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Drinks on the balcony

"Come on, Vila, it isn't far."

"It is when you're learning to walk again."

They were on the balcony of Tyce's house, Soolin leaning with her back against the railings while Vila hesitated two steps from the doorway.

"Just a bit further and you can sit down." Soolin folded her arms.

Vila screwed up his face. "You've moved the chairs."

"I like to make you work." Soolin smirked. "There's a cool drink if you get there without any help."

"Ah, some incentive then." Vila brightened and took a few tentative steps, then his knees buckled. Soolin jumped forward and grabbed him before he fell. "Sorry."

"It's all right." And it was actually, standing there with her arms around him, feeling the warmth of him against her. Had he tried anything she would have pushed him over, but he just leaned against her. And it was rather nice.

"Sorry," he said again, his face only a couple of inches from hers, his brown eyes apologetic.

"You're enjoying this," said Soolin, amused.

"I would be if I wasn't about to fall over." Vila flailed around with one hand and grabbed hold of the railings. "You ought to take pictures, you know. 'Little Vila's first steps'."

Soolin laughed, holding on to him for a second longer than strictly necessary. "I could have your shoes bronzed and nailed to the wall."

"As long as my feet aren't in them." Vila looked mournfully at the chairs.

"You can work your way along to them from there." Soolin sauntered over and settled herself in the furthest one. She raised her drink encouragingly. "Come on."

Vila sighed. "Don't know why my legs are so weak," he complained. "It was my back I was shot in."

"They aren't weak, just the connections between them and the rest of you." Soolin sipped her drink and slid further down in her chair; this life would be easy to get used to. "You're getting better, just like Dr Eldine said. Another week and you'll be as good as new." She tilted her face to the sun and closed her eyes.

"I will? That'll be a first then." Vila lowered himself gingerly into the chair beside her and picked up his drink. It was a fruity concoction made by Gol and garnished with a cherry, a slice of orange, and a tiny umbrella. No alcohol, but so tasty it really didn't matter. "Nice this, isn't it?"

"The drink?"

"Mmm."

"The rest isn't bad either," said Soolin, opening her eyes. Below them lay the lawn, flowers, and palm trees of Tyce's garden, and beyond that the city fell to the glittering turquoise sea: a bright tumble of pastel walls, red roofs, and trees. It was one of the most beautiful places she had seen, and certainly the most peaceful.

"Yeah."

Vila sounded distinctly unenthusiastic. Soolin rolled her head sideways to look at him. He was glaring at the city below with mistrust and resentment. "What's the matter?"

"I dunno. Maybe people like me don't belong in places like this."

"That's not true."

"You don't understand, you—"

"I think I do, actually." Soolin was silent for a moment, swirling her drink around in her glass. "It seems unfair doesn't it, that some people have peace and beauty like this all their lives and others have such a hard time." She drained her glass. "I suppose it's natural to think that if you finally get something good, then someone will take it away."

"That's it exactly." Vila sounded surprised.

"On the other hand," Soolin turned to smile at him, "don't you think we've earned it?"

Vila blinked. "There is that. Perhaps we have."

"I think so." Soolin sat up. "Gol?" she called. "Another drink, please."

Vila grinned. "And bring some of those honey cakes too, mate."

 

Family matters

"Tell me about your family."

Avon raised an eyebrow. "Who of course define who I am."

"Not at all." Carnell smiled. "We all choose who we are. It's a good starting point though."

"Shouldn't I be lying on a leather couch while you take notes?"

"Only if it would make you more comfortable."

Avon glowered, but Carnell just gazed blandly back.

"You could tell me about the Liberator crew instead," he said.

Avon considered that. "Parents: two, one of each. One brother."

"Were you close to your parents?"

"We shared living quarters if that's what you mean."

"You know it isn't."

Avon shrugged. "They were typical of their grade. My father was an office manager, my mother an electronics technician. They were both loyal citizens who prided themselves on their education and culture." His sarcasm was showing, but did it matter? Carnell was trained to read every tiny nuance of expression, every infinitesimal muscle twitch, so there wasn't much point in trying to conceal anything; quite the reverse.

He remembered them in their best clothes—loose trousers and long tunics which had been in fashion five years earlier—his mother with bright-red lipstick and silvery eye-shadow, his father with his hair combed back, all ready for the opera or ballet. Avon doubted they had really enjoyed it, but they merited tickets and it was a chance to rub shoulders with fellow top Betas and of course Alphas. At the time he hadn't taken much notice, but it was odd—looking back, he could now see a certain anxiety in their eyes. It must have been hard, playing that precarious social game, one he'd never bothered with.

"They must have been proud of you."

Because he had been regraded Alpha on his brilliant school record? "Of my accomplishments, yes."

"Ah. But not of you." Carnell crossed his legs. "I see. What about your brother?"

What about him indeed? Was Carnell asking whether his parents were proud of Bryn, or whether Avon had been close to him?

Cambell Bryn was Avon's half-brother, but Avon had never thought of him that way. Bryn was the golden boy; with his blond hair, blue eyes, and sunny nature he charmed everyone. Even their mother's face softened when she looked at him. Avon could have resented Bryn for that, but he didn't. He loved him. He resented others for liking Bryn better than him, but he couldn't dislike Bryn himself for it. He was the best thing in his life.

"Everyone liked Bryn."

"Bryn? Why do you call him that?"

He hadn't always been Bryn of course. They'd been Kerr and Cam once when they were little. There were five years between them but it hadn't mattered, not with Kerr's intelligence and Cam's easy-going, playful nature. Avon smiled slightly, remembering the fun they had together in their shared room, away from the disapproving eyes of their mother and Avon's father. They'd had to behave with decorum at the dinner table, though Cam would grin and wink at Kerr, but once they were in their room, supposedly doing homework (which Kerr did quickly and Cam ignored) they would play. Their favourite game was pretending to be space heroes with ridiculous names: General Nuisance, Corporal Punishment, and Major Disaster.

Their parents' coldness hadn't bothered them; in fact the best times were when they were out and Jude, the Delta maid, babysat them. Jude joined right in their games, shrieking with laughter at their antics, just a teenager herself. Avon hadn't thought of Jude for years, Jude with her wide smile and halo of blonde frizzy hair. He hadn't cared that she was a Delta, not then, and he'd missed her exuberance when she'd left, fired for lack of decorum at one of their parents' sober and nervously correct dinner-parties.

Jude had laughed at upper-grade customs, about how last names were almost always used by adults unless one had to differentiate between people you knew with the same surname. Like Anna and Del Grant. Deltas preferred first names she said; much more friendly. He and Cam had decided when they were teenagers that they were adults and from then on it was surnames only, but now Avon wondered if there hadn't been an element of snobbery there.

He shrugged. "Why not? We had different names."

"You cared for him." It was a statement, not a question.

It was odd that he only thought of it now, that the Liberator's defence system had taken images of the people they loved most from their minds and used them. Jenna said she had seen her mother. And Avon had seen Bryn.

Not Anna. Bryn.

"He was my brother."

"You must have missed him when he left."

Bryn had gone when he was twenty, accepted for a new colony world. That had hurt. To the fifteen-year-old Avon it had been a betrayal, but he doubted Bryn had seen it that way. "It'll be fun," he had said. "I'll stay in touch. You can come and join me when you're older."

Oh, yes, and break rocks and raise barns or whatever mindless physical labour one had to do on a pioneer world? Most unlikely.

At first Bryn transmitted a vid every week, but after he'd bonded with that strapping young agriculture expert, the messages had tailed off until it was only three or four a year, full of crops and domesticity and children. That hurt too, that Avon's adoration had not been returned; at least not in the same intensity.

"Yes."

"You resented him for going."

Avon said evenly, "You have been trained to read body language and you have certainly read my files. I fail to see why you feel the need to make such obvious statements."

"Ah, but they may not be obvious to you." Carnell raised his eyebrows. "Shall we continue?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Did you resent Blake too, when he left?"

"Blake? If you're suggesting he was some sort of brother surrogate, then you're a fool."

"Oh, I doubt they had that much in common, but Blake had a warm and attractive personality, he got on well with most people, and he was an intelligent man." Carnell tilted his head to one side. "I'd say that there was mutual respect between you two, a friendship which perhaps neither would admit to." He smiled.

Avon looked away. "The man was an idealist and a fanatic. A dangerous combination."

"Yet you stayed. And after he left, you continued his cause. Why was that?"

"I had no choice. We were all marked rebels, wanted criminals with bounties on our heads. Winning was…" he closed his eyes briefly "... the only safety."

"Why did you kill him?"

Avon stood up. "If you think it was for leaving, you are wrong. After all, I looked..." He went to the window and stood for a moment, staring out at the trees moving in the wind. "I looked for him. I lost the Liberator looking for him. I lost—" He clenched his fist, then, realising that would give too much away, forced his hand to relax.

"Then why?"

"I thought he had betrayed us. Why not? Everyone else did."

"Everyone? Did your crew betray you?"

Avon stiffened. "No," he whispered.

"No," Carnell repeated softly. "They didn't, did they?" He stood up. "I think that's enough for today."

 

Computers and the definition of life

"Put them down over there," said Tyce, pointing.

Gol carried the first crate to the centre of the atrium garden and returned for the second, carrying it as easily as a tray of drinks.

"That's fine. Unpack them and get them cleaned up." Tyce sat down on the bench by the pond and watched Gol work. This was her favourite place in the heat of summer. With the translucent dome over the centre of the house filtering the harsh noon light and the cool artificial breeze playing through the imported exotic plants, it was a restful place. It was also free from prying eyes and the perfect place for this project.

"What're you doing?"

Tyce looked up to see Vila on one of the interior balconies. She smiled and waved. "Come and see." Amused, she watched him run lightly down the stairs; he was fully recovered now, physically at least, but he liked to pretend otherwise. When he remembered.

"What've you got there?"

"Something you might be able to help with, Vila."

"Oh?" Vila sat down, looking wary. "I haven't been very well, you know."

"Nothing arduous." Tyce grinned at him. "Just your technical expertise."

"Ah." Vila brightened and flexed his fingers. "Want something opened?"

"No, just fixed."

Vila's eyes widened as he saw Gol remove the contents of the first crate. "It's our stardrive!" He grinned delightedly. "You stole it!"

"I salvaged it," said Tyce, her mock dignity spoilt by the twinkle in her eyes. It was good to see some of the old Vila she had met on the Liberator.

"You stole it!"

"I rescued it from a rusty fate in the Gauda Prime woods."

Vila laughed. "You stole it. Come on, I bet there're a lot of people who'd love to get their hands on that."

"I'm glad you approve of my actions," said Tyce, amused. "All right, it's going in the Cutty Sarkoff but I've got an engineer arriving soon to repair it and draw up plans for manufacturing more of them."

"Just for us, I hope. The rebels I mean. Because outrunning the enemy is my favourite tactic."

"I can see its attraction. Don't worry, we've got Avon designing a booby-trap so it can't be removed from any ship once it's been installed."

"Oh, right." Vila scowled at the mention of Avon. "You sure he's on our side?"

"Blake trusted him."

"More fool Blake." Vila stared at the stardrive with suddenly haunted eyes. "I heard her die, you know."

"Who?"

"Dr Plaxton."

Tyce stared at him. "What d'you mean? What happened?"

"She was installing it and she took too long. Avon... as soon as she made the last connection, it ignited. Made sense, didn't it?" Vila said dully. "She was going to die anyway, either alone or with the rest of us. Very logical, isn't it?"

Tyce was horrified. "You mean Avon turned it on before she'd finished?"

Vila nodded, looking away.

"Would you have?"

Vila bit his lip and shook his head. "Never known for my logic, me. I don't think I could've. But I was glad he did, don't you see? So I can't blame him for it. Just what he said after—" He stopped, noticing what was in the second crate. "It's Slave! Is he alive?"

"Alive?" Tyce laughed, relieved that Vila had been distracted. "It's a computer, Vila!"

"The way I see it, if it says 'I', it's alive." Vila paused for a moment, looking regretful, then jerked his head towards Gol who was squatting beside Slave cleaning it, and lowered his voice. "Don't you think Gol is? You might be hurting his feelings, you know."

"He's self-aware, certainly, but he's not alive," said Tyce, frowning.

"There's a difference?"

She shrugged, a little uncomfortable. "I don't know. He isn't organic and I suppose that's my definition of life."

"Bit narrow, isn't it? A trans-dimensional energy being once tried to kill me. I think it felt alive."

Tyce put her feet on the bench and drew her knees to her chest and sighed. "Perhaps you're right. I suppose I've certainly always thought of Gol as a member of the family rather than a mobile computer."

"You've had him a long time then?"

"He's been in our family for three generations. My grandmother named him when she was a little girl."

"What's it mean then, 'Gol'?"

"It's short for something she read in a book."

"Eh? Not Gollum! That's a bit mean!"

"No, but you're close. She called him Golem, after a servant made of clay or earth, I think. An experiment that went wrong."

"Bit of an insult then, wasn't it?"

For the first time, Tyce wondered if Gol liked his name. "Well, it got shortened very quickly afterwards."

"Fair enough too." Vila thought about it. "You know, I think I might rename Slave. Might make him feel better about himself."

 

Dreams

Tarrant came to attention in front of the desk, an expense of pristine white on which only a red glass flower rested. "Captain Tarrant reporting for special assignment, Supreme Commander." Damn, but she was even more beautiful than the rumours he'd never quite believed.

"Ah, Tarrant." Servalan looked him down and up again and smiled. "A pleasure to see you. Don't sit down." She picked up the flower and twirled it under her nose as if it had a scent; perhaps it did. "You come highly recommended. Like uncle, like nephew?"

Tarrant had never liked Dev. Devious Dev he and Deeta called him. He preferred things straightforward. "Uh... yes ma'am."

"You've been told what is involved?"

"Yes, ma'am. Simple infiltration and capture." Tarrant couldn't help but grin; he was looking forward to this.

"You were chosen because your profile fits so well. Rather too well in fact. I do so hate leaving things to chance." Servalan pressed a comms button. "Ginka? He's ready for treatment. Take him to the lab, would you?"

"Treatment? What treatment?"

And in his dream, he knew what was coming next. Needles, disorientation, people with false smiles and white coats.

He knew because he had dreamed it before.

"No!"

He sat up, sweating, hitting his head on the bunk above him. He stared around the dimly-lit flight deck, thinking for a moment he was back on Scorpio. No, this was the Coalface, another Wanderer class, common as mud and distinguished only by the odd name given to it by its ex-asteroid-miner owner, currently in the pilot's position.

"You all right, mate?" Karin Pedersen's round freckled face looked back at him. "Bad dream?"

"Yes." Tarrant tried to remember what it was, but like most dreams it was dissipating like wisps of smoke even as he grasped at it.

"From what I heard, you lot had a hard time of it last year. Must be a nice change of pace doing a routine supply drop-off like this. Milk run."

An odd expression they used in Space Fleet too, though Tarrant had never heard of anyone freighting milk between systems. "I don't mind," he said. And he didn't, either. Hell, he was beginning to sound like Vila. Worried, he lay back with his hands behind his head. He'd chosen this run deliberately and that wasn't like him. The mere thought of striking back at the Federation in any way had made him feel... almost afraid, but he couldn't put his finger on why. Action had never bothered him, but he was relieved to be taking food to some rebels on an outlying base. Couldn't hurt anyone doing that, could he?

 

Heroics

"Nice work, Vila," said Anjay. "That's a beautiful connection."

"Really?" Vila blinked at him, then recovered. "Oh, right. I'm known for my delicate touch, you know."

"I can well believe it." Anjay grinned at him.

They were in the basement which had been converted to a workroom where the stardrive was mounted on a test platform. Vila hadn't been keen on the whole idea, especially if it was going to remind him of those days when he and Avon had sat in companionable silence on the flight deck working on one of his gadgets. But Anjay Selvaratnam wasn't like Avon at all. For a start, he was small, slender, and almost as brown as Dayna, with a big nose and a straight fringe of shining black hair. Well, maybe the last two weren't so different, but he was also lively, funny, and very friendly. It turned out he had been at Lindor University with Tyce and was now a highly-regarded engineer. He was easy to like. Vila smiled back at him, pleased at the compliment.

"Shall we fire her up?"

Vila regarded the stardrive with mistrust and stepped back. "I suppose so," he said unenthusiastically, wishing Anjay had made a better choice of words.

Anjay rubbed his hands and pressed the button with a flourish; the drive hummed and shook slightly, and he did a little dance. "Beautiful, beautiful!"

There was a sudden very loud bang. Vila yelped and threw himself to the floor.

"It's a nice start," said Anjay, turning the power off. "I think we just have to realign the flow chamber and—" He suddenly noticed Vila. "Are you all right?"

Vila uncurled, eyes still wide with fear. "I... think so." He sat up and patted himself gingerly. "Yeah, I seem to be all here. Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about, my friend. You're not the first battle veteran I've seen react like that. Perfectly understandable."

"Veteran? Me?" Vila stood up and dusted himself down.

"You were in the biggest one of all, weren't you, when the Liberator held the line against the Andromedans? Bravest thing I ever heard of. That alone made you lot heroes."

"It didn't feel very heroic at the time," said Vila. "Just stupid." And if Anjay wanted to think it was the Andromedan war that made him jump at any loud noise, he was welcome.

 

Tyce found her old friend drinking coffee on the balcony, his feet up on the railings while he admired the view. "Mind if I join you?" She sat down beside him. "So. How's it going?"

"Not bad at all." Anjay flashed her a white smile. "That drive is a thing of beauty. This is the most fun I've had in a long while."

"See? Not such a backwater after all, are we?"

Anjay shrugged and rubbed his long nose. "I've missed it here but the cutting edge of technology isn't on Lindor." He grinned. "Usually. I'd have liked to have met Plaxton."

"Vila did."

"So he said." Anjay nodded down at Vila who was with Soolin in the garden below them. "He's a great help too, very clever and deft though he always looks surprised when I tell him so." He pushed his hair out of his eyes. "I like your Vila."

"He's not mine," said Tyce.

"Oh? Well, I didn't mean to imply—"

"No, it's all right, it's just that I think he's been too many people's Vila in the last few years."

"Ah. That odd grade system they have, you mean?"

Tyce considered that. "Perhaps. I'm not sure. I met him when Blake rescued me and my father, you know, and he was, well, bouncy and fun. I don't think he thought of himself as inferior at all. Somewhere along the line that got knocked out of him, I don't know." She put her chin in her hands. "I like him too."

"And the ice-princess? Where does she come into things?"

Tyce laughed. "Not exactly warm and forthcoming, is she? They sent her with Vila because they said he needed someone familiar. And oddly enough they seem to get on well." She looked thoughtful. "Vila trusts her and apparently he's usually right about that sort of thing."

Soolin was sitting on the garden wall, her back to the city and the sea and her face shuttered. She looked cool and self-contained, not quite part of the scene. Vila leaned on the wall beside her, his head propped on his hand as he talked to her. As Tyce watched, Soolin turned to look at him and smiled briefly. Tyce pursed her lips. Perhaps Carnell had more than one person's recovery in mind.

"We got the drive up and running this morning," said Anjay. "For a few seconds anyway."

"That's good news!"

"Yes, I'll have the schematics ready for a production run soon. We need to test Avon's security mods first though. Not that Vila seems keen. He doesn't seem to trust Avon much, does he?"

Very few people knew about what had happened on Gauda Prime and Avalon wanted to keep it that way because Avon was too valuable to them. Tyce shrugged. "No. It's a pity, really. They used to be friends back on the Liberator when I met them, not that either of them would've admitted it."

 

Blake

"You said you looked for Blake after he left. I would have thought you'd have been delighted to have acquired the Liberator along with the freedom to use it for your own ends. Indeed, you seemed to do just that until you lost it."

"I made Blake a promise," Avon said coldly. "I keep my promises."

"Oh? And what was it?"

"To take him back to Earth."

"In return for the Liberator?"

"Yes."

"So you felt the ship was not yours unless you kept your side of the bargain?" Carnell smiled. "A man of honour. I am delighted to make the acquaintance of such a rare specimen."

"I doubt you understand the concept."

"Au contraire. I have made a study of human nature in all its variety." Carnell frowned. "I'm sure you had many opportunities to take the Liberator before Blake left, unencumbered with crew or not." He paused. "Why didn't you?"

"Sadly there are no safe bolt-holes for wanted criminals and terrorists." He bared his teeth in a humourless smile. "The Liberator seemed safer."

Just as well Carnell didn't know about the incident at Horizon. He was still uncomfortable about the sudden realisation that he preferred to have that mismatched collection of illogical idealists and fools with him than not. He could have persuaded the others to leave Blake after Gan's death, but instead he had set up a search pattern to find him.

He picked up his coffee and stirred it unnecessarily, watching the reflections from the ceiling lights ripple and fragment.

"You couldn't get your brother back, but you could Blake. Was that why you looked for him?"

"No." Avon looked up. "If you think there is some connection in my mind between Blake and Bryn, you are completely mistaken."

"You were so determined to find him, you lost the Liberator rather than take a few hours longer to get to him," Carnell said softly. "That seems somewhat more than the desire to fulfil a promise."

Avon said nothing.

"Was he a friend?" Carnell asked abruptly.

"No."

"No?"

Avon stared unseeing at the wall behind Carnell, surprised at his own quick answer. "He was a colleague," he said slowly.

"But not a friend."

No, friends didn't ask anything of you, they were easy to be with, they accepted you as you were.

"Were any of them friends?"

Vila had been, once, and Cally. Tarrant might have been if things had been different.

"Come now. Blake meant something to you. He meant more than the Liberator did, didn't he?"

Avon clenched his jaw.

"What did he mean to you, Avon?"

"He was someone who asked a lot of people," Avon said dully, eyes down. "He was very good at getting the best out of them. He even managed it with Vila."

"And you shot him—an unarmed man—because you thought he had betrayed you? Was that it?" Carnell waited for a response, but Avon just stared at the floor. "Or did he disappoint you? Perhaps he was no longer the man you were trying to live up to?"

Avon stood up, his face white. "That's enough. Get out."

Carnell inclined his head. "Very well."

 

Emancipation

"And that completes the tour," said Anjay, throwing open the door to the flight deck. "You now have one of the fastest ships in the galaxy and a very advanced computer. If a rather annoying one."

"It's hardly his fault," said Vila, turning round. He was sitting in front of Slave who was newly installed in an alcove on the flight deck of Tyce's ship. "He was programmed that way."

Anjay laughed. "You'd better watch Vila. He's emancipating Slave. You might end up with two rebels on your hands."

"He's what?" Tyce shook her head, smiling, as they went out. "You never know," she said softly, "it might do his own self-esteem some good. So." She leaned against the corridor wall. "You're leaving us today? Going to oversee the production of the new drives?"

"Just of the prototype." Anjay grinned, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Anything more would get boring very fast."

Tyce grinned. "If you need some excitement, you could always come back here and join the rebellion."

"Politics? No thanks, I'll leave that to you. I get my excitement elsewhere."

"As a innovator you should have an interest in defeating the Federation," Tyce said seriously. "They stifle any change, stamp on any originality. Look at their technology: centuries behind the independent worlds."

"That," said Anjay, "is why I help you." He started walking towards the airlock. "Goodbye, Vila!" he called.

 

"Goodbye, mate!" Vila shouted back. "They're probably laughing at us out there," he confided to Slave. "Mind you, I'm used to it, and anyway if you can make people laugh, they usually like you too."

"Sir?"

"Vila. It's Vila, remember?"

Slave whirred and rotated. "I am very sorry, sir, but it goes against my programming."

"All right then, what if it's an order? Not that I don't mind being called 'sir', but friends don't do that."

"Friends? Humans have friends... Vila."

"And computers don't? Zen was my friend, you know," Vila said sadly, remembering Zen's last words to him. "Orac, well, Orac's a different matter, snarky little sod. He and Avon deserve each other. Wouldn't call either of 'em friends. Anyway," Vila stood up and patted Slave's casing, "what you need is a real name, not an insult."

"A name, Vila?"

The hesitation before his name was almost unnoticeable. Vila grinned. "Yeah, that's right. What d'you fancy?"

Slave hummed and turned.

"Want me to choose one for you then?"

"I... would like that very much, Vila."

"How about Freedman, like in the Roman Empire?" Vila screwed up his nose. "No that doesn't work 'cause you're not a human, but 'Freedcomputer' doesn't sound right, somehow. Just Freed, then?" He remembered that safe-cracker from the Germania systems he'd worked with once. "Sounds like 'peace' in one language; that's a nice thought." He jumped to his feet, holding up a finger. "I know! Fred! And that's a real person's name, what's more."

"I am... not a person, Vila." Slave sounded almost wistful.

"You don't have to say my name every time, you know. And you are—a person, I mean. That's the whole point! You and Orac as well, little bastard that he is, and Zen too; I don't care what Av—some people say. If you can learn and think and feel, you are one." Vila was glad Avon wasn't there to hear that. But then, he wasn't sure if he'd ever qualified in Avon's eyes himself.

There was a pause while Slave hummed and spun. "I would like that, Vila."

Vila grinned, and draped his arm around Slave. "All right, me old mate—Fred it is. And if you go on the blink, it'll be Fritz. Oh, and another thing. You have to learn how to stand up for yourself."

"That," Soolin said from behind him, making him jump, "is advice you could take."

Vila clutched at his heart. "Bloody hell, you gave me such a shock! You've just taken several weeks off my life!"

Soolin grinned at him and sat down in one of the flight chairs, crossing her legs.

"Soolin, meet Fred. That's his name now."

"Fred?" Soolin laughed.

"Yeah, why not?" Vila turned back to Fred. "So where were we? Oh, yeah. Stick up for yourself. If that arrogant bastard Orac hadn't shut you up we mightn't have crashed. A lot of things mightn't have happened."

"That is indubitably true, Vila. You are very perspicacious and much cleverer than I am."

Soolin's lips twitched. "Are you going to train him not to flatter so disgustingly too?"

"Rome Dome wasn't built in a day," Vila said with dignity. "One step at a time. Right, Fred, here's the first thing. Next time not telling us something is likely to hurt us, well don't. Not tell us, I mean, even if someone tries to shut you up." He remembered the number of times Zen had not been allowed to finish, and how often Orac's key was pulled during an explanation. "Especially if someone tries to. Doubly so if it's Avon." Vila scowled. "Though if I never see that bastard again it'll be too soon."



Karin put her lunch tray on the canteen table and slid into a chair beside Tarrant. "We're off tomorrow. Not a milk run this time." She buttered a roll and dipped it in her soup. "Chance to strike back," she said around a large mouthful.

"Oh?" Tarrant's stomach did a flip. "Good." He flashed an insincere grin at her.

 

"This won't hurt. Just a small prick."

At any other time, he would have turned that into a joke. "No!"

"Pull yourself together, Captain. All we want to do is to ensure that you remember where your loyalties lie if you come to sympathise with these people. It's happened before."

"No! No one's playing with my mind!"

"Now be sensible. We won't be changing your basic personality. Just adding a couple of small compulsions. You won't even know. In fact you won't even remember a thing until the mission's over."

"Please, you don't need to. I'm a... loyal... off...."

Blackness...

 

Tarrant clutched at the edge of the table. Where had that come from? One of his bad dreams had no business popping up like that while he was awake.

"You all right?"

"Just a bit of a headache." Tarrant gave Karin his most charming smile. "I'll be fine."

 

Decisions and revelations

"Hello there. Mind if I have a word?"

Vila, sprawled on a deckchair in the sun, yawned and stretched. He grinned up at Tyce. "Have several if you like."

Soolin, who had been curled up reading in the shade of a tree, put down her bookpad.

"Have you decided what you want to do yet?" said Tyce.

Oh, right. He knew it was too good to last. "Do I have to?"

Tyce shrugged. "It's up to you, but I thought you were starting to get a bit bored."

"I don't mind bored. To a certain extent anyway." Vila gave Tyce a hurt and worried look. "Not trying to get rid of me, are you?"

"Not at all. I just wondered if you had something in mind." Tyce perched herself on the outdoor table. "I don't know, you could set up a security firm perhaps."

Vila looked wary. "Staff and taxes and worries? Lynx suggested that."

"You don't seem very keen. You could find some other line of work under a new identity," Tyce grinned, "Sven."

"Mm," said Vila noncommittally. Being an employee sounded even worse. After all, he'd decided a long time ago to avoid all that.

"There's another option," Tyce said casually.

"Don't tell me. Work for the rebellion. Explosions, plasma bolts, people who don't like me. I can hardly wait."

"Not necessarily. You could work with me."

"Oh?" That sounded promising, and the accommodation was comfy to say the least. "Tell me more." He could do worse than helping to fix the occasional stardrive.

"I work with Lynx—"

"Ah, knew there was a catch. Go to violent planets and rescue innocent captured rebels from the teeth of the Federation? That sounds right up my alley, I don't think."

"That was unusual and besides, aren't you glad Lynx did? Don't look so worried, Vila. I—we work on independent worlds, trying to convince them to resist the spread of the Federation, helping them set up local alliances."

"Sounds all right," Vila said cautiously, "Bit boring, but safe and that's always attractive in a revolution. I don't think I'm noted for my diplomacy though."

"You put people at their ease and that's half the battle. And you are noted for your safe-cracking skills."

Vila's face lit up and he rubbed his hands. "I am, I am! Finance a bit of a problem, is it?"

Tyce laughed. "No. But sometimes we need to know rather more than we're being told, so you'd only be stealing information."

"Doesn't matter, it's the challenge that's the real fun." Vila looked at Soolin, suddenly concerned. Whatever he did, he wanted it to be with friends, and that's what she was now. "What d'you think?"

"It's up to you, Vila."

Tyce watched them both. "I think it might be useful to have someone guard your back while you work, don't you? And Soolin is a professional."

Vila raised his eyebrows. "Soolin?"

Soolin shrugged. "I don't have any other plans."

Vila grinned delightedly, and Soolin couldn't help but smile back at him. "I think you've got a deal, Tyce," said Vila.

"You're certain?"

Vila nodded.

"It's funny, but I left that option to the last because I thought you'd like it the least. I did have hopes though." Tyce smiled at him, then turned to Soolin. "And you're sure too, Soolin?"

"Yes."

"Right." Tyce stood up. "Then it's time I showed you both something."

She led them inside, into the living room, then said, "Wait here."

Vila and Soolin sat down side by side on one of the couches and looked at each other, mystified, as Tyce disappeared into her office. "Sounds serious," said Vila.

"It is." Tyce strode back in, a briefcase in one hand and a canvas bag in the other.

"Going somewhere?"

"Not yet." Tyce put the briefcase down on a coffee table and snapped it open. "Boring papers about Lindor's trade agreements," she said, waving a handful at them.

Vila narrowed his eyes. "Not deep enough, that case, though, is it? There's a secret compartment in there."

"Exactly." Tyce put her hands behind her back and faced them, her expression serious. "There are only two people who know what I'm about to tell you, though I think Carnell suspects. Are you with me? This is your last chance to say no."

It was the best offer Vila had had in years and besides, he liked Tyce. And Soolin—he didn't like to think about how much he liked Soolin—Soolin was going along with it too. "I'm up for it. Beats being shot at by pursuit ships, and the accommodation's good." Despite the lightness of his words, he knew he was making a serious commitment.

Tyce nodded, satisfied. "Soolin?"

"Yes." Soolin sat still, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes watchful.

"Good."

Tyce ran her forefinger round the seams of the case, then lifted the false floor. Vila couldn't help but file that away—fingerprint locking or DNA—even though he had no intention of breaking into anything of Tyce's. He watched as she lifted out a slender flat container.

"Anjay designed and made these for me," she said.

Oh? But she had said only two people knew whatever it was she was about to show them. Lynx had to be one; perhaps she didn't count herself.

"Ah!" Soolin gave Vila a smug smile.

Tyce sat down and took the lid off the container to reveal several compartments. She leaned over it and inserted lenses in her eyes, then in a quick, practised movement, attached something to the corner of each one, then two strips to her brows. Vila gasped; she now had slanted dark eyes with thick straight black brows above them. Working quickly, she attached pads to the sides of her nose, widening it, and others to her jaw to thicken it, then pulled her hair back and smoothed a wig of thick black hair over it.

Involuntarily, Vila had drawn his legs up and hugged them during this process. "You're Lynx!"

Tyce attached a small disc to her throat, then spoke in a man's voice. "Does that worry you?"

Vila shook his head, but not in answer. He thought he knew Tyce, but suddenly she was a stranger. Then he remembered Lynx beside his bed back at the rebel base, and the strange feeling that he knew him… no, her. "You saved us."

"How could I not? Besides," Tyce gave him an ironic smile, "Lynx was the only one who looked like the officer being sent to pick you up. But as I said, that was an unusual case." Tyce laid out flesh-coloured shoulder and waist pads. "I won't put these on, but you get the idea." She opened the canvas bag and showed them the contents: black trousers and polo-neck jersey.

Vila watched her quickly remove all the facial prostheses. "Do we get disguises, then?"

"It might be an idea. Up till now, the Federation hasn't published pictures of rebels so they won't become poster heroes, but we can't count on that always being so. I've gone to a lot of trouble because I'm quite well-known because of Father, but it wouldn't take much to change your appearance." Tyce—once again Tyce—packed everything neatly away. "If you really know someone, you'll recognise them, but we tend to use prominent features to identify strangers, like eyes, mouth, nose, hair. Change just one of those and you'll be unrecognisable to someone who doesn't know you. In your case, altering your hairline would probably do it."

"Oh, thanks."

Soolin smiled. "You'd take years off your apparent age."

"Oh?" Vila looked at her consideringly. "You'd like that?"

"Why look older than you are when you don't have to?"

Vila thought about that and sighed. "I suppose so." He looked at Tyce and brightened. "Would we get nicknames too?"

"If you like."

"What about Fox? Backwards alliteration with Lynx!" Vila raised his eyebrows at Soolin.

"Lizard," she said. "I always liked lizards."

Tyce smiled. "All right. Lynx, Fox, and Lizard. Sounds like a team of lawyers."

Vila winced.

 

Cally

"Tell me about Cally."

Carnell wouldn't have a file on her. Avon met his eyes calmly. "What can I tell you? She was capable, reliable, tough, an excellent crewmember and colleague."

"How did you feel about her?"

"Surely you can infer my respect."

Carnell leaned back and steepled his fingers.

Hmm. Was that gesture calculated to remind him of Blake? Or was it just body-language to show the superiority of doctor to patient?

"Respect isn't the same as liking," Carnell said blandly.

"I liked her." Avon shifted in his chair, suddenly uncomfortable both about the admission and that it showed.

"Soolin said that you hated Vila for being alive instead of Cally."

Avon was genuinely shocked. "No!" He forced himself to be calm and expressionless. "That is not true."

"She said that Vila thought so. He must have had some reason for that."

"Vila is a fool." That wasn't it.

"Not the impression I get from a perusal of his career and files." Carnell smiled slightly.

"There was nothing between me and Cally if that is what you think," Avon said evenly.

Carnell nodded. "Very well." He lowered his eyelids. "Tell me about Anna Grant."

Avon sat very still. "There is nothing to tell."

"Oh, come now."

"She is dead." Avon distracted himself by wondering how much Carnell knew: the official story or her second identity?

"Do you feel responsible for that?"

Avon bared his teeth. "Not at all. She made her own decisions and suffered the consequences."

Carnell raised his eyebrows. "Isn't that a trifle harsh? And what about those who died because of a decision you made?"

Avon stood up. "Get out."

"Further discussion would appear somewhat fruitless." Carnell uncrossed his legs and stood up leisurely. "For now."

 

After he left, Avon sat, staring blankly ahead. No, there had been nothing with Cally, but there might have been if things had been different. She was cool, sensible, and had that slender, delicate, rather detached attractiveness he liked, but Anna had always come between them. First it had been her presumed death and he had lied to Carnell about that. He had always felt responsible and he had feared that he would lose Cally too if he cared too much about her. Then after Anna's death, it had been fear that she too would… betray him.

No.

There had been something, even if he'd never let it go beyond friendship. He closed his eyes and remembered the few times he had given in: gently touching her smooth cheek as she lay unconscious, kissing the gilded not-Cally with all the tenderness and passion he couldn't bring himself to show to the real one; and the final goodbye to a still-warm, broken body that no longer harboured her.

 

Patterns

Soolin yawned and moved a pyramid. "I wonder how Avon is getting on with that Carnell."

Vila, who was sitting opposite her, tightened his lips and said nothing.

"I wouldn't mind seeing those two go head-to-head." Still no reaction. "What about Tarrant, then? Do you miss him?"

"He's not so bad once you get to know him." Vila turned a piece in his hand and placed it.

"But you still don't trust him?"

Vila shrugged. "I dunno, it's just a feeling I get."

Soolin smiled slightly. "He hasn't tried to swap you for spare parts lately."

"It wasn't that. Look, I didn't trust him before that—well, from the start really."

Soolin looked at him thoughtfully. A game of pyramids was all very well, but this little mystery looked a lot more interesting. "Your hunches are usually right."

"This one wasn't."

"But you didn't change your mind. You still haven't, have you?"

Vila pushed the board away. "No, but it doesn't make sense."

"In what way?" Soolin put her chin in her hands. "Start from the beginning."

"Well…" Vila looked at her sideways, and Soolin raised her eyebrows encouragingly. "It was just a feeling, but then I tried to work out why I had it. I mean, it wasn't just that Tarrant didn't like me back then. Dayna didn't either and I trusted her, so there had to be something more, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Avon and Cally—" Vila paused slightly then went on, "—they laughed at me when I tried to tell them, so I thought I'd just keep quiet and try to accumulate a bit of evidence. Well, no one thing was all that bad but it all started to add up. And then it didn't." Vila shrugged and tried to balance one pyramid on another. "Worked for a while but it all toppled over."

"From the beginning, Vila."

"All right, the first thing was, Tarrant must've known what Blake looked like because he thought Avon was either himself or me—Avon told me that once because he was so insulted, see." Vila pulled a face. "They don't publish pictures of rebels, and no one else recognised us wherever we went. Also Tarrant had a family, well, a brother at least, so why would he desert when they'd be sold into slavery?"

"Perhaps his brother was already safely outside the Federation."

"Yeah." Vila slumped in his chair. "Like I said, none of it's much by itself."

"But you said it added up. What else was there?"

"Let's see..." Vila brightened. "Oh, yes. There was that time we were going after Servalan's ore ships. Now, the Liberator could out-run those things any day, but we let four of 'em through because Tarrant was slow working out interception coordinates. Which is pretty slack for a Space Fleet captain and a mercenary—if you believe that—and he was fast enough other times. Looked like he was dragging his feet to me, but what did I know? One little remark and Avon sends me off the flight deck. That was how come I was mucking about with Orac and found out about the Teal-Vandor thing."

"But Tarrant opposed Servalan there."

"Blood's thicker than water, isn't it?" Vila frowned. "But not long before that, we were on this hole called Sardos. Tarrant and I got split up, and I'd like to know what he was doing all that time. He was locked up with Servalan's pilots and he said she saw him but just grabbed her lot and left."

Soolin narrowed her eyes. "Did you ask him why?"

"Nah. After all, Servalan didn't capture me either. I thought it was gratitude because I untied her—"

"Vila!"

"Look, not even she deserved what those crimos were going to do to her! But it was odd all the same. She grabbed a rock and brained a trooper who attacked me, then shot him when he woke up and tried to strangle me. She had my bracelet and my gun and she could've killed me, but," Vila looked puzzled, "she saved my life twice."

Soolin jumped to her feet and began to pace. "That's very interesting. It fits. It fits."

"It does?" Vila swivelled in his chair to stare at her. "What with?"

"Did you tell anyone else?"

"Cally and Avon. Cally said what I thought, that Servalan was grateful, and Avon said I was a fool because if Tarrant was a traitor, why would he have saved our lives several times? And he did, you know, in that black hole, and he fought pursuit ships off while Avon and I were on the dark side of that planet getting his pet rock, and lot of other times too. And he got left with us on Kairos," Vila frowned, "though that Jarvik brute might've been meant to save him—they knew each other."

Soolin stopped pacing. "But he saved you and the others."

"All of us at different times." Vila looked unhappy. "Look, I don't know why I keep thinking there's something not right. I mean, I like him and I wouldn't if he was a traitor."

"He probably isn't. At least not any more. Vila, listen." Soolin pulled up a chair in front of Vila and sat down, staring at him intently. "If Tarrant was sent to capture the Liberator or its crew, then I agree, it doesn't make sense. But what if his mission was different? What if they ordered him to bring Blake back, or kill him? They probably didn't expect him not to be there, so Tarrant had to find him—"

"He did help us follow up rumours." Vila's eyes were wide. "He was pretty eager about that, now I come to think of it."

"Right. And in the meantime, it would make a lot of sense to keep those members of the crew who knew Blake alive, wouldn't it? They could identify him, and he would trust them."

Vila bit his lip. "That'd be why Servalan didn't kill me. But... but why'd she leave us all on Kairos?"

"Perhaps because she had her hands on the Liberator and that was more important at that point. And for another thing, you people were going to damage the Federation by taking their kairopan." Soolin put her head on one side. "You told me yourself once that you hardly did anything against them that year. But every time you did..."

Vila stared. "She was there. That means Tarrant was in contact—"

"Only when you were a threat."

"—and he still could be!"

"Oh, yes."

"But he's one of us now! Even back then, after Auron and his brother being killed, and especially after Helotrix and the Pylene 50, I knew he was. I could see what he thought of what the Federation was doing."

Soolin smiled and waited.

"Oh. You mean he doesn't even know."

"Exactly. Programmed, like Blake was. I'd say his orders were to get Blake, his crew, and his ship, but there was an important piece missing so he couldn't do anything until he found it. A bit of an oversight, but compulsions have to be kept simple. I'd also say that given how often we encountered Servalan whenever we did anything that might hurt the Federation, he was also programmed to contact them as that would take precedence over finding Blake."

"But he wouldn't know he was doing it?"

"No more than Blake did that time you told me about. You said he didn't even remember it afterwards."

"But Tarrant's a pilot for Avalon's group now! He could still—"

"Yes." Soolin stood up. "I'll have to tell Tyce to warn them."



Tarrant stared at the comms console, puzzled. He'd come over here for some reason but he couldn't remember why. He shrugged and decided to get a coffee. It was two hours till Karin relieved him.

 

"Coordinates and heading just come in on that special frequency, Section Leader." Amry removed his headphones and handed a plastisheet with the numbers written on it to Palumbo.

"It's been a while." Palumbo hit the scramble button for the pursuit ships in that sector and passed the data through. She leaned back and grinned. "We'll get those bastards yet, and it could be today."

 

Tarrant felt unaccountably nervous as Avalon's three ships approached Thrazek 6. No one could possibly know they were coming, and anyway why would there be any extra protection around a mining colony? They were here to blow up the generators which would disrupt the Federation's supply of weapons crystals only a little, but more importantly allow the enslaved population to revolt. It was hardly a key defensive position. He pushed his uneasiness aside. "Coming in for our first run," he said. "Be careful, everyone."

"We're always careful," said Karin, powering the plasma cannon up.

The closer they got, the stronger Tarrant's feeling became that something was very wrong. "It's a trap!" Suddenly certain, he swung the ship away. "Break off!"

As the others followed, five pursuit ships swooped round from the far side of the planet, just too late for interception.

"Scatter, everyone!" shouted Karin. She watched the rear sensors as the Federation ships fell back, then relaxed slightly. "Re-form and take heading 23-91-4, then back via Califeron. Damn." She punched the arm of her flight chair. "Now we won't be able to come back for months." She turned to Tarrant, suddenly curious. "How'd you know?"

"Standard ambush." Tarrant shrugged while he tried to stop his hands shaking.

"But what tipped you off?"

"Nothing. It was just a hunch." He had to do better than that. "A precaution, rather. If I was wrong, we could have gone straight back in."

Karin grinned. "Lucky you were with us then." She paused and looked at him. "Are you all right?"

"Headache." Tarrant closed his eyes briefly. Just a precaution, he heard someone whisper, and felt dizzy.

Concerned, Karin got up. "Go and lie down, I'll take over." She slapped him on the back. "You deserve a rest after that."

 

Carnell was waiting when he landed. "A word, Tarrant, if you please."

Tarrant stopped in his tracks. He knew. "There's something wrong, isn't there?"

"Nothing you can help. However, rather a lot that I can."

A mixture of relief, panic, and fear washed over Tarrant. "I think I know..." He swallowed and looked away. "But how did you know? Karin?"

"Vila had the data and Soolin put it together."

Vila? Tarrant gave a short harsh laugh. "Yes. He never trusted me." He slumped in defeat. "What are you going to do?"

 

Links

Vila watched Tyce and Soolin's blonde heads almost touch as they studied a complicated 3D star map with lines connecting different systems.

"These two here," said Tyce, pointing, "are examples of the simplest but not necessarily the easiest sort of deal: one planet provides high technology to the other in exchange for raw materials and agricultural products. Any idea why brokering it might be difficult?"

"Because..." Soolin said slowly, "the less developed planet may be taken advantage of?"

"Exactly. And even if the deal is as fair as I can make it, the perception is always there."

Vila suppressed a yawn.

"So I usually have to skew the deal in favour of the farm planet, but not so much that the high-tech one would consider taking it over more advantageous than trading with it."

Vila widened his eyes in an attempt to stay awake.

"This is why I generally try to set up several systems in an interlocking alliance; that way there are more checks and balances on anyone throwing their weight around."

"I see." Soolin nodded, her shining bob swinging. "So you have little groups of systems which act as groups. Attack one and it's in the interests of the others to defend their trade partner."

"Put simply, yes."

The starfield and all its fine lines blurred. This was worse than history class at school. Vila shook his head to wake himself up. To him, it looked like a complicated spider's web. "Looks like a spider's web."

Soolin put her chin on her hand. "You need something more than lots of little alliances though. They might slow the Federation down, but you need something that would stop them in their tracks. Something on a sector scale."

Tyce stared at her. "Well, yes, but there's no way I could ever work out the complexity or the interactions in something that big."

"I think I'll just slip out and have a nap," said Vila, getting up.

Soolin blinked at him. "What? Oh yes, that'd be nice," she said vaguely and turned back to Tyce. "You know, if you treat each existing group as a unit, and build them into larger groups, then regard those as units in turn..."

Tyce stared at her. "That might just work," she said slowly.

"Fractal," said Soolin, her face alight.

Vila looked at them wistfully. He had no idea what that meant, or how to join in without making a complete fool of himself as he had all too often before. He slipped out.



"Tarrant!" Avon looked up, startled.

"It would not have been of his own volition."

"No," said Avon, thinking of Blake and the Shivan debacle. "I have seen the results of that sort of programming. Do you need Orac?"

Carnell raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"We used it to treat Blake under similar circumstances." Avon was pleased at how he was able to say the name without any hesitation.

"And did it work?"

"Not very well, no."

"I thought not. I shall rely on my own methods." Carnell paused in the doorway. "We shall resume our sessions later."

Avon sat back, pursing his mouth in thought. Of course it had occurred to him that it was more than coincidence that Servalan appeared whenever they tried to act against the Federation. Vila had suspected Tarrant right back at the beginning, but the fool had had no evidence to back up his feelings. Later, Avon had wondered if he himself had been given some sort of implanted tracer or even compulsion while he had been unconscious on Terminal.

This was a great relief and a lifting of a large part of the guilt he carried. He leaned back in his chair, gave a long sigh, and closed his eyes.

 

Friendship and trust

Vila stared out the window at the city in the dusk. The lights were beginning to come on around the bay, flickering in the warm layers of air, but he didn't notice. All he could think about was how once again he was shut out, surplus to requirements.

All right, Tyce or Lynx or whatever she wanted to call herself said she needed a safe-cracker, but what about most of the time when she didn't? She and Soolin hit it off intellectually, and Vila didn't feel like sitting around asking questions that made him look stupid; he'd had enough of that.

He turned his back to the window and considered Tyce's drinks cabinet. So far, he'd resisted its seductive pull, happy enough up till now to have the complicated and not very potent drinks Gol served him, and the company of two attractive and long-legged blonde women.

But he didn't have a lock or a stardrive to work on, and he remembered all too well how badly it had gone after Blake left and Avon had given his weapons position to Dayna and there was nothing for him to do. "Spare part," he said out loud.

The cabinet wasn't even locked, which was a slight disappointment despite anything it might say about Tyce.

 

"I think that's it," said Tyce. "I must say, finding you have a talent for analysis was a hell of a bonus. I thought I was just getting a bodyguard."

"Oh, I can do both, even if farm girls aren't usually noted for their brains." Soolin stood up and stretched, looking around. "Where did Vila go?"

"I suppose he's gone to bed. As I'm about to."

Soolin would have assumed so too, but when she came out into the unlit lounge, a faint glint from an empty bottle caught her eye, trained over years of living by her wits to detect any change or hint of danger.

"See you in the morning," said Tyce.

"Mmm." Soolin was about to turn away, but was that a hand hanging over the arm of the couch? She went over to the door and turned the lights on.

"Ow! What'd you do that for?" Vila screwed his eyes up in pain.

"The better to see you by." Soolin dimmed the light and went around to stand in front of him. "You're drunk."

"You're quick." Vila lifted the bottle in his hand in a wry salute and tipped some of its contents on himself. "Oops. Damned waste, that."

"Yes. It is." Soolin snatched the bottle off him and put it well out of his reach. She crossed her arms and stood, glaring down at him.. "What brought this on?"

Vila blinked up at her. "Being ignored," he said morosely. "Starts that way. Ends with con... contempt." He pronounced every letter of the last word with exaggerated care.

Soolin folded her arms. "You're talking about Avon."

"Nope." Vila waved his arms out, almost knocking the bottles over. "Take Dayna 'n' Tarrant. Didn't have anything to do after Blake left, y'know. Spare part. Didn't count."

"You don't think that was anything to do with your grade?"

"Eh?"

Soolin smiled briefly despite herself. She had grown up outside the Federation and its ridiculous grading system, but Vila hadn't. Yet despite that, he never seemed to even consider it as a factor. "You're a Delta."

Vila screwed his face up. "Never mattered before. Not to anyone I ever worked with—"

"No. Because you're a professional."

"—or Blake. Or Gan 'n' Cally."

"Or Avon?"

"Oh, he used to needle me, but not seriously. Not back then when... when I liked him."

Soolin noticed how Vila put that. She'd heard him do the same with Dayna—" I thought I liked you"—and had found it odd. Perhaps it was easier to say it that way round than to admit the truth of the corollary. "Some people can't see past it, you know. Like young women brought up to feel superior to everyone outside their families, and space fleet officers who are used to being obeyed without question by the lower ranks."

"But the others on the Liberator, they never—"

"You told me you got on well with Blake and Cally and... Gan, was it? He was, what, a Gamma?"

"Think so. Never bothered to ask."

"And the other two were rebels who wanted to tear down the whole system. Besides, Cally wasn't even Federation."

"Oh." Vila sat for a moment, staring at nothing. "I always thought... well, I just take people as they are and I expected the same, I suppose."

That was easy. "I certainly do, and so does Tyce."

But it wasn't that easy after all.

"Don't know me well enough yet though, do you? See, taking me as I am jus' leads to famil... fam... knowing me and—" he paused, steeling himself for the consonant combination, "—contempt." He slumped, looking down at his knees.

Soolin's eyes narrowed. "Oh, I see. So you're going to judge the galaxy by one not very stable person? That isn't very fair to the rest of us."

Surprised, Vila looked up, then his eyes slid away and he shrugged, sinking lower on the couch. "Don't expect much, don't get disappointed."

"Yes. I know about that." Soolin paused. "Vila." There was no response. "Look at me, Vila." She sighed and knelt on the floor where he could not help but see her. "Vila. Do you know why I came here?"

His eyes turned reluctantly to hers. "Bodyguard."

"Why here, when I could have found much more a lucrative contract? The food and board might be good, but the pay isn't."

"So far."

Soolin sat back on her heels. "I know who really paid me back on Xenon. You and those bank jobs."

Vila looked smug, then frowned at her. "All right. Why? Why did you come here?"

Soolin took a deep breath. "Because you're a—" she almost couldn't say it. "—a friend." Damn, but it felt like she was falling down a broken gravshaft. A step she couldn't take back.

But something had changed in Vila's eyes. He was looking at her, really looking at her.

"Do you know how many people I've said that to?" Soolin asked, her voice slightly husky. Damn, but this was hard.

Vila shook his head.

"Just you."

Vila's eyes widened and he sat up, staring intently at her.

"You're not drunk now, are you?" said Soolin, pleased to find something else to distract her from those irretrievable words.

He shook his head again. "Drugs don't work on me, not unless I want them to. That's why they couldn't reprogram me."

"I thought it must have been something like that." And he'd wanted drink to work rather a lot on Xenon. "You know Avon trusted you. He did, you know." She stood up. "That's something you might remember. You were the only one he ever left in charge of Scorpio. That must count for something."

"Yeah. He knew I didn't have the courage to leave."

"Some people might call that loyalty."

"Nah, just scared of being alone."

Soolin smiled. He hadn't said it with quite the dull, depressed tone he had been using before. She sat down beside him on the couch. "Let me tell you a story."

Vila twisted round to face her. "I like stories," he said tentatively.

"It was when I was about 12..."

 

She had learned long ago to dress like a boy, smear her face and clothes with dirt, keep her long hair, the one thing she would not give up, hidden under a cap or woolly hat. She lived by stealing.

 

"Oh, really?"

"Not in your league. Just taking washing off lines, sneaking into farmhouses to take food."

 

In one way it was harder to live in the country as there was often a long way between the shelter of barns and sheds, but it was safer than the towns. The crimos didn't often come this far out, not where the farms had nothing under them but earth.

This one was like most of them, though there were more children's clothes than usual on the washing line. That meant she had a choice. She sat in the shadow of a bush, picking her targets, then rushed out and unpegged a pair of trousers and a jersey from the middle of the line where it was low enough for her to reach. She retreated to cover and would have waited there until dark, except for the delicious smell wafting from the open kitchen door.

Hunger, Soolin had discovered, was almost as much a biological imperative as sleep. She pushed the clothes out of sight under the bush and approached warily. She got right up to the door without hearing anything, and peered in. There was no one there, but there was a loaf of brown bread on the table along with several clean bowls and a pot of stew on the stove. Giving up all caution, she slipped in, ripped off a hunk of bread and stuffed it in her mouth, put two more large pieces in her pockets, and then opened the pantry. The stew she ignored.

 

"Why?" Vila had edged closer, his eyes dark and sympathetic.

"Too hot to eat immediately and too heavy to carry."

 

The pantry was well-stocked. Soolin grabbed an apron from the hook on the inside of the door, threw it on the floor, and began piling provisions on it. Cheese, salamis hanging from the pantry ceiling, a bag of oats she could soak, dried fruit... Then she heard someone come in.

She wasn't leaving that food behind, Frantically, she pulled up the corners and tried to make a run for it, but she was too slow. A large red hand grasped her thin wrist so tightly, she could not get away. Hampered by the bundle, she could only kick in self defence.

"Stop that, lad." The woman let her go and she fell backwards, letting the food spill out. "Go on." She stood back. "Take it."

Soolin looked up at the round, kind face, and quickly away, as if blinded by the sun. She scrambled to her feet and started gathering the food back into the apron.

"But if you stay a little while, you can have some stew."

Soolin paused, a salami in her hand, and allowed herself a quick glance from under the peak of her cap.

The woman took a bowl, ladled some stew into it, and set it on the table, all her movements slow and deliberate. Then she sat down on the chair furthest from the door. "Sit down," she said gently. "You look like you could do with a hot meal."

Soolin hesitated, but the temptation was too great. Keeping her eyes on the woman, she sat down and pulled the bowl towards herself, and took a spoonful. Her eyes watered with the heat, but she put a lump of bread in her mouth to soak it up and chewed.

"Take your time. You'll make yourself sick, else." The woman stood up, and Soolin tensed. "You keep on eating, lad, and I'll fetch some clothes our Tobin's grown out of."

Soolin had a brief moment of guilt about the clothes under the bush. She wondered if she ought to take her chance and run, but the lure of stew and bread was too much, and... She had a nice face. Not pretty, but one you could trust. And somehow, that made something inside her hurt, with an ache of longing so sharp, for a moment she couldn't eat.

"Here you go." The woman was back with a woollen jersey and a pair of thick dungarees, patched at one knee. She put them on the table and sat down again. "You could stay, you know," she said quietly.

Soolin froze, her mouth full and her bowl almost empty.

"I've got six kids, what's one more? You'd do your share of work like they do. Out on the farm with their dad right now, they are."

Soolin looked at her.

"You'd be one of the family."

No. Not that. Soolin jumped up, grabbed the clothes and shoved them in her bundle, and backed out the door.

The last thing she saw before she turned and ran was a look of understanding sadness on the woman's face.

 

Vila was silent for a while, then he put his hand on hers.

Soolin tensed and almost snatched it away, but remembered what Carnell had said about Deltas being more physical because of their overcrowded living quarters.

"Easier to have nothing than believe there might be more," he said.

"Yes."

"Do you wish you'd stayed?"

"Not really." It would never have been my family. "Can you see me as a farmer?"

Vila smiled slightly and shook his head.

"That wasn't the point anyway."

"Then what was?"

"The thing is, I don't want to be that person any more. Because in the last few months, I've looked at Avon and realised that's how I'd end up if I kept going down that path." She looked up at Vila. "And you shouldn't either, even if you're trying to. It isn't who you are."

He started to lift his hand towards her shoulder, then pulled it back. "Everyone I ever cared about, I lost."

"Me too." Soolin stood up. "Know what the best revenge is?"

"Eaten cold?"

"I used to think that, even after I'd got it, but it only lasted a short time. Then I was left with nothing. I once heard another alternative and I think I rather like it." She smiled. "Living well."

Vila considered this. "I suppose we could give it a try."

 

New beginnings

"And now, wake."

Tarrant's unseeing eyes cleared and he blinked. "Did it work?"

"You tell me."

"Yes." Tarrant balled his fists and thumped the arms of his chair. "Bastards! I volunteered, damn it. Conditioning me wasn't necessary."

"If it's any consolation," said Carnell, "there were only two simple compulsions: to either capture or kill Blake, and to warn the Federation should you or the crew be about to do anything to harm it."

"But I wouldn't have! Not then."

"Yes, but that's precisely the reason they did it. They knew that Blake had considerable personal charisma and wanted to insure themselves against you changing sides. As indeed you did."

"I never intended to, though!" said Tarrant, as if that exonerated him.

Carnell just raised an eyebrow and the corners of his mouth.

"I'd have remained loyal if they hadn't decided to drug whole populations and field an android against my brother."

"Then you could see it as a compliment. They recognised your essential morality and sought to defend themselves against it."

Tarrant glared. "I'm not as stupid as you think, you know."

Perhaps he had gone a little far. "What I meant was that your Academy scores show you to be a very clever young man and clever people are always dangerous."

"Hmm." Tarrant gave him a sidelong look. "All right, I remember it all, but what I want to know is whether you got rid of—" he screwed his face up "—whatever they did to me."

"Oh, yes."

"So I'm no danger to anyone any more?"

"Not in that way. no."

Tarrant frowned. "What d'you mean by that?"

"Only that your record shows you to be a risk-taker. But then you are a pilot." Carnell gave him a sunny and utterly charming smile as he stood up. "And I have no hesitation in recommending that you return to duty."



And now for someone rather more difficult.

Avon looked up as Carnell came in. "How did it go with Tarrant?"

"Very well."

"And how is he?"

"Very angry at the moment. He's intelligent, but not the sort to dwell on past injuries; he'll recover quickly enough." Carnell sat down and swung one leg over the other. "His conditioning was neither deep nor intended to last that long. After all, they assumed he would encounter Blake as soon as he boarded the Liberator." He observed Avon's slight wince at Blake's name. "You and Tarrant looked for Blake for quite a while. We now know why he did, but why did you?"

Avon's face was closed, but that too told its own story. "It was his ship and his cause."

"Was it now? I am informed that you did little or nothing to further that cause until you lost the ship. Yet you searched for Blake, so assiduously that you ordered the ship through a cloud of unknown composition when a detour would not have delayed you more than a few hours."

"And I suppose," Avon sneered, "that going by your previous questions, you would like me to say that he was my big brother substitute."

"It might seem facile, but that does not detract from its truth, now does it?" Carnell purred.

Avon said nothing, but his eyes glittered with anger.

"You liked Blake. He left."

"I wouldn't say that. He went missing after we abandoned ship."

"He did not come back. You heard rumours of him, but he made no attempt to contact you. His life had moved on. You must have felt that you did not matter to him as much as he mattered to you."

The small muscles in Avon's jaw showed that he had gritted his teeth. Excellent.

"And then he sent you a message and you abandoned all caution to go to him."

Avon's eyes lost their focus. What was he seeing?

 

Avon pushed Blake away and moved towards the floating image of his brother. "I must go to him."

 

His shoulders slumped very slightly. Carnell nodded to himself: a sign of acceptance. "And then, when you thought he was dead, you stepped into his shoes, becoming in effect the older brother. The leader."

Avon half raised a hand to his face and forced it back.

Timing was all. "And then there was Vila."

Avon straightened. "What the hell has Vila got to do with all of this?"

"There seems to be a correlation. The further Blake was from you, the more you distanced yourself from him. A younger brother who had to be punished for the older one, perhaps?"

"Ha!" Avon laughed mirthlessly. "And you're meant to be the clever psychostrategist. Blake had nothing to do with Vila."

Carnell uncrossed his leg and stretched them out. "Your brother gave you a dog, I believe," he said, noting how Avon stiffened in his chair.

"What of it?"

"It did not live very long."

Avon was silent.

 

The puppy had followed him again. "Go home," he said sternly. It sat on its haunches, looking up at him with big adoring brown eyes. "Go home!" he shouted. The puppy whimpered and lowered its head, a picture of rejected friendship.

Damn. He turned his back, hating himself for doing it, and crossed the street to school. His brother had given him the pet to make up for going away and leaving him and although it hadn't, it had captured his affections. He stopped on the other side and looked back. The puppy was still there. He relented.

"Oh, all right. Come on then."

The puppy ran, ears lolloping, bounding with delight—right into the path of a transporter neither had heard approaching.

It had trusted him.

 

"What happened?"

Avon said nothing.

"It was run over between your home and your school. I assume it followed you."

"What of it?"

Carnell smiled. "Perhaps you realised that following you is dangerous. Perhaps," he said softly, "you wanted it to stop."

 

He looked at Vila and saw the betrayed friendship in oddly similar brown eyes. If he said something to put it right, he'd only lose him eventually like too many others. Avon smiled. "Well, as you always say, Vila, you know you are safe with me."

 

"Vila," said Avon tightly, "is not a dog."

Carnell raised an eyebrow.

"Believe me: if I had wanted Vila to leave, he would have gone."

"Sometimes people want more than one thing. Sometimes they conflict."

Avon did not move, but Carnell could see the slight whitening of his knuckles as his hands tightened on the chair's armrests. Now was the moment. He waited. The timing and the wording had to be absolutely right.

"Do you want to know what happened to Vila?"

Avon's shoulders slumped. "Tell me," he said dully.

"He lives on a safe planet in a beautiful house by the sea where he is very much cared for."

Avon stared at him, then sank his head in his hands.

Carnell smiled in satisfaction. "And now we truly begin."



Vila sipped his cappuccino and looked around the place Tyce had brought them to. Sunlight filtered through the translucent roof of the Garden Café and fell on the lush plants and colourful tropical decor, but he noticed the people more. Parents with children having lunch, middle-aged women chatting over coffee, a young couple in a corner with eyes only for each other, all so happy and peaceful and secure.

He sighed.

"Do you envy them?" asked Tyce, following his gaze.

"Well, look at them. Nothing bad ever happened to them."

"Precisely. They've never been tested."

"What d'you mean?"

"I think it's time I told you about Blake. He ended up on a planet that used to be like this. An agricultural world that fed the Federation, full of nice, ordinary people just like these." Tyce's mouth twisted. "Until the weather control failed and their crops died and they began to starve. They weren't so nice then."

Vila stared at her, not sure he wanted to hear more.

"Some people will do anything to ensure their own survival. Sometimes regardless of friendship or family ties."

Vila looked at his half-eaten chocolate torte and pushed it away. "Thanks. Nice view of the universe. Is that when whatever happened to Blake happened to him?"

"Someone found out who he was." Tyce shrugged. "Let's face it, it was obvious why he was at Star One in the first place."

"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," Soolin said coolly.

"An eye anyway." Vila shuddered.

"Deva saved him and got them both away. That was when they met." Tyce looked at Vila. "It's not all bad, you see. Yes, there are always people who will do anything to survive, but there are also those who won't."

"Like you." Soolin said. "You could have tried to kill Avon in that shuttle, but you didn't."

"And live with that for the rest of my life when I want to enjoy it?"

"Exactly." Tyce pointed her fork at him. "That was what Blake was doing on Gauda Prime, you see. He said that you could only trust those who had been tested and had passed, and that was why he was collecting criminals. He thought he could find some like you, Vila, you and the others, who had lived hard lives but stayed true to themselves. He said he trusted very few people, Just Deva and his old crew."

"Oh." Vila thought about that, "Didn't work very well then, did it? Not when Avon didn't trust anyone at all."

"Yes." Tyce was silent for a moment. "But it's still better than not trusting anyone."



Vila and Soolin sat side-by-side, almost touching but not quite, watching the sunset over the sea.

"Nice," said Vila.

"It is," said Soolin, "now that it no longer reminds me of fire."

Vila turned to look at her. "I'm glad." He started to reach out a hand and decided against it. He wasn't sure how she'd react and he'd might lose a friend. Always best to play it safe.

Soolin saw the look of sympathy on his face and smiled at him. So much for Deltas and physical contact; there were times she wished he'd actually make some. Of course, she could act first, but she had no intention of doing so. Vila had not had enough choice in his life, and neither, she was beginning to think, had she.

She could wait.

They sat in companionable silence while the sun went down.



Avon knocked on the open door. Tarrant, sitting slumped in a chair by his bed, looked up.

"I've come to say that I'm leaving," said Avon.

"They're letting you, then?"

"Carnell seems to have convinced them that circumstances conspired to make what happened inevitable."

Tarrant looked as if he was going to ask if that were true, but shrugged and turned away.

"I take it they haven't put you back on active duty."

"No. Not likely to either. Even though I'm not a danger any more."

Avon leaned against the side of the doorway. "I rather think I know the feeling. They are so eager to see the back of me, they're willing to give me a ship and Orac."

"Oh?"

"Which means that I might be in need of a pilot."

Tarrant straightened, his face lightening. "Might you?"

"Would you be interested?"

Tarrant grinned. "Do you need to ask?"

"Actually, yes."

Tarrant stood up. "When do we leave?"

End of part 2