Life, Life, Life

Jane Carnall

What was left of the control room in the rebel's base on Gauda Prime was pitch dark. The only sounds were of one man doggedly trying to get to his feet. At last, evidently, he succeeded, and began to climb over the chunks of ceiling which littered the floor. He fell several times, and got up again without more than a groan.

Finally, he reached his goal. For a moment there was no sound but a brief whisper, as of metal passing over leather.

And then, unmistakable, the meaty wet thuds of steel biting into flesh and bone. It took four blows before --

Lightning blazed.

Lightning within, fire and power without. The shattered room was lit in flashes. More ceiling fell, and the burnt control panels lived once more, briefly, with borrowed power. The fallen bodies that scattered the room curled and twitched under the lightning stroke.

In the blazing light one figure stood, galvanised, and all the lightnings came to him and flamed him from within. He cried out, a sudden sharp shout of ecstasy and pain.

Then the lightning fell silent, and the room was dark once more. For a brief moment silence reigned, the only sounds one man doggedly trying to catch his breath.

Then, out of the silence, a voice spoke. "Vila. I think there's something you didn't tell me."

It was a moment before Vila answered. He was still choking for breath. "What the hell did you do that for, Avon?" he protested.

"Do what?"

"Take his head!" Vila had collapsed to his knees as soon as the quickening had left him. Now he picked himself up and felt himself over. "Did you want to bring half the base down on us?"

"Oh, the rebellion already did that. Your quickening brought down the other half."

"My quickening!" Vila sounded outraged. "You were the one who took Blake's head, and it was a bloody silly thing to do, if you ask me."

"I didn't. I had no idea you'd take his quickening. I had no idea you were -- ah -- One of Those," Avon said delicately, "and I had no idea you were still alive."

"I wasn't," Vila said. "I was nice and dead, thank you very much, and I'd have recovered in my own good time if you'd left things alone. Do you have any idea how much it hurts to get kickstarted by a quickening when you've been hit by a disruptor gun?"

"Of course not."

"No, well, neither did I till about five minutes ago, and I'd have been just as happy not finding out." He sat down again. "I suppose you've got a cunning plan to get us out of here?"

"Actually, no."

"Why did you do it? And how come you know so much about us?"

Avon sighed. "I was Blake's Watcher."

"You were what?" Vila gaped in Avon's general direction. "But Watchers just observe and record, they never interfere. What the hell are you doing, taking heads? Have you gone crazy or something?"

"Probably." Avon sounded dead flat. "Vila, I'd been on the job exactly three months when Blake got himself sent to Cygnus Alpha. So I had to go too. At that point I think I still felt rather dedicated. In fact I think I must have been, because I can't imagine why I did such a damned stupid thing otherwise. Then Blake found the Liberator and -- "

"Of course you had to go along," Vila interrupted. He sounded rather amused. "I used to wonder why you hung around Blake like you did. And that's why you spent two bloody years looking for him. But it doesn't change the question. Why take his head when you'd finally caught up with him? You didn't believe Tarrant, did you?"

"Of course not." Avon hesitated, for the first time sounding uncertain. "It got to me. It was getting to me even before Blake left the Liberator. The way he played games with other people's lives. He pretended to take enormous risks, and no one knew -- except me -- that he wasn't risking anything at all. But he was quite prepared to cause mortal deaths. And he expected me to chronicle it all."

"He knew you were his Watcher?"

"He suspected either me or Jenna. After -- after a while, he worked out it was me."

"Yes, I suppose it's hard to disappear in the crowds when there's only six other people aboard."

"It was my resignation," Avon said at last.

There was a moment's silence. "It used to be traditional just to write a letter. And have your tattoo removed."

"We don't use tattoos any more. Subcutaneous implants."

"The wonders of modern technology."

"Did Blake know about you?"

Vila chuckled. "Do yourself a favour, Avon. Of course he did."

"Well, I wasn't sure when you became immortal," Avon pointed out. "How old are you?"

"Older than Blake," Vila said. "But he was better than me. He promised he wouldn't take my head so long as I did what he told me. And he meant it, so I stayed. It wasn't that bad a life."


"'Course, once he'd gone, all I had to worry about was being killed somewhere conspicuous and someone noticing I didn't die permanently."

"Quite so."

"Getting a bit stuffy in here, isn't it."

"Yes," Avon said with restraint, "I'd noticed."

"I think if we stick around here we'll suffocate pretty soon."


"They'll dig us out in a while, of course. What would you like me to put on your tombstone?"

"I don't care."

"Not very suitable. How about 'Here Lies A Watcher -- Watch Yourself.'"

"Vila, I'm in no mood for jokes."

"No, neither was I when you were trying to throw me out that shuttle."

Silence. Finally Avon said, crisply, "Vila, given that you wouldn't have died permanently, what would you care?"

"God, you're a callous self-centred bastard. Is this new Watcher training? I don't think much of it. For your information, Kerr-bloody-Avon, I've already died of explosive decompression once and I don't want to do it again, ever. And assuming I'd stayed in orbit or somehow managed not to get burnt up on re-entry, what do you think the difference is between 'dying permanently' and being deep-frozen for most of eternity?"

"I didn't think," Avon conceded.

"You never do."

There was a pause. Finally, Avon said "All right, Vila, I'm sorry. Will that do? I'm sorry."

Vila bounced to his feet again. Somehow, even in the dark, it sounded like a bounce. "Well, it would be a shame not to make you remember that till your dying day, wouldn't it?"

"What?" Avon sounded bemused. "Vila -- don't tell me you have a cunning plan?"

"How do you think I've lived to a ripe old age? Come on. Suffocation isn't such a bad way to die, but it's not my favourite."

Avon got to his feet and followed the sound of Vila's voice, cautiously hopeful. "Just tell me -- what is your favourite way to die?"

"I don't really have one," said Vila. "Why do you ask?"

"If you don't get a move on, you'll find out," said Avon, with limited patience. He was still holding the sword he had used on Blake's neck. "How do we get out of here?"

Vila was shuffling his feet, apparently purposelessly. "Ah well, when you've lived as long as I have, you learn that some things never change." He finished kicking away the rubble, and bent to pull up a cover in the floor. "Everywhere's got sewers."

Avon flinched at the noisome reek that flowed upwards. "We're going down there?" He glanced down, suddenly realising that the steel weight was gone from his hand. Vila had abstracted it from his grip with neat authority.

"Look at it this way, Avon," said Vila, already scrambling downwards, apparently quite unencumbered by the sword. "It's a trip you won't forget."

Avon followed him, and in the moist darkness below clung firmly to Vila's wrist. He thought of asking "Vila, can you see in the dark?" -- he'd heard of older immortals who could -- but decided against it. He didn't really want to find out that Vila couldn't. Instead he answered, with creditable irony, "Well, as I always say, Vila; I know I am safe, with you."


August 1997

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It is more difficult as matter of verbal definition to distinguish the sword from smaller hand-weapons. Thus an ordinary sword is four or five times as long as an ordinary dagger: but there are long daggers and short swords; neither will the form of blade or handle afford any certain test. The real difference lies in the intended use of the weapon; we associate the sword with open combat, the dagger with a secret attack or the sudden defence exposed to it. One might say that a weapon too large to be concealed about the person cannot be called a dagger.

"Sword", Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th Edition

Not necessarily.