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Cheap at Any Price

By Nicola Mody
Page 2 of 13

When Vila came round, Dayna had been gone a couple of hours.

“Welcome back,” said Soolin.

Vila stared up at her, dully. “What happened?”

“You drank yourself legless. Just what were you trying to do?”

“Drugs don’t work properly on me. Have to drink a lot to feel anything.” Vila closed his eyes. “Or nothing.”

“Well, you almost killed yourself. Which seems a bit stupid after you tried so hard to stay alive in that shuttle.”

Vila’s eyes flew open. “How d’you know about that?”

“It’s not that hard to work out.”

“Oh.” Vila struggled to sit; Soolin helped him up, and sat beside him on the bed.

“Look, Vila, you’re not exactly cut out to be a rebel or a fighter—”

“Just figured that out, have you?” Vila put a hand to his head and winced.

“—so why are you here?”

“I’ve been wondering that ever since we lost Blake.” He looked at Soolin. “I kept thinking things might get better, but they won’t, will they? Not now. So I asked Avon if I could go, if he could just drop me off on a civilised planet...” He sighed, slumping.

“And he hit you, didn’t he?”

Vila nodded miserably.

“Look,” Soolin said, “as far as I’m concerned, I’m leaving as soon as I can. You can come with me, Dayna too if she wants. In fact, the sooner the better. We could take the ship and order Slave to bring it back.”

“No. Avon’s got a really good security system. He’d know. He’d kill us.”

“And you’re a really good thief. And not a bad pilot.”

Vila shook his head. “It’s too hard. It’ll go wrong just like everything else does.” He put his head in his hands.

Soolin recognised the symptoms of depression. There had been times in her own life when it had almost seemed easier to give up than to go on. She wouldn’t have thought it of Vila though. He had been the only one ever to ask her about her family—“Tell me about them, Soolin. Then there’d be someone else who remembers them.”—and she’d been so touched, she had. Vila had told her something of himself too, and it had astounded her that he had survived the trauma of his early childhood and the brutality of the Juvenile Detention Wards and the Federation’s ‘adjustments’ with his sanity intact, let alone the open friendliness and almost childlike innocence he had. Yet it now appeared his resilience had its limits after all.

Soolin knew he needed comfort, probably a hug like the one he had given Dayna on the way back from Bucol 2, but she did not have the courage to offer that much of herself. She placed her hand on his shoulder and said gently, “You’ll feel better after something to eat and a good night’s sleep. Everything will look different then. And after breakfast tomorrow, maybe we can play a game. Dayna told me you enjoy doing that. There are some in the cupboards.” Dorian, or one of his victims, must have left them there, although she’d never seen him use them. “You can show me how. Would you like that?”

Vila looked at her forlornly and nodded.

Soolin smiled. “Come on then.”

***

Kerr Avon found them where he had expected them to be, in the crew room. Vila, Dayna, and Soolin were seated around the small table, each with a glass of wine, playing some sort of strategy game involving coloured beads. Once, Avon might have been interested, but that was a long time ago.

“I need one of you to accompany me to Betafarl.” The girls looked at him silently, and Vila kept his eyes down as he usually did these days. “Vila?”

At that, Vila looked up sullenly. “No, Avon.”

“Soolin or Dayna then?” Avon drawled silkily.

Once, Dayna would have volunteered eagerly, but she and Soolin looked at each other questioningly.

Avon sneered. “Do you have such a low opinion of my intelligence?” he asked coldly. “I am aware of what’s been going on for the last few weeks. I do have access to the medical logs. Ever since Vila was treated for alcoholic poisoning—by one of you two I assume—you always seem to be together. That Vila is useless I can accept, but not that two other members of my crew are also effectively incapacitated by the need to watch him.”

“And whose fault is that?” Soolin asked sweetly.

“Certainly not mine. Vila, you’re coming with me.”

“No.” Vila crossed his arms in defiance.

Avon stepped forward and grasped him tightly by the upper arm, causing him to yelp in pain. “Now, Vila!”

Keeping his grip on Vila, he marched him to the teleport bay, clipped a bracelet on his arm, and ordered, “Teleport, Orac.” On Scorpio’s flight deck, he pushed Vila towards the sleeping bays and onto a bunk.

“There’s no need for violence,” Vila complained, rubbing his arm resentfully. “What are you—” He stared, horrified, at Avon’s gun. “Oh no, please, Avon, please don’t...”

Keeping the gun levelled at Vila, Avon slapped an anaesthetic disc onto his forehead, and dispassionately watched him collapse back onto the bunk, hitting his head against the bulkhead. Avon holstered his gun and lashed Vila’s wrists tightly together, then his ankles. He then rolled him so that his face was to the wall, threw a coarse grey blanket over him, and sat down at his station to wait for Tarrant.

It made sense. Vila was useless to him now, sullen, uncommunicative, and resentful as he was. And the look in his eyes hurt... Stop that! He knew he could never trust Vila again. So why did he feel so bad about what had been such a logical course of action? And damn the man for making him hit him and despise himself for it afterwards. He knew he couldn’t stand to lose someone else, not after Anna, Cally, and Blake, and Vila was the last of Blake’s crew, the last one who had mattered. Oh, yes, it had made sense to drive him away with real insults, to ignore the pain in his eyes and his growing misery, because then when he lost Vila too, it wouldn’t hurt if he didn’t care about him any more.

But he had lost Vila over Malodar, and somehow it still did hurt. Perhaps it wouldn’t when he no longer had to see him.

 

Del Tarrant strode through the base’s corridors, feeling very irritated. Why had Avon suddenly decided the outside sensors needing checking just before they were due to leave? Surely Vila could have done it. No, on second thoughts, perhaps not. Vila had been very uncooperative lately, and oddly enough Avon seemed to accept it. Perhaps he felt bad about the Malodar shuttle, although Tarrant could not imagine Avon feeling guilty about anything. He had not realised just what had happened until a remark of Soolin’s had caused him to check the shuttle’s path in the logs and do some calculations. If Avon had not found that neutron star material, Vila would have been out that airlock. He must have hidden well. Not surprising that he avoided Avon these days.

It was odd then that Vila was going with them on this trip.

“Avon, teleport,” Tarrant said into his bracelet. Arriving on Scorpio’s flight deck, he looked around it, puzzled. “Where’s Vila?”

“Sleeping.” Avon nodded towards the bunks, where Tarrant could see the thief huddled under a blanket. Even for Vila, once able to nap anywhere, that was strange.

“Is he all right?”

“Don’t waste time, Tarrant. Take us up and follow the course laid in.”

Waste time? If he’s in such a hurry, why did I have to check those sensors? One look at Avon’s face convinced Tarrant to keep his thoughts to himself as he manoeuvred Scorpio out of the underground parking bay. As Xenon receded in his display, he checked the course Avon had set and frowned. “I thought we were going to Betafarl.”

“We are. We’re just making a detour.”

Tarrant pulled up a star map and plotted the course against it. He froze, feeling a chill down his spine. Surely I’m wrong. He turned; Avon was looking at him with half-closed eyes and a gun pointing straight at him.

“Domo?” Tarrant looked towards Vila and back to Avon. “You can’t be meaning to—”

“Auction Vila? Oh, yes. He’s been useless to me since we got back from Malodar, but he can still perform one last service—” Avon bared his teeth in a predatory smile. “—fetch a decent price.”

Avon was not behaving logically; Tarrant felt ill. “Look, Vila knows where the base is—” He stopped, realising that such an argument might sign Vila’s death warrant.

“So will everyone I’m inviting to the conference. Regardless of the outcome, we shall abandon it afterwards, so it hardly matters.”

Perhaps another tack then. “But the space pirates only sell their own captives.”

“They are hardly capable of signing their own names, let alone running an auction. Verlis does it for them, very well too, and has been known to sell on behalf of other vendors.” Avon sounded calm, even amused.

“You’re condemning him to death, Avon. Vila’s got a million-credit bounty on his head.”

“Oh, I rather think he’ll go for more than that. A thief of his talents will be in demand among the criminal community. I took the liberty of putting the word out two weeks ago, so I’m sure there will be some very interested bidders. The Terra Nostra spring to mind.”

He had this planned all along. Tarrant got up, keeping a wary eye on Avon. “All right. At least let me check him,” he said quietly. He rolled Vila onto his back, seeing the disc on his forehead. As he reached for it, Avon spoke.

“I wouldn’t, if you want to be kind. To him and us.”

Tarrant took his hand back. Wondering at Vila’s odd position, he pulled the blanket down and drew in his breath. His hands were bound so tightly they were already swollen and purple. “Was that necessary, Avon?”

“He is an escape artist.”

“He’s unconscious!”

“I’m taking no chances.”

Tarrant went back to his station, having no idea what to do. Surely Avon wasn’t serious. Perhaps it was all a ploy to shock Vila out of his recent behaviour, although he didn’t think so. If Avon was as dangerous as he seemed, then Tarrant had better be very very careful.

 


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