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The Stuff of Legends

By Nicola Mody
Page 1 of 7

Cally awoke, disturbed. Had someone been calling her? She sat up and listened, and there it was, at the edge of her perception. A call for help.

Whose watch was it? She checked the time—ah, Vila. That was good; anyone else might be hard to convince. She got dressed and went through the quiet corridors to the flight deck. She half-expected to find Vila asleep on watch, but he had not done that recently. Yes, he was awake, peering intently at his console.

“Vila? Have you detected anything unusual?”

Vila jumped and looked around, surprised. “Uh, no. Can’t you sleep, Cally?”

Cally looked over his shoulder and smiled. “Reading novels again?” She noted it was something called Gormenghast, not a Terran word she knew.

“Need something to do,” Vila said defensively. Cally put her hand briefly on his shoulder to reassure him and went to her station. After all, he did have his screen split between the novel and the readings from the sensors. She did not know much about human literature, but both Avon and Tarrant had been surprised at Vila’s choice of reading, Avon not long after she had joined, and Tarrant only a few months ago. I’m surprised he can read at all, let alone that he reads such good books, Tarrant had said, and Avon had replied coldly, Well now, that says more about your intelligence than Vila’s. Cally smiled, remembering. Another point to Avon, and of course Vila had not been there to hear the compliment.

Vila looked at her suspiciously. “Should I have detected something?”

“Probably not.” Cally brought up the closest systems on her screen. “I picked up an Auron distress beacon.”

“I haven’t got anything!”

“Of course not, Vila. It broadcasts on a telepathic wavelength. No-one but an Auron could receive it.” She cocked her head. “It is getting a little stronger but it is off to one side. Can you change course to six-three-nine?”

Vila looked alarmed. “I’d better check with Avon.” He reached for the intercom button.

“No!”

“Oh now look. D’you want to clean my blood off the flight deck when Avon’s finished with me?”

“I shall take responsibility.”

“That’s not how Avon’ll see it.”

“Vila. I have lost almost all my people. If just one of them is alive out here and needs my help, I must give it. You do see that, don’t you?”

Vila sighed. “Yes. All right.” He looked resigned. “We’re not going anywhere in particular since we lost Servalan. I suppose one bit of the galaxy’s as good as any other. At least I hope Avon sees it that way. Zen, change course to six-three-nine. And better make it standard by ten.”

+Confirmed.+

Vila looked down at his screen again, his face mournful. Cally could see he was no longer reading, but looking at the starfield with his usual resigned expectation of trouble. This last year since Blake left had been hard for him, but lately matters had improved between him and Tarrant since Sardos, and Vila’s open sympathy after the death of Tarrant’s brother had helped even more. Despite his unrepentant pride in his thieving abilities and his open cowardice and laziness, Vila really was a very nice person, Cally thought, and he had been kind to someone who had treated him badly. She smiled fondly at him.

Vila, sensing her attention, looked up, startled. “Eh?”

“You are a good man, Vila.”

“Oh, well...” He blushed and ducked his head shyly. “I can see your point, that’s all. I mean, if one of your people’s in trouble...” Unused to compliments, he pretended intent interest in his screen. “Are we getting any closer?”

“Yes. We should be there very soon at this speed.” Cally brought up a list of the systems ahead and their planets. “It must be Morganis 3, at least that is the only planet in range that can support life.”

“Zen? D’you know anything about Morganis 3?”

+Morganis 3 was privately owned but abandoned three centuries ago. The only habitation on the surface is the residence of the former owner.+

Vila and Cally looked at each other. “Must be where it is, then,” Vila said. “Zen, put us in stationary orbit above it at a thousand spacials when we get there.”

+Confirmed.+

---

+Stationary orbit has been established as requested.+

“Bring the building up on screen, Zen” Cally said. They both looked at the aerial view of a large stone castle with four turrets and a central tower. Vegetation had grown over parts of the outside walls, which were beginning to crumble.

“Wonderful,” Vila said. “A charming example of the later maniac period. Is that where your beacon is, then?”

“Yes. There appears to be only one entrance. Put me down near it.” Cally took a handgun and strode eagerly towards the teleport room. She positioned herself in the bay and nodded to Vila who was already behind the controls. “All right, Vila.”

“Cally? It could be a trap, you know.”

“Yes. I still have to go.”

“I don’t like the look of it.”

“Oh, Vila. You never like the look of anything.”

“Well, I’m always right, aren’t I?”

“Vila,” Cally said firmly. “I shall call you when I am down. If you do not hear from me straight away, or if I do not call back in within one hour, then you can start to worry.”

“All right.” Vila looked dissatisfied. He visibly squared his shoulders. “Look if there’s anything wrong, tell me and I’ll wake the others and come straight down. Orac can teleport me.”

For the first time, Cally noticed that he had brought Orac through with him, so his offer was serious. She was surprised and touched. “Thank you, Vila.”

“Putting you down...now.”

Vila’s worried face disappeared and Cally was standing on grass outside the high arched entrance to the castle. The morning sun was warm and her hair was stirred by a light breeze. All she could hear was the rustle of leaves in the trees, and the call of birds. “Vila? I am down and safe.”

“Good luck, Cally.”

She looked around, reaching out with her mind, but she could only detect the beacon. No, wait—there was something else. Something strange yet familiar, but not Auron. She sent, //Hello? Is anyone here?// There was no reply, but she knew that she would have to investigate anyway. Taking out her gun, she stepped cautiously through the entrance and found herself in a large empty hall, with doors to each side and a staircase in front of her. She brought her bracelet up to her mouth. “Vila?”

Vila’s nervous voice answered, “Yes, I’m here. Is everything all right?”

“So far. I am inside, and going to look for the beacon, I think it is upstairs in the tower.”

There was a pause, then, “Cally, don’t.”

“I must. Cally out.”

She removed her bracelet, put it in her pocket, and started up the stairs. On the next level, she paused, slightly puzzled. There was definitely something alive here. Something that felt...human? No, not at all human, but so like...what? And it was below, whereas the beacon was above. She hesitated, then continued up the stairs. On the fifth level, the stairs became narrow and curved as they led up the central tower. Even humans could tell the difference between an empty house and an inhabited one, and Cally was certain that someone was there. Encouraged, she climbed faster. At the top, she stopped and looked through an open doorway into a large, airy, circular room made of stone, with large open windows all around offering wide views of the countryside. In the centre was a table, with the Auron distress beacon standing on it, still transmitting. Cally stepped forward curiously. To one side was a row of solid metal chairs, to the other a bank of controls and screens, showing various views around the castle and inside it. As she stared at them, realising she had been observed from the start, the door slammed shut behind her. She spun around.

“Well, well. I seem to have caught something.”

It was Servalan.

As Cally brought her gun up, Servalan languidly pressed a button on the remote in her hand, and watched smiling as Cally fell to the floor, convulsed by the overpowering dissonance in her head as the beacon’s power increased and overloaded her telepathic senses.

“Just like a fly to honey,” she heard Servalan say as she lost consciousness.

 

When she awoke, she was sitting in one of the five chairs she had noticed when she came in, secured by metal restraints. Servalan sat at the bank of screens, her back to them, facing Cally, one leg elegantly crossed over the other, as calm and in control as ever in her black silk.

“There’s no point in struggling.”

“What do you want with me?” Cally asked. “Did it bother you so much that one Auron got away?” After all, Servalan did not know about Franton, Patar, and the five thousand foetuses on Kaarn.

“Not at all. To use a rather unpleasant analogy, one must first catch worms to catch fish.” Servalan smiled sweetly. It really was a very nice smile; doubtless it charmed many who did not know her as Cally did. “Have you read much Terran literature, Cally?”

She had sampled what the readers among the crew enjoyed—Blake’s histories and political treatises, Avon’s closely-reasoned mysteries with the plots outshining the characters, Tarrant’s swashbuckling adventures, and the wide range enjoyed by Vila: humour, fantasy, historical. But Cally had most liked the religious writing proscribed by the Federation, particularly Confucius, the Gospels, and Zen Buddhism.

“Some,” she said.

“Do you know about our legends? Fairy stories?”

She did. They had not given her the insight into human behaviour she had expected, and many were much like the creation legends of her own people with their stories of petty and vengeful gods like the Thaarn, though she had wondered if, like the Thaarn, there was some truth in them. She shrugged.

“Many have a common theme.” Servalan toyed with one of her dangling jet earrings. “A quest. A disparate group of people searching for something—let us say,” she smiled, “a princess in a tower. After all, you are now quite probably the most important Auron in the galaxy, aren’t you?”

Cally forced the sudden flash of fury down. What point was there?

“And who might come to rescue the princess, I wonder?” Servalan went on. “The wizard perhaps? The brave knight errant? The hunter, or even the thief? I have prepared a special welcome for each of them. You should all be most flattered.”

“Why go to all this trouble? So you can display your trophies back on Earth?”

“Oh, indubitably. You will make five very nice feathers for my cap. And of course there is the pearl of great price...”

Liberator,” Cally said flatly.

“Oh, yes. Liberator.”

Cally could see her teleport bracelet on the table near Servalan. “You will not be able to get on board. No-one will teleport you, and I will not help you.”

“There are other more conventional means, my dear. It should be easy enough to board your ship when it’s empty. Or if it’s only cowardly little Vila left there.” Servalan put a finger to her cheek. “I wonder who will be the first to come for you?” She stood, smoothing the silken fabric of her dress over her hips, and went to a window. “Why, yes. Avon, I rather think...”

***

“—Cally out.”

Vila wondered what to do now. Cally had said he could start worrying after an hour, but he had already been worried before she left. And she could hardly expect him to leave the flight deck unattended, could she? He pressed the intercom buttons for the rest of the crew’s cabins.

“Avon, Tarrant, Dayna. Wake up.”

“Vila, this had better be good,” Avon replied, sounding very irritated. “What’s going on?”

“Cally’s on a planet and I’m in the teleport bay, and someone really ought to be on the flight deck, but I have checked, there aren’t any ships in the area, and—”

“Shut up, Vila. And wait there.”

Vila sighed and sunk his head in his hands. He couldn’t see what else he could have done. But then, his best was never good enough. He tried to call Cally again, but there was no answer.

It did not take the others long to turn up. Avon was as well-groomed as always and fully-dressed in his black leather complete with boots—hard to catch Avon on the hop—but Tarrant’s hair was standing up in tufts and he was still buttoning up his jacket, and Dayna was yawning and rubbing her face resentfully.

“All right, Vila,” Avon said, leaning intimidatingly over the thief. “Just why are we orbiting this planet?”

“It’s Morganis 3 and Cally picked up an Auron distress beacon here.”

“And you didn’t see fit to inform anyone that you were changing course?”

“Well, I tried, but Cally didn’t want...well, I think she thought you wouldn’t let her check it out, I mean you didn’t want to last time, and anyway we weren’t going anywhere, were we?” Vila looked at Avon hopefully. “I tried to talk her out of it, but she had to really, didn’t she? I mean—”

“How long has she been down there?”

“Oh, only about ten minutes. I called you all straight away.”

Avon looked at Vila expressionlessly until he dropped his eyes. “All right,” he said crisply, “Tarrant, get to the flight deck. Dayna, you’re coming with me. Vila, you remain here. If you don’t hear from either of us in an hour, one of you can come after us, but whatever happens, one of you remains here on board—” he paused and added sardonically, “—and I think we can all guess who that will be.” He turned to Dayna. “Get kitted up.”

Dayna grinned at Vila’s discomfort. “I’ll get some of the stuff I’ve been working on.”

They were soon back, Dayna armed to the teeth—literally, Vila suspected—and eager for action. After Vila had teleported them both, he turned to Orac. “Well, you tell me what I could have done better.”

“Starting from when? Your early school days? Your first attempts at crime? Your arrests and pleas in court? Your failure to accept re-grading? It is difficult to choose from such a wide—”

“Forget it, plastic-brain. Sorry I asked.”

***

Avon and Dayna looked about themselves. Avon’s attention was caught by the castle, whereas Dayna looked longingly at the trees, remembering her carefree days on Sarran and enjoying the green smells of nature and the feel of the breeze teasing at her hair.

“Want me to check the perimeter?” she asked hopefully.

“This is where Cally came down, and it appears to be the only entrance. However you may find something. All right, but stay in touch.”

Dayna nodded and loped off.

Avon approached the open door cautiously. He paused just outside and called Vila. “Vila? Are you awake?”

“No, I’m fast asleep and having a nightmare with you in it,” came the resentful answer.

Avon smiled, amused, and went inside. He looked about the cool, dim hall and called Vila again. This time there was no response from him, nor from Dayna. Just as he thought. He went back outside. “Vila? Dayna?”

“Yes, I’m still here,” Vila said.

“What is it?” Dayna sounded breathless. “Listen, I think I saw someone just in front.”

“The building is shielded, so I shall be out of contact once I’m inside. Vila, one hour and stay alert. Dayna, investigate, but keep in touch with Vila.”

Avon went back inside. He considered the stairs and the doors to either side. The beacon was doubtless up in the central tower—although its position would make no difference, human and probably Auron nature would ensure it was placed at the highest point. As he started up the stairs, he heard a voice behind him.

“Avon.”

He stopped, shocked, recognising the voice, and turned around. It was his half-brother, Cambel Bryn, standing there in the hall below him, his blond hair outlined in the light from outside. So many memories—their fights which always ended in a friendly truce of sleepy conversation in their bedroom every night, deciding as teenagers to call each other by their last names like the tough adults on vidcasts, their rivalry at school, how much—how much he had missed Bryn though he had tried to deny it.

“Bryn?” Stunned, Avon came slowly back down the stairs.

“I hoped you’d come, Avon.” Bryn stepped forward, his head tilted in that old familiar way. “I knew you had an Auron on that ship with you, and she’d pick up that signal.”

“What are you doing here?”

“My ship crashed.”

“What ship?” Avon forced himself to be suspicious. If it really was Bryn, he must be a prisoner, under some sort of duress. “Explain.” He was close enough now to see Bryn’s face fall.

“Don’t be like that, Avon. Not with me.”

Avon’s eyes narrowed. It was Bryn in every respect, except that the grey eyes did not quite meet his, were not quite in focus. Avon put out his hand, hesitated, then attempted to grab the man by the shoulder. His hand passed through empty air. Avon gasped and stepped back, both disappointed and relieved—if Bryn was not here, perhaps he was safe. “You’re a hologram.”

“It’s been so long, Avon.”

Ignoring this non-sequitur, Avon considered the image. It was clever, not just in its imitation of life, but its adaptation to the light source behind it, right up to the casting of an apparent shadow on the floor, but not, he noted, on himself. The programming must be brilliant to simulate that and the almost perfect reaction the eyes and face had to his movement. He held up a finger. “Watch this.” He described a circle in the air, followed by a square. The eyes followed obediently. Avon had heard that the entertainment industry had been working on something like this, but not that they had got this far with it. Where was the source? He stooped and picked up some of the dry leaves on the floor, crushed them in his hand, and threw them up. Ah, there was the beam, coming from the wall there. Avon went over and examined the tiny metal device embedded in the stone. Although he knew the hologram was part of a trap for him, such a wonderful invention could not be passed up. He could doubtless improve the design and use it to his advantage in future. He took out a probe and carefully extracted the small emitter.

“Oh, how sadly predictable you are, Avon.” The voice behind him no longer sounded like Bryn. “I am disappointed.”

As he fell, overcome by the gas hissing from the hole he had left in the wall, he realised that although the voice was still Bryn’s, the languor and irony were those of Servalan.

 

When he opened his eyes, Servalan was standing in front of him, smiling smugly, arms crossed. “You see, Cally? All you need to do to catch a wizard is to cast a spell better than one of his.”

Avon turned to see Cally in the chair to his left. “Are you all right?” he asked.

She nodded gravely. “So far.”

Servalan turned and glided towards the door. “Now let’s see how our primitive young hunter does.”

***

Dayna ran towards the next turret where she had seen a flash of movement as someone disappeared around it. She flattened herself against the sun-warmed stone and peered around. It was Servalan; she would know that lithe walk and close-cropped black hair anywhere. As usual, the woman was dressed as if for the opera, and was wearing ridiculously high heels. In her excitement, Dayna almost forgot Avon’s order. She said hurriedly into her bracelet communicator, “Avon, Vila. Servalan’s down here. Warn Tarrant and the others too if they call in. I’m going after her,” and did not bother to wait for an answer. She bared her teeth and aimed her gun, tightening her finger on the trigger, then changed her mind. She wanted Servalan to know who was killing her. She stepped out of cover, gun still ready.

“Servalan!” she called.

Servalan turned regally. “Yes? Oh, it’s the, uh, Mellanby chit, isn’t it?” Even though she had almost reached the far end of the castle wall, her voice carried perfectly.

“The name is Dayna. And my father’s name was Hal. Remember him?” Dayna fired. The bright beam of her Liberator weapon hit Servalan in the centre of the chest, and she staggered, then turned and started to run clumsily in her impractical shoes and clinging black silk towards the trees. Damn, thought Dayna, at that distance I just scorched the bitch. She took off in pursuit, her face exultant and her pulse racing at the thrill of the chase. Gaining ground, she fired again, but Servalan dodged behind a tree, though Dayna was certain she had hit her. Servalan’s face appeared briefly but was gone as Dayna fired. Furious, she set her gun to maximum and blasted at the tree in an attempt to panic Servalan into running, sending bits of wood flying.

“Why, Dayna. You really must not let your temper get the better of you.”

Dayna gritted her teeth and began to circle around Servalan’s position. The cow would have to make a run for it or be outflanked. Dayna removed a heat-seeking projectile from a pouch on her belt and fitted it into its miniature launcher, keeping her eyes on Servalan’s tree. There—she had bolted. Dayna fired, there was a bang and a flash, and Servalan fell, then sat up, staring in almost comical surprise at the smoking stump of her left arm. The grin disappeared from Dayna’s face as Servalan got up and brushed the leaves from herself with her remaining arm.

“You are beginning to annoy me now. You have quite spoiled the look of this outfit.”

Dayna blinked. Perhaps the damned woman was in shock. She primed and threw a grenade, but amazingly, Servalan’s one hand snapped out, caught it, and returned it. Dayna threw herself flat as a tree behind her disintegrated. From her prone position, she fired her gun again, hitting her unbearably smug-looking prey in the décolletage. Servalan staggered back, and Dayna fired again and again. Servalan fell against the tree behind her and slid to the ground, managing to make even that look graceful.

“You are persistent, aren’t you,” she said. “Has anyone told you it’s not your most attractive quality?”

Dayna got up and walked towards her. This was not working out how she had imagined it so often. Servalan should be afraid, begging for her life. Dayna stopped in front of her. “You’re helpless, just like my father was. How does it feel?”

“I know you were brought up in social isolation, dear, but someone should have told you by now that spitting during conversation is not considered polite.” Servalan delicately wiped her cheek with her little finger.

Dayna snarled and stepped forward. Servalan kicked out suddenly, knocking Dayna’s feet out from under her, and rose so fast she almost blurred, snatched Dayna’s gun, threw it aside, and grabbed her by the throat, all before the girl could react. Dayna choked and pulled ineffectually at Servalan’s fingers, then fumbled at her belt.

“I wouldn’t. All I have to do is increase the pressure just a little.” Servalan demonstrated and Dayna saw spots in front of her eyes. She sagged and Servalan dropped her, bent over, and whipped her weapons belt off.

Dayna finally figured it out. “You—you’re an android,” she croaked, “like that Vinni.”

“Yes, I am. And a most attractive one too,” ‘Servalan purred, and hit her efficiently and effectively over the head.

 

Dayna came around strapped to a chair to see two Servalans sitting across from her, one somewhat battered, and the other as well-groomed as ever.

“You caused a lot of damage to a very expensive item,” the original said. “I gave a lot of thought to your prey. Something from Sarran? Something rare, perhaps a Caldonian tiger? But then I thought of the perfect answer.” She smiled. “Perfect in every way.”

“You should be flattered, Dayna,” Avon’s voice said to her left. “She spent a lot of money to trap you.”

Dayna turned to see Avon looking as cool as ever, and Cally beyond him, looking rather anxious.

“Oh, I don’t knew,” Servalan said. “I shall have it repaired. I’m sure it will come in useful and it is such a beautiful thing.” She stroked the android’s cheek, and they smiled identical smiles.

You had Vinni made?” Dayna asked.

“Yes, and I was rather annoyed about his early demise. He was very advanced. He thought he was human, and in fact he could perform all the natural functions—” Servalan lowered her lashes at Avon, “—most adequately. A great pity he was destroyed after such a short period of...use.” Servalan sighed, then shrugged and picked up a glass of red wine. “Refreshments, anyone? But no, I see you are somewhat tied up.” She sipped delicately. “And now we wait for Tarrant. Or does anyone think Vila is more likely? No, I rather thought not.”

***

“—I’m going after her.”

Servalan! So it was a trap. Vila called Tarrant on the flight deck.

“Tarrant? Dayna said Servalan’s down there, and Avon and Cally are in that castle and I can’t get them ‘cause it’s shielded. I hope you’re looking out for pursuit ships.”

“I know my job, Vila. You keep to yours, and stay awake.”

Vila rolled his eyes. “Look, do we still wait an hour before doing something?”

“We? Are you volunteering to come down with me?” Tarrant sounded amused.

“Avon said one of us had to stay on board.”

“Oh, of course he did, Vila,” Tarrant said gravely. “All right, let’s wait a few minutes and see if Dayna calls back. You never know, she might succeed in bagging Servalan.”

Vila was struck by a sudden image of Servalan’s head mounted on a flight deck wall, and shuddered. Her glassy eyes would probably follow him around the room and give him nightmares. He blinked and shook his head. Concentrate, Vila. If Tarrant went down to the planet, he’d be left alone on the Liberator. And Servalan would have ships hidden somewhere in the area—what if she attacked then? And what if he had to try to rescue the others? Well, he had done before, but not all at the same time as dodging plasma bolts and trying to shoot back all by himself. Pity there was no-one else...

But then he remembered Blake had counted Zen as a crewmember right from the start. That made Orac one as well, and fair enough too. Despite what Avon said, Vila thought of them both as living beings, even though Zen never called himself ‘I’ and needed orders to act on. Orac didn’t, but according to Avon, he did have to obey an outright order. Hmm. With Orac to help, it might be possible to beat off an attack, at least until the force wall and neutron blasters drained the energy banks. Vila sighed. They all sneered at him for being a coward, but he hadn’t run back there at Ultraworld. And he wouldn’t this time, not with the others down there. Still, it didn’t stop him wishing he could get out of there, and as fast as possible.

Vila sat up straight and grinned. That was it! All he needed now was—

Tarrant interrupted his thoughts. “Vila, has Dayna called back yet?”

“No, but I’ll try to get her.” He flipped the bracelet circuit open. “Liberator to Dayna. Respond please.” Nothing. “Liberator to anyone?” Still nothing. “No-one’s answering, Tarrant.”

“All right. I’ll come through.”

When Tarrant appeared, he was carrying a gun and wearing a bracelet. “Staying up here waiting for something to happen is only wasting time,” he said, going to the teleport bay. “Put me down in the same place as the others.” He paused and looked at Vila suspiciously. “You don’t seem that worried. I thought you’d be having a fit of nerves by now.”

“I’ve been worried all along. After a while I get worry-overload.”

Tarrant grinned.

“Good luck,” Vila teleported him.

His explanation had some truth—you can only keep up a decent level of fear for a limited time—but he had always felt calmer when he had something challenging to do. He routed the teleport communications to the flight deck and, picking up Orac, headed there. Just as well Orac could operate the teleport from anywhere in the ship as he’d shown at Space City. “All right, listen, Orac,” he said, tying the computer securely to the table. “If a Liberator crew member, and only a Liberator crew member, calls for teleport, bring them up immediately. If anyone else appears, send them straight back. Now is that clear?”

“Your orders are surprisingly specific.”

So far, so good. Now for the rest. Vila would have to be very careful as Orac was a slippery bastard. Still, it helped if he thought of the conditions and matching orders as being like a complex lock, where everything had to be done in the right sequence or it would blow up in your face. “Uh, right. Now listen, Orac and Zen...”

***

Tarrant crouched and turned in a circle, gun in hand. Everything was quiet; there was no-one in sight. He paused, and when nothing happened, advanced on the castle.

“Well, well. If it isn’t Poodle-faker Tarrant.” A strongly-built man with thin light hair stood in the entrance, arms folded. Bimboy Bulpin, the bane of his existence at Space Fleet Academy. “Drop your gun, Poodle. I’m not armed.”

Tarrant flashed his teeth. “Oh, no. I don’t think so.”

“Poodle, I am disappointed. What happened to your sense of fair play? I’m alone. I promise you” Bulpin bent down and picked up two sets of boxing gloves. “No guns for us, just fists like always.”

Like always. The blood rushed to Tarrant’s head and he tossed his gun to one side.

“I enjoyed wiping the floor with you back at SFA, Poodle. I’ve missed it. I’m looking forward to this. A little class reunion. A spot of nostalgia.”

It had been Bulpin who had called Tarrant ‘Poodle-faker’, and that and the shorter ‘Poodle’ had stuck with him for his whole time at SFA. Infuriated, Tarrant had retaliated with ‘Bimboy’ and made a habit of ostentatiously correcting the much slower Bulpin in class. Bulpin had however proved less slow with his fists out of class, and the then thin and gawky Tarrant had always got the worst of it. He had joined the boxing club to improve his physique and technique, but Bulpin soon followed, and continued to beat him in both senses.

“You’d have to have more than one class reunion then,” Tarrant said, “since you failed and had to stay for another year.”

Bulpin’s grin turned to a sneer. “You’ve no reason to be proud, Poodle-faker. You couldn’t handle life in the Fleet. Too tough for you, wasn’t it? You deserted. You ran.” “One-on-one, traitor?”

Tarrant was burning with anger. “You’re on.” He caught the gloves Bulpin threw to him and put them on. “SFA rules?”

“But of course.”

Bulpin came out onto the grass. He had gone softer round the middle but still looked strong. However, Tarrant had filled out since those days and thought he had a good chance, and he knew he had a longer reach. Bulpin hit his gloved fists together and smiled. Tarrant went into a defensive crouch with his gloves raised, as he had always done. When Bulpin came in with his first blow, Tarrant dodged and landed one of his own.

Bulpin winced. “Been practising, eh?” He feinted with his right and brought his left in hard to get Tarrant above the eye.

Tarrant retreated, shaking his head to clear it, then pressed in again with a furious attack, wanting to wipe the smug look off Bulpin’s face. He was landing more blows than in the past—Bimboy was slower now—and drew blood, a lot of it, when he smashed Bulpin’s nose with a very satisfying crunch. He was beginning to think he could take the heavier man, when Bulpin’s glove seemed to become a lump of concrete which lifted him off his feet with the impact. Dazed, he lay there, trying to feel his jaw through the leather of his own glove, sure it was broken.

“Nice little device, that,” Bulpin said, thunking one fist into the other hand. “Push this little button in the glove and a current goes through this gel-stuff and hardens it. I must compliment Servalan’s people.”

“Ch-cheat,” Tarrant managed to get out.

Bulpin raised his eyebrows. “Me a cheat? A traitor expects me to play by the rules? Oh, dear, did I lie to you, Poodle?” He leant over. “Come on, you deserted.” His fist came down.

 

The first thing Tarrant tried to do when he came around was to feel his jaw, but found his hands were strapped to the arms of his chair. He worked his jaw experimentally.

“I got a medic to run a regenerator over that.” Servalan was sitting back in her chair over by a bank of screens and controls, twirling an empty wine glass. She lowered her eyelashes. “You’re such a pretty boy, I’d like you to look your best for the trial. How like your brother you are, dear. You couldn’t resist a challenge to your honour, could you? I considered offering my favours to the winner of the, ah, joust, but really, Trooper Bulpin is not my type.”

Furious, Tarrant looked away. The chair to his right was empty. What did she expect—a one-man rescue mission from Vila? He was probably quaking in his lace-up shoes right now. To the left Dayna fumed, Avon brooded, and Cally looked resigned. He felt stupid, but they hadn’t done any better then him, had they?

Servalan lifted a communicator to her lips. “Pursuit squadron one, you may move in now. Inform me when you have taken possession. Oh and keep the fool on board alive if you can. He does complete the set.” She smiled at her prisoners. “I have ships on one of the moons. Very lax of you not to check; it really is a very old trick. They should be engaging the Liberator very shortly.”

Dayna pulled a face. “And Vila should be surrendering very shortly,” she muttered.

“This is Leader One,” the voice sounded indignant. “He’s firing back.”

“Then return fire,” Servalan snapped.

“You wanted the ship undamaged.”

“Avoid hitting anything vital. Vila Restal is a coward. He’ll cave.”

“He has a force-wall up.”

Servalan began to look irritated. “Keep firing. He’ll won’t be able to lower it to fire back.”

“We just lost a ship.”

“Good for Vila!” Tarrant said, surprised.

“He did handle the neutron blasters for two years, and very well too,” Avon said dryly.

“Squadron two, intercept and engage. Keep up a continuous barrage.”

“Acknowledged, Madam President. Coming in now. Commencing to fire.”

“This is Leader One. Another ship gone. I don’t see when he had time to lower that wall.”

Dayna blinked and Avon raised his eyebrows.

“He must have lightning reflexes,” Tarrant said.

“Yes,” Avon said, looking puzzled, “but at this rate he’ll drain the energy banks in no time.”

“Leader Two. One ship down.”

“Yesss!” Dayna forgot her contempt for Vila.

Vila!” Cally looked surprised. Following her shocked gaze, the others could see Vila on one of the monitor screens, standing on the grass outside, looking expectantly up at the sky.

Avon looked savage. “If Servalan doesn’t kill the idiot, I shall.”

From the sounds and reports coming in from Servalan’s ships, the Liberator continued to fire for a few seconds, then several voices shouted at once.

“It’s gone!”

“The Liberator’s disappeared!”

“What happened to—”

Servalan leant forward. “Keep firing, you fools. He must have put a detector shield up.”

“No, Madam President.” Leader One sounded shaken. “One of our shots went right through where the Liberator was and took out one of our own ships. And another of ours...just disappeared. There’s...nothing.”

Servalan turned to Avon. “What did Vila do?” she demanded.

“I have no idea.” Avon looked stunned.

On screen, Vila stopped looking up, shrugged as if a little disappointed, and headed for the entrance. On an adjacent monitor, they could all see him appear in the hall. He looked up the stairs, then began to examine the doors on either side. Avon saw that one now had the sign ‘Vault’ on it; it was deeper-set than the others, so there must have been a false façade covering it when he had been down there. Vila stopped at the door, cocked his head, then continued to the next one. When he had checked them all, he looked up the stairs again, his face intent as if listening.

Cally closed her eyes.

“He won’t be able to hear you any more than the others did,” Servalan said, amused. “I got a lot of very interesting items from your home planet. No-one else seemed to want to claim them. This room is completely shielded.”

Vila turned and went back to the vault door.

“Oh, Vila,” Cally said sadly.

“An irresistible temptation, one for each of you.” Servalan smiled smugly. “And so pitifully obvious. My psychostrategists will be commended.”

Avon frowned. He knew Vila well enough to know that wealth was not what drove him, and in any case, there was plenty on the Liberator...wherever that was. No, it was approval for his cleverness, that and his ridiculous dreams of domestic bliss.

Vila made short work of the lock and went in. As the door closed behind him, another door slammed down from above, hiding it.

“Not even Vila can get through a herculaneum-core door with no lock. The only way he gets out is if I operate it from here. He is trapped. He may even be, as I believe they say, toast. I rather hope so. I wanted the Liberator.”

---

Vila looked at the stairs. Cally had said the beacon was up there, but that didn’t mean she still was. Perhaps she was now locked up behind one of these doors with the others. He could feel something at the edge of his awareness. Was it Cally trying to contact him? He went to each door in turn, puzzled, trying to work it out. He stopped at the one labelled ‘Vault’, a steel-banded wooden door set further back than the others—old habits died hard. Not much point though, the place had been abandoned centuries ago so there wouldn’t be anything left in it. And even if there was, getting Cally and Avon and the others back was much more important; what was the point in being rich and friendless? If he’d wanted that, he’d have taken the Liberator and run, not just this time but long ago. Vila was about to walk on, when he realised that strange yet oddly familiar touch on his mind was a little stronger. And, unlike the others, the door had a new state-of-the-art lock like those he had opened in Central Control; there had to be a good reason for that. The others must be there. Still, it was a bit obvious, could be a trap, better not leap to conclusions too quickly. He checked the other doors, finally stopping at the foot of the stairs. He looked up, trying to hear something, hoping to ‘hear’ Cally. Nothing. He sighed and went back to the vault door and got out his tools. A trap it might be, but it was the most likely choice.

Vila checked the other side of the door before he let it close behind him—he had heard of people being locked in bank vaults and how humiliating would that be?—but it looked easy enough to open again. The solid thunk a few seconds afterwards made him jump though. What the hell was that? He supposed he’d find out soon enough. Cautiously, he went down the stairs, glad of the few faint bulbs still working in the ceiling, until he reached a thick solid-herculaneum door. The lock was a complex one with Kleiber fastenings on the other side, but no problem, even in the dim light. Heart pounding, Vila put his lockpicks away and pulled at the door. Warm golden light spilled through the narrow opening. Vila took his handgun off his belt, dropped to all fours, and cautiously put his head slowly round the door.

He was met by a blaze of light, reflected from gold. Gold bars, statues, necklaces, and rings, were scattered across the floor surrounding an enormous pile of coins. He blinked. Surely that was a solid gold wash-basin over there; perhaps Servalan was remodelling the presidential palace. Vila couldn’t help but wonder if there was a matching toilet seat. He put his head further round the door, but there was no sign of Cally or the others. He stood up, put his gun away, and was about to leave when it occurred to him that a small keepsake to add to the select collection of objets d’art in his cabin wouldn’t go amiss. He went into the vault, and looked around. It was circular, obviously in one of the four towers. In fact it was one of the towers, as he saw when he looked up into gloom. It must be sealed at the top; the only way out would be back the way he’d come in.

The feeling that something or someone was here was even stronger. Vila, standing alone amid glittering riches, was puzzled. He shrugged, feeling guilty that he had even thought of wasting time getting something for himself when his crewmates were in danger, and turned to go. As he stepped over the scattered piles of gold on the way out however, a small item caught his eye. Cally would like that, he thought, and stooped to pick it up. He held it in his hand, turning it in the light. Appropriate in a way. He hoped he had the chance to give it to her. He put it in his pocket.

“Who’s there?”

Vila whipped around and stared in horror as the pile of coins began to move. Realising they were the golden scales of something huge, he yelped and stepped back, tripped, and landed hard on his backside.

“Who are you?”

“Oh, ah, I’m Vila Restal, just a harmless thief.” Shaking with fear, he started to edge backwards.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing, nothing, just looking for my friends.”

“You took something.”

“Only one small thing, and not even for me.”

A huge head, larger than Vila was, rose slowly. Two jade green eyes the size of his face blinked at him, the slit pupils widening. Vila felt faint. He recognised the creature, and at the same time saw the dark scorch marks on the wall.

It was a dragon.

He put his hands over his eyes, held his breath, and waited for the flames to hit. When they didn’t, he peeped between two fingers and saw the dragon’s head was tilted on one side in what looked like puzzlement. He slowly lowered his hands.

“You can understand me, Vila-Restal-just-a-harmless-thief.”

“Well, ’course I can. You speak Terr—” Vila stopped, realising that the voice had been in his head.

“You’re a very unusual human. There can’t be many of you left who can hear us and speak to us. Do you know what I am, Vila-Restal-just-a-harmless-thief?”

“Um, a dragon?”

“It was so long ago, I thought we would have been forgotten.”

His interest conquering his fear, Vila jumped up, rubbing his sore bottom. Gold bars had their charm, but they were not pleasant to land on. “Oh, no, not forgotten at all. You’re in all the best stories and legends.” He added hopefully, “I’ve always rather liked dragons.”

“Legends? That’s what we are now? Just legends?” The dragon sounded amused.

“Well, to tell you the truth, I always wondered if dragons were real. You know, scaly aliens. After all, you’re in lots of cultures—Welsh dragons, English, Chinese ones. That feathered serpent the Aztecs worshiped—”

“Quetzalcoatl.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s the one. So many old stories all round Earth have fire-breathing things flying around in the air, there had to be something in it.”

“You’re very perspicacious. Even your name is better than most human names. It’s longer than a mere heart-beat and tells something of who you are, although it doesn’t seem quite enough, Vila-Restal-just-a-harmless-thief.”

“Oh? Really? Anyway, it’s just Vila. Everyone calls me Vila.”

“Don’t you find that insulting?”

Vila blinked, puzzled. “No, it’s friendly.” And safer than being Restal, the name on all the wanted posters. Well, it was once. “What’s your name then?”

“I’m still quite young, so my name is still growing like yours is, probably,” the dragon said apologetically, “but it’s Curious one who flies into trouble, thinks of things which are not, has insufficient respect for her elders, wants more knowledge than her head can hold, prefers exploration and adventure to a civilised life, yearns to—”

“Oh, that’s far too long! I’d never remember all that, though you sound like a very nice dragon and fun to know. I’ll just call you Curious.”

The dragon’s green eyes narrowed.

“Look, it’s not a insult, not to us,” Vila said quickly, alarmed. “We often call our friends by short names. One of my old friends even called me Vil.” He recalled however that an attempt to call Avon ‘Ave’ had been ill-received and never repeated.

“Friends?” The touch of Curious’s thought on Vila’s mind felt sad and wistful. “I’ve been alone for so long. Years with no-one to talk to or to understand me. Missing everyone I knew and...” Curious stopped. “What you said just then, did you mean that? Would you really be my friend?”

Vila was touched. “Yes, I would,” he took a step forward, “and actually I know just how you feel.”

Curious lowered her head and butted him gently in the chest with her snout. Vila put his hand on her nose above her wide nostrils, and on impulse, laid his cheek too on her warm dry scales. He revelled in the feeling of delight and affection that flooded his mind, and Curious sighed out a small cloud of warm air, smelling of cinnamon, roast meat and just a hint of sulphur.

“Not exactly minty-fresh,” Vila said, not really minding. Curious laid her head on the floor, and Vila cleared a space and sat down cross-legged in front of her, close enough to touch her. “So how come I can understand you?”

“You’re dragon-touched of course. At least, one of your ancestors was, and you’ve inherited it.”

“Eh?”

“I’m not sure you’d understand.” Vila felt the touch on his mind go deeper. “Ah, yes, you do know a little. We changed the DNA of some humans long ago so they could communicate, and you’re descended from one.”

“So I’m part alien?” Vila was intrigued, though he could well imagine how the others would take it. “But if you’ve been a prisoner for centuries, why didn’t you dragon-touch some other humans so you could talk to them?”

“Only the elders know how to do that. And the ones who first captured me weren’t human anyway. They kept me in a dark hole and fed me on members of their own race. I can tell you don’t like that, but they didn’t even try to talk to me, just made a lot of unpleasant noise, and really, I was very hungry.”

“A punishment then,” Vila said. “Behave or you’ll get fed to the monster.” He began to wonder what Curious lived on now. He decided he preferred not to think about it and hoped he hadn’t smelled anyone he knew on her breath.

“And then not long ago, a female came with some other humans and some not quite humans which don’t taste at all good, and brought me here. So I suppose I’m still a punishment.”

Ah, Vila thought, food in black-uniforms then. It was easy to fall out with Servalan. He hoped Curious wasn’t hungry now, but didn’t like to ask.

“I wanted to travel and meet interesting aliens,” Curious went on, “but I don’t understand the people in this galaxy, Vila-Restal-just-a-harmless-thief.”

“I don’t always either,” Vila said sadly. “And it’s just Vila.”

“Sorry, Vila then. But I do like that ‘harmless’ part of your name. You must be a very great person, never to have hurt anyone.”

“Well, I don’t know if that’s quite true, but I never meant to.” Vila felt uncomfortable that he had inadvertently claimed so much for himself, and changed the subject. “Why did you come to Earth anyway? To have fun scaring the hell out of the primitive life-forms? Buzzing people, burning barns and villages, terrifying the peasants?”

“Oh, I wasn’t born then, that was so long ago. No-one’s left alive from that time. But I’ve shared the passed-down memories of the ones who did go. We were fascinated by the philosophy of humans, and I still am. We’ve got no concept of religion or the afterlife, though the idea of a creator has a lot of logic to it. We wanted to learn. So we studied Confucius, the Christians, Buddhism, Islam, the Aztecs, so many different ideas. It wasn’t our fault that a lot of humans were afraid of us and attacked us.”

“All those knights in shining armour,” Vila grinned. “Tinned meat. Get what you came for then?”

“We just got confused. Some humans believed that all living creatures have souls. Others that only humans do. Yet others that only their sort of human does. So we still argue about it. There seems to be a general consensus that there really is an afterlife, as it’s very consistently described across all the religious groups.”

“There’s a river, right? Always water to cross, and people you love waiting for you on the other side.” Vila hoped it was true. “Religion’s banned now, but some people do still believe. And people who are dying do see that sort of thing.”

“You believe in it then?”

“I think—well, I think there’s something. I mean, scientists say I’m just a way to pass on genes. But there’s more to me than that, and I want a lot more than that, like belonging and mattering and having someone. And I feel like I’ll live for ever. Well, everyone does. So maybe that means we will, but somewhere else. You know, eternity.” Vila shrugged and looked down at his hands.

“Please go on,” Curious said. “I didn’t realise you were a philosopher.”

“Me?” Vila was startled. “You’ve got the wrong person. A flea on the edge of life, that’s me.”

“At least you have a soul.”

“Well, so do you!”

“Why are you so sure?”

“I think that anyone that can love and grieve and wants more than food and safety and a dip in the gene pool has a soul. And that means most animals have one, ‘cause they can pine away for a lost mate or friend. That’s why I don’t eat them.” Vila suddenly remembered Curious’s recent diet. “Not that I mean to criticise your way of life, Curious, I mean that’s just me. No offence intended.”

Curious looked at Vila for so long, he became worried that she was angry. Finally she said, “It’s not surprising you’re named ‘harmless’. Meat is what we eat though. But I do draw the line at eating anything I can talk to.”

Vila sagged with relief.

“And the others at home would enjoy for your argument about souls.”

“Even if you could get out, I suppose you’ve lost your spaceship.”

“Spaceship? Oh, we don’t use anything that slow. We just ‘fly between’.”

“Eh? Fly between?”

“Yes, between reality and the under and over, slip between and through and you can be anywhere you want to go.”

“Ah,” Vila said, “like turning a corner that isn’t there.” That was how he thought of how he ‘went away’ and hid in his mind, his way of escaping the Federation’s attempts at readjustment. He felt Curious touch his thoughts more deeply.

“Memory immersion. You shouldn’t be able to do that,” she said, surprised. “not without training.”

Vila shrugged. He’d learned to do it when he was three, in his desperation to escape the terror of being locked up in the cupboard by his mother’s boyfriend, and wasn’t sure exactly how he did it. “So why haven’t you just ‘slipped’ away then?” he asked. “If it’s that easy.”

“I have to fly.” Curious closed her eyes in pain and longing. “And I can’t even open my wings here.”

“Oh, you need a sort of run-up then.” Vila felt guilty that he could get out, but Curious would have to stay. Not even her nose would fit through the door. He felt loath to leave her. “And what’s with the gold? Just part of the legend? I mean, I can’t quite see you banking it.” He felt Curious look in his mind again, and her total puzzlement at what she found.

“No, we like its song.”

“Its song?”

“We hear the atoms and molecules sing when we do, every element with its different song. Gold’s got the most beautiful, if the shape’s right.” Curious lifted her head and nudged at Vila’s pocket. “You took some. Why? To lock it in a dark room like you said?”

“To give to someone.” Vila brought out the piece he had taken for Cally.

Curious snorted in derision, the heat making Vila jump. “It’s not even symmetrical. It would sound terrible.”

“It’s beautiful to look at.” Vila put it away and stood up. Thinking of Cally reminded him that he had to leave to look for her and the others. “Curious,” he said hesitantly. “I have to go.”

“I know. I saw it in your head. You’re looking for your friends.” Curious sounded wistful.

Vila bit his lip. “Not friends like you are. Well, Cally is when she’s not annoyed with me, and sometimes I think Avon could be. Mostly not. But I have to find them anyway.”

“Yes, because they came to find you when you were lost. I saw it in your head.”

Vila was surprised; they had, hadn’t they, back on Keezarn? Still, leaving Curious alone and lonely would be hard. Perhaps Dayna could blow the top off the tower to let her...no, wait!

“Curious? You said you’ve only been here a few months, and this place is about three hundred years old. So how did they get you in here?”

“They had me in a sort of field and dropped me in through the top, then closed it. They open it a little way to drop food in.”

Vila didn’t want to think about the food, particularly any recent meals. “Maybe I can get it to open all the way. Curious, I’m a thief, that’s what I do. Can you get me up there?”

“Stand on my head.”

“I’ll fall off!”

“I’ll hold you.”

Gingerly, Vila climbed onto the dragon’s flat head, and crouched nervously on all fours. He closed his eyes as Curious uncoiled, then felt long fingers go right around his body, holding him firmly in place. He opened his eyes and saw that she had used one of her forearms, then squeezed them shut again as he was lifted so fast he could feel the rush of displaced air.

“You’re there. You can stand up now.”

Shakily, Vila got to his feet, still held firmly in Curious’s webbed grasp, and got out a small torch. “Oh, right, an iris opening. I’ll have to trigger it from here.” He got out a laser cutter, then a probe, and for a short time forgot he was balanced on a carnivorous dragon’s head. “Here we go,” he said finally with satisfaction, and the iris opened to about a meter. “The main locking system’ll be outside. Push me up a bit.”

Curious lifted him in her hand, and Vila clambered out, turned to give her snout a reassuring pat, then ran to the battlements, climbed over and onto the flat roof of the main part of the castle. Yes, there it was, a very solid looking control box. The button on top was doubtless for, dare he think of it, feeding time. Vila ignored it and soon had the controls exposed. Another state-of-the-art lock to protect them. It amazed him that Servalan had gone to so much trouble and expense to capture five people who were no longer that serious about rebellion. Of course now she was president, she could probably really let herself go, but Vila wondered just how much common sense the woman had, and how long the Federation’s coffers would support such bizarre plans. He made the final connection and stood up to watch the iris open fully.

Curious eased herself out of the tower and onto the roof beside Vila, who stared in amazement as she spread her vast wings. Her head and body glittered gold in the sunlight, but her underside was pearly-white, and her wings were iridescent, shot through with gold, silver, blue, purple and green. She lifted her head and sang with her mind, and through his telepathic connection to her, Vila heard the world sing back.

Curious lowered her head, and stretched it out in front of Vila. “Fly with me, Vila Restal, harmless thief, thinker, and dragon-friend.”

Vila was about to repeat that he was just Vila, then realised that she had changed his name. He also had the definite feeling that very few humans had ever been offered a dragon-flight, and that he should acknowledge the occasion. “I’m honoured, Curious, golden-scales, atom-singer, and friend of Vila the thief,” he said, formally bowing, and felt her answering delight.

“I shall add that to my name,” she said.

Not at all afraid, Vila climbed onto her neck and held on, and with a whump-whump of her wings, Curious rose and soared into the sky. Sharing her ecstasy, Vila let go and spread his arms like wings too, shouting with joy as they banked and turned far above the castle and the woods. And when Curious sang again, a part of Vila sang with her, glorying in freedom and flight and beauty and the song of the universe.

He was not sure how long they flew like that, linked in rapture, but as they passed the central tower of the castle, the sight of a figure at a window brought him back to reality.

“Hey, that’s Servalan! My friends might be in there too!”

Curious wheeled and came back in over the castle. Troopers poured out onto the roof and while some lifted their weapons, others wavered and backed away in fear. “Oh no, they’ve got guns, look out, Curious!” Vila cried, and watched in horror as she belched fire down on them. As the oily smoke dissipated, he could see rather more of the unmoving bodies than he wished to, and hid his face in Curious’s warm scales.

“Good and harmless Vila, those were your enemies. I think you must be a holy man.”

“Hardly,” Vila said, feeling sick. “Just take me to the tower.”

Curious alighted on the roof, on the other side from the smoking bodies, Vila was glad to note, and extended her length upwards so that they could look in the window.

 

Servalan stared in disbelief and ran to the window, leaning out. “The dragon’s loose. That bloody little Delta thief! Hanging’s too good for him!”

Avon tried to make sense of these words but failed.

Servalan snarled into her communicator, “Shoot them both down. Now!” Then she paled, gave an odd little yelp and ran back to the centre of the room where she stood wide-eyed with fear.

This was not a Servalan Avon knew. He put his head on one side and considered the phenomenon. Then he heard a whump whump whump, getting louder as it approached, then a roar mixed with screams, then silence. Movement caught his eye and he turned to see a huge golden scaly head with green eyes appear at a window, together with two ludicrously small webbed hands. Avon observed this with a detached interest born of shock. A dragon? Surely not. Dragons did not exist. He closed his eyes briefly, but the beast was still there when he opened them, and patently real. It was the biggest alien he had ever seen, and judging by Servalan’s reaction to it, quite possibly the last.

Then Vila stepped through the window.

“Vila!” Cally said, delighted. “Now that is an even better entrance than on Keezarn.”

Vila’s grin widened and he bowed ironically. “Meet my friend Curious,” he said, putting his hand on the snout of the beast, who snorted gently and closed her huge eyes in obvious pleasure. “Curious, these are the people I was looking for, and that is Servalan.” Vila sauntered towards Servalan. “You wanted to turn me into roast Vila, didn’t you? That’s not very nice, Servalan. I have a different dish in mind—sautéed cervelles supreme.” He went over and leant casually against the wall. “All right, Curious.”

The alien breathed a gout of fire which stopped just short of Servalan, who whimpered, rolled her eyes up, and collapsed in a dead faint.

“Very nicely judged,” Vila said, “but I was hoping to scare her for a bit longer than that.” He noticed the android propped up on the other side of the room, and went to look at it. “Do I want to know about this?”

“No, but I want to know what you did with the Liberator,” Avon said savagely.

Vila’s face fell. “What, no thank you Vila, no well done Vila? Why am I not surprised, I ask myself.”

“Just get release us and explain. Preferably at the same time.”

There was an ominous rumble from the alien at the window.

“No, Curious, they are my friends, really. Well, all I’ve got anyway, except for you of course.” Vila sighed and walked behind the chairs and hit a button on each one, retracting the restraints of each. He went back to stand beside Curious as Avon and the others stood up, rubbing their arms. “Well, first of all—”

“First of all, I ordered you not to leave the ship.”

Vila looked nervous but defiant. “Well, if I hadn’t, you’d all be on your way back to Earth. And anyway, you didn’t say that, you said someone should stay on board. Orac did.”

“Orac,” Avon said evenly, “is hardly a person. It is a machine.”

“Not to me. Anyway, I ordered him to not let anyone but us back on, and help me fly the ship and shoot at anyone who attacked, then teleport me down in case I had to break in to rescue you lot, then take it somewhere safe. And very fast so no-one would follow.” Vila was regaining his confidence. “I remembered that button Jenna pushed that took you so far away it took months to come back and get me and Gan off Cygnus Alpha, so I thought it would be all right if Orac made Zen do it, just go a short way, only a few systems or so with no-one on board to mind the acceleration. Then Servalan couldn’t get the Liberator.”

“I see. And did this brilliant plan extend to some way of getting it back?” Avon asked coldly.

Vila gave him a reproachful look and pulled a sub-space communicator from his pocket.

“If a thought ever crossed your mind, you would realise the futility of using that in a shielded building,” Avon said with exaggerated patience. He flicked a switch on Servalan’s control panel, then raised an eyebrow at Vila.

Vila pulled a face and spoke into his communicator. “A flea is waiting to be picked up by a rat.”

“I happen to be busy investigating a binary star system.” Orac sounded annoyed.

“Oh, really? You’d better make it back fast if you want to meet a real dragon.”

“Dragons are mythical beasts.”

“Nope, they’re just from another galaxy. I’ve got one right here, but not for long. Better make it snappy.” Vila glanced up at his fellow crewmembers, sighed resignedly, and turned sadly and looked out the window, his arm on Curious’s nose. The dragon turned and snuffled at him.

“Well, I’m quite impressed,” Tarrant said. “And I’d like to know more about that button.”

I shall reserve my judgement until we’re all back on board, where Vila’s very first job will be to deactivate that button again.” As Vila had his back to him, Avon allowed himself an approving and rather fond smile.

***

As soon as they were teleported back to the Liberator, Vila left hurriedly, heading away from both the flight deck and the living quarters. Intrigued and sympathetic, Cally followed him. She now knew why that slight touch she had felt on her mind had been so familiar despite its strangeness: it had felt like Vila.

She found him in the observation room, standing at the floor-to-ceiling window which gave a direct view of the stars. Outside, the dragon matched orbit with them, floating effortlessly in vacuum. Perhaps it was the sunlight reflecting off its golden scales, but for a moment Cally thought that Vila’s eyes glowed the same gold. The dragon flew closer, and Vila leaned against the window, his hands pressed to it, his lips moving. The dragon’s nearside wing seemed to brush Vila’s hands, its eyes on his, then it swooped away, rippled and vanished.

Vila gasped as the alien presence left his mind. Cally felt it cut off too, and moved closer to Vila in silent consolation. He looked out at the stars longingly, then turned to her, his eyes bright with unshed tears.

“Now I know how you feel, Cally.”

Cally smiled and touched his sleeve briefly.

“Oh, almost forgot. I have something for you.” Vila fumbled in his pocket and pressed an irregular object into her hand.

Cally looked at a small gold statuette of a woman sitting on a rock, her fish-tail curving around it and her beautiful sad face looking yearningly into the distance. Cally ran her fingers gently over the waving tendrils of the woman’s hair and the scales of her lower body, and looked up at Vila, moved.

“It’s—” Vila stopped, seeing that she understood.

“Perfect,” Cally said softly. “Thank you, Vila.” She squeezed his hand, turned, and left.

 

Vila looked out again at the stars, and repeated his dragon-name to himself. No-one would believe it, but it was a bright and precious secret to keep against the loneliness. He may not count for much on this ship, but how many had found a new world for a whole people, and had also given an alien race something to think about? He stood up straighter, smiled, and walked out with more confidence then he had felt for a long time.


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Nicola Mody

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