Vila RidesBy Willa Shakespeare
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"Once again, you have 'volunteered' my services without consultation." Avon was not going to allow this latest presumption on Blake's part to pass without a fight. He had cornered the big rebel on the flight deck after Blake had vaguely outlined Avon's role in the latest mission.
"He volunteered me, too. Without so much as a by-your-leave, either," Vila added. The thief hadn't put up much of a argument at first; after all, nobody listened to Vila's objections, anyway. But if Avon was going to try to get out of his part of the job, then Vila didn't see why he shouldn't take advantage of the opportunity to complain.
Blake met Avon's hostility with exasperated patience. He had hoped that informing Avon of the mission in advance would mollify the touchy technician. It hadn't. As usual, Avon took things the wrong way. Also as usual, Vila was more than happy to add to the confusion. "If I waited for either of you two to volunteer for anything, I'd have a long, white beard. This is a simple mission." Blake ignored Avon's skeptically raised eyebrow and continued, "Cally and I have been asked to consult with the rebel forces of Hippion. It's an isolated frontier world with few technological resources. They asked for my assistance, and I agreed."
"I didn't agree," Avon said.
"Me neither," Vila added, popping his head out briefly before ducking back behind Avon. He didn't really think that Blake could get angry enough to hit him, but if he was wrong it couldn't hurt to have someone who liked confrontations there to absorb the impact.
Avon flicked a glance back at Vila, mildly amused by the thief's presumption that he would serve as a Blake - deflector. He resumed his argument with Blake. "You see, Blake, even the worm can turn, given sufficient provocation. Hadn't you better ask rather than assume compliance with your wishes?"
"All right, Avon." Blake sighed. Some days on Liberator it was more like running a pre - school creche than a revolution. "And Vila, I'm asking. On Hippion, the rebels have taken a safe containing vital information, almost certainly computer encoded, from the Federation commander's office."
"The whole safe?" Vila asked, his eyes wide, astonished by the stupidity and stubbornness of the Hippion rebels. They were a match for Blake at his most dogmatic.
"They couldn't get it open, so they took it out of the wall."
"An admirable pack of fools," Avon said dryly, "Steal something of no feasible utility, then dangle it as bait to gain themselves a visit from the famous Roj Blake and his infamous crew."
Blake had quite enough of Avon's carping. "Look, Avon, I'm not twisting anybody's arm. It's a simple mission; we don't even have to approach a Federation installation. It's a lovely, unspoiled world - "
"A holiday resort, in other words?" Avon smiled. "Next, you'll have us making reservations."
"I'm going," Blake said. "And Cally is. If you two would rather sulk on Liberator then I suppose I'll have to open that safe myself."
"Here, now," Vila cried, insulted. "You don't know anything about locks. Why, even Avon's better than you at that."
"Oh, thank you," Avon murmured. "Faint praise from an imbecile- my day is complete."
"I may not be as subtle as Vila, but I'll find a way." Blake set his jaw. "Of course, it may be a trifle messy."
"Yeh, bits of burnt Blake littering up that nice, unspoilt countryside once you set off the security charges." Vila shook his head. "I hate to say this, but..." Vila paused, then said, "I don't believe myself. I'm volunteering to go. I hope my mother never hears about this. It's a disgrace to the family tradition."
"Thank you, Vila. Avon, there really isn't any need for you to accompany us to the planet's surface. Once Vila gets the information, I can bring it up to Liberator and let you decode it in the comfort, and safety, of your own cabin."
"It is not a question of my personal safety, Blake, and you know that perfectly well. I will not be lumped in with the rest of your blindly loyal followers."
"Of course," Blake replied mildly. "I have always had a separate classification just for you, Avon. Believe me, blindly loyal is not on the label."
Avon narrowed his eyes. "It's good then, that we agree on one thing, at least." Avon stalked away.
Blake watched him leave the flight deck, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"That's it?" Vila wanted to know. "I'm stuck with the job and Avon gets to lounge around on his bum up here? He'll be alone with Jenna, Blake," Vila said, suddenly alarmed. "Aren't you worried what he might be planning?"
Blake shook his head. "No. He isn't blindly loyal, Vila, but I trust him." He grinned. "And I trust Jenna, too."
When Liberator reached Hippion, Avon appeared in the teleport room. He was dressed in dark brown synthe-leather trousers and jacket over a cream-colored shirt that looked like natural wool. He was also wearing a surly expression and a Liberator hand-gun strapped to his waist.
Blake glanced up at him, then looked back at Jenna, who was setting the teleport controls. "Yes," he said, "that's the co-ordinates they gave." He met Avon's eyes. "Come to see us off?"
Avon turned the full force of his glare on Blake. "I've decided to accompany you. You need looking after, Blake. And I don't need you to cause any disasters which I will have to rectify."
"Thank you, Avon. As always, your invaluable contribution is appreciated."
Avon stiffened, resenting Blake's sarcasm. He was already annoyed with himself for giving in to Blake. It wouldn't take much to make him change his mind.
Vila saw Avon's reaction and said, quickly, "I'm glad that Avon is coming with us."
Avon mocked, "Why, Vila, I didn't know you cared."
"I don't actually, but with both you and Blake along, I have twice as many people to hide behind when the shooting starts."
"Vila." Cally shook her head in mild protest. "There will be no shooting. Besides, you didn't take me into consideration. Don't you trust me to look after you?"
"With Blake, there's always shooting," Vila said, "and I didn't count you because you're too skinny to make much of a shield."
Blake joined the others in the teleport area. "Coming, Avon?" He spoke seriously this time and waited for Avon's response.
Avon met Blake's clear, open, gaze for a few seconds before sighing and moving to Blake's side. "Well, if we're going, we may as well go now." He drew his weapon. His pose was alert, but the stiff-backed anger had vanished.
Blake nodded to Jenna. "Liberator is all yours, Jenna. Put us down."
With a final, "Good luck," Jenna complied. She contemplated the empty chamber for a moment. "Oh, if only it was, Blake." She shook her head and left the teleport room. As the lone crewmember, she intended to spend all her time on the flight deck. Zen and Orac were capable, but they had different priorities than she did.
"Some holiday world," Vila grumbled. He put down his box of lock-picking tools and hugged himself. He stamped his feet, trying to restore feeling, then blew on his stiffening fingers. "It's bloody cold, Blake! Why didn't anyone warn me, so's I could have got a thermal suit?"
"It is not that cold, Vila," Cally said. She and Blake were enjoying the crisp, clean air. It was scented by the wild growth surrounding the clearing where they were to meet the local rebels, totally unlike the sanitized, recirculated, artificially oxygenated, atmosphere of Liberator.
"Try not to think about it, Vila," Blake advised.
Vila snapped, "It's all right for you lot. I see you all dressed warm." He stared enviously at Blake's heavy jacket and Cally's thick sweater, but Avon's outfit was the worst. Vila was shivering in his tunic and light trousers, the cold ground sucking all the warmth from his poor feet, which were inadequately clad in crepe-soled plimsols, while Avon had the nerve to be smugly comfortable in leather and wool. Why, he even had fur-lined boots and gloves.
Avon followed Vila's greedy appraisal down to his boots and smiled. "If you had thought to consult Zen, as I did, you could have been prepared. Now, you shall have to suffer the consequences of your lack of foresight."
"I'll be suffering the consequences of a lack of forefingers, Avon. Have a heart, my hands are freezing. How d'ya expect me to open that safe, if my hands are all frost-bitten?"
"Don't be melodramatic, Vila." Avon examined the shivering thief. Vila did have a low tolerance to cold, it was possible that his complaint was legitimate. Avon stripped off the leather gloves that Vila had been coveting and gave them to the thief. "Take these."
"My feet are cold, too," Vila remarked hopefully, while pulling on the supple gloves. The soft fur lining retained Avon's warmth and Vila's fingers curled happily in their new home.
"Not a chance, Vila," Avon told him. "My boots wouldn't fit you, anyway."
"Someone's coming." Cally's announcement made the Liberator crew dive for concealment in the undergrowth. Vila yelped and squeezed in beside Avon, who had appropriated the nearest cover.
"Idiot," Avon whispered angrily, "you left your tools."
Vila saw the box lying in plain sight in the centre of the clearing. "You want them, you get them." He flinched and grabbed Avon's gun arm. "Animals, Avon. Big animals!" He pointed with his free hand to the beast emerging from the woods surrounding the clearing.
"It's only a horse. You should be more concerned about its rider." Avon shook Vila's grip loose, then sighted on the human head just visible beyond the shaggy horse's mane.
The horse halted in the middle of the open space, by Vila's box. Its rider raised his hands up, holding them high above his head. "Blake, it's me, Fil."
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