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Lynx - Rescues

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Down but not safe

"Sorry, Arlen," said Vila, straightening up with the Federation officer's gun in his hand.

There was a bang and something hit him hard in the back, causing his arms and upper body to jerk so violently and uncontrollably they took him over backwards. He lay there, puzzled, until he heard more gunfire and realised what had just happened to him. The thought was terrifying, but lying face-upwards and exposed in the middle of a battle was even more so. He started to roll over so that he could crawl to safety, but the searing pain at the first movement was so agonising he froze in position, his wide, shocked eyes staring up at the ceiling and his hands half-lifted from the floor.

Distantly, he heard Tarrant shout Avon's name, and someone turned off the alarm, and perhaps the lighting too; it seemed to be getting darker. There were some more shots, then he heard a woman call out nearby.

"No, don't kill him! That's Avon! They'll want him alive."

Arlen. First time he'd ever hit someone smaller or weaker than himself—not that that was saying much, he'd never gone in for violence—and he couldn't even get that right. So much for Gan's lessons. Sorry, Gan... sorry, Dayna. Vila closed his eyes against the increasing darkness.

"In fact, keep as many alive as possible. We didn't just flush out Blake here, we got his old crew too. Putting this scum— " Arlen kicked Vila viciously in the ribs, "—on trial will knock the rebels right back."

Vila barely felt the blow. A vast dizziness swamped him and he floated into velvet darkness. He welcomed it. An end at last to all the pain, fear, loneliness, and contempt.



"Oh, well done." Servalan smiled at the austere young woman displayed on her screen. "And you are?"

"Lieutenant Arlen of Undercover Operations, Commissioner Sleer."

"Captain, I rather think."

Arlen drew herself up proudly. "Thank you, commissioner."

"Pity about Blake. It would have been nice to parade him." Servalan leaned back, idly toying with her wine glass. "Still, the squalid little bounty-hunter game he was playing will make superb propaganda. Not to mention the delightful bonus of him being killed by a friend. Oh, yes." Her smile widened. "Avon is the real prize here."

"Oh?"

"Avon and Orac." Servalan sat up straight at the thought. "I assume you have Orac?"

"Orac, commissioner?" Arlen blinked, puzzled.

"His computer. Or, more accurately, mine." Servalan put her glass down and leaned forward. "If not, I suggest you locate it by the time the survivors are picked up. Lieutenant."

"Yes, commissioner." Arlen said stiffly.

"Oh, and don't damage Avon—any more than at present, anyway. He is far too valuable. We'll pick up him and his crew; UC Ops can do what it likes with the others."

"Noted, commissioner. Are we to expect you in person?"

Gauda Prime sounded as savage as that ghastly place she had first encountered the Mellanby girl, but she would have been on her way within the hour if it weren't for Bercol being there as representative of the High Council. He would recognise her immediately; she would have to forego the pleasure of being in on the final victory over the rebels . "Oh, I think not. One of my staff officers, Major Chen, will handle it." She looked away to hide her annoyance at having to delegate this. "He'll contact you," she said languidly, severing communications.



On Camelot base, Sil Rydan yawned and groped for her coffee mug, keeping her eyes on the screen. She blinked and tried to focus on the Federation messages scrolling up it as they were decoded. Most would be analysed by computer for importance, but a human observer was always on duty in case anything requiring immediate attention showed up. Rydan drained her coffee and put her feet up on the desk beside the monitor. Space Fleet movements, promotions, legion budgets; most of the stuff sent on the few Federation codes they had cracked was fairly routine.

Hang on though—what was that? Rydan sat up, paused the display, and ran it back. Yes, there it was. Blake. And Gauda Prime.

"Hey, Varshovski."

"Yeah?" The comms officer swivelled his chair towards her.

"Can you raise the GP base?"

"Why would you want—"

"Just do it." Rydan leaned forward and read the rest of the message. If her dark complexion had been capable of it, she would have gone pale.

"Nothing." Varshovski sounded worried. "No response at all. Think we should call Avalon?"

"Oh, yes," Rydan said softly.

 

Avalon sighed. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. I did warn him." She shook her head as if to clear it. "All right, what do we have on this Major Chen?"

Rydan was ready with plastisheet printouts. "He's on the personal staff of Commissioner Sleer. These are his official Space Fleet details and photo."

Avalon raised her eyebrows at the picture, that of a man with a smooth, almost soft face, dark almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips. "Well, well," she said. Then she and Rydan spoke together: "Lynx!"

"Put in a call," said Avalon, "and mark it urgent."



Vila was somewhat disappointed to wake up. Going by the last year, and for that matter, the last day, things could only get worse. He stared up at the grey ceiling for a while in dull resignation, then finally mustered the energy and will to turn his head to the right. A mistake. Avon was the last person he wanted to see, even if he was unconscious and surrounded by tubes.

As he himself was. Wonderful. Vila slowly turned his head the other way to see Tarrant, also unconscious, bruises dark on his ashen face. Beyond him, as he suspected, was a bored-looking guard in Federation black.

Vila closed his eyes. At least it didn't hurt too much. Surreptitiously he took stock: he could move his arms slightly, but they were held down, probably by the same sort of cuffs he'd seen on Avon and Tarrant. His legs he couldn't even feel, let alone move. Even if he could somehow get one of the drips out of his arm and pick the cuffs open with it, he wasn't going anywhere.

So this was it. Wasn't fair. Years of being scared and doing his best, even if it wasn't a very good best, all to be sold out by Blake. And he'd liked Blake. Well, to be fair, either Blake had betrayed them all—and it seemed that way—or Avon had murdered an innocent unarmed man. Either way, it hurt.

Either way, it made everything they'd gone though bloody meaningless.

At least he had one card left up his sleeve. A way out, an escape no one could prevent. Except that this time there wouldn't be a way back.

 

Lynx makes an appearance

Avalon's comms unit beeped, and the stylised image of a cat with tufted ears appeared on the screen. Relieved, Avalon punched the accept button, and a human face replaced it.

"You wanted to speak to me?"

"Yes, Lynx. It's Blake." Avalon explained about the intercepted report of his death.

Lynx's eyes closed briefly in pain. "Blake was a good friend. I told him..."

"I know. We all did." Avalon sighed and pushed her hair back. "The best thing we can do for him now is to get Avon and Restal out of there, and anyone else we can. We can't let the Federation have them or their knowledge."

"Right. What do you want me to do?"

"This is an image of Major Chen who is due to pick them up in two days."

"Ah." Lynx raised a sardonic eyebrow. "I take it you think we look alike."

"Of course." Avalon paused, disconcerted at Lynx's reaction, a flicker of amusement as if at some secret joke. Oh. Perhaps it was that old racist cliché. "Look, if Chen happened to be a woman with long blonde hair, then I'd hardly think of you—"

For an instant, Lynx's mouth twitched into a brief amused smile.

"—but in this case you're similar enough to Chen, and Space Fleet ID photos are bad enough for you to carry it off if no one's actually met him." She regarded Lynx's shock of black hair thoughtfully. "A military style, slicked back; that should do it."

 

As do the torture twins

Avon slowly became aware of light and a distant pain, dulled and held at bay by drugs. He opened his eyes cautiously. As he suspected, he was lying on a bed, hooked up to life-support. The room was well-lit and silent except for the soft hums, clicks, and beeps of the medical equipment—and a snuffling noise.

It was Vila. He lay in the bed next to Avon, staring up at the ceiling, his face screwed up with the effort not to cry.

"Vila."

Vila immediately stopped sniffing. "Shut up, Avon," he said bitterly.

"Are you all right?" Stupid question.

"No."

Oddly enough, that one short word had much more impact than Vila's usual litany of complaints would have.

Avon closed his eyes, but Blake's face rose before him, eyes hurt and pleading. I set all this up. Avon, I was waiting for you. Could those words have another meaning? No, Tarrant had said Blake had sold them, and it was all too easy to believe after all the other betrayals. So many, including one he was responsible for on a particular shuttle. Please let it not be that he had betrayed Blake too. Was that why Vila sounded so angry? What was it he had said, so long ago when Avon had asked why he stayed? I like him. Avon had said it wasn't a good enough reason, but it had been for Vila.

Why had Vila stayed with Avon since? Because he liked him? That might have been true at first, but not after that business over Malodar. Perhaps not even after Cally...

What point was there in thinking about that? Regret was a waste of time.

Avon opened his eyes again and looked around. Beyond Vila was another bed, also occupied, and a guard sprawled in a chair. Cautiously, Avon raised his head, surprised at the effort it took. It was Tarrant, pale, bruised, and unconscious. Along the opposite wall were three more beds. In one Soolin lay, her head swathed in bandages and her face almost as white as the dressings. Next to her was a light-haired man who looked vaguely familiar. The last bed was empty, but it looked as if it had been occupied recently. Dayna? Blake?

At the far end of the room was something Avon remembered from his arrest. A device known as 'the rack', whose neural field could be set to anything from mild disorientation to unbearable agony. He looked away; the sight reminded him of how long he had tortured himself with how he had imagined Anna had died, and also of Blake—Blake and Jenna had been subjected to the rack on Horizon. No, he didn't want to think of him, of how much he had changed. Or of how much he himself had.

The door opened and a sharp-faced young woman came in, followed by two men. Arlen, now in the uniform she was so proud of.

"Surely one of them's awake now," she said to the guard.

He nodded towards the end of the room. "Avon and Restal."

"Perfect." She went to stand beside Avon's bed, her arms folded and her head on one side. "I don't suppose you'll tell us where Orac is, will you?"

"You are correct."

"I didn't think you would. And you're lucky. Brommell and Todhunter here would soon have it out of you. They're a bit annoyed that woman Klyn died before they could talk to her." Arlen paused. "That doesn't seem to bother you."

"Should it?"

"Perhaps she meant nothing to you. All right, what about Restal here?"

Avon's face remained expressionless.

"No." Arlen allowed a sneer to cross her face. "I don't suppose I can expect sentimentality from a man who would kill an old comrade." She turned to Vila, who was watching her silently. "What about you? Know where Orac is?"

Avon held his breath.

"No," Vila said flatly.

What, no nervous babbling, no desperate excuses?

Arlen raised her eyebrows at the men who had come in with her. "Well?"

The dark one grinned. "He knows. You can always tell. There's a flicker in their eyes if you know what to look for."

"Good. Do what you must, then. Avon will be taken to be questioned at HQ, but this one has no value." She looked at the rack with distaste. "I'll leave you to it." She turned and went out.

Avon watched the dark man wheel the rack over to the foot of Vila's bed, while the blond one began to disconnect various tubes and monitors from Vila. Part of Avon was appalled at what they were about to do, and he found himself almost hoping Vila would tell them quickly while another, colder, much more logical part disapproved of their short-sighted stupidity. Vila had considerable knowledge of the teleport and stardrive from all the work he had done on them with Avon, and they were about to waste a valuable resource.

Then again, Orac would be worth any price.

Why had he got Vila to help him hide Orac? Yes, he might have come in useful—after all, Vila had broken into the flyer's controls in the first place—but he knew part of the reason had been a sort of apology, a reassurance to Vila that he was still valued. Stupid sentiment. Vila would remember the coordinates they had set. He would tell them where the flyer was, and where Orac was hidden on board.

He willed Vila to look at him, but Vila's attention was on the two interrogators now by his bed.

"Where are our manners? We should introduce ourselves, Restal. I'm Brommell," said the short man with untidy black hair and round face.

"And I'm Todhunter." The other man was tall, blond, well-groomed, and would have been quite good-looking but for the petulance of his soft features.

"You wouldn't like to change your mind before we begin?" Brommell asked.

"You can, you know," said Todhunter. "Though I'd be very disappointed."

"You know me," said Vila. "Well, actually, you don't, but I'll tell you right now, I don't have a mind to change. Should've read your notes a bit better. Just a stupid Delta, me, what would I know?"

Brommell smiled, revealing small, crooked, discoloured teeth. "Oh, a challenge. I do enjoy my work." He nodded to Todhunter. "One, two, three," he said and they transferred Vila from the bed to the rack. Vila shouted out in pain.

"Did that hurt?" Todhunter asked with mock concern.

"Yes," Vila whispered.

"That's nothing compared to what's in store. We've got the field set quite high. Oh, and we've adjusted it to compensate for your spinal injury. Clever us!"

"You wouldn't want to tell us about Orac before we start?" Brommell asked.

"No."

"All right then," Todhunter said with mock disappointment. "Did you know, Brommell old chap, that this fellow has a habit of going into a coma under... retraining?"

Vila's wide eyes followed the conversation from one man to the other.

"I did read that in his file, yes. Not this time, though, Restal. We've made advances—"

"Behold—the cortical stimulator!" Todhunter giggled as he adjusted a metallic hoop over Vila's head. "New and improved. Keeps you awake and alert even under the most difficult circumstances."

"Shall we begin, Toddy?"

"I think so. Just an appetiser."

Brommell flicked a switch, and Vila's upper body stiffened and convulsed, then collapsed as he turned the field off. Vila lay pale and sweating, gasping for breath.

Avon stared, unable to look away. Vila couldn't hold out. Not Vila.

"Now, then," said Brommell. "Where's Orac?"

Todhunter leaned over him. "Hidden? Still in orbit? Enquiring minds want to know."

So, they didn't know about Scorpio? That was something. Not very much though, once they had Orac. Damn. If only he'd hidden the bloody thing before he'd met up with Vila and the others.

"Well?"

Vila stared up at Brommell and Todhunter. Then he smiled.

 

Escapes of more than one kind

This was it, Vila thought. No point in putting it off any longer. "Got something to tell you," he said.

The two interrogators eagerly leaned in closer, and Vila kept his gaze firmly between them, on the wall behind them. Didn't want them—or Avon for that matter—to be the last thing he saw.

"Life hasn't been much fun lately," he said conversationally. "Not for quite a while, actually. In fact, I think it's a bit overrated myself. So I've decided it's time to leave." His smile widened. "Goodbye." He closed his eyes.

 

Avon lifted his head to get a better view. Brommell and Todhunter stared at Vila, then at the readout on the cortical stimulator strapped to his head, then at each other.

"He can't do that!" said Todhunter.

"He just did." Brommell gave the stimulator a sharp whack. "Damned thing can't be working."

"No. It's Restal. He's done it before." Todhunter slapped Vila viciously, knocking his head to one side, still with a faint and peaceful smile on its lips. "Come on, there's nothing else to do here."

They slung Vila unceremoniously back onto his bed. Todhunter raised his eyebrows at Brommell. "The subject's injuries proved too severe for the session to be productive?"

Brommell shrugged. "Works for me."

Avon watched them leave and turned back to Vila, whom they had not bothered to reconnect to life-support. "Vila? Vila!"

Vila lay askew on the bed, his head twisted away from Avon. What had he done? That 'goodbye' had sounded so final.

"Vila," said Avon, very softly.

Vila did not answer. Avon was surprised at how much it mattered.

 

It had been a while since he'd been there, but Vila was back in that magical place he had fled to so often as a child, and sometimes later when reality hurt too much. Back in his very own treasure room, full of the happiest and best of his memories.

Start with the first.

He lay enveloped in warmth and love, looking up at the vast blurred face above him, hearing huge soft words whose meaning he did not know but which were spoken just for him. He smiled and waved his tiny, dimpled hands and the sweet-smelling person holding him laughed.

He was warm. Safe. Loved.

 

Under what he supposed was constantly-injected sedation, Avon slept on and off. He was unsure how much time had passed between his awakenings, but the guard at the end of the room had changed at some point, and someone had reconnected Vila's life-support, but had not bothered to straighten his limbs or head. Avon had given up trying to get him to respond.

Neither Tarrant nor Soolin, nor the ginger-haired man beside her, had shown any signs of life, though the readouts above them showed they still lived. Avon found himself regretting that, for himself as well. Death—or whatever Vila had chosen—would be preferable to what was in store for them.

Avon began to doze off again, but was roused by the sound of booted footsteps and voices in the corridor. The door opened to admit a tall young Federation officer complete with a retinue of two junior officers and several troopers with Arlen in pursuit, looking flustered.

"You weren't expected until tomorrow, Major Chen," she said.

The officer stopped and turned to face her. "Quite. And given that our communications have often proved to be insecure, wouldn't you say it was a good idea to arrive well before a possible rebel interception?"

Arlen scowled. "Yes, Major," she muttered.

Chen's dark, slanted eyes met Avon's and held them for a few seconds, then passed over the others in the room. "This is all you retrieved of the famous Blake's Seven? Avon, Restal, Tarrant? What about Stannis, Cally, the Mellanby girl?"

"I don't know about the others. They weren't here, but Mellanby was dead before she hit the floor." Arlen smiled briefly. "I'm a good shot."

"Then I'm pleased you restricted yourself to one target. Commissioner Sleer was hoping for rather more to show her superiors. Is this—" Chen looked around "—all?"

Arlen dropped her eyes. "We haven't found Orac yet," she said sullenly. "The Commissioner said not to question Avon, and I'm told Restal was too badly wounded to interrogate properly."

Chen turned to the two junior officers, "Check Restal out, then the others," then went over to look at Soolin and the man. "Who are these two?"

"He's called Deva. I don't know her name." Arlen shrugged. "Another one of Blake's people."

The woman who was checking Vila straightened up. "Major, this man has a severe back injury which has been deliberately left untreated."

For the first time, Avon saw emotion on Chen's face: a sudden flash of anger, quickly hidden.

"Oh?" Chen turned to Arlen. "Why is that?"

"It was my idea, Major." Arlen looked pleased with herself. "Restal is an escape artist, but he's not going anywhere while he's paralysed."

"That is inhumane, Lieutenant. And in direct contravention of Space Fleet protocol."

"He's only a Delta, and a common criminal at that. And rules of war hardly apply to terrorists."

Suppressing the disconcerting anger he felt at Vila's treatment, Avon concentrated on Chen. The man appeared to be a decent sort. They existed at all levels of the Federation except the very top, but it was surprising that Servalan employed one. Chen's face remained impassive but Avon was interested to note a tightly-clenched fist where Arlen could not see it.

"Right." Chen nodded at the troopers. "Ready them for transport. Blake's people too."

"What?" Arlen stepped forward in protest as they quickly and efficiently began to attach anti-grav lifters to the beds. "They're mine!"

"I beg your pardon, Lieutenant?" Chen looked down at her haughtily.

"Major, you were only authorised to pick up Avon and his crew. Blake was my operation."

"Commissioner Sleer has decided otherwise, Lieutenant. Now stop wasting my time."

The troopers began to float the beds out of the room. Chen walked beside Avon's as it was guided down the corridor outside, and Avon stared up at the almost unnaturally calm face and opaque black eyes. Were they in better hands, or was this self-possessed young man more dangerous than Arlen and her interrogators?

Arlen trotted officiously alongside Chen. "Then you won't mind if I check with the Commissioner?" she said. "Standard Space Fleet regulations when orders are changed."

Chen's voice was even. "You appeared not to care about those regulations in Restal's case."

"All the same, I would prefer to check. I am in charge of the prisoners."

"I think you'll find that Sleer doesn't like her orders questioned." Suddenly Chen drew a small handgun without breaking stride, and fired. "And neither do I."

Arlen's eyes widened in shock as she fell back against the wall.

"I'm quite a good shot too, Lieutenant," said Chen, as Arlen's eyes glazed over and she slid to the floor. Avon lifted his head to see as he was borne away. Ironically, in death her face showed the same expression of outrage as Dayna's had.

"Hurry it up," Chen said crisply, "before someone else stops us."

 

Chen's ship was a somewhat battered B-19 cruiser; another piece to add to the jigsaw. Would Servalan's personal staff travel in something like that? On the other hand, after the destruction of so many vessels in the Andromedan war, it was quite possible.

As soon as Avon and the others had been made secure, the ship lifted off. There was a large viewscreen on one wall, and Avon turned his head to look at the tree-clad hills and sky it showed as they rose.

"We made it," said Chen, and several of the troopers removed their helmets and masks, grinning with relief.

The intercom chimed. "Lynx? We're in position."

"Ground view," said Chen, eyes on the screen.

The display changed to show the trees below them and the cleared patch of earth in front of the entrance to the underground bunker.

Chen turned to Avon. "I'm a friend. My name is Lynx."

Oh, yes? Another obvious and overly fanciful alias, like that of Avalon? Who did they think they were fooling with their romantic idealistic games? At least Blake—no don't think of him now.

"Is Orac on that base?"

Avon did not answer. Perhaps Chen or Lynx, or whatever his name was, was a rebel, perhaps this was also an elaborate ploy.

"Yes or no, before I destroy it. Is Orac there?"

"No."

"Good." Lynx turned back towards the screen. "Fire."

The view whited out briefly, then filled with roiling dark clouds lit with flame.

"There. That one was for Blake," Lynx said to Avon. "And for Vila. You can tell him when he wakes up."

If he does. Avon closed his eyes. Servalan had said once she had seen Blake's body burned. A lie at the time if only he'd known it, but now it seemed to be true.

It was some time later that he realised that Lynx had called Vila by his first name. Perhaps it was not significant—so had Servalan and Travis. But even if this Lynx was a rebel who had known Blake, that didn't make the situation any less dangerous. In fact, quite the reverse.

Avon decided to watch carefully and say as little as possible.

 

She stood at the bench, humming a wordless song, long gold-blonde hair falling forward to hide her face. Vila sat on a chair in the warm kitchen, swinging his short legs happily as he savoured the wonderful smell.

"Toast," his mother said, turning to him, smiling. "Hot toast for me and my little man." She picked Vila up, swung him towards the ceiling, then hugged him tightly before settling him on her hip. She picked up the slice of thick brown toast. "One bite for me," she took a small nibble, "and one for you."

Vila grinned at her and bit into it. "Mmm, yum."

She kissed him, tasting all warm and nutty and buttery like the toast.

 

Arrivals

Avon now had a room of his own, but it was hardly a privilege.

When they had first arrived at the rebel base, they were all put in the same large medical ward. As soon as he saw Avalon, Avon knew that he must have made a mistake on Gauda Prime—either that, or this was another Avalon android, and he rather doubted that.

He pretended greater drowsiness than he felt to avoid having to speak to anyone while the medical staff examined them all. When they noticed the unusual pattern of Vila's brain activity readings—or lack thereof, he thought sardonically—they took him away. Then they brought him back and took Soolin away, and returned her some time later with her head re-bandaged. Then they came and got him, and when he woke up, Vila was gone again, for much longer this time. He now lay next to Avon again, pale, still, ram-rod straight in a back brace, while Avon considered his options.

Soolin never knew Blake and would—probably—back him up. Tarrant had believed Blake was selling them, and was therefore complicit in what had happened and would, if he were sensible, avoid talking about either of their parts in it. If he or Soolin woke first, Avon would surely be able to warn them with some well-chosen words. Let's see now—we've been rescued by rebels and it appears Blake was only pretending to be a bounty hunter—yes, that might do it. Vila, he was not at all sure about, but he was unlikely to come out of his trance, as Avalon's people were calling it, for some time.

As it was, misfortune had it that the fair-haired man woke first. Apparently he was known to the rebels, for at the first sign of movement, they sent for Avalon.

"Blake..." he whispered, "dead..."

"Yes, we know, Deva," Avalon said soothingly.

"Killed him." Deva clutched at Avalon, and caught sight of Avon beyond her. His eyes widened. "He did it!" He struggled to sit, and fell back, coughing.

"Shh, Deva, it's all right."

"No, he killed him, Avon. Murderer!"

Now Avon remembered where he had seen the man before. "The Federation officer told you that," he said, abandoning all pretence of semi-consciousness. "Would you take her word over mine?" Not a lie, just a question.

But Avalon was watching him, eyes narrowed. "Separate them all," she said. "I want to get to the bottom of this."

So Avon now had a room to himself.

It was small, windowless, and the door, as he could hear every time it was opened, had a heavy bolt on the other side as well as an electronic lock, not that he could get through one without either tools or Vila. It was, in effect, a cell.



Del Tarrant lay in his room, white and shaking.

They had just come and asked him why Avon had killed Blake. He had seen no point in denying it, as they obviously knew, so he had explained how he had thought Blake had sold them all.

Now they were gone, and he had nothing to do but lie there and think about why he had misread Blake—and Avon—so badly. Oh, there was some reason for it, but Blake had tested him rather obviously when he had found him on Scorpio. So didn't it make sense that he had continued to do so?

Reason however did not explain the hot, blind hatred that had risen in him in when they had all found Blake in that gallery. He had wanted Blake dead. More than that, he had wanted Avon and Vila dead, the others too; wanted to make them suffer, hurt them, kill them all, He had been filled with utter contempt for them and everything they stood for.

And he liked them.

Why had he done it? He thought he might know, and it terrified him.



Soolin lifted her hand to her head, feeling bandages instead of hair. They said she was going to be all right. They said the dressings would come off the next day. They had been very kind, given that they now knew she had been with the man who had killed their figurehead.

They had asked her why, and she had explained how everyone had betrayed them, that it was only what they had expected, just part of the pattern. A logical extrapolation.

She wondered what these people would do with them. Perhaps they would let her leave. If so, would she? This mismatched group had come to mean rather more to her than she was comfortable with.

That in fact might be a good enough reason to go.



Vila lay still, pale, silent, only the readouts above his head and the barely perceptible rise and fall of his chest showing he lived.

 

He was Outside.

The first time had been an accident, just another locked door opened to escape the bullies. He'd heard it was a frightening place, but it wasn't at all. There were no people there to scare him, just trees and a river like in his favourite books, and the sky—a vast, blue and white Dome overhead.

He came often now it was summer, even though it was illegal. Once, months ago, he had been enchanted to find everything covered in icy lace, but it had been too cold to stay out long.

Now he lay in the sweet-smelling grass, somnolent in the sun, listening to the soft hum of insects. An iridescent blue bug settled on the fine golden hairs of his arm, and Vila smiled in delight as it tentatively explored. He carefully bent a blade of grass into its path and watched it crawl onto it. It sat there, shining like a bright jewel in the sun, and Vila wondered sleepily if it had any perception of the giant watching it.

He was getting very hot. Soon he would slip into the river, cool and clear and clean here upstream of the Dome. He would paddle around and squish his toes in the mud, splash the water into airy brightness, submerge and pretend he was part of the strange silent world under it, try to touch the fleet silvery fish and tickle their backs as they flashed by, then, when he was cold, climb out and dry off under a tree in the dappled shade.

His mum was at work; he could stay here all day. And for a nine-year-old boy, a day was for ever.

Departures

Major Bai Chen looked at the still-smoking ruins of the base and considered his options. Reporting back to Sleer would probably not be good for his health; she did not tolerate failure well. He looked back at his pilot, who was sitting glumly in the entrance hatch of their ship watching their troopers search the area. Donek had been with Chen for a while, and since they had been assigned to Commissioner Sleer, they had often discussed the abnormal rate of attrition among her officers.

"Could be time for plan D," said Chen.

Donek raised her eyebrows. "D for departure? As in a rapid one in a direct course away from HQ?"

"Considering D for Desertion doesn't spell out a particularly good future for our families, I'd say it's—"

"D for dead hero," Donek finished in chorus with him. She grinned. "I'll start working on my last words."

Chen lifted his communicator. "Lieutenant Klepner?"

"Yes, Major?" One of the distant figures waved.

"We've just been informed by what passes for flight control on this planet that a ship lifted off from here just before we arrived. We have its details and we're off in pursuit. We'll contact you later. Chen out."



Sebastian Carnell felt an unaccustomed and pleasurable anticipation as he packed. He had not felt this interested in a case since he had left the Federation's employ, rather more quickly than he had planned. None of the assignments he had undertaken for various parties since—rebels, neutral worlds, petty warlords—had the stimulating complexity of those given him by Space Command or Internal Security, and he no longer had access to subjects' psychological profiles. In fact, most did not even possess them.

With luck, he might get his hands on Orac and thus an enormous amount of Federation and other data, but even that was secondary to meeting those most fascinating of men, Kerr Avon and Vila Restal. He had studied them extensively since they had joined Blake's rebellion, and neither had done what he had predicted.

Avon ought to have either left the first chance he got (and it seemed there were many) or taken control of the Liberator from Blake and used it for his own ends. However, when he did finally have possession of the ship, he had at first drifted, reacting to outside stimuli instead of initiating action, and then abruptly taken up Blake's cause. Why then had he shot Blake? That mystery aside, it would be an unaccustomed novelty to speak to someone of Avon's intelligence.

Restal also should have left. Unlike Avon, he was a gregarious and friendly individual who enjoyed and needed the company of others, but Carnell would have estimated his desire for safety as taking precedence. He would also have thought that Restal would hardly have fitted into such a group. Yet he too had stayed, and had shown greater courage than Carnell would have expected. Why? The bonds formed among those who have endured great stress together, as observed in active military units? Possibly.

Restal's case had always interested Carnell: the seemingly ordinary Delta grade who had resisted all attempts at readjustment. And this was a chance to find out exactly how, as he had apparently avoided torture by voluntarily invoking an unusual mental state as he seemed to have done several times in the past.

Carnell smiled as he closed his suitcase.

 

Entrancement

"Tarrant seems to think it was his fault. Soolin regards it as logical to assume that anyone from your past would betray you, going by previous events."

Avon strove not to wince.

"That must say something about you," said Lynx.

Avon stared back with what he hoped was an equally cold lack of expression.

"However they all agree that Blake was unarmed, and that you didn't even give him a chance to explain. I'd put the entire blame at your door, myself."

Lynx was leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed. Avon regarded him dispassionately. He seemed to be ridiculously young, with his smooth face and slender long-legged build, but Avon was not sufficiently familiar with the racial type to be able to estimate his age, and Lynx showed a toughness and confidence at odds with his apparent youth.

Avon looked away and pretended interest in the meagre contents of his bedside tabletop.

"If I had my way, I'd get rid of you, but Avalon seems to think you're useful. She thinks you're all the victims of extreme stress." Lynx's upper lip curled slightly. "Pity you didn't make do with a headache or an ulcer like the rest of us. But Avalon seems to think you're worth salvaging."

Avon poured a drink of water. Get to the point.

"She's got an expert on the way. Rather him than me, but in the meantime I've been put in charge of you lot. And regardless of what I think of you, I'd like to help Vila."

Avon stiffened, his drink halfway to his mouth. Damn. Showed too much. He lifted the tumbler and sipped calmly.

"Ah. So he does matter to you?"

Avon said nothing.

"Do you want to let him die?"

Avon turned slowly and spoke for the first time in days. "Why? What's wrong with him?"

Lynx showed no satisfaction at Avon breaking his silence, but answered quite naturally. "We don't know. But nothing we do can get him out of that trance he's in."

Avon looked away. "Perhaps he prefers to stay that way."

"Perhaps. It's a very long and slow way to die though."

Avon found his fingers had tightened on the soft plastic of the tumbler, deforming its sides. He put it down. "All right. Show me."

 

Vila looked much as he had when Avon had last seen him. Avon looked away from his remote and peaceful face and out the window. Incongruously, for someone who could not appreciate it, Vila had a view of a carefully-tended flower garden, a stretch of lawn, and a belt of trees. "Surely he can be maintained indefinitely."

The doctor, a woman called Eldine, spoke from behind him. "Under the assumption that he will wake up eventually? Perhaps, but the likelihood that he will be crippled increases the longer we wait."

"Explain."

"We've given him a new section of spine, but the hard part is the attachment of new nerves and muscles. We need the cooperation and feedback of the patient for this to be successful. The longer we leave it, the less likely it is that the connections to his existing nervous system will work."

Avon stared at the trees.

Beside him, Lynx sighed. "Do you know anything at all about what Vila did?"

"Only that he has done something similar several times in the past to avoid... readjustment."

"He told you about it?"

"No."

"Ah. Then I assume you read his files using Orac?"

Of course he had. It made sense to find out as much as he could about his crewmates, and Blake would have done so too, if he had any intelligence. And he was certain Vila had taken the opportunity to snoop.

"He must have come out of these trances, or whatever they are, on his own," said Lynx.

"Obviously."

"Do you know how?"

"No."

"Would Orac?"

"I have no idea. It would depend on what it could find out and whether there was sufficient information for it to make logical deductions."

Lynx spoke softly. "Would you be willing to try?"

Avon looked down at Vila. He was annoying, an unwanted responsibility, but the thought of him like that for the rest of his life, or paralysed was... unacceptable.

"All right. On one condition."

Lynx smiled without warmth. "We have our own conditions too. Shall we negotiate?"



Carnell stepped back from the brain-activity readouts over Restal's bed. "I'm entranced," he said, savouring the wordplay. Unfortunately, none of the medical staff gathered around seemed to appreciate it. Pity. From what he had learned about him, Restal might have.

"Then you know what it is?" Dr Eldine asked.

"Not really, no." Carnell smiled at her, but she just tightened her lips. Ah yes, annoyed at the introduction of an outside expert into her domain, that much was obvious from their first meeting, but there was, he suspected, rather more than that. She was a capable and highly intelligent person who had pushed private desires aside for what she regarded as more important—whether the 'cause' or her profession—and resented it. Not an uncommon story. Nevertheless, Eldine was not his concern. "There are similarities to the dream-state, as you've already noted, but there are also distinct points in common with self-induced trances observed in followers of certain arcane religious practices."

Eldine frowned. "I rather doubt that Restal was an advanced yogi."

"Ah, but I didn't say that. There are similarities only. He's in a profound dream state, yes, but the emotional centres of his brain are very much engaged. And look here." Carnell indicated part of the display. "The reticular activating system."

"Yes. So?"

"It's operating, monitoring everything he hears. Almost as if he were awake."

"You mean he can hear everything we say?"

"No, not at all. The main function of the RAS is to edit sensory input and choose only what interests us. Otherwise we would be overwhelmed with irrelevant data. It's what lets us hear our names spoken in a crowd." Carnell smiled down at the uneducated man with the unusual brain. This trip was very much worth it. "It means that Restal has a link with reality. He is, in effect, off-stage waiting for his cue."

 

Vila spread his arms out and laughed in delight as he was spun round and round. The noise was deafening as he was borne around the flight deck, the other convicts cheering wildly, clapping him on the back and legs.

High point in his life, this, in more ways than one. He was a winner: fifteen years old, and pilot of the hijacked freighter Swansea, on its way to freedom from the CF1 penal colony.

And on his way home.

No, don't think about that, what waited there. Or who didn't.

Don't even think about why he was the pilot, not for this one shining moment of glory.

Replay the scene and add the convict who had been meant to fly the ship, free, alive, and cheering with the others. Why not? It was his memory, he could do what he liked with it.

And maybe when he got home, his mother would be there.



Soolin sat still as a nurse carefully unwrapped the bandage on her head while Eldine watched. "Will there be any impairment of motor function?" she asked calmly. She had practised drawing an imaginary gun with either hand, and could not detect any.

"There shouldn't be," Eldine said crisply.

"Any other effects?" It was like getting blood out of a stone, talking to this woman. She really could be quite attractive though if she abandoned that tightly-drawn-back hairstyle which pulled her thin eyebrows up in perpetual surprise.

"No."

"There must have been some damage."

"A shot grazed your skull and destroyed part of the bone, and depressed another section, causing pressure. That was relieved, and the missing section was replaced."

"You were lucky," said the nurse. "Another centimetre or so and you'd have been in trouble."

"Another centimetre and I'd have been missed altogether," Soolin said dryly. The nurse seemed more forthcoming. She turned her attention to him. "How are the others? Can I see them?"

"Restal's still out, but the other two are up and about. I don't see why you couldn't—"

Eldine, who was inspecting the side of Soolin's head, frowned. "You may see Del Tarrant," she said, then nodded in approval of her own work. "That is all." She stood up to leave.

Soolin blinked. "You mean he's the only one, or you've finished here?"

Eldine did not even look back on her way out. "Both."

"Wait—" Soolin halted in exasperation and turned to the nurse. "Are we prisoners?"

"No." He looked puzzled. "That Avon fellow's under guard, but I think the rest of you can do what you like."

"Good." It would be nice to see Tarrant again at least, though not like this. Soolin raised a hand to her matted hair. "Look, you couldn't get me a brush and mirror, could you?" She tentatively touched the site of her wound and stiffened with horror. "What have you done? You shaved me!"

"Of course we did; what did you expect?"

Soolin stared at him, momentarily unable to speak. She forced herself to appear calm. "Get me a brush and comb, a mirror, and some scissors. Now."



"Our people found Orac, just where you said." Lynx put the computer down on Avon's table in his new, roomier, quarters and touched the depression in the top. "There should be a key though, shouldn't there? They searched the flyer and the ground around it for something that would fit, but—"

Avon lifted a finger. "Get me my tools."

Lynx looked annoyed but went to get them from Avon's workroom in his new and roomier quarters, while Avon regarded Orac thoughtfully.

It had been Vila's idea, really. They had programmed the flyer to travel a random route to a set of coordinates in the forest, then had lifted a section of the deck to hide Orac. Avon had hesitated, the key in his hand. It seemed safest to leave it with Orac so both could be recovered later, but where to put it? Vila had silently taken it from him and deftly wedged it right inside the computer, where it simply looked like another component. Impressed, Avon had expected a quip or a boast, but Vila had just given him a sullen look before climbing out of the flyer.

Lynx returned with the tools, and Avon carefully dislodged the key with a probe, then withdrew it with a pair of tweezers.

"Oh, very clever." Lynx sat down opposite him.

"Yes."



Soolin had not cried since she was a child, and she had no intention of doing so now. But all the same, as she grabbed a hunk of hair and hacked it off at chin-level, the tears began to roll down her cheeks, and continued to flow as she cut.

They had both had long hair, she and Ilka, long, shining, and blonde, just like their mother. They used to take turns brushing each other's in the evenings, out on the veranda in the long summer dusk, or inside, all cosy by the fire in winter. And for special occasions and their weekly day off, Mummy had done their hair in elaborate styles, with ribbons woven through, or fresh daisies, or dried wild flowers, or bits of lace or fancy clips and clasps of horn or polished wood, bought on their monthly trips to town. There wasn't anyone much to see them out there on the farm, but it was a silly family tradition, performed with much giggling and followed by poses for their admiring, laughing father. "My three beautiful girls," he'd say.

After... after what happened, she had left her hair long and it had become a ritual of remembrance to wind and weave it into the styles Mummy and Ilka had done for her once.

And now she couldn't, not with that great ugly bare patch. Sobbing now, Soolin cut the last piece, and let it hang, straight, blunt, savage, and visibly thinner on one side.

Stupid really, but she felt as if she had just cut her last ties to the past. "I'm sorry, Mum," she whispered, and curled up on the bed, pulling the covers up over her head. She cried herself to sleep, crying for everything she had ever lost.

 

Trust

"Orac," said Avon.

"What is it now?"

Avon closed his eyes briefly. "I need some information, and considering that you are responsible for Scorpio's destruction, I suggest you do it with a minimum of fuss."

"Oh, very well."

"I need to know how Vila evaded conditioning."

"That is a statement, not a question."

"Is he always like this?" Lynx asked, chin on fist.

"'It', not 'he'. And yes." Avon turned back to the computer. "All right, Orac. What brought Vila out of his trance the first time?"

"Might I remind you that I am not—"

"You may not. Just do it.."

"I do not know about this 'first time'. It is logical to assume that Vila was already practised at the technique by the time he was admitted to the Juvenile Detention Wards at age eleven, therefore—"

Avon gritted his teeth. "Then we will discuss that time. How long was he unconscious?"

"Three hours."

"And under what circumstances did he wake up?"

"His mother, Jandy Restal, was called in to remove him."

"Oh!" Lynx sat up straighter. "Then she said some sort of trigger word?"

"There is no reason to assume that," said Orac.

"I agree," said Avon. "Her voice may have been enough. And the next time, Orac?"

"That was five hours later, and—"

Lynx frowned. "The poor kid."

"It was standard practice," said Orac, "even if rare. In the case of failure, three attempts are to be made."

Avon ignored Lynx's wince. "And each time his mother was there when he woke up?"

"Correct."

"There were later attempts."

"If you know that, then why do you—"

"Just tell us about them, Orac."

"The next was at fourteen, following his second arrest. After the treatment's failure to have any lasting effect on him, Vila was sent to Correctional Facility One."

"And he awoke that time because his mother was there again?"

"Correct."

Lynx sighed. "Then his only chance is for us to get hold of her? That's going to be hard."

"Impossible, I'd say." Avon smiled humourlessly. "She died shortly afterwards."

"Then what do we do?"

"The Federation doesn't like defeat, which I assume is one reason Vila eventually got such a severe sentence. I'm certain they tried to readjust him again before they sent him to Cygnus Alpha. Did they, Orac?"

"Correct."

"Ah." Avon leaned forward. "And who was with Vila when he woke up?"

"The event was not observed."

Avon frowned. "There must have been someone there. Did he have visitors?"

"None."

"Did any of his fellow patients have visitors?"

"Not while Vila was there."

Avon bit his lip in thought. "Was there anyone in the ward or area whom he knew previously?"

"No."

Orac sounded suspiciously smug. Avon narrowed his eyes. "Then list every person who might have been there," he said softly. "We'll start with the patients."

"Oh, very well." Orac said sulkily. "In bed one, Glin Landa; in bed three, Pol Sharp; in bed four, Vila Restal; in bed five, Del Prentiss; in bed six, Olag Gan; in bed—"

"Gan!" Avon jumped to his feet.

"That is what I said."

"Then," Avon began to pace, thinking, "Gan was near Vila—"

"Adjacent. The beds were numbered from the door, odd numbers on the right and—"

"—and they talked. Yes!" Avon stopped and looked at Lynx. "Vila would talk to anyone, especially a captive audience."

"They were friends, those two," said Lynx.

"Oh?" Avon was distracted. How would Lynx know that?

Lynx looked slightly uncomfortable. "Blake said so."

"Ah." Avon resumed his pacing. "Friends, acquaintances, whatever. Someone Vila liked. Trusted."

"If that's so, then you could wake him up."

Avon halted and stood for a moment, looking into space. "Oh, I don't think so," he said quietly.

"No." Lynx's lip curled briefly in contempt. "Perhaps not. Vila liked Blake, didn't he."



"Not me," said Tarrant, looking a bit shamefaced. "Vila never trusted me."

Lynx frowned at him. "Why not?"

Tarrant shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "I almost got him killed once, not that it was intentional like when A— It's not something you forget in a hurry, I suppose." He flashed a nervous smile.

"Would Vila trust Soolin?"

"I don't know. Perhaps." Tarrant shrugged. "As far as I know she never gave him any reason not to."

Lynx looked disapproving. "And I suppose that amounts to a close friendship with you lot?"

"Well, Vila didn't exactly fit in." Seeing the look on Lynx's face, Tarrant felt the need to defend himself. "Look, I'm a Federation officer, and frankly, none of them were ideal crew. We did the best we could with what we had." He smiled and kept smiling until Lynx had left.

He sat back, appalled. Whatever had possessed him to use the present tense?



Lynx found Soolin also in her room, and awake now. She was sitting by her window, head bowed, blunt-cut chin-length blonde hair falling forwards. She looked tired, pale, and depressed. As Lynx explained the situation however, she slowly looked up.

"... so we think Vila might respond to someone he likes and trusts," Lynx finished.

"And that's me?"

"I don't think there's anyone else."

"Oh. I can't say we were friends, but..." Soolin started to push her hair back, then thought better of it and stood up. "All right. I'll give it a try."

 

That was then

Soolin sat beside Vila's bed. He looked very like that time she and Dayna had found him, dead drunk—almost literally—after that shuttle incident. He'd never really recovered from that. In fact, he'd been so depressed, they had both made an effort never to leave him alone for too long, and had tried to cheer him up by getting out some of Dorian's games to play with him. Even then, she couldn't remember him smiling again. No, that was wrong. He had, just once, on the way to GP when he realised Avon had found Blake.

He'd liked Blake, she knew that. He must have believed things would be all right if they found Blake. It must have crushed the last of what little hope he had left to see Avon shoot him down.

She wondered where Vila was now. He had mentioned 'running away in his head' during the attempts they had made to reprogram him. He said he went to 'a safe place'. Was he there now, or just lost?

 

The good memories were further apart now. It was harder to find one untainted by fear, sadness, or loneliness. Maybe he could pick the best moments and string them all together like shining jewels on a necklace.

Blake saying, "Good, Vila. Very good." Him and Blake, that time on Centero, working together like a team, Blake saying, "Nice going," the amusement in his eyes at Vila's jokes. Blake telling Avalon's man, "He knows his job." Blake saying he trusted Vila with that explosive collar, agreeing he was a genius.

Jenna sharing a joke on the London, Jenna smiling and waving goodbye on the teleport bay. Not much, but you take what you can get.

Gan, well, Gan just being there. Knew where you were with Gan. Sitting quietly with him on the flight deck or in the rest room, no need to impress or amuse, just at ease and comfortable with each other. Gan grinning at his jokes, telling him about Zephron, bringing him a drink when he was tired. Gan, solid, dependable, like a rock. Rock salt of the earth.

Avon... he hesitated. Yes, Avon too. Playing chess with Avon, chatting to him while he worked, the sudden warmth in his eyes... or had he imagined that? Avon saying, "Well done, Vila," and "I'm impressed," and "Welcome back, Vila." All right, so long as he didn't think too much about the circumstances. Avon smiling at him after he and Orac confused that giant brain—just as if he really liked him. That was a good one.

Cally's face lit up with delight when she found him on Chenga. Cally happy to see him when he and Kerril stepped out of that 'vault'. Cally laughing as Vila chased her off the flight deck.

Kerril hugging him, Kerril smiling at him admiringly, Kerril in that long golden afternoon when for several magical hours he was wanted and loved...

 

"Speak to him," said the blond man called Carnell.

Soolin cleared her throat. "Vila?"

 

... Dayna leaning over him, her eyes concerned instead of mocking, dabbing gently at his forehead. Thought he'd died and gone to heaven. Dayna laughing, flash-flash-flash, one picture after another, laughing at him half the time, but she was a joy to look at, so alive, so full of energy...

"Vila?"

Soolin.

Soolin sitting opposite him, smiling slightly, raising her glass. Was that a good memory? Bittersweet anyway. Lovely Soolin, let me pretend you're my friend...

 

Vila showed no sign of hearing her, but Eldine, peering at the readouts on the display over his head, said, "There's a reaction! A definite response to your voice. Try again."

Soolin leaned forward. "Vila? It's Soolin." She waited, holding her breath.

"Keep talking."

Soolin looked at Eldine and Carnell and Lynx, all standing there expectantly. What was she supposed to say, especially with them listening?

Carnell, understanding, stepped back, and motioned the others away. "We'll be just outside if you need us," he said. "Just talk to him, tell him he's safe."

Soolin watched them file out, then looked at the smoked glass window beside the door. She knew that behind it was the observation station used to monitor the intensive care rooms, and that they were all probably there, still watching. She changed her position and inclined her head so that they could not see her face. This was something private, and she was particularly wary of that Carnell with his charming smile and watchful eyes. The less people knew of her the better, especially him.

She looked at Vila, and remembered.

 

The first time she had met him, she hadn't thought much of him. About the only thing she'd noticed about him before dismissing him as harmless was the appreciative look he'd given her—and it would have been noteworthy only if he hadn't—and the fact that he'd downed the extra drink on her tray, joking but looking like he needed it

After Dorian's death, she had hidden, watching them all through Dorian's surveillance system, installed long ago to watch his 'guests'. She had been angry with herself for staying with Dorian, intrigued by his charisma and mystery, and she wanted to make sure of this new group before she joined them—or decided to abandon them to their fate. Pity she didn't know how to get into the landing bay.

She had seen Vila drunk in his room with silent tears running down his cheeks; Avon still and alone in his, his face dark and thunderous; Dayna sullen and coiled tight like a spring; and Tarrant frustrated and throwing himself into action, perhaps to avoid thinking. She wondered about the missing member of the crew and just how cohesive this lot were. Dorian had said they were bonded by what they had been through together, but she couldn't see much evidence of that.

She had listened, amused, when Vila talked to Pella. So he was a thief from an early age, a hardened criminal. Well, perhaps not so hardened. So soft in fact that Pella was abnormally friendly to him, even going so far as to apologise. And why not? He was not exactly the threat Pella—and Soolin—usually regarded men as.

'Harmless' Vila had said to Arlen. And harmless and useless Soolin had considered him back then, so it was to him, forlornly abandoned by the teleport, that she had revealed herself.

It was only a couple of days later that she began to realise there was more to him.

 

The food stores were low, and to tide them over till they did a supply run to Onus 2, they had harvested and brought back all the ripe fruit and vegetables in the Seska greenhouses. Vila had kept up a running list of complaints during the trips to and fro, muttering about the weight of his loads, the flatness of his feet and the weakness of his chest, so Soolin was surprised when she saw him coming back later with a tray of soil.

She followed him to the kitchen, where he set it down in a corner of the bench, then crouched down and peered at it, his eyes level with the top.

Soolin folded her arms and leant against the wall. "You know, Vila, your obsession with that tray of dirt is beginning to bother me a little."

Startled, Vila jumped up and gave her a wide-eyed earnest look. "I've got the makings of a dozen wheat fields here." He poked at the soil. "If I can get them to germinate."

"I don't see you as the back-to-nature type somehow," Soolin said dryly.

"If we're going to be here as long as Avon reckons, then we might as well be comfortable." Vila looked wistful. "I keep dreaming about toast."

"Toast?"

"A delicacy!" Vila kissed his fingertips.

Soolin rolled her eyes. "I know what it is. And we do have bread you know, in the freezer."

"I know." Vila shot her a sly look, then opened a cupboard and with a flourish removed a loaf.

Despite herself, Soolin laughed. "You were joking all along!"

Vila grinned. "All I need is a mill and a bakery and a few slaves to do the work."

Shaking her head, Soolin sat down at the table and rested her chin on her hands. She was willing to bet Tarrant and Dayna would have taken his foolishness at face value. "So, what's really in the tray then?"

"Dunno. Could be tomatoes or chillies or potatoes or wheat. I've never watched anything grow before, thought it might be interesting." He smiled. "Might even be something pretty, like flowers."

"I doubt it. Flowers aren't very useful."

"No. You never know, though." Sighing, Vila took a bread knife from a drawer. "Want some toast? I can do you cheese, cheese and onion, cheese and tomato—"

"Just buttered, thanks."

"Ah. That's how my mum used to make it," Vila said dreamily. "Reminds me of home." Soolin's face became cold and shuttered, but Vila, engaged in slicing, was oblivious. Speaking of which, where's yours?" he continued. "Home, I mean."

"Darlon 4," Soolin said stiffly. And it was true enough; that was where she had spent her first two years.

"Oh? Still got family there?" Vila slid the bread under the grill.

"They were all murdered."

That was usually enough to forestall any further enquiries. People either said they were sorry—hypocrites—or they changed the subject, either too embarrassed or put off by Soolin's manner to pursue it.

Vila stared at her, his soft brown eyes sympathetic. "Oh. I'm sorry."

True to form, though he really did sound as if he meant it; most didn't. "Why?" Soolin folded her arms. "You didn't know them."

"Maybe not, but I know what it's like to lose someone."

So what? So did most people. But then he said something so unexpected and wonderful and right.

"What were they like? Tell me about them so there'll be someone else to remember them."

For a moment, Soolin was unable to speak through her suddenly tight throat. She stood up, composing herself. "Another time perhaps." She turned and left. Her last glimpse was of Vila standing there with the butter in one hand, a slice of toast in the other, and a chagrined look on his face.

 

Soolin did not remember the anniversary of her family's murder. It was not a date she had ever committed to memory, and it usually passed unnoticed.

Her birthday however was another matter. This time it fell not long after the debacle of Dayna's old tutor.

The whole thing had been odd. Dayna couldn't have been older than fifteen, if that, when she first met Justin, so what had it been? A childhood crush? Tarrant had seemed slightly annoyed about it, but Soolin had never figured out whether there had been anything between them, or whether Tarrant just wished there were. She had nothing to go on but what she saw, and the little she had learned before Dorian's surveillance on the private quarters had been altered to a normal comms link. Probably by Avon or Vila, going by their technical expertise. A pity. She liked to know where allegiances and rifts lay so that she could plan accordingly.

She had sat, apart and detached, on the flight deck after they teleported back from Bucol 2, watching them all. Dayna had been sobbing uncontrollably, Avon looked exasperated and angry at her weakness, Tarrant was concentrating a little too hard on setting the course back, and Soolin certainly wasn't going to do anything; in Dayna's position, she would rather be left alone. But then Vila had got up, gone to Dayna, knelt beside her, and silently put his arms around her. Dayna had stiffened, then slowly her arms had gone around him, and she had cried on his shoulder like a heart-broken child while Vila rocked her gently. Soolin had looked away, obscurely angry with herself. Idiots, both of them. You didn't survive by being soft.

And not long after, it was her birthday month. The day itself fell on the 15th, but just as the excitement had built up from the beginning of the month when she was a child, so the sadness would take hold then, every year since the killings. She had withdrawn, spent more time on her own—though she doubted anyone had noticed—wishing she could forget the memories, wishing they did not hurt so much.

She used to search the house for presents, paw at them to feel the shape under the wrapping, shake them with her ear to them, weigh them in her hands, trying to guess what they'd bought or made for her. Big sister Ilka had laughed, saying, "Stupid girl! Why d'you want to spoil the surprise? That's the best part!" But Soolin had enjoyed wondering what the gifts were, gathering clues, trying to build up a picture. If she'd really wanted to know, she could have unwrapped them and resealed them. Ilka and Mummy and Daddy had taken to hiding them in more and more difficult places, out in the barns, in the attic inside chests, on the highest shelves in the pantry. Had it been just to thwart her, or had they enjoyed the game too? Now Soolin would never know.

Then her birthday came, here on this sterile underground base. She had stayed in her room and missed breakfast. No one had come to find out where she was; had they even noticed? She missed lunch too, curled up on her bed, reliving all the family parties: birthdays, Harvest, the Green Festival of Light, New Year, spring planting...

There was a knock on her door. It wasn't hard to guess who it would be, given the scene on board ship after Justin died. All the same, she asked.

"Who is it?"

"Vila."

"Go away."

"No. Not till I know you're all right."

"Just go away."

There was a pause, then another knock. Grimly, Soolin got up, opened the door, and glared at him.

"You all right?"

"I will be tomorrow." Soolin leant against the doorway, arms folded.

Vila looked nervous. "Look, I know you're upset, have been for days. You could, um, tell me about it. Never know, it might help."

"Oh, you think so, do you?" Soolin snapped, and so, briefly, did her self-control. "And what would you understand about how I feel, with my whole family murdered and burned? Have you any idea what that's like, and having to survive on your own at eight?" She bit her lip and looked away. Damn! What had possessed her? Too much wallowing was not good for one's restraint.

Vila looked as if he had been slapped, but stood his ground. "I do, actually. Well, I mean, I don't know, but I do know about seeing my mother stabbed in front of me when I was little, blood everywhere. And about how bad it was in the JD wards, know what they do to kids there? And I know what it's like to watch my mum slowly die of chemical poisoning because she was only a Delta and they didn't rate drugs. And what it's like to know the ones I stole for her wouldn't help, not in the end."

Vila's voice had risen as he spoke, and Soolin stared at him, surprised. She had never seen him angry.

"And getting back there too late to be with her." Vila stopped, swallowed, and went on in a quieter voice. "Know what it's like too, to have my friends die and not be there to have said goodbye, and wish... wish..." he closed his eyes briefly, "wish I had."

Soolin hadn't known that. All that pain, so well hidden. "All right," she said softly. "I will."

"Eh?" Vila's eyes opened.

"Tell you about it."

"Oh. Right. Well, half a mo, I'll just get something." Vila disappeared briefly into his room opposite, and emerged with a half-full bottle. "Brandy," he said. "Come on."

Soolin shut her door and followed him to the kitchen, relieved at his choice of location. She wouldn't have let him into her room, and certainly wouldn't have gone to his, and the others preferred the living room with its comfortable couches. She sat at the table while Vila got glasses.

"Need something a bit stronger than wine," he said, pouring two drinks. "Here you go. This is the good stuff from Dorian's private stash. Not even Avon knows about this."

Soolin looked at the golden liquid in her glass doubtfully. "And this is supposed to help?"

Vila sat down at the other end of the table. "Well, only for a while, but it dulls the edges a bit."

"Ah." Soolin took a sip and screwed up her face.

"Go on, take a decent swig. Makes you feel better."

Soolin cautiously drank a bit more and felt warmth spread through her. She smiled weakly.

Encouraged, Vila smiled back and lifted his glass. "A toast! To the departed!"

They both drank.

And then Soolin told him about her parents and sister, about the good times, about the sort of people they were. Haltingly at first, but gaining fluency while Vila listened, smiling at her stories, laughing at the silly things she and Ilka had done.

Finally she stood, flushed, swaying a little, but oddly light. Perhaps that was the point of funerals. She had been to a couple in her capacity as bodyguard, and had wondered why people bothered to tell what seemed to be inflated stories of the goodness of the departed to those who knew what they were really like. But she felt as if, somehow, she had finally given her parents a proper send off.

Vila stood up too, steadier on his feet than she was, and looked regretfully at the empty bottle. "I'll have to open a new one for next time," he said. "Toast Gan and Cally."

"All right."

Vila's face lit up. "Really? Thanks."

Soolin shook her head and felt a bit dizzy. "I should thank you."

"Don't have to. After all we understand each other, us two. Both been through a lot of things we'd rather not've."

"Yes." Soolin wondered how he had survived so untouched. If someone as gentle as seemingly defenceless as Vila could retain his basic goodness, perhaps the universe wasn't as cruel a place as she had thought.

"We could... we could be friends." Vila looked both hopeful and fearful.

No. That was asking far too much.

Vila sighed, his shoulder slumping. "Allies then? Look out for each other?"

Soolin said nothing as she left. But she smiled once Vila couldn't see her.

 

After that, they would often sit in the kitchen over a drink (coffee, tea, or wine) and toast (cheese for Vila and jam for Soolin, or butter for them both) while Vila told Soolin about the things the Liberator crew had done and the places they had been, about Blake and Jenna and Cally and Gan, and Avon too before he had turned so cold and strange; and Soolin told Vila about various jobs and contracts, the people she had worked for, and the planets she had lived on. All except Gauda Prime.

"Remember the toast, Vila? And the toasts?"

 

Soolin sitting opposite him, raising her glass. But there was a tear on her face and that was wrong; Soolin never cried.

 

"Come on, Vila."

That someone like him could survive his childhood—the deprivation and fear, arrest and imprisonment, all the things he had told her about—let alone what came later, all without becoming embittered or sacrificing his essential nature, had given her a hope she had never had before. Hope that life wasn't so bad if it didn't destroy people like Vila.

Though that hadn't been quite true, had it? Vila's resilience had suffered that last year, under all those repeated blows of fate, under Avon's contempt. Even so, even after that shuttle incident, when he could no longer raise a smile, his humour had never deserted him.

"Don't give up now, Vila. Least of all now you're safe."

If Vila the survivor was defeated, what hope was there for the rest of them. For her?

"Please, Vila. I need you."

She hadn't meant to say that, had never even admitted to herself that she needed anything or anyone. It had just slipped out. Like the damned tears. Cry once and the dam was breached.

 

"Come on, Vila."

Kerril, standing in the 'vault' doorway beside old Norl, her hand stretched out to him. No, don't want to think about that. Kerril hadn't wanted him, not really. She wanted her dream of a new life more; she'd chosen that before even thinking of asking him to go with her. And what she'd loved hadn't really been him, only the hero she thought he was, clever and brave. Wouldn't have loved the rest of him, not if she'd known him.

That wasn't a good memory, why was that there? Wasn't even right anyway. Kerril's hair was too long for a start. Looked more like Soolin.

No. Think of that afternoon by the pool. Much better.

"Don't give up now, Vila. Least of all now you're safe."

Safe? Terrified, huddled in that dank, cramped compartment, tears running down his face, and Soolin—no, it was Avon stalking him with his gun and that strange pleading voice.

"You're safe with me."

No! Hide, run, do what you do best. Run to the only really safe place he'd ever known. His own vault, his treasure room of memories...

"Please, Vila. I need you."

Need me?

Someone needs me? Soolin needs me?

Couldn't run if someone needed him. Made him feel important, wanted, as if he mattered. Kerril screaming and him running to her, brave and clever. Dayna shouting for his help, him leaping to her rescue, brave and stupid. Cally... Cally, calling him. Failed her. Tried to go to her, but in the end he'd had to run.

Couldn't do that again. Not if someone needed him.

 

And this is now

Vila opened his eyes.

Soolin was there, but he must still be dreaming: her hair was shorter than Kerril's and there were tears on her face. That wasn't right, was it?

"What's the matter?" He tried to raise his hand to touch her to see if she was real.

She saw the slight movement and caught his hand in hers. "Nothing." She wiped her face with her free hand and smiled at him.

Something must be. Perhaps they were the only two left. He wanted to ask, but suddenly there were lots of other people in the room, crowding round, all talking at once. He stared at them, not recognising any of them, then, overwhelmed, back at Soolin.

She squeezed his hand and said, "It's all right. These people are friends."

Friends? Now there was a novel idea. Didn't know any of them though... oh, yes, he did. There was Avalon, just come in. He felt dizzy with relief. Was it really all right, could he dare to believe it? A blond man waved everyone out again, and it was quiet again, with just Soolin there.

Vila had a fairly good idea why she might have been crying, but he didn't feel up to broaching that subject right now. "How long..." he swallowed. "How long was I away?"

"About five days."

"Oh." Longest time ever, but then he really hadn't expected to wake up from this one. "What happened to your hair?"

Soolin's hands shot up to her head. "I cut it," she said defensively. "Sometimes you have to let go of the past."

Was that a dig at him? Nah, she couldn't know where he'd been. "You all right, then?" Circle round the subject.

"Yes. I'm fine." Soolin smiled briefly.

Didn't look it. Too pale and tired. Might as well ask now. "What about the others?" It came out as barely more than a whisper.

"Tarrant's fine. Up and about like me. Avon's all right too, but I haven't seen him."

Vila waited, but she didn't say any more. It was true then: another one gone. He closed his eyes.

"Dayna died instantly, Vila," Soolin said quietly. "The way she'd have liked, quickly and in action."

"But not that young." Vila screwed up his face. "My fault," he whispered.

"What do you mean?" Soolin sounded surprised.

Vila opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. "If I hadn't tried that stupid harmless act..."

"You can't know that. And there's no point regretting what you can't change." Not that it had stopped her going over that day again and again, wishing she hadn't argued with her mother that it wasn't her turn to clear the table, or sulked when she had been told to anyway, or fought with Ilka. Though if she hadn't, she wouldn't have been in the woods when they came. "You never know. Perhaps it would have been worse if you hadn't done it."

"Why... why didn't you shoot?" Vila turned his head to her. "You were faster than her."

Soolin wouldn't meet his eyes. "That woman's gun was pointing right at you. I didn't dare."

Vila stared at her, stunned, afraid to ask if he'd heard that right. Perhaps he'd imagined it. After all, what would he matter to her, or anyone for that matter? "Why'd you bring me back?" he asked bitterly. "Not much use now, am I, a thief who can't walk."

"Of course you will." But he didn't know, did he? "When they've finished with you, you'll be as good as before. Better, in fact."

"Why would they bother? They need a door or a safe opened, then?"

"Vila!"

"Thing is," he said, almost matter-of-factly, "I can't take any more, Soolin. I've had enough."

"Vila. Don't."

"Don't what?"

"Give up. Not now, when you're safe. And did you know, you're a hero around here."

"Hero?" Vila tried to make sense of this. "Me?"

"Yes. You didn't give them Orac. Do you know how much that means?"

Vila sighed. "Just did what I do best," he said. "Ran away."

"That's not true. There were lots of times when you could have but didn't."

Vila looked at her doubtfully.

"Go to sleep," said Soolin. "Everything will be all right."

She looked and sounded further away. He'd probably dreamed half of it. He slipped into a doze, feeling her cool hand touch his again, oddly reassuring.

 

When he next woke, someone else was there, one of the people he'd seen crowding around his bed before. Not a face he knew, but there was an odd feeling of familiarity.

"Where's Soolin?" he asked sleepily.

"Asleep."

"Oh. Who are you, then?" He frowned. "Got the feeling I've seen you somewhere before."

"Perhaps you have." The person sounded cautious, like someone talking to police. "Heard the name Lynx?"

"Links? Nasty hairy aliens!" Vila shuddered, remembering. "And somewhat terminal too, to coin a phrase."

Lynx looked puzzled. "Alien? They're Earth creatures, a sort of cat. And they're really more furry than hairy."

"Eh? Oh, with a 'y', you mean? Oh, right—you're that Lynx, the one that sets up alliances against the Federation?" Vila sighed and looked away. "Avon tried to do a Lynx on some warlords. Didn't work."

"I shouldn't imagine it would. Warlords are extremely territorial by their very nature—"

Vila had a sudden image of Zukan peeing against the side of his spaceship.

"—and don't tend to make trade agreements, which is what I base my alliances on. Mutual profit and defence."

Vila promptly lost interest. Lynx sounded a bit like one of those boring current affairs (now there was a misnomer) viscasts.

"How are you feeling?"

"Only about a third of me." Vila rapped his hand against the lump of the not-him that was meant to be one of his legs.

"That won't be for long. You've got a new bit of spine, and they'll be doing some nerve grafts soon. You'll be up and about in no time." Lynx paused, disconcerted at the look of horror on Vila's face. "What's the matter?"

"Someone else's spare parts! Whose? Not... not..." Not Dayna or Blake. Vila tried to sit up and failed.

"Vila!" Lynx grabbed his shoulders, holding him still. "What on earth's the matter? They're no one's."

"No?" Vila stared up at Lynx, wanting to believe it.

"Standard vat-grown, coded to your DNA."

"Mine?"

"As if they were yours, but better in fact. As good as new."

"Oh." Vila subsided, relief washing over him. He'd heard of that technique, not that a Delta ever rated that sort of thing. "Fobbing me off with substandard rubbish, then? Might've known."

Lynx grinned. "Now that's more like the Vila I remember."

"Eh? We've met?"

"Well, the one I remember Blake telling us about," Lynx said quickly. "He used to talk a lot about you and the others, you know."

"He did?"

"Oh, yes. He used to say you were his symbol of hope, Vila, because you could survive everything the Federation threw at you."

"Me? Hah! That's ironic, that is." Almost didn't survive what so-called friends did to me. Vila looked sideways at Lynx. "Knew Blake, did you?"

"Very well. We worked a lot together."

"Look, he didn't... he wasn't going to... you know, sell us out, was he?"

"Is that what you thought?"

"Didn't know what to think. It wasn't really Blake. Well, not the one I remembered."

"I know." Lynx sighed. "A lot happened to him since you last saw him."

"Yeah, well. A lot happened to me, too."

"To all of us." Lynx sighed. "Do you know why he was on Gauda Prime? He used to say the best people he'd worked with were criminals, and he got the idea into his head that he'd recruit some more."

"Oh." Vila screwed up his face. Knowing Blake was the innocent party, he found, didn't hurt any less. "For what it's worth, I understand why Avon did it. Just not that he did it. Bastard. I'd have at least talked to Blake first, asked for an explanation."

"But you didn't."

"No." Vila wished he could turn back time and change things. "It was like a bad dream. Didn't feel real by then. I mean, we'd lost everything, our base, our ship, and it looked like Blake's people were against us too." He looked mournfully up at Lynx. "You know what I thought when they shot me? I was glad. Just happy the nightmare was finally over."

"It is, Vila," Lynx patted him on the shoulder. "You'll be better soon, then you'll be free to do whatever you like."

"I will?" Vila frowned suspiciously. "Like open locks for you lot, then?"

"Only if you want to. The rebellion owes you, Vila. Just for keeping Orac from the Federation alone, we'd be happy to set you up in whatever you choose. Start a new life if that's what you want."

Vila thought about that. He'd dreamed of it often enough, running a pub on some nice safe out-of-the-way planet, or a resort somewhere nice and warm. Actually doing it was another thing altogether though. He hadn't made any real decisions for years now, and the thought was frightening. He'd been an expert back on earth, a top-class thief in a world he knew, but now he'd have to be something else altogether or risk being caught.

"You could be a security expert, something like that," Lynx said brightly. "Run your own business."

With taxes and employees and responsibility? That was even more terrifying.

"Or just live quietly somewhere safe. We could arrange that too."

"I don't... don't think I can think about any of that right now," said Vila, feeling the panic rising.

"That's all right," said Lynx, "there's plenty of time. All you really have to do now is get better. Look, would you like Soolin to come and see you again?"

Vila nodded.

"What about Tarrant?"

"No. Don't think I'm up to a full dose of Tarrant yet." Vila smiled weakly. "I'm glad he made it though. You can tell him if you like."

Lynx hesitated. "Avon wants to see you too."

Vila's face hardened. "No."

"He said he wouldn't cooperate with the psychological expert we brought in until he'd satisfied himself you were all right."

"He did, did he? The answer's still no." Vila set his jaw, then looked alarmed. "Here, what psychological expert? Has Avon done his nut, then? Suspected as much. You keep both of 'em away from me!"

"I thought you two were friends."

"Yeah, well, I did once too an' all, but I was wrong." Stupidest thing he'd ever done, mistaking amusement for liking. Entertainment at best, that's all he'd ever been to Avon.

Lynx sighed. "All right. If that's what you want."

 

Conversations with a psychostrategist

"I don't understand it," said Lynx. "I thought he'd be delighted to be out of it all."

Carnell shook his head. "He's lived in a narrowly-defined world with a handful of companions for so long and with so little choice, anything else is frightening." He sprawled in an armchair, gazing blandly at Lynx over the top of his cup of coffee.

"That doesn't make sense."

"Ah, but it does. We all get used to things, adapt to situations to keep our sanity. To Restal, you're removing everything familiar, pulling the rug out from under him. Ever heard of post-rescue depression?"

Lynx frowned. "No."

"Observed in many people who survive long-term stressful situations or extreme deprivation like imprisonment or war. They set themselves the overriding goal of survival, and when they have achieved it are left with nothing to replace it. A surprising number become depressed or suicidal. On the other hand those with specific goals beyond mere survival cope much better."

"He didn't even want to think about the future."

"Of course not. Would you expect someone with a broken leg to run?" Carnell sipped his drink, savouring it. "Don't worry, it's all in hand," he said.

"You're going to speak to him?"

"Good lord no. Restal would hardly be receptive to professional help after the readjustment attempts made on him in the past. But don't worry, I've put a few simple measures into place."

"And Avon?"

"He refuses to cooperate until he's assured of Restal's recovery. That alone," Carnell flashed a smile, "is a valuable little piece of information. And in the meantime I shall learn what I can." He lifted a hand languidly and looked at his watch. "The fair Soolin first, I think."

 

Soolin sat still and self-contained in one the armchairs in Carnell's quarters, legs crossed and her hands in her lap. She looked at ease, fully in control, but Carnell could detect small signs of tension and wariness. He regarded her with interest; she was something of an anomaly in the group.

He would proceed with the usual technique of asking the subject about themselves, just enough for discomfort, then turn the conversation to other topics. The relief usually loosened tongues. He might have to take extra care with this one though; she was intelligent and observant. Perhaps, however, he could play on that and her pride in it.

 

Soolin watched Carnell warily. She had no intention of telling him anything about herself. Vila had once said that one way to deal with interrogation was to inundate them with words, tell them everything they didn't want to know and nothing they did. Perhaps she could keep Carnell talking about the others.

 

"Why did you join Avon?" Carnell asked.

"He hired me. My previous employer died suddenly," Soolin said coolly, "and I had nothing else planned."

Carnell raised an eyebrow. "Considering the dangers inherent in rebellion, I hope you were well paid."

"Adequately. Vila—" Soolin smiled slightly "—withdrew money from various banks. And I could have left at any time."

"But you didn't." Carnell noted that Soolin clasped one hand over the other. She was remarkably restrained, but he could read defensiveness there. "What did you think of Avon?"

"That's a big subject."

"First impressions then."

"A fascinating and very attractive man."

"You liked him?"

"I didn't say that."

"So you didn't?"

"Not particularly. He's not someone who invites friendship."

"Was he close to any of the crew? Vila?"

"No, though Dayna thinks—" the tiniest frown betrayed regret "—thought they were friends once."

"What changed?"

"I don't know. Vila thinks it was losing Cally and the Liberator. He once said Avon hated him for being alive instead of her."

"What did you think?"

Soolin shrugged. "He certainly appeared to despise Vila, yet sometimes he seemed almost friendly towards him." She put her head on one side and narrowed her eyes very slightly as if calculating something. "Vila thought it was as if he sometimes forgot to hate him."

"Perhaps he misinterpreted."

"I doubt that. He ought to know."

"Oh?"

Something like triumph shone briefly in her eyes. "Being an empath."

Carnell stared, and Soolin smiled with satisfaction.

"He told you that?" he asked.

"I guessed it."

"Ah." He steepled his fingers. She'd deflected the conversation well away from herself, but this was too interesting not to follow up. "Do tell."

"It's fairly low-level, just what Vila calls a hunch. But whenever he sensed danger, he was right. He knew not to trust that friend of Avon's who contacted us, and then there were all his teleport accidents."

"What do you mean?" Carnell was frankly puzzled.

"He used to arrive off-balance or in the wrong place when he was being sent on a mission. Obvious, really."

"Not to me."

Soolin crossed her legs and clasped her hands over one knee, and smirked. "You see, the teleport only works on living people and whatever they happen to be wearing or carrying. Therefore it must use the life force of the person wearing the bracelet." She stopped at Carnell's raised eyebrow. "All right, I don't suppose that's the correct term, but I mean the electricity or whatever it is that animates people, the difference between a person and a corpse. I asked Avon about it once and he said that was basically right. Something about operating at the quantum level and it needs a mind because they do that." She looked at Carnell challengingly. "All right?"

He nodded, storing that information away. "Go on."

"Vila told me that Cally teleported without a bracelet once, but with the help of some telepathic creatures. And another time when he and Avon were stranded on an alien ship, Cally rescued them. She forced the teleport to work properly with the power of her own mind. Her thoughts obviously had an effect. It is therefore logical to infer that Vila's did too." Soolin spread her hands. "After all, he never had an accident going back to the ship, only when he was being sent somewhere he didn't particularly want to go." She paused, and smiled, remembering. "Well, except for the first time they used the Scorpio teleport and Vila was left behind. I daresay he didn't trust it till he'd seen it work." She put her head on one side and looked at Carnell, her mouth curving slightly and her eyes amused.

It made sense. Vila had survived remarkably well in the harsh environment of the Delta levels. And there was that strange mental state he had invoked. Carnell tapped his finger against his chin. His mother was a foundling, his father unknown. Damn. If only he knew the genetic background. "But this remains pure supposition."

"Actually no. Vila had known for some time. Cally told him. He was the only human she received anything from, even if it was just strong emotions or pain."

"Hmm. It's been suspected in others in the past." Carnell paused in thought. Soolin fascinated him too, with her analytical skills. "Have you ever considered a change of profession?" he asked abruptly. "With the proper training—"

"No." Soolin sat up straighter. "I have my standards."

"You dislike what I do?" Carnell gave her his most charming smile.

She was unaffected. "Yes. You manipulate people."

"You kill them."

She did not even blink. "I merely defend those I am hired to protect."

Carnell inclined his head. "Very well. Tell me about Tarrant."

"A military man, someone who lives for excitement and action. Not a deep thinker, but he's loyal and honourable."

"He says Vila didn't trust him."

"No." Soolin frowned, then shrugged. "He said that Tarrant almost got him killed once and I don't think he ever forgot that. Not that Tarrant meant to; I gather he just assumed the people he was dealing with were as straightforward as he is."

"Ah. Avon shot Blake on Tarrant's word."

"He chose to, yes, but I doubt that was the only reason. It was easy enough to think we'd been set up yet again."

"Did you believe Tarrant?"

"I believe he was telling the truth as he saw it. Which is all any of us can do."

"Do you trust Tarrant?"

"As much as I trust anyone."

Not much, in other words. "Avon?"

"Perhaps rather less."

"And Dayna, what was she like?"

"Very like Tarrant, really. Young and full of life. A woman who preferred action to thought, though she was very clever technically."

"She trusted Avon?"

"Absolutely. I think she looked up to him."

"She was fond of you all?"

"I don't think I'd go that far. She got on well enough with everyone. She sniped at Vila sometimes, but it wasn't as cruel as Avon's remarks. More like teasing."

Carnell pursed his lips. "And was Avon's relationship with her reciprocal? Would he feel guilt for the death of someone he was responsible for?"

Soolin thought about it. "Only if he caused it directly. In this case, Dayna died as a result of her own actions, so I don't think so. Guilt is, however, not the same as regret," she added quietly.

"He would regret it then?"

"I don't know."

"Do you?"

Soolin's expression hardly changed. Oh, but he admired her control. "Yes."

"How do you think Avon saw you all? As friends? Or mere tools?"

"He would like people to think it was the latter."

"Was it?"

"I don't know. We were valuable to him, but perhaps it was only in that capacity."

Had Avon realised what he had in this woman? Or Restal? "And you? You care about Vila, don't you?"

He had hoped to disconcert her, but she didn't bat an eyelid. "He's harmless. That's rare. And," she said dryly, "it's more of a compliment than most people realise." She looked at him thoughtfully. "Will he be all right?"

"Vila's resilient, though it will take him some time to recover fully. In consideration of his past experiences in hospitals I've taken a few simple measures to improve matters there. Like ensuring he's tended only by female staff."

"Oh?" Soolin folded her arms. "Young and pretty ones, no doubt."

Carnell noted her reaction with amusement. "Not at all. Vila has mainly been hurt by men in the institutions he's been in. Consequently he relates well to women, including the older, more motherly ones. My only stipulation was that they be cheerful and friendly." He stood up and bowed ironically as he opened the door for her. "Thank you, Soolin. You've been extremely informative."

 

Sprawled in the armchair with his long legs stretched out in front of him, Tarrant looked relaxed but his fingers gripped the armrests a little too firmly for the illusion to be successful.

"Why did you leave Space Fleet?" Carnell asked.

"I don't approve of the massacre of civilians."

He was telling the truth, but Carnell knew that trick. "Neither do most people. Were you ordered to kill civilians?"

"No," Tarrant admitted. "But I was likely to have been if I'd stayed."

"You considered being a mercenary more honourable?"

Tarrant smiled engagingly. "That rather depends on who employs you."

"Why did you join Avon's group?"

"I lost my ship in the Andromedan war. The Liberator was handy and her crew had abandoned her."

He was still evading: using a series of true statements in such a way as to make the listener draw erroneous conclusions. Perhaps he wasn't as quite as straightforward as Soolin thought. "And why did you stay after they returned?"

"Are you joking?" Tarrant grinned with sheer pleasure. "That was the most beautiful ship I'd ever seen. Why would I pass up a chance like that?"

Ah, now that was pure and unadulterated truth. "Tell me about the crew. What did you think of them?"

"Well, Avon was the classic case of the second-in-command who didn't want a promotion. We spent a lot of time looking for Blake, presumably so he could take over again." Tarrant ran his fingers through his curls. "So I filled the gap."

"You took command?"

"For a while, but it didn't work out. In the end it was easier to let Avon make the decisions." Tarrant's lower lip pushed out fractionally.

"You resented that."

"At first." Tarrant shrugged. "But Avon was an able and intelligent commander once he put his mind to it."

"You respected him?"

"Yes."

"And the others?"

"Dayna was—" Tarrant bit his lip "—she was excellent material, brave, accomplished, down-to-earth. She'd have done well in Space Fleet. Cally too. She was sensible and reliable."

"And Vila was not?"

"It took me a while to get a handle on Vila. At first I thought he was a skiver, but I had him wrong—he's a moaner."

Carnell raised an eyebrow.

"Fleet terms." Tarrant grinned briefly. "A skiver does their best to get out of work, a moaner complains about it but does the job anyway. For months I had no idea of what Vila could do. We didn't need any locks opened, and Avon had put Dayna on weapons. That was a bad mistake. Well, I could see his point—Dayna was damned good on the neutron blasters—but so was Vila when he got the chance. If he's got something to do he does a good job, but leave him with nothing to occupy his mind and his imagination runs riot. He works himself up into a panic."

"What about Soolin?"

"Never figured her out. She's good at what she does, but I'm not sure why she stayed. Just for the money?"

Carnell smiled. "You of all people should understand that. Having been a mercenary."

Tarrant looked wary. "I suppose so."

"Now we come to Blake." Carnell noted how Tarrant tensed at the name. "Why did you tell Avon he had sold you all?"

"Because that's what I thought, of course! The man was a bounty-hunter. He was gloating over our prices."

"Tobin Deva says he was testing you."

"Funny sort of test then. And he'd already done a fairly obvious one when he found me."

"Perhaps he felt you needed special treatment." Carnell smiled. "Given your name."

Tarrant went white. "What about my name?"

"A certain Dev Tarrant was responsible for his last arrest and the deaths of most of the Freedom Party. Your uncle, I believe?"

"I don't see what he's got to do with it! I've never approved of his underhand tactics!"

Interestingly enough, he must be telling the truth; he was genuinely upset. "You can't blame Blake for being a little prejudiced under the circumstances though, can you?" Carnell said mildly.

Tarrant looked ill. "Avon shot the man, not me."

"Indeed he did. On your say so." Carnell changed the subject. "You told me he almost killed Vila not long ago."

"No, I didn't."

"You almost did."

Tarrant shrugged. "Well, it wasn't hard to figure out. They were on an overloaded shuttle and they had to eject any excess weight to make orbit. I could see by their flight path that they did it, and Vila said afterwards that he was glad Avon couldn't find him."

"Did that shock you?"

"Not really. It was the sort of thing Avon would do. Just like with Doctor Plaxton." Tarrant explained about Plaxton, the Space Rats, and the stardrive. "I do see his point, but he didn't have to be so cold-blooded about it."

"What would you have done?"

"With Plaxton? I don't know. I think I'd have held off as long as possible."

"And on the shuttle?"

"I couldn't have killed Vila, or any of them in cold blood like that. We'd have spent our time trying to throw stuff off until the last minute I suppose. And if we hadn't found the neutron-star stuff, we'd have died together."

Carnell believed him. He had observed the bond between comrades in arms, but there was more here than met the eye, even an observant one like his. "Thank you, Tarrant. You've been very helpful."

 

"Well?" Lynx dropped into Carnell's visitor's chair. "What d'you think? Any recommendations?"

"Tarrant is a young man who holds honour and loyalty in high regard. I don't see any problem with you or Avalon employing him. He's hiding something about his departure from Space Fleet, but then," Carnell flashed a smile, "most people have something to hide. Don't they, Lynx?"

"Some of us," Lynx said evenly, "have good reason."

"In any case, Tarrant is a good pilot, a little hot-headed going by his record. Not a deep thinker, but I'd say you can trust him. He is considerably disturbed by the actions of his uncle and considers himself at least partly responsible for the killing of Blake. I think he would jump at the chance to fly and to assuage his guilt by being useful to you."

"And Soolin?"

"The admirable Soolin does not give her allegiance to causes. She might be surprised to hear it, but it's people who matter to her. That and pleasure in a job well done."

 

"So you wouldn't recommend that we offer her a position?"

"I doubt she'd take it. And anyway I have something in mind for Soolin. Now, Restal may well decide to work for you. He defines himself by his skill and takes great pride in it. However I'd say, given their personalities and the events of the last few years, that both he and Avon are not far off breakdown."

"Can you help them?"

"Vila not directly, in fact he would react badly to any attempts from a professional. As soon as his medical treatment is finished, he should be found somewhere safe to recover, preferably with someone he knows and trusts."

"Oh?'

"And I rather think you can arrange that."

Lynx looked guarded. "Perhaps."

"Oh, I should say almost certainly." Carnell's smile widened at Lynx's discomfort. "Don't worry. Very few people would have guessed."

Lynx pretended to ignore that. "What about Avon?"

"He has agreed to talk to me once he's seen Restal."

"Vila refuses."

"Convince him. It will probably be good for him too. And since Avon must cooperate fully with me or remain imprisoned, I have no doubt that I shall be able to make some progress with him."

"I hope so. We need him."

Lynx frowned. Perhaps Vila would listen to a friend, the one who had got through to him before.

 

Various forms of therapy

This hospital wasn't so bad after all. Novel experience, being in one where they actually patched you up instead of trying to take you apart. Well, your mind anyway. All the attention was fun, even if a lot of it involved pricking his legs and feet with pins so that they could map nerves or whatever they were doing. Mind you, the fact that he could feel it was cheering.

"You're doing well," said Dr Eldine. Vila grinned at her in delight, and she nodded at him as she left. He hadn't been able to make her crack a smile yet, but he was certain she was softening.

"We'll have you out of bed soon," said the nurse, pulling his covers up.

Vila winked at her. "You can have me in bed if you like."

She laughed. "Cheeky monkey." She tousled his hair affectionately and Vila beamed at her. She was about twenty years older than him and twice his weight too, but he liked her; she was friendly and fun and didn't mind being teased. "Oh, look," she said. "Here's your little friend to see you. I'll leave you two alone." She swept out.

Soolin raised her eyebrows. "'Little friend'?"

Vila grinned. "I almost expect her to tell us to play nicely and share our toys. Hey, Soolin, can you feel my toes? Go on."

Patiently, she placed a hand on one of Vila's feet and squeezed gently.

He sighed happily. "'Cause I can too."

"Good." She smiled at him and sat down. "You're obviously feeling better."

"I am, I am, all the way down!"

Soolin rolled her eyes. "Look, Vila, Avon wants to see you."

"Well, I don't want to see him." Vila's face darkened and he folded his arms.

"They think it might help."

"Oh, of course they do! I bet they're concerned about poor little Alpha Avon who's so depressed after shooting his friend. Poor thing, let's make him feel better. Who cares what I think about it, I'm only a Delta, aren't I? Well, forget it."

Soolin stared. "This isn't like you, Vila."

"Yes, it is. I've had enough."

"If that's the way you feel, perhaps it will help you too."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yes. Get it out of your system."

Vila thought about it. "No. He'd have the last word, he always does."

Soolin sighed. "He just wants to see you, Vila. I don't think he quite believes you're all right."

"What's it to him? Needs something opened, does he?"

"Will you stop that? And I thought you were friends once."

"'Once' is right."

"Look, if you're frightened he'll do you some harm, then Lynx or I can be here."

"Frightened?" Vila looked at the darkened window in the opposite wall. He was still in an intensive care room, but he was fairly certain there'd be more than nurses behind the glass when Avon was there. That Carnell, probably. "I'm not frightened," he said indignantly.

"Well, then."

 

Avon paused at the door. It was Vila all right, not an electronic trick or a drug-induced hallucination. They wouldn't have made Vila glare at him like that, all cold-eyed resentment, just the way he'd looked after that damned shuttle incident.

"Vila." He walked over to the bed.

Vila was propped up, not on pillows, but on an inclined plane, unnaturally straight, shoulders back in an almost military posture. He didn't answer; he obviously wasn't going to make it easy.

Avon smiled, trying to lighten the atmosphere. "I hear they've given you some backbone."

Vila's eyes flashed with fury. "Shut up, Avon," he said savagely. "You've seen me now—you can get out."

Avon was momentarily stunned. Silly of him to think that he could get that easy exchange of bantering insults back, especially when he'd spent so much time keeping Vila at arms-length for that last year. There'd been times though when they'd almost recaptured that old friendship: on Domo; on that bloody shuttle. But he hadn't wanted that, had he? No more friendship, no more people he'd regret losing. Stupid, really, that now he'd finally achieved what he wanted, it would... hurt so much.

He kept his face expressionless. "Yes, well. I can see you're tired."

He turned and left.

 

Vila felt even worse, and that made him angry with himself. Typical. First of all Avon had sneered at him again, then when he'd snapped back, there had been a flash of pain in Avon's eyes, quickly gone. Vila hated hurting people, but he was furious with himself for feeling bad about Avon, especially when he'd wanted to pay him back. So what if he'd hurt him, it hadn't begun to make up for what Avon had done to him, had it? Why should he feel guilty.

"That was quick," said Soolin, coming back in. "It can't have been that bad."

Vila looked away. "I don't want to talk about it."


The smiling face loomed over Tarrant. "Just a little jab. It won't hurt."

"I've changed my mind."

"A little too late, Captain Tarrant. You volunteered."

The needle came closer.

"I've changed my mind." Tarrant began to struggle, but he couldn't move. He began to shout, "I've changed my mind, I've changed my mind!"

 

He sat up, terrified, sweating, shaking in his bed, his hands covering his face.

"I changed my mind," he whispered. But he meant something else entirely.



Lynx regarded Tarrant thoughtfully. He had been passed as fully recovered from his injuries, but he looked tired and a bit pale. "They say you're better now."

"Yes, much. They're kicking me out." Tarrant smiled politely. "Of the hospital, that is. Are you considering it too?"

"Not at all. Trained pilots are hard enough to find, let alone ones of your calibre. You wouldn't consider a job with us, would you?"

"Flying?"

"That's right. Nothing very exciting, just ferrying supplies and personnel."

Tarrant's grin was genuine and wiped all the weariness—and wariness—from his face. "You've got yourself a deal!"

 

Taking steps

Soolin entered unnoticed and leaned against the gymnasium wall, watching Vila. Supported by an anti-grav harness, he was trying to walk, moving his legs weakly and clumsily, the pressure of his feet against the floor making him bob gently along.

"Very good, Vila," said one of the nurses, a young red-haired woman with freckles. "Now we'll try a bit of weight, shall we?" She pressed a button on her remote control and Vila sagged slightly in his harness, biting his lip with the effort of keeping his legs straight. "Now walk to me, come on." The nurse beckoned, while the other one walked beside him, her hand on his elbow. "One more step, you're almost there."

"I don't understand why my legs are so weak." Vila stopped, swaying unsteadily. "I was shot in the back."

"It's not your legs," said the redhead. "It's the new nerves making connections to your system. We have to exercise them, get current moving in them, strengthen the neural connections. Come on, just one more step for me."

Soolin frowned, obscurely annoyed. She knew Carnell had given orders for the medical staff to be friendly to Vila, and nurses were notorious for treating their patients like children. All the same.

Vila tried to move his right leg, but the slight extra weight was too much and both legs buckled.

"Oops, got you!" The large dark-haired nurse—the one with the beard—beside him quickly grabbed him as the first one reset the harness controls. "Well done, Vila."

"Yes, that was an excellent first try." The redhead clapped her hands. "We're proud of you."

Vila laughed, his face flushed, and Soolin felt an irrational surge of anger. Vila was hers. Startled, she examined that odd thought. It was probably just a proprietary interest, due entirely to the fact that she had been the only one to get through to him in his trance. She wriggled her shoulders crossly, pushing herself off the wall. There were some cultures that believed you were responsible for those whose lives you saved; silly idea. And caring for or about anyone was the last thing she wanted.

"Soolin!" Vila had been smiling before, but now his face lit up when he saw her and Soolin found herself oddly pleased. "Did you see me walk?"

"I did." Soolin said dryly. "And I was suitably impressed. I've come to take you to lunch, hero."

Vila grinned as he was helped into his wheelchair. "Can't get used to that."

"Well, that's what you're considered here."

"Better enjoy it while I can, then. Before they find out I'm not."

Behind him, Soolin smiled and shook her head as she pushed him towards the canteen. He was a popular figure on the base and people smiled and greeted him by name as they passed, not something which ever happened to her. She got admiring looks, but never the easy friendliness and acceptance Vila had here.

"Funny, isn't it," said Vila, looking up at her. "I'm a hero for keeping that rotten little bastard Orac out of enemy hands, yet he never did us much good. Should have let them have him; serve them right."

"It had its uses."

"Yeah, as a paperweight." Vila scowled, then cheered up as they entered the canteen, full of the smell of food and coffee, and the sound of talk and laughter. "Look, there's Tarrant!"

Soolin could see Tarrant in a small but very vocal group in the far corner. "Yes, with the pilots. D'you want to join him?"

"Nah." Vila shook his head. "Turn down a lunch date with a beautiful woman? Not me."

Soolin felt both pleased, and annoyed with herself that she was.

"Look at him," Vila said when they had collected their food and found a table. "In his element, isn't he?"

Tarrant was moving his hands through the air, imitating two spaceships in battle; Soolin caught the mention of Kairos and Servalan. "Yes, he looks a lot happier since they gave him a job."

"You going to take one then?"

"Not me."

"Why not? Skills like yours, they'd snap you up."

"I'd prefer something with better survival prospects." And a lot less involvement. Soolin applied herself to her stew. For a while she had almost felt as if she belonged somewhere, and that was dangerous. Time to move on.

"Oh? You and me both," said Vila with feeling. "What're you going to do, then?"

"I'll find something." Soolin looked up. "What about you?"

Vila's grin didn't quite reach his anxious eyes. "As little as possible, I hope."

"If they'll let the hero rest on his laurels."

"That what they call them here? Nah—further from here the better."

"Oh?"

"Look, it's nice enough, but it's still a rebel base, isn't it? Might be far away from the action now, but they'll find it." Vila toyed with his macaroni gloomily. "They always do."

"I'm sure you could find a nice big city and disappear into it."

"S'pose so. Did it for years in London Dome. First decent job I did though, they'd know it was me, wouldn't they?"

"So stop thieving."

"Yeah," Vila said bitterly, pushing his unfinished meal away. "Not much left if you take that away, is there?"



Carnell found Soolin sitting outside with her back, he was interested to note, to the sun-warmed north wall of the base (a slightly dilapidated stone building on the outside) and her face to the only part of the gardens not fringed with trees. She either preferred an open view—as was likely given her profession—or the trees reminded her of Gauda Prime.

He affected not to notice her until he stretched and turned languidly as if enjoying the view. "Ah. The fair Soolin."

Her expression barely changed. "Carnell."

If he had wanted to discomfort her, he would have sat beside her on her bench, but that was not his intention. Instead, he leaned casually against the low stone wall behind him and smiled sunnily. "A nice day, isn't it."

"Yes."

"You look well. Quite recovered?"

"Yes."

She was far from the easiest subject he had ever encountered. Carefully, carefully. He had to get her to broach the subject herself. "As are you all, I believe, with the exception of Avon, and Avon is soon to be—"

"Vila isn't."

Ah, good. Carnell raised his eyebrows. "Isn't what?"

"Recovered."

"Not quite, no, but I am informed he is doing very well, and will have full use of his legs in a few weeks."

"That isn't what I meant," Soolin said coldly. "And you know it."

Carnell perched himself on the wall, crossed one leg over the other, and clasped his knee. "Restal's—Vila's reaction to events is hardly extreme under the circumstances, and there is nothing I can do for him directly. He would hardly permit it."

"No." A look of dislike crossed Soolin's face briefly before she looked away.

"Not directly," Carnell said softly. "However, he is resilient—"

"Really?" Soolin's eyes met his challengingly. "Because he's a Delta, he doesn't feel as much perhaps?"

"Not at all, but he is stronger than he seems, Soolin. He's recovered from worse things than the events on Gauda Prime. Believe me."

Soolin's eyes widened slightly, then narrowed. "Yes. You're the expert, aren't you."

"My career lay along a different path. I share your distaste for... some of the more intrusive practices of those in my profession." Carnell leaned back as if enjoying the sun. "However, even though I can't help Vila directly, I can ensure he has the best chance for his natural resilience to work. Lynx has found a safe planet for him where he can take as long as he needs. It would help though if there were some continuity."

"Oh?"

"One of his former associates would provide it." Carnell smiled faintly. "You suffered a severe head injury. You need to recover. Where better than in a safe place where your presence would be reassuring?"

"Why not?" Soolin shrugged as if unconcerned. " I haven't anything better to do."

"Good. That's arranged, then." Carnell slid off the wall and began to walk away, then stopped as if struck by a sudden thought. "Oh, one thing."

"Yes?"

"You mentioned Vila's grade, which reminds me. He grew up in crowded conditions and is used to friendly touch as just another means of communication. I just thought I'd bring it up, as it would hardly be conducive to a speedy recovery if a gesture of friendship caused him to be knocked flat on the floor, or even shot, now would it?" He flashed a sudden, dazzling grin.

"No, I can see that." Soolin gazed coolly back. "Duly noted."

Carnell nodded, then walked away across the lawn as if a pleasant stroll outside had been his intention all along, and Soolin just an interruption. With his back to the building, he allowed a very satisfied smile to spread across his face. Both Soolin and Restal were considerably more difficult than most to predict—they were both rebels at a deep, personal level, rejecting the paths mapped out for them by accident of birth—but he thought he had done rather well all the same.

 

Old and new lives

Vila lowered himself into a chair with relief, leaning his crutches against the arms. No more wheelchair or anti-grav harness now he was getting stronger, not that he missed them all that much. The wheelchair had been fun for a couple of days until the luxury of being pushed everywhere wore off and he became frustrated by his helplessness. The anti-grav harness might have been fun if he'd been healthy and able to leap and bounce around like a tourist on a moon, but the pressure around his waist wasn't pleasant and it was hard to control his body when it was almost weightless and his legs felt like they weren't quite connected to the rest of him. And in a way they hadn't been. Still weren't, quite. Taking his full weight on them now, even with crutches, was an effort and even now they were shaking from it. He didn't want Soolin and Lynx to notice. It was all right playing a bit of sickness for what it was worth back on the Liberator in the days of Blake, but now he just wanted to get better.

"So, where are we going?" he asked, to take his mind and the others' attention off his legs.

"I can't tell you, Vila," said Lynx. "It's the safest place I know, and it will stay that way only if no one else knows where you are. Don't worry. It's not just safe; I think you'll enjoy it, and you'll be looked after by someone I trust absolutely. Do you trust me?"

Soolin kept silent, but Vila didn't have to consider that. Lynx had saved them on Gauda Prime, true, but everyone had a feel about them—not that Vila had ever mentioned that; they already thought he was stupid—and Lynx felt a bit like Blake had. Solid, warm, strong, dependable, like a tree. Not that the Blake they'd found on Gauda Prime had, quite. He'd been... damaged in some way. "Yes," he said. "I do."

"Good." Lynx smiled at him. "Here you are—your galactic passports in the names you asked for."

Vila accepted his and looked at it curiously. No photo of course, not when people could change their appearance so easily; just name, birth date, height, genetic code, and retinal scan. It was freedom in a way. He could be someone else now.

Lynx stood up. "I'll be leaving today too; I've finished what I was doing here. Good luck to you both."

"Thanks." Vila looked up. "Will I see you again?"

Lynx paused at the door and said seriously, "I hope so."

Vila slumped back in his chair. He trusted Lynx, but all the same, he'd like to know where he was going. But then he hadn't had any control over his life since he was thrown into the holding cells; so what else was new? He sighed and turned to Soolin.

"Hello, I'm Sven Lassiter," he said brightly. "Who're you, Soolin?"

Soolin quickly slipped her passport into a pocket. "The same person I've always been," she said, then put her head on one side, smirking slightly. "You chose that name?"

"Yeah, had it for years. I always liked Sven since I read it in a book when I was a kid, and I once robbed an art-collector called Lassiter. Liked the sound of it—classy but not too flashy, so I set up bank accounts under it. Thought I might need it one day, but I never got the chance till now. Still, he's got a history going back more than ten years, old Sven Lassiter. Why?" He grinned at Soolin, eyes suddenly twinkling.

"Are you aware it's an—"

"Not quite, it isn't. And believe it or not, it was an accident. I liked the name, and it wasn't till I read somewhere that people usually choose anagrams for aliases, I realised I'd almost done it. Too late by then. Still," Vila pulled a face, "funny, isn't it? Suppose I didn't want to stop being me after all."

He steeled himself for the inevitable insult, but Soolin just said quietly, "I can understand that," and handed him her passport.

"Lisa Sauerland?"

Soolin said nothing, but Vila saw a slight wince.

"That's your real name, isn't it? The 'Lisa', I mean. It suits you. It's pretty."

Soolin's face hardened. "It belongs in the past, Vila. I'm Soolin now."

"And the Sauerland?" Vila asked tentatively. "You chose that because it's a bit like Soolin?"

"It's the other way round." Soolin took her passport back and put it away. "A few centuries ago, my ancestors left Earth—Essen Dome—and went to Darlon 4. It's one of the Han planets, agricultural, and they needed farm labourers. The Han couldn't say 'Sauerland', so it got changed to Soolin. They wouldn't let outsiders own land—even after generations—so my family worked hard and saved and saved and bought their passage off there when I was little, and, " her voice hardened," bought the farm as they say."

She was silent, and Vila understood. "On Gauda Prime," he said softly.

"Yes."

Vila wasn't sure what to say, but he knew Soolin wouldn't have told many people. "Look, Lisa's a beautiful name—"

"Vila," Soolin said warningly.

"—but I don't think I could think of you as anything but Soolin."

"Good." Soolin gave Vila a sudden warm smile as she stood up.

Vila thought about it as he put his own passport safely in an inner pocket. He'd never had any great attachment to the name Restal, even if he had buried it subconsciously in another name; after all, it was only the name of the street his mother had been abandoned in as a baby. But he could understand Soolin keeping her family name alive by using it.

Time for a new identity for him though. Wasn't anyone left alive who'd miss Vila Restal, was there? He was glad Soolin was coming with him for a while—apparently she needed some recuperation time as well—but he wasn't going to fool himself. The feeling he got from her was like a diamond, hard and bright but with one of those flaws that sometimes give greater value to a stone—from certain angles you could see a warm flame flickering in the crystalline depths. He liked Soolin a lot, but it was a bit too much to hope for that someone like her would care for someone like him.



"Hello, you two. I'll be your pilot today."

"Tarrant!" Vila was pleased to see him; funny how much had changed in the last two years, including Tarrant.

"At your service. Only a shuttle, but I'm doing a supply run next week."

"Hope you've got enough fuel," said Vila, half joking, as Tarrant and Soolin helped him into his seat and strapped him in.

"I know my job, Vila. Right, we're meeting a ship in orbit, we dock, and you two transfer." Tarrant looked curious. "Where're you going?"

"Somewhere safe, that's all I know. If there is anywhere safe left."

"Cheer up, Vila. Where there's life, there's hope. Here we go."

The shuttle lifted away and Vila's hands tightened on his armrests, not slackening until he could see through the windows that they had achieved orbit and were approaching a sleek spaceship of similar dimensions to Scorpio. He listened to the sounds of docking and noticed Soolin had unstrapped herself and was standing, hand hovering near her gun, which both worried and reassured him.

The airlock doors slid open, and Tarrant helped Vila onto his crutches, then bowed ironically. "I'd say 'after you', but I'm staying here. As soon as you've boarded, I have to leave. Well, good luck."

The last bit sounded sincere, and Vila smiled at him, suddenly realising he'd miss him. "You too, Tarrant."

He followed Soolin haltingly through the connection tube and the other ship's airlock to a plain white room with a closed door facing them. "What now?"

"We wait." Soolin pressed the airlock control, closing it and retracting the connection. Her hand went to her gun as the door in front of them opened.

The man who came in clearly wasn't—he was an android, his skin faintly metallic, the lines of his perfect face too angular to be human, and his black hair unnaturally smooth and gleaming.

"Greetings, honoured guests Vila Restal and Lisa Sauerland. I am Gol." The android bowed.

"And I am Soolin."

"And I hope you know how to keep your head," Vila muttered, making Soolin smile, though her hand remained on her gun.

"Hello, Vila." The woman who followed Gol was tall, blonde, striking, and—

"Tyce Sarkoff!" Vila almost let go of his crutches in his delight and would have fallen if Gol had not stepped forward and grabbed him.

Tyce smiled at him. "I'm glad to see you too, Vila. And pleased to meet you, Soolin."

Soolin frowned from Tyce to Vila, "I take it you've met."

"Yes, this is Tyce." Vila shrugged Gol's hands away and balanced precariously on his crutches, grinning happily. "President Sarkoff's daughter; we rescued them from Federation exile."

"Yes. I read about it," said Soolin, taking her hand from her gun but not thawing noticeably.

Tyce's smile and poise didn't falter. "Welcome to the Cutty Sarkoff, both of you."

"Eh?"

"My father named it. Apparently it's some old planetary transport or something. The name amused him, anyway. Bring them through, Gol." Tyce turned and led the way.

"Hey!" Vila yelped as Gol scooped him up to carry him like a baby, and seemingly as easily. "What're you doing?"

"I am carrying out my instructions as efficiently as possible, Guest Restal."

"Just Vila will do. And next time, ask," Vila said resentfully as he was deposited on a luxurious flight couch. He looked at Tyce. "He tame?"

Tyce laughed. "Of course he is, Vila. Gol has been in my family for three generations and he's devoted to us."

Doubt he's got much choice, Vila thought, feeling a bit sorry for him. "Old model then?" he asked, quietly so as not to hurt Gol's feelings. "I mean, you can tell he's an android."

"Lindor law. Androids are an accepted part of our society, but it must always be obvious that's what they are. Break orbit, Gol."

"At once."

Vila watched the view on the display change. "Where're we going? Lindor?"

"Of course."

"Lindor!" Vila rubbed his hands, his spirits lifting. "Lindor, Soolin! Wonderful place, best chocolate and wine in the sector, not to mention, brandy, beaches, bars, entertainment, culture, you name it. Blake wouldn't let us go down last time," he said regretfully. "Mind you, I can see why. Might've lost me and Av— well, me anyway."

Soolin looked amused. "Happy, are you?"

"Put it this way—there's a fair chance of it now."



"All of your conditions have now been met, Avon." Carnell nodded at the guard who had let him into Avon's rooms to dismiss her. "You have larger quarters in return for Orac. You have assured yourself of Restal's continued existence and recovery, and he is now somewhere safe. I believe you now owe us your cooperation."

Avon, seated in the chair opposite him, inclined his head. "Agreed."

"Then let us begin."

End of part 1