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Impractical Joke

By Tom Beck
Page 2 of 7

Suddenly, the computer tech was present, walking onto the flight deck. Instantly, Vila's audience started laughing as if they'd been enjoying the thief's performance all along. It was a bit strained, but the odds were against Avon's recognizing that, his familiarity with genuine laughter being somewhat less than Servalan's with restrained good taste.

"Did you hear the one about the Alpha who went into a Delta bar and ordered a Soma and seltzer? He hands the bartender a fifty- credit note. The bartender figures that an Alpha won't know anything about money, so he gives the guy five credits change. Then, just to make conversation, he says, 'We don't get many Alphas in here.' And the Alpha says, 'Yeah, and at forty- five credits for a Soma and seltzer, you won't get too many more.'" Blake's laughter boomed at that hoary old loser, and Jenna, Cally, and Gan made a valiant effort at pretending to laugh hard.

"Thank you, thank you, you're too kind," said Vila. Silently, Jenna, Cally, and Gan agreed. Avon was watching, a sort of bewildered look on his face. "For my last joke, I'd like to tell you my favorite little animal story. No, not about Space Commander Travis." He paused. Only Blake laughed at that one.

"It seems there are these two bears in a bathtub. And one says to the other, 'Pass me the soap.' And the other says, 'No soap, radio.'"

The effect was explosive. Instantly, the entire crew, except for Avon, was screaming in hysterical laughter. Blake fell off his cushion and was rolling around on the floor. Jenna and Cally doubled up, holding their stomachs as they were laughing so hard. Gan's low voice roared in delight, threatening to shatter Orac's case. Vila was shedding tears as he enjoyed his own insanely funny joke.

Only Avon was left out of the general hilarity and merriment. "I don't get it," he pouted. "Will someone explain to me what is funny about that inane story?"

Vila gasped and stared at the tech. "What do you mean, you don't get it?" he asked incredulously. "No soap, radio," he repeated. Avon's face was still a blank. "Radio," Vila shouted. A pause. "Radio." Another pause. "RADIO!" Vila shouted.

With each repetition of the word 'radio,' the rest of the crew roared even harder, their screams of laughter getting louder and shriller. Avon was getting sorer and sorer.

"Oh, stop, Vila!" shouted Jenna. "I can't take it anymore!" Gan had joined Blake on the deck, and was bowling over furniture with his whale- like rolling.

"It's not funny at all," said Avon. "There is nothing in the least bit amusing about that so- called joke."

Vila paused to catch his breath. "Maybe you didn't hear it right," he said. "I'll tell it again, real slowly, just for you. Okay?" he said, drawing out his words, "see- there's- these- two- bears- in- a- bathtub- And- one- bear- says- to- the- other- 'Pass- me- the- soap'-And- the- second- bear- says- to- the- first- one- 'No- soap- radio.'"

Once again, the rest of the crew erupted into frenzied laughter. Blake, of course, had never stopped chortling from the first iteration of the 'joke.' Vila had to hand it to the leader: Phen he took on a role he threw himself fully into it. He was very proud of all of them. If anything, the laughter was even louder this time than it had been the first. At last they were truly a crew, a unity, an organic whole. Finally, they were all cooperating in something, even if it was only a silly little practical joke. For once they were acting in unison, as the kind of close- knit band Blake had always wanted them to be. What an irony, Vila thought. Avon had brought them together even more than Servalan had ever been able to.

Avon's face was clouded and angry. The look of puzzlement had become one of incomprehension, to be followed by impatience and disgruntlement. He grabbed Vila by the thief's thin shoulders. "I don't get it!" he shouted. "I still don't get it! What in the hell is so funny about that stupid joke? Stop laughing, all of you, and tell me!"

"What do you mean, tell you?" puffed Cally, between breaths. "Don't you see? Radio!" she screamed, and roared laughing again. "Radio!" She set off the rest of them for yet another round of hysteria, while Avon got angrier and angrier. He was red in the face. Perspiration dripped from his forehead. Vila could all but see the steam pouring from the tech's ears. Just like in an old- style cartoon.

The tech looked bewildered and furious, confused, embarrassed, and totally lost. He stared first at Blake, then at Jenna, finally at Cally. Suddenly, Gan rolled into his legs, nearly throwing Avon off balance. Only with unusual agility did he keep his feet.

However, he was still holding on to Vila. His hands were mounted on the thief's shoulders, very close to his neck. With agonizing slowness, they approached Vila's windpipe, cradling it like a fragile bird. "Tell me what's so funny," he hissed in a very good Clint Eastwood imitation, "or I'll try to find out what's funny about your adam's apple."

Vila quailed under the threat. "Gee, I'm sorry, Avon, if you didn't get it. I guess you don't have such a good sense of humor after all. Stop being such a wet blanket. Come on, everyone, let's go to the relaxiroom. Leave old sourpuss here to himself." Vila deftly separated himself from Avon's vicelike grip and led the rest of the crew off the flight deck.

Avon stood there in the lounge well drained, breathing heavily, his leather and studs weighing him down like the ton of bricks they nearly were. He had sweated clean through his garments, which felt clammy and cold in Liberator's usual cool temperature. He stared after the departed crew with dull and lifeless eyes. His hands sought a lounger, somewhere to drop his tired, inert body. With a thud, he collapsed against a chair, ended up half in and half out of it.


In the rest center, there was an outpouring of high spirits and happiness such as Liberator had never seen. Vila made drinks for everyone, and for once Cally didn't object. They all slumped into lounge chairs and continued laughing. In fact, they couldn't help breaking out fresh every time they even looked at each other. Just the memory of the absolute fool they'd made out of Avon was enough to set them off again. Even catching another's eye brought on a new storm of guffaws and belly- laughs. It took many long minutes before they subsided into a state of exhaustion, their stomachs and chests aching from the mirth and risibility. And still, their faces were lined with smiles.

"Gosh, the look on his face!" began Jenna.

"Don't you dare," Cally warned. "You'll get us started laughing again, and my ribs are too sore. But I agree. I don't care what he does to us in revenge, it was worth it just to get him once."

Blake chuckled. "Vila, you've done a real service to humanity. If they still gave out the Nobel Peace Prize, I'd nominate you for this. I think we've punctured his vanity, at least a little."

"I don't know, Blake," said Gan, "he's awful hard to read. He's probably up there right now, plotting how to sell us all to Servalan or something. You hurt his pride a lot, you know. He'll stop at nothing to get back at us."

That impressed them all. Two intelligent remarks out of Gan in the same day!

"Yeah," said Vila, "but only if he finds out what was going on. As long as he thinks it's a real funny joke that he just couldn't get, we're safe. So don't anybody give it away."

"Absolutely," said Blake. "We just go on as if nothing has happened, let him stew in his own juice. Anyway, we'd better get back up there. We still have a rebellion to run." The others nodded, arose from their chairs, started to head for the door. But Blake stopped, and beckoned Vila over to him. "Just one question, Vila. I enjoyed the joke a lot, and enjoyed ganging up on Avon even more. But- -what are bears, bathtub, soap, and radio?"

Back on the flight deck, Avon was still slumped in his chair in the lounge well. As the others entered, they noticed his despondent appearance and exchanged silly, satisfied glances, hoping that the computer tech wouldn't notice. They needn't have worried. He might have been carved from stone for all that he seemed aware of their entrance.

They took their places, all except for Blake, who strode down to tower over the smaller Alpha, arms on his hips. "Are you all right, Avon?" he enquired solicitously. "Do you feel like going back to work? After all, we've got a mission to finish before we head for Avalon's charity benefit. And we need you at your place."

That got Avon's attention. Slowly, as if exhausted or in great pain, he lifted his head slightly, removed his hands from in front of his face, and peered up at Blake bleakly, his eyes bloodshot.

"Need me?" he croaked in a very hoarse voice. "For what? So that you can make fun of me again? I'm no use to you. You all hate me, and I don't blame you. I don't even have a sense of humor."

He started to cry. Blake wanted to put his arm around the tech to comfort him, but wasn't sure how some of the female readers would interpret his innocent action. Besides, they'd all wanted to get under Avon's skin, and they sure had, hadn't they?

With an effort, the leather- clad Alpha struggled to his feet. His eyes hooded under darkened lids, he surveyed the rest of the crew.

"I'm going to my cabin. I doubt any of you will see me again. I would prefer taking my meals alone and serving solitary shifts on watch up here." And with that, he stalked off the flight deck.

A few seconds after his exit, the others stared at each other and burst into laughter. Cally had to wipe the tears from her eyes. "Oh my," she said, "he took it even harder than I'd hoped he would. He will surely need comforting now, and be in a more receptive mood than ever. I will go and offer myself to him immediately." She scampered after him.

Jenna came up to Blake and rested her hand on his shoulder. "Well, we're a happy crew again. Minus one gloomy computer programmer, of course. How shall we make use of this awesome power?"

"For good, of course, and never for evil," said Blake, grinning, repeating the ancient, eternally familiar words of the Good Guys' Oath. "We've got to stop by a K- Mart or something to buy all the supplies Avalon needs for her cabaret. You know, paper plates, cups, napkins, streamers, plastic tableware, ice, tablecloths, garbage bags, etc."

"We're going to pay for all that out of the treasure room?" asked Vila dubiously.

"Of course not, we'll charge it all to Servalan's Terran ExpressTM Card. Orac got her account number last week."

Over the next few weeks, they saw little of Avon. He was around, he ate, he took his turn keeping watch on the flight deck, he played the video games in the rest center. But for all that they were personally aware of his presence, he might have been a ghost, a memory, a computer bug. He slipped through the ship like a wraith. One minute he was in his cabin, the next he was in the dining room, then he was at his position on the flight deck. He spoke to no one, would permit no one to speak to him. Cally was as frustrated and unmated as ever.

Avalon's charity benefit came and went. Vila was the big hit with the orphans, his antiquated jokes almost bringing down the house. Gan awed them with his strength, Cally delighted them by reading their minds. Jenna was prohibited from doing her bellydancing, as Avalon thought it was too adult for the younger children; so she sang a bunch of torch songs instead, which made Blake rather uncomfortable. His own poetry reading was a dismal failure, unfortunately. His martial ardor completely bypassed the poor orphans' understanding, and their own shattered memories of their parents' violent deaths at the hands of the Federation did not dispose them to sympathize with Blake's militance.

Still, the benefit was a big success. The children appreciated the other acts (for example, Avalon and Del Grant teamed up as a pantomime horse), and the paying audience cheered and called for encore after encore. All in all, it raised over fifty thousand credits for the hospital.

When they got back to the Liberator following the cast party, they found Avon still sulking. "You should have come!" Vila told the gloomy tech. "You'd have loved it! What a great time we all had."

Avon stifled a strange sound deep in his throat, a cross between a snort and a sob. "In that case I certainly didn't belong there. I would have just ruined everyone else's fun. Better I should have stayed here, where no one could see how miserable I am." He looked awful.

They all stared at him. Cally moved toward him. "Avon," she began.

He cut her off. "Don't say it. I know what you all think about me. Cold. Selfish. Mean. A wet blanket. Oh, I tried to fool myself into thinking that I'd finally found a place I really belonged, a group I could fit in with. I thought you'd accepted me." His voice broke.

"But I was just fooling myself. You were all being kind, pretending to like me, to put up with me, but you couldn't maintain the pretense forever. No, it's better I found out. There's no reason you should have to bother yourselves. Just because I'm such a blighted wretch is no reason for you all to suffer along with me. I thank you for your kindness, but this whole charade had gone on for far too long. I'll be leaving the ship soon, it doesn't matter where. Somewhere I can be alone, as I deserve, somewhere I can banish myself from the rest of humanity. There's no reason for me to inflict myself on anyone else."

An embarrassing silence followed the end of this little speech. No one quite had the courage to say anything. Avon looked at each of the others in turn, as if to confirm something to himself; then walked off the flight deck.

The others were still silent, almost in shock. Eyes popping, Blake and Jenna stared at each other. Both started talking simultaneously, saying, "I never thought he'd take it to heart like that!" Then, they turned on Vila, saying, "This is all your fault!"

Flustered, the thief backed away a little. "What do you mean, my fault? We all wanted to get back at him, not just me. Okay, I came up with the plan, but you all agreed to it. Don't blame me if he took it the wrong way."

Cally shook her head. "He did not take it the wrong way. He took it exactly as we'd planned, as we'd hoped. Only he is not strong enough to deal with it. Will we be strong enough to get by without him? For he is serious in his threat to leave us."

Vila was still upset. "Over a stupid little harmless practical joke? Where will he go? What will he do without us? I think you're all overreacting. He'll get over it, just give him a little more time. He's been shaken up, that's all. Maybe, when this is all over, he'll be a little more human, treat us a little nicer. That is what this was all about, after all. Right? Just don't let him panic us into giving up when we've almost won!" The thief had never argued so passionately before about anything; his obvious sincerity struck home in the others.

Still, they weren't fully convinced. "I don't know," said Blake. "He looked awfully desperate. In his current state he might try anything."

"He'll never leave Orac behind," said Gan. This drew amazed stares from the others. "No matter what he thinks about the rest of us, no matter what he thinks we think about him, he'll never go anywhere without Orac. That may be the only friend he has left, or so he thinks. And we'll never let Orac go, either."

Such totally unexpected intelligence from Gan left the others stunned, unable to say anything. Each secretly wondered whether the big guy was taking smart pills on the sly. Finally, Blake looked at them all and spoke. "I agree with Gan. And Vila. We've nothing to fear from Avon. He needs us, and the sooner he realizes it, the better. Come on, people, we've got a rebellion to run."

True to Gan's prediction, Avon did not leave the ship, at least not right away. However, he still kept to himself, and once, Jenna discovered him on the flight deck asking Orac about various planets. She wondered if he was checking out possible sanctuaries. None of them sounded like particularly salubrious spots. It seemed that he really was determined to banish himself from all human society forever.

Blake was beginning to regret the loss of his computer specialist and all- around gadfly. They'd had to abort one mission because no one in the crew could gain access to an information system. Another operation failed because, without Avon's constant pessimism and sarcasm, the rest of them were too sanguine about the risks and almost got caught.

As the weeks passed, the high they'd been on since the success of Vila's 'joke' began to evaporate. Jenna found that she still resented Cally for the Auronae's almost anorectic thinness. Vila's jokes and laziness began to pall on everybody. Gan lapsed back into his limited semisentience. And Blake bored them all silly with his constant speeches about the oppressive Federation. Suddenly, they realized what Avon had always seemed to know: revolutionaries aren't much fun.

"I'd do almost anything to have him back," Cally said one day, to no one in particular.

"Who?" Jenna asked, more out of boredom than a real desire to know.

"Avon, of course," the telepath answered. In her nonhuman innocence, she was completely unaware of the blonde pilot's antipathy to her; not that she would have understood it if she did catch on. As a matter of fact, she thought she was rather on the plump side for an Auronae female of her age and litter size.

"Well, there's not much chance of that," Jenna replied. "I'd say we've lost Mr. Uptight Alpha for good. He's left the ship. He just hasn't taken his body with him. Gan was right, he doesn't want to be without Orac."

"I know," said Cally, "he spends hours with that thing."

"Poor Orac," said Vila, who had just joined them in the recreation center. He was drinking something that didn't even look alcoholic.

"What?" Cally asked, pretending to be shocked. "No adrenalin and soma?"

The thief shook his head mournfully. "It's not the same without Avon telling me I'm becoming an alcoholic. Hmph! Becoming an alcoholic, indeed. I was an alcoholic by my eighth birthday. Still, I miss his nasty cracks."

The others nodded. Vila went on, "Just whose idea was it to pull a practical joke on Avon?"

"Yours," Jenna pointed out.

"What, me?" Vila cried. "Never! You're the one who said wouldn't it be great to prick his vanity, right? All I did was supply the means."

"If that's what you call it," said Jenna. "What a stupid idea, telling a deliberately pointless joke just to be mean to someone. I'm almost ashamed of myself for taking part. Avon's a human being too, you know, and we went out of our way to humiliate him."

"But he deserved it!" said Vila. "You all said so at the time. We all felt so good afterward, too."

"Yes, but look at the consequences," Jenna said. "He's taken it so much harder than we would have. I think we should apologize."

"It won't work," said Cally. "I've already tried. Last night. He nearly threw me out of his cabin. And he took a shot at me."

"Great," said Vila, "the only thing worse than a depressive Avon is a homicidal one."

"They're becoming one and the same," said Blake, who had just joined them at the table. "He's gonna kill himself soon, and I wouldn't be surprised if he tried to take us with him. I don't know, I miss him too. Oh, not the smugness and arrogance. But he was damned useful to the Cause, after all. Maybe we can't have one without the other. But how do we get him back?"

"I don't know," said Vila. "Tell him the truth? But then he'll really kill us. With that huge ego of his, can you imagine him taking lightly the fact that we really put one over on him?"

"So we have a choice," said Jenna, "keep silent and let Avon continue to be the Phantom of the Liberator, or tell him what we did and run the risk of letting him kill all of us in revenge. Some choice. I think I'll call my Amagon friends and see if they still need a good pilot."

"Gentlethieves Quarterly was advertising for a technical editor last month," said Vila. "My agent tells me they're willing to overlook what happened to their offices the last time I worked for them."

"It will be spring on Auron soon," Cally observed. "Perhaps I'll be able to find a mate at the annual Dirty Trancing Festival."

"Great," said Blake acidly. "What am I supposed to do if you all jump ship? Give up the rebellion? I can't run the Liberator with just Gan and Orac. Not with a terminally depressed computer genius prowling the passageways. It would be more fun to have Marvin the Paranoid Android on board."

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