by Nicola Mody
I wrote this for this lovely picture of Vila in the park which Minnie did for me. Click on the thumbnail to see it in its full glory. (There's a bigger one further down in the text too.) Thanks, Minnie.
Vila Restal materialised beside a busy street. “Oh, thanks a lot, Orac,” he said resentfully, looking around to see if anyone had noticed the teleport flash. Someone had—a man was staring at him with wide-eyed shock.
“Where the hell did you come from?”
Vila recognised the pasty face and shadowed eyes of a dreamhead. “Earth,” he said innocently. “Look, I know I’m a tourist, but is it that obvious?”
“You weren’t here a second ago.”
“What d’you mean? I’ve been here all the time.” The man looked disbelieving, and Vila, who had never been very good at lying, felt compelled to cover his tracks with confusion, something he was rather better at. “You know,” he said confidingly, “I’ve always been here if you want to look at it that way. I mean, wherever I go, I’m here, because ‘here’ is always where I am. Same for you. It’s just that right now our two heres are in the same place.”
The addict shook his head as if to clear it. “I need a drink.” He stumbled off.
“Me too,” Vila said feelingly, going to sit at a table outside a nearby bar. He tried to look inconspicuous and as little like his wanted poster as possible while watching the passers-by nervously. The place was crowded, noisy and colourful, just like the markets back in the Delta levels on Earth, and if this had been anywhere else, Vila would have plunged in with joyful abandon. This place however, for all its pretence of neutrality, was run by the mob.
What the hell was he doing here? What had got into him back there on the Liberator to go on and on about wanting to come here? Even after they’d all looked at him with varying degrees of disgust, something had compelled him to keep on digging himself into a deeper hole with all those stupid remarks about sin, entertainment, and grubby graffiti, even though it was plain they were going down like a lead balloon with that lot. That was bad enough—Vila winced, remembering the way Jenna had looked at him—but even worse, here he was, in Space bloody City, private property of the Terra Nostra. Terror Nostra more like. This was not the action of a sensibly cautious thief who planned to live forever.
Vila raised his bracelet to ask Cally for teleport, then he thought of how angry she’d be. What did pissed-off Aurons do? Yell at you inside your head so you couldn’t get away from them? Blake would be angry too, and even worse, disappointed, and somehow, that bothered Vila even more. Perhaps he’d have that drink after all while he thought about what to do. He looked around for a waiter, and froze in astonishment.
The woman walking down the street would have drawn his eyes even if he hadn’t recognised her. She was taller and wider than anyone else and cut her stately way through the crowd like a passenger cruiser through planet-hoppers. Her round, beautifully-made-up face was topped with a towering mass of copper curls, and she was dressed in a flamboyant floor-length gown patterned in bright pink and lime-green swirls.
“Ronda!” Forgetting all his caution, Vila leapt up. “Ronda!” He pushed eagerly through the crowd and grabbed her arm, grinning with delight. “Hello, Ronda.”
Ronda reared back and looked down at him in outrage. “It may be flattering to be accosted in public by strange and attractive young men—but do I know you?”
Vila’s face fell. “It’s me, Ronda, Vila. Vila Restal, remember? CF1?”
“Vila!” A smile almost buried Ronda’s eyes in her cheeks. “Of course it is! You were just a wee scrap, but look at you! You’ve grown—”
So have you, Vila thought. Ronda had been at least 150kg when he’d met her on the prison transport to CF1, but he bet she topped 200 now.
“—but I should have recognised those innocent brown eyes anywhere. Let me look at you.” Ronda held Vila away at arms’ length. “Ah, I said you’d be a charmer when you grew up, and I was right. Come here, Vila-lad.” She crushed Vila to her, and he almost disappeared into the folds of her dress, his head held captive between her enormous breasts.
At first, engulfed in warm flesh, Vila revelled in the unaccustomed physical contact. It was a long time since someone had hugged him like that. Doty it had been, big warm comfortable ‘Aunt’ Doty who had been family to him, but gone more than five years now. Vila closed his eyes and leaned into her, but soon, stifled by the heat, lack of air, and Ronda’s sweet perfume, he panicked and struggled free, gasping and red-faced. Rhonda pinched his cheek fondly.
“Am I glad to see you, sweetie. You’re exactly what I’ve been waiting for.”
“Oh?” Vila gulped, remembering what she’d said to the shy 14-year-old he’d been, that she hoped she’d be around when he was a few years older.
“Come to the park with me, love, and I’ll put my proposition to you.”
“Proposition?” That came out in a higher register than Vila had intended.
“Of course.” Ronda draped her arm across Vila’s shoulders, and it wasn’t just the weight that made his knees sag. “You were good back then, but now they say you’re one of the best in the galaxy.”
Vila blinked at her, then got it. “Oh!”
As did Ronda. “Vila! You didn’t think...why, aren’t you an absolute darling! That’s very flattering, little one, but I do have Barker.” She put back her head and roared with laughter. Vila, embarrassed, attempted an escape, but Ronda pulled him closer, tucking his head under her arm as they walked.
Barker? Vila remembered the fussy balding little accountant who had been convicted of fraud. Skinny little Barker with Ronda? Vila’s mind (and eyes) boggled, then he grinned with sudden delight, absurdly glad that those two were happy together.
Ronda suddenly stopped and looked at Vila, puzzled. “But surely you’re here about the job. I put out word I was looking for a thief, and why else would you be waiting for me? Everyone knows I go to the park each day at this time.”
“Didn’t even know you were here, Ronda.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“Came with Blake. I’m a rebel hero these days.” Vila stole a sideways glance at her. “Oh all right, still a thief, really. Getting him into dangerous places that give me the willies, that’s what I do.”
“I’ve heard. You have an impressive reputation, Vila-lad. And an equally impressive price on your head.”
Vila, who had never been sure whether to be proud or terrified about that, opted for the former. “Yeah, a cool mill. Not many of us at the top of the league. I’m right up there with Bayban these days,” he said happily, swaggering a little.
Ronda laughed. They turned a corner, and Vila could see a sign pointing towards ‘City Park’. He supposed it would be like those sterile little enclaves on the Alpha levels with a few small potted trees, a couple of white plastic benches, and perhaps a fountain.
“You would tell me, wouldn’t you, if your Blake was planning to blow this place up,” Ronda said with elaborate casualness.
“Oh, we don’t do things like that!” Vila said, shocked. “Well, only to military targets. Blake’s here to cut a deal with the Terra Nostra.”
“Nope, wants to use them to infiltrate Earth.”
“I hope you told him what a dangerous game he’s playing.”
“Course I did, but they don’t listen to me, not even when I know what I’m talking about. They wouldn’t even let me go with them. I’m meant to be waiting for them on the ship like a good little boy.” Was that why he had disobeyed Blake, out of injured pride?
“Good? You?” Ronda smiled fondly down at the top of Vila’s head. “Here we are,” she said, pushing open a door labelled ‘Space City Park’.
Vila gaped in astonishment.
“Didn’t expect that, did you?” Ronda grinned and lead him forwards into the trees.
“But it’s not real, is it? How do they do it, with holograms?” Vila reached out to touch a trunk and pulled his hand back, surprised at its solid roughness.
“No, no, it’s all real. They designed it when the city was built, to make people feel more at home. We even have seasons.”
As they walked, Vila stared about himself in wonder at the autumnal splendour, then looked behind. The grey metal door they had come in was now hidden behind golden foliage. He was about to ask if the birdsong was recorded when he saw a parrot swoop across in front of him. He looked up at the vast grey metal dome far above, squinting at the brightness of the artificial sun, somewhat off centre.
“Does that move?”
“Of course. Standard Earth day. It’s early afternoon now.” Ronda took him arm. “Down here.” She lead him off the main path and into a stand of evergreens. The chatter and shouts of the others in the park were quickly muffled and they walked in a cool dark silence, broken only by the soft chirp of insects and the distant bell-like call of a bird. Ronda sighed. “In summer I come and just lie here, looking up at the trees.”
Vila said nothing, understanding. He felt a peace fall on him which he hadn’t known since his illicit forays out from London-dome into the deserted woods around it.