by P. R. Zed

Previously published in Rebel Destinies 1

This time, I can't take any more. I've taken a lot from this crew, god only knows. And I've always been good natured about. Good old Vila, always good for a laugh or two. Usually at my expense, I might add. I don't think they even realize that I notice, that I can get hurt just as much as they do, that I feel just as much as they do. Bloody Alpha grades. 'Course, Dayna and Soolin weren't raised Alpha, but they might as well have been. Just as bad as the rest of them. The only one who's ever been really nice to me, apart from Gan, was Cally. Cally would joke around, and flirt, and take me on my own terms.

My own terms. . . That's what he used to take me on. I could always count on him, he was always consistent. He acted like he despised me when I acted the buffoon, but he knew that there was a mind inside good old Vila. He knew I could think. I'm not nearly so good at strategy as him, but he knew my value. He'd even defend me on occasion. Cally let me know that, after that lovely encounter with Bayban. Cally told me that he stuck up for me when Tarrant threatened to chuck me off the ship. Let Tarrant know just who was the boss.

There's a joke. He dresses down Tarrant for threatening to chuck me off the ship, then he tries it himself. Well, I've had enough. I'm getting off this bucket of bolts. I've never liked Scorpio. It doesn't have near the class that the Liberator did. Now that was a ship even I could appreciate. But then he had to go and lose it, and Zen. And Cally. I couldn't even save her. He should have been around; he would have saved her, Avon the bloody hero, always pulling us out of scrapes. Then again, he should have known better than to bring us to that godawful place, anyway. There's been too many times lately when he should have known better.

I can't trust him anymore. I mean, even before we got to Malodaar, he was acting oddly. Has been for ages. All the bickering with Tarrant, and Dayna and Soolin, and avoiding the Federation, and skirmishing with Servalan, it's got to be wearing him down. I mean, he doesn't even want to be fighting this battle. This was Blake's fight, and Avon always made it very clear he wanted no part of it. So what's his game? The few times I've seen him since we got off that bloody shuttle he's been acting even more erratic than usual. I'm afraid of what he might do next.

So that's made up my mind. I'm getting off, and I don't care exactly where I go. I snuck in to talk to Orac the other night and got him to start sending word out to a few people I still have contacts with. Letting them know that if anyone has need of a master thief and safecracker, there's one available for hire. I used to think that staying with this lot was the safest thing I could. do Even with Blake gone, I used to think that. But now . . . I just want to get away. I was scared on that shuttle. Really scared. They'd all laugh if I told them that. You're always scared Vila, they'd say. But not like that. I'm scared of the dark, and of Federation soldiers with guns, and of getting blown up by some booby trap we've stumbled onto, but I've never been so scared as when Avon was trying to kill me.

The first offer I get, I'm off this base. I don't care what kind of an offer it is. A raid on the lowest sort of garbage scow would be just fine with me now.

A small, quiet figure crept through the corridors of the Xenon base in the middle of the night shift. He was slightly nervous, the nervousness of one who is long used to the condition, but has a special cause to be so, on top of the usual causes of just being alive. The man avoided any part of the base which might house activity, even at this time of night. The control centre, the lounge, anywhere he might find someone who would ask for an explanation of his actions.

Finally he achieved the area he was looking for, the workroom, where Orac sat after another round of the base's resident computer expert working on him. The figure detached itself from the shadows and moved towards the small computer, activating it with the machine's key. Orac came to life with the usual amount of fuss.

"I assume I have been disturbed from my calculations for a suitable purpose."

"Shut up, Orac. I'm really sick of your lip."

"Since I have no 'lip' that expression is totally nonsensical."

"Fine Orac, whatever you say. I just want to check if you have any messages for me."

"I resent being asked to function as a relay station for your petty intrigues."

"Resent it all you want, you lousy box of circuits, just do it."

"I do have one message. From one Reevan Stahl. Message reads, 'Restal, if you want to work, meet me on moon of Gauda Prime in thirty days. Well worth your while.'"

"That's more like it. Keep listening for more messages; I want to have some choice in the matter. File all messages for release under my voice authorization only, mind you. Same as before."

"Yes, yes. I shall do so. Now if you don't mind, I must get back to my research."

"Fine Orac." The small thief deactivated the computer. "Whatever you say. So long as you help me get off this rock."

The small man turned, nervous as always, ready to melt back into the shadows, when one of the shadows came out to meet him. Vila jumped, and when he saw who the shadow was, he started wishing, not for the first or last time, that he'd never had the misfortune to be conceived.

"So, our brave lock picker wants to bolt, does he." The owner of the voice regarded Vila with disdain, his mouth twisting in a wry, bitter grin that was more terrifying to the thief than all the threats any bully had ever thrown at him.

"You ought to know something about bolting." Vila tried to hide the fear in his voice, but he knew it must be obvious. He had avoided all contact with the dark computer expert since they had returned from Malodaar. Any time he'd been forced to talk to him, he'd always made sure there was at least one other person around. And now here he was, stuck alone with Avon, in the middle of the night.

"You always thought I'd bolt, but it's you who's finally done it."

"Well, you of all people should know why, Avon." Vila put as much menace into his voice as he could manage, and, surprisingly, that was quite a lot. Avon winced slightly.

"And what is that supposed to mean."

"It's supposed to mean, I'm sick of being where I'm not appreciated. All of you spend most of your spare time ribbing poor old Vila. And it's not bad enough that Tarrant has a go at me every now and then, now you have to join him."

"Well, . . . "

Vila cut him off. "I might even have been able to forgive you after that shuttle. We're such 'mates' after all, aren't we." The small man's voice was filled with such a bitterness and hatred that both of them were shocked. "But you can't even apologize. Can't even manage a 'Sorry Vila. Didn't really mean to try and kill you. Never happen again.' You can't even be that civil, that human. No, you go and throw my own words back at me. YOU MAKE A JOKE ABOUT IT." Vila found himself suddenly shouting at the other man, and realized that, at some point, he had moved in close to Avon, and had him pinned against the wall. Finding himself in this unexpected, and potentially dangerous, position, Vila felt the old nervousness returning. He backed off, shrugging free his hold on the tech.

Avon, for his part, was stunned. He'd expected some kind of confrontation to arise from the Malodaar incident, but this . . . This was behaviour he'd never believed possible from Vila. Some part of him was shocked at what Vila was doing, that Vila didn't realize that somehow, Avon had never stopped considering him a friend, in spite of everything, in spite of his having tried to kill him. He'd taken far too much for granted, and yet he could see no way around it. To apologize now would be to admit weakness. But . . .

"Vila . . . "

"I don't want to hear it Avon. Just stay away from me. I'll let one of the others know when I decide where I want off. Until then, I'll stay out of your way, and you stay out of mine." Vila turned and stormed out of the work room, leaving Avon standing in the gloom, alone.

After that, Vila stayed completely clear of Avon. He made very sure that he was never alone with the other man, at any time of the day. He stuck close to Dayna and Soolin, playing never-ending rounds of the games they'd collected from all parts of the galaxy. Vila usually won, though only he knew whether the games were fair or if he was using his well known slight of hand.

Vila also stayed clear of Tarrant. If Avon was an unknown quantity, dangerous because of his increasing instability, Vila knew Tarrant all too well: knew that Tarrant would take any opportunity to bully or rag him; knew he couldn't be trusted. He by far preferred to stick by the girls, putting up with their ribbing, well intentioned or not. He'd rather play Dayna's buffoon than Tarrant's punching bag.

Vila was relieved when Avon travelled to Betafarl to continue negotiations for his latest try at a rebel alliance, taking Tarrant with him. With both of the men gone from the base, he found he could relax for a bit. His relaxation took the form of becoming very drunk, very often, a luxury he hadn't allowed himself while Avon was on the base. His reasons to keep up his guard gone, Vila found he just wanted to escape, and a bottle of soma, as often as possible, seemed the best way to do that.

Dayna and Soolin noted their companion's binges, becoming concerned by their frequency. They said nothing, however, having both noticed the change in Vila, as well as in Avon, since the two men had come back from Malodaar. No one would ever have accused Avon and Vila of being best friends, but there had been a companionship between the two of them which the others had not shared. Avon would deny to the end that he cared anything for the thief, but he had, more than once, risked a lot to save the other man. The two seemed to have depended upon each other. But since Malodaar. . . since then, Vila had stayed as far from the dark man as he could possibly get. He could only remain in the same room as him through a very visible effort. Avon, for his part, seemed genuinely disturbed by the change in his relationship with the thief. Dayna would hardly have believed it, but she had found Avon looking, well, almost saddened, on more than one occasion, when he hadn't known he'd been observed.

One night, just after Avon and Tarrant had left, Dayna found the small thief, completely intoxicated, sitting in the rec room, by himself, the lights dimmed. Dayna thought she heard Vila sobbing, but so softly that she told herself she was imagining things. She did take the precaution, however, of making sure her approach was easily audible, even for someone as drunk as Vila.

"Vila," she said, "whatever are you doing up at this time of night?"

Vila had immediately straightened up as soon as he realized there was someone else in the room with him, and tried, drunkenly, to pull himself together. "Nothing Dayna, just avoiding bad dreams is all. And what better way to avoid bad dreams than a nice shot of soma." He lifted the glass in his hand and stared at the liquid it contained. Dayna noticed that his hand shook slightly.

"And what do you have bad dreams about," Dayna asked, maintaining a slightly joking tone. Normally, she hated prying into anyone's business, but her curiosity about Vila's recent behaviour got the best of her.

"Oh you know, the usual. Servalan, or whatever she's calling herself this week, the Federation, stray aliens, Avon getting us into some scrape. Avon . . . " His voice trailed off into nothing, and the small man seemed to fall in on himself.

Dayna found herself unsure of what to say to him. She was unused to having to think of the butt of her jokes as a human being. Vila was just, well, Vila. You could make fun of him, and he would take it with good humour, and you didn't have to consider his feelings. And now, here he was, exhibiting real vulnerability, and not just the all round cowardice he generally displayed. Dayna decided the best way to proceed was to pretend she didn't notice anything, to treat Vila as she always did, and hope he saw it for the friendliness it was meant to be.

"Well, Vila, no need for you to be concerned with Avon. After all, weren't you the one to say that you would always be safe around him." Dayna knew, as soon as she'd said it, that it was precisely the wrong thing. Vila seemed to vanish even further inside himself, holding onto his drink so tightly that the woman could see his knuckles whiten. And then Dayna remembered why. Those were exactly the words Avon himself had used after the pair had returned from Malodaar. She froze, uncertain about how to recover the situation.

While she was trying to work this out, Vila did something about it himself. He put down his drink, trying desperately not to let his crewmate see how much his hand was shaking, and got up unsteadily. "Sorry to disturb this lovely chat, Dayna, but I really must get my beauty sleep," he mumbled, trying to hide his real emotions with his usual breezy tone, and failing utterly. He started to stagger out of the room.

"Vila, wait," Dayna called after him. "I didn't mean . . . " and stopped, trying to figure out exactly what it was that she didn't mean. She had no real idea what was wrong with Vila, or with Avon, for that matter. Something had gone wrong on that shuttle, and the gods and the two of them were the only ones who knew what that was. However, she could imagine a lot of things, and she didn't like anything that her imagination had been able to produce.

Dayna shuddered, and made a vow to herself to be nicer to Vila in the future, for as long as she could, anyway. Rousing herself, she turned and walked down the corridor to her own quarters.

Vila stumbled out of the rec room, and down to his cabin, struggling to maintain what little was left of his composure until he got there. Once in his own quarters, he engaged the lock and collapsed on the floor, his back to the door. The sobs Dayna had interrupted in the rec room resumed, and this time he was completely unable to subdue them, the soma stripping him of all the careful self-control he'd built up over the last few weeks.

He'd all but decided to accept Stahl's job, and get off this rock. Now, wracked by the grief of too much disappointment and betrayal, he knew that he must leave, and soon.

After Avon and Tarrant returned from Betafarl, things got progressively worse, for everyone. Tarrant seemed totally preoccupied, and no one, not even Dayna, could talk to him. Vila remained unnaturally subdued, and continued to stay as far from Avon as possible. Occasionally he would be found by one of the others wandering the base late at night, a bottle of something or other in his hand.

Avon was worst of all. He was becoming more volatile than any of the others had seen before. One minute he would be in a murderous rage, and the next he would seem perfectly reasonable, although even his reasonable moments had a special way of unsettling the other members of the crew. The calm would seem so polished, so perfect, that they couldn't help but wonder what sort of storm hid underneath.

The only one who seemed able to deal with Avon consistently was Soolin. She never even flinched when he was in one of his moods, and surprisingly seemed to be able to get her way with him more often than anyone could remember happening before. This extraordinary situation caused more than a few whispers among the other members of the crew, but all of them held their own council.

The actual alliance negotiations brought no change, except for the worse. Avon, forced to rein in his impatience and frustration at the proceedings, became even more uncontrollable. Everyone began avoiding him, not just Vila. And then there was something going on between Avon and Tarrant that none of the others could fathom. After Zeeona was found on the base, everyone knew that the two men had had a row, an enormous one by the look of things, but neither one of them would say anything about it. Tarrant wouldn't even confide in Dayna; he was spending too much time with Zeeona. Avon, for his part, seemed to grow slightly hesitant after the confrontation. In the old days, Vila might have been able to jolly Avon out of his mood, but he wasn't about to go anywhere near the tech, and everyone knew it.

And so things degenerated, until the explosions set by Zukan trapped them in the base. For Vila, that was the end, trapped in a small space, with the choice of dying by poison coolant, radioactive virus, lack of oxygen or just being beaten to death by Tarrant. He was scared and frustrated, and just wanted out. But since he couldn't get out, he turned to the last bottle of booze he'd stashed in the area, and pretended, unconvincingly, not to mind that he was going to die.

By the time Avon finally figured out how to get them out of the mess, something had started to change inside Vila. He was getting to a point where didn't care any more whether he lived or died, and didn't care about what would happen to him if he did manage to live. He was fed up with the lot of them. Tarrant's heroics, Avon's moods, the girls' mocking. If before he had tried to bolt out of fear, now he was just sick to death of the whole thing.

And that was the mood Vila was in when Avon made the announcement about finding Blake. Vila didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He wasn't even convinced that Avon wasn't deluding himself, but if he had found Blake . . . if he had, there was a chance that everything would be alright again.

Blake had always managed to have a positive effect on Avon. If they did find the rebel leader, perhaps Avon would return to normal, and he, Vila, could stay with the group, help to fight the Federation. Even if that didn't happen, at least they were taking him to where he needed to be to join up with Stahl. Vila hadn't quite known how to convince the others that they should transport him to Gauda Prime; now he didn't have to.

After Avon dropped that little bombshell, Vila made one more midnight visit to Orac, and this time he made sure that no one else, not even a stealthy computer expert, was there to overhear. In spite of Orac's petulance, Vila had him send a message to Stahl that he would rendezvous with him two days after their landing on Gauda Prime, at coordinates to be supplied by Stahl. Vila figured that after two days, he'd know if Avon would be in any shape to work with Blake, if there was any possibility of it working out.

When he received Stahl's coordinates, some days later, they were several miles from the location Orac had guessed as the most probable for Blake's base. If everything didn't work out, at least he would probably be able to make the rendezvous without alerting anyone else. He settled back to see how the encounter with Blake, if it was Blake, went, hoping against hope that Avon would, finally, begin to see reason again.

It was all getting too much for Vila. People he trusted trying to kill him. People he didn't trust bullying him, or trying to kill him. And now, his last hope for some sort of normalcy, for justice in the galaxy--for in some deeply buried portion of his consciousness, Vila did believe in justice, and honour, and idealism, though of a sort which most upstanding citizens of the Federation would probably not approve--lay dead at the feet of the one man whom he'd always counted on to do right. He was beyond fear, had passed into some zone where fear was irrelevant, because everything one held to be true had collapsed and there was no longer anything to defend.

Vila's survival instinct took over, and he moved forward, defusing Arlen's resolution to gun him down, though not her ability to shoot Dayna. That was just one more shock to a system which could no longer register shock. Dayna, the one person who had at least made an attempt to find out what was wrong with him, who had seemed to care what Vila was doing to himself. Vila did the only thing he could do after that, and struck Arlen down. The nervous part of his brain made one last fight before it died, no longer able to cope. He was running on automatic survival instincts, no fear, no hesitation, no worries for the future, because now he knew that there was no future, no last minute rescue to be arranged, no act after this one, because this was his final act.

And then he was struck by a pain, more intense than any he had felt before. It came suddenly from some unknown quarter, knocking him into unconsciousness, into a black hole which seemed to have no end, no bottom.

The first thing he was aware of was a pain that seemed to encompass his whole being. He was nothing but the pain; it was his entire existence. Then he knew that he felt pain, and his consciousness came back, and with it the memory of what had happened. The fear stayed away, for the moment. The hopelessness had remained, killing all possibility of fear. When the pain had started to subside, slightly, he gritted his teeth and opened his eyes.

The scene which greeted Vila's eyes was bad, worse than he had ever imagined it would be. Dayna, Soolin and Tarrant all down. Blake covered in blood, laying at the room's centre. And Avon, the rational one, standing over the body, defending Blake in death, though he was the one who had caused that death. As his head began to clear, Vila started to look around for an avenue of escape, and began to realize just how many troopers were surrounding the lone figure in black. Ten, twenty, he wasn't sure how many. A lot.

But everyone's attention was on the still man at the centre of the cyclone. Vila might have a chance. And that chance appeared as a ghastly smile slowly spread across the computer expert's face. The part of Vila's mind where his emotions were buried for the time was horrified by that smile, by what it meant for Avon's state of mind, but the dominant part of his mind, the part bent on survival, determined to make it out of this trap alive and unimprisoned, saw in that smile a means of escape.

As Avon opened fire on the guards surrounding him, Vila took his chance and ran. He didn't see much of what happened, but he saw enough to haunt him: saw Avon take out a few of the guards before the rest opened fire on him, saw Avon take blast after blast from the Federation guns, saw the dark man refuse to fall long after it was possible that he was still standing.

That scene stayed with Vila as he made his way through the base, avoiding Federation guards when possible, killing them otherwise, functioning just as Slave or Zen did, or used to, anyway, showing purely automatic responses to the stimuli which surrounded him. He didn't think or feel anything about what he'd seen, it merely stayed with him, ghosting his consciousness as he moved through the base.

The last area Vila encountered before he reached the outside and freedom, was the landing area where they'd entered the base. Although he'd hoped to avoid it, the only exit was located here. The place was crawling with Federation guards, but they all seemed to be busy doing something official, who could tell what. Vila slowly worked his way through the area, avoiding everyone in sight, hoping that in the confusion, no one had bothered checking if one Vila Restal was among the bodies found.

Just before he reached the exit, Vila passed a ship that was larger than most the area contained, more opulent looking. He gave it a second glance as he slipped by it, blending in with the background, attracting no notice. It was then that he saw yet another thing that would always stay with him. The bodies of his former . . . companions were being carried onto the ship. And just out of the corner of his eye, far in the interior of the ship, Vila caught a glimpse of an elegant figure, clad in the colour of midnight.

But survival was stronger than any other instinct right now, stronger than loyalty, stronger than revenge, so Vila ignored the dormant emotional part of his mind and made his way towards the exit.

Somehow, he managed to make it to the outside, to run through the clearing which surrounded the base and into the forest, to lose himself among the trees, without anyone giving chase, or even sounding the alarm. He kept going until the survival instinct, overcome by fatigue and tension, and the relief of being away from the horror of what had happened, finally surrendered control.

The loss of the cool emotionless place where he had found refuge caught Vila by surprise, and he sunk to his knees under the weight of the shock. It was then that his feelings started to scream again, crying out at all he had been forced to witness. Vila found himself throwing up, as if to empty his body of all the atrocities it had seen, throwing up long past the time there was anything left in his stomach but a thin trickle of yellow bile. Finally, he collapsed, exhausted and with a foul taste in his mouth. He curled up in a ball, and though he was not cold, he could not stop shaking.

You bastards, you all had to go and leave me. You know I can't do a thing without you. Much as I hate to admit it, I need you. Especially you, Avon. And you threw it all away. How could you not trust Blake, you of all people. You must have known that Blake would depend on you to help him, would wait until you came. But you had to believe Tarrant, that young fool. You had to kill the one honest and committed person we knew that was still alive.

I never knew what held the two of you together. We understood each other, you and I, always playing the angles. But you and Blake. . . You seemed to despise him, never passed up an opportunity to slag him off, made fun of his idealism, his politics, his goals. But you'd do anything for him. Anything, even if you'd swear to the last that you only acted out of self-interest.

And now you're dead, too, No one could survive that attack. God, how could you survive that? You, Gan, Cally, Blake, Dayna, Tarrant, Soolin. And Jenna, I suppose. How many more? How many more people I know are going to end up dead?

You bastard, Avon. . .

Vila stopped shaking sometime after the sun went down. He supposed he was in shock, but everything felt so numb that he found it difficult to care. Which is what shock was, really, wasn't it, he thought to himself. It was too dark to move anywhere, the moon being a small sliver of light barely visible in the sky, so Vila spent the night where he was, sitting on the least uncomfortable patch of lumpy ground he could find, his back against a rather abrasive tree.

He supposed he was tired, but he couldn't even care about that. Anyway, he thought he'd rather be awake, in case the Federation belatedly came looking for him, or whatever passed for wildlife in this godforsaken wilderness decided to make a meal of him.

So it was that when the sun finally sluggishly rose above the horizon the next morning, a rumpled, besmudged and haggard-looking Vila was awake to greet it. He welcomed its rather feeble warmth, as it slowly revived his frozen limbs. When the sun was fully up, chasing the shadows of the night into the deeps of the forest, if not banishing them entirely, Vila finally got up, shook out the kinks that a night spent on the forest floor had caused, and brushed what dirt he could from his sorry-looking clothes.

He was at a loss as to what to do next. He could hardly seek out the nearest settlement: they had probably been taken over by the Federation by now, if not totally wiped out. The idea of fending for himself in the forest made him feel vaguely nauseous. Eating nuts and berries might be fine for some, but he was used to better, and as for actually killing something to eat . . . it didn't bear thinking on.

As he was pondering this question, nervously pacing the forest floor, Vila suddenly remembered Stahl. He was to have met the other man this morning, at eleven, a couple of miles from here. He checked his chronometer, which, miraculously was still on his wrist. It was only eight. That gave him three hours to make the rendezvous. He should be able to make that easily.

Energized by having a purpose, Vila set out in what he hoped was the right direction.

Vila may have had three hours to cover two miles, but he still managed to be several minutes late for the rendezvous. He was the best person for the job when it came to opening any lock ever made, but finding his way through a strange, probably hostile forest was not something he did well at all. Just as Stahl was about to give up on him, a tired, battered thief came crashing through the underbrush.

"Hi," Vila said, pulling a twig from his hair.

"Good thing you got here Restal, I was just about to leave." Not waiting for a response, Stahl immediately began to move towards the shuttle which lay, semi-concealed, in the clearing. Vila ran to catch up with the taller man's longer stride.

"Hello, Vila. Nice to see you Vila. You're looking well, Vila," he muttered to himself.

Stahl heard the comments. "It would have been nicer to see you on time, and as a matter of fact, you look like hell," Stahl said, still not looking back. "What have you been doing with yourself."

"You don't want to know, Reevan, you really don't want to know."

"Fine, no questions asked," he said, and dropped the subject immediately. That was one thing Vila had always liked about Reevan Stahl: he was either exceptionally discrete, or he didn't give a tinker's damn about anyone, but either way he would never pry into your business.

"Hurry up, "Stahl called after his companion. "I've bribed the blockade commander into giving us a window to leave, but he can only let us alone for another ten minutes."

With that kind of incentive, Vila managed to get to the shuttle comfortably ahead of Stahl.

The shuttle was a small two-person affair, capable only of planetary orbit, but able to do that well, and quickly. Stahl expertly took the little craft up to high orbit, and managed to dock with his ship, just before their window for running the blockade ran out. They were close enough to the deadline that the blockade commander fired across their stern in warning.

Vila was silent all the way to the other ship, and Stahl didn't press him for details of what he'd been doing. It had been ages since Vila had seen the other thief, and he took the time now to surreptitiously observe how the years had treated the other man. Stahl was a tall, lanky man, and time had hardened his already sharp face into a set of precise lines. He reminded Vila a bit of Del Grant--the same sandy hair, the same general build--but where Grant wore his competence easily, Stahl's whole demeanour was wired with an intensity not easily matched. He reminded Vila, in some ways, of Avon . . .

No, best not to think about that. He shut the thought down as soon as it appeared. It was no good to think about any of them. They were dead, or would be soon. He spent the rest of the short flight trying desperately to think of absolutely nothing at all.

Stahl must have noted his companion's exhaustion, for when they'd successfully docked with his ship, he immediately sent the thief to a cabin for some badly needed rest. Stahl made clear that Vila was to sleep for as long as necessary before they discussed the job he'd been hired for. Vila didn't argue, and, in fact, collapsed as soon as he'd got into the cabin, dirty clothes and all.

He woke some time later, with the panicked conviction that he was in a detention cell. He nearly called out, but realized where he was in time. Sitting up in the bed, he found a set of fresh clothes lying on the table in the cabin. Vila took a shower, and got ready to meet with Stahl, making sure the whole time to keep on thinking of nothing

He arrived on the flight deck feeling much better for the shower, and for the breakfast he'd managed to scrape together in the mess. The place had been abandoned, so Vila knew it couldn't be a regular meal time, but apart from that he had no idea of how long he'd been asleep, nor did he care.

Stahl was the first to notice his presence on the flight deck. "So, sleeping beauty has finally roused herself, has she?" Stahl, flashed a brief, grim smile in Vila's direction, as several of his crew chuckled.

"I couldn't have been out all that long," Vila protested.

Well, if you don't call fourteen hours long, I don't know what is." Stahl turned his attention back to the control panel he was standing in front of.

"Fourteen hours," Vila said under his breath. He couldn't quite believe it, but checking his chronometer, found it to be true.

"Yeah, but from the look of you when I picked you up, you needed every minute of it." Stahl turned his attention briefly back to Vila. "I have some things to finish up here, but I want to discuss the plan with you now. Say, in the mess in ten minutes? If you feel you're up to it."

"That's fine," Vila muttered, still stunned by the amount of time he'd been asleep. "I'll just go wait for you, then."

"Fine, Restal." The captain of the ship had already turned his attention back to his controls and his crew.

Ten minutes later, nearly to the second, Stahl arrived at the mess. He had one of his crew with him, a fair haired young man, who seemed scarcely old enough to be serving on a pirate ship.

"Restal, this is Lahr. I've assigned him to help you out. He has some proficiency with locks, though, of course, not up to your level."

Vila and Lahr exchanged greetings. Vila found he immediately liked the younger man. He was good looking, in a fresh-faced way, but had none of the cockiness which Vila had found so off-putting in Tarrant. Stahl allowed time for the other two men to get settled, then pulled out a large hardcopy printout.

"This is the plan of our target." He lay the printout out on the table, and waited for Vila's reaction.

Vila swept the plan over with the eye of an expert who knows what he's looking for. He located the locking systems, security alarms, and, most significantly for him, a large security locker that must be Stahl's goal. Only after he had examined the pieces of the plan which concerned him, did he take in the whole thing, and realize what it was.

"These are the plans for Federation Space Command for this sector."

"I was wondering how long it would take you to realize that. It's Sleer's Space Command, more significantly, and that is why we are targeting it."

"Sleer?" Vila wasn't quite certain he wanted to hear this, to hear any of it, but he was committed now, and there was nothing he could do but sit and listen.

"Yes, Sleer. I don't know if you've heard anything of her," he looked at Vila, who nodded his head, " but she's becoming something of a persona non grata in the better Federation circles. She's considered too ambitious, too unscrupulous for even that lot. But more to the point, for our purposes, she's been accumulating a lot of personal wealth, illegally, from unauthorized, unacknowledged raids." Stahl paused for effect. "We are going to reclaim some of that wealth, and Sleer won't be able to do a thing to retaliate, since it doesn't officially exist."

Vila sat still for a long time, a lot of things going through his mind at once, none of them welcome. He didn't want to hear any of this really. He couldn't even think how to respond to Stahl's plan, how to deal with this insanity. He settled for two words.

"You're mad," Vila said, matter-of-factly, and without looking Stahl in the face.

"Not at all, Vila. Sleer's power base is shaky at best. We've bribed a lot of her people into helping us on this plan. She won't have a hope of catching us, or catching us up later." Stahl responded with the easy confidence of someone absolutely sure of his plan. Vila was getting rather sick of people who were convinced they were right.

"You don't understand, Reevan. She's responsible for the deaths of a lot of my friends. She's captured my old crew. God, the lot of them are probably dead by now. Or worse, they're still alive, in her headquarters." Vila suddenly couldn't keep still any longer, couldn't hear anything else about this crazy plan. He had to get out.

"I'm sorry, Reevan, I can't be a part of this," he managed to choke out before he bolted, leaving Stahl and Lahr where they stood.

Some time later, he wasn't sure if it was several minutes or several hours, Vila found himself sitting, ramrod straight, at the table in his cabin. He had no memory of anything since the meeting with Stahl.

He felt sane enough, but he knew that he must be mad, what with the things he was thinking. Thinking about going with Stahl to Space Command. Thinking about finding the others. Thinking about rescuing them.

Did he want to be a hero? Him? Vila? He gave a short laugh. What would Avon say if he knew what Vila was about to volunteer for?

"He'd say you were a bigger fool than even he'd realized," Vila muttered to himself. "And he'd be right."

Taking in a deep breath, and exhaling it violently, Vila stood, and went to seek out Stahl.

Stahl was engrossed in an engine overhaul--preparation for the raid--when he heard someone at his shoulder. He looked to his left and found Vila standing there.

"Reevan, I need to talk to you. Alone."

Vila looked more serious than Stahl had ever seen him. "Of course, Restal." He addressed one of his aides. "If I'm needed, I'll be in my cabin."

The two of them walked in silence down the halls to Stahl's' cabin. It was as sparsely decorated as the man's character would suggest. Nothing was visible that was not purely functional, and again, Vila was reminded of Scorpio's resident computer expert.

"What is it."

"I've decided to do it, Reevan, on several conditions."

"What are the conditions." Stahl would do nothing without knowing exactly where things stood. Vila had expected that.

"I'll get you through the security systems, and into the vault, if you'll let me look for my friends once we get there, and give me one of your men to help." Vila couldn't believe he was saying this. He didn't want to be anyone's bloody hero, and here he was, requesting the chance to go charging in like some idiotic knight to rescue people who'd done nothing nice for him, and were probably dead anyway. He must be mad.

Stahl considered the proposition carefully. Vila knew that what he was asking could conceivably jeopardize the entire operation, but on the other hand, he knew that his presence would significantly increase their chances of succeeding.

"Alright, Restal, I'll meet your conditions. If you meet one of mine."

"What is it, then?"

"You can try to find your friends on that station, but at the first sign that something is going wrong, you pull out, and get back to the ship."

"No disagreement there," Vila replied. "I might have gone slightly soft in the head, but I'm not stupid." Satisfied, he turned and left the cabin.

Vila spent the week before the raid working with Lahr on efficient ways of overcoming the security systems installed in Space Command. Stahl had been right; Lahr had a ready mind when it came to this type of work. He easily picked up on the concepts Vila showed him. He didn't have quite the flair you needed, yet, but give him a few years, and Vila thought he would be very good indeed. Not nearly as good as him, of course, but good.

The day for the raid arrived, and Vila anxiously waited in the ship's hold as they approached her headquarters. The first part depended on them trusting the controllers they'd bribed to allow them access to the landing area of the base. Vila's work would come later.

The entire boarding team was wearing the black uniforms of the Federation, provided by Stahl, along with papers identifying them as members of the base's security team. Vila hoped the papers were as good as they looked.

The landing proceeded uneventfully, and the time came for them to disembark. Vila led the team out, not a position he particularly enjoyed, and took them to the secured area where the storage locker was located. There were two guards guarding the area, which Stahl's men quietly took out. Then they waited for Vila and Lahr to deactivate the locks. The work went quickly. The plans which Stahl had obtained had showed exactly the how the security system functioned, and with Lahr's help, it was a simple job to disconnect the alarms, then feed the computer the information that no one had entered the area. As soon as this stage was completed, Vila waved the team through.

The next obstacle they approached was the locker itself. This was a slightly bigger challenge, but Vila had seen much greater ones. The door on Keezarn, for example. With a slight flourish, he opened the locks, again deactivating the alarms, and allowed the team to enter.

"Right, you lot have half an hour before anyone's going to notice what's going on. Make the best of it." Vila motioned to Lahr. "Lahr, you're with me. We're going on a rebel hunt."

As with most such missions, as soon as he was doing what he was meant to, Vila's nervousness had evaporated. He strode through the halls of the base, unafraid of being revealed for what he was, with Lahr following behind him. They soon reached the detention area.

They found a terminal which wasn't being observed. It looked to be a command station temporarily abandoned. Vila thanked his good luck, and set Lahr to work on the computer. In the course of working with him the past week, Vila had learned that Lahr's expertise with a computer greatly exceeded his own. He waited quietly while Lahr pulled up the necessary information.

"Vila, I think I've found what you wanted. Information on the Scorpio crew."

"Right," Vila said, moving in for a closer look. He paged through the screen, his face hardening as he read.

Dead. They were all dead. Dayna, Tarrant, Soolin. The records of their deaths were more detailed than Vila would have wanted. Tortured by the Federation. Vila had no doubt that Servalan had been there when they died. He angrily punched the terminal, and accessed the final screen.

No, not all dead. One left alive. One still holding out against Servalan.

"Avon," Vila whispered.

"Yes, he appears to be just down the hall," Lahr said, unaware of what was going through Vila's mind. "Come on, we haven't got much time."

Lahr set off in the direction of the cell, leaving Vila lagging behind, uncertain of what he thought he was doing.

Servalan wandered around the cell, not looking at anything in particular, as her interrogator finished restraining the prisoner and left.

"Tarrant died first. I suppose I should have allowed him to recover, but somehow I just couldn't wait to renew our acquaintance." Her voice was languid, as was her custom.

"It really is too bad about the women. They both lasted longer than I would have given them credit for, especially the younger one. But such are the sacrifices. . . But you, you've lasted longer than even I would have expected." She finally looked at the cell's prisoner, a slow smile spreading across her face.

"I wouldn't want to disappoint you, Servalan." Avon's voice was cracked from days of torture. "We've known each other such a long time."

"Quite." Servalan looked down at the instrument tray her interrogator had left. "But I think the time has come to end the pleasantries." She reached forward for a particularly nasty looking scalpel, and stopped as she heard the door open behind her. "I thought I left word that I was not to be disturbed," she said without looking behind her.

"Oh, I'm sorry Servalan, I didn't get that message."

Servalan started as she recognized the owner of the voice. Slowly she turned around, to find herself looking at Vila, and the muzzle of his gun.

"Oh good, the clown." Servalan gave the small thief a look which conveyed the most utter contempt for him. It seemed to her, at that moment, that it really was going to be far too easy. She was almost disappointed, after all these years.

"Stop it Servalan. Move away from him."

"I don't think so. You're not terribly threatening, Vila, even with the gun in your hand." She moved toward the small man, coiling herself to spring at him. "I don't think you can pull that trigger. Do you?"

Vila hesitated a moment, and then did just that. Servalan looked down in shock as a patch of blood spread across the front of her dress. Looking up at Vila again, she collapsed, and died.

"You've no idea what I've gone through in the past month Servalan, no idea." Vila holstered his weapon, and gestured for Lahr to enter the cell.

It was then that they both got their first good look at Avon. The sight was too much for Lahr; he started retching in one corner of the cell. Vila was internally sickened at what had happened to his one-time friend, but he'd seen too much now to follow Lahr's example. He went over to the cot on which Avon lay and bent over the other man.

"Christ, Avon, even Shrinker wouldn't have gone this far. How have you lasted."

"Staying alive seems to have become something of a habit with me." Avon's voice was nearly inaudible. "You seem to have developed the same habit yourself."

"Yeah, well, you know me." Vila looked quickly around the cell. "Look, we've got to get out of here. Can you walk?" Looking at the darker man Vila doubted he could, but Avon was tough, or he wouldn't have lasted this long. "We've got to get back to the ship before security figures out what's going on.

"It's possible."

It turned out it was possible for Avon to walk, for perhaps five steps. Then he crumpled in a rather messy heap. Vila and Lahr, who had sheepishly finished throwing up, were forced to drag Avon down the hallways. Vila was thankful for the uniforms and identification which Stahl had managed to provide for this raid. They were only challenged once, and their papers managed to convince the sentry that they were who they said they were. They made it back to the ship as Stahl was preparing to take off.

"Thank god you're back. We couldn't have waited much longer." Stahl looked at Avon. "Your friend's a mess. You better take him down to sickbay. Lahr, I need you to help with take off procedures."

Lahr all too quickly abandoned the injured man to Vila, and hurried to the flight deck. Vila manhandled Avon down to the ship's sickbay as best he could.

Vila got the tech into a medicouch, and started to see what kind of equipment he had to work with. Definitely not up to the level they'd had on Liberator, or even on Xenon base, but still not bad. He ran a diagnostic program on Avon, and started dealing with the worst of his injuries, suddenly glad that he'd spent so much time in the Liberator's sickbay, trying to cadge soma from Cally. He'd soaked up quite a lot of medical knowledge that way, along with the booze.

He worked quickly, efficiently, and with a touch of flourish, just the way he opened locks. He also worked silently. Vila was the last person anyone would accuse of being reticent, but he had nothing to say to Avon. He was vaguely uncomfortable with the whole situation.

Avon seemed to realize how sensitive the situation was, and, after their initial exchange in the detention cell, he remained silent himself. Not that he was in any shape to carry on extended conversation. In fact, very soon after Vila began to try to repair the damage inflicted by Servalan and her minions, Avon lost his fight to remain alert, and fell into an uneasy oblivion.

Vila was relieved when Avon finally lost consciousness. The silence between them had been unbearable, but Vila had no idea how to break it, or even if he wanted to break it. What did he have to say to this man? The man who had tried to kill him, who had killed Blake, who had led Dayna and Tarrant and Soolin to their deaths.

It took some time to deal with all of Avon's injuries. Vila wasn't sure what he found the most sickening: the now yellowing bruises covering the tech's back, the hastily stitched up incisions which were found on all parts of his body, or the needle tracks covering his arms. He held back his own fatigue until he'd done everything possible for the darker man, including giving him enough drugs so that he could rest comfortably. That accomplished, Vila sighed, and collapsed onto one of the chairs in the sickbay.

His rest, unfortunately, was not a long one. Shortly after he'd finally settled into an uneasy sleep, Stahl came down to the sickbay, seeking him out.


Vila started awake. "Reevan, I didn't hear you come down." He rubbed his temples. "I must be more tired than I thought."

"Yes, well, I just came down to see how your patient is doing."

"Not bad, all things considered. It's just a matter of time till we see exactly how he does, though. There's been a lot of damage, and I don't think it's all physical."

"Yes, well, let's hope he makes it." For the first time since Vila'd met Stahl, the man seemed somewhat unsure of himself. "Look, Vila, there's something I must say."

Vila looked, really looked at Stahl. "No, I don't suppose you just came down for a chat. What's happening?"

"You know I don't care one way or the other what happens to either the Federation or the rebellion."

"Yeah, you've always made that clear, Reevan, I can respect that."

"Well, not all of my men feel the same way. In fact some of them are very much in favour of the rebellion." Stahl began to look even more uncomfortable.

"Look, Reevan, what's all this about?" Vila sat up, now very much awake.

"We've all heard the rumours, Vila, that your friend killed Blake. A lot of the men find that hard to forgive."

"I see." The problem was, Vila thought, that he did see, knew how those men must feel, having Blake's killer on their ship. Wasn't even sure that he didn't feel that way himself. He stood up and paced the floor. "What exactly are you trying to say, Reevan?"

"Like I said, Vila, I have no view, one way or the other, but I depend on the goodwill of this crew. If I lose that I have nothing."

"I see, " Vila repeated. He knew what Reevan was going to say next.

"I'm going to have to ask you to make a decision. Who do you want to stay with. I'm willing, eager in fact, to keep you as part of the crew, but I can't let your friend stay on as well." There was a slight pause.

"I'm with him." Vila heard himself say the words before he knew quite what was going to come out of his mouth. But it was right somehow. He and Avon belonged together, though he'd be damned if he knew why.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Vila, but I shouldn't be surprised. After what you risked for him, he's got to mean something to you."

"Let's just say, he's all I've got left."

"Right, then." Stahl started to leave, and then stopped. "Do you know where you will go?"

"I'm not sure. Not many places where I'd be welcome. Even fewer where he'd be safe." Vila nodded his head in Avon's direction. He was quiet for a moment, thinking.

"Hang on, have you ever heard of Del Grant?" Vila suddenly saw a chance.

"The mercenary? I know of him. I've never worked with him though."

"Do you know where he is now?"

"I've heard he's helping the rebels a couple of systems over. Do you know him?"

"Let's just say, he owes Avon a favour. Do you think you could contact him?"

"I'll get my people on it." Stahl moved towards the door, pausing once again before leaving. "Make sure you don't wait too long, though. I don't trust my men not to do something about your friend, if they've got too long to think about it." With that, he turned on his heel and left.

Vila sat back down, suddenly feeling very empty. He'd started to think he could stay among Stahl's people, make a name for himself. Be safe. But if he did that, what would become of Avon? What indeed.

He slumped back in the chair, hoping that Del Grant had an overdeveloped sense of gratitude, as the source of his dilemma lay across from him in a troubled sleep.

Avon was unconscious for several days, and he didn't respond to the treatment at all like the man Vila knew of old. It was almost as if he'd finally given up. Vila took advantage of the tech's coma to contact Del Grant, and arrange for the two of them to stay with the lot he was currently working for. The little time Vila spent away from Avon, he made sure that someone trustworthy was with him, usually Lahr. Vila had developed a healthy respect for the young man, in working with him. Lahr, for his part, seemed anxious to make up for his lapse in the detention cell.

Mostly, though, it was Vila who stayed with Avon, monitoring his progress, adjusting his treatment, and trying to soothe away the dreams that seemed to break into the darker man's delirium.

Avon found himself back at the base, on Gauda Prime. He was confused, not knowing how he'd gotten here, or what he was doing. He looked down. Blake lay at his feet, blood slowly spreading in a pool around his feet. Was he responsible for that? His eyes searched the room, and he located the rest of them, lying sprawled on the floor. Dayna. Tarrant. Soolin. Vila. Dead?

How had this happened? He hadn't meant for any of this to happen, had tried to keep them all well out of it. He heard a sound from somewhere in the room and looked up.

It was only then that Avon realized that he was not the only living entity in the room. A phalanx of Federation guard were moving in, tentatively surrounding him, as if they weren't entirely certain what to make of him. Avon thought he would show them exactly what kind of condition he was in.

His hand grasped convulsively at the gun he held in his hand, and he slowly raised it. A smile spread across his face, even as he felt hope die inside him. Steeling himself, he choose his target, and fired.

As Avon's first victim fell, the remainder of the guards opened fire. He managed to bring down one more guard, forcing himself to remain standing as his nerves were seared by the pain of repeated stun blasts. An eternity later, he could no longer will himself to fight the blasts. He lost his grip on his gun first, and then his legs collapsed beneath him, and he felt himself slip again into the darkness.


Avon sat up, rather too quickly as it turned out. His body screamed at him from a dozen places. He looked around and found himself not on Gauda Prime, or even Servalan's base, but in the sickbay to which Vila had taken him. Vila himself lay asleep in a chair on the other side of the room. The smaller man's face was drawn and haggard, as if he'd been awake for far too long and had finally, unwillingly, succumbed to his body's need for sleep.

Avon forced himself to relax, slowly laying back in the medicouch, altogether too aware of the damage which had been inflicted on him. He closed his eyes, and found that he could hear Vila's breathing from across the room, slow and regular. He concentrated on only the sound of that breathing, that indication that someone else in his world was alive, while he considered his position.

Vila, for his part, gradually became aware that he was awake, and that Avon was as well. He stirred himself, but didn't say anything. What, after all that had passed between them, could he say to the computer expert.

Avon realized Vila was awake from the change in his breathing, and it was he, finally, who broke the silence. "Vila, " he asked, "are the others really dead?" His voice was cracked and nearly inaudible.

Vila sat up completely, pulling his tunic straight. "Did she tell you that?"


"And you didn't believe her?"

"She's lied to me before. Why should I believe her this time."

Vila sighed heavily. "Well, this was the one time she was telling the truth. I found the records myself, the same ones that showed you were still alive. The bodies were incinerated. No graves to inspire the rebellion, you know."

"Oh." Avon could think of nothing further to say. The others dead. Not just Blake, but everyone. Dayna, Tarrant. And Soolin . . . He hadn't felt like this since Terminal. Since Cally . . . He lay in silence, struggling to make sense of the feelings that passed through him, but with which he couldn't seem to make contact.

Vila was the one who broke the silence this time.

"Why, Avon?"

Why what," the dark man asked, though he knew very well what the thief was referring to.

"Why did you have to kill Blake?"

Avon hesitated, unsure till this moment of his reasons himself. "Because, I thought he'd betrayed what he'd believed in, what he'd made all of us believe in, even me. It was bad enough that he might have made an idealist of me; the thought that he might not even believe in those ideals was too much." He halted, suddenly embarrassed at revealing what he had kept hidden for so long, even from himself.

Vila seemed to realize what his companion was thinking, for he coughed, and looked away for a moment.

Avon resumed, his voice dropping even further as he spoke. "I did trust him, you must know that, Vila. I did believe in him . . . But Tarrant was so convinced, and Blake looked so hardened, so changed. I . . . doubted him."

Avon's voice faded to a harsh nothing, and his expression revealed that he was reliving some personal horror.

"Well, Avon, it looks like you now have a perfect record for trying to kill those people you trust." Some might have considered the comment callous, but Vila was hoping to shock Avon out of whatever mood he was in. And he knew only too well what Avon must be thinking about.

The strategy worked. Avon came back, and aimed a wry, if somewhat forced, grin at Vila. "Yes, I suppose I do. Just be thankful that you're the one who survived the attempt." It was the first time Avon had directly acknowledged what had happened on the shuttle since their confrontation on Xenon. A shadow passed across Avon's face.

"Vila, I am sorry. About all of it." Vila had seldom heard that tone of voice from Avon. Not at all, in fact, since Cally's death. It was as if the dark man had suddenly stripped down all of the defensive mechanisms between him and the world, and allowed a small piece of the real Kerr Avon to show, for however brief a time.

"Thank you, Avon." Vila himself was serious, knowing what it had cost Avon to say that simple thing. "I think I've always known, what you really felt. It is good to hear it, though." Vila suddenly grinned. "But enough of this serious talk. You need to get some sleep. We've got to leave the ship in another four days. You have to be ready for travel.


"Yeah, some of Reevan's men aren't keen on having the man who killed Blake on board." Vila breezed past that bit. He knew the pain it would cause Avon if he had time to think about it. "So Reevan and I have made some arrangements with an old friend of yours for sanctuary on a nearby world. As soon as you're fit, my share of the raid on the Space Command ought to buy us a nice little ship."

"And then," Avon asked. The question was only natural.

"And then, with your brains and my skill, the galaxy is our oyster." Vila flashed a smile at Avon.

Avon frowned. "Blake wouldn't approve."

"Yeah, well how are we going to finance his bloody rebellion without any cash." Vila finally looked Avon directly in the eyes. This time when Avon smiled, it was genuine.

Christ, what am I getting into all this again for? All I want to do is be happy, find a nice girl, and settle down on some prosperous world with lots of stuff to steal. And instead, I keep ending up doing damn fool things like trying to save the galaxy from tyranny and teaming up with psychopaths to do it.

No, that's not fair. Avon's not a psychopath. He's a friend, loathe though both of us may be to admit it. And right now, I'm all he's got, and he would definitely hate to admit that. If I left him now, I don't think he'd live out the year. I couldn't forgive myself for that. And I'm sure Cally would haunt me for it.

Cally was the only one who could really bring out Avon's compassionate side. As deeply as he cared for Blake, and we all knew he did, in his own way, the two of them would sooner fight than talk. Neither one would give in: Blake needed to lead as much as Avon needed not to follow. But with Cally, he sometimes would let the barriers down, just a bit. Even when we were around, we could sometimes see a look pass between them, and Avon would seem, I don't know, protective? Her death pulled the stops out on the madness that began when Blake disappeared, and Anna reappeared.

Now it's up to me. I've got to take over from Cally. I've got to hold the trust over Avon's soul, for a while. A short while, I hope. It's not a job I would want for long.

Del Grant wasn't keen on hearing from me, but he felt obliged enough to Avon to find us a bolthole. It'll be enough, until Avon recovers. Grant didn't put much stock in the rumours that Avon had killed Blake, having met them both in better times. I didn't enlighten him. I also didn't tell him how his sister really died. He still thinks she died before Avon was caught by the Federation. Thank god for Servalan's cover-up tactics, is all I can say.

So, it's at least a month of enforced recovery for Avon, and then back into the fire. I don't know which I'm dreading more: taking on the Federation again, or spending time with an invalid Avon.

I hope Blake appreciates this, wherever he ended up. He's probably laughing at the two of us. His least enthusiastic recruits, and we end up the last keepers of the flame.

Cheers, Blake.


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