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Points of Intersection

By Joanna Thomas
Page 3 of 7

Three

The days aboard the 'Lodestar' seem to be getting longer, mused Vila, idly counting his hoard of silver tabs for the third time that day. He glanced at the chronometer on his wrist, taking a self-congratulatory moment - not for the first time - to admire its expensive workmanship and to wonder whether the defence lawyer on Feyron had ever figured out his loss. Then he cursed his own stupidity. Of course, that's because the days are getting longer - the ship's systems will be programmed for adjustment to Gascar-time. What was it that Wilke had said yesterday? That days on Gascar Four are almost five and a half hours longer than on Feyron?

His eyes strayed up the dormitory to where Avon lay inert on his bunk, his face hidden in the crook of the arm flung across his eyes, and Vila felt his mood darken. Wilke had also relayed the information from the guards that their 'politico' would be 'delivered' in three days' time, and that was yesterday....... Was that three Gascar days or three Feyron days, he suddenly thought in panic, and feverishly tried to calculate what difference it would make to their arrival time - where? - before surrendering weakly in the face of hostile arithmetic.

Avon would know the answer. He always does.

Vila glanced towards him again, reflecting bitterly that the supposed constants in his life in those early days on the 'Liberator' had, one by one, been cruelly exposed as transient, whether tangible flesh-and-blood or the intangibles of safety, trust, and a sense of belonging. The melee of irreconcilable feelings he had felt since Avon's startling emergence from the quietus dealt to them all on Gauda Prime did not bear close analysis from someone unaccustomed to self-examination. Dominant were fear, loathing and bewilderment, but skirting around the edges was an elusive wraith, impossible for him to pin down and identify. A sense of responsibility perhaps?

Maybe Avon's right. Maybe the level of suppressants on the ship is particularly high to prevent trouble on the journey. But surely he would have begun to get used to it by now. There's more to it than that. Apart from that first day he has hardly spoken at length, spending most of the time on his bunk in the daytime, eyes open but unseeing. At least he joined us for the exercise period in the hold today, even if he only paced the sidelines, head bowed and lips moving, as we kicked the ball about. I've seen him do that at night too, wearing a trail backwards and forwards next to his bunk......

Scooping the tabs into the leather pouch on his belt, Vila tried to dismiss thoughts of Avon from his mind. He strolled towards the mess area in search of more affable company, but his efforts to raise a game of cards met with incredulity and animosity. "After yesterday? You must be joking! You and your politico pal cleaned us out."

Vila grabbed a glass of water from the dispenser and sat hunched over it, in subconsciously wishful imitation of his pose in a hundred spaceport bars and grinned to himself, cheered a little by the memory of yesterday.

It had not started well. He had invited Avon to partner him in a game of cards, expecting the usual rebuff, but to his surprise Avon nodded, swung his legs off his bunk and followed him to the table, where their opponents waited. Almost as soon as they were seated, Vila began to have misgivings; he had been stupid not to think of it - Avon could not hold his cards but had to lay them facedown on the table in front of him and play from memory.

They had kept pace with the game for a while, a game played in a tense silence before a group of curious bystanders drawn by the presence of the politico at the table. Then they had begun to lose steadily, low stakes at first, but enough to start a flurry of side-betting among the observers. Vila looked anxiously at Avon as he played a card; there was no trace of emotion on his face, but Vila detected a distant look in Avon's eyes that worried him. The cards stuck to Vila's sweating palms and he wished himself somewhere else as the stakes grew and he saw their pile of tabs whittled away. While he contemplated with dismay another mediocre hand, he felt mortified to find himself embarrassed, not by the scale of their losses, although they were bad enough, but by Avon who played on, oblivious to the humiliation of impending defeat.

Vila looked up from the cards and found Avon's gaze, uncurtained now, fixed resolutely upon him; he shrank from it, ashamed of his thoughts, and returned his attention to the problem quite literally in hand.

Much to Vila's astonishment they won the hand, then the next. He could hardly believe their sudden change in fortune and neither could their disgruntled opponents, who continued to stake heavily. But the tide had turned and Vila's heart leapt as he sensed a shrewd acuity developing in the play between Avon and himself, although Avon's face remained as impassive as ever. They recouped their losses swiftly and won steadily, until their opponents quit in disgust and left the table, virtually empty-handed.

Vila scooped the heap of tabs into his outstretched prison tunic and hurried after Avon who headed wordlessly back up the dormitory. Avon turned to face Vila when he reached his bunk.

"Amazing!" laughed Vila. He shook the tabs out onto the next bunk and ran his fingers through them, their gleam reflecting in his face. "Amazing! I really thought we'd had it, until our luck suddenly changed."

"Call it luck if you like." Avon twisted his hand down and sideways; a card fell from his prison uniform sleeve into the hook of contorted fingers. He removed it swiftly with his other hand, placing it in Vila's breast pocket, just below his disbelieving stare.

"Better hide the evidence," whispered Avon conspiratorially.

"You bastard!" hissed Vila, his face creasing into a huge grin of admiration.

"Oh, I think you should take the plaudits. After all, it was you who taught me how it is done."

"Wait, I remember....on the way to that planet....," Vila clicked his fingers repeatedly, struggling to dredge a name from his memory, "Bosphorus...no...Phosphorus...no..."

"Fosforon."

"That's the one!" He lowered his voice again, still grinning broadly, and slapped Avon on the back. "You sly bastard."

"I'll take that as a compliment." Avon's face broke into a smile and he shook the hand Vila offered him.

It was like Freedom City all over again, thought Vila, sitting down to count the tabs out into two piles. Then Avon spoke.

"Don't bother. Keep it all." Vila looked up in surprise, and the illusion shattered. "It won't be of use to me on here for much longer."

***

Vila woke suddenly, roused from dreams which had not troubled him for many months. He groaned inwardly and, closing his eyes again, tried to dislodge the vestiges of the disturbing images from his mind. Above the sound of his quickened breathing and heartbeat he heard the hum of the airconditioning and....the dull throb of the aging neutron engines was missing. Something was wrong. Panic rising, he threw back the blanket and stumbled out of bed, then along the central aisle of the darkened dormitory. Avon's bunk was empty.

He half walked, half ran past the rows of sleeping prisoners in a desperate but fruitless search for Avon. At the main door he wheeled round and searched the length of the dormitory again. The mess area was deserted, the dim blue night-lighting reflecting off the metal tables. Beyond, in the wash area the bright light made Vila screw up his eyes. But for the steady drip of water from one of the showerheads there was no sound, no-one was there. He turned and hurried back out of the door, not sure what to do next.

Then he saw him. It was hardly surprising that before, in his panic, Vila had missed him, standing against the bulkhead in the deepest shadows of the mess area, his back turned.

"Avon. Thank heavens I've found you. I thought we'd landed and they'd taken you already," Vila gasped as he approached, leaning on the bulkhead for support. His legs felt as if they were about to buckle under him.

Avon did not appear to have heard him. His head was held back, his face upturned to the porthole set high in the hull. Through the scratched window Vila could see the reflected daylight of a steely grey planet and he realised that the 'Lodestar' was in fixed orbit.

"Avon?"

Vila put out a hand to touch the shoulder of the immobile figure and was astonished to feel Avon shaking, the tremors of inner forces out of control. Avon turned. Sweat plastered the hair to his forehead, and his red-rimmed sleep-deprived eyes stared like those of an animal caught in a searchlight. He fought some inner battle before the words would form on his lips.

"I'm losing my mind."

Suffering was not something Vila could easily tolerate, his own or anyone else's. It was easier to run away, to avoid contact, than to have to find the right words, to do the right thing. And here was a man whom he had for several months on Xenon feared and mistrusted with an intensity that had surprised even Vila. Yet without hesitation he pulled Avon towards him and held him tightly. "No, no, not you too," Vila muttered desperately as hot tears of grief and loss burned his eyes.

The shaking slowly subsided, and Avon leaned back against the bulkhead, his head bowed, the fingers of his deformed hand pressed to his temple. Vila rubbed his hand roughly across his face.

"I see people. People who shouldn't be there. People who are dead." The words were softly and intently spoken. Vila looked up at Avon, fearful of his own nightmares. "They speak to me. Blake, Cally, Tarrant and the others. Even Anna."

There was silence, except for the distant sound of dripping water. Vila swallowed hard as Avon looked sideways at him.

"At times it is difficult to distinguish reality from.....insanity. When we met it was some time before I could be certain that you were real, not just a figment of a sick mind." Avon smiled briefly, a baring of teeth in which Vila could find no humour.

Vila regained his voice. "How long has this been happening?"

"Since the interrogation on Gauda Prime."

"Then it must be caused by the Federation's interrogation drugs."

"That was two years ago," Avon said fiercely. "The drugs wore off a long time ago."

Vila could think of nothing to say. He watched, mesmerised, as Avon began to rub the palms of his hands together, right over left. It was a mannerism he recalled from their past, an indication that Avon was deep in thought.

"In solitary, on Gau...I mean Drax, I could cope with it. There was a routine, the days were predictable. But it has become much worse on here..." He glanced up at the view of the planet. "I would rather die than lose my mind."

"It won't come to that, Avon!" protested Vila. "You're a survivor, always have been."

"No, you're mistaken." The chill in Avon's voice left no room for argument. He stared at his hands. "I would have died on Gauda Prime if they'd let me, but they wouldn't grant me that privilege. I knew the odds were against me, but I was determined to take as many of them with me as I could. 'Companions for my death', as Cally would have said." He paused. "The second time, during interrogation, I almost succeeded. The third time - it must have been soon after I was taken to Drax - they were prepared for it and got to me in time."

Vila felt sick with horror. "Avon, please, as a friend I beg -"

"A friend?" The dark eyes studied him levelly.

"Yes, a friend!"

"But I tried to kill you."

Vila threw up his hands in exasperation. "Okay, so maybe not my ideal friend, you bastard, but still a friend!"

"You're afraid of me, you have been ever since Malodaar."

Vila grabbed Avon's shirt and shouted angrily in his face. "Don't flatter yourself, you bastard, I'm afraid of most things!"

There was a chorus of muffled groans, sleepy protest from the nearby bunks. The anger ebbed from Vila. He loosened his grip on the shirt under Avon's steady gaze, which carried a glint of amusement. Vila felt very weary.

"I'm not afraid of you now. I'm afraid for you."

Avon glanced again at the planet. "Well now, that makes two of us."


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