Nico (vilakins) wrote,
Nico
vilakins

Fic: Free Choice

This is my livelongnmarry charity story, written for crycraven, who requested Vila and Avon on a heist or mission together in season 1 or 2. Many thanks to my faithful and excellent beta-reader astrogirl2.

Free Choice

"First decent planet we've orbited, and we just drop the passengers off and scarper." Vila slumped at his station on the flight deck. "Typical Blake. Doesn't occur to him that we'd like a bit of time off, some R and R, a break from the hard life of a rebel. Oh, no."

"I suspect it did," said Avon.

"Oh." Vila looked over at him. "You mean he thought we might bolt?"

"Plainly put, but yes."

"Not that you bothered to ask me last time you considered it," Vila said resentfully.

"I did, actually."

"You mean why I stayed with Blake? Bit indirect, wasn't it?"

Avon bared his teeth at Vila. "You said you had nowhere else to go."

"Well, I wouldn't call a space station stuffed with scientists anywhere. And I was right."

"Quite."

Vila gave up. "Still, you'd think he'd make sure old Sarkoff was all right, not just leave him there and hope no one does anything more permanent to him."

Avon pointed a finger at Vila and retrained it on Blake as he came back in with Jenna and Cally. "Blake--"

"Break orbit, Jenna. Standard by five for--"

"Blake."

"What is it, Avon?" Blake said impatiently.

"I am astounded that you just teleported Sarkoff down in the somewhat vague hope that he might gain some support in what is now a Federation-controlled political system. No, actually, I am not. I would have thought however that you might do rather more revolting--an appropriate verb--than just delivering him to the wolves."

Blake glared at Avon. "He will do fine."

"How? Do explain."

"He was very popular before, and now he's back, he's sure to be re-elected."

"Really? The elections were rigged and doubtless will be again."

Blake hesitated, gnawing at a knuckle. "All right. I'll contact Sarkoff and suggest that we help. Happy?"

"Well now. It's a start."

***

"Clever, that," said Vila, looking around with interest. "Saying the elections were rigged." They had teleported into a shady side-street leading back from the waterfront, where they could blend in with holiday makers and tourists.

"They were." Avon relaxed slightly; no one had noticed them.

"And we're here to make sure the new ones aren't." Vila emerged into the sun and grinned with delight. The promenade was lined with cafes, bars, and tables with brightly coloured sun umbrellas on the town side, and palm trees and the glittering sea on the other, shading from almost purple at the horizon to turquoise, then green in the shallows.

"Oh, it's a bit more complicated than that, Vila."

"Course it is," Vila said happily. For once, complicated was a good thing--they'd be here for days, weeks even. Or longer for that matter; Blake did say once that anyone was free to leave. He rubbed his hands with glee. "Lindor! Home of the best chocolate and wine and cheese in the galaxy."

"And theatre, museums, opera."

Vila gave Avon a sidelong look, unable to tell if he was joking. "You have your fun, I'll have mine."

Avon smiled. "And brandy and ice cream, I believe."

Vila brightened. "You know, we'll have to verify those claims!"

He headed towards a bar with a tropical theme. "Hello, there," he said, giving the young woman behind the counter a friendly smile, which she returned. Vila was encouraged. "Lovely day, isn't it?" he said, immediately realising what an inane comment that was.

"It is." She had long straight blond hair, greenish eyes--Vila suppressed the urge to tell her that they matched the sea--and most attractive of all, she did not seem inclined to insult, shoot, or report him. "What can I get you?"

"Oh... ah... let's see. Oh yes, I'll have a Purple Pulsar in the Sunset, please. And whatever my friend wants."

She turned to Avon, and her eyes and smile widened. Here we go again, Vila thought. What was it about Avon anyway? His nose, his sneering mouth, the general air of superiority? Why would anyone prefer that to a friendly, approachable, and cuddly bloke like himself?

"A glass of your best brandy," said Avon. He turned to Vila. "And you had better dilute whatever you ordered with something non-alcoholic or I'll get less sense than usual out of you."

"No problems! There's an espresso place with ice cream next door."

"'Friend'?" the blonde girl said to Vila, amused, as Avon departed, leaving Vila to key in the payment.

"It's just his way of showing it," said Vila. "You never played the insult game with your mates?"

She wrinkled her forehead and shook her head. "I'll bring the drinks to your table."

Course, Vila might wonder about whether Avon was a friend himself but for the occasional appreciative look in Avon's eyes, and the time they spent desultorily firing verbal salvoes at each other. Big difference from the way old Ave treated poor Gan who never even tried to annoy him.

He joined Avon at the espresso place which was staffed by a young man with thick dark hair, an engaging smile, and a coffee machine that looked as if it needed a qualified pilot, and a redhead who handled the ice cream orders.

"An affogato di gelato," Avon was saying.

Vila blinked. "An affy-what?"

"Espresso poured over vanilla ice cream."

"Seems like a waste of both to me." Vila smiled at the barista. "Hello there! I'll have a cappuccino, extra fluff please." He moved along to peer at the ice cream selection, "And a bowl with three scoops--pistachio, chocolate, and ginger--with caramel sauce." He turned his smile on Avon. "Thanks very much for the treat."

"Bring the order to our table," Avon said sourly, paying, and followed Vila over to a table well out of hearing range of either bar.

Vila tipped his chair back and sighed happily. "I could consider staying here. These teleport bracelets tend to fall off very easily, you know."

"Yes." Avon looked out to sea, the gentle breeze ruffling his hair. "Do you know why the Federation never took this planet by force?"

"It'd put a crimp in the luxury food and drink supplies for the scum at the top?"

Avon raised his eyebrows. "Nicely put. However there is another reason. Do you know how large the Lindor army is?"

Vila thought of the pictures they'd seen on Zen's screen of the Presidential Palace with four stiff guards standing outside dressed rather like Tyce Sarkoff. "Not very?"

"On the contrary. Every adult is in it--apart from those who register as conscientious objectors. Which you doubtless would."

"Oh, I dunno. Some things are worth fighting for."

Avon looked briefly surprised, then shrugged and continued. "They keep their weapons and equipment at home and can be mobilised very quickly. Can you imagine how costly that would be for an invading army? Every house, every farm, every citizen against you?"

"Yeah, I can see they'd want to leave sleeping vineyards lie." Vila looked up, "Speaking of which, here are our drinks."

Avon stared at Vila's. "It has an umbrella."

"Maybe it's to keep the sun off." Vila extracted it and closed and opened it. "Very clever, that, and it's just made of toothpicks and paper."

"It's pink."

Vila looked up at the blonde bar woman. "Don't have any in black, do you?"

She shook her head, a quizzical smile on her face.

"Oh well. Hey, before you go: are you in the army?"

"Of course. I'm a corporal."

"And you keep a gun at home?"

"We all do." The girl shook her head in amusement and left.

"Oh."

Avon smiled faintly. "Still interested in staying?"

"Why not? I could keep to nice safe banks, and the safes in them." Still, made you look at the pretty girls a bit differently. They were probably all as tough as the two back on the Liberator. He sighed.

"And here is our ice cream."

Vila brightened at the sight of his dessert and very fluffy coffee with a palm tree of cocoa sprinkled on the top. "I suppose," he said to the redhead who had brought it, "you're in the army too and have a gun at home."

She grinned. "Like pretty much everyone else on Lindor, except that I happen to live in the country and have a tank out the back."

Vila blinked. "Water storage?"

"Big thing on tracks with a swivelling laser cannon." She aimed a playful finger at Vila. "Zap!"

"Ah." Vila smiled weakly.

Avon waited till she had gone, then leaned forward. "You begin to see why the Federation chose to rig the elections instead." He dug his spoon into his affogato.

"Mmm." Vila tried some of his own ice cream. "Mmmmm." He closed his eyes in pleasure for a moment. "So," he said at last, "what's the plan? Debug the election software?"

"As I said, it's not that simple." Avon took another bite and savoured it. "The elections are monitored by several officials and I doubt they were all bought. I'd say the software changes were very subtle ones with the code split and spread innocently throughout many programs, all of which continued to do what they were meant to do when run in isolation. Proof would be very difficult."

"Unless we found who did it."

"Probably someone on Earth."

"Well, someone here installed the changes! And I bet they were paid well for it."

"Probably." Avon waved his spoon at Vila. "And in order to enjoy their wealth, they would take out some insurance."

Vila frowned. "You mean keep some evidence. All right, how do we find them? Look for someone who's got more money than they should have?"

"That could take a while."

"Or," said Vila slowly, "we could tackle it from the other direction. From the top. Maybe the President, wossname--"

"Kleys."

"--well, she'd want to protect herself too, from the tech blowing the gaffe, I mean. So she'd have some evidence salted away to keep the bugger quiet."

Avon narrowed his eyes. "You may have something there."

"Really?"

"Enjoy your fancy drink. You and I will be breaking into the President's office tonight."

Knew it was too good to last, thought Vila, eating the cherry from his cocktail. "After a three-course dinner," he said.

***

Vila and Avon materialised on the roof of the Presidential Residence. Vila shivered in the cold night air as he looked around. The roof was vast and flat, though you couldn't tell from the street, what with all those fancy pointy bits and crenellations or whatever you called them all around the edge.

"Tell you what," he said. "If Sarkoff's wrong, I'm not going over the side on a rope and in a window. I don't like heights, especially when I'm dangling over one."

"Don't worry," said Avon, setting off towards a dark group of chimneys in the centre of the roof, like a stone plantation. "The entrance will still be there. Or more accurately, exit. It appears that Lindorian politicians are no different from most others in looking after their skins."

"You mean it was an escape route?"

"Exactly." Avon turned on a torch and played it over the chimneys. "You can see that there's plenty of room for flyers to land."

"But what about people getting in that way? Like we are?"

"Well, for a start, they'd have to know the door was there. Ah, here we are." Avon illuminated an entrance set into what must be a false chimney set further back. "And then they'd have to be able to get through the security."

"Right."

Avon watched, intrigued, as Vila's nervousness fell away and he became all business, crouched in front of the door, his red toolbox open beside him, as he intently examined the lock. "If a flyer landed now, you probably would not even notice."

"Umm?" Vila said absently, head bent over a readout. "Ah." He sat back on his heels.

"Well?"

"Not too bad. There's some bloody great bolts on the other side, bit like Klyber fastenings, but simpler. Course, if you cut through them, you'd set an alarm off."

"Then I suggest you don't."

Vila gave Avon a hurt look. "I resent that." He got back to work and didn't notice Avon's sudden smile. "Right." He packed his tools away and stood up, giving Avon an ironic bow. "After you?"

"Your manners are as impeccable as always." Avon pushed the door open and drew his gun. He led the way down the narrow stairs to a door, his torch showing only close and plain walls. He paused and stood aside for Vila. "This is undoubtedly alarmed too."

"Just as long as we aren't." Vila opened his toolbox.



They had made their way down to the ground floor, emerging into a long hallway. Most of one side was hung with oil paintings of what Vila assumed were previous presidents of Lindor, in all in severe dark clothes and painted against even darker backgrounds.

"Scrimped a bit on the lighting, didn't they," he commented. "And would it have hurt them to crack a smile?"

"Kleys appears to buck the trend."

Vila went to stand beside Avon. The last picture, next to Sarkoff looking pompous in a dark tunic buttoned to the neck, showed an attractive middle-aged woman with a brilliant smile that did not get even close to her eyes. "Bloody hell. Bet Servalan hand-picked her."

"Yes, well. Her office is down the end."

"You don't think she'd keep any evidence in her own quarters?"

"She is married with two teenaged children; what do you think? Of course, if you wish to search there as well--"

Vila shuddered, thinking of the cold eyes. "No thanks. The office it is."

He wondered what the stall-holders on the waterfront thought of her. Course, he could have asked, but he'd been thinking like a Terran; questions like that (and answers) got you arrested very fast.



"Does all right for herself," he said, looking round the presidential office, all crimson curtains, mushroom carpet, and rich brocade furniture. "Very plush. What's she want with all those couches and easy chairs though? Power naps?"

"I daresay," said Avon, making straight for the polished wooden desk and the computer on it, "it puts people at a psychological disadvantage."

"What, being comfy?"

"Plus being lower than she is, and unable to sit up straight, or rise easily."

"Huh." Vila drifted over to the desk. "Nice. I bet these were Sarkoff's." He put out an admiring hand to stroke an elongated, elegant, onyx cat between the ears, then reached for an inlaid wooden box.

"Leave those alone," Avon said automatically, "and find the safe."

"Probably behind a painting or a bookcase. All these rich bastards do that and think it's so original." Vila shook his head at human folly and peered behind a painting of Kleys and her family, all smiling identically insincere smiles, then behind one of the city and the sea beyond--much nicer--and moved to the bookcase. "Ah, what'd I tell you?" He slid it away from a wall safe. "And I bet no one ever opens these old books. Only there for show." He crouched down in front of the safe. Maybe the books were Sarkoff's too. He wondered briefly whether there were any interesting banned novels in there, but doubted it. Fiction wasn't dignified enough for a place like this.

He sat back, disappointed. "Just a few papers." He flipped through them. "All the sort of dry legal stuff that makes your eyes glaze."

"Let's see." Avon stepped across and took the papers.

"Haven't found anything on the computer, have you?"

"No."

Ah. Probably hadn't got round the security yet. "Have you tried her kids' names? Pets? People use obvious--"

"Shut up."

"Look, I'm only trying to--"

Avon put a finger to his lips. "Someone's coming down the stairs." He shoved the papers at Vila and strode to the door, turning the light out. "Vila! Come on!"

"Hang on." Working by feel, Vila frantically put the papers in the safe, closed it, and swung the bookcase back. He froze, still on his knees. The footsteps were too close; he couldn't get away. "Wonderful," he muttered as he crawled behind the closest couch, dim in the faint light through the curtains, then realised his toolbox was still in plain view. Suppressing a whimper, he wriggled forward and pulled it in with him, just as the door opened and the light went back on.

"Put the call through, will you?"

"Yes, Madam President."

Vila carefully extracted a small round mirror from an inner pocket, pulled out its telescopic handle, and carefully extended it towards the end of the couch. Kleys, wearing a bright red fitted suit, was sitting behind her desk, leaning back and tapping her fingers impatiently, while a slender young man with slick brown hair operated the comms unit.

"Through." The secretary stood back out range of Vila's mirror; Vila swivelled it nervously to locate him, standing slightly back from the desk with his hands behind his back like a well-trained little minion. He moved the mirror to show Kleys again, now leaning towards her comms screen.

"Councillor Bercol." She smiled the wide politician's smile from the portraits.

"This is not one of our scheduled times," a man's voice said coldly. "What do you want, Kleys?"

The smile disappeared. "Sarkoff's back."

"Oh? How?"

"He said that Blake brought him."

"Blake!" The Bercol bloke sounded interested for the first time. "Is he there?"

Kleys waved her hand dismissively. "No, he just teleported Sarkoff and his daughter down and left. My concern is that he has already stirred up the Senate to demand new elections because the old ones were invalid."

"Well," purred Bercol, "they were. And the new ones will be... much the same, won't they? Really, Kleys, what are we paying you for?"

"Wait!" Kleys put her hand out to stop Bercol closing the connection. "Can't you just send someone to take care of him more permanently."

"Think, Kleys," Bercol said with exaggerated patience. "We allowed him to go into exile because a sulky loser will not inspire the population to action. A dead martyr will."

"But--"

"The changes made to the election software will handle it, with the right parameters. Deal with it."

Kleys scowled as Bercol cut the connection, and looked up at her secretary. "You heard that? Get in touch with Torer, and tell him no landslide this time, but a definite victory in a majority of provinces."

"Madam President." The man nodded and left.

Vila bit his lip and moved slightly to get into a more comfortable position. Was she going to stay there all night? To his relief, Kleys stood up, extracted a data cube from the comms unit, and paused there for a moment, tossing it gently in one hand. Vila held his breath. Was she going to put the thing in the safe or take it with her? Finally, Kleys opened the inlaid box on the desk, put the data cube in it, and flipped the lid closed.

Ha, thought Vila, pulling his mirror back in as her feet went past the couch to the door. The old hidden in plain view trick. He waited while Kleys put the light off and closed the door, then crawled cautiously out.



Avon had managed to conceal himself in a small room nearby which seemed, in the glimpse he got from the hall lights, to be a anteroom. Leaving the door slightly ajar, he crossed to the window and stood behind the curtains, feeling like a character in a farce.

Where the hell was Vila? He listened but heard nothing but barely audible voices from the office, and they did not seem to have the excitement and annoyance most people showed on discovering an unexpected Vila. Perhaps he had teleported. Avon raised his bracelet to his mouth and said quietly, "Cally?"

"Yes, Avon."

"Has Vila asked for teleport?"

"No. Is anything wrong?"

"Not yet. Stay there in case we need you. Avon out."

He parted the curtains slightly and waited until he saw someone go past. He frowned. The other person had to go past his door to leave. Did they have Vila? Then he heard the door open again and saw a flash of bright red and long brown hair as what looked like a woman passed. Kleys, probably. He hesitated, wondering if it was safe to go out and look for Vila.

"Avon?" came the tentative and worried whisper. "Avon!"

He let his breath out in absurd relief and opened his door to find Vila peering nervously around the office one. He stepped out and grabbed him and pulled him into the anteroom. "Get in here, you fool!"

"No, I'm not!" Vila looked hurt. "They never even knew I was there, and besides, look what I've got." He rattled the wooden box that Avon had noticed on the desk.

"Put that back. And what else have you got there?" Avon pointed at a large bulge in one of Vila's jacket pockets.

Vila pulled the onyx cat out far enough to show its head and grinned. "Thought I could give it a better home."

"Do you want them to know someone's been here?"

"I do, actually. It'll put the wind up the bastards when they know we know."

Avon sighed. "Know what?"

"About Kleys being in the Federation's pocket." He opened the box and held up a data cube. "Recording of her conversation with some old bloke called Berk about Sarkoff and having him topped and how the elections were rigged and all."

"Bercol! This--" Avon took the cube from Vila "--is all we need."

"Got the name of the tech who sets up the election results to be what they want too. Tora or something."

"We don't need that now."

"But that's what we came for!"

"We came for proof of election fraud, and we have it."

"Oh. Right." Vila shot Avon a sly look. "I suppose you don't want to drop another computer type in it."

Avon looked at him for a moment. "Why bother, when there is no need? Besides, we have no idea what sort of pressure was brought to bear." He pocketed the cube. "This will cause enough outrage when copies are given to the Senate and all the vidcasters. I imagine the system will get a complete overhaul." He lifted his bracelet.

"Wait!"

Avon raised his eyebrows.

"First thing Kleys and her lot'll want to do when the news breaks is get the hell out."

Avon smiled.

***

"So, who're you voting for?" asked Vila.

"Sarkoff, of course," said the blonde girl behind the bar. "He might be a pompous git but he's the best we have."

"Going to vote for Sarkoff?" Vila asked the young barista.

He flashed a brilliant white smile as he steamed the milk for Vila's coffee. "Oh, yes. Hard."

"And if that doesn't work," the redhead paused in dishing up his ice cream, "I'll use my second vote."

"Eh?"

She leaned on the bar. "The one with tracks."



"Best thing about the vid reports," said Vila, pouring the last of the caramel sauce over his remaining scoop of ice cream, "is when they stormed the residence and found them all piled up on those narrow little stairs behind the door, and them without a lockpick between them."

"Yes. A good night's work."

And it had been: changing the lock on the roof door, then making copies of the data cube and delivering them to Sarkoff and Tyce, key senators, and the major vid networks.

"Nice of Blake to let us come back down to--" Vila flashed Avon a conspiratorial look "--check on the population's response."

"Blake didn't have any choice."

Vila grinned appreciatively.

"You however do. Now's your chance."

"What d'you mean?"

"You were considering Lindor as a bolt-hole."

"And you weren't?"

"It will have too many Federation agents to make it safe enough for my liking. However you said that you stayed because you have nowhere else to go. You do now."

Vila shrugged.

"And liking Blake really is not a good enough reason."

Vila looked away from Avon's oddly intense gaze. "Like I said before, some things are worth fighting for."

"Lindor and its exports, I take it."

"All of it, really." Vila waved an arm to take in the whole scene. "But not Lindor itself. More the chance for other people to have all this. Got no idea what it's like to be a Delta, have you? Just factory jobs and drudgery unless you take up a profession like I did, and--" He stopped, unwilling to mention his mother and how she had died because Deltas didn't get the drugs she needed.

Avon raised his eyebrows. "Another idiot idealist, then."

Vila wondered if he'd given too much away. Still, he remembered that look of exasperated relief when Avon had seen him coming out of the office. Might just be having a competent thief around, but you never knew, could be more. He gave Avon his blandest look. "Only you wanted a reason better than liking people, see, but I do, you know. Like you." He paused deliberately. "All of you lot. And that's always been good enough if you're me."

Avon looked at him for few moments, then stood up. "Finished?"

"Yes." Vila pushed his empty dish away and followed Avon to the small shadowed side street. Hadn't even insulted him, old Ave, and he'd had plenty of openings there.

Avon lifted his teleport bracelet. "Liberator? Two to come back."
Tags: longer fiction
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