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Smile When You Call Me That

By Marian Mendez
Page 1 of 4

Vila was trapped, desperate and terrified. He'd spent most of his life in that state, so it shouldn't have struck him as unusual. Vaguely, though, he felt he shouldn't be here in this brightly lit cornerless room facing another frightened man.

He didn't know where he should be, but anyplace would be an improvement. He looked for a way out. He didn't immediately recognize the door when he found it for it was recessed into the surroundings, an unmarked glossy white as curved as the wall. // Tools - I need my tools to open this.// In his panic, Vila hadn't realized that he and the other man were naked. Nudity didn't bother Vila; the loss of his tools did. // Something very bad is going to happen here.// Vila scrabbled at the unyielding door with his fingertips, risking his skilled hands without hesitation.

"Vila. Vila, you lout." An Alpha's accent, haughty and harsh, echoed from concealed speakers. Startled, Vila jumped. He stared at the walls half way up, where they changed from white ceramic alloy to unbreakable glass. // It's a one - way mirror.// He knew that, with an unreasoning certainty, just as he knew that behind the reflected images of himself and his fellow prisoner were tiers of luxurious seats filled with spectators. He could easily imagine them; Alphas all, come for an evening's entertainment, a momentary diversion from boredom.

"You useless Delta moron, " The Alpha spoke again.

The Alpha was angry. His voice fed an answering rage in Vila. Sensing disaster, he tried to suppress the feeling. Hard hands grasped Vila's shoulders. He stared into the hate- filled face of the other prisoner.

// He's going to kill me. Unless I kill him first. //

Vila stopped struggling with his conscience when the Alpha said, "Vila, do you want to die?" with a vicious snap. It was so easy to give in, so satisfying to beat at the sneering face, so pleasant to silence the hateful words with his hands around the throat of his persecutor.

Avon had come early for his watch. Blake had assigned the dog watch, when all the rest of Liberator's crew were asleep, to Vila. Avon doubted a Delta was capable of taking responsibility seriously. His doubts had kept him from sleeping soundly and he had decided that he might as well be awake on the flight deck where he could continue to familiarize himself with the alien ship. On his arrival, he was unsurprised to find the thief comfortably curled up on the couch, dead to the world.

//We might all have been dead. Blake's an idiot to trust this fool. We should have left him on Cygnus Alpha, where he belonged.// Vila muttered in his sleep, shifting restlessly as if he sensed Avon's anger. Avon kicked the side of the couch, causing the thief to jerk in response. "Vila. Vila, you lout," Avon growled, infuriated by the Delta's ability to sleep as soundly as a man with no sins on his conscience, or more likely a man with no conscience.

"You useless Delta moron," Avon put all his current venom and frustration into his voice. // I had a beautiful woman, a fortune in my hands, and the respect of my peers- such as they were. Now, I am a common fugitive taking refuge with rampant idealists and hopeless incompetents. And my life may very well depend on this particular incompetent remaining awake to watch a monitor. You'd think even a Delta - grade would value his life enough to carry out such a simple task. //

Avon grabbed the sleeping man by the shoulders and yanked him upright. "Vila, do you want to die?" He snarled into the sleep-smudged eyes that finally snapped open, wild and uncomprehending. He expected the thief to whine and protest, perhaps to flee. Avon tightened his grip; he intended to chastise the Delta thoroughly before he allowed him to escape.

Vila wasn't flinching away from the Alpha, though. There was a remote, cold ferocity displayed on the normally sly and ingratiating features. Avon froze, as startled as a man who discovers a tiger's spirit reflected in the eyes of a much- kicked alley cat.

Avon's life had always been more cerebral than physical. He had maintained his body with an efficient program designed to attain cardiovascular and muscular fitness. Rough and tumble street fighting had not been part of the curriculum. His initial shock at the hitherto meek Delta's fury lasted long enough for him to find himself pinned on the deck. Vila's entire weight rested on his chest with the thief's legs trapping Avon's arms against the Alpha's sides. Avon was having difficulty breathing even before Vila's powerful hands clenched tightly around his neck. Once they clamped down, he found it impossible. He kicked out, but his flailing feet only met air, air which he would much rather have taken into his starving lungs.

// This is too easy.// Vila's opponent had already gone limp. // Perhaps I don't have to kill him.// Vila loosened his hold and awaited the order from the Alpha master. // He's taking his bloody time.// Vila raised his head. // This isn't the arena. Just another damn dream.// He'd been sleeping poorly since his arrest. Stress and confinement always brought back the old nightmare.

// Oh, no.// Vila's head cleared and he wished he was back in the nightmare. He was sitting atop an alarmingly still body. "Avon? Oh, God, no. Wake up, Avon. I didn't mean it, really I didn't!"

The Alpha was waxen, his fine complexion marred by ugly purple - black marks ringing his throat. Vila scrambled off him and pulled him up to lie against the thief's chest. The dark head lolled limply. Lifelessly?

"Oh, God, Blake'll kill me. Oh, I wish I was dead already." Vila patted the too- pale cheeks, the motion disarraying Avon's hair. Vila smoothed it back in place only to ruffle it again when he shook Avon. "Please, Avon, don't be dead. Jenna'll shoot me. Gan'll snap me like a twig. Oh, Avon," Vila was sobbing in terror. "I know I'm only a Delta nothing and you're an Alpha genius, but won't you do me one little favor and please don't die?"

He kept up the shaking until Avon coughed weakly and began gulping air. "Thank you, Avon. I owe you one," Vila told the unconscious man.

Avon recognized the medical unit's distinctive odors and sounds. He surmised that the thief's fit of insanity had passed. He opened his eyes cautiously, in the event he was wrong. Vila was sitting at the bedside, looking as harmless as ever. "Vila..." Avon had to stop talking as his ravaged throat closed up, but the black glare he bestowed on the face bent over him was eloquent.

"Here, Avon, drink this." Vila held a glass to Avon's lips, supporting the Alpha's head and shoulders so that he could swallow.

// I don't imagine you're going to poison me after all this.// Avon accepted the drink and the gentle assistance without removing his gaze from Vila. // He looks terrified. He should be.// Avon silently watched the Delta fiddle with the medical monitors and the tissue regenerator resting lightly on the bruised throat. Well, there was silence on Avon's part. Vila's constant babble of apologies and pleas for mercy goaded the Alpha into speech as soon as the healing had advanced sufficiently to permit it.

"Shut up." Avon had decided not to kill the Delta. // I should assume partial responsibility for this --mishap. No matter how Vila behaves, he is a career criminal, likely to respond violently to a perceived attack.// "Be quiet. If you continue, I may yet see you deposited on the nearest planet, without regard to such niceties as a breathable atmosphere."

Vila's jaw closed with an audible snap. Despite himself, Avon grinned at the sight. //Centuries ago, you'd have made an excellent king's jester.// "That's better. Now, tell me, are you always so sweet-tempered when you awake? If so, I'll warn Blake not to serve you breakfast in bed."

Vila smiled feebly. He hadn't hoped that Avon would forgive him. He assumed the Alpha would either attempt to kill him outright or demand that Blake dump him on a world populated by hairy aliens to whom a tender Delta would be a delicacy. After all, Deltas were disposable property to most Alphas. //Maybe Avon considers himself so far above the rest of humanity that he can't distinguish between grades. He's looking at me as if I were a man; a man who he's mad at, true, but better that than the way Blake and Jenna do, as if I were a possibly useful tool.

//Gan is friendly and I really like the big guy, but I've got the distinct impression he's the type who picks up stray pups. I haven't asked, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if that's what he thinks of me. Avon doesn't look as if he pities me. Hell, he probably hasn't bothered feeling sorry for anyone, including himself, in years. Actually, what he looks now is impatient.//

Vila said, "Umm, well, no, not usually. I just had a bad dream, Avon and I didn't recognize you. I wasn't really awake yet, you see, and I thought it was all still, well, you know..."

Avon sighed. //No one can be as inane as this accidentally.// "Vila, what precisely did you think? And I use the term advisedly."

//He's still listening to me. Normally they get disgusted and send me away when I play imbecile. Avon's being remarkably patient for an Alpha. Unbelievably patient for a man I've just half- strangled. // The tissue regenerator bleeped, signaling the completion of treatment. Vila removed the device. He examined the smooth stretch of skin where his fingers had so recently gouged. He made up his mind to tell the whole tale to Avon. // I owe it to him. Besides, they might have thrown me off the ship anyway.// "It's a long story, Avon. That is, if you want to know the whys as well as the whats."

"I always want to know the whys, Vila. Frequently, they are far more interesting than the whats." Avon sat up. "But not here. Unlike you, I have an aversion to leaving my safety dependent upon the whims of an alien computer. We'll discuss this back on the flight deck. As your watch appears to have been restful, you should have no objection to sharing mine."

"Er, are you sure you want the whole story? I promise I'll never do anything like this again." Vila's resolve was weakening. He'd never revealed the truth about himself to anyone and was unsure how the Alpha would react. //We're getting along so well, I'd hate to spoil it.//

"Without knowing why you behaved this way on this occasion, I can not be certain of that." Avon glanced at his wristwatch, then back toward the entrances to the flight deck. "Convince me before Blake arrives for his turn on duty and I may keep the matter private. But you had better tell me nothing but the unadorned truth."

"Yes. Of course. Certainly." Vila cleared his throat. "I suppose I should begin when I was twelve." He glanced at Avon, checking to see if this pedestrian start was boring the Alpha. It was hard to say, for Avon had assumed a politely disinterested expression bound to discourage the most veteran storyteller. "Yes, I was twelve, a bit older really, closer to thirteen."

Avon sighed. //If he doesn't get to the point, he won't have to worry about reaching his next birthday.//

Vila made no claims to telepathy, but he caught that thought from Avon readily. "Anyway, I was livin' on my own, running odd jobs and such." He omitted specifics, reasoning (rightly) that Avon wouldn't appreciate sordid details. "Well, a gang thought I was cuttin' in on their territory and they caught me off guard and tried to teach me a lesson. I was givin' as good as I got, mebbe a bit more when the patrol picked up the lot of us for brawlin' in a public place..." Vila's accent coarsened as he spoke, mentally returning to the days of his youth.

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