by Nicola Mody
“Might I humbly suggest, master, that is, if I’m not disturbing your undoubtedly extremely important activities, all of which would make any of my concerns look laughably petty by comparison—”
“Get to the point, Slave,” Avon snapped.
“There is a meteor storm ahead, master. Now I would never be so bold as to assume what your intentions might be, in fact, master, you might have very good reasons for wishing to investigate it, but—”
“Go around it, Slave. In fact, take over will you, Tarrant.” Avon got up, shaking his head. “Idiot computer,” he muttered, heading for the heads. “If we were attacked, we’d be glowing plasma before that servile sycophant got through the preliminaries.”
Vila watched him go. That was hardly fair. Slave did the best he could within the limits of his programming. Vila rather liked Slave. He looked around Scorpio’s flight desk. Tarrant was flying the ship on manual, and Dayna and Soolin had their heads together. Probably girl talk—guns and general mayhem. He went and sat in the chair near the computer.
“Don’t worry, Slave,” he said sympathetically. “Avon’s like that with everyone these days. You know, insulting someone can mean you like them.” Mind you, since they lost the Liberator and...and Cally—Vila didn’t like to think of that—Avon’s insults had been real, and Vila hadn’t bothered to respond in kind for a long time now. He sighed. “Not always though.”
“Oh, I don’t expect anyone to like me, noble sir. I exist only to serve.”
Vila thought Slave sounded wistful. “I like you,” he said.
“You do? I am...I am most gratified, sir.”
Vila smiled for the first time in days. “Call me Vila.”
“That would be extremely disrespectful, sir.”
“Oh, would it? How about Sir Vila then?”
“That would be an acceptable compromise. I am most humbly sorry if I offend you, Sir Vila, but I really cannot be so bold as to address your esteemed self directly by your given name.”
“That’s all right, Slave, me old mate.”
“Am I permitted to ask whether I should modify the forms of address for the rest of the crew? I have noticed that the female members seem to dislike the title ‘madam’.”
“Well, sounds like someone who runs a brothel, doesn’t it? Bit of an insult that, and not the friendly kind. ‘Lady’ might be better.” Vila looked over at Dayna and Soolin and found that they had stopped talking and were smiling at him approvingly. “Actually, I think it is.”
“I shall take your undoubtedly excellent advice. And is there a way to address the master Avon which would be more acceptable, Sir Vila? I do seem to annoy him somewhat.”
Vila toyed briefly with the idea of telling Slave that Avon’s middle and preferred name was Bates, then thought of something better. He put his arm around Slave. “For one thing, he doesn’t like extra words. For another, well, you know how I called you ‘mate’ just now?”
“Indeed, it gave me a very pleasurable feeling throughout my circuitry.”
“Really?” Vila was rather gratified. “Sort of thing you say to friends, that is. Well, the ones I used to have back home anyway.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “There’s something else we used to call each other. An insult that wasn’t one if you used it with people you liked.”
Avon had been away for some time. He must tell Vila to go easier on the spices when he cooked that dish he called vinders. This pack of louts must have cast-iron constitutions.
Tarrant checked the scanners. “It looks like we’re past the meteor storm now. Take over, Slave.”
“Yes, Sir Tarrant.”
Tarrant sat a little straighter in his seat and grinned cockily.
“Are you sure we’re past it?” Dayna asked, frowning.
“I would warn you if we were not, Lady Dayna. The safety of your noble selves is my prime concern.”
Soolin put her head on one side. “Slave, how much time has this diversion added to our flight time?”
“Only about twenty-eight minutes, Lady Soolin. I hope that does not inconvenience you unduly.”
Avon raised an eyebrow. Had this lot been fiddling with Slave’s programming, or had the damned thing become even more unctuous on its own? “Flight time remaining?” he asked.
“Six hours, thirteen minutes, bastard.”
Well now, that was admirably concise, without all the usual unnecessary verbiage. Perhaps Slave had acted on his earlier complaint, but then why was Vila sniggering? Avon frowned. He had the distinct feeling he had missed something. Had the fool set another course to one of those pleasure planets he was always going on about?
“Slave, confirm that we are on course back to Xenon base.”
Avon did a double-take. Had he heard that right? He looked around the flight deck at the grins plastered across each face. Yes, he rather thought he had.
Vila looked back at him, his eyes alight with mischief, just as in earlier days. Avon walked towards him, glowering. Vila leaned back defensively in his chair, the cheekiness and humour draining away to be replaced by sullen defeat. Avon stopped, surprised at how much that hurt. Had he really changed that much, lost that much? He looked at Vila for a moment longer, then turned his back and addressed Slave.
“Slave, you will revert to your former modes of address and behaviour.”
Vila lingered after the others left. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he had caught a glimpse of the old Avon. Just for a moment there, the bastard—in the affectionate sense of course—had that warm appreciative look he’d sometimes thrown Vila’s way after a good joke back on the Liberator.
Nah, he’d probably imagined it.
“What can I do to please you, sir?”
“Meant what I said before. We could be friends, you and me. Have a chat every now and then, play a game or two.”
“I would like that more than I am able to express, sir...mate.”
“Really? Me too.” Vila sat down. “D’you like riddles?”