Discoveries and searches
Vila swung onto the street, feeling very pleased with himself and life in general.
He liked this part of town. It felt more like the Delta levels he grew up in than the rest of Lindor's clean and beautiful capital city. He liked the tiny, dusty shops, the dark little cafes, the tall, narrow houses with washing hanging from balconies and windows. And the second-hand dealers who did not just receive, as the police put it—funny term that—but also supplied certain items not on show if they were paid enough. Vila now had a force-field cracker, all neatly folded into a worker's toolbox, and that pretty much completed his equipment collection.
And that was worth a celebratory drink or three, that was.
Soolin checked the time yet again, and frowned. Vila should have been back at least two hours ago. He hadn't wanted anyone to go with him, saying he knew what he was doing and two people would only make his contact nervous anyway, but how long did it take to do a deal with a fence or whoever it was he was meeting?
Not this long.
She got up to get herself a coffee to distract herself from worrying.
She should have gone with him.
Vila let himself into the house. It was Tyce's, but he and Soolin had a wing of it now. He liked that sound of that: the east wing. Made him feel as if he lived in an ancient pile of stones set among immemorial oaks (whatever those were), kept prize-winning pigs, and had a butler to lay out his clothes and serve him toast and tea in bed. Of course, the last bit was true, but Gol was really Tyce's.
The 'wing' was really only a short side of the rectangle Tyce's house made around the atrium, and he and Soolin still ate in the dining room with Tyce, but all the same, it was home now, and the first time Vila had had one since he left earth.
"Hello, Soolin," he said cheerfully, putting his toolbox down on the living room floor. "Wouldn't mind a nice hot cup—"
"Where the hell have you been?"
Vila stopped, surprised at the anger on her face. "You know where. Down in the old town getting a force field cracker."
Soolin came right up to him, and her eyes narrowed. "And several drinks, by the smell of it."
Is that what she was annoyed about? "Look, it was only a couple of beers to celebrate. It wasn't a bender, or anything. Don't need those now."
"You were away for three hours!"
"I walked along the waterfront on the way home."
"Anything could have happened to you!"
"Well, it didn't."
"It could have." Soolin grabbed him by the shoulders. "Do you have any idea why I'm so angry?"
Vila shook his head, puzzled.
She pushed him hard, so he stumbled and fell back against the wall. "Hey! That hurt!"
"Well, do you?"
Vila watched her warily. Perhaps it was best to say nothing.
"Because I didn't know what you were doing. And I was worried."
"You were?" Vila stared at her.
Something in his face softened hers, but not all the way. "Yes. Believe it or not." She sighed and looked away. "Come in here and sit down."
Vila followed Soolin into the dining room. The table was disappointingly empty of coffee or tea. "I don't suppose I could call Gol to bring us a drink and a snack, could I?"
"Later." Soolin sat opposite him and put her chin on one hand. She didn't look angry any more, just thoughtful. "You could have taken a communicator."
"Bit allergic to those, the sort of contacts I have. They might have scanned for one and got suspicious."
"Or used a public one to call me."
"I could have." If I'd thought of it. "But what if I was followed?"
"Mmm. What we really need is something fairly undetectable."
Vila grinned, relieved that Soolin had calmed down. "Like a bloody great bracelet, you mean?"
"I was thinking more on the lines of those very tiny ones people with bad hearing have. So small it wouldn't show up."
"They're just amplifiers though."
"You're clever with your hands. You could fit a transmitter into one, something simple that would only send to one receiver. And receive back from it."
Vila couldn't help but find this interesting. "Could work. I mean, those things already have that asymptotic or logarithmic scaling that ears have. You know, making whispers louder and shouts not. Can't exactly talk into one though."
"You wouldn't have to. It would pick up your voice though the bones in your skull."
Vila, who preferred not to think of what was inside him, screwed up his face. "Or just the air. Well, maybe I could do the work, but I'd need a proper design. I could talk to that Anjay bloke, I suppose. He's clever that way. He'd even give Avon a run for his money." He tried to ignore the feeling in his stomach at the thought of Avon. "Still, you'd have to be able to turn the thing off for privacy."
"I had the opposite thought. It would only be on when we want it. It'd be much less likely to detect that way. You could use a trigger phrase for on and off."
"I'll think about it." It would have to be something simple, something you mightn't say by mistake. "Nice idea though."
Soolin smiled. "And wouldn't it make you feel safer?"
Avon flicked through the images Orac had collected for him of males in their 30s who had registered arrival in a seaside town or city in the last three months. None of them were Vila, even though he had refined the search to select only those whose features had similar proportions. What if he had missed him though? It would be easy enough, flicking past all those faces.
Hearing a sound behind him, he quickly turned the display off.
"Too slow," said Tarrant, dropping into the pilot's seat. "I saw that. You're still looking for Vila, aren't you."
"Mind your own business."
"We're crewmates, so it is my business." Tarrant gave Avon a wide and very irritating smile.
"Just keep your mind on your job."
"Oh come on, Avon. You miss him. Admit it."
Avon gritted his teeth. "I merely wish to determine that he is safe."
Tarrant shrugged and checked their course. "Have it your way."
Avon glared but said nothing. To argue further would only make it worse.
Of course he did not miss Vila. Vila had been annoying, a liability despite his skills, and it was a relief not to have to try not to worry about losing him like all the others. All the same, what Carnell had said now bothered him.
He lives on a safe planet in a beautiful house by the sea where he is very much cared for.
It had been a reassurance at the time, that Vila had what he had always wanted and Avon was free of any further obligation, but now he wondered whether that cared for meant something else entirely. Carnell was subtle. Carnell did not use words lightly. Was Vila still unable to walk? Or was he damaged in other, less physical ways?
Avon had to know.
Soolin was curled comfortably in an armchair, one leg over one of its arms, and a bookpad on her lap. The sunlight, its heat filtered out by the windows, lay across the floor, the shadows of the palm trees outside made gently moving patterns on the parquet, she had a glass of iced water beside her, and the silence was only broken by the faint hum of the air conditioning. She stopped reading for a moment to savour the pleasure.
Her education had stopped after her parents were killed, but years later, she had used her positions as bodyguard for the rich to read as much as she could. At first it had been a thirst for knowledge—she sometimes wished that she could have studied mathematics and logic properly—but she had discovered the delights of fiction on one job and after that had always checked that potential employers had large libraries. Certainly, Dorian's had been somewhat... specialist, but one couldn't always tell what people's literary taste was. At least he'd had some classics. The Picture of Dorian Gray had been a particularly interesting one.
She picked up her glass, beaded with moisture, and took a long drink, then wriggled into a different position and clicked to the next page.
Vila put his head round the door, "Ah, there you are!"
She could probably say goodbye to the silence now. "I'm reading," Soolin said mildly.
"I can see that." Vila came in and sat down in the chair beside her. "What's the book?"
Soolin suppressed a sigh. "Far Galaxies."
"Oh, that's a good one! Have you got to the bit where they meet the alien with—"
"No," Soolin said firmly. "And I don't want to know. Why don't you go and get your bookpad and bring it in here?"
"Not in the mood for reading."
Soolin regarded him for a moment over her pad. "Well, I am."
"All right. Don't mind me."
That, Soolin thought, was one of those sayings that were their own opposite, like 'with all due respect', 'I'm not being rude, but...', and 'this is for your own good'.
"I shall try not to," she said pointedly.
She kept her eyes on her book and tried to ignore Vila, though he was doing his best to attract her attention without saying anything. She could see him in her peripheral vision, staring at her with an expectant look on his face. She read the same paragraph three times without understanding any of it, and tried to resist the temptation to tell him to go away. Finally, when he put his elbows on the armrest of his chair and his chin in his hands, leaning closer to her, she put her book down. "Vila."
"Yes?" His face brightened.
"What do you want?"
"Thought you might fancy a swim."
She opened her mouth to tell him to leave her in peace, but stopped at the look on his face: full of mischief and humour. It was then that she realised that he was truly well again. better in fact than she had ever known him. Gone were the shadows under his eyes and the haunted sadness in them that she had thought was part of who he was; this was the Vila that Tyce had first met.
She smiled at him. "Why not?"
Avon had decided to change his search tactics and had ordered Orac to find out anything recent on Lynx. If he could run Lynx to ground, he might be able to find out where Vila was. He was sure that cool and self-assured young man knew something about Vila's whereabouts, given his concern for his recovery back on Camelot base.
"Have you found anything?"
"Of course I have."
Avon waited, then said, "Then what, you literal-minded and obstreperous machine?"
"Lynx has been mentioned on various non-Federation news services as having set up several recent trade treaties. They are as follows: Ataro to provide animal stock and fresh fruit and vegetables to Stryli in return for technology; Califeron and—"
"I do not need to know the details. Do you know Lynx's current location?"
"I do not. However I have discovered a very interesting recording made through security cameras on Stryli."
"If it does not tell me where to find Lynx or Vila, then it does not interest me."
"Very well," Orac said huffily.
"Do you really think it's a good idea to shut him up before he's finished?" said Tarrant, emerging onto the flight deck.
Had the man taken to wearing the appropriately named sneakers Vila had favoured? "What has this got to do with you?"
Tarrant grinned as he sat down beside Avon. "I seem to remember you saying once that all knowledge is useful. Besides, it seems to me that not listening to everything a computer has to say hasn't exactly been the best tactic in the past."
Avon set his jaw, annoyed at Tarrant both for interrupting him again, and for being right.
"Thank you," said Orac. "You, at least, appear to be acquiring a modicum of intelligence."
Had it not been for the at least, Avon would have smiled. "You, Orac," he said, "can just—" Shut up, he had been going to say, but changed his mind at the last minute, "—show the recording."
A slightly grainy vid came up on Avon's screen, and Tarrant leaned over to see. There were several people seated around a conference table, including a slender young man who looked like one of the Han.
"Lynx," Tarrant said, rather obviously.
Avon let this pass, because he was looking at the woman standing behind Lynx. "That," he said, "is Soolin, even though she's tried to disguise herself."
"Her hair, you mean? She cut it off back at Camelot."
Soolin's hair was now chin-length and cut in a thick fringe over her eyes. Avon was obscurely annoyed that he had not known; how much else had he missed while he had been locked up? "Not that the Federation would have her on record. I doubt that they even knew she was with us..." His voice trailed off as he noticed the man sitting beside Lynx. Surely that wasn't... "Orac? Who is sitting to Lynx's left?"
"Lynx's companions are known as Fox and Lizard."
Avon shook his head. "Lynx, Fox, and Lizard. That is even worse than Avalon and her Camelot base."
"Oh, I don't know," said Tarrant. "I think it's got rather a ring to it."
Avon ignored him. "What are their real names?"
"I do not know of any other identity for Lynx."
"The other two, then."
"Why do you need to ask? You are quite aware of the answer."
"Vila?" Tarrant said slowly. "That's Vila, isn't it."
"I see you're as fast on the uptake as ever." Avon leaned closer to the screen. The man beside Lynx was sitting back in his chair, not taking part in the conversation, but watching everyone carefully. Soolin was obviously a bodyguard. "What does... Fox do for Lynx?"
"I infer that he advises Lynx. I have observed that Vila Restal can, as he often stated, sense danger. I would also assume that he can detect intent to deceive. Moreover, extrapolating from the classified information Lynx often shows knowledge of, I would also surmise that Vila uses his professional skills to obtain it."
Avon frowned at the image. "Something is different. Zoom in."
"It's his hair," said Tarrant. "Must be a wig."
Avon just gave him a scathing look. That was the most obvious change to Vila's appearance—a shock of thick reddish-blond hair—and another was his blue eyes. There was something else though. "How has Vila's appearance changed? Apart from the hair and eyes, of course."
"Those of course are merely superficial changes, as his features retain their proportions, which are as unique as retinal scans or fingerprints. I would assume that you are referring to the distance of his head from the ground."
Avon blinked. Perhaps that was it. "That's an odd way to refer to his height."
"His height is unchanged. It is simply that Vila no longer attempts to appear shorter."
Ah. Now that was it. Vila's whole demeanour had changed. He was leaning back in his chair, but he wasn't slumped; he looked confident. Rather like the Vila Avon had first met on the London, a clever and skilled thief who was sure of his place in the world.
Tarrant's grin widened. "Sometimes he forgot, you know. He was taller than you then."
"Shut up, Tarrant," Avon said absently, still thinking about how much Vila had changed over the time he had known him, and why. "All right, Orac. I want you to look for any three people recorded as being on the planets Lynx and his team have visited at the same time they were there."
"Or spaceships," said Tarrant. He gave Avon a bland look. "Well, I miss him too."
Avon gave him a withering look and got up and walked out.
Democracy in action
"This mission," said Tyce, "is a dangerous one, and we'll only do it if we all agree."
"Not one of our usual trade ones then, where you deal and we bodyguard and spy out the land?" said Vila.
"No, this one's a request from Avalon." Tyce hesitated. "An Federation informant came across documentation of the mocked-up evidence used to convict Blake."
"And of course it's right inside a heavily guarded Federation base. Probably on Earth."
"Actually it's in the off-world archives on Mars."
Vila winced. "Almost as bad as Earth! And it's hardly going to do Blake any good now, is it? Besides, no one ever believed it, not after all the other rebels and dissidents who got framed."
"No, but making the details public will be a propaganda coup, and probably get more people to join the rebellion."
Soolin, who had been listening silently, pursed her lips in thought. "Is it worth the risk, though?"
Tyce nodded. "That's the point. And I know you never even knew Blake, Soolin. So we vote."
"At the same time though, to make it fair," said Vila. "Otherwise if it's two to one, the one might feel they have to go along with it. And it won't necessarily be me either," he added defensively.
"All right. What do you suggest? Pieces of paper?" Tyce pushed her chair back.
"Nah, nothing so complicated. We can do it the way people bid in that card game, Gravity Well." He looked at them both. "Never played it? It's a fun game because you get dealt ten cards at first, then one less each time down to one, then up again, like going—"
"In and out of a gravity well," said Soolin. "So?"
"Everyone bids at the same time, see, so they don't know what everyone else is going for..." They did not seem to be that interested. "Anyway, all you do is rap your fists three times and on the third go you stick out as many fingers as you bid. In this case, we could do one for yes and none for no."
"All right, let's get on with it." Soolin put her fist on the table.
"One, two, three," said Vila as they rapped, then, "What, all of us?" Each of them had a finger extended. "Oh, wonderful."
Tyce smiled. "Thank you, both of you. I'll start making the arrangements."
Vila waited till she had left the room, and leaned towards Soolin. "Why did you vote to do it? You can't care much about Blake."
"Why did you? You didn't sound at all enthusiastic before."
Vila looked down at his hands. "I don't much care about Blake's reputation now he's dead, but those boys are still alive. And if we can prove it never happened, that they were programmed, well, it'll make a difference to them, won't it."
Soolin was silent, then reached and placed her hand over his and gave it a brief squeeze. "Well said."
Vila looked up. "What about you?"
"The same." Her face was unreadable.
"So it's danger, excitement, sudden death," said Vila, trying to make light of it. "Just like the old days."
Soolin smiled. "At least we can give the new micro comms a good field test."
"You," said Vila, "remind me of Avon and his gadgets."
"Ah, but they worked, didn't they."
Conversations with various people
"Tyce Sarkoff," said Avon to himself. "Lisa Soolin and Sven Lassiter." Those three had always arrived shortly before Lynx, Fox, and Lizard, that company of absurd aliases, set up a new trade alliance, and had departed shortly afterwards.
So Soolin had been her family name, and Sven Lassiter—Avon shook his head, smiling—was almost an anagram of Vila Restal, but not quite. The elusive and mysterious Lynx however... Tyce Sarkoff was, after all, a tall young woman.
"Orac. Please compare the features of Lynx to those of Tyce Sarkoff."
"I have done so."
"Surely you can infer the implicit question."
Orac remained smugly silent.
Avon gave an exasperated sigh. "Are they the same person?"
"There are changes to certain features. The eyes are elongated and darker, the shape of the nose is different, as is that of the brows and the jaw line."
"It is possible to alter a human's appearance in many ways, but height and the relative positions of facial features cannot easily be changed."
"Orac. I might remind you that it is possible to change your appearance in ways that may have a detrimental effect on your function."
"Oh, very well. It is extremely likely that Lynx and Tyce Sarkoff are the same individual."
Avon wondered how much information Orac had concealed in the past, or deliberately misrepresented. "Locate Tyce Sarkoff and put me in contact with her."
She was on Lindor, which is where one might logically expect the daughter of the president to be, and looked much as she had when Avon had last—knowingly—seen her. Avon looked critically at her image on the screen. Superficially, the young woman with long wavy blonde hair did not resemble Lynx at all, but now that Avon knew, he saw that one feature she had been unable to disguise was her mouth. He smiled.
Tyce looked politely interested. "Avon? What do you want?"
"To speak to you... Lynx."
Her face went expressionless. "Lynx?"
"It wasn't that difficult to find out."
"Not if you have Orac, no," Tyce said dryly. "And if you are planning to use that information in some way, I might remind you there are things I'm sure you'd prefer to remain a secret too."
Like who killed Blake, Avon supposed. "Are you threatening me?"
"Merely pointing out that it goes both ways."
"I have no intention of revealing Lynx's identity. I only discovered it in the process of looking for Vila. Or should I say Fox? Is he all right?"
Tyce smiled faintly. "If you know his alias and that he's part of my team, you must have worked out the answer, Avon."
She was clever. He would give her that. "Then can I speak to him?"
"Of course. The question really is whether you may. I suspect that Vila will say no."
"All right. Wait there."
"I am hardly going anywhere," Avon muttered to the now blank screen. He was glad that Tarrant was off watch and presumably asleep, but turned around anyway to check that the flight-deck door was closed. Tarrant did not need to know about this. The less people knew, the less they could use against one.
He suddenly remembered agreeing with Tarrant that he despised Vila because it was convenient to have Tarrant believe it. Why did he think of that now? Why did it even matter? Vila had not been there to hear, and it had not been true. Or had it? He had after all made it clear to Tarrant and Dayna from the very start that Vila was little more than a spare part, and had replaced him on the weapons station with Dayna.
Perhaps Vila had more reasons for anger than the shuttle incident and what had happened on Gauda Prime.
Regret, he had once said, was best kept a small part of life. Because it could so easily overwhelm it.
He decided to terminate the call.
He looked up, startled. "Soolin."
"Vila doesn't want to speak to you."
"I did rather gather that. Very well, as I have been told that he is all right, there's nothing more to say." Avon reached out to disconnect the call.
"However, I think you ought to speak to him."
"Do you now." Avon kept his finger on the button.
"After all, you used to be friends."
"What gave you that idea?"
"Vila did. And you did go to all the trouble of tracking him down. For some reason I can't fathom, considering the damage you did to his self-esteem, you seem to matter to Vila."
Avon sat still, his face as cold and hard as stone. He had tried to distance himself that last year, so that when he lost Vila like all the others, or when Vila betrayed him as so many had, it would not hurt. But the thought that it might have hurt Vila was new and disturbing. He moved his finger back from the disconnect button.
"So I convinced him to talk to you. If you upset him however," Soolin leaned forward so that her suddenly intent face filled the screen, "I will find you." She sat back, her expression once again cool and detached. "You know, saying sorry might help."
"Words," said Avon bitterly, "mean nothing. They can't change the past."
"No. But they can change the future."
The screen changed to show Vila's image. He was obviously outside; a breeze ruffled his hair, and Avon could see a subtropical garden behind him, bright with flowers. In many ways, Vila had changed. He was tanned and healthy looking, and although he didn't have the thick sandy wig and blue eyes he had assumed as Fox, he looked different. Younger. It was the hair, Avon decided: much the same except for the thinning temples having been filled in. It made him look the 33 or 34 he was.
His expression however was the same as it had been when Avon had last seen him on Camelot: hard and resentful.
Vila just looked coldly back at him.
"Are you well?"
"What do you want?"
He was, Avon thought, sitting down, and he had been on the recording. "Just to make sure that you have recovered from your injuries."
"Why? Will it make you feel better?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
Vila looked briefly surprised, then reverted to his glare. "I'm back to my usual weight, if that reassures you. Remember what that is?"
Avon winced. "Humour me. Stand up."
Vila did so. "Want me to do a little dance as well?"
"That will not be necessary."
Avon hesitated. There was nothing he could say that could change the fact that he had tried to kill Vila on that shuttle, that he had killed Blake, and that his deliberate cruelty at times must have been at least part of the reason Vila had become depressed and drunk in that last year.
"Vila," he said at last. "I know I have caused you pain. If there was anything I could possibly do to change that..." he paused, almost unable to continue. "... I would."
Vila's eyes widened, and he looked shaken. "I... I think you just did."
The screen went blank as Vila cut the connection, and Avon sat there, staring unseeing at it.
Tarrant. coming onto the flight deck for his shift, found him there. "Everything all right?" he asked. "Still on course?"
Avon looked up. "Yes. To both."
Tarrant raised his eyebrows. "You look a lot better than you have for a while." He held out a mug of coffee and sat down, cradling his own. "I suppose," he said, rather wishing it wasn't, "this will be another milk run."
"At least the next one will make a change."
"Oh? I didn't think we had a destination."
"We do now. Lindor."
Once more into the breach
The closer the Cutty Sarkoff got to Sol and therefore Mars, the quieter Vila got. Soolin watched him with concern. The torture that had driven him into a voluntary coma, and perhaps the repeated attempts at 'readjustment' must be having some effect on him.
"You know," she said, "You could just open the outside lock and teleport back on board, and I could go in alone and look for the evidence."
Tyce looked up sharply, but said nothing.
"It'll be all right," Vila said. "It always is once I get going. It's just thinking about it beforehand that's so bad."
"I could go with Soolin," said Tyce.
"Oh, no! Honestly, I'll be fine." There were worse things than sticking your head in the lion's mouth again, like being left on your own, or losing someone who mattered.
Like Soolin. What if he didn't go and something happened to Soolin? It would be his fault.
"You know me, I'm used to being scared. Besides, if I let it get to me, they'll have won."
Soolin touched his arm gently. "You're a brave man."
"Nah." Vila grinned, a little weakly. "Just stupid."
Soolin looked around as Vila crouched in front of the airlock door with his tools. This was the closest she had been to Earth, and probably the closest she would ever be. Still, she couldn't help but feel a small sense of wonder that this was the home system, where her family had originally come from.
Mars had been terraformed to some degree so that its atmosphere was thicker and had more oxygen, but it was still very thin—she and Vila had to wear breathers—and it was cold. Not the minus 140 it could get to in winter—a relatively balmy minus 20 in fact—but they both had heated suits on.
Around them, the reddish, rocky ground receded to hills on the horizon, their strata glowing spectacularly in the late afternoon sun in fiery red, orange, umber, and bright yellow. Dotted about were spiky dark green and purple bushes and low trees looking like fat tubes topped with stiff feathers. Soolin leaned over to look more closely at a bush. The leaves were glossy and traced with an intricate raised pattern in a deep crimson. It wasn't a hospitable place, but it was a strangely beautiful one.
"Wouldn't touch that if I were you," said Vila, looking up. "Might have your hand off."
"Why on earth—"
"—would you think that? They're just oxygen generators designed to terraform the place."
"I speak from experience! And those bigger ones look as if they've got stomachs." Vila turned back to the lock. "You'd think," he said, his voice muffled by his breather, "that they wouldn't lock these tubes. I mean, what if someone got trapped out here? Bit unfriendly, that."
"The environment's part of the security," said Soolin. "That's why they put the archives here: close to Earth, but not easy to break into. Speaking of which, how's it going?"
"Just disabling the alarm. Right, we're in."
They cycled through the airlock and into the tube, one of those that connected the central archive to the smaller support and personnel domes.
"Like a web with a spider at the centre," Vila said, pulling his breather off. "And I haven't had very happy experiences with either."
"Or plants, it seems." Soolin grinned at him.
"Look, you'd be surprised how much of the galaxy is out to get me. Not that I am by now. Oh well," Vila looked resigned, "I suppose we'd better get this over with."
He set off towards the main dome, bounding along in the low gravity, and Soolin followed. She looked out of the glittering transparent tube towards the sun, low in a lilac sky. The shadows of the surrounding hills and plants stretched towards them, there at the crater's centre, and she shivered briefly.
Vila stood aside from the door into the main dome with a flourish. "There you go. I told the system we were maintenance workers. We're Scopas and Leitao if anyone asks."
Soolin nodded. That made sense, considering they had entered through the tube that led to the maintenance stores. "Let's just hope the real ones don't turn up. Which way now?"
Vila pressed the button to call the lift. "Up to level four according to Tyce's contact." He stepped into the lift and opened the panel. "Just letting it think we've used our swipe cards."
"And what are we here to maintain?" Soolin asked wryly as the lift rose. "Just in case anyone enquires."
"The catalogue, I suppose." Not of course that most techs wandered around in fur-trimmed heated suits, thought Vila, turning his down. "Since we'll be using it to locate the stuff on Blake's trial."
The lift stopped and Vila emerged, his elation at cracking the security already evaporating. He looked around nervously. "Let's hope they've all left for the day like they're supposed to."
"It's a government office," said Soolin. "Of course they have."
Vila felt a little better at her reassurance, and went over to a terminal and typed in a search. There was a lot on Blake, as was to be expected, he supposed. He entered a few more key words. "Got it! It's in room 512, file 8317." He repeated the numbers to himself to burn them into his memory, then, remembering how he'd mixed up the directions to the rocket silo on Albian, wrote them down on a slip of paper. "Funny how all the records are on paper," he said.
"Not really," Soolin said absently from the terminal beside his. "You can't find them by hacking, or easily change them."
"Wonder if they're all tied up with red tape," said Vila. "That's where the expression came from, you know. They actually used tape, though I don't know why it was red."
"What a repository of odd facts you are."
"Wasn't me, it was Avon who told me that." Vila realised that saying Avon's name didn't hurt, and he felt suddenly lighter. He cleared his search. "Come on, then."
Soolin was writing something on a slip of paper of her own. "We'll have to split up. I want to look something up in room 843."
"What?" Vila stood there, dismayed. "Aren't we supposed to stay together? You know, to watch each other's back?"
"It'll be all right." Soolin tapped her ear. We can turn our comms on and stay in touch." She spoke the code words for hers. "Soolin on."
Disturbed, Vila went over to look at her screen, but it she had blanked it too. "What are you after?"
"What happened to my sister on Gauda Prime."
"Oh." Well, that was understandable. "Is that why you voted to come?"
"I only thought of it on the way."
"And you've found something?"
"No. There's nothing under her name, but there are records on Federation involvement there. And as they benefit most from the mining, I suspect they were involved in it all."
"All right," Vila said reluctantly. "If one of us gets into trouble, I can call you, right? Vila on." He hesitated, unconvinced. "Wouldn't it be safer to do both together?"
"Quicker is always safer." Soolin touched his arm. "We'll be fine."
He heard her twice, in person, and inside his ear.
Soolin had been unable to refine the search, so she had all the records to do with mining on Gauda Prime to go though. At least her assumption that the Federation had been behind the declaration of GP as an open planet was correct. She forced herself to remain calm and try to figure out which section any reference to her family might be in. Not under Ore, nor Agriculture, and nor was there any way of finding what happened on a certain date.
"Damn," she said softly.
"What's the matter?" asked Vila, via the ear comms.
"Nothing. I'm just having a hard time finding what I'm looking for."
"Me too. At least I've found the stuff about the second trial. That Alta Morag's a right piece of work. Servalan had better watch out for her. There's so much though, and a lot of it in that legal double-speak that makes my eyes glaze."
Soolin shook her head, smiling fondly, and decided to try Land Acquisition.
She was halfway through that, wondering what sort of order it was in—certainly not chronological or by region, when the door opened behind her.
"Don't move," said a man's voice.
Soolin tensed, ready turn and fire,
"I wouldn't," said a woman. "There are two of us, in armour, and you wouldn't get us both."
Soolin stood still. She had to warn Vila. "Vila," she whispered urgently. "Get out now."
"Drop it and turn around slowly, hands up."
Soolin did so. There were indeed two troopers there with personal shielding and wide-angle blasters which couldn't miss at this range even if they were the worst shots in the service, which would be saying something.
"Where is he?" asked the woman, the one of the right.
"Restal of course. There's no scheduled maintenance and the techs who are meant to be here are off duty. It has to be Restal."
"And we hope it is," said the man. "Imagine the feather in our caps."
The woman laughed. "Helmets, you mean."
"What makes you think it's Restal?" Soolin asked coolly, knowing her comms was relaying everything to Vila. "He's good, but he's not the only one."
"You?" The woman's helmet tilted slightly. "Never heard of you."
"Of course not. I'm that good."
"Not any more, you aren't. Hold out your hands." The man unclipped handcuffs from his belt.
In room 512, Vila flattened himself against the wall, terrified. He couldn't teleport from in here, what with the shielding used to protect the archives, and anyway he wasn't going to leave without Soolin.
That meant he had to be a hero, and the mere thought made him feel faint. He tried to calm himself and think about what he'd heard and how he could use it. He couldn't just barge in, gun blazing; that was the sort of thing Tarrant might do. No, trickery was more his style.
He straightened up, the glimmerings of an idea beginning to form. One that might just work.
Two bad things and one excellent one
"Hello there," came a cheerful voice from behind the trooper in the doorway.
Soolin closed her eyes briefly in despair. What did Vila think he was doing?
"I'm the one you want. Vila Restal, best thief in the galaxy, that's me." He stood there, grinning like an idiot, arms raised. "She's nobody. You can let her go."
Oh, Vila. That's not going to work.
"Two," said the man with delight, "for the price of one. Cuff him, Melling."
Vila obligingly brought his arms down, allowing his gun to appear in his right hand, and shot Melling.
Soolin didn't hesitate but kicked at the trooper she was handcuffed to. He stumbled and swore while Soolin tried to drag him in front of her to give Vila a clear shot, then brought his free hand up and slammed her backwards. Her head hit one of the metal filing cabinets, and she blacked out.
"Soolin!" Vila shot the other trooper and ran to Soolin, crouching beside her. "Please, Soolin, don't be dead. I couldn't stand that. I love you." He lifted her in his arms. "Please, Soolin, please. I love you, you see."
Soolin's eyes opened wide. "You... you do?"
Vila blinked. "What?"
Soolin lifted her free hand to touch his cheek which he only then realised was wet. "What you said." She smiled. "Because I rather reciprocate."
Vila sat back on his heels in surprise. "You do? Oh!" He leaned forward and kissed her.
"This." said Soolin dryly, "is hardly the time or place. And I seem to be attached to another man."
"Oh, that's easily fixed." Vila produced a small lockpick and undid the handcuffs. "I suppose we could cuff them together."
Soolin sat up, rubbing the back of her head, and gave him an exasperated look. "You only stunned them, didn't you."
Vila looked embarrassed. "You know me."
"So they'll be out for about ten minutes."
"Does it matter?"
Soolin smiled. "They're about our size."
Vila grinned back. "It'll be easy getting out into the tubes too." He held up two swipe cards, attached to the troopers' belts. "At least for Melling and Benaud."
Pink but no red
"Pink," said one trooper, closing the door of a cleaning cupboard. "Bright pink. Who'd have thought it?"
"Can't have been regulation service underwear, that," said the other one. "Not what you'd expect on a big hairy bloke like that, either." He took his helmet off, revealing Vila's face. "Don't know how they wear these things. I'm getting claustrophobia already."
"You'd better put it back on if we hear anyone else coming."
"Course I will. Right. back to room 843? Neither of us have done very well so far, so maybe two heads will be better than one."
"Especially when one hurts as much as mine does," said Soolin with feeling.
"Try Personnel Relocation," Vila had said. "That's the sort of weasel words they'd use."
And now Soolin read and reread the paper she had found. Ilka Soolin. There was no mistake. "They sent her off for modification," she said dully. "Because she tried to escape."
"She's a mutoid, Vila. They might as well have killed her. I wish they had."
"No," said Vila. "She's still alive and so are we. That means there's hope."
Soolin shook her head, her sight blurred with unshed tears.
"Always hope while there's breath, that's what I say. At least, I do now."
"Look, they don't destroy memories, they can't. Look at me; they tried to with me and they couldn't, and even Blake got his back once he knew about them, if you see what I mean. They're hard-wired into the brain, you know. They just block the access."
Soolin stared at him, thinking about how Vila had come to know that. "Maybe with ordinary people," she said uncertainly. "But no mutoid's ever remembered."
"Not so far. But no one's ever had Orac to help."
"Here it is," said Vila in room 512. "Renor Leesal, Carl Deca, and Payter Fen." He read down the page, then stopped. "I don't believe it. The bastards."
"What is it?"
"They used mental implantation all right, gave the boys false memories of Blake."
"That's just what we wanted to find."
"Yes, but..." Vila clenched his fist, crumpling the paper. "They needed physical evidence too. Someone who looked a bit like...I wanted to help them, but this isn't going to, is it."
"Oh, Vila. I'm sorry." Soolin put her arm around him and gently removed the file from him. "At least it will cause an enormous stink in the right hands. Perhaps more, given this evidence."
Tyce raised her eyebrows as two helmetless troopers materialised on the Cutty Sarkoff, arms about each other's waist. Their proximity surprised her rather more than the change of clothes. "Things seem to have gone well," she said.
"Parts were excellent," said Vila.
Soolin smiled at him, then held out a sheaf of papers. "I think we got what you want."
"We couldn't find any red tape," said Vila. "Just a stapler."
Tyce decided to let that statement go. "Take us out of orbit, Gol."
"And when you've done that," said Soolin, leaning in closer, "you could move my things into Vila's cabin."
Gol's metallic lips curved upwards. "About time," he said.
Vila was in a pleasant and comfortable room with plants, bright furnishings, and Soolin.
"Kerr Avon to see Vila Restal," the android announced, and withdrew.
"Hello, Vila," said Avon.
"Avon." Vila looked cautious, but the bitterness and resentment were gone. "Where's Tarrant, then?"
"With Tyce. I believe he is trying to impress her with his dash and daring."
Vila almost smiled. "It'll take more than that."
Soolin gave Vila an oddly proprietary look. "I'll leave you two to it, then." She gave Avon a cool nod as she went out.
"Drink?" Vila said.
"Not for me."
"Oh, go on. Lindor's famous for its wine and brandy."
"As I was aware." Avon remained standing just inside the door.
Vila gave him a wry look as he crossed to a small bar. "A glass of shiraz won't hurt you. Nor will sitting down, come to think of it."
Avon chose an armchair opposite the couch Vila had been sitting on, and accepted a glass of red wine.
"Cheers." Vila leaned back on the couch and raised his glass.
Avon looked into his, unsure how to proceed. He took a sip, and raised an appreciative eyebrow.
"Come up in the world, I have."
It was the sort of remark Avon would have risen to back on the Liberator. It was an opening, and he took it. "That would not have been difficult."
Vila's eyes crinkled. "So," he said, "what's the plan?"
"You didn't come here just to chat. What are you and Tarrant up to these days?"
"Not very much. We are entrusted—" Avon's mouth twisted bitterly, "—with the occasional minor delivery, and sometimes Avalon or someone else wishes to consult Orac."
Vila gave him a shrewd look. "Keeping you on a string in case you're useful, but that's about it?"
Avon shrugged. It was, after all, better than most alternatives.
"You want in on what we do, don't you?"
"Would you object?"
"We've got a good team already."
"Yes, and you're doing an excellent job of setting up trade alliances that make groups mutually dependent."
Vila's eyes narrowed. "But."
"You should take it further. Create outright military alliances."
"Oh, yes? Like those warlords? That didn't work very well."
"No, because they had nothing to hold them together. You're providing something."
Vila put his head on one side. "Why are you telling me this? I mean, why not Tyce?"
"Because..." Avon hesitated. "I need to know what you think before I speak to Tyce. If you tell me to leave, I shall."
Vila stared at him.
Avon put his glass down. The business of Malodar would have to be addressed. "I am, in a way, in your debt. You wouldn't have killed me on that shuttle."
"No." Vila looked away. "Couldn't live with that. There are worse things than dying."
"You're a better man than I am."
"No, I'm not." Vila met Avon's gaze. "I mightn't have killed you, but I'd never have chucked myself out that airlock to save you, you bastard."
Avon sat still for a moment, than put back his head and laughed. A real laugh, of relief, joy, and affection.
Vila grinned back at him, his eyes warm.
And somehow it was all right.
Carnell sat back and smiled with satisfaction and anticipation. It really was most gratifying how challenging and potentially rewarding a rebellion was, from safely behind the scenes.
His chosen pieces were on the board; let the game begin.
End of part 3