"Silence is the door between Love and Fear, and on Fear's side there is no latch." The Door into Shadow, Diane Duane
The ship was silent. Avon, walking slowly from the teleport bay, wondered if it seemed so silent only because he knew that he was the only living thing aboard. He had raced from the teleport bay to the flight deck in under five minutes, raced from flight deck to teleport bay, when there had been need. Alarms blaring, lights flashing, Blake's voice roaring.
They were all dead. After Cally's voice had died on the communicator, he had kept the channel open for what felt like a long while, listening to the star hiss. Closing the channel had opened the silence.
He had food for a thousand years, self-renewing power; he could fly the galaxy for as long as he lived, use this ship as it should be used, an immense scientific research tool with all of space for his laboratory. He couldn't fight off more than two pursuit ships at once without a crew, but it would be a simple matter to avoid all such situations.
In silence, he walked on, his quiet tread making no difference to the vast hush that gripped the ship. Turning down the corridor off which they mostly lived, he passed the cabin doors; Gan's, partly opened, he reached out and shut, automatically. Gan must have left his room in a hurry. He would have to go through the personal cabins eventually, but he had no rush. From now on, he need do nothing unless he wanted to do it. The ship would take care of his survival; he was free beyond what he had ever dreamed of freedom.
Vila's cabin was near to Gan's, only a couple of doors down the corridor. On impulse, Avon opened the door and looked around. The room was a clutter of clothes Vila had chosen and discarded from the wardrobe, bottles full and half-full and empty, food-trays from meals days old. The thief was normally tidier; the mess was presumably a side-effect of the stress they'd all been under the past thirty days. Insofar as it was possible to become used to it, they had grown used to living on the edge, running forever; but for over four weeks, ever since that disastrously planned raid on the Federation weapons development centre, it seemed to Avon that he had never managed to get a full rest period -- Federation patrols were out in force, and he'd always been woken by the battle stations alarm, jerked out of sleep.
It had made his arrangement with Vila impossible for the duration; after a few days, no sooner did he lie down than he would start to doze off. The thief didn't vocally object, but Avon could see no reason why they should sleep in the same bed when sex was manifestly impossible. Besides, his back hurt and he wanted to lie flat, not with Vila curled round him. He couldn't admit that to Vila. It was true he found the thief asleep appealing, endearing, in a way which he seldom was awake and defensive. That was not admissable either.
It might have been useful to share a bed, Avon thought, absently studying the pattern engraved on one of the glasses that he seemed to have picked up. He would have known earlier about the stomach cramps. Not that it mattered now.
Realising abruptly that Vila's stomach cramps didn't matter, the mess in Vila's room didn't matter, that it was ridiculous to stand here looking at it when he would never see Vila again, he set the glass down on the table and turned sharply from the room, walking more briskly towards the flight deck.
The odds were 3.5 to 1 on survival. His survival. Alone and silent. He didn't need Blake.
"Avon might run. But he probably won't without a first class pilot. He, ah, plays the percentages." Had Blake known that Avon was listening?
Jenna had laughed. "Unlike you?"
She should have been insulted, Avon considered. He would have been, in her place. He wondered if she'd ever told Blake about that hour the two of them had spent in orbit above Cygnus Alpha, arguing out whether to run with the ship and the treasure, leaving Blake behind. Probably not. She'd been more tempted than she'd care to admit.
He didn't need any of the others. Not Jenna. First class pilot, smuggler and probably pirate, lighting up the ship with the blaze of her smile. Not Cally, fierce and strange and wild, telepathic guerilla and committed revolutionary. Not Gan, the honest one, straight-thinking plain-spoken tower of strength, coming from an agricultural world to the technological world of the Liberator. He didn't need them.
He didn't need anybody at all. A fifth-grade ignorant, who never had a chance. A common thief. Expendable. But he wished he hadn't said so. It was true the thief was less use on the ship than Avon or even than Cally. The arrangement was for convenience only; why had Vila let himself be hurt by Avon?
No matter now.
He reached the flight deck, hearing with relief the steady humming of Zen. Inhuman, unalive, it was more pleasant than silence. He would rig up some kind of system to relay it, or perhaps music, throughout the ship.
The Federation messages shouldn't have concerned him, but he wanted a reason to talk to Zen anyway. Decoded, the first was predictable; they must have identified the bodies and realised that the Liberator had to be around. He listened to the second impassively, checked the number of pursuit ships, and started to laugh. He had two hours to get away. But he'd promised himself he'd do what he really wanted now, and he understood now what it was he wanted; to go down to that damned planet that had killed all the others, and kill as many Federation as he could. The reasons why could wait. He was free; he would exercise the privilege of the free, and take his vengeance.
Except that they were alive, all of them; Vila clutching his arms round his naked chest and filthy dirty from the mine in which they'd all been put to work, Gan still a little groggy from the drug that had knocked all five of them out, Jenna and Cally and Blake, all alive. The three pursuit ships ran straight into the planetary defenses and blew up, and Liberator was headed out of the system away from Federation territory.
Blake put Orac on watch and Zen on full alert, and Jenna settled down to sleep on the flight deck in case of need.
The others had probably all gone to their own cabins, to shower and fall into bed and sleep, and sleep; they shouldn't meet any Federation ships out this far, though they'd thought that last time. Avon went to a part of the ship they didn't use, and walked there for a while, setting silence against freedom.
When he came back up to the thief's cabin, Vila was asleep. He'd left the light on, as usual; Avon suspected that the thief was afraid of the dark. At least there would be no damned arguments tonight. He undressed quietly, folding his clothing up and leaving it on the chair, and slipped through to the bathroom to shower and mouthwash. On his way back, he set the timer.
As he slid under the coverlet, shoving Vila gently over towards the wall, the thief's eyes flickered open. "You weren't planning to wake me?" His tone was neutral. The technician propped himself up on one elbow, looking down on the thief's face that gave nothing away, unable to tell what he was thinking, not even sure what he was getting at. Avon raised his eyebrows. "I thought you'd be tired."
"Tired," Vila repeated flatly. "Along with stupid? And expendable?"
"Did I say you were?"
"I am tired, Vila. Can I go to sleep?"
"Why did you come here, then?"
"Would you prefer me to sleep elsewhere? This is a relationship of mutual convenience, Vila. You have only to say the word."
"Very convenient," Vila muttered. "For you."
Avon bared his teeth in a cold grin. "Oh yes. But the arrangement is -- mutual, isn't it?"
Vila rolled over, hiding his face between pillow and wall. "I suppose so." His voice was muffled; Avon wondered if it might have been wistful.
"Well then." Avon let himself down, rubbing his numbed elbow. He flung one arm over Vila's side, pulling him closer.
In his sleep, as usual, Vila relaxed his guard; Avon woke briefly to find that the smaller man had snuggled against him, tucking his head down into the hollow of his neck. Drifting into sleep again, Avon mused drowsily on Vila's defenses against more-than-casual touching; stronger and stranger than his own.
The timer went off a couple of hours before Avon's watch. Still half-asleep, they made love slowly, each knowing the other's responses. They had had time to learn each other.
Avon had to go hunting Vila, who had slipped unobtrusively away as soon as Liberator was safely out from Earth. He found the thief at last in an unused cabin, sitting on the bunk contemplating an array of bottles on the floor, a glass in front of him.
The glass, as yet, was empty; the bottles were filled with fluids of colours ranging from pale clear yellow to deep purple with glimmers of silver.
Vila looked up, then back to the bottles. "Go away," he said bleakly.
"If you are planning to drink the entire contents of that collection," Avon said blandly, "then you will require a keeper."
"What's it to you?"
"We have an arrangement."
Vila shook his head, still staring fixedly at the bottles, his entire body stiff with visible pain. "Not now, Avon."
The technician walked round him until he could see the thief's face. It was blind and drawn with tears -- for a moment; Vila gasped sharply and ducked his head down, hiding his face in his arms. "Leave me alone."
For another moment, Avon was still with shock. Vila did not cry; that was axiomatic. No matter how scared, how hurt, Vila did not cry. Ever. Obscurely moved, the technician sat down on the bunk beside the thief and put an arm around his thin shoulders.
Vila's breath caught in a sob and he jerked up, away from the other man -- "I told you, not now, not now -- "
Avon stood up, pulling Vila in against him, his arms around the thief, holding him tightly. After a panicked moment, Vila stopped struggling and went limp, still sobbing, leaning against Avon. The technician stroked his hair with one hand, the other arm still firmly around Vila's waist. He couldn't think of anything to say to him.
After a while the sobs shaking Vila's frame lessened, dried up, became small dry shudders. He pushed himself away from Avon; this time, the technician let him. "Why don't you shower and then go to bed?"
Vila snorted, sitting down on the bed and reaching for the glass and a bottle. A red one. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?" He looked up at Avon with sly, knowing eyes; "Stay awhile," he invited. "Soon enough I'll be so drunk I won't care." He sloshed the liquid in and gulped it back; Avon stood, frozen, and watched him.
"I want to know why -- "
The thief laughed suddenly, leaning back against the wall, glass clasped against his chest. "Yeah, you wouldn't understand would you? Machines don't have friends. Machines have arrangements instead. Gan's dead. He was the only friend I had aboard this bloody ship, and he's dead, and you don't give a flying fuck -- it's just another stick to beat Blake with." He drained the glass, picked up another bottle, and slopped in a blue frothy liquid, spilling it on his clothes and the bed. "Now I'm going to get bloody drunk, till I can't see the bottle, and if you come back and fuck me while I'm unconscious, I won't care, but for now just go away and leave me alone!"
"That wasn't what I meant," Avon said, very quietly, but Vila never heard him. He went away to his own cabin and spent a sleepless night staring at circuit diagrams, trying to think, trying not to think. Vila had appeared to welcome his advances; had welcomed them, eagerly. Once.
What had happened? It hadn't been his invariable insults, not even the "stupid and expendable" remark; he had always insulted Vila, Vila had usually given as good as he got, and Avon could see no reason why their arrangement should change anything.
What had changed? Not his behaviour towards Vila; Avon examined himself thoroughly and was sure of that. Vila's behaviour towards him. The thief had always been defensive, wary, never truly relaxed except when deep asleep; but never this wary of him. Until -- yes, about six or eight weeks after they began their arrangement, just after the Ortega, Vila had always been less wary of Avon than he was of anyone else. (Except Gan.) Sometimes it had almost seemed a disconcerting kind of trust. (And Gan..?)
Avon quelled the thought savagely. If Vila and Gan had had a similar arrangement, it was none of his business. If they had, it had never inconvenienced him. Jealousy was not merely undignified, it was unthinkable. He wasn't even jealous of whatever Vila and Gan might have been doing while he was on watch; he was jealous, furiously so, of Vila's saying "He was the only friend I had."
He remembered with a sudden, painful vividness, coming into the rest room once and seeing Vila and Gan sitting together; Vila talking away, Gan leaning back, watching the little thief, smiling; both so visibly content with each other's company, that without thinking about it Avon had reversed into the corridor before either of them noticed that anyone was there.
Had he, then, been Vila's arrangement for when Gan could not be with him? Desperately, Avon tried to think of some time when Vila and Gan had both been offwatch and Vila had been with him, not Gan. He could not think. Watch schedules had never been particularly regular. Avon had never been the diary-keeping type.
He could not think. Fiercely, he focussed all his attention back onto the diagrams. The force-wall circuitry was theoretically capable of being modified in such a way that it would possess dual capability; at low power and with a modulating signal --
" -- Avon's gadget works!" Vila sounded genuinely admiring.
Avon found himself so unexpectedly pleased that he had to bite down hard to prevent a smile. Blake's "I never doubted it for a moment," was less pleasing. The rebel turned and leant on the couch behind him, noting the sour look. "Is something wrong?"
Avon fought for and found a harshly sardonic voice. "It's just occurred to me that as a description of a highly sophisticated technological achievement, 'Avon's gadget works' seems to lack a certain style."
A philosophical flea. Vila had gone back to his own cabin, leaving Avon and Blake oblivious and laughing on the flight deck, to clear away the debris of last night. He hadn't actually drunk all that much; though the room stank as though he had. He ought to have the megahangover of all time, but maybe all the mixed drinks had cancelled each other out.
A philosophical flea. He started to clear up, chucking the empty and nearly-empty bottles down the disposal unit, resealing the bottles that were more than half-full, and putting them and the full bottles safely away in the hiding place under his bunk for the next time he wanted to get drunk. Tonight, probably.
A philosophical flea. He went into the bathroom for the floorcleaner and began to run it over the mixed stains. Some of them, particularly one large purplish patch, were quite resistant. He hoped he hadn't drunk much of it -- it seemed to have corroded the metal somewhat. Shoving the floorcleaner up to maximum power, Vila ran it viciously over the stain.
A philosophical flea. The door opened; Vila looked up to see, without surprise, Avon. He hadn't bothered to knock, he hadn't bothered to say hello, and he was locking the door. Vila switched the floorcleaner off and stood up, hoping the extra height would give him the needed nerve.
A philosophical flea. "Leave something behind?"
"I came to see you."
"Talk to you, then."
Vila's muteness was eloquent. Avon sighed. "May I sit down?"
"Do what you like. You will anyway."
Avon took the chair by the desk. Vila promptly went over to the door and began to unlock it, discovering that Avon had changed the combination.
"Where are you going?"
"Why did you reprogram the lock?"
"I wanted to have at least half a minute to ask you where you were going."
"Anywhere. Anywhere you're not."
"I would appreciate knowing what I am supposed to have done."
The door opened. Vila spared a glance back at Avon, still sitting in the chair. He had more than half expected Avon to be trying to restrain him before he could open the door; but now the door was open, he could always run faster than Avon. "Put it this way, supergenius; I don't like being treated like an insect."
"I'm sorry," Avon said evenly.
Vila halted, turned back. "You're what?"
"I'm sorry I called you a philosophical flea," Avon enunciated flatly, "when you're not."
"Not a flea."
Vila came back into the room. "And I suppose you think that makes it all right now?"
"I doubt it."
Vila sighed. "Avon, what are you doing here?"
"I want to find out why you decided, some weeks ago, to terminate our arrangement, and why you did so in such a roundabout fashion instead of simply telling me that it was ended."
They both heard Cally's light tread and Blake's heavier feet coming down the corridor. Automatically, Vila reached out and shut the door. The cabins were fairly soundproof. "So the arrangement's over."
"If I had been more observant, I would have realised that it was over the night after we left Horizon."
"No," Vila said dryly. "It ended before then. When I first realised that it really was just an arrangement to you. When you told me there wasn't any point in our just sleeping together when we weren't going to have sex."
"What point would there have been?"
"Haven't you ever -- Avon, have you ever touched someone just because you liked them, because you felt warm and comfortable with them?"
Yes. You. Avon didn't say it; he only shrugged.
"I used to feel that way about you," Vila said bitterly. "I thought you felt that way about me. I thought you called us sleeping together an arrangement because you were too inhibited to call it something warmer, like friendship, maybe."
Avon's mouth was frozen shut. If he spoke the words would shatter like glass. He said nothing.
"I was wrong. When I realised I was wrong, I should have got out of it faster. I wish I had." He turned to go again; Avon stood up.
"I won't turn you out of your room," he said, dryly, coldly. "Besides, I have work to do."
Vila stood aside as Avon, feeling chilled all through, went to the door. He stopped, and turned to look at the thief a moment, absorbing quietly and quickly the pang of wanting to hold Vila in his arms, breathe in his warmth and vitality. Uncontrollably, he asked "Were you and Gan lovers?"
Vila's face twisted suddenly; he pressed his hands against his eyes a moment, and, just audibly, moaned; pure pain, "No." When he brought his hands down, his eyes were dry and bright. "That's all you can see? I tell you Gan was my friend, and all you can think to ask is were we having sex?"
"I know you loved him," Avon said coldly, crisply. "I wanted to know if you were lovers."
"I wish we had. At least I'd have that to remember."
Avon nodded. He was freezing into a lump of ice. Sentences like I'm sorry, I'll miss you, let me hold you, don't let me go, formed in his mind and solidified, unspoken. Vila's hand on his skin would have burnt like fire.
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