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Technical Advisor

By Nicola Mody
Page 1 of 4

Vila Restal was worried. Jenna and Blake were sitting up a tree down on the planet below, with Travis and his mutoid in another, waiting for dawn to fight to the death.

What if Blake didn’t make it back? Vila would never have chosen to be a rebel outlaw, constantly pursued by the Federation (well, that last bit wasn’t so different from his former life) but he liked and trusted Blake enough to stay with him. It was the closest he’d come to belonging anywhere since his mother died. He suspected Avon would take over if anything happened to Blake, and it wasn’t a prospect he relished.

And what if Jenna didn’t come back? She was their pilot. Well, Zen could control the ship, follow a course, but you needed a good human pilot for close quarter manoeuvres with pursuit ships; even for the rather unsubtle ploy they had recently tried, that of ramming Travis’s ship; which was not something Zen would think of, Vila suspected. Not that it had worked. They were now stuck there like flies in amber until the beings on the planet below got bored with their game and let them go.

Jenna’s voice floated out of the sound system. “If we get out of this, it won’t be any better...”

“She’s right,” Vila said to Gan. “Jenna’s right, you know. Why should it be any different? We’ll have the Federation after us till the day we die.”

“Who says?” Gan answered, “We’ve been lucky up till now. We’ll be lucky again.”

Vila checked that Avon and Cally were far enough away not to hear him. “Have you thought about what might happen if those two don’t get back? I mean, could you operate this ship properly?”

“Let’s just listen,” Gan said, trying to hear what Blake and Jenna were saying.

“Well, could you?” Vila demanded.

Gan looked silently at Vila until he dropped his eyes.

Vila shrugged, feeling ashamed and defensive. “Look, it was a long time ago,” he muttered.

***

Jenna sat back in the pilot’s seat and stretched.

“Go and get some rest,” Blake said. “Zen can handle things from now on. Neither of us got much sleep in that damn tree.”

Jenna yawned. “Avon’s on watch in five minutes. I’ll wait for him.” She grimaced. “I bet he didn’t have any difficulty sleeping while we were down there.”

“I think Vila did,” Blake laughed. “He looked very relieved to see us.”

“Probably worried he’d have to do some more work.”

“He has a point though. The crew can’t afford to lose anyone really. You in particular.”

“Oh? Nice to know I’m valued,” Jenna grinned.

“Still, we could do with a backup pilot. It would take the pressure off you.”

“Don’t see the point myself. Most of the time we’re following a course at a set speed, and Zen’s quite capable of monitoring for any deviations. If we have to dodge plasma bolts or asteroids though, it’s going to have to be me.”

“In other words, you’re irreplaceable.” Blake looked amused.

Jenna cocked her head to one side. “Not if it means I have to stay on board all the time,” she said sharply. She thought for a moment. “I could teach Cally. I think she’d be good. And both Vila and Avon are capable of being adequate pilots, I think.”

Blake raised his eyebrows. “Avon, yes. He did very well getting that pod on board. But Vila?”

“You mean you haven’t noticed? He knows his way around a space-ship, and I’m sure he knows a lot more than he lets on. All right, he didn’t know what an anti-orbital posture was, but that was Zen using a very technical and obscure term. Don’t you remember when we were caught in that web and you asked Vila to locate the gravity source and plot a course away from it? He did a very fast and accurate job. I know because I checked it. Don’t you think that’s odd for a Delta-grade thief from the domes?”

“Well, he’s very bright, even if he does play the fool. Perhaps he’s a quick learner.”

“Oh, he is, for all his complaints that he’s being overworked. But I didn’t show him how to do that.”

Blake chuckled. “The Liberator in Vila’s hands? I hate to think what he’d get up to. Either go to sleep at the controls or do loop-the-loops for the sheer fun of it.”

Jenna grinned. She’d tried a few stunts herself when on watch alone. “Well, I’m not sure which one of those two I’d choose. Vila’s a lazy coward according to Vila himself, but you were pretty impressed with him down on Saurian Major and Centero. And I think he’s basically loyal. I’m not sure if Avon is.”

“Oh, he has his own agenda, but I doubt if he’d sell us out, Jenna.”

“All right,” Jenna sighed. “Purely in my interests, so I’m not stuck on board all the time, I might give them both a few basic lessons.” She rolled her eyes. “That will be fun. An alien, a know-it-all and the class clown.”

***

A week or so later, Blake wandered into the rec room to make himself a hot drink after his watch. Vila was sprawled in a chair reading a book-pad, his feet up on the table beside an empty plate. He looked up eagerly, always ready for a chat.

“Hello, Blake. Just had some cheesy toast. Want some?”

Blake realised how hungry he was, and sat down. “That would be nice, Vila.”

“Coming up.” Vila put his book down and went over to the bench. “Onions? Freshly-ground black pepper?”

“Just the basics. I’m a man of plain tastes, Vila.” Blake picked up Vila’s pad and looked at it curiously, raising his eyebrows. “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Enjoying it?”

“Wouldn’t read it otherwise. I downloaded it last week, the full version, mind you, not the one the Federation lets you read. Very juicy in parts.” Vila started slicing cheese. “I like ancient history, the classics. The old myths and legends too. Surprised, aren’t you?” He looked around. “A lowly Delta-grade like me?”

“I’ve given up being surprised about you, Vila,” Blake said, putting the pad down. “It’s far too tiring. The only thing that puzzles me is why you weren’t ever regraded.”

“Turned it down,” Vila said lightly, sliding four slices of bread under the grill. “Too much like hard work.”

Blake shook his head. What a waste of talent. He wondered what Vila would be capable of if he put his mind to it. Ah, that reminded him. “How are you getting on with your pilot training? Jenna says you’re picking it up very well.”

“Course I am. She’s been teaching me how to break orbit and run for it. Comes naturally to me.” Vila grinned at Blake. “I find sneaking back later to rescue everyone a bit more difficult.”

“I wouldn’t worry, Vila. You’re much more likely to be on the surface opening locks and waiting for someone else to sneak back and rescue you.”

“Oh, wonderful. I can’t wait,” Vila turned the toast over.

“Where did you learn to fly, Vila?”

Ow!” Vila sucked his burnt finger. “Did Gan tell you? I asked him not to—”

“Gan didn’t tell me anything, and I doubt if he would if you didn’t want him to. You can’t fool Jenna though.”

“Well, it was ages ago. I’m not even sure you can count it really. I was sent to this penal colony—”

“Oh? And I thought you were the best in the business.”

“Only happened the twice. Then and when I met you. And anyway,” Vila said, aggrieved, “it was hardly my fault...”

***

“I’m through,” Vila said, standing back. “It’s unlocked, but—”

Alaris pushed him aside. “Out of my way then,” she said impatiently, grasping the wheel on the vault door.

“Hey, don’t do that!”

“Why?” Alaris stopped and looked at him.

“I don’t like it. Something’s wrong.”

Alaris laughed. “You’re always worried, kid.”

“Look, it’s too easy. Just let me check for booby-traps.”

“Forget it.” Wenz’s eyes glittered greedily. “Open it, Alaris.”

“No, wait!” Vila looked around the room. “There’s something, I know there is.” Just as Alaris began to open the door, he saw it—a standard sprinkler in the ceiling above them. What was wrong with that? No heat detector. “Gas!” he yelled, turning to run, colliding with Wenz. The big man grabbed him to push him aside, then stopped still as they heard the hissing.

“Quick, Vila! Grab what you can!” Wenz pushed him back towards the vault.

“No!” Vila wriggled out of his grasp. “Run!” He dodged Wenz and fled down the corridor, his cheeks distended with the effort to hold his breath. His chest hurt and he was starting to see little black spots—surely he was far enough away to risk a breath. He stopped, leaned against a wall, gasping. As he fell, his last thought was that the clever bastards had filled the whole bank with gas.

***

“...and I got sent to be conditioned again, because they said I was a compulsive thief. That’s a laugh, isn’t it? Me compulsive? If I was, I’d have filled my pockets in that vault, and everything you lot owned would be in my cabin.”

“It was a nice simple category to put you in, Vila. I doubt anyone involved in treating you would want to admit to failure, so they’d have to cover themselves.”

“Yeah well, they failed again. At least it meant I didn’t go back to the JD wards. Out of their league by then. I got five years on CF1. I suppose I should have been flattered.” Vila grinned and slid the toast out, and began adding the cheese slices. His face became mournful as he slid the toast back under the grill. “Almost did for my poor mum though. She couldn’t take seeing her little boy sent away like that...”

***

Vila leaned against the bars of the holding cell, his arms around his mother on the other side, his wet face pressed to hers.

“I’ll never see you again,” Jandy Restal sobbed, her hands stroking Vila’s dark-blonde hair. “Five years is too long.”

“Yes, you will. I’ll escape. I promise,” Vila said, kissing her cheek. “You’ve got lots of medicine. Serrin and Doty will look after you. But I’ll come home soon, you’ll see.”

“I’ll never see you again,” Jandy repeated, trying to kiss as much of Vila’s face as she could reach.

“I’ll escape.”

“All right, that’s enough,” the guard said. “Time to go.”

“No!” Jandy screamed, holding Vila tighter. “Not yet!”

The guard dragged her back from the bars and out the door, while she struggled desperately, her head turned back for a last glimpse of her son.

Vila stayed there for a while, holding on to the bars and crying quietly, then finally wiped his face on his sleeve and edged round the walls of the cell, head down, and curled up in a corner. He jumped when he felt someone touch him. It was Alaris, putting her jacket over him.

“Cheer up, kid,” she said. “We’re better off than Wenz. They said he’s going to Cygnus Alpha. At least we’ll be coming back.”

Vila snuffled miserably.

“Come on, Vila, you can have the pleasure of telling me ‘I told you so’.”

***

“Your mother was ill?”

“Been ill for years. That was why I became a thief so young.” Vila had his back to Blake, ostensibly checking the grilled cheese. His voice sounded muffled. “Deltas don’t get the expensive drugs she needed.”

“Ah.” Blake said. “Was that why you refused a higher grade?”

“They wouldn’t let her go with me.” Vila sounded angry, but paused and continued in his more familiar light tones. “I was going to be a thief anyway. Just not that young. Well, I’d been opening locks for years, it was obviously my calling. And anyway, thieving’s a good profession—short hours, excellent fringe benefits, no taxes or paperwork.”

“Some unfortunate occupational hazards though. How old were you when they sent you away?”

“Fourteen.”

Blake was appalled. “That’s very young to go to a penal colony!”

“Oh, CF1 wasn’t that bad.” Vila put the toasted cheese on a plate, brought it over to Blake and sat down. “Correctional Facility One. For first offenders, white-collar criminals, younger ones like me, non-violent crimes. I was scared, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be...”

***

Vila stayed close to Alaris when they were herded onto the Glasgow, and shadowed the tall dark woman after they were released from their launch seats. When he bumped into her for the second time, she glared at him with exasperation.

“What are you doing, Vila? If you’re trying to pick my pockets or cop a feel, I’ll break your fingers.”

Vila gulped and stepped back. “But you’re the only person I know.”

“We’ve known each other for five days.” Alaris put her hands on her hips.

“Well,” Vila looked nervously around the room, “I’m the youngest one here. And the smallest. Know what that’s like, don’t I?”

“You can’t have been deported before.”

“I was in the Juvenile Detention wards. That was bad enough.”

Alaris’s eyes softened. “All right, kid. You can stick with me.” She wagged her finger at him. “But not that close. I only have a vestigial maternal instinct.”

She punched up a drink on the dispenser, and sat down at one of the tables. Vila brought over a glass of juice and pulled up a chair opposite her. Alaris looked around at the other prisoners.

“I’m no expert either, kid, but the first thing you have to learn is to act tough and never show fear.” She looked back at Vila’s pale face and wide brown eyes, and shook her head. “All right, scrap that. What you do is get in with a group, and look after each other. Like that lot over there. Come on.”

Vila turned to look. “Not them!”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like the look of them.”

“Vila!”

“I knew about the gas, didn’t I? I can tell things, that’s all.”

“Well, who would you suggest?” Alaris asked with exaggerated patience.

“Them. They look nice.” Vila pointed towards two men and a woman standing together in a corner, talking.

“Nice.” Alaris rolled her eyes, but made her way casually towards them with Vila behind her.

“Hello. Who’s the kid?” one of the men asked her. “He belong to you?”

“Absolutely not! We just happened to be on the same job together. That’s Vila Restal. Doesn’t look like much, does he, but he’s one of the best cracksmen in the business.”

Vila looked up at Alaris, uncertain whether to be insulted or flattered.

“Yep, if you want to get through a lock, Vila’s your man. Well, he’s your boy.”

“Cat got his tongue?” the woman asked.

She was very large, perhaps 150kg, and had a round friendly face topped with copper curls. Vila smiled shyly at her.

“Aren’t you the charmer,” she said, amused. “See, we won’t eat you. There’s not enough of you to make a decent snack anyway.”

She held out a plump hand, palm down. Unsure, Vila took her fingers as it didn’t look as if she expected it to be shaken.

She smiled. “I’m Ronda. And this is Cronin and Barker. We’ll look after you, young Restal.”

“It’s Vila.”

“Oh, you can talk! A man of even more talents! How old are you, Vila-lad?”

“Fourteen.”

“Really? You look about twelve. Well, I hope I’m around when you’re a few years older, sweetheart.” Ronda patted his cheek, Vila blushed, and the others laughed.

“Leave him alone, Ronda,” Cronin said. “He’s too young for your artistic licentiousness.”

“Are you an artist?” Vila asked.

“I certainly am. One of the best.”

“She’s a forger,” Cronin said, his teeth gleaming in his black beard.

“Vila was right,” Ronda said with dignity, “I am an artist. And this is Cronin, a clever engineer who just wasn’t clever enough cutting his corners.” She nodded towards the other member of the group, a thin, balding man. “And Barker. He’s an accountant, but don’t let that put you off. It just means he’s a thief like you, but a much more boring one.”

***

“...not too bad at all. We had this little group of five who stuck together. That was when I learned to play chess. There was a board in the rec room, and Cronin said teaching me would pass the time. And Ronda played a mean game of backgammon. Would've been a nice quiet trip all round if we hadn’t been hit by a meteoroid...”

***

Vila and Cronin were intent on their chess game. To Cronin’s mixed pleasure and chagrin, Vila was a quick learner and looked like winning his second game. A sudden jolt sent them and their pieces tumbling to the floor.

“What was that?” Vila picked himself up. “That’s a bit unfair. I was winning.” His eyes widened in fear. “Did we hit something?”

“Or something hit us. Come on.”

Cronin went over to the main door, Vila close behind him. The guard stationed there was talking frantically into his communicator. He finally turned to the group of prisoners which had gathered around him.

“A meteoroid hit the main drive,” he said, looking worried.

“They can fix it, can’t they?” Vila asked.

“I don’t know.” The guard looked around at the growing group of prisoners. “All right, you lot. Get to your launch seats.” He raised his voice. “All prisoners to their launch seats now.”

Vila buckled himself in next to Alaris, and heard the clunks as the guard hit the automatic locking controls. “Hey,” he said, scared, “we’re trapped!”

“Don’t worry about it, kid.” Alaris said. “That’s the least of our worries if we’re belly-up in space.”

“Oh.” Vila paled and tried to distract himself by wondering what their orientation with respect to galactic north was, and what belly-up counted as. Heads to the south? And why would it matter? “I think I’m starting to feel sick.”

“Well, turn the other way if you are.”

Vila wriggled uncomfortably. “And I wish I’d gone before.”

Alaris sighed and looked at the ceiling.

The guard walked up and down between the launch chairs, checking that each prisoner was secure. He then opened the door and let in an officer, saluting him.

“I’m Captain Aston,” the officer said. “Our main drive has been damaged by a meteoroid impact. We have a problem...” He raised his hand and waited for the prisoners to quieten down. “...and we’re open to suggestions. The damage wouldn’t be hard to fix normally, but it’s open to vacuum, and the work’s too delicate to manage in environment suits.”

Everyone started talking at once.

Vila twisted in his seat to look at Cronin. He was an engineer, wasn’t he? A civil one, whatever that meant; probably not what it sounded like. Cronin however looked as blank as everyone else. “Cronin?” Vila said urgently. “Why can’t they just fix the hull first so they’ve got air to work in?”

“Just as hard in a suit. That’s delicate work too. You couldn’t use the equipment properly with those gloves.”

Vila sat back. True, try picking a lock with fingers the size of sausages. Could you take off the gloves though and seal the suit at the wrists? Well, he wouldn’t risk it; any leaks would be fatal. He couldn’t stop his thoughts turning then to how they would all die. Lack of oxygen? Wasn’t that like going to sleep? That wouldn’t be so bad. Or would the food run out first? Was the engine compartment sealed off, or was the air going to leak slowly out so they died of decompression? At the thought of that, Vila’s chest tightened so he fund it hard to breathe. No, wait a minute...air leaking out. Force fields! Vila remembered studying them because some very clever vault designers used them to imitate walls. You couldn’t blow them up, but you could get through them with a very low-energy and extremely slow probe. And air leaked through them too, he’d read that.

He turned back to Cronin. “What about a force field, then? Air gets through, but not that fast. What d’you think?”

Cronin stared at him. “That could just work...Captain!” he called out. “The boy’s come up with an idea. Use a force field and pressurise the drive chamber.”

Aston looked doubtfully at Cronin and Vila.

“Look, forget who suggested it, if that worries you. I’m an engineer, and I reckon it should work if you don’t waste time doing the repairs.”

***

“And did it?” Blake asked.

“Well, obviously.” Vila grinned. “Wouldn’t be here telling you about it, would I?”

“I’m impressed.”

“So were the others. They made me technical advisor to the escape committee. Coffee?”

“You stay there.” Blake stood up. “I’ll get it.”

“Mind you,” Vila said, “if my mother hadn’t been sick, I might have stuck my five years out. Not a bit like Cygnus Alpha. I mean, they had all these educated high-grades there besides the low-lives like me, so they had a good library, and you could learn a trade too if you liked.”

“Did you?”

“Oh, I already had one, Blake. But Cronin and I downloaded all we could find on freighters, pilot’s manuals and stuff, read up all we could on the sly.” Vila nodded towards his pad. “And anything else I liked, history and novels and suchlike. Wouldn’t have been a bad life at all,” he added reflectively, “if it hadn’t been for the space rats.”

“Space rats?”

“Speed-freak space rats. Violent buggers, that lot. But they weren’t nabbed for doing anything vicious, just breaking into transport museums to steal fast wheels. They picked on me for some reason. They were always trying to frighten me.”

Blake brought the coffees over. “But they didn’t, of course.” he said gravely.

Vila gave him a reproachful look.

“So what was your escape plan?”

“Steal a freighter. They came in every six months, and we decided to jump the next one...”

***

Vila flung the door open, leapt across everyone’s outstretched legs, and collapsed in the far corner of the store room, gasping for breath. “Sorry I’m late. Space rats got me again.”

Ronda laughed. “You should be flattered. They like you, Vila.”

Like me? Threatening to tie me to the front of one of their hotted-up tractors is liking me?”

“Oh, you’d know if they didn’t. You wouldn’t still be in one piece.”

“I’d watch out for the guy though,” Alaris added, amused. “Those two women may think you’re cute, but he’s getting jealous.”

“Oh, wonderful. Sooner I’m out of here the better.”

Barker took out a plastisheet. “Only two weeks to go. We’re all still in, I assume?”

Everyone nodded.

“Good. Right, seventeen of us. Let’s go through it all again. The freighter lands, the crew get off, and a prison detail unloads the cargo. That takes about six hours. The crew gets a 24-hour layover, but we only get three daylight hours to work in.”

“Why don’t we go at night?” Vila asked. “They wouldn’t see us then.”

“Which is precisely what they expect,” Barker said. “85% of escape attempts have happened at night.”

“More guards on at night, Vila.” Cronin grinned piratically. “Big, mean ones.”

Vila clutched at his chest dramatically. “Don’t tell me that, Cronin. I’ve got a weak heart, I have.”

“Right, let’s get on with it. Vila opens the locks to the landing compound while they’re still unloading and lets us in. We hide in the warehouse and wait till the work detail leaves. At this point the ship should be empty. Vila gets the airlock to the flight deck open. They’ve got cameras on both airlocks, we’ve got two minutes to get aboard before security’s out there. All right with that, Vila? Then Cronin is our pilot with Vila to help if needed. All clear?”

Vila looked round at everyone. As usual, it seemed he was the only one who was scared. He tried to look as brave as the others.

***

“I assume it worked. After all, you’re here.”

“Oh, went like a dream, right up to the end...”

***

They pounded across the landing field to the ship and up the ramp, and Vila started work on the locks. It was an easy job; he was finished in less than a minute, half the time they had allowed..

“It’s done.” Vila stood aside, unwilling to be the first one through. Cronin flung the door open, flattening himself on the other side. Nothing. The airlock was clear. Vila and Cronin slipped in, and Vila started on the inner airlock, opening it in ten seconds flat.

“Go, everyone!” Alaris shouted, and they all began to surge aboard, Barker counting them in.

Cronin and Vila ran ahead to the flight deck, stopping to peer cautiously round the door. It was empty. Cronin flung himself into the pilot’s seat and started flicking switches, while Vila dropped into the navigator’s position, disconcerted to find the console at chin-level.

“Oh, no! I never thought of that! Cronin—” He looked up just as an armed man in uniform appeared in the doorway. “Cronin!” he shouted, ducking under the console.

“Get up, put your hands on your head, and don’t make a move.”

Vila peered around his console and saw Cronin slowly standing. The crewman had shut the door and was circling the flight deck towards Cronin, his back to the wall.

“And the other one comes out where I can see him, or this one gets it.”

Vila gulped. What was he supposed to do? He could hear the others coming now, but so had the crewman—he was now behind Cronin, where he could cover both him and the door. Vila licked his lips, nervously. As the door opened, he leapt up, yelling wildly, then dropped down again. As the crewman, startled, turned towards where Vila had popped up, Cronin jumped him and they both fell to the floor struggling, as Alaris burst in followed by the others, several of whom threw themselves into the melee. There was a shot, further sounds of struggle, then silence. Unsure of the outcome, Vila stayed where he was.

“Where’s Vila?” That was Ronda.

“Uh, here.” He cautiously got up. The crewman was hanging limply between two men, and Cronin was still lying on the floor, mostly obscured by Ronda who was kneeling beside him. “Is he all right, Ronda?”

Ronda said something quietly to Alaris, who came over to Vila and took him by the shoulders.

“Vila, Cronin won’t be able to take the ship up. You know how to do that, don’t you?”

Vila nodded. “Yes, but—”

“Do you think you can do it? By yourself?”

Vila wanted to say no, but he had to get back to Earth—his mother needed him, to steal the drugs she needed, to look after her. And she didn’t have that much longer. “Yes.”

“Good.” Behind Alaris, they were carrying Cronin out. Vila tried to see, but Alaris tightened her grip on him and began pushing him towards the pilot’s position. “Come one, move it, kid.”

He sat down and looked mournfully at the too-high controls. Alaris rolled her eyes. “Get him a couple of cushions, someone.” She lifted him under the arms as one of the men slid two cushions under him. “Now go for it.”

Vila’s eyes went to the blood on the floor.

Vila!”

“But if Cronin’s hurt, he needs help. We can’t just leave.”

“If we’re caught, we get life sentences. I know what Cronin would choose. He’d say go.”

Vila ran his hands over the controls, his fear pushed to the background as it usually was when he was intent on a problem. Almost all the systems were already powered on. He could see on the viewscreen that guards were already coming across the landing field. He flipped the force wall on, then the loudspeaker, and, wishing his voice had broken, leaned over the mike. “This is the freighter Swansea.” A sudden irrepressible grin spread over his face. He’d never have another chance like this. “This is Captain Vila Restal. Please stand away from the blast zone as we are preparing for takeoff.”

To reinforce the warning, he gave a short experimental blast and was relieved to see the guards move back. Carefully, keeping his eyes on the terrain-mode display, he gave the engines power and the ship lifted slowly. He increased the thrust, keeping his eyes on the screen, lightly touching the attitude jets to keep the ship horizontal, his tongue sticking out in concentration. At last the display flipped to deep space mode, and Vila sighed in relief, and entered the course he and Cronin had calculated and memorised.

He looked up. “Right, we’re on our way.”

The sudden noise was deafening, and Vila winced, thinking something had gone badly wrong. Then he realised they were cheering him. Alaris pulled him out of his seat and hugged him, then one of the men lifted him up onto his shoulders and did a round of the flight deck while the other prisoners yelled and clapped him on the back or the legs. Vila spread his arms out and laughed in delight as he was spun round and round.

***

“Now I’m really impressed.”

Vila shrugged and grinned.

“Why would you keep something like that quiet?”

“’Cause I’m not doing that again. See, Cronin died and it was my fault.”

“Why your fault?”

“It was up to me whether we went or not, Blake. I knew he was badly hurt but I still decided to go.”

“It was the right choice. It’s the one I would have made, Vila. If you’d stayed, Cronin might still have died, and the rest of you would have been in prison for the rest of your lives. If you were lucky.”

“I know.” Vila poked at the dregs of his coffee with his spoon. “I know it was right. No-one blamed me.” He looked up. “Except me. Cronin was my friend. I was only a kid but he looked out for me and treated me like I was worth something.” Like you do, Blake.

“Well, Vila, you managed to spring a lot more people than I did off Cygnus Alpha.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t complain. After all you got the best two.”

Blake laughed. “And you got all the way back to Earth?”

“Not in the Swansea. We went to Dikar 3, way off to the side, because no-one would expect that, and split up. From there I stowed away to Earth on a freighter. Bit of a mistake, that—it was carrying fertiliser. My chest’s never been the same since.”

“Your mother must have been very pleased to see you, Vila.”

Vila got up and took the cups and plates over to the autocleaner so that he had his back to Blake. “No...”

***

Vila banged eagerly on the door, but the smile disappeared from his face when a hard-faced dark woman he had never seen before opened it.

“Yes?”

“Is Jandy Restal there?”

“No. She died two weeks ago.”

Vila stood there, unable to move.

“Are you stupid or something? What didn’t you understand?” Failing to get a response, the woman slammed the door in Vila’s face.

Less than a minute later, the door opened again. “Just a minute, you’re her son, aren’t you? You’re the one who stole that spaceship. I’ve seen the wanted posters.”

Vila finally moved, slowly backing away.

“They want five thousand credits for you.” The woman closed the door again, undoubtedly going to call the police.

Vila ran to the next flat and pounded on the door. Doty answered it, dear plump Doty, whom he had known all his life.

“Oh, Vila,” she said softly, “I’m sorry, lad.” She turned and called, “Serrin, Vila’s here!”

Serrin came to the door at the same time as the woman reappeared, a satisfied look on her face.

“Off with you!” Serrin shouted at Vila, pushing him in the chest so that he staggered back. “We don’t want your sort around here causing trouble.”

Vila walked away, looking back once as he got to the end of the street. Once out of sight, he stopped and pulled out the note he had felt Serrin put in his breast pocket. It just said ‘Store 3’ but Vila knew what it meant. Running now, he made his way through the narrow streets of the Delta levels to one of the small bedsits Serrin rented under several levels of false names to store their equipment and stolen goods in.

Store 3 had been cleaned out, and now contained Vila and Jandy Restal’s possessions, the few items of furniture stacked in one corner, and everything else in boxes piled in another.

Vila sat down on the couch which had been his bed for most of his life, and cried. He was still crying when Serrin and Doty arrived, and did not stop when Doty put her arms around him.

***

“...she died before I got there.”

“I’m sorry.”

Vila pulled the clean crockery out, closed the door of the autocleaner and shrugged. “Long time ago now, Blake.”

Blake looked at Vila thoughtfully as he put the dishes away, taking longer than he should.

Vila had said that he had started stealing very young to get the drugs his sick mother needed. How old had he been? Blake knew that Vila had been in the Juvenile Detention Wards at twelve. He must have been even younger than that when he started.

At twelve, Blake had lived a happy, secure and protected life, and could not begin to imagine what it had been like for Vila, having to look after his mother when he should have been looked after, having to take such risks at an age when he should have been safe and carefree. It could well explain his avoidance of anything like responsibility and danger now.

He smiled at Vila. “Well, shall I put you down as backup pilot then?”

“Oh no, not me, Blake. Flying an old freighter’s one thing, the Liberator’s quite another. Put the finger on ‘Fingers’—he’ll be delighted at another chance to show off his brilliance.”

“All right. But it’s good to know I could rely on you in an emergency.”

“Oh...is it?” Vila looked at Blake doubtfully and sat down.

I wonder if I ought to tell Blake about how I could have been a space captain.

About a year after he got back to Earth, his name had appeared on an amnesty list: if he reported for Space Command training, his record would be wiped clean. Someone must have been impressed with his theft of the Swansea. Alarmed at the thought of the dangerous and short life he would probably have, Vila had promptly purchased a Grade Four Ignorance Rating from a friend at the testing centre, which was not hard to fake as he had left school at eleven. His name was not on the next list.

No, perhaps not.

Vila tapped his book-pad. “You know, if I lived in ancient Rome, I’d choose to be a plebeian, not a rich aristocrat. Offend the wrong person in those days and they’d execute you and your whole family. It was safer at the bottom. Still is.”

“You’re not at the bottom any more, Vila, if you ever were. You may call yourself a pleb, but you aren’t one, whether you like it or not.”

Vila leaned back, put his hands behind his head and grinned cheekily at Blake. “All right then—if this rebellion succeeds and you become Emperor, are you going to give me a province?”

Blake laughed. “Vila, if that ever happens, you’ll definitely be part of my inner circle, right where I can keep an eye on you.”

“I could be your technical advisor.”

“Oh, it’s a deal, Vila.”

The end


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Nicola Mody

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