dorian's wine. Avon's silence was unnerving. "Well if he can't find one lousy little planet, him with his overgrown tarial cells, what good is he then?"
Avon looked as though he were about to say something, then changed his mind and glanced away. Vila filled the uncomfortable silence with another rush of words.
"No need to go to any trouble on my account. Just leave me off somewhere. Anywhere. I'll hire a ship."
"With money, what else?"
"You haven't any."
Vila drew an exasperated breath. "I admit I've lost a lot of things over the past four years, but believe me, the talent for lifting purses isn't one of them. Like I said, you can just leave me off anywhere. The nearest planet will do."
"That won't be necessary."
So here it came. It won't be necessary because you aren't going anywhere, Vila. He drew himself up, prepared to weather the argument. But once again, Avon surprised him.
"Tarrant will take you," he said.
Swallowing the retort he'd had ready, Vila shifted mental gears. "Hadn't you ought to ask Tarrant about that first?"
"That won't be necessary either. He'll take you. Have Orac program Slave with the planetary co-ordinates."
Vila stared, still taken aback by this unusual acquiescence.
"Just like that?" he asked meekly. "No arguments, no insults, no 'you don't know what you really want, Vila'?"
The betrayed look still haunted Avon's eyes. "No arguments," he said stiffly. And then the eyes were suddenly far away, reliving something Vila was certain he didn't care to know.
After several wordless minutes, the thief got awkwardly to his feet. "Fine then," he said, not sure if Avon had even heard. "Tomorrow?"
The dark eyes came back to the present, lifted slowly to look at him.
Nodding, Vila turned for the door. It slid open at his approach, and he was nearly through it when he heard Avon's soft voice from behind him.
The thief turned back, met another pained expression and an equally painful silence.
Can't say it, can you Avon? he thought. Little words, not hard to frame at all, but impossible for you. What is it you wanted to say? Don't go, Vila? We need you, Vila? Or maybe the one thing that just might have a chance of keeping me here? Three words, Avon. That's all.
I'm sorry, Vila.
Is that so hard to say?
Avon's gaze fell to the counter.
"Nothing," he said quietly. "It was nothing."
Vila left him, and heading down the corridor, listened to the door rumble shut on the silence.
* * *
He hadn't intended to eavesdrop. But Vila's approach to the ops room the following morning was halted when Tarrant's caustic tones floated through the door.
"Why not take him there yourself then?"
Avon's subdued voice answered. "He would probably be more... comfortable... going with you."
"Comfortable? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Since when do you care whether Vila is--"
"The matter is not open to debate," Avon interrupted curtly. "You will take Vila where he wants to go. And..."
He trailed off, leaving both Tarrant and Vila in suspense.
Tarrant's voice said, "And...?"
Vila pressed against the wall, straining to listen without getting close enough to activate the door.
"And," he heard Avon say, "you will wait."
Tarrant was incredulous. "I'll what?"
"One day. You will keep Scorpio in orbit for precisely twenty-four shipboard hours. If at the end of that time you have heard nothing from Vila, then you will return to base -- without him."
"Look, Avon, I'm not particularly fond of riddles. So are you going to tell me what this is all about, or must I wheedle it out of Vila?"
Avon's voice went cold. "You'll do nothing of the sort. Ask him nothing. Tell him nothing. Just pilot the ship."
"I don't like--"
"You are not required to like it. Just do it."
Footsteps came toward the door. Vila fled to the nearest hall alcove and melted into it, waiting until a sullen Tarrant had stalked past and vanished down the corridor.
Avon didn't follow, but Vila changed his mind about entering the ops room. He headed back to his quarters instead. Better to wait there until Scorpio was ready for lift-off. He wasn't at all sure he wanted to see any of them before then, anyway...
* * *
No one said good-bye.
Not that he supposed they should. After all, he'd never really called them 'friends,' had he? Not like Blake, and Gan, and Cally. No. These people were strangers. Even Avon. Avon was more a stranger than any of them.
Vila lay back in the sleep capsule aft of Scorpio's flight deck, ignoring Tarrant's pre-flight cross-talk with Slave and with Avon over the communications circuit. While the ship rotated on its launch platform and began its swift ascent to the top of the silo, Vila closed his eyes and thought of Kerril. Their time together had been so short... but he would be able to rectify that now. He would stay with her this time, and never mind all the excuses that had gone before. He would right the mistake, change both of their lives for the better. Orac had given him a second chance, and he didn't intend to let things go wrong again.
Kerril would be so surprised -- and so happy -- to see him. Vila savored the memory of her embrace, her kisses, of the time they had spent together on the ship to Homeworld... He pictured holding her once more, loving her, spending his life with her as he had always dreamed of spending it one day -- with a caring wife, and children.
Of course there would be children. He'd always wanted them; there had simply never been a chance before. Never time enough to consider. But he had always hoped that one day...
What had he said to Cally once?
We could go swimming by the light of three moons.
And Dayna had queried, You and Cally?
Me and the kids.
Dayna had given him a bemused smile. But you haven't got any children.
Not yet I haven't.
Vila, you're dreaming, Tarrant had chided. Three weeks of that and you'd be looking for something to break into.
Oh, but not anymore.
This time... this time, it was going to be different.
* * *
The trip to Homeworld took four days. Tarrant had had little to say to his passenger, and Vila was glad for it. To contend with the pilot's incessant bullying was the last thing he wanted just now. Not with Kerril, and his happiness, so close at hand.
When Slave had located the only community on the planet, and time came to teleport, Vila took nothing with him -- nothing but the clothes he wore and his lock-picking tools. Not that he expected to need the tools, but he felt thoroughly naked without them... and frankly, he admitted, they were the only link with his past that he wanted to keep here. The rest he would as soon forget.
Tarrant surprised him just before he activated Scorpio's teleport controls. "I'll be in orbit for a while yet. Making repairs," he said conversationally. "If you should change your mind..." Receiving only a nod in answer, he added, "Good luck, Vila."
The thief could have sworn that he almost sounded sorry.
But then Homeworld was around him, as lovely as he remembered it, and he forgot that Tarrant or Scorpio or Xenon had ever existed. This would be home now; an end to running and hiding and risking his life for a forlorn cause that someone named Blake had once believed in.
The village stretched for perhaps a mile under the waning sun, clay huts in orderly rows, their thatched roofs sprouting stone chimneys that sent smoke curling lazily skyward. Fair-haired children darted between the buldings: they were ragged and dirty, but to Vila they were as beautiful as their surroundings. All that remained to be added to the picture was Kerril.
The adults, as placid as they had been on Keezarn, passed him by without notice until he gently stopped a bearded young man and asked after Kerril. Benignly, the man merely smiled and shook his head.
"Well, Norl then," Vila persisted. "You do know Norl, don't you? He was an elder, a leader, whatever you call it. At least I think he was."
Still without speaking, the young man raised a hand to point north, down the road Vila had been taking.
"Yes, er..." Vila stammered, not sure whether he understood. As his erstwhile guide turned away, he muttered, "Thank you... I think," and headed in the indicated direction.
It led to a central 'square,' and a broad thatched building larger than the rest. Town hall, Vila decided whimsically. That's where Norl would be, of course. And Norl would know of Kerril.
He pulled open the crude door and steped into a cool, lamplit anteroom. The smell of wood burning was pungent inside, but not unpleasant.
Abruptly, a figure appeared in one of the doorways. Vila started. "Oh," he said. "Hello."
It was an old man -- not Norl, but someone very like him. He smiled, and stood expectantly as though waiting for the visitor to speak again.
"Talkative lot, aren't you?" Vila queried without thinking, then hastily added, "Do you know a man called Norl? He's here, I think. Well someone told me he was. Sort of."
His host nodded, and motioned for Vila to follow. He was led into a spacious hall with rough-hewn tables and benches. A fire sizzled on a wide hearth, casting frolicking shadows on the walls. The light in the windows was failing, but it still painted an even march of sun patterns across the earthen floor.
Left alone in the hall, Vila waited several minutes until, silent as always, Norl seemed to materialize from the shadows. He still wore the same robes, and the same beatific expression.
Vila's enthusiasm spilled over at the sight of him. "Norl! It's good to see you!" He grasped the older man by the arms, almost hugging him. "It's me -- Vila. You remember?"
"I do. Welcome, Vila."
"Oh, you dunno how much I've wanted to hear somebody say that," Vila bubbled. "Anybody... Norl, where's Kerril? She is still here?"
The old man's smile vanished, although he nodded. "She is here."
"Well, she's all right then?" Vila was confused. "I can see her?"
"If she wishes to see you."
Vila frowned. Now what did that mean? Of course Kerril would wish to see him. She'd told Vila that she loved him, it was almost the last thing she had said before Norl had escorted her through the terminus portal and Vila had been left to face a homicidal maniac named Bayban. "Well what is it then?" he demanded impatiently of Norl. "Where is she?"
"Not far away. She has been summoned. If she wishes to come, she will be here soon."
Exasperated, Vila had been about to ask what all this hesitation was about when he spied a familiar blonde figure coming through a nearby door.
He didn't wait for her to reach him, but met her part way down the aisle between the tables and caught her in an enthusiastic embrace. "Kerril! I came back for you, Kerril. I mean I came to find you and I want to stay this time. Here, with you."
He was only vaguely aware of Norl disappearing through another door, leaving them alone together, which was as it should be. And then Kerril was speaking softly in his ear. "Oh, Vila, I am glad you came. I wanted--"
"I know," he interrupted, and held her tighter against him. "I was wrong, not to go with you before, I know that now. But I'll make it up to you, Kerril, I promise I will."
He interrupted her again, this time with a kiss, and was startled when she broke it and drew away, though she still held tightly to his hands.
For the first time, he looked at her -- at all of her, and saw what should have been obvious, yet somehow hadn't been: the swollen roundness just under the belt of her loose-fitting tunic.
Vila stared. They had only been together that once, aboard the transit ship. But then, it could happen after only once...
He'd been about to say that this was wonderful, until he thought again and realized that it couldn't be right. Keezarn had been -- how long? -- a year ago? More? It couldn't be...
Kerril's hands squeezed his gently. Her pale eyes were hurting, near tears.
"Oh." Vila let go of her hands then, stepped backward and sat down hard on one of the wooden benches. "Oh," he said again, and couldn't think of any other words. Stupid of him to assume... Of course she would be a part of these people now. Very much a part.
She came to sit beside him on the bench, one slender hand resting gently on his arm.
"I'm sorry, Vila."
Words failed him, and he stared at nothing for a long, uncomfortable moment.
The hand on his arm drew furtively away. "There's no reason why you can't stay if you want to," she said softly. "These are kind and loving people; they would welcome you, gladly."
Vila looked at her, and haltingly found his voice. "Oh, no... I couldn't do that. Not... well I mean it wouldn't be right, would it? Not after..." He trailed off and looked away, embarrassed.
After a long time, she asked, "Where will you go?"
He had to think about that. "I don't know," he said. "I suppose ... back where I came from."
"Back to Avon and the others?"
"Is that where you want to go?"
The question surprised him. Had Kerril always been that perceptive? He'd never really had time to know her, to find out.
"No," he answered honestly. "I don't, really."
She looked puzzled. "Why stay with Avon then? What will it get you?"
"Killed, probably." An even more honest answer. "Sooner or later."
"It doesn't have to be that way -- surely?"
Vila trapped both hands between his knees, fighting back the urge to take her in his arms again. If he did that, he might never go, and then...
The soft movement of her homespun dress disturbed the air beside him as she rose. "I have to go," she told him sadly. "My... He's waiting for me. Outside. I said I'd only be a moment."
Vila swallowed, nodded mutely.
She bent to kiss him once, lightly, on the forehead, and then was gone, soft footsteps padding rapidly away across the dirt floor. He didn't watch her go.
Alone in the shadows, Vila listened to the fire, and remembered again what he'd once said of Blake.
I like him... and I've nowhere else to go.
Scorpio would still be in orbit, if Tarrant had followed Avon's orders. One day, he had said. Wait for him 24 hours... It was almost as though Avon had known.
As you always say, Vila. You know you are safe -- with me.
But there was nowhere really safe. Was there?
Fiercely brushing back an unwanted tear, Vila lifted the teleport bracelet to call Tarrant. As he thumbed the voice control, Kerril's question, distinctly an echo of Soolin's, lingered.
Why stay with Avon, then?
Vila no longer wanted to consider the answer.
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