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The Uses of Adversity

By Sheila Paulson
Page 1 of 33

It seemed like there were Federation troopers everywhere. One moment they'd been enjoying the remote, pastoral planet, the next they were fighting for their lives.

The whole thing had begun as a form of therapy. Tarrant's brother had died a few weeks earlier. Once they'd left the Teal-Vandor Convention behind, his natural high at avenging his brother's death had faded, leaving him morose and silent. After enduring his gloomy brooding on the flight deck for a week or so, even Avon had begun to feel the need of a change, and when Cally had suggested they take a brief holiday, no one had disagreed. The planet Caston seemed appropriate, deserted except for one small human settlement, which they could easily avoid. Zen selected a beautiful site and they went down, leaving Orac to mind the teleport. Not even Avon resisted, but he didn't stay with the others. He went to investigate the volcanic system that seemed to coexist with the natural beauty of the meadows where they had materialized. No great cones spewed lava, but rather, it oozed up from the ground, pouring down toward the distant sea, a slow, inexorable river that would make the night sky glow. Preferring to avoid volcanoes after their visit to Obsidian, Dayna and Tarrant had headed in the opposite direction and Cally and Vila had followed them.

Somehow, it fell to Vila to keep an eye on Tarrant, though the thief didn't know how it had come about. Cally had warned the rest of them it might be best to make certain he wasn't alone, but when Vila awoke from a brief nap in the sunshine, the women had wandered off and only Tarrant remained. The pilot was half drowsing beside him, lying on his stomach, his chin propped on his hand. He looked lethargic but not particularly miserable, and Vila suspected the rest cure had finally done its work. Maybe they could return to the ship now and find a better resort, one that included good bars.

"One thing's wrong with this place," he ventured, half expecting Tarrant to bite his head off, as he'd been doing every time anyone talked to him lately. But the beauty of the planet had done its work well, for Tarrant rolled over on his back and stared up at the rosy-tinted sky.

"What's the one thing wrong with this place, Vila?" he asked tolerantly, a half-smile on his face. At his best, Tarrant was like this, though at his worst, he seemed a great bully, determined to make Vila take risks and bestir himself when he only wanted to be left in peace. Yet there were times, not that he'd ever admit it, when Vila rather liked the great lout. Give him a few years to stop rushing into danger without looking and he might be fairly tolerable, especially if Vila could have a hand in the molding process.

"No bars," Vila said. "All this nature--it might be good for Cally and Dayna. They're used to the outdoors. But I'm used to the domes. Took me forever to get used to all this space." He waved a hand at the vault of the sky. "Didn't seem as bad on Cygnus Alpha at first, but when we went to Saurian Major--where we found Cally--the sky was red and it looked like it was going to press down and smother me. I didn't like it. Avon didn't either," he added knowingly. "But he wouldn't let it show. Protects himself very well, does our Avon."

"I've noticed," said Tarrant wryly. "For all the good it does him. If nothing touched him, he wouldn't be the way he's been lately. He could've killed his Anna and walked away without looking back. He thinks that's what he's done, but he's wrong."

"So now you're an Avon expert," Vila piped up, looking up at the sky and wondering why It seemed to much more alien than the ceilings of the domes when they were man-made and this was natural. But it wasn't natural for him.

"l doubt anyone's an Avon expert," Tarrant replied. "Unless It's Blake. But he ran, didn't he? Maybe Avon was one of the things that drove him away."

Vila sucked in his breath and looked around hastily to make certain Avon hadn't overheard. "Don't say that too loud, Tarrant. It just might be true--that Blake finally had enough of Avon and didn't want to come back.. They didn't get on very well, toward the end. I think he's considered that, though. I sometimes think he doesn't believe anyone could care about him."

"So he goes out of his way to be nasty," Tarrant replied, adding thoughtfully, "and gives them a reason. If they stay away because he's nasty to them, then they don't stay away because he's basically unlovable, is that it?"

Vila was surprised because that was precisely it, something he'd wondered at for a time but had never fully conceptualized. He knew it was far more than that--one couldn't define Avon by any simple theory, though that one wasn't far wrong. But he hadn't expected Tarrant to know it. He turned and stared at Tarrant through narrowed eyes.

"Well, it makes sense. He's been a bit better just lately."

"He's been as nasty to me as ever," Tarrant began, then he caught himself. "No he hasn't. He's seemed that way on the surface, but it's because that's the way he and I get on best. Catch him being sympathetic?" Recalling Deeta, Tarrant went silent a moment, then he said firmly, "He's had a brother once, or go you've said. I think he's being nice to me."

Vila opened his mouth to say, 'He's got a funny way of showing it,' and at the last minute, didn't. Tarrant was right. In his own gruff way, Avon had been remarkably forbearing with the younger man In the past few weeks. "You're right," he discovered. "He was nice to me that way too, when Kerrill--"

Tarrant nodded. "I was an ass about that whole mess," he said, far more easily than Vila had expected. "I said it was no worse than usual for you down there, but it was."

"I don't like dangerous missions," Vila said, knowing Tarrant wouldn't mock him this time. "I had a feel about the place. I still don't like outside that much, but most of the time, the rest of you are there too. When we go down and break into bases, they're inside. I don't like being outside by myself. It isn't natural. Then, when I got in, Bayban was there." He smiled suddenly. "And Kerrill."

"Dayna thought I was a bloody fool about Kerrill," Tarrant admitted. "I think I was. Sorry, Vila."

Vila nodded, a little embarrassed. "Sorry about Deeta," he said in return. "I think I would have liked him."

"How could you..." Tarrant's voice trailed off. "You were in the link," he remembered.

"I came out of it before you did," Vila admitted, realizing Tarrant wanted to talk about it. It wasn't the thief's first choice, but Cally would get at him if he didn't make the effort. "But I was in there for awhile, and what I saw, I liked. He was too good with his gun for the likes of me, but I'm used to people with guns. He had--" he hesitated, looking for the right thing to say, something that would actually help, though he doubted anything would. "He had honor. Wouldn't shoot Vinni in the back."

"Look where it got him," Tarrant replied sadly. He looked rather as if he meant to cry, and Vila stared at him, horrified. What would Cally expect of him then?

But he never found out. A shout made them both spin around, scrambling to their feet, only to duck and go for weapons as Federation troopers seemed to emerge from the very ground, not too far away.

The soldiers couldn't have recognized them so quickly, but they weren't predisposed to friendliness. Guns came up and Vila and Tarrant dived for cover as best they could. Scrambling hastily behind a convenient rock, Vila thumbed the button on his teleport bracelet and bawled, "Orac, bring us up immediately!"

Nothing happened. He turned wide, frightened eyes on Tarrant, who said, "Maybe they've gone off station."

"More likely that nasty little box is playing games and can't be bothered with us. What'll we do, Tarrant?"

When Tarrant's call for help evoked no response, the pilot glanced around. "We'll try to work our way over to the volcanic area," he said. "More cover just this side of it. Stay low, Vila, and run."

Vila fled. It seemed that a blaster bolt was always just missing his head or his arm or some other important part of his anatomy, and once Tarrant bit back a choked cry and clutched at his leg, but the wound must have been minor because it didn't slow him down. They took turns giving each other cover, taking pot shots at the troops, and managed to down a few of them, but there were still halt a dozen left and likely to be more any minute.

Then there were more, at least one more, popping up right in front of Vila. The terrain had roughened beneath their feet, hardened lava making running treacherous, and Vila stumbled and nearly tell--into the arms of one more trooper. He blurted out a terrified cry and tried to struggle free. "Tarrant!"

The pilot dove for the trooper, catching him around the waist and bearing him away from Vila, as they struggled for control of the trooper's gun. Near to panic, Vila ducked behind a handy outcrop of rock and sent off a few random shots at the other troopers, who had pulled back to wait. One of them returned fire, forcing Vila to shrink down behind his rock.

It was much hotter there, and Vila realized they had come right up to the lava flow in their desperate flight. "Orac," he yelled into his teleport bracelet. "If you don't bring us up this very minute, I shall--"

He broke off in mid sentence as Tarrant's and the trooper's struggles took them nearer and nearer to the little cliff that overhung the main lava flow. "Tarrant, watch your feet," shouted Vila in warning. "You're too close--"

But his cry was too late. Suddenly the lip of the cliff crumbled beneath their feet. While Vila stared in horror, making a futile and abortive dive in that direction, Tarrant and the trooper went crashing over the edge. Twin yells burst out, full of fear and outrage, and stopped abruptly.

Shaking with panicked reaction, Vila edged forward, ignoring the troopers. Perhaps five meters below him, the lava oozed past in its snail's race to the sea. As Vila watched, the trooper's body vanished beneath it, along with Tarrant's gun. The pilot had already been swallowed up, for there was no trace of him.

Naked shock held Vila rigid for perhaps ten seconds, then reaction took him and his body was wracked by dry heaves. He heard the rest of the troopers pelting up, the stones rattling beneath their pounding feet, and he froze, trapped between them and the fire, nowhere else to go. Then, moments before they reached him, the teleport took him and he fell gasping, to the teleport grid under the startled gaze of Kerr Avon.

"Where the bloody hell have you been!" Vila cried accusingly. "I've been calling and calling. Damn you, Tarrant's dead and it's all your fault!"

Avon froze as if he'd been poleaxed, his face going curiously still. "Dead?" he repeated in a voice that held no emotion at all.

"There's Federation troops down there, Avon. Some kind of underground base. They came upon us and chased us and one of them fought with Tarrant. They fell into the lava." He shuddered. The sight of the trooper's body catching flame before his eyes just before It was engulfed would live with him forever. At least he hadn't been forced to watch Tarrant die.

Shock ran across Avon's face too. The old stone face couldn't stop his reaction to that, thought Vila with bitter satisfaction. "Why wouldn't you teleport us?" he demanded accusingly.

"Orac was on call," he said. "I'd just returned to the ship and gone to change my clothes. As I came along the passage, I heard you calling and I got here as quickly as I could. As for Orac, I suspect it has been engaged in private research."

"Private research!" echoed Vila numbly. "I'll give him private research. I'll give it with an axe."

"Perhaps I will help you," Avon replied. He sat at the controls and fiddled with them a moment. Nothing happened. Vila realized he'd tried to bring up Tarrant. Now he abandoned the attempt and signaled Cally and Dayna. "Stand by to come up. The Federation is here."

The moment the two women were on board, Avon set off for the flight deck in a near run, no doubt to set a new course for the Liberator. Cally and Dayna stared at Vila, who had hauled himself to his feet and was standing sickly beside the bracelet tray. "Vila, what is wrong?" Cally asked. "I know it is something terrible. Where is Tarrant?"

Dayna tensed automatically, as if Cally were broadcasting her tensions for all of them to feel. "Yes, Vila, where's Tarrant?" she asked. "Was he caught?"

"No," said Vila in a small voice. Suddenly cold, he wrapped his arms across his chest and dropped his eyes so as not to witness their reaction. "He's dead."

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