'Try to look on the bright side,' Vila said. 'It must have something. None of the guests have ever left early - in fact, none of them have ever left at all!'
Jenna pulled a sour face. She didn't know whether to tell him to shut up or to thank him for trying to cheer her up. Most of all, she resented the fact that it was so easy to read her expression. She knew better than to show fear and anxiety in such hostile surroundings. Vila himself may have presented no threat, but many others in this transit cell did.
For days now, the gloom and monotony of this place had numbed her awareness, making even her life sentence seem somehow unreal. Then the announcement came that the prison ship was being refuelled and that it would take off for Cygnus Alpha in twenty four hours. Suddenly the certainty of all this struck her - suddenly she realized that there would be no way out, no miracles such as a last minute reprieve, that she was really going to spend the rest of her life on a godforsaken prison planet.
She sighed nervously and sat on her cot, resting her back against the ragged pillow, trying to relax the tense muscles of her neck and shoulders. She was hardly paying attention now to what seemed to be a ceaseless flow of Vila's jokes and puns. It was incredible, she thought, how he managed to annoy her and amuse her simultaneously with his self-mocking, clownish attempts to win her favour.
'Listen to this one,' he said.
'There was a young lady from Cygnus,
'Who had breasts quite renowned for their bigness.'
He sat on the edge of her cot as he recited, and again she wasn't certain whether to give him a kick or to listen to the rest of the rhyme.
'They were size double L;
'In a gravity well,
'She had to make a jury-rigged truss.
'Not bad, what d'you say?' he commented smugly. 'It's quite difficult to find something that rhymes with Cygnus, you know.'
'Indeed,' she replied bleakly. 'Somehow I think we aren't going to rhyme with it, either.'
'I know something that will improve your mood,' Vila was insistent. 'I'll tell you a story.'
I'm thrilled already, she thought. 'What kind of story?'
Vila pointed to a curly-haired man of large build who was lying on a cot in the opposite row. Jenna recalled now that he had been brought in here a few hours ago, unconscious, probably sedated. He still wasn't coming to. She hadn't paid much attention until now.
'What do you know about him?'
'I met him... once. He's probably forgotten all about it. To be honest, I'm not even sure I'd want him to remember. I'm certainly not going to remind him.'
'Why not?' Jenna was becoming curious.
'Oh, he's dangerous. I had one hairy trip through the sub-levels because of him. I like him, though.' Vila smiled. He leant upon his elbows, looking at the stranger. 'It was five years ago, somewhere in the western sector of the dome...'
I didn't say I wanted to hear that story, Jenna thought. She had noticed by now that Vila didn't need a particular approval or an invitation to start babbling. Quite the opposite, he seemed to need a gun pointed at his head to stop. Still, she didn't interrupt him. The story might really help her forget her worries, at least for a while. Besides, she had to admit she was intrigued. Perhaps her hunch as an experienced merchant told her it would be profitable to listen. Or perhaps, she thought as she watched the stranger, it was more than just that...
'As I said, it was somewhere in the western sector,' Vila went on. 'It all started while I was working...'
'That's hard to imagine,' Jenna said.
'No, I'm serious. That night I was about to perform a masterpiece. One of my best jobs ever. The apartment I wanted to break in had every detector device and alarm system you can imagine, and a few more. Only a genius could open that. I would've made it, of course, if only I hadn't been interrupted.
'First I heard a chain of loud detonations and then the klaxons started blaring from far and near. Soon enough the public speaker started broadcasting every few minutes, harping on how the terrorists who called themselves the Freedom Party had committed another horrible crime. Their attempt at escape was futile, the voice said, and they would soon be caught.
'I'd heard about these hotheads before. They were big in those days - they blew up military targets, arms factories, communication relays. Once they broke into a rehab center and released all the prisoners. I had no idea what they'd done this time, but I knew the entire Security service would be after them. I had to give up my plan and get out of there immediately.'
'Did you have any transport?' Jenna asked.
'Other than my legs, none. It was after the curfew, not the time of day when you're likely to get public transport or obtain permit-cards for travelling through the dome levels. It's one of the drawbacks of my profession, inconvenient working hours.
'You've never lived in the Earth domes, have you, so you don't know how tough it is to be a criminal here. The only way to avoid being monitored is to move through the underground service levels - sub-levels, as they're officially called. That night, of course, these were crawling with security guards. All the routes I usually used were blocked by their units and vehicles. I had to skirt their positions and so I walked for almost two hours before I reached the area where my nearest hiding-place was.
'This was where I first saw him. He was sitting in an unlit side passage, leaning against the wall, his head thrown back. He wasn't moving. His body seemed quite limp. I got nearer and addressed him quietly. He didn't respond. I knelt by his side and, in spite of the hum of the nearby machinery, I heard him breathing. The colours of his tunic indicated he was an alpha engineer. An alpha in the sub-levels was an unusual sight. Still, I did not immediately associate him with that night's havoc. I assumed he just might be drunk or drugged. Even among Alphas there are quite a few addicts here in the domes, although not as many as in the lower grades.
'I thought he'd be an easy prey. His sleeves were rolled up above his elbows, so the first thing that caught my eye was his chronometer. I worked very carefully about the buckle, hardly touching his wrist. I'd almost made it when he suddenly grabbed my arm.
'I gasped. I struggled helplessly to pull myself out of that iron grip. "Let me go! Let me go!" I hissed. "I didn't mean to rob you, I swear I didn't! I was just checking your pulse! To see if you were all right!"
'"Of course you were," he mumbled in a deep voice. He straightened up, and from the way he moved I could tell right away that he was injured. "Just calm down," he told me, still holding my arm. "I won't hurt you. I have a proposal for you. If you help me I'll pay you four times the value of this watch you didn't mean to steal." "Help you, how?" I asked distractedly, all the while trying to break free.
'In a state of panic, I almost missed the sound of a vehicle trundling towards us. He didn't, though, and he quickly pulled me deeper into the shadows, gagging my mouth firmly with his hand. It was a security transporter. There were six guards in it, with their rifles at the ready. My heart was throbbing so violently I thought they would hear it. I noticed that the alpha now had a gun in his other hand. He held me fast and wouldn't release my mouth until the hum of their engine faded in the distance.
'It finally dawned on me. "You must be one of those ter- I mean, you must be with the Freedom Party." "And if I am?" he asked. He still hadn't holstered his gun. "Oh, that's fine," I replied quickly. "I'm a sympathizer." "That's good to know," he said, but he didn't seem very convinced. He grimaced with the effort of getting up. Now I was certain that he was injured. "I need to get away from here - a hideout, for the next two or three hours. Like I said, I'll pay." "Oh," I gulped. "Right."
'You know this as well as I do, Jenna - the security don't make much difference between being a political criminal and helping a political criminal. You really stick out your neck doing a deal with people like him. Regardless of how well they pay you, the gain's never worth the risk. All the same, I was too scared to refuse his offer. I just hoped I'd manage to make the best of a bad job: stay alive, and maybe profit a little.'
'He kept his mouth tightly closed as he followed me down the corridors. It was a leg injury, judging by the way he walked, although he tried very hard not to slow us down. "Is it bleeding?" I asked cautiously. He shook his head. "It was a stun blast. Their rifles were set to low energy discharge. I suppose they wanted to get me alive... Now that it's cooling down, it feels as though my shinbone's been shattered to pieces." Well, I felt for him, but for me it was a relief. The last thing I needed was a trail of bloodstains leading to my apartment.
'I knew a place where it was safe to leave the service tunnels and ascend to the upper levels. Here and there in the dome you'd come across architectural slips, certain angles the camera couldn't scan, stretches of corridors you could walk without being spotted. In such a one I'd managed to find an empty apartment. I'd broken into it and used it as a hiding place. It wasn't the only one I had - there were two more in the sub-levels, and one outside the dome - but it was my favourite. It was roomy and cosy, the closest thing I had to a real home at the time.
'I took the cover off the door mechanism and inserted a small probe from my jacket's inside pocket - you know, once you pick a lock you can't close or open the door normally ever again. He didn't seem surprised about the way I entered my apartment. He figured things out rather quickly. Quite bright, for an alpha.
'It wasn't the safest hideout in the world, but being inside made my nerves slightly less tense. "Here we are," I said, adjusting the light to the lowest setting. He slumped onto the couch. I needed a drink badly, so I sat by the table and helped myself with the bottle. It was the best brand of Adrenalin and Soma, very costly, imported from the Inner Worlds. I'd nicked it a couple of days earlier.
'I thought it wise to be nice to him, so I offered him a drink as well. He thanked me and drained it at once. Again, not bad for an alpha. I offered him another, but he refused. "I need to keep my head clear." Yours wasn't clear to start with, I thought, but I didn't say anything.
'We were silent for a while. I had a few more drinks. As I was becoming tipsy, I dared study his face more directly. The dim light in the room cast soft shadows upon his features, making them somehow much less threatening than when we'd first met. It was a strong looking, resolute face, but there was also something good-natured about it, something warm and serious and expressive, especially about his eyes.
'So how do you start a conversation with a terrorist? I took another swig, and my courage increased some more. "I only know there was great noise," I ventured. "What did you blow up?"
'He started a little. "We - sabotaged the repair and supply base for the Federation assault ships," he said. "We destroyed the two main plants and the entire depot." There was pride in his voice, but I also sensed some gloom and weariness, as though something had marred that triumph. At first I ascribed it to his wound.'
'But was he telling the truth?' Jenna interrupted. 'Such bases are extremely well secured. It's practically impossible to break in. It would take an expert guerrilla leader to organize that.'
'It was true. I checked a few days later, via the underground grapevine. The Freedom Party had done enormous damage that night. Of course, you couldn't learn anything about it on the official channels. The administration denied it completely.
'"The colonists on Lythos have overthrown the Federation government and declared independence," my guest explained to me. "Space Command is planning a punitive mission to retrieve the colony. The factory we've sabotaged is one of the crucial military suppliers in this sector. If this forces them to postpone the attack, then at least the rebels will have some sort of chance."'
Now that she heard the name of the planet, Jenna recalled the events. Indeed, due to the efforts of the Earth resisters, the invasion of Lythos had been delayed. She admired people such as this stranger, not only because of their skill and courage, but also because of their strength of conviction - something she'd never had. She admired them, but she thought she could never be like them. She was too practical to engage in a hopeless war, and this one was plainly hopeless.
In the long run, even such a brilliant and triumphant guerrilla strike had amounted to nothing: it had been just an insect bite, a harmless irritation to an enormous organism. A few months later, the colonists had still been crushed with ease and the Federation rule re-established. Her face darkened as she recalled the refugees which she and other smugglers had helped transport to the Outer Worlds to save them from the Federation's cruel retribution. Exhausted and wounded rebel soldiers, desperate civilian families packing the ships' holds, carrying nothing but their most essential belongings. Opposing the Federation was always like this, she thought, suicidal and futile.
'What else did he tell you about the raid?' she asked.
'No more, at first. I sensed that for some reason he was reluctant to talk about it. So I started prattling about myself instead. He was interested in my trade, the tools and techniques I used for breaking in, the way I forged my permits and documents. He probably thought such knowledge might come in handy to him as well.
'As the time passed, and I was getting more drunk, I discovered he was quite pleasant to chat with. I began to feel more at ease with him. I told him stories about my burglaries and I joked and even pulled his leg now and then, but he didn't mind.
'From time to time he would get up and make a few tentative steps. He nosed about and asked me about this and that. The apartment was packed like a warehouse. There was plenty of loot for which I hadn't found a buyer yet, and there were also some items I didn't intend to sell at all. Sometimes I would steal things which couldn't bring me any profit. Decorative stuff, Old Calendar antiques, books, figurines. I enjoyed just looking at them, having them around.
'He paused by a jade statuette which I was very fond of. It was very rough, simple, all in one colour, its lines crude and imprecise, and perhaps for this reason somehow powerful. It represented a dancing man. He was dressed in a funny, baggy costume, with a grotesque expression that made his face look almost like a mask.
'He held up the statue to look at it in the light. "Did you steal this one as well?" "No," I said. "I've inherited it from my grandma." He studied it, turning it over in his hands. "A fool," he commented. "A jester of some kind." "A dead king," I said.
'He gave me a puzzled look. "This is what they were called in some ancient Terran cultures," I explained. "I mean, clowns and the like. This is what they really are. Dead kings."
'I sipped my drink. "You see, when a king is crowned, he has to change. Some feelings become unseemly for him to show. He's no longer allowed to be foolish, or timid, or weak, or regretful, or even plain uncertain... In a way, when he becomes a king, a part of him has to die. This part is then resurrected, restored to him, in the person of a fool, or a jester, who becomes... his dead king."
'He observed me intensely, as though he were trying to see through me. He must have been wondering where someone like me could have heard such a story. "What is your real grade?" he asked. "You should be a delta, judging by your clothes and accent." "Oh, don't let these fool you," I said. "I'm an alpha. I rigged my results at the Testing Center. You know what happens to people like me, of humble origin but with high IQ. If I hadn't cheated, the administration would've surely assigned me to the military. Today I'd be a space captain conducting punitive missions to rebellious colonies."
'He raised an eyebrow. "And you inherited this statue from your grandmother." "Not really," I said. "I nicked it from the apartment of an alpha historian."
'He smiled, a warm, disarming smile which removed the last remnants of my fear of him. "Who are you really?" he asked. "Who are you behind all these layers of disguise?" "Oh," I gave him my most innocent grin, "I'm... Vila. Vila Restal," I added, to make it sound more informative. I held out my hand. "This is not what I asked," he said more seriously. "But I'll let you get away with it. For now." He took my hand. "Blake."
'He told me he'd joined the rebellion only recently, but they'd already made him one of the leaders. Another leader, he said, was an elderly guy named Bran Foster, who was in favour of peaceful civil disobedience. Whatever that might be. Blake thought this was ineffective and advocated "more active resistance", as he called it. Many members, especially the youngsters, supported him. He was in charge of all the Freedom Party's guerrilla actions. Including the one they'd carried out that night.
'Now that I was no longer afraid of him, I dared pry again. "Did something go wrong this time?" I asked. "How did you get separated from the rest of your gang?"
'He did not reply right away. He limped slowly back to the couch and sat down, still toying with the dead king figurine. He looked at it as he spoke to me. "I ordered the others to leave," he said, "after we'd planted the bombs. I stayed behind to correct a mistake we- a mistake I'd made." A bitter line appeared on his forehead and I sensed the gloom setting in again. "My source had given me wrong information. I was told that the plants I intended to destroy were completely automated. There shouldn't have been any workers. There shouldn't... but they were there."
'"Apparently some parts of the factory had been adapted quite recently to fit the new Federation strategies. There were about thirty civilians. Most of them menials, service grades. Working the night shift." He closed his eyes. "They-they must have seen us kill the security guards, they got scared and they hid, and so we discovered them only after the charges had been set."
'I could feel how disturbed he was. I thought I should persuade him to have another drink. Then I changed my mind and refilled my own glass instead.
'"I couldn't keep my men there any longer," he went on. "I knew that, after the explosion, the escape route we'd planned would only be safe for a very short while. I couldn't risk their lives. So I ordered them to leave immediately, according to the plan. I stayed by myself to evacuate the civilians.
'"I managed. I got them all out of the complex before the explosions started. No one died. But I was trapped. I could no longer use the same route. The security forces blocked everything, they recognized me and chased me throughout the service ways. And then - you found me."
'He became silent again. I downed my drink in a single gulp. Funny, *I* had no reason to want to get wasted. It felt almost as if I was drinking for him.
'"I don't get it," I said. "Why is it troubling you? You saved those workers, didn't you? You said so yourself. No one died." "No, not this time," he said, "but next time I may not be able to avoid it. This is a war. There will be casualties. Innocent people dying. It's bound to happen sooner or later. I-I've always known it, of course, but until tonight -"
'He broke off. Then he smiled sombrely and gave me back the figurine. "Perhaps it's a bit like your dead king story, Vila. When you're fighting a war, you need absolute certainty, otherwise you'll never win. You have to be sure that you're right. And sometimes... I'm not."
'Just then a loud beep came from the public speaker. It was the sound used in particular to alert citizens and announce important information. It usually meant trouble. "Attention," a listless female voice said. "Due to a serious violation of the security code Level 32 will be sealed off for an unspecified period of time. Level 32 residents and cardholders shall provide all possible assistance to the security personnel in carrying out their duties."
'We exchanged a quick glance. We both knew what this meant. The Feds had located Blake. They made out that he was somewhere in this area and that someone had given him shelter. Now they were going to do what they always did in such cases: burst into people's homes, search everything, and beat and arrest and kill.'
'Needless to say, I had to leave as well. With or without Blake, I knew I was finished if the Security broke in. A quick once-over at the loot in that room would tell them all about me. I took a bag from my closet and started packing. I picked only the most valuable stuff, knowing I'd have to part with the rest. Including the dead king. "I'm sorry," Blake said. I didn't answer. I was too frightened to waste time fussing.
'He advised me to keep my gun at hand. I told him I didn't have any. I'm not very good with guns. I'm a lousy shot, and whereas my hand's always steady when I pick locks, it starts shaking the moment I pick a gun.
'We had good luck and managed to get down to the sub-levels without being spotted - only to find out we were boxed in. Every route we tried was blocked by the security troops. I'd never seen so many of them in one place. They must've been very keen on getting Blake. Finally there was just one option left. I knew a cramped, unlit vault where some damaged machinery had lain for months. From there we entered a rarely used service-way. I hoped they wouldn't bother to secure it - but as we neared its end, at the corner to a wider tunnel, we spotted a guard striding nervously to and fro.
'"It's no use," I whispered desperately. "They've surrounded us, they're everywhere. We can't sneak out!" "Then we'll fight," Blake said with icy calm. "Stay here." He started for the exit. "Wait!" I hissed. "What do you think you're doing? If you fire your blaster it'll be heard everywhere. We'll be up to our armpits in security guards within seconds!" "Then I won't fire it," he said. "Just don't move until I tell you." "Blake, you can't go!" I panicked. "If you get killed, what's going to happen to me?" He heaved an annoyed sigh and left.
'I withdrew deeper into the dark service-way. My insides were all cramped up. I listened. I tried to make out his footsteps, but I couldn't. Then, suddenly, there was the swish of clothes, as of someone moving very quickly, and after that, something that sounded like a muffled scream. Then it ceased; and for what seemed like an eternity, there was complete silence. Finally, I heard Blake's quiet voice telling me to come out.
'I stopped at the junction. I shrank from the sight, feeling like I'd sick up. The Fed lay motionless on the floor, his neck grotesquely craned towards his shoulder. It was clearly broken. Blake was kneeling by his side, stripping him of weapon and the communicator. He was slightly short of breath, but apart from this, he didn't seem in the least disturbed by what he'd done. I could hardly recognize the kind, friendly guy who'd been hiding in my apartment.
'He held out the guard's gun. "Can you use this type?" I nodded and took it, but somehow it immediately slipped out of my hand, hit the wall as I tried to grab it again and finally thudded into the dark corridor we'd come from. I told you, I'm clumsy with weapons. I gave Blake an apologetic grin and went to fetch it.
'It was all this fumbling that saved me. The next moment, I heard a shot. A cartridge fell by Blake's feet and exploded with a soft hiss. Before he could react, a cloud of yellowish smoke enveloped him and I saw him fall. Soon enough I felt a sickly sweet smell filling the air and biting my eyes and nostrils. Sono vapour.
'I held my breath for as long as I could, running away from there, rushing mindlessly through vaults and tunnels. I bumped into a storage closet used by the maintenance personnel. I broke inside in less than four seconds - fear makes a wonderful motivator. I shut the door and leant against it, panting.'
'After some time, I dared come out. I realized that those who'd disabled Blake hadn't seen me and wouldn't come after me. Carefully, I made my way back through the maze of service tunnels to find out what had happened.
'As I neared the place where I'd left Blake, I discerned the guards' voices, mentioning his name and spitting swearwords and insults. Then another voice was heard, curtly ordering the others to raise the prisoner from the ground.
'I reached the turn in the corridor and peeped out cautiously. What I saw didn't look too promising. Blake was coming round. He didn't seem frightened, perhaps because he was still dizzy. He lifted his head slowly to look at the guards. They were getting ready to converse with him in their usual manner. Two of them held his arms. Another one stood close by with a truncheon. The fourth, an officer, postured arrogantly and asked the question very quietly. "Where were you hiding for the last three hours?"
'My stomach twitched as I waited for Blake's reply. Was he going to rat on me? I knew he had a lot of trouble even without trying to protect me. I could hardly call him a friend or count on his loyalty. We'd only known each other for a few hours. I'd even tried to rob him.
'Blake licked his lips. "I was in Sub-14 most of that time. The explosions caused a power cut and the whole section was in darkness. Your troops passed without seeing me."
'That was quick! He didn't even blink. I was impressed. I felt like kissing him. With such a talent for lying, and a decent upbringing, he might've made a respectable criminal.
'At first I thought the officer would fall for that. Of course, I couldn't see his expression behind that mask, but he bowed his head and he seemed to be considering Blake's words. He even nodded slightly. Then, suddenly, he motioned with his hand. The guard slammed Blake violently across the face.
'"Nice acting, Blake," the officer said. "Unfortunately for you, my men and I patrolled down Sub-14 about an hour ago. Everything was functioning normally. There were no power cuts. Who is it you're trying to protect?"
'Blake didn't answer. He kept his head bowed, trying to recover from the terrible blow. Blood dripped from his mouth. The officer grabbed his hair and jerked his head back. "We know someone's given you shelter. We know he cannot be far from here." He leaned into Blake's bloodied face, now speaking even more low. "You'll tell us about him and you'll take us to him. Now."
'I saw the guard lifting his truncheon again. Blake kept his mouth shut and just glowered at them. I withdrew into the shadows and closed my eyes. Suddenly I felt very scared, more scared than you should normally feel when someone else is being beaten. I was scared for him. It felt almost as if I were scared instead of him. I heard him cry with pain.'
'I was holding that paragun with both hands now. It had to be one shot, I decided, because I couldn't possibly muster up nerves for more. To tell you the truth, I'm surprised I even had a nerve for that one. I was terrified. My palms were sweating horribly. I was certain I'd mess up everything, end up busted next to Blake and treated as a political criminal. And I knew how they treated the politicals.
'Still, I couldn't run out on him. I had to try something. I didn't have any particular plan. I just hoped that Blake would manage to do his bit if I did what I considered my bit, that he'd rescue himself if I just provided him with an opportunity. I peered out, stretched out my arms and, hardly resisting the desire to shut my eyes, I fired.
'It didn't turn out that bad, really. I was aiming at one of the guards who held Blake's arms; I was aiming at his chest and I hit his leg. Anyways, Blake managed to take advantage of that. Moving so quickly I could hardly follow him, he grappled with the guard who was still clinging to his other arm, grabbed him by the neck, snatched his gun, used him as a shield when the other Feds opened fire, then shoved the dead body in their direction to create confusion, and ran.
'He joined me and then he fired back, forcing the troopers to take cover as well. "They'll be getting reinforcements soon," he panted. "We have to get hold of their transporter, Vila. That's our only chance. We've got nothing to lose, come on!"
'"What do you mean, we've got nothing to lose?" I cried, horrified. "Just cover me," he yelled and charged towards the transporter. And so I covered him. Well, at least I think that's what I did. I just kept firing at the guards, without really aiming the gun. We were both damn lucky to avoid being hit. And damn lucky to get hold of that transporter, get it started and run away. And I never, ever want to get in another such mess where I'll need such damn luck to stay alive, again.'
'He watched with curiosity as I picked the lock to the exit door. "Very elegant," he praised me.
"It was practically nothing," I waved it aside modestly. "Any genius burglar could've done it." "My men use some rather bulky tools to open these doors," he said, "and it takes time." He gave me a piercing look. "I could use someone like you."
'I shuddered. "Forget it. You'd never make a revolutionary out of me." "Don't be so certain," he smiled.
'He offered to pay, according to our deal, but I said it was on the house. For once in my life I felt like being generous. "Then at least take this." He took off his watch and placed it gently in my palm. "I owe you much more than that, my friend."
'It was a very fine watch. I kept it for a long time afterwards, and got a very good offer when I finally decided to sell it.
'"Anything else I could do for you?" he asked. "Er, yes," I said. "When you - I mean, *if* you ever get caught. Just forget my name, will you?"
'"What name?" He smiled again, that warm, infectious grin of his. And then he disappeared down the corridor. You know, Jenna, I could never understand people who fought for ideals, but at that moment I thought I could understand those who were ready to follow this charmer to hell and back.
'Anyway, he kept his word. He did forget my name. He forgot a great deal more, to be honest. He was arrested six months later. I watched his trial. It was a major event, broadcast on all channels, you couldn't miss it. I heard him renounce his former convictions. I heard him renounce his Party, calling them traitors and murderers. He admitted his crimes "with deep shame" and praised the Terran government for its "righteousness and benevolence". He didn't sound like himself at all. The same face, the same voice, but the man inside was someone else.
'I huddled in one of my shelters then. I hit the bottle and slept very little and I was hardly going anywhere. Sometimes I'd just find myself staring at the watch he gave me. The images from that viscast kept haunting me. I wondered what those bastards had done to him. I know what they're capable of - they can blank you, take your brains apart, create a whole new person. I could tell easily that they'd adjusted his head, because they'd tried to adjust mine on a few occasions.'
'Surprised, aren't you? Yes, they tried to condition me. Three times, to be precise. But their therapies just don't work with me. You could say stealing's in my blood, there's no way they can reform me. Besides, I guess they've always given me cheap treatments. Something in a small way, nothing too ambitious, a few pokes with a mindprobe. But who knows what they did to Blake. It must have been something really bad, some complex therapy they'd never apply to common criminals like me. But even so -'
Vila looked at Jenna, smiling impishly with his bright eyes, his light-hearted mood setting in again. 'Even so, he's managed to recover. They failed to condition him permanently. Well, it's obvious, isn't it? He must've gone bad again. Otherwise he wouldn't be here with us today, with a one-way ticket for the pleasure cruise to Cygnus Alpha. I wonder, should he feel lucky?'
Jenna noticed that Blake was coming to. She sat up on her cot, and was surprised by the lightness of this movement. Her muscles were still tense, but now it seemed to be a different kind of tension. She recognized the sensation. She had felt that way before, when she'd been getting ready to run a blockade or perform a complex manoeuvre to shake off pursuit ships. It was the tension of a warrior before a battle, the anxiety before meeting a challenge.
She hid a smile. Was that an effect of Vila's story, she wondered, a kind of hopefulness and reassurance which her body had recognized before her mind?
Yes, she realized, she was no longer depressed. She was hopeful. The feeling was still vague and she couldn't translate it into rational terms. What exactly did she expect from Blake? Was he still the same man Vila had known? Was he capable of organizing the escape? She had to find out, she had to befriend him. This was not the whole of the story, she was aware of that. She was attracted to him for reasons which were not just pragmatic...
'And you think he's forgotten you, Vila?' she asked cautiously, not letting any of these new emotions show.
'Who knows?' Vila shrugged. 'I guess they must've wiped out a great deal of his memories. You know, everything that might remind him of the kind of man he was. They've tried that with me, too. Some memories come back. Some never do.'
'Look, he's waking up. Why don't you go to him? See if he recognizes you.'
'No way!' Vila hissed.
'Are you joking? Do you think I'm eager to let the whole world know I'm a friend to Roj Blake? What if there's a spy in this cell? What if someone keeps an eye on Blake and the contacts he makes? I can't just walk up to him and say, "Hi, remember me, we were rebels together!"'
Jenna rolled her eyes. Still, she had to admit there was such a possibility. If Vila approached Blake directly and mentioned his past, someone monitoring this would no doubt pronounce him a political criminal. And then he would be taken away from here, interrogated, or executed on the spot, or who knows what. There were still worse fates than being packed off to a penal colony.
Suddenly, a new idea flashed into her mind. 'Why don't you try and steal his watch again? This might trigger the memory, remind him of how he met you the first time. And if it does, he will also take it as a signal to be secretive.'
'And if he's forgotten?'
'Then we'll use this as a form of introduction anyway. You'll steal his watch and I'll warn him and make you give it back to him.'
'Some introduction,' Vila grumbled. 'What if he's become a violent thug? He might have gone nuts from all these therapies. What if he wants to kill me for trying to rob him? Mind you, I saw him wring a man's neck even when he was in his right mind. If he ever was in his right mind.'
'Vila!' Jenna whispered angrily. 'Stop fussing or I'll personally wring your neck. Just go to him and do as I say! We need him.'
'All right, all right, I'm going. Let's just hope he remembers me. And even if he doesn't remember me,' Vila muttered to himself as he stalked towards Blake's cot, 'let's just hope he'll recognize me. Just like he did the first time. Recognize me for what I am, I mean. A dead king.'