by Nicola Mody
“Ooh, look! They’ve got some new ones!” Tash pulled her mother and father over to the shop window. “What cute little things!” Enchanted, she pressed her nose against the glass. “I like the one in the corner. It’s got such big sad brown eyes.” She looked up at her mother hopefully.
“We’re not letting you have a pet, and anyway you should never choose the runt of the litter.”
“I can stay and look at them though, can’t I?”
“All right, just for a little while,” her mother said indulgently. “They are quite interesting things. The black and silver’s rather magnificent.”
“Yes, it is,” Tash’s father said, “but it’d probably have your hand off.”
“Well might you skulk in the corner like that, Vila,” Avon said savagely, “given that this is all your fault.”
“No, it wasn’t. I was asleep.”
“Oh, asleep on watch is supposed to be an excuse, is it?”
“Well, I wasn’t the one doing illegal experiments.”
“Stop it, both of you,” Blake said, exasperated. “We have been over and over this. Blaming each other won’t help.”
Avon turned his attention to Blake. “Yes. Particularly since you were the one who suggested a nice quiet picnic on that peaceful planet.”
Cally, sitting in the lotus position in an attempt to relax under extremely trying circumstances, sighed and looked patient. Jenna gritted her teeth, lay down and pulled a very large and fluffy cushion over her head.
Gan came to his feet. “Look, this is not doing any of us any good.”
“If you can’t contribute anything intelligent, shut up,” Avon snarled. “Which means I doubt I’ll ever hear from you again.”
“That’s not very nice,” Vila said. “None of it was Gan’s fault.”
“No. He’d have to have at least a couple of synapses firing to be capable even of your idiocy.” Avon stood up, looked down his nose at Vila, and walked towards the far end of the cage with as much dignity as he could muster. His boots crunched as he stepped into the litter tray. “Turn around, all of you.”
Vila grinned. “He’s shy. Doesn’t want anyone to see his bum in case we notice the ‘Tarial Inside’ sticker on it.”
Avon ignored him.
Night watch bored Vila silly.
The novelty of being in sole charge of one of the most powerful ships in the galaxy had worn off long ago. Once, he had paced the deck grandly, imagining everyone leaping to the orders of Rebel Captain Restal, terror of the Federation. When these fantasies staled, he had entertained himself by practising quick-getaway manoeuvres like sling-shots around neutron stars and tight loops under power until the night the sudden acceleration drove Avon’s face into the carton of ice-cream he was eating in the rest room at the time.
He’d tried watching commercial vidcasts on Zen’s big wall screen, but Avon found out and said that if he was going to die, he’d prefer a more dignified exit than being blasted to plasma in his bed because a suicidal fool was watching ancient space opera reruns instead of the forward sensors.
Vila had then amused himself by making up his own version of his favourite rerun, Star Trek, with Blake as the Captain of the USS Liberator, Avon as his Vulcan first officer, Jenna as a hot-shot pilot in a towering blonde beehive, Cally on comms in an extremely short skirt, Gan as a Klingon security officer with huge facial ridges (well, bigger than the ones he had now, anyway), and Vila himself as the highly intelligent, witty and charming engineer with his lovely assistant Seven of Nine. Making up stories about this crew and their valiant battles against Travis of the Borg and Servalan the evil sex-mad Betazoid, and illustrating them using the latest graphics software Orac had downloaded for him, had entertained Vila for weeks until Avon found the drawings and printed them out. For some reason, they had all been very annoyed, especially Blake. Vila suspected it was the ripped shirt revealing his less than trim chest that had offended him, though Jenna seemed not to mind, as she came back for copies later.
After that, Vila had resorted to writing limericks, but when he’d left a few on screen by mistake once, even Gan had been angry with him. Well, it was hardly Vila’s fault if ‘Gan’ rhymed with ‘Servalan’, was it?
So now they had taken away all his fun, what did they expect? He tried to fight the boredom and stay awake, he really did, but sometimes the urge to have a little snooze around two or three in the morning was just too hard to resist, and anyway Zen would wake him if something happened.
And he couldn’t help having the occasional nightmare, whether in bed or on watch. The dangerous life of a rebel didn’t suit one of Vila’s sensitivity, and Servalan’s recent e-mails hadn’t helped. So there he was, captured, and struggling to escape before she could get the cuffs on him, when suddenly he was pinned down by an enormous weight.
“Get off me, Servalan, pick on someone your own size!” he protested, then woke to find himself slammed back in the flight chair by massive acceleration. What was going on? Oh, no, the turbo-button was pressed down, he must have hit it in his sleep. Vila flailed at it but couldn’t reach it, then thought of his telescopic alarm-probe. Panting with the exertion, he took it out of his tunic, extended it, and whacked at the button several times before managing to turn it off.
He sat in his chair with his eyes wide and a hand clamped over his mouth, listening to the outraged yells over the intercom from the rest of the crew who had doubtless been thrown from their beds and flattened against the aft walls of their cabins. He was in trouble now.
Then he realised that he was not the only one.
“All right, Vila. Explain.” Blake looked even angrier than after Vila’s recent little excursion to Space City.
“I didn’t mean to, honestly. I had a dream and lashed out a bit and must’ve hit something. Anyway,” Vila said resentfully, “nothing should have happened. That button was deactivated.”
Blake turned slowly to Avon and raised his eyebrows.
“I was investigating the hyperdrive facility.”
“Even though I said to leave it well alone?”
“I consider that decision very high-handed and short-sighted, even for you.”
“Avon, one day you will go too far.”
“I think we just did!” Vila said, relieved that the pressure was off him.
“Shut up, Vila!” They both rounded on him.
“Oh, now look, it’s not that bad. If we got here, wherever it is, we can get back again. Where are we anyway?”
Avon stalked over to his station and pushed a few buttons. “In another galaxy, it appears.”
“I bet we’re the first humans. We could name it. How about Vil—”
“It has a name already, you fool. M33—”
“That’s a bit miserable for a full-grown galaxy. I really think—”
“—also known as Triangulum. Part of the local group, near Andromeda.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Vila said, “not far away at all then.” Everyone looked at him. “Oh, come on, look on the bright side. No Feds, no Servalan, a nice little holiday.”
Blake looked thoughtful. “We do have to wait for the energy banks to recharge. Orac, locate us an uninhabited planet with a pleasant climate and Zen, put us in orbit around it.”
The picnic was Blake’s idea.
“I fail to see the point of consuming perfectly good food outside in,” Avon paused and added with distaste, “weather.”
“It’ll be fun,” Vila said. “We picked a nice spot, and it’s warm and calm, not at all weathery.”
“I think I’ll stay here and enjoy the lack of company.”
“No, you won’t. We’re all going,” Blake said firmly.
“Then I can only hope that you have something better to eat than Vila’s cold pizza from two days ago.”
“Oh, we do,” Vila said. “We raided the stasis store. Well, there is pizza and some cold curry butties for me and Gan,” he admitted, “but we also have quiche, salads, stuffed olives, roast duck, fresh fruit, and a chocolate cake.”
“Oh, very well,” Avon said, mollified, “though I’m amazed you can even pronounce quiche.” He noticed Vila’s tool box beside the hamper. “Are you expecting to break into something down there?”
“It’s my spare one, full of liquid refreshments,” Vila grinned. “All tastes catered for. Real ale, a nice dry white, a smooth full-bodied red, mineral water, beer, and whisky.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
It wasn’t. Avon stretched himself out on the grass in the warm sun, feeling the light breeze caress his face and hair. He felt pleasantly replete and extraordinarily relaxed, lulled by the soft rhythmic sound of the sea. “Another glass of white, Vila,” he said lazily.
“I’ll have to get another bottle,” Vila yawned, got up, and wandered off towards the stream where he had put the drinks to keep them cool. He returned with considerably more haste, his eyes huge with terror in a white face. “F-f-f-fu-fu—”
“Complete that word, Vila, and I’ll give you such a slap,” Jenna said.
Vila’s eyes rolled up and he collapsed face-down beside Avon, who was about to push him away in disgust when he saw the dart in the thief’s back. He pulled it out, rolled Vila over and patted his cheek, but there was no response.
“Blake!” He shook the blissfully sleeping Blake. “We’ve got to get out of here, now!” He was just raising his bracelet to demand teleport from Orac, when he saw the aliens emerge from the trees, four times as tall as a human and perhaps twenty times as massive. “Orac—” he said, but never completed the sentence as he fell forward, as thoroughly gassed as the others.