Investments by Vega

PROLOGUE

[GP + 6 days]

The man on the bunk graduated to awareness slowly, reluctantly. Too debilitated to groan, he let out a sigh. The light, when he unglued his eyelids, was blessedly dim. He could identify sounds of air conditioning and something else, distant but distinct, a ship's drive he was in space.

Other discomforts announced themselves. A desert-dry mouth, a sour taste, a prison smell. An experimental movement of the head returned a throb of pain, flashes of light behind the eyes and nausea. After an unmeasurable interval he moved a hand. Eventually he managed to propel it upwards to his face, where the fingers encountered stubble. Days had passed, then.

Oh... He had hoped they had killed him, that he was done with this life. A fearful disappointment washed through him. No release yet no peace for the wicked. And he was sure he had been wicked.

He was so weak. Had they already interrogated him and then wiped the memory? He had to reject that notion, recollections he would rather not entertain were crowding into his brain. He was, oh yes, he feared he was indeed Kerr Avon.

Someone entered and turned up the lights, causing him to screw up his eyes. An arm was slipped under his shoulders, raising him slightly, a proffered cup nudged his lips and he drank gratefully. That overriding need satisfied he took no further interest as the man stripped him, washed him and put clean clothes on him, then departed as silently as he had come.

Time drifted on. Thirst quenched, he became distantly aware of hunger. Resolutely he set himself to ignore it. Eventually they were coming to talk to him. Get used to deprivation now, plenty more would be coming his way.

This time it was a trace of perfume that roused him. Oh God, was it Servalan? Commissioner Sleer come to gloat over the success of yet another trap? It had all her hallmarks, all the rats in one cage. And yet, how could she have known he would come after Blake then? Oh, she could work it out after she had engineered the collapse of the alliance, who else would he turn to but Blake? Her words echoed in his head. "I knew you'd never let Blake die." How she must be enjoying this moment.

Finally he forced his eyes open. And received the shock of his life. Jenna Stannis stood beside the bed.

In a way it was almost worse than Servalan's presence. His racking guilt rose up to choke him. What could he say to the woman who had loved Blake? There was no defence. Her face was set hard as adamant. He had seen that look before. Eventually she looked into his eyes.

"Well, what have you got to say for yourself?" she said.

Now he made the effort to roll over and sit up to face her. The voice he finally produced was unsteady but audible.

"If I am still alive, what of the others?"

"Vila is here."

"Only Vila?"

"Only Vila. Now explain why you killed Blake. Let me have one good reason why I shouldn't add your corpse to the pile on Gauda Prime."

"Insanity perhaps? Did I imagine Tarrant saying that Blake had sold out? Why didn't Blake deny it?" Even to his own ears his voice sounded fatally detached and dreamlike. "What possessed you to salvage the remains?"

"I arrived to find Federation guards loading you two into a flyer for interrogation, doubtless. Do you think I should have left them to it?"

He had no answer for that. Presently he asked, "How is Vila?"

"Physically well. Mentally mourning his losses, I suppose."

Avon winced. He had not yet begun to face his losses, let alone mourn them. "And now you are thinking about avenging your losses. Go right ahead, do you really think I care?"

But she was not be provoked. "You won't get off that easily. I have a use for you." With that, she turned on her heel and left.

So Vila at least had side-stepped the grim reaper. Someone should drop him off at some unsuspecting neutral planet where he could thieve to his heart's content. He had grown somewhat bolder over the years and expanded his talents. If ever he could get away from the revolutionaries, Vila might live a full and happy life. He had once planned a similar life for himself and Anna... No, don't think about Anna.

Blake too, he dare not think of. Tarrant ah well, that reckless young man had run his course, ending as he was always likely to. His loss could be endured. But the women, they were infinitely to be regretted.

Dayna so young, trailing the breezes of her seaside home in her wake. Those eyes, that smile, above all that voice that must echo in his head forever.

Soolin cynical sharp-tongued Soolin. Almost a sister, so similar to his own were her thought processes. Say goodbye to that stinging repartee, refreshing as a glass of ice-cold citrus.

Cally the midwinter of her loss crept back into his soul, what was left of it. He privately saw her as the embodiment of his anima, that feminine, feeling part of himself that he tried to shield from the eyes of the world.

At last his thoughts brought him to Orac. Ah yes, Jenna would have secured Orac. She had plans. She must have kept him sedated while she considered her course of action. Jenna would have a course of action all right, and it would include Orac. For the first time he felt a flicker of interest in the future.

ONE

[GP + 7 days]

Vila was tired, but relieved. It had been a considerable comfort to spill all his memories into Jenna's lap. She had nodded sympathetically, occasionally prompting him with a question, over a period of four days. Even when he confided to her his private worry that he had himself precipitated the final shootout by distracting the Federation agent for long enough to encourage Dayna to pick up her gun, Jenna had merely remarked that it was just bad luck, it might have worked, he should not upset himself. Sometimes he sought her out to retail another piece of the patchwork. She had not objected to the randomness of his recollections, probably she was cross-checking them with Orac to assemble an ordered history of their travels.

It felt good to have the pilot back again. Maybe she would know where to go next and he could leave it in her hands. She looked well, trim and fit, as flamboyantly dressed as he always remembered her. The face was a little older perhaps, nothing surprising about that, but his overall impression was of strength and resilience. She was not making any show of devastation at Blake's death, yet he knew she had loved him in the early days. Had the ardour cooled? Perhaps not. After all, she had rejoined his resistance movement and Vila had never rated her as an idealist, so love was the most likely motive.

Knowing that Avon was finally back in the land of the living, he wondered whether to make the effort to see him. It would be an effort. While he did not entirely blame Avon for his hair-trigger finger, he rather dreaded seeing him in his present disintegrated state. The taciturn Brig, who had taken him his food, answered Vila's questions with, "I don't know. He says nothing and looks right through you." It sounded as though cumulative stress had pushed him into total withdrawal. Vila's heart was still bruised from the realisation that Avon could contemplate killing him to save his own skin, yet somehow the urge to speak to him grew stronger, he could not stay away indefinitely.

He had settled into a not unpleasant melancholy, particularly when he was on his own. His memory was often haunted by Soolin and Dayna. He did not particularly mind this, he had always enjoyed their company and was far from wishing to forget them. Even recollections of Tarrant were not unwelcome. Cally, he still felt a tinge of guilt about. Common sense told him it would have been suicide to re-enter that bunker on Terminal, but still it clouded his mood.

He shook himself. Time to pick up the pieces. He would go and see Avon.

Avon was sitting on the edge of his bunk, fully dressed when Vila went in. He had lost weight and the anonymous overalls he wore seemed so far from his normal attire that he looked unfamiliar.

"Hello," Vila began tentatively. He was rewarded with Avon's attention. "I expect you'd like to know what's happening. I can't see that Brig telling you much."

"No, I think you could classify him as naturally uncommunicative," agreed Avon, "and I didn't waste time pumping him. Anyway, someone was bound to fill me in, whether I wanted to know, or not."

Vila settled himself on the opposite bunk. He was not discouraged by apparent lack of interest.

"Well, they know what happened, they've got it on tape. It seems that there were concealed security cameras all over the place. Blake apparently called Jenna to come back to base and said to watch her screen as he had a surprise for her. She got her surprise all right, just as she was on final approach to the silo, so she switched to an emergency pad and she and Brig sneaked into Blake's concealed armory and loaded up with gas grenades which they dropped into the air conditioning and turned it up high some sort of supergas those face-masks can't filter out; Blake had it developed by somebody.

"I must say, you put quite a few troopers out of action with your final burst, there were only three or four still on their feet. By the time Jenna got to the base, that Federation woman I socked had come round and she and the survivors were sorting over the corpses and dragging us off to their flyer. Well, you know Jenna, not exactly the most merciful lady you ever met she and Brig shot the lot. No prisoners. They wore full respirators of course, you can see them on the tape, coming in and checking the bodies..."

He trailed off as the images rose before him again... Dayna's and Soolin's bodies, turned over and examined, Tarrant's too. The negative gesture from the masked figure as it moved on. For some minutes his gaze fixed on the bulkhead. Eventually, he looked at Avon again. However much he might try to hide his feelings, the intense suffering in his face moved Vila uncomfortably and he looked away.

"Yes, well they put us on a trolley and wheeled us out and Jenna had a good look round the whole base and found friend Orac where you put him. When I came round some hours later we were in some other place on Gauda Prime. They were evacuating everybody and stripping all the equipment. I reckon Jenna's got some plan for a rendezvous. She seems to be giving the orders and they seem to be jumping to it."

He stole another look at Avon. "Anyway, there was a medic there who checked me over and she gave Brig some stuff to keep you under for a few days with written instructions on how to use it, because Jenna was mad with you and she said she was going to put you into storage while she got everybody away.

"We've been in space about five days and I've been telling her all about us. You may not like it, but I've told her everything I could think of: people, names, places, the lot."

Avon gave a slight shrug. "What else could you do? She needs all the facts she can get if she's to decide on her best course. You would be a fool to lie or keep things from her." He gave a bitter smile. "Let her know every last folly and failure," he said.

"What about Orac?" he asked after a pause.

"She spends a good deal of time with him." Orac was still "him" to Vila. "They talk about systems and things. I think," he said, as the thought suddenly struck him, "she wants him to design another Zen."

Avon's shoulders straightened and his head came up. "Does she indeed? I wonder how she intends to finance such a project?" Their eyes met.

"We could give her pointers about raising the cash," Vila ventured. "Funny thing, she's ended up with the thieves again."

On the whole, Vila felt reassured about Avon. His mind was still capable of interest. He probably needed work to focus his energies on and it looked as if Jenna meant to provide it. Work the word which had always made him shudder he invariably associated it with service grade drudgery, but now he could appreciate its therapeutic side. Perhaps "occupation" was a better term. They needed an occupation, both of them.


Continued in The Way Back


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