Pecking OrderBy Helen Patrick
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|Tarrant was feeling an odd mixture of emotions. Guilt, relief -- and a certain amount of peevishness.|
"I still don't understand why Bayban used that bomb! After all, he had Vila, and he couldn't be certain that it would destroy the ship."
"It would almost certainly have given us more interesting things to worry about than retrieving Vila. Bayban expected you to collect the non-existent crystals. If you had opened the box on the surface, we would have had no idea what had happened to you. If you had restrained your youthful impetuosity long enough to return to the ship before checking to see that the payment was correct, more of us would have been killed or injured, and the ship would have been crippled. Either way we would have been without our main pilot." Avon's words had a bite to them. Evidently Tarrant had not yet been forgiven, whether for risking Vila without first ensuring that the payment existed, or for his bullying of the thief to the point where Vila's judgement had been damaged.
"Anyway, he did have a reason," Vila said. He glared at Tarrant from his position slumped on the flight deck couch. Something about the last day or two had shifted his personality temporarily, the lazy, amiable veneer slipping far more often and far more publicly than usual.
Tarrant suppressed the urge to say, 'how would you know'. He'd done enough to Vila for one day, and Vila was in the best position to know. He had spent several hours with the man, after all.
"Did he tell you?"
Vila sat up a little straighter.
"So what did he say?"
"He was upset because Blake pushed him off the top spot on the Most Wanted list. By cheating. At least, that's how he saw 'taking political shortcuts' instead of being an honest murdering thug."
Tarrant was gob-smacked.
"You mean, he was jealous because Blake was the Federation's Most Wanted? Blake's not even been on this ship for this months! And he isn't even top of the list any more."
Avon turned to face him, finally looking directly at him for the first time in the conversation.
The word was a low hiss. He must have struck a nerve, somehow. "Don't you keep an eye on the list, Avon? After all, we all feature fairly prominently on it," he asked.
"I don't see any interest in it."
"You should. Blake dropped down the list a few weeks ago. I suppose they know he isn't on Liberator any more, and they haven't heard from him in a while, so he's been downgraded as a threat. I suppose he's only still on the list because they haven't confirmed he's dead."
Avon's face was a flat mask, the way it went nowadays whenever anyone mentioned Blake in more than passing.
"And who is top of the list now?"
Oh, this was priceless. Avon honestly didn't realise.
"Didn't you know? You are now considered the number one threat to the Federation. You should feel honoured. It's really quite funny, considering how eager you were to get rid of Blake so that you could have this ship to go your own non-involved way."
Avon didn't move a muscle, but Tarrant's memory suddenly supplied him with a replay of the scene in the teleport room after Vila had teleported down. He hadn't taken the threat from Avon seriously, then. Now he wondered how he could have ever been so foolish.
"If you find being a target for every bounty hunter in the area amusing, then you are indeed the idiot child you strive so hard to appear to be." Avon abruptly rose and walked from the flight deck, leaving utter silence in his wake.
No one spoke until it was quite certain that Avon was out of earshot. Then Dayna asked, "Why is Avon so upset? It's a tribute, really. I think it's quite fun, the idea of being such a menace to them."
"You would. Bloody children. Avon's right, we're running a kindergarten," Vila muttered.
Tarrant didn't see why he should be spoken to like that by someone who was no more than ten years his senior, and a coward to boot. "All right, Daddy, explain to us children what the problem is. Blake's gone, Avon's in charge, just as he always wanted going by the things you and Cally have said. Now even the Federation have acknowledged that."
"Yes, Blake's gone, and Avon's in charge. Bound to a revolution he never had any interest in, by a promise to someone he's lost, perhaps for good. Obliged to look after us lot, whether he wants to or not. And now even the Federation have recognised it."
"You mean Avon's... they were...?"
"Probably not in the way you seem to be thinking of, but I don't know, and I don't care. I've never asked, and I'd advise you not to. Not that you'd demean yourself by taking my advice, of course." Vila abruptly stood up, walked towards the exit. Not the one Avon had used. "I'm going for a cup of tea, Cally. Want to come and make sure I don't slip anything else into it?" It was obviously an invitation, not a dig at Cally's occasional tut-tutting. And it obviously didn't include Tarrant and Dayna. They made no move to follow as Cally and Vila left.
Tarrant stared at Dayna, who looked as shocked as he felt. He'd had no idea...
Children, they'd been called. It seemed to be an apt description.
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