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The Uses of Adversity

By Sheila Paulson
Page 2 of 33

Once Caston had been left behind without pursuit, Dayna fled the flight deck precipitously. Cally looked after her a moment, then said softly, "I shall go to her," and followed.

Exchanging a solemn look with Avon, the thief headed for the exit too, pausing there reluctantly. "Do you want me to stay, Avon?" he offered in a small voice.

"No." Avon's voice was sharper than usual. He controlled his temper and said in a level tone, "There is no need for you to remain if you would prefer to leave. I shall question Orac about its failure to teleport promptly." He headed for Orac in a menacing manner and a part of Vila wanted to stay and watch him annihilate the little computer, but another part only wanted to be left alone, so he nodded. "Give him a good one for me." He didn't look back.

He'd gone no further than his room when he realized he didn't want to be alone after all. Alone, it was all too easy to remember .the screams of the falling men and the sight of the Federation trooper. Alone, there was nothing to distract him from his vivid memories. Alone, he would do nothing more useful than soak up adrenalin and soma. That he wanted adrenalin and soma badly didn't matter now. He had a feeling he couldn't quite get drunk enough to blot out the memories.

It wasn't that he was all that fond of Tarrant, really, though he'd come to tolerate the young twit. But after losing Blake and Jenna--and in spite of Avon's determined search for Blake, there was no guarantee that he was alive or that he had even survived the Andromedan War--it seemed harder to lose someone else. First Gan had gone, then Blake and Jenna, and now Tarrant. It meant that any of them could die at any minute, and, presented with a depressing view of his own mortality, Vila opted for company. Avon was not the most cheerful of companions, but surely not even grief could stand up to Avon's basilisk glare.

Vila trotted back to the flight deck, prepared to seek comfort from the one person on the ship least qualified to give it.

Something made him pause in the entry. Perhaps Avon missed Tarrant too, and the last thing Vila wanted was to surprise an expression of grief on his friend's face. Better to come tripping in, falling allover his feet and winning Avon's scorn, than to slip in without a warning.

Avon was in conference with Orac, and while Vila could not make out the actual words of the conversation, he could hear Orac boring on and on. Possibly its justification for failing to bring up Tarrant. It would have to be a world-class explanation for Avon to tolerate it.

Suddenly Avon's face changed abruptly, revealing something Vila hadn't seen there in a long time. It was compounded of relief and even, unlikely as it might seem, happiness. That didn't last, of course. Avon was not a smiling man; even when he was happy, he glowered, and it took someone as clever as Vila to tell the difference. But whatever Orac had told him that had produced this surprising effect tell victim to Avon's natural suspicion and he narrowed his eyes, barking a sharp, "Are you certain?" at Orac that carried to Vila's hiding place.

Orac began another tediously long explanation, and Avon watched the computer with great suspicion, interrupting here and there with questions that allowed Vila to hear a word here or there, such unlikely ones as, "...voice print...," and, "...relay points..." It seemed to have nothing to do with Tarrant at all.

After another soliloquy by Orac, Avon started in, evidently giving Ensor's creation detailed instructions. His face had hardened, that moment of uninhibited joy vanished as if it had never been. It was almost as if Vila looked at a stranger, a cold, bitter stranger who held no trace of humanity at all. Perhaps he had been so surprised to discover as much of it left in him that he'd purged what remained of it.

This might be the wrong time to seek Avon's company. Vila started to back away, and managed to trip without intending it.

Avon's eyes pinned Vila in a near-lethal glare. "What are you doing there?" he barked.

"Nothing, Avon. Just coming along to keep you company."

"When I have need of your dubious company, I shall ask for it," Avon said furiously. "I will not have you eavesdropping on me. Go away. Get out of here now." The threat was so evident in his words that Vila found himself backing up as if he feared Avon would attack him.

But he didn't give way entirely. "Did Orac say anything, Tarrant?" he asked.

"No." Avon's lips drew taut over the word. "Get out of here. Tell the others to stay away, Vila. No one is to come in here."

"Oh, here now, that's hardly fair. You're not the only one who matters on this ship."

"Get. Out. Of. Here." He took a menacing step toward Vila and the thief's nerve finally failed him. He walked backward until he was out of sight, then he turned and ran all the way back to his cabin. Whatever Orac had said to Avon was lethal stuff, and Vila wanted nothing to do with it. Perhaps it was time to dig out the adrenalin and soma after all.

He was well into his second glass when a new thought occurred to him, one so horrifying that he poured himself a third glass and swallowed it in one gulp to avoid thinking about it. But the liquor had lost its power to deaden the nerve endings. He was completely sober. Feeling a little sick, he pushed the beaker away and put down the glass, facing a conclusion that stabbed like a sword.

What if Avon had lied? What if he'd been there all along? What if he'd told Orac not to bring them up? What if he wanted rid of them all?

It didn't fit all the facts. Avon had seemed genuinely shocked at Tarrant's death, genuinely furious at Orac. But he'd forgotten old Tarrant fast enough once Orac started talking. Orac was a dark horse, likely to turn on any of them if it felt the urge. Maybe Orac had been playing puppeteer, manipulating them all the time since they'd got it. Maybe it had suppressed Blake's and Jenna's messages and kept them away. Maybe it wasn't Avon who was getting rid of the crew one by one. Maybe it was Orac.

Vila shook his head. He was getting fanciful now. Orac couldn't have caused Gan's death. No. That had just happened, though Blake's pigheaded determination had helped it along quite nicely. But since then... Vila thought of all the nasty things that had happened to them and wondered how much of it was Orac's fault. Whatever it had said to Avon this time must be a stunner.

Vila heaved a sigh. Since Gan's death he'd found himself starting to like the other man, as unlikely as that seemed. Nothing would have impelled hi. to admit it, but he'd greatly enjoyed the slanging matches he and Avon had shared this past year, and he had a fair idea Avon enjoyed them too. Then Anna Grant had re-entered the picture, the nasty bitch, and Avon had frozen up again. Vila had had his work cut out for him to persuade the granite-faced tech to open up. Just lately, he'd felt he was making progress. But there'd been nothing like this before.

Maybe it was too much for him to handle on his own. He needed help, and the best help left was Cally. Maybe he should go looking for her. She might still be with Dayna, but Dayna wasn't one to accept comfort easily. She might have sent Cally away.

Squaring his shoulders, Vila left his cabin and went searching for Cally, determined to get to the bottom of this latest mess.

*** *** ***

"I do not know, Vila," said Cally. Vila had found her in her quarters engaged in some kind of Auron meditation. Her eyes held shadows for Tarrant, but she was alert and clever, and she wasn't afraid of Avon. It made her an ideal conspirator. Of course Dayna wasn't afraid of Avon either, but Dayna had been closer to Tarrant than either she or Tarrant had realized and she must feel like she'd had the stuffing kicked out of her right about now. So it had to be Cally.

"But something's wrong," Vila insisted. "You weren't there, Cally. That was not your normal Avon. I've never seen him so nasty--and I've seen him pretty nasty."

"Perhaps it is his means of covering his grief," she volunteered unconvincingly. She had been sitting cross-legged on her bed, but now she unfolded herself and stretched her arms and legs.

"Grief? Avon?" Vila's voice held heavy skepticism.

"Do not think that because he does not show it, Avon does not suffer, Vila."

"I know he suffers," Vila admitted. "Probably more than the rest of us, too, though he goes around acting like his high and mighty manner makes him immune. But Tarrant? He and Avon--"

"Were beginning to like each other," Cally insisted. "I have watched Avon these past two weeks, and he was very kind to Tarrant in his own way. It was not obvious, for expressing concern and sympathy is not his way. But a good fight with Avon would have done Tarrant much good. Avon seemed to know just when to provoke him. Perhaps he did not even realize it until now how much he relied upon Tarrant. He did trust him and knew that when it came to the point, Tarrant would back him, even though they'd argue ahead of time. He is hurting, Vila."

"Yes, he's hurting me. Yelling at me like that. I'm used to Avon picking on me, Cally. I quite like it. Means he knows I'm there, and we both have fun but this wasn't just picking on me. It was--nasty. Really bad. But the worst part is that just before that, for a minute, he looked happy. Really happy. That scared me."

"What would make him happy, Vila?" Cally asked. "Especially now. I do not believe your theory that Avon has decided to rid himself of us. It he wanted to do that, he would choose a more certain method than delaying a teleport."

"He'd come back and changed his clothes," Vila remembered. "It he'd wanted free of us, he could have left us down there. Then it isn't Avon, is it? It's Orac."

"We do not even know that, Vila." She concentrated. "We have too little information to act. I will go to the flight deck."

"Avon told me to keep you and Dayna away."

"This is not only Avon's ship," she said with that kind of resolute determination that she could manage so well. Cally didn't look tough, but perhaps she was a match for Avon after all.

"You--won't want me along, will you?" he asked uneasily.

For a moment, amusement twinkled in her eyes. "That's my Vila," she teased him gently. "No, don't come. It Avon has already sent you away, it might enrage him if you returned. I shall go alone."

"You're right, Cally, that's a good idea. Going alone, that is. He won't take it out on you, whatever it is. I know he won't."

She gave him a reassuring smile that didn't quite take. "Walk along with me part of the way, Vila."

"Walk along with you? Well, It you're sure I should..." He fell into step reluctantly. "Shouldn't we do something about Orac then?"

"If the problem is Orac, neither of us are qualified to deal with it, Vila," she reminded him. "Avon alone has the skill to cope with Orac."

Vila's heart sank. "That's right, he does," he muttered. "But if Orac's conning him... I don't like this, Cally. I don't like it at all."

"Neither do I. It is bad enough that Tarrant..."

Vila heaved a vast sigh. Everything was falling apart, and he couldn't imagine anything they could do to put it together again.

*** *** ***

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