ReprisalBy Jean Graham
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|"This isn't going to work."
Vila said it for the what might have been the hundredth time, and just as he had done on each and every occasion before this, Tarrant ignored him. The pilot leaned over his flight console, intent on Scorpio's final landing procedures. There was more than landing on his mind, though: Vila could see a great deal else in the younger man's face. Determination. Anger. Revenge. And a none-too-subtle hint of cruelty.
The Delta thief found himself regretting that he'd ever mentioned the Malodaar incident to Tarrant. This plan of his was foolhardy: anyone with sense would know that Avon couldn't be got rid of so easily. No, not Avon.
Vila's eyes wandered to the flight deck's cryogenic capsule, where a blue stasis field engulfed Kerr Avon's sleeping form. I didn't want it to be like this, he thought fiercely, as though the suspended figure in the capsule could hear. Even if it is better than you deserve. Getting left behind on a nowhere planet is too good for you by a long shot. Only what Tarrant's too bone-headed to see is that you'll find a way off someday. And you'll come after him. After us. I know you now, better than I ever wanted to, and I know you'll find a way.
Scorpio vibrated with the remote extension of the landing ramp, and for the first time in the entire 2-day trip, Tarrant turned to look at him directly. "Let's go," he said.
Vila didn't move. "I haven't changed my mind, you know," he muttered. "This wasn't my idea."
"No. It is you he tried to kill, though, if you'll remember. Now take him out of there and let's get on with it." A metallic snick accompanied the arrival of a clip gun in the pilot's right hand. Vila hastened to deactivate the cryo unit without further argument, stepping well away when the restabilized 'coffin' cycled open to eject its occupant.
He watched Avon move sluggishly to the console and lean on it for an extended minute, while Tarrant and the gun waited. Only when the last of cryo sleep had been blinked away did Avon look at the pilot at all, and then it was with the bored aire of contempt he so often reserved for Tarrant. He said nothing, but a hand strayed absently to the back of his head and lingered there a moment before falling away.
"I'm sorry for that," Tarrant apologized, and Vila thought he almost sounded sincere. Getting Avon into that cryo unit had not been an easy task. And if Dayna, left behind with Soolin on Xenon, had had any inkling that this 'milk run' was in fact a plot to maroon their erstwhile leader...
"Move." Tarrant's gun punctuated the demand, gesturing away toward the airlock.
Avon stood his ground. "Where are we?"
"On a 5th sector planet named Timbrel. Mean anything to you?"
Arrogance glittered in the young pilot's eyes. "Better get used to it. It's about to become home."
The look Avon turned on him then might have melted neutronium, though Vila saw hurt and betrayal behind it as well. The computer tech's hands unconsciously smoothed the white-trimmed hem of his tunic with short, repetitive strokes.
Vila bit back the urge to interject an argument aimed at Tarrant, and studied Avon's guarded expression instead. Only the eyes told him anything of note.
You didn't know. You really didn't know?
It had seemed so transparent at first, the story they'd concocted about a stray food supply shipment abandoned on Darsus. And yet Avon had agreed to the trip so ingenuously -- as though it were nothing more than getting back to business. As though Malodaar had never happened.
"Time to go." Tarrant's gun moved again, but Avon merely straightened and stared the younger man down.
"You wouldn't care to discuss it." Avon's words were not a question.
"No I wouldn't." The gun jerked again, a sharp, impatient movement. The two of them stood that way, glowering, until Vila wanted to scream at them to stop -- this staring contest was getting them nowhere fast, and Avon would never be the first to capitulate.
But Avon surprised him. With an unreadable glance in Vila's direction, he stepped around both Tarrant and the gun, and headed for the hatch. Tarrant shot the thief a smug 'I told you so' look, and followed Avon out, leaving Vila to bring up the rear.
Hot wind assaulted him the moment he trailed them out onto the landing ramp. Timbrel, it seemed, had little to recommend it as a garden spot. A featureless grey plane stretched into infinity beyond Scorpio's starboard bow. To her port, an oily black sea lapped feebly at a dead beach while it swallowed the remnants of a blood-red sun.
Here? Vila wanted to shout the question at Tarrant's hastening back. You're going to leave him here??
"But..." he finally said aloud, "there's no one here. Nothing!"
No one answered him. He didn't like the look on either Alpha's face when they reached the sand and faced off once again, Tarrant brandishing the gun, Avon pretending to ignore it.
"In point of fact," Tarrant announced, "there is a settlement." He nodded past Scorpio's stern. "Twelve kilometers in that direction."
The wind whipped Avon's hair into disarray and snatched at his clothing, taking portions of his words away. "Not that it matters," he said.
Now what the hell did that mean? Vila knew he was missing some vital element in all of this, but the creeping suspicion of just what it might be made him too ill even to contemplate it. Surely Tarrant wouldn't have come all this way just to...
"Oh no." Vila took a bold step toward the pilot, not quite within range of the gun. "Not that way, you don't. Marooned, you said, on a planet he'd never get off!"
"That's what I said." Tarrant and Avon remained eye-locked; the younger man's hand moved impatiently on the clip gun's trigger. "But I had time to think about that on the way here. And I decided you were right, Vila. It's too great a risk."
For the first time in his life, Vila wished for a gun of his own. "That's not what I meant and you know it!" he cried, not daring to look at Avon. "I didn't come here to murder anyone. Marooned, you said -- and that was all!"
"He tried to kill you on that shuttle. You told me so yourself."
"Yes, me!" Vila was shouting against the buffeting wind. "Me, not you. So it's me who should decide, and I never--"
"Last time it was you. The next it will be Dayna, or Soolin... or me. A long time ago on Earth they had a saying. They used to say the only thing you could do with a mad dog was shoot it. I think maybe that's still true."
"Then why don't you get on with it?" Avon's sharp demand startled both of them. "You're beginning to bore me, Tarrant."
Rage swiftly overtook the young pilot's bravado. The weapon in his hand went rigid: his index finger flexed and began to tighten on the trigger...
Vila shouted -- a single, inarticulate syllable -- and rushed forward in a foolhardy charge that struck Tarrant broadside and sent both men sprawling. The gun spat. Its charge sizzled into the water as they fell. Vila caught a blurred glimpse of Avon standing motionless above them. Then he had rolled over in the sticky sand, coming out on top of Tarrant, and incredibly, the gun had somehow come with him. When he'd scrambled back to his feet it was to point the weapon at a stunned and disbelieving pilot who crouched, humiliated, on one knee in the sand.
"Are you mad?" Tarrant spat the words at Vila like a curse. "You know what's at risk!"
"Better than you!" Vila snapped. The weapon (gods, but he hated guns; had always hated them) trembled in his hands, he managed to keep it pointed in the general vicinity of Tarrant's oversized head. "Get up," he ordered.
For a moment he was sure the younger man intended to rush him. But Tarrant staggered to his feet instead, and their three-way stand-off resumed, an awkward tableau on a darkening alien beach.
Avon came to life then, as though all that had just occurred did not involve him at all; as though someone had just thrown a switch to activate a program. He thrust a hand toward Vila and said curtly, "Give me the gun."
Vila stared at him mutely for a moment, until anger overcame his confusion and he responded in equally chilly tones.
Relief crossed Tarrant's face at that, but this little-known side of Vila, so seldom manifest, was an apparent shock to both Alphas, as well as an obvious annoyance.
Avon, though he'd let the proffered hand drop, maintained an expectant stance, as though he were waiting for something that Vila had not yet volunteered to give.
"Why?" he demanded abruptly. "Why stop him then at all? Tell me why."
He sounded genuinely hurt, Vila thought, and that was all too ironic -- Avon upset at not getting his head blown off. Blake would never have believed it.
Tarrant moved -- starting forward to reclaim the weapon. Vila changed his mind for him with three shots that sprayed steaming mud across his boot-tops. "Please don't do that," he pleaded when the surprised pilot had frozen. "I might get careless and aim a meter higher next time."
Tarrant's mouth opened, only to close again without comment.
"You haven't answered my question," Avon said.
Vila turned on him, fuming. "Well I could ask you the same one, couldn't I?" A shadow crossed Avon's face. He looked away across the tideless water and feigned some sudden fascination there, but Vila did not allow so easy an escape. "It was me on that shuttle, you know. Not Egrorian or Servalan or Space Justice Ranger over here. Me!"
The black eyes snapped back to meet Vila's with unyielding indifference -- a cold Avon-sort of answer that, as always, was no answer.
Vila hated him in that moment.
"You son of a bitch. You really would have done it, wouldn't you?"
Though the man never spoke, the eyes said clearly, You know I would, and Vila believed them. He wondered, in fact, why he'd ever expected otherwise.
"You can't change it now," Tarrant's irritating voice intervened. "You can't leave him and you can't take him back. That only leaves one alternative."
"Shut up," Vila tried to say, but the pilot's next phrase overran him.
"He'll kill us all at this rate, you know he will. Admit it, Vila. For once in your life, face reality -- then prove you've got the guts to do something about it."
They were both looking at him then, each expecting the opposite response. Vila wished the hot wind would carry him off and lose him forever somewhere on that black expanse of ocean.
"We're going back," he said, never knowing where the words had come from.
Tarrant seethed, still chafing, no doubt, at having lost the gun and the advantage. "Not with him aboard."
With a shrug of one shoulder, Vila said, "She's got an empty cryo capsule now." The power-selector on the clip gun clicked audibly: once to half charge, twice to ten-percent. "Doesn't much matter to me whether you go back in the tank, or in the pilot's seat. Unless you'd rather talk it over on the way..."
The pilot fixed him with an obstinate gaze, bewildered at this never-before-seen Vila, but he had lost the argument this time and knew it. "All right," he conceded grudgingly, and shot an uncomfortable look at Avon. "We'll talk it over."
Something akin to a smile, though it wasn't quite one, tugged at the corners of Avon's mouth. He turned his back on them, and headed wearily off toward Scorpio's boarding ramp.
With a parting glare, Tarrant stalked away in the same direction.
Sighing, Vila tucked the gun into his belt.
It was going to be a very long trip home.
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