by Jane Carnall
dedicated to that damned, elusive, Dame Terrell
Avon stood over Blake's body, looking down. His shots had smashed the torso into a red ruin. Blake was dead. Looking up in the red emergency lights, he saw that so was everyone else; Vila, Dayna, Soolin, Tarrant, the woman who had accompanied Blake and a man he didn't recognise. He stood in a field of corpses, surrounded by a ring of black-clad troopers.
He had been aware, without really hearing it, that there had been a great deal of noise over the past eternity that he had been watching Blake die; but now all was silent. Deliberately, in the silence, he stepped over Blake, standing astride him, still looking down. Unshaven, grimy, and scarred, Blake stared blindly back.
Thinly smiling, Avon raised his gun.
He hadn't realised dying would hurt this much. It should be over by now, surely? Someone kicked him. He heard a groan and realised that it was his.
"And he's alive." A stranger's voice; a woman's.
"So that's Klyn, Deva, the girl, and poor Roj. And that devil killed Klyn and Roj -- I wouldn't mind adding him to the casualty list." A man; he didn't recognise that voice either.
"Neither would I," the woman said somewhat wistfully, "but better not. You know what Blake would want."
"Yes, I know."
"Get the bodies sacked -- we haven't time to ash them here -- and get them to the ship. I'll see if I can find half a dozen people to help you with the living. Do what you like with the other three, but Arlen and that devil are to go in one of the cells."
Avon tried to move, to speak, but found that none of his muscles would obey him; agony overcame him once more and he plunged into darkness.
When he woke again he could move, if he did so carefully; he found he was lying on the floor of a completely bare metal room, a single lighting-source and a single door. He shared it, he discovered with no particular pleasure, with the woman he vaguely remembered accompanying Blake. She was sitting over the other side of the cell, folded up, arms wrapped around her knees, looking bleakly cut off. She glanced up as he stirred, then away again, without interest.
There was a thick metal cup, smoothed and rounded, offering not the slightest edge to open a vein with, standing by the door. (Completely flush with the wall, not the slightest edge....) It was full of water. He drank half of it, and then vaguely recollecting the customs of being a prisoner, he set the cup down by the woman. She ignored it.
While he was up, however shakily, on his feet, Avon prowled around the cell. On one side, through the metal, he could hear a faint sound that he recognised, finally, as a space-drive. So he was aboard a ship, that fitted with certain ragged memories he had; probably, if he could trust his memory, rebel rather than Federation. Presumably taking him somewhere he could be shot with all due process of kangaroo-court. Good. Satisfied, he sat down again, on the opposite side of the room from the woman.
He was wearing a thin under-tunic and his trousers and very little else. There was nothing he could possibly use to open a vein with. He might be able to rip them to form a rope, but there was nowhere to hang himself from. The woman was more fully dressed, but if they had taken such care with him they would probably have done the same for her. It didn't matter; he was going to die anyway. Thinking of that was very comforting.
At some point in the next timeless time, the woman picked up the cup, drank the rest of the water, and shoved it over to lie by the door. Avon was drifting in a sea of abstract numbers, his refuge; the abrupt movement and clatter roused him and he looked at the woman, seeing her more than vaguely.
He was in here because he had killed Blake. Why was she imprisoned with him? If this was a Federation ship, she would be imprisoned simply because she was a rebel, but if as he thought this was a rebel ship, why would they imprison one of their own? Was she meant to gain his confidence and get him to incriminate himself? But as they knew he had killed Blake, what further need of evidence did they want? Did they think he was a Federation agent? It would be reasonable enough. But if she was meant to encourage him to talk, she hadn't made a very promising start. He forgot about her again, beginning on 5-figure prime numbers since he'd lost track of where he'd reached with 4-figure primes.
Vila woke up to the sound of Tarrant cursing and thumping something. It was not a particularly welcome sound; Vila was just glad it wasn't him. He rolled over, discovering that the floor really was as hard as he thought, and groaned.
"Vila?" Soolin. "Shut up, Tarrant, they're not coming. Vila, are you awake?"
He remembered what had happened. Sitting up hastily hurt, but staring round the room, he knew it hadn't been a dream.
It was a fairly ordinary ship's cabin, but not one he'd ever seen before; and the lock control on the inside had been removed, converting it handily into a prison cell. Tarrant stood by the door, looking bruised and exhausted; Soolin was standing over him, exasperation, not sympathy, clear on her face. She did say, harshly, "There's water if you want it," before turning away to sit down on the bunk.
Vila pushed himself to his feet and found a jug of water and a cup on the table. He drank thirstily. "Where's Avon? And Dayna? Where are we?"
Tarrant shrugged. "How should I know? We're on a ship, and I think it's in flight. This is where we woke up. I haven't been able to make anyone hear."
"Dayna's dead," Soolin said coldly. "We're certainly not on a Federation ship; they have proper prison cells. I should think they're rebels."
"Dead?" Vila croaked. Then he remembered the woman, the Federation officer. "Oh... yes." Grief filled him as he had been unable to feel for Blake, or Avon; fierce young fiery Dayna shouldn't have died, shouldn't have been killed like that, so stupidly, so wastefully. He sat down again, on the floor since there was nowhere else, and buried his face in his arms, folding into himself.
"Leave him alone, Tarrant. Sit down."
"He can open the door -- "
"And then we can do what? None of us have any weapons, remember."
Tarrant must have sat down; Vila heard no more for a long while until the door opened. He stopped rocking and looked up.
Two people stood in the doorway, both armed, guns at ready. Vila never even considered rushing them; he saw Soolin give up the idea seconds before Tarrant.
"What are your names?" It was the woman who spoke.
"You locked us up in here and you don't even know who we are?" Tarrant asked with a hard grin. "Not very friendly."
The woman grinned back, just as hard. "We're not feeling very friendly. Anyway, we know who you are, Del Tarrant. It's the other two we're interested in."
"My name's Soolin. He's Vila."
"Soolin what? Vila Restal?"
"Yes," Vila muttered.
Soolin shrugged. "Kai Soolin."
The man frowned suddenly. "You're the -- the mercenary?"
"You know her, Vin?"
"I've heard of her, a couple of years back. Professional killer."
"Bodyguard," Soolin said dryly. "Assassin only when necessary."
"Del Tarrant, Vila Restal, Kai Soolin," the woman ticked them off. "Are you hungry?"
"Yes," Soolin agreed.
"We'd like some answers, too," Tarrant interjected.
"No harm in wanting," the woman said with another hard grin.
"Like where are we going?"
"We'll get there in six hours. I'll have food brought you. If you need anything, ask politely and you might get it. Restal, for your information there's two guards on this corridor, and if any of you step outside this room they have orders to blow your head off. Since we're keeping you under confinement only until we reach the rendezvous, getting killed would be stupid."
Vila agreed silently. He did wonder where Avon was, briefly, but even as the flickering question entered his mind he knew it would be a waste of time to ask.
The food was standard Federation space rations, probably looted from a base or a ship. They were let out, one at a time and under supervision, to go to the lavatory. Tarrant wondered out loud, on seeing the rations, if their captors were Federation after all. The speculation didn't scare Vila; Federation people would have already had the three of them beaten up as standard procedure. Soolin said nothing at all, digging further into her ration carton with the flat spoon provided.
"If they are Federation, we'd be better off trying to get out of here!"
"Shut up, Tarrant," Soolin said tiredly. "They're not Federation."
"Then why are they keeping us locked up?"
"Because they don't trust us. Avon killed their leader, remember? Hell knows what they've done with him, but we're lucky they decided to treat us as well as they have. Now I'm tired of hearing you run your mouth off, we'll know more when we get wherever we're going, and will you shut up till we get there?"
It was the longest speech, Vila thought, he'd ever heard Soolin make; and it was certainly the nearest he'd ever come to seeing her lose her temper. He looked from her to Tarrant, chewing slowly, wanting not to think about the other thing Soolin had said. It wasn't going to go away, but he'd think about it later, when he had maybe a bottle of wine or soma to shield him past the grief. He wondered if he was going to see a fight, wondered if he should get out of the way, wondered greyly if anyone would come in and stop them murdering each other.
Tarrant looked very white around his bruises. "All right," he said raggedly. "All right."
After a moment's cool surprise, Soolin nodded and went back to eating. Watching, Vila thought that Tarrant looked younger even than he could remember him in the first days he was on the Liberator; young and tired and beaten. Dayna and he had been friends, Vila remembered, probably because Dayna was the only person who ever really liked Tarrant. He might have reached out and touched Tarrant, or said something, but the pilot got slowly to his feet and went to the bunk, lying down with his face to the wall. Vila finished his ration and simply lay down where he had been sitting, making himself as comfortable as possible on the floor. He heard Soolin seat herself on the table; cross-legged, gun in her lap, he had seen her sit like that before. Except this was the first time he had ever seen her without her gun.
Soolin glanced round a few minutes later. Tarrant was certainly asleep; he had fought off the stun earlier than she had, and in any case stunned unconsciousness was not like ordinary sleep. Vila was either asleep or faking it, she couldn't tell except by getting down from the table and kicking him. The thief had a facility for going to sleep anywhere and any time, so it was possible he was asleep.
Four hours, at most, until they arrived at wherever they were going. One year since she had taken on the job of bodyguard to Dorian. Nearly a fatal mistake; for a year, it had looked as if it would be a permanent error. Over, now. The Scorpio wrecked and Dayna dead, no further reason to stay.
In the small metal cell, the door opened. Avon stopped calculating six-figure primes and looked up curiously. Blake stood in the doorway, covered in blood. "You killed me," he said, very softly but with vast rage. "You killed me..."
Caught in horror, Avon could only stare. Blake walking dead, the blood drying on his shirt, accusing eyes transfixing him; Blake back from whatever hell ruined idealists went to after death; Blake with hell in his eyes, murderous, murdered. He had wanted to die, not go mad.
The hellish ghost was walking towards him, towering over him, his hands curled in anger as they had in life. Avon jerked back violently, shaking, pressing himself against the wall. He had faced death, but it had been his own death, never death alive --
The hands reached down and took him by the throat. Expecting the chilly clutch of a corpse, it was a moment before Avon realised that these hands were warm and living. His own hands had flown up, automatically, to take the strangler's wrists, and the blood that pulsed through the veins was warm, hot, pumped by a beating heart. Blake alive. He stopped trying to struggle, paralysed with wonder, with astonishment, with joy. Blake alive.
Blake let go of him and he slumped back against the wall, breathing raspingly. Someone, standing in the doorway, had said something. Easy, man, you'll kill him... no, that had been in another time, and besides, he was already dead. Blake had snarled a reply, but his attention had turned to the other occupant of the cell. "So that's the traitor. The other traitor."
"I'm a Federation officer," the woman said. She sounded tired. "My name is Arlen. That is all I will tell you."
"I don't think so," Blake said with an under-growl of threat. "Do you know what Federation interrogators can do to their victims? Were you ever given the guided tour round their torture chambers? Or were you too clean-handed? Many of my people have been interrogated by the Federation. You'll talk all right. Oh, you'll talk."
"You'll be executed for the murder of Lok Deva, at least." Blake jerked his head at a couple of people standing in the corridor outside. "Take her to the secure rooms. She's been checked for transmitters?"
"Of course. Would I have brought her here otherwise?"
Blake nearly smiled. "I'm sorry."
"And what about that devil?"
"Him?" Blake's attention turned back to Avon. "Oh, I'll deal with him."
"He killed Klyn," the other someone said.
"I know. Rest assured, I'll deal with him."
"Where do you want him now?"
"In a secure room somewhere in the base, alone. There are other things still to deal with."
Avon's legs had gone numb with sitting still. The two people who came to take him out, away from the living Blake, had to drag him. He would have liked to dig his fingers into the cold metal and keep himself there forever.
"You had better change," Kustral said mildly. "You may not have noticed it, but you're covered in blood."
"His blood," Blake said in a whisper, not looking at her. "His blood."
Kustral took hold of his arm with the grip she used on boisterously drunken crew. "Come into my cabin and get changed. If I know you, you won't stop for another twenty hours, and I see no reason why the rest of us should have to put up with it."
When Blake still proved obdurate, the grip changed to the one for belligerent drunks. "Come on, Blake." She guided him in, getting his outer clothes -- the stained tunic and trousers -- off by main willpower. There had been a spaceport trick who had been just about Blake's size about half a year ago; Kustral found an outfit she'd bought him and glared Blake into washing before scrambling the clean clothes on.
"What now?" she asked.
"I have to see the other three survivors. Tarrant, Soolin -- Restal?"
"That's right. Tarrant was recommended by -- "
"By Roj Blake, yes," said Blake. "I trust his judgement. Vila's safe enough." His voice warmed on the last name, and Kustral looked at him in speculation.
"My co-pilot, Vin Sojurner, he says he knows of the third one, Kai Soolin. She says she's a bodyguard; Vin says assassin, but honest."
"An honest assassin?"
"She stays bought."
Blake nodded, and turning to the door rumbled something beneath his breath; " -- I wonder what Avon paid her -- "
Kustral had put the three of them in an ordinary cabin, though she'd had the lock controls removed from the other side. One of her crew sat near the door, gun casually across his lap. "With all I've heard of Restal," Kustral said dryly, "I thought it best not to rely on locks to keep him in."
The door opened. A blond woman was seated cross-legged on the table, watchful and alert. A curly-haired man with a bruised face was lying asleep on the bunk; he stirred and sat up, less than half-awake, as they came in. And Vila, curled up on the floor, who didn't move at all.
The woman and the man were both staring now, looking as if they were seeing a ghost. Blake ignored them, squatting down beside Vila, setting a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Vila. Wake up."
"Oh, shut up," the thief groaned, and then blinked, sitting up, seizing Blake's shoulders, almost throwing him off balance. "Blake!"
Blake smiled. "Yes, Vila."
"It was a bad dream!"
"No, it wasn't."
Vila stared round the room, his face changing, falling into sad lines. "No. But you're not dead. Avon didn't kill you."
Blake shook his head. "He did. Remember, I had a clone, Vila. Avon shot the clone. He killed me." He pulled himself away, standing up again, biting down on pain and rage. "Del Tarrant. My clone reckoned you'd be a good recruit for the cause. You'd be very welcome here; but if you decide you don't want to stay, then you can have passage out. There's usually a ship headed to one free world or another. Kai Soolin. I was recommended you as a mercenary who stayed bought. I can't offer you wages, but the same offer applies to you as to Tarrant. None of you have to decide right now whether or not to stay; but I'd appreciate an answer inside a day or two."
"And me?" Vila asked quietly, scrambling to his feet.
"You're welcome to stay for as long as you like, Vila, you know that. I'll have quarters arranged for you all."
"Are we allowed to ask questions?" Tarrant enquired.
"Oh, you're allowed to ask. I may not answer."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Roj Blake. As Vila can verify."
"Then who was the man we met on Gauda Prime?"
"My clone. I thought I'd made that clear."
"Vila," Tarrant said, "can you think of any way to prove that this is the real Blake? Something that only he would know?"
"I don't see that it makes any difference -- " Vila started, when Blake overrode him.
"What do you mean by the real Blake, Tarrant?"
The pilot looked somewhat uncomfortable. "Well, not another clone."
"My clone was the real Roj Blake, and so am I."
Soolin cut in. "Shut up, Tarrant, before you say anything you'd regret. Blake, I don't care for being unarmed."
"You can have your gun back. But we have one law here that if anyone uses a weapon except on the practice range or in proved self defence, it goes out the airlock, with the owner."
"That seems reasonable," Soolin agreed. "This is a satellite, then?"
"Yes. Don't try to find out where it is, or we'll have to keep you here."
As Tarrant and Soolin went out, accompanied by the crewman who had offered to show them to the sleeping-quarters, Vila caught at Blake's sleeve, holding him back for a moment.
"Blake -- is Avon alive? Where is he?"
The bigger man's face turned to stone. "I'll deal with him, Vila."
This room was not much bigger than the last, but there was a mattress on the floor and they dropped him on it. When the door closed behind them, he sat up and studied his surroundings. The strange, cold, watery desire to die had left him, though not unmarked; he no longer found himself automatically assessing each detail with a mind to suicide.
Blake was alive. How? Alive and unwounded, yet he had shot Blake three times close up with a projectile weapon. So it could not have been Blake that he shot. Who, then?
He remembered something that had happened, three years ago, just before Gan had been killed -- Blake had been planning a raid on the Federation's weapons development centre, which had had to be aborted --
Servalan had ordered two cloned copies made of Blake. They had been unable ever to find out what had happened to one (Avon had always suspected that Travis had been allowed to kill him); the other had sent a message to the Liberator, saying that he and an Epsilon -- Rachel? Rashel? would guard that secret weapon, what had it been called, forever.
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable. must be the truth. It was improbable that the clone could have left his deserted planet, but it was impossible that Blake could have survived those shots. It followed; he hadn't murdered Blake. He'd shot the clone.
Relief so great that it felt like euphoria, sheer absence of pain a pleasure in itself. It didn't matter that he was probably still going to be killed; Blake was alive.
He actually got to his feet and went over to the door, assessing the lock. He might be able to open it. Of course, Vila could without difficulty -- was Vila alive? Yes, the rebel man hadn't mentioned him on his list of casualties. Good. Find Vila, find Orac if the rebels had brought it along, steal a small ship, and escape. He was fantasising, and knew it; he had no idea how to manage any of the five objectives, but it was something to think about.
Hearing footsteps along the passage, he went back to the mattress and sat down, leaning back against the wall, trying to look disheartened and defeated. It might have worked with a strange interrogator; Blake knew him too well.
"You killed Klyn," Blake said slowly, "and you killed me."
"Klyn?" The double accusation, and the order in which they were presented, genuinely surprised Avon. "Oh, the woman. She was calling for security. Blake, you've seen me kill people for less reason before. Sometimes it's saved your life."
"You will be executed for her murder, and my own."
"How can I be executed for your death, when you're still alive?"
"Do you know who you murdered?"
"Yes, your clone. Probably the one Servalan had made who contacted the Liberator once."
"His name was Roj Blake. He was thirty-seven years old, born three years ago. He didn't remember all his past, but then neither do I. He remembered some things I don't, thanks to the memory tapes they fed him. He was closer to me than my brother. And you murdered him."
Avon shut his eyes. Blake was very close to him now, leaning over him, glaring accusation that he could not withstand. His voice was very soft, not in the least gentle, as inevitable as an avalanche. Kneeling, Blake took hold of Avon's shoulders with a vicious twist and shook him. "Look at me!"
Avon's eyes slitted open.
"You still don't understand, do you? You still think you just disposed of a clone, a dispensable copy."
"Wasn't he your clone?"
"He was his own man!"
"Ah yes," Avon drawled, deliberately provocative, "Roj Blake of the bleeding heart. Cares about the rights of everybody, from Epsilon up. Including clones. Doesn't seem to stop you trying to own people. You're a sentimental hypocrite, Blake."
"And you meant to murder me," Blake hissed. "You thought he was me. You wanted me dead. You'd hunted me from Star One to Terminal, from Terminal to Gauda Prime, just to murder me. I always wondered, you know, if you really hated me. Now I know. What went through that twisted mind of yours, Avon, when you lifted that gun? When you killed a man who wasn't trying to kill you -- it took him a year to learn how to fire a gun, and he always hated killing."
"He was coming towards me," Avon muttered, eyes tightly shut. He was sweating. "I told him to stand still but he kept on coming."
"So you shot him." Blake's voice jerked. He stood up again and began to pace the small room restlessly. Avon opened his eyes again. "You shot me for coming towards you with empty hands, for trusting you. You really do hate me, don't you?"
Avon tried to speak and found his mouth was dry. He croaked, "no."
"What was that?"
"Don't hate you." Avon swallowed, trying to create saliva. "Never hated you."
"Then why did you kill me?" Blake roared.
"Tarrant said you -- he -- Blake was here, Blake had sold us. Orac said you were working as a bounty hunter. Vila and Orac and I are worth three million credits."
"And you believed Tarrant. Tarrant and that machine. You wanted to believe it."
Avon shut his eyes again, shook his head. "Told you to stand still. Needed to think. You kept coming towards me. Shot you, once, twice, again, you kept on coming, till you dropped. Said you were waiting for me. Didn't understand. Don't understand."
"Do you understand that I'm going to kill you?"
Avon's head moved against the metal. "I understand that."
"Do you care?"
"Just get on with it, Blake. Spare me the sentimentalities."
The other man stood looking down at Avon, slumped back against the wall, eyes shut, throat exposed, completely defenceless. So had Roj been. It hadn't stopped Avon; it shouldn't stop him. "You don't care at all," he said softly. "Do you? Not about his life, not about yours. You don't care."
"For what it's worth," Avon said flatly, expressionless, "I'm glad you're alive." He pushed himself slowly to his feet, still propped against the wall. "My back hurts, I'm hungry, and I'm tired. I always hated waiting. Kill me now and get it over with."
Blake stared at Avon's shuttered, familiar face. For over two years, almost a friend, never quite an open enemy. From the moment Kustral had told him about Gauda Prime he had been anticipating, fantasising, this moment or one like it; Kerr Avon, cool bastard, as helpless as Roj had been, and due to die the same way. Just, perfect revenge. If Kustral hadn't called him off, he might have managed to strangle Avon in hot blood, but he was discovering that cooling rage is not the best fuel for revenge.
"Go on," Avon said. "Three times in the stomach. Once for every goddamn time I saved your life."
That was too much. When Avon opened his eyes again, Blake was gone.
The thief was sitting on the bed, knees drawn up to his chin. As Blake entered, he looked up, then away again. The other man sat down on the end of the bunk. Seeing no way out of it, Vila asked "What do you want?"
"I don't know," Blake said sadly. "I thought I was going to suggest a night reminiscing over old times, but I don't think either of us want to do that yet."
Vila shook his head. "Did you come to tell me Avon's dead?"
"He's still alive," the rebel said tiredly, "in one of the secure cells. I meant to kill him, but I couldn't. Roj wouldn't have wanted me to do it, anyway."
"Your clone... you loved him."
"Yes," Blake said after a long pause. "I loved him. It was like having a brother, family, again. He lived by his Rule of Life; all life is linked. He taught me that killing for revenge is setting death loose for yourself. Vila, if I could have killed Avon, would you have killed me?"
Vila swallowed. "Blake, if Avon had killed me, would that have made any difference?"
"Killed you?" Blake looked shocked at the bare idea, then thoughtful. "Yes... if he could have done that, it would have. He and I were never as close as you two were; if he had killed you, it would have meant that he'd gone completely out of control."
The thief was silent for a moment. He added, almost as though as an afterthought to something already said, "No. I wouldn't have killed you."
"What would you have done?"
"Gone away," Vila muttered. "Somewhere."
"Vila... he is going to die. My people would have let me kill him myself, but they won't let me spare him. He killed Ari Klyn, as well as Roj."
"He'd think that was funny," Vila said drearily. "Executed by the rebellion."
"The secure cells aren't up to Federation standard," Blake said. He sounded strange; Vila looked up with automatic curiosity. The rebel was staring across the room, not looking at Vila; his neck and back looked stiff. "Of course, when they searched him they took his lockpick. So he wouldn't be able to unlock the door from the inside. If he could, though... well, tonight we'll be waking Klyn and Roj. There won't be many people on guard. A clever thief could probably manage to get away with one of the small ships. They're all kept ready for immediate flight. Probably no one would even notice anyone was gone until tomorrow." His voice sounded bleached; he added, almost casually, "When I talked to him, he reminded me of a couple of things. One was that he's killed people for less reason than he killed Klyn, while I was with you all, and if I didn't call it murder then, how can I now?"
"What was the other?" Vila asked, his mind in turmoil.
"He reminded me of how many times he's saved my life. If you should happen to go to see him tonight, Vila... tell him we're even. And if I never see him again, it'll be too soon."
The thief never made decisions drunk. This was a pity; at the joint wake for Ari Klyn and Roj Blake, there was a lot of very good liquor floating around. Vila drank fruit juice and wished he could make up his mind. He ran into Soolin and Tarrant quite early on in the party, Soolin as sober as Vila, but not bothering to disguise it, and Tarrant lightly buzzed.
"You staying?" the thief asked.
"Yes," Tarrant nodded largely. He wasn't very drunk; exhilaration, relaxation from immediate danger, and catching up on an awful lot of missed sleep, had lifted him up. "Yes. They need a good pilot. Be flying trading runs... just like the old days."
Soolin shook her head. Tarrant turned to stare. "Ah, why not? Know we've had our differences, but no hard feelings, Soolin, hm?"
"They want my loyalty," Soolin said. "I don't give my loyalty. And I don't like working with groups. I work on my own. I'm leaving tomorrow. I told Blake."
Tarrant, looking vaguely disappointed, nodded and muttered something and went away to find some more to drink.
She looked at Vila, without smiling. "You're not drunk."
Vila shrugged. "You noticed."
"You only ever managed to fake it once with me. After that I kept a sharper eye on you. And you wouldn't be tonight, with what you're going to do."
No one could have overheard them. Vila looked round anyway. "What I'm going to do tonight?" he said with a fair attempt at casualness. "Well, get a little drunk, find a friendly rebel..."
"I doubt it. I heard one of Blake's people saying that they'd try, then execute the traitors tomorrow. I haven't underestimated you for quite a while."
"Maybe I haven't made my mind up yet."
"In another hour," Soolin estimated, glancing round, "everyone here will be mellow. There's quite a few people still on watch, but they won't be looking for somebody leaving. Or two people leaving. They gave me my gun back; I clipped on the stun just before I came here. It's sitting on top of the table in my room. The door is locked, of course -- it should take you about thirty seconds. Don't use it unless you have to, and don't let any of Blake's people see you with it. They don't run to stun guns here." She gave him a bright, social smile, and moved away.
Vila looked speculatively after her. He still hadn't made his mind up, whatever Soolin said. Whatever Blake said. He could just get drunk, find a friendly rebel while he was still capable -- then spend the next day getting drunker, and the day after that, and the day after that --
All right, so he had made his mind up. Or had it made up for him. He didn't like thinking about Avon being executed. What he'd do after the two of them were out was another matter.
Unobtrusively, he slipped away. No one noticed him go.
Avon heard someone at the door. He'd lost track of time since Blake left. Morning already? Were they planning to take him to his trial, or just to his execution?
Neither. It was Vila. "Come on," he gasped hurriedly. "Avon, get up, come on!"
The technician stood up slowly, looking at Vila oddly. "Where?"
"There's a ship all ready to go three levels from here. I checked it over before I came down. Don't argue, Avon, come on!"
"None on this corridor. Soolin gave me her gun."
Avon reached out for it, and Vila backed away out of reach. "No, Avon, come on. We don't want to risk people coming away from the party."
Party? Avon shook his head, confused, and followed Vila. The thief paused to lock the door again. "Rigged the security system," he explained absently. "As far as it's concerned, you're still in there. It's a jury-rig system anyway, they can't use it that often."
Up three levels; the stairs they used looked unvisited. What was this place, anyway? Old research station? That reminded Avon. "Where's Orac?"
"On the ship I picked. Assuming he hasn't grown little legs and run away."
He stopped short at one corner and said something Avon didn't think he understood. "Guards," he added. "Didn't think they'd bother watching this shipbay tonight."
"How did you get past them before?"
"Through the ventilation channels. Didn't realise they were there. Just didn't want anyone to see me with Orac. Oh, shit."
"Can we get into the ventilation channels from here?"
"I could. You wouldn't fit." Vila sighed. "Only two of them. Wait here, Avon."
The technician leant back against the wall and waited. He could see Vila for the first minute, walking with a slight stagger, and hear him; singing mellowly, not loudly, something about being banned from Argo just for having a little fun.
"Where are you going?" a strange voice asked, sounding not particularly suspicious.
Vila stopped singing. "Got lost, I'm afraid. I was going back to my room to find another bottle, and I must have got turned around. Oh, and I found this."
"Found it? Never seen that kind of gun before."
"It was just lying in the corridor. Who do I give it to?"
The woman never answered; instead there was the sound of a shot from one of the Scorpio handguns, a second following rapidly. Avon came round the corner and saw the two guards lying very still. Vila was bending to touch one woman's throat; he stepped over her and checked the other.
"Not like you," Avon said. "Making sure you killed them?"
Vila looked at him with suddenly bitter eyes. "I used a stun. I don't like killing people."
"I know." Avon went on and looked through the door at the four small ships in the bay. "Which is ours?"
"Tell me something," Vila said harshly. "What the hell makes you think I want to go with you?"
"Mostly because after rescuing me, your life isn't going to be worth much."
"Blake wouldn't let his people hurt me!"
Avon looked at him, then away. "You're probably right." Disconcertingly, he changed direction. "Have you thought that we used to be called 'Blake's people'?"
"No. Come on." Vila brushed past him and went straight to one of the ships, opening the small airlock. Even compared to Scorpio, it was small; not a cargo ship, a ranger. Flight deck, galley, small hold, three cabins. "Crew of three. Me, you, Orac."
"You always did show discrimination in your thefts, even if in nothing else."
On the flight deck, Orac's box had been wedged under the pilot's seat.
"You don't need it now," Vila snapped. "The exit code's Alpha-zero-three-zero-Lambda-eight."
Avon switched the console on, sat down, and started a rundown check. Vila seated himself at another console, beginning the complementary check. The inward door slid closed, the outer doors open. The ship was out, and free. The technician set a course away, and looked up.
Vila was leaning against the front of the console, staring at him. For an instant Avon was called back in time, almost expecting Vila to say, "It's a trip I won't forget."
Instead he said, "There's two things I have to say to you, Avon."
"First there's a message from Blake. He turned up in my room just after talking to you. He all but pointed me at this ship and told me to rescue you. He said to tell you that now he and you are even. And he never wants to see you again."
Avon nodded, looking somehow unfrozen. Once for Grant, once for the clone, once for myself... Blake pays his debts. "What was the other thing?"
"I wanted to make one thing clear before we do anything else. This is my ship." Vila leant forward, glaring hard. "I stole it, it's mine. I stole Orac, and Orac's key, so that's mine now too. You're on this ship as crew -- I'm the captain. Understood?"
Avon leant back against his chair. From anyone else, this speech would have turned him hostile immediately. From Vila, the little thief who'd got inside his guard and stayed there, it sounded like a declaration of trust. Vila might not be able to forget, it seemed, but the thief had never found it hard to forgive.
"Understood," he said, biting down on a smile. "Captain."
Vila stared at him, a little uncertain, and stepped back a little. "Good. Right then. Well...."
"State course and speed," said Avon, and this time he let himself smile.
Vila responded with a sudden bright grin. He flung his arm out at the starfield on the viewer. "Thataway!"
ideas...? Where do you get your story ideas...? Where do you get your
"'they shot the clone!' -- don't get me going on that one! I loathe that piece of cop-out plotting. I am also vehemently opposed to using clones in ANY genre as nothing more than 'disposable people'. Clones are human beings -- kill one and you've committed MURDER. Besides, has anyone stopped to think this out? The clone we last saw evidenced a lot of Blake's outlooks and was threatening to turn into a pretty savvy creature. Do you seriously think that a person who shares Blake's basic intellect could be used as a decoy? NOT without his permission! Not unless he was in agreement and totally aware of the entire situation and worked with Blake as an EQUAL. He might go along with it then and, being aware of the danger, would be one step ahead, so to speak. But clones are NOT a box of Pampers, damnit! I HATE this attitude of 'it was ONLY the clone. The REAL Blake is OK so we can be happy.' That sucks."
Linda Terrell, The Federation Archives, December 1988
story ideas...? Where do you get your story ideas...? Where do you get
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