Vila still saw the dead man in his sleep.
It was three months, ship time, since Cygnus Alpha; three months since the mêlée in Vargas' temple. But the sound of the knife sliding in, wet and hideous, had never ceased haunting his nightmares. And the blood...
Shuddering the memory away, Vila drew in a measured breath - and pressed the lighted entry-chime on Blake's cabin door. He took the muffled grunt that responded as permission to enter and did so, surprised to find the rebellion's burly leader hunched over a work table, scribbling plans with an antique stylus. It was 2 a.m. by Liberator's chronometers. Didn't the man ever sleep?
The stylus scritched for several moments before its user became aware of Vila hovering nearby, and hazel eyes glanced up, full of bright fury and determination. Mapping out the next operation, Vila realized uncomfortably. The general plots the war, and then expects me to fight it for him.
Only he didn't want to fight it. And he didn't care what anyone thought of him as a result. In three short months, Blake had crowded this ship with rebels from a dozen planets, collected an armada of six stolen ships in addition to Liberator, and destroyed or damaged eight vital Federation bases. Now his army was converging on a weapons cache hidden somewhere below them on Buchaun IV. And a thief who could open the door locks would undoubtedly be thrust into the forefront of the battle. Again.
"What is it, Vila?"
The question, gruff and vaguely annoyed, startled the thief. "I..." he stammered. "I wanted..."
Blake's impatience derailed him. Stupid to come here. Why'd you bother? Unbidden then, a question he hadn't really intended to ask tumbled out and lay naked on Blake's table. "How many people have you killed? Face to face, I mean?"
Vila watched the annoyance turn rapidly to amazement, then puzzlement. "That's a rather odd thing to ask.."
The die cast, Vila merely met the bigger man's eyes and waited. Blake set the stylus patiently aside and folded his hands. "I'm afraid I don't remember very much about my life before... well, very much about the Freedom Party. Is it important?"
Unsure how to answer that, Vila sidestepped the question instead. "And since then? Since Liberator, I mean?" Blake frowned. "I haven't exactly kept a head count. Few revolutions are ever successful without bloodshed, Vila. Even you should realize that."
Vila let the Alpha condescension pass. "I'm no good at this sort of thing," he blurted. "No good at all. I don't think I can - "
"Don't worry," Blake cut him off, retrieving the stylus to resume his scribbling. "You'll get used to it."
"But - " Vila's objection faltered, dying altogether when Blake's attention refocused entirely on his work. The thief sighed. "Yeah, sure," he muttered, aware that Blake no longer listened. "Thanks."
The leader of the rebellion never even heard him leave.
Avon was increasingly difficult to locate these days, probably because he detested crowds. Vila tracked him to a deck five computer closet the following day, after most of Blake's new minions had gone planetside to prepare for the upcoming raid. Avon's surprise at finding Vila in the corridor was expressed by two slightly raised eyebrows.
"I need to talk to you," Vila said without preamble. "About Blake."
Though Avon's stern expression might have deterred him once, Vila had long ago learned to expect no sympathy from this quarter: Avon had surgically amputated that emotion, along with most of the others.
"I'd have thought," Avon said frostily, "he'd have you down there opening locks by now. Or have you been hiding?"
"No! I mean, that's just it. I don't want to go."
"You never do."
"I mean it this time. I'm not cut out for this. I want out."
Avon's bleak gaze raked him, coldly assessing. "Don't be a fool. Where do you think you would go?"
Vila hadn't considered that, and didn't care to just yet. "I'm no revolutionary," he insisted. "Any more than you. I don't belong here - I'm nothing but a liability!"
Vila was not in the mood for banter. "Come off it, Avon. You said yourself he can't win. Are you going to stay with a loser?"
"No," Avon responded glumly. "I stay where it is safe. Blake is incidental."
Vila scoffed. "You won't convince him of that."
"I don't intend to try." Avon turned to go; Vila called him back with a soft and urgent plea.
"Avon - "
The terse response, in every way as impatient - and Alpha - as Blake's had been, threatened to fetter Vila's tongue. He fought the inclination off with a mental slap: this wasn't Earth dome prison any longer, no more sadistic Federation guards to assure that he grovel and obey every petty demand. Only, with all the Alpha-grade superiority aboard Liberator, things didn't feel much different.
"It's all the killing," he said at last, and watched Avon's brows go up again. "A good honest burglary's one thing, but I can pass on mass homicide."
Avon's smile held all the warmth and charm of a viper. "Wars can only be won by virtue of mass homicide, Vila. Or hadn't you noticed?"
"You can laugh well enough," Vila chided. "You weren't down on Cygnus Alpha when things got really ugly. You've never had to kill anyone who would've killed you first if you hadn't. Well, have you?"
Avon's eyes went funny for a fraction of a moment - sort of pained and distant. Then they fixed on Vila with a frosty intensity that said, unmistakeably, Oh, but I have.
Vila faltered. "Oh," he said, and then dumbly repeated the syllable as realization sank in. "Oh... Well, that is... I didn't mean..."
"I intend to survive," the arctic voice interrupted. "Better you and Blake and the rest should learn here and now that if ever it comes to a choice, I will not be the one to die."
Avon's abrupt departure left the implied threat hanging almost tangibly in the corridor. "Thanks, Avon," Vila said to the wall. "That's a real, solid comfort."
Not unexpectedly, Blake ordered him to the surface that same afternoon. He and the red plastic toolkit materialized amid a flurry of well-armed activity. Gathered inside the commandeered underground bunker, Blake's recruits, most of them youngsters, obviously took their fighting seriously: they were engaged in cleaning and polishing their haphazard collection of weaponry with all the zeal of new converts. Converts who had probably never killed before. The air stank of solvents and cleaning oils. Vila wrinkled his nose as he ventured past the first wave of busy troops. None of them paid him any mind, but then few people ever did. Deltas grew accustomed to invisibility. For a thief, it might even be considered an asset.
Eager young voices echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The bunker stretched, cavern-like, for several hundred meters. Probably it had once been an ammunition dump as well, back in the heyday of Federation expansionism, when the few hold-out planets that remained had had to be subdued with missiles and orbitting nuclear "watch stations". The Federation, Vila mused, was nothing if not damnably subtle.
Cally's calm voice finally rose above the confusion and Vila spotted her amid a cluster of attentive students, lecturing on the art of stealth assault. Funny how he never would have figured a girl like Cally for a commando. But then, he'd never have expected a rebel army to contain so many women, either. Old calendar sexism was still alive and well on Earth's Delta levels.
"Lost something, Vila?"
He jumped, wheeled to face Gan's friendly grin, and recovered in time to quip, "Yes! My sanity. You haven't seen it anywhere, I suppose?"
"Not around here. We're about to move out. That why Blake sent you down?"
"Cannon fodder," Vila groaned. "I always wanted to be front of the battle lines, you know. My life's ambition."
The bigger man's grin became a not-so-reassuring chuckle. "Don't worry. You'll be safe enough."
"So you say."
"So we all say." The new voice belonged to Jenna, who had materialized out of the crowd surrounding Cally. Vila hadn't recognized her in drab brown combat fatigues, her blonde hair hidden beneath a nondescript military hat. He didn't like the look. He liked what she handed him even less. The Federation- issue compact rifle, old and heavily scratched, had nevertheless been cleaned and polished in anticipation of the raid. Vila wondered whether shiny guns killed more efficiently - or simply gave overeager, bored recruits something to do while they waited for the shooting to start.
He balanced the thing clumsily in one hand, still gripping his toolkit with the other, and switched on his best disapproving frown. "I never carry guns, thanks just the same. I'm allergic to loud noises."
"Hang onto it, Vila." That was Jenna's no-nonsense tone. "Once we're inside, you may need it."
"Inside? Oh, now wait a minute. Just open the door, Blake said, then my part would be over!"
Jenna's smirk said far more than her words. "It could be he misled you just a little." She thrust a computer-printed diagram toward Gan before Vila could voice further objections. "You two will be cleaning out the treasury safe while we see to the guns. The room's marked here in green."
Vila recognized the "map" as one of the printouts he'd seen on Blake's table the night before. Just how it had been coaxed from the Federation's security-locked computer systems in the first place was undoubtedly Avon's handiwork. And the two of them were, of course, safe aboard the ship. Vila squinted at the diagram and grumbled, "Don't we have enough guns already? What's Blake want with more, anyhow?"
"Don't be naive, Vila." Gan touched a handgun on his own hip: in his case a weapon was purely decorative, and Vila almost wished he had the same excuse for not actually using the thing. At least with a limiter implant, no one accused you of cowardice.
"Everything is ready, Jenna." Cally joined their small gathering, many of the youngsters still hovering just behind her. She acknowledged Vila's presence with a nod before continuing, "Second unit will carry the percussion charges. First and third have the best hand artillery and training to guard our flanks during the main assault. It's a simple attack pattern, but it should suffice."
Vila aimed a disbelieving look at her. "You really enjoy this sort of thing, don't you?" He'd never understood the why of that any more than he would probably ever understand Cally. Small wonder the pacifist Aurons had disowned her.
She seemed genuinely baffled at the directness of his question. "Are you trying to be funny, Vila?"
"No," he said candidly. "Just trying to figure why we're here, is all. I've never gone in for suicide - it's considered unhealthy where I come from."
"We're hardly planning a suicide mission," Gan scolded. "I'm certainly not."
Vila wasn't placated. "Doesn't mean no one will die, though, does it?"
Cally's tone was that of an indulgent but lecturing parent. "People did in every war. That is regrettable, certainly, but it is also inavoidable. Some causes are worth dying for. Overthrowing the Federation happens to be one of them."
A chorus of enthusiastic agreement echoed from behind her. Scanning the too-young faces with trepidation, Vila wondered again if any of them had ever drawn blood in any battle more pitched than a computer game. He doubted it.
"I'll get the first unit moving," Cally announced, and marched away with the admiring coterie at her boot-heels.
Jenna said, "Right. I'll let Blake know we're on our way. Time you two got started as well."
"I still say I won't be any use with this thing in my way," Vila complained of the gun. "I'm just a thief, not a stormtrooper. I never killed anyone..." The horrible memory of Cygnus Alpha surfaced to bely the words, and he trailed off to add lamely, "...with a gun before."
Jenna was anything but sympathetic. "Don't worry," she said as she turned away. "You'll get used to it."
Villa mouthed a curse at her parting back, jumping when Gan's huge hand gripped his shoulder. "Shall we go?"
"'Just open the door', he said," Vila muttered as though the other man hadn't spoken. "That was all. Now there's another room, another door, and a safe that's no doubt booby-trapped. It'll be Servalan's palace boudoir next."
Gan's amiable grin was back. "No need to worry. I'll be here to protect you."
"That's a comfort." Vila couldn't help the sarcasm. He nodded toward the weapon on Gan's hip. "You can't even fire that thing."
"The Federation don't know that. And anyway, if there's any problem, at least you can fire yours."
Vila's short, bitter laugh rang hollowly off the concrete walls. "A fine pair we make. `In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,' eh?"
Gan's brows knit. "How's that again?"
"Erasmus. Sixteenth-century Earth, old calendar. I'm not just any everyday common thief, you know. I read some of the antiques I stole."
"Must have addled your brain," Gan commented wryly. "It's got you talking in riddles, now."
"Never mind." Dismally, Vila fell into step with the departing rebel troops, Gan at his side. "Never mind," he repeated with a lengthy sigh. But to himself he added, "All the same, I think I've just been crowned king."
Blake teleported down - no surprise to Vila - to lead the actual assault. Avon was nowhere in evidence. Apparently, he'd found some way to defy their leader's powers of persuasion, and stay aboard ship. Vila would give a lot to know just what the computer expert had on Blake, and whether he could buy a piece of it.
Once Blake's troops had dispatched the perimeter guards, it was a short walk to the armoury's east door, and a breath-holding 92 seconds before Vila's talents defeated the lock. Then, without even a "Well done, Vila," he was bustled through the door and ordered left while the rest of the invasion force stormed down the righthand corridor. Alarms began screaming almost immediately. Vila shut his ears to the din, slung the awkward rifle over one shoulder and hurried on his way, scarcely aware of Gan running alongside.
The treasury door was kid's play, and there was no guard on duty - probably thanks to the alarm. Unchallenged, they entered a small, stuffy antechamber, passed through a swinging door that cut off the echoing klaxons, and found themselves in a blue-lit cubicle, the back wall of which formed Vila's next challenge. It was an octagonal panel emblazoned with the Federation symbol and ringed with winking lights.
"That's the safe?" Gan wondered aloud, making Vila start. "Sorry," he apologized in a lower voice. "Guess I'm just not used to the burglary business."
"Not much of a safe," Vila whispered, squatting beside it to run his scanner expertly over the door's edges. "The light show is connected to a Van Densen unit, but there aren't any booby traps."
"A what unit?"
"Van... an internal alarm," the thief explained. "Probably triggers a security screen somewhere else in the complex."
Vila's tools emerged from their red case with the ease of familiarity and went to work bypassing the security device. Gan took up watch stance at the double doors to keep an eye on the outer room through twin oval windows. The safe surrendered to Vila's touch eight minutes later, but the yielded contents proved a major disappointment. No gold, no jewels; just five bundles of 100-credit notes and a packet of Federation bonds. No wonder the security had been so lax - there wasn't much to bother guarding. Vila stuffed it all into waiting compartments of the toolcase, then began picking up the various instruments he'd strewn on the floor.
"Is that it?" Gan asked from the door.
"Just about. You go on ahead. I'll finish up here and be along in a moment."
Nodding, Gan disappeared into the antechamber. Vila packed the last of the tools with the care and affection of a master thief, then locked the case and rose to his feet. On an afterthought, he switched the kit to his left hand and pulled the rifle into ready position with his right. Getting in here may have been easy, but now that Blake and company had wreaked havoc on the artillery stores and set off the alarms, all hell would have broken loose out there.
Not that I'll be any help, he thought glumly. Maybe I should just warn any troops I stumble across, "Don't try anything - I'm armed and terrified."
The safe room's soundproofed doors opened onto the scream of more alarms and the sporadic explosions of gunfire. Vila pushed through to head for the outer door - and froze two short steps later. Gan and a Federation trooper stood ten feet away in a stand-off, guns levelled at each other. Vila barely had time to register the situation before the helmeted figure swung toward him, its gloved finger closing on the paragun trigger. Vila heard two shots. Something crashed and clattered. The trooper fell against the wall and went down in a heap. Blinking, Vila looked down to see his tool chest on the floor, an ugly black burn mark bubbling on its plastic surface. His own finger released the trigger of the stolen rifle in mute realization that it had indeed fired. And killed. He didn't remember walking across the room, but he found himself kneeling there, lifting the green-visored helmet and pulling it away. He revealed a thin face framed in auburn hair; pale, painfully young, female. Vila wanted to be sick.
Alarms raged on in the corridors outside. Running footsteps and gunfire clattered past the door. Vila barely heard them. The ruined toolkit drifted back into view, with Gan now attached to it, and a large hand came gently to rest on his shoulder.
"It's all right, Vila," the quiet voice assured. Only, of course, it wasn't. Vila doubted very much if things would ever be `all right' again. He dropped the dead trooper's helmet beside her, climbed awkwardly back to his feet and with all the strength he could summon, hurled the rifle away from him. It sailed across the anteroom to strike one of the safe-chamber's oval windows. The perspex shattered with a loud pop and the gun slithered downward until the strap caught on a shard and suspended the weapon, swinging, against the door.
"Sometimes I'm almost glad for the limiter you know," Gan said. Then in far more serious tones, "Once was enough for me."
Vila looked at him with a world of misery in his eyes. Something was blurring the large man's figure, making him fuzzy around the edges. Vila heard the familiar chirp of the teleport bracelet's communicator, then Gan's voice stating, "Vila and I are through here. We'd like to come up, now."
Avon's crisp response came at once. "Stand by."
In the moments that followed, while Vila tried not to look at the thing on the floor, Gan moved into position beside him, wearing an expression that said without words how close they had both just come to death. "Vila..." he began.
The bracelets chimed.
"Teleporting now," Avon's voice announced.
The end of Gan's sentence was nearly lost in the hum and white glare of the energy field. "Thank you," he said.
And then the teleport beam took them home.