Vila had learned long ago that there was no point in being angry. If you got angry, you lost control and then you'd like as not get thumped. It was much better defusing the situation with a joke. Or hiding, or getting nicely sozzled.
Ever since that business on the shuttle, though, the anger Vila thought he had got rid of long ago been simmering just below the surface. He'd even let it rear up and show itself when he thought they were all dying on Xenon, but even then he'd only dared use it against the person least likely to hit back. Except that Tarrant almost had instead.
And now, lying in a narrow hospital bed in a grey concrete room, he could feel it rising again and he was too tired and defeated to fight it. Not after all those sneers and slights, Avon hunting him, and his last tiny little bit of hope of finding Blake and everything being all right again being crushed.
Blake hadn't even looked at him.
So much for thinking he'd been part of a team, that he'd once counted for something. He had probably been fooling himself all those years. He'd got on all right with mates on a job or in the pub, but living in close quarters with people he didn't have that much in common with was another matter. It had only proved he wasn't the likeable fellow he'd always thought he was. Even Gan'd got annoyed with him at times and Gan hadn't been that bothered by Avon's digs.
Vila let the red tide take him because now at last he had a target. He pulled the drip out of his arm and beat his fist hard against the wall beside him, sobbing with the pain, the anger, and the grief.
Hands grabbed him, forced him to be still.
"He shouldn't be in pain."
"What the hell is he doing?"
Darkness swallowed the red.
When he woke again, in a pleasant haze of drugs, he could hear the muffled voices of two women in the next room. For a moment, he was taken back to when he was ill as a kid, lying in his mum's bed because his was a sofa during the day, and listening to her in the other room. He used to wait all day for her to come home from the factory, and she usually had a friend with her, often plump friendly Doty from next door. She'd call out to him when she came in, then he'd lie there and listen to her talking and laughing while she made a cup of tea for them and something nice for him. She'd buy a pastry or sweet on the way home, but what Vila looked forward to most of all was seeing her.
She'd liked him. She'd loved him no matter what he did.
He smiled and pretended he really was back there. It wasn't hard, not with his brain befuddled by drugs and shock. Yes, any minute now, she'd come in with a plate and a cup and say, "How's my little man?" and kiss him on the forehead.
Would it be so difficult to stay here in this nice safe place?
He could use the force wall. It wasn't as drastic as what he did to hide from the reprogramming attempts, but it had worked well enough back in the juvenile detention wards. You just... hid behind it. Filtered reality out so that it wasn't quite so real any more, so that it couldn't touch you or hurt you.
One of the women laughed and there was a clink that was probably medical equipment, but could be a spoon in a cup or on a plate.
Yes, that was Mum and Doty out there.
Vila smiled and built his wall. Funny how easily the trick came back to him. Good old wall; greyed everything out, all the sights and sounds and memories and pain.
He closed his eyes and he was back in the little bedroom, the blanket under his hands the old tartan one with the tassels. His fingers moved slightly as he imagined himself plaiting them into different colour combinations the way he used to.
"He doesn't speak. He doesn't even look at anyone. I don't understand it; he doesn't have any sort of brain injury."
"Try putting your face where he can see it. He'll look away. It's a conscious decision."
"So he's deciding not to eat? That doesn't make sense."
Soolin watched the two nurses from the bed beside Vila's. She had a fair idea what Vila was doing. She had done something similar once to dull the memories until she was able to face them and plan her revenge. "He won't eat that," she said, jerking her head at the rabbit stew on Vila's tray. "He's a vegetarian for a start, and he's not used to local food."
They turned to look at her. "He won't eat porridge either," one of the nurses said.
"You could try vegetables with some gravy, or some grilled cheese on toast. He always liked those."
Vila had ignored the food placed in front of him. To take action, lift up a knife and fork, would be to shatter the illusion. To take part in life again would let life back in.
But this was something his mum might serve him. This he could fit into his world. He twirled his fork though the mashed potato, building it up into a hill, then spooned gravy over the top. Any minute now, she'd tell him not to play with his food and he'd say he was making a volcano with lava flowing down its slopes, and she'd laugh.
For an instant, the thought of volcanoes made the wall rippled alarmingly, but Vila knew how to shore it up.
He was safe here behind it.
By now, the others wounded in the attack and counterattack were all up and about. Vila however could only be induced to walk to a chair by the window, and then only by taking his arm firmly and guiding him. He sat quietly, his eyes unfocussed, his hands either playing with the rug over his knees, or running over the pine windowsill.
"Has he been like this before?" the doctor asked.
"Quite the reverse," said Tarrant. "In fact you couldn't shut him up. Not that anyone listened."
"There's no physical damage except to his back and that's fine now." She shook her head. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Then you can't have come across much battle fatigue." Tarrant leaned forward, putting his face up to Vila's. "Vila?" There was no reaction. Tarrant shrugged. "He'll come right. Or he won't."
Soolin leaned against the wall, her arms folded. She remembered how she hadn't spoken for a long time after she came back from playing in the woods to find her parents murdered and her sister gone. She hadn't withdrawn like Vila; she would have died if she had. She had survived by stealing food and clothes, hiding in dark corners to sleep, always watching, always expecting the worst. She was no longer sure whether she had not spoken because of grief and shock, or simply because there wasn't anyone to talk to. She did however recall the day she finally broke her silence. It had been an enormous feat of daring, like leaping from a cliff, and she made several attempts before she succeeded.
Vila had rambled about Cally and Gan and Blake a few times when drunk, and Soolin knew they had mattered, how much Blake had mattered. Perhaps that was the final breeze that toppled the tree after the storm.
She waited until Tarrant left, then went over to Vila and knelt in front of him. "Vila? I know it's hard. It's hard to take the first step back. Don't give up though. That way you've let them win." She hesitated, and took his hand.
It was getting harder and harder to keep up the pretence that he was home with Mum. Vila looked at the ends of Soolin's long blonde hair, careful not to see her face, so that he could pretend it was his mother in front of him. He knew it wasn't though. It didn't matter if he couldn't keep the game going; now his wall was up, it was almost self-sustaining. It had quite a lot in common with a force wall, actually. He could look through it, but nothing could get to him: no pain, emotion, or fear. Not even the meaning of words unless he wanted it.
"Talk to me, Maybe I'll even understand."
It was Soolin and she sounded sad. Vila was faintly worried about this. He didn't like others being unhappy, not that his stupid jokes had ever helped. He tightened his fingers around her hand very slightly.
Soolin smiled and squeezed his hand. "You can hear me, can't you?" She waited for a response. "Vila?" She sighed and patted his hand. "You'll be all right."
She wanted to believe it. That someone as defenceless as Vila had survived relatively untouched—until now—had been a source of encouragement to her; perhaps the galaxy wasn't as bad a place as she had assumed.
She stood up and saw that Avon was at the door. "He heard me, I know he did."
They both looked at Vila as his finger carefully and obsessively traced the wood grain on the windowsill for the hundredth time that day.
"Oh, yes," Avon said. "I can see that."
Soolin grimaced. "Isn't this your cue for a biting remark about the vast improvement?"
"If you would like one, do feel free to supply it."
"You must be losing your touch." Soolin was for a moment disconcerted by the sudden bleak look in Avon's eyes. No, it must be a trick of the light. "Excuse me." She began to push past him.
"I believe Tarrant is staying on here. What about you?"
Soolin paused, guessing why he asked. "Not me. I'm a professional." She turned to look briefly at Vila, but he showed no sign he had heard. "I can always find work." She smirked. "What about you, the hero found defensively astride Blake's body?" Was that a wince? Surely not.
"Vila needs help," Avon said abruptly, "and I know where he might be able to get it. I'm taking him there tomorrow."
"I can't say."
Soolin narrowed her eyes. "That's very convenient. While he can't talk, make sure he won't?" For a moment, she thought Avon would hit her.
"I meant exactly what I said, Soolin. I intend to get him help and I can't reveal the location of the people I am hoping will give it."
"And of course you won't take anyone else for the same reason."
"That's right. I don't lie, Soolin." Avon sighed and strode over to the nurses' desk and wrote two numbers on a piece of paper. "If you feel you have to check up on me, send a message on this frequency with this number in it, plus something that would tell me it's you. Orac will get it." He held the scrap of paper out to her.
"Right. I might just do that." Soolin put it in her pocket. "I think I'll look up a few of your old contacts to see if they can give me work. From what Vila told me, some of them survived meeting you in the old days."
She left, smiling at the knowledge that that one really had made him wince.
Avon clenched his fists as he watched her leave. Unfortunately she had a point. One of the main reasons he was taking Vila away was to ensure he did not babble the truth when he started speaking again. Tarrant might be staying, but he would keep quiet out of shared guilt.
There were other reasons however. Vila provided a good excuse for Avon to leave a rebel operation that expected him to remain and possibly take over, and simply not come back.
As for the third reason, Avon preferred not to think about why he felt obliged to make sure that Vila was all right.
The rebels were glad to give Avon a ship. Anything for two of Blake's original companions, they said. Avon kept his face expressionless as Deva told him how much Blake had talked about him and Vila and Cally, then nodded tersely, tucked Orac more securely under his arm, and took Vila firmly by the elbow.
Vila went unprotestingly up the ramp and into the ship and let Avon lead him the second pilot's seat. When Avon activated the airlock controls however, Vila got up and went to stand in front of the inner door.
Avon abandoned the pre-flight check and went over to him. He was looking at the door with a faintly resigned expression.
"Vila. If I had any intention of doing something like that, I could think of a great many better methods."
Vila said nothing, but his eyelids lowered slightly.
Avon took his arm and walked him back to his seat, then sat down and completed his checks.
The flight would only take a few days, but it was going to seem much longer.
At least Vila wasn't completely helpless. He obediently washed, ate, went to bed, and got up, but if Avon failed to tell him to do so, he just stayed where he was, in his closed-off little world. Avon had to force himself not to yell at him. Or worse.
Once, when Vila had just looked blankly at a protein drink, Avon had lost his patience and grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. The look on Vila's face however had made him drop his hands in disgust and walk away.
It was hard to tell because it was so subtle, but it had looked like triumph.
"We're there, Vila. Kaarn. Do you remember Kaarn?"
Vila looked at the screen, then away.
Well, if he did remember, he was not going to say. Avon shook his head, annoyed with both Vila and himself. Confronted with silence, he found he had reacted by talking more than usual, much of the content being questions—Would you like breakfast now? Which tunic, the grey or the brown? What the hell are you thinking about?—as if enough of them would get a response.
A thought suddenly struck him: perhaps Vila had talked so much for the same reason.
Avon pushed that thought away and looked at the readouts on the planet below. There was no comms traffic or visual evidence that anyone lived there. He sent a request to land on the old Liberator main frequency, appending his name. "There," he said, leaning back. "Let's see if anyone's home, shall we?" He frowned, annoyed with himself; he had done it again.
After a few minutes, the comms beeped with an incoming message, and he pressed a button in acknowledgement. The display remained unchanged, but he recognised Dr Franton's voice.
"I already have. If you require some sort of code, then perhaps the number five thousand might mean something."
There was a pause. "Very well; you are Avon. What do you want?"
That seemed rather unfriendly considering what the Liberator's crew had done for them. "One of my colleagues, Vila, needs help and I think you might be able to provide it."
There was another pause. "Vila? Very well. You may land. You know the coordinates. Out."
Avon shrugged and entered them.
Franton closed the connection and opened another. "You might like to come over to my office. I think this is going to interest you."
She watched from a doorway as they came down the corridor from the docking area. Avon looked older than she would have expected, but of course a lot she did not know about must have happened. He had Vila by the arm, and he... He wasn't the Vila she remembered at all. He shambled along, his eyes on the floor, and his face slack and expressionless.
Shocked, she stepped forward into the light. "Vila!"
"Cally!" Vila stopped and stared at her in amazement. Then his protective barrier dropped and all the pain and grief and anger rushed in all at once.
Cally reeled from the assault of emotion, brief though it was, then, as Vila's legs folded underneath him and he fell, she ran forward. She crouched beside Avon who looked uncharacteristically concerned.
"Vila." She touched his cheek, then turned to Avon. "What happened to him?"
"Too much, I rather suspect." Avon looked shaken and as pale as Vila. "Cally, you're supposed to be dead."
"Obviously I am not," Cally said coldly. "You merely believed what was easier for you." She stood up as Franton arrived. "Did you feel that?"
"I did. You said he leaked emotion, but I had no idea it was that strongly."
"It usually isn't."
"Can you help him?" Avon's voice was strained.
"I think so. Lietta will look after him."
Avon looked through the glass panel in the door at Vila lying unconscious in a bed while a grey-haired woman set up a machine beside him.
"You left me there," Cally said, behind him.
He did not turn to look at her. "Your legs were crushed. What could I do?"
"Did you ask? Did you even wait for me to tell you?"
He closed his eyes briefly, remembering.
Cally had lain there, her face ashen, her eyes pleading. She had tried to speak, and he had not been able to bear it: her pain; her helplessness; whatever she was going to say, and he had turned and walked away.
And he had told the others she was dead because if she wasn't, surely she would be very shortly.
"I couldn't do anything," he said.
"How do you know? And even if that was true, you could have waited with me. You could have stayed."
Yes. He remembered her cursing Blake with her "May you die alone and silent." Not that he had. Avon leaned against the door, resting his forehead against the cool glass.
"But you were afraid, weren't you?" Cally said angrily. "Of being helpless. Of emotion."
His shoulders slumped. He had lost Anna—he had probably never had Anna—and he had lost Blake, or so he had thought, and he had not been able to bear losing Cally too. "How—" His voice was croaky; he stopped and cleared his throat. "How did you survive?"
"I would have told you if you had stayed to listen."
He turned at last to face her. "Tell me now."
Something must show in his face, because Cally's softened slightly. "There are skills the Auronar have that we do not advertise. We can call for help over large distances—"
"Like Zelda did."
"Yes. Like Zelda."
"And you called— " he hesitated, "—you called for Blake."
"I called for Vila first because he was there somewhere with Tarrant, and I could feel him coming back. Then I called my people and last of all I called Blake." Cally sighed and looked away. "I just wanted someone and I was in too much pain to think clearly. He came for me once before." She turned to face him challengingly. "If I had called you, would you have come?"
"Yes." It was barely a whisper.
Cally was silent for a moment. She put a hand out towards his, then changed her mind. "Another thing we can do is lower our metabolic rate so that we in effect go into suspended animation. And that was how they found me."
"I doubt that, Avon. It was almost too late, and I won't tell you how slow my recovery was."
Avon involuntarily looked down at her legs.
"Oh, these are new. They cloned them for me. And now," Cally said, "you will tell me what happened to you."
"To you and Vila. Neither of you are the people I remember. You are both... damaged."
"It's a long story."
"I have time."
Vila woke, feeling better than he had for a very long time. He lay there, filled with a sense of peace and the pleasant languorous tiredness that goes with the beginning of recovery from an illness.
Cally was alive.
He couldn't begin to imagine how, but for the moment it was enough that it was so.
And his wall was down but it didn't hurt. Nothing hurt. He pushed at his memories like testing a sore tooth with his tongue, but there was no pain or anger or grief, even when he replayed the scenes in the shuttle and the tracking gallery.
It was as if the wall was still there, except that everything was clear, and not filtered and greyed out. The ceiling above him was dappled in one corner with reflected sunlight, and he could clearly hear the sound of birds outside and distant voices somewhere else in the building.
This was nice. He could get used to this.
Someone shifted beside him and he turned his head. A woman sat there, her long straight grey hair outlined in silver by the sun coming in the window. She turned her angular face to him and smiled.
Vila gazed back at her, content and sleepy. The feeling of supreme detachment was wonderful, something even the best wine had never induced.
"Go back to sleep," she said, turning a dial on the machine beside her.
A feeling of happiness washed over him, and Vila did.
When he next awoke, the woman was reading a bookpad and humming to herself. Vila rolled onto his side and looked at her hook-nosed profile.
She put her book down and smiled at him. "Hello again."
Vila considered answering her but the effort was still too much. He looked at the device beside her which was pointed at him. This should be worrying, but somehow it wasn't.
"You're wondering what that is? Well, if you broke an arm or a leg, you'd be given painkillers for it. This is the same thing, but for the mind. Like the body, it heals much better if you're not in pain."
Well, that made sense.
"My name's Lietta. What's yours?"
Vila found himself strangely unwilling to say it. It was the name of someone he didn't like. He rolled onto his back and looked at the ceiling again and tried to forget who he was.
"Not ready? All right then." Lietta picked up her book and began humming again, rocking slightly in her chair.
The melody and the faint, rhythmic creak were comforting, and Vila lay there, covered by peace and contentment like a blanket.
"You killed Blake?" Cally leaned over the table, almost knocking her empty coffee cup over. "How could you kill Blake?"
Avon started unseeing at his own. "I thought he had betrayed me. It was easy enough to believe. Everyone else seemed to."
"Not Blake." Cally stood up and paced across the staff recreation room. "Blake would never do that."
"It looked as if he had."
Cally stopped and turned to him, her eyes flashing. "Did you ask him? Did you listen to him?"
"He said... he said he had set it all up."
"And did you wait to find out what that meant?"
Avon shook his head.
"No, because you were thinking of yourself and your own pain, weren't you? Did you ever stop to think about the people you betrayed? Vila, who trusted you? Dayna, who admired you? Tarrant? Blake? Me?"
Avon put his hands over his face. "As a matter of fact, yes." His words were at variance with his voice which was not far from a sob. He took his hands away and looked at her. "What the hell do I do now?"
Cally walked around the table to him. "You begin again," she said, her voice hard, and her hand on his shoulder soft. "That's what I did."
"Good morning," Lietta said, opening the curtains. "And isn't it a lovely one?" She sat down. "Do you remember my name?"
"Hmm. I think you do. You know, not talking rather defeats its purpose when you have such an expressive face."
Damn. He'd let his defences crumble with the wall.
"So tell me your name. No, don't look at me like that. I've been told what it is, but I want to get to know you and I rather like introductions. No? All right, I'll go first. I'm Lietta and I was teaching Auron meditation techniques on Califeron when I felt most of my people die. And when the call was sent out from here, I was one of those in different parts of the galaxy who came home. I'm a teacher and a nurse and a grandmother to a lot of children. Now it's your turn."
No. I don't want to.
She was nice. But it was too hard.
"Come on." Lietta leaned forward and breathed conspiratorially. "It's not so difficult if you whisper."
Vila thought about this. Oddly enough, it was true. "I don't want..."
She leaned closer. "You don't want what?"
It came out in a rush. "I don't want to be him."
"Ahhh." Lietta sat back and nodded as if that made perfect sense. "And why not?"
"I don't like him."
"You don't know him."
"You leak emotions. I know more than you might think. And besides, there are two people here who seem think a lot of you."
"Guilt. In Avon's case anyway."
"Not Cally. He annoyed her though. Annoyed everyone really,. Now I think of it," Vila said bitterly, "he should have taken up a different profession. Freelance annoyer, hourly rate and expenses, just send him to someone you don't like. Guaranteed to work."
Lietta's lips twitched in amusement. "Everyone annoys other people. We do here, living in such a small community. Your friends must have annoyed you too."
"You never got angry?"
"Yes, you did. You just directed it at the wrong person."
"How long is this going to take?" Avon demanded. "He is still in that room and still refusing to talk to anyone but that woman."
"Lietta," Dr Franton said.
Avon ignored that. "You said he was better, but he obviously isn't."
"He is better."
"You have a strange definition of—"
"Oh, stop," Cally said, exasperated. "You're both talking at cross-purposes. Dr Franton," she said to Avon, "means Vila is improved, and he is. You use 'better' to mean recovered."
"Very well." Avon turned back to Franton and spoke exaggeratedly slowly. "Then how long will it be until he is recovered?"
"As long as it takes. Excuse me, I'm busy."
Cally shook her head at Avon as Franton left.
"I was asking a simple question."
"I know, but you have an abrupt manner and because you're opaque to Auronar, they find it hard to read you."
"Why do you say 'they'?"
Cally looked disconcerted. "I suppose I've lived with humans long enough to use other cues. For example, I can tell you're worried about Vila."
Avon looked aloof.
Cally looked amused. "You've tried that too often for me not to see through it."
"Anyone would worry about someone with an alien thought machine being aimed at a mind that wasn't that clear to start with."
"That isn't how it works. It simply broadcasts a soothing frequency. Thoughts are just as clear as normal, more so in fact without the confusion of negative emotions. Every day it's turned lower until it is no longer needed." Cally put her head on one side. "Why don't you try it? It might help."
Avon stepped back, alarmed. "Certainly not."
"It was used on me, you know."
Avon was startled. "On you?"
"That's right. Are you going to imply that I was weak because I needed it?"
"No," Avon said uncertainly. "Why did you?"
"Do you have any idea what it was like after you left me there? I had shut my body down, but not my mind. I was alone, Avon. Truly alone. Do you know what that is like for a telepath? On the Liberator I always had company not far away and the background buzz of Vila's emotions, but with all my senses closed down, I was as alone as when that alien trapped me. By the time they came for me, I was no longer quite sane. I was full of panic and fear and also fury and grief that I had been abandoned, but that alien thought machine as you called it took all that away while I learned to face it."
"Cally..." Avon hesitantly put his hand out. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
"Thank you, Avon," Cally said gravely, and took it.
"I think," said Lietta, "that we might as well turn this machine off."
Vila looked around from the window, worried.
"I've set it lower each day. I doubt you'll even feel the difference." She rotated the dial closed. "There. Anything?"
Vila tilted his head in thought. "Um, no."
"Good. Because it's time you left this room. Doing nothing but read and nap all day must get boring."
"It hasn't so far. Give it a chance."
Lietta smiled. "Then why were you looking out the window? Come on," she said briskly. "Let's go outside."
They sat on a wooden bench in the afternoon sun, listening to the birds and looking at the fields and the forest beyond.
"Bit like Earth, really," Vila said. "I used to get out of the dome when I was a kid. Nice and peaceful."
"Do you think you'll ever go back?"
"Nah. Nothing for me there."
"I understand," Lietta said sadly. "There are times I would like to see the Mirani Falls or sunset over the lakes in Trisuna, but I will never go back either. What made it home is gone."
"Yes." Lietta turned to look at him. "And speaking of which, your friends want to see you."
Vila frowned. "Friends?"
"Of course. What else would you call people who are concerned about you?"
"They probably just want something from me," Vila said bitterly. "Want me to do something. Want my delicate bloody touch on a lock, most like."
At least he had stopped referring to himself in the third person. "Oh, Vila. You told me you liked them. Why? Because of what they could do for you?"
Vila frowned. "I dunno."
"I liked being around them."
"Perhaps they feel the same way."
"Oh, very likely." Vila turned away and his eyes widened. "Blimey, will you look at the size of that kitten!"
"It's not a kitten. It's an orphaned cub from the forest that hangs around for scraps." Lietta stood up and clapped her hands. "Shoo! Go away!"
"Why?" Vila grabbed at her arm. "What'd the poor thing do to you?"
"Nothing. However encouraging it to stay might only draw others, and we cannot afford to feed animals that have no function in the colony."
"Oh, right," Vila said bitterly. "And you want me to believe people like me for myself and what I can do." He leaned forward, holding his hand out to the cub. "Come on," he said softly. "I won't hurt you."
The animal sat down on its haunches and looked at him.
"Come on. I like you. Come on."
Lietta held herself still and quiet, realising that she had made a bad mistake.
"Come on. I don't think you're useless."
The cub approached cautiously, while Vila continued crooning gently and Lietta held her breath. It sniffed Vila's outstretched fingers, and after a few seconds, allowed him to very slowly move his hand until it brushed the fur between its ears.
"There. You like that?"
The cub mewed and pushed its head against his hand.
"You do, don't you! I like you too." Vila gleefully scratched behind its ears. "He's tame!" he said to Lietta.
"Young animals often seem to be, and I'm told it's a female."
Vila ran his hand over the cub's body. "She's thin. Look, I could feed her the meat I'd get if I ate the stuff, couldn't I?"
"If that's what you want, it's up to you." She watched Vila for a moment. "You're a kind man," she said softly.
"You felt sorry for the cub."
"Know how it feels, don't I?"
"Would you be a friend to a young man I know who needs one?"
He looked up. "Why? What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing. He's a very likeable person. He just needs a friend."
Vila looked puzzled. "All right then."
"Good." Lietta leaned towards him and whispered in his ear. "His name's Vila Restal."
Vila stared at her,
She pointed a finger at him. "Think about it."
"Hello, Vila." Cally put her head round the open door to Vila's room.
"Cally!" His face lit up as he put his bookpad aside.
"Lietta tells me you're ready for visitors."
Vila nodded, his impulsive joy changing to something close to wariness. "I am if they're you."
"And it really is me, in case you're wondering." Cally came in and sat down on the couch beside Vila and smiled at him. "Remember the necklace you promised me?"
That was rewarded with the ghost of a grin. "Of course! I'm still very attached to it." Then he frowned. "Avon said you were dead."
"Avon thought I was about to be."
Vila looked at her critically. "You look just the same."
"I am much the same. I have new legs, that's all."
Vila stared at them, encased in close-fitting trousers.
"Just like the original ones, in case you're wondering, except for a faint scar above the knee."
"Oh." Vila tore his eyes away and smiled at her. "I'm glad you're all right. I'm glad something good happened."
"I'm pleased you're all right too. You and Avon."
Vila's face darkened at the mention of Avon. "D'you know about Blake?"
"Yes. Avon told me what happened."
Vila sighed and shook his head. "He didn't look the same. He was different, like everything that made him Blake had gone." Vila hesitated. "You know..."
"I can see how Avon thought what he did."
That was generous of him; Cally patted his hand. "I think we've all changed."
"Avon certainly did."
Vila shrugged. "Most of the time it was as if he didn't want to know me any more. I wondered if he ever was a friend."
"Avon... seems to be inclined to walk away from what he cannot handle."
"I didn't mean you. I meant the situation. I think he was under a great deal of stress."
"He wasn't the only one." Vila pulled a wry face. "He caused a lot of it too."
Cally smiled; he seemed to have some of his old bounce back. "I'm glad you're feeling better. I missed you."
He looked so startled and pleased and vulnerable that she impulsively put her arms around him.
He stiffened for a moment, then shyly embraced her and rested his cheek on her shoulder. "How long d'you think I can get away with this before your mind turns to unarmed combat?"
Cally laughed throatily. "Oh, I'd give it about five seconds." She pulled away. "Would you like to see Avon?"
"I'd give that about five years."
Cally was torn between amusement and exasperation. "You're two of a kind. All right, I'll see you later."
As she left, Vila dangled his hand, wriggling his fingers, and a paw emerged from under the bed.
Avon was sitting at a table, working on a piece of equipment. Cally went to stand in front of him.
"Why doesn't Vila want to see you?" she asked. "What went wrong? And don't say it was Blake, because he said he understood that."
"He has his reasons."
Cally waited for more.
"Let's just say that it is unlikely he will trust me again."
Ah. Was trust at the heart of it? "You said everyone betrayed you. Did Vila? Or did you expect him to?"
Avon looked surprised. "No. Not at all. That," he said bitterly, "wasn't exactly the issue."
"I would rather not talk about it."
"Because I need to know if I can trust you before I ask you to work with me."
Avon looked surprised. "You would want me to after... what happened?"
"You have explained about Blake, and I know why you left me. I would guess that you did the much same to Vila, but before he could betray you by dying."
Avon said nothing.
"Don't do that. Don't close yourself off like that. Avon, if you do not take risks, you win nothing. Is that what you want?"
Avon shook his head almost imperceptibly.
Cally spoke softly. "Perhaps if it hadn't been for Anna, things might have been different, but we have always been friends."
Avon looked up at her, his eyes lit with hope and possibly fear. "What work did you have in mind?"
"I'm used to dealing with other humans, and I left home originally because I wanted more than a shuttered and inward-looking existence, so I spend much of my time travelling and buying supplies. I am not however a technical expert or a hard-headed business person, and neither are any of the Auronar I take with me." She smiled. "You however are both."
Avon was still for a moment, then he smiled back. "Yes."
Cally pushed Vila into the work room. "All right, you two. Going by past experience I know you will not say it yourselves, so I will. Avon," she said to him, "Vila was more upset by you no longer being the friend he thought you were than anything else." She turned to Vila. "And Vila. If Avon was not a friend, he would not have brought you here. Right." She nodded at them both. "I'll leave you to it then." She went out, closing the door behind her.
Vila looked at Avon. "Guilt," he said.
Avon looked back, a laser probe held in one hand. "A large part was," he said, "but not all."
Some of the tension went out of Vila.
"Hand me that welder, will you?" Avon gestured with the probe.
Vila passed it over.
"And sit down, will you? You're blocking the light."
Vila did so, plopping the bag he was carrying onto the table. "Cally said you're going off on one of her trips with her."
"Mm hmm." Avon made a careful adjustment. "Want to come along?"
"Nah. Fed up with being a spare part, aren't I?"
Avon looked up, and for a moment, Vila thought he looked stricken.
"Well, you have to admit I was after Blake left. Didn't have much to do. And besides," he pointed a finger at Avon, "I'm not getting you out of it."
"Out of what?"
"Dunno what she sees in you—what any woman sees in you—but if you don't do something about it, I will."
"You?" Avon looked incredulous. "And Cally?"
"Well, all right, I know I haven't a chance, but you should grab yours."
Avon looked at him thoughtfully. "Your advice will be taken into consideration. One more word on the subject however, and I'll let Franton know you've been stealing meat from the kitchen." He nodded at the plastic bag on the table.
"What is it. A rat?" He had once caught Vila feeding a colony of small rodents on Xenon.
Vila grinned. "Bit bigger than that."
"For what it's worth," Avon said, looking through the toolbox, "welcome back."
"Thanks. Makes it all worth while, that does."
Avon's hand stilled. Despite Vila's elaborately casual tone of voice, he knew he meant it. "I may bring back a chess set," he said. "And since you're here, you can make yourself useful." He pushed the toolbox towards Vila. "Find me a number six probe."
"He's out with the animals," Lietta said. "He gets on well with them so he chose that as his work."
Avon raised an eyebrow. "Not a word I thought I'd ever hear mentioned in relation to Vila."
"Come on," said Cally. "I'll show you where the barn is."
"Why do you have animals?" Avon asked on the way.
"Where do you think the meat and milk comes from? Also we use then to pull local transport so that we can maintain the appearance of a purely agricultural settlement should anyone happen to find us. Here we are."
The barn was a long, low, wooden building from which came an unnerving mixture of bellows, snorts, and smells. Avon wrinkled his nose as they entered. There were several large creatures in stalls, snuffling in troughs, and down the end of the barn, in a patch of light from a window in the sloping roof, he could see Vila, leaning over as he shovelled something from the floor of a stall into a wheeled cart beside him. Avon was about to call out, when he saw movement behind Vila.
An animal that looked rather like a half-grown cheetah except that it was a rich golden brown dappled with cream spots was stalking him. Avon drew in his breath and reached for his gun, but just then, Vila spoke.
"I know you're there, fuzz-face. I can see your shadow."
The animal leaped, and Vila rolled over as it landed on his back, wriggling to grab hold of it. "You'll have to do better than that, fur-features," he said fondly as the thing ecstatically licked his face.
"What," said Avon, "is that?"
Cally laughed. "A native species. Lietta said he had a pet but I had no idea it was one of those."
Vila sat up, disentangling himself. "You're back!"
"Master as ever of the obvious. What on earth possessed you to take this job on?"
"Mucking out's not much fun but I like the animals and they like me. Besides, it beats looking after babies."
"I acknowledge the indisputable logic of the last statement."
Vila stood up. I've pretty much finished for the day. I'll walk back with you."
"You could come with us next time, you know," Cally said as they walked back to the main buildings.
"Nah. It's all right here."
Cally frowned. "Is all right good enough?"
"It is for me."
"You can do better."
"You don't belong here."
Vila looked hurt. "Why not?"
"I don't either. Not permanently. And you're not even Auronar, so you will never truly fit in."
Vila shrugged wryly. "I'm used to that."
Vila slapped his leg to bring his roaming pet back to his side. "Don't worry. I'm all right."
Avon knocked on Vila's door. "There's someone on the comms for you."
"For me?" Vila looked puzzled.
"It's Soolin. She appears to think that I have permanently silenced you," Avon said dryly. "I should like you to set her mind at rest. She can be somewhat implacable in her approach to revenge."
She looked much the same, cool and detached. "Where are you?"
"Lindor. I'm President Sarkoff's bodyguard." Soolin smirked. "I hope you don't mind me giving your and Avon's names as previous colleagues."
"Um, no." That was the first time he'd been a reference.
"The thing is though, there've been a few attempts on his life lately, and I suspect someone close to him, perhaps a member of his Cabinet or staff."
"I need of someone who can get into locked rooms and safes to find things out or leave bugs." Soolin's smile widened. "And I know someone like that. What d'you think?"
Vila considered this. "Are you allowed pets there?"
Soolin blinked. "Well, a lot of people have them, and Sarkoff even has a small menagerie."
"Oh, good." Vila grinned. "You're on, provided I can bring my cat."
"I don't see why not."
Vila hummed as he packed. Soolin had asked for him. Probably didn't mean anything other than a request for his skills, but he could dream, couldn't he? And there was always that long and lovely drink of cool water, Tyce. Never knew your luck in a big galaxy.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had something back that he thought he had lost for good. Hope.