The finishathon master list is already up because of LJ going down tomorrow. This story, I tell you, was not easy to write as all I really had was the beginning and end. There are reasons stories languish on the finishathon list! Thanks to astrogirl2 for her excellent--as always--beta.
This is a PGP in which Vila takes Orac and uses it to sabotage the Federation. In the meantime, Avon is looking for him.
When Vila woke up, he found it was the next day and someone called Klyn had alerted more rebels who had come and retaken the base. He could see Tarrant and Soolin in other beds in the plain concrete room, so he asked about Dayna and Avon--and Blake because you never knew. Avon, a med attendant said, was still alive, but only just, which was hardly surprising considering the number of times he had been shot. Vila was not sure what he felt about that, if anything.
It turned out that no one knew Avon had shot Blake. Vila had been prepared to cast doubts on the word of a Federation officer who'd be understandably keen on causing a small civil war, but it seemed that no one had believed Arlen anyway. Avon's people were, after all, the loyal group of rebels that Blake had hoped would come, and Avon had been found sprawled protectively over Blake's body.
Besides, everyone was too busy getting ready to move in case the base had been compromised to think about that bloody great gun he must have still had clutched in his murdering hands.
Several hours later, when Vila felt well enough to sit up, a man called Deva with an arm in a sling came round to ask if he wanted to join them. Vila said no. He'd had enough of being used, and for that matter, abused. Seeing Blake shot down after that one shining blaze of hope when Avon said he'd found him had been the finish. But when he tried to get out of bed to leave, a doctor had come over and said that he had been patched up well enough to be moved to the primary base the next day, but that he would need more treatment.
Treatment? Vila pulled the covers up to his chin and lay rigidly in bed, staring horrified at the ceiling (rather as he had when he'd been shot). Part of him knew that the rebels had no intention of trying to adjust him, but that didn't matter to the rest of him, which was filled with panic at that old weasel word. And sure enough, as soon as he drifted off to sleep, back came the nightmares to replace more recent ones about airlocks: people in white coats, flashing lights, agony, needles, drugs, and the struggle to keep hold of who he was before he disappeared.
So when he woke up in the middle of the night with his heart pounding from yet another bad dream, Vila disconnected his drip and got out of bed. His clothes, he found, were rolled up and stuffed into the bedside unit, but there was a hole burned in the back of his jacket and jumper. Vila shuddered and forced himself to go through the pockets for his lockpicks, which he was relieved to find were still there. He found a set of clothes in the lockers outside that fitted him, a supply of painkillers in case his back started hurting again, and let himself out of the base.
He wasn't sure why the first thing he did was to go and get Orac from where they'd hidden it by a lake. For the connection to people he'd cared about? To stop Avon getting it back?
It was all Orac's fault. It had tried to get him killed on that shuttle, and it had got them shot down when it told Slave to shut up. It had engineered the Liberator's sister ship blowing up that time; he wouldn't put it past the little plastic bastard to have planned this mess too, just for its own twisted amusement. Come to think of it. Servalan always seemed to know what they were up to. Really, nothing had really gone right since they'd found that damned computer.
Vila put Orac's key in. "You're good at predictions, aren't you? Predict this, then." He pulled the key out and lifted Orac to heave him into the icy lake. He wouldn't survive long in water.
But he couldn't do it. Orac was too much like a real person. It felt like murder and Vila had seen too much of that lately, and besides, he kept thinking about Zen, especially at the end. He sighed. He'd never been one for revenge; it just multiplied. If he had, he'd have snitched on Avon and stayed around to see what they did to him.
Cursing his soft heart, he put Orac back in the old leather case they'd found in the flyer and headed back to the base to nick another flyer in the general confusion of moving.
He ended up on Califeron, in one of the secondary cities, not the capital. Vila had considered Lindor and Horizon, and even Destiny, but decided that Avon might think of them too. They'd never actually been to Califeron, but it must have been safe enough for Avon to suggest it as a meeting place if things had gone wrong on Terminal. Which of course they had.
Still, the city was large enough for Vila to disappear in, and to live well off if he had to. Not that he did, once he'd emptied his existing bank accounts of savings and Freedom City winnings and spread the money around new accounts that Avon and Orac wouldn't know about. He found a small but comfortable furnished apartment to which he added very few personal touches; he'd never lived anywhere long enough or ever felt enough at home to acquire the habit. It was a fairly new one-bedroom apartment with off-white walls, plain wooden furniture upholstered in blue, and, unnervingly, windows with blue blinds which Vila pulled down to feel more secure. He wasn't used to windows and the strange exposed feeling they gave him.
He set Orac on the table and inserted his key. "Right. This is what you're going to do if you want to stay in one piece. You'll find every scandal and nasty secret, every illegal act, every little thing anyone in power in the Federation would like to keep hidden, and you'll leak it where it'll do the most damage. You'll have to calculate all the possibilities for that, use your famous predictive powers."
"Ah. Induce instability by promoting dissent from within? That will be most interesting, and an excellent study of human nature."
He'd enjoy it? Oh, well, nothing was perfect. "I think we'll start with Sleer." Vila smiled for the first time since Avon said he'd found Blake, but it wasn't the same sort of smile at all. "Let's begin."
He'd make them pay for what they'd done to him and his friends. But he'd do it his way.
Of course, it wasn't as easy as that. It never was. The Sleer part went well, just a matter of leaking not only her alias, but her secret accounts and where the money had come from. Vila enjoyed watching her trial for misappropriation of government funds, and he suspected Orac had enjoyed tracking down all the data.
But after that Orac just blinked and whined and dredged up a few old scandals.
"There isn't any point," said Vila, "if people know about them. What we want are secrets, things that would ruin reputations if they got out."
"Do you have any idea how much data I must sift through?" Orac said testily.
Vila thought about looking for information on security systems and how cunning he had to be in his searches. "Look, you're narrowing the field down a bit, aren't you?"
"Your terms were irritatingly vague. Unlike your stipulations about your own safety."
Vila had forced an admission from Orac that he had to obey a direct order, so he had expressly forbidden him to tell their location or Vila's alias to Avon or anyone else, and he'd put a lot of effort into making sure that Orac couldn't get around the wording.
Clever though he was, perhaps Orac didn't understand enough about people. Perhaps Vila would have to teach him, the way he'd started to with simple primary school playground jokes, back in a time he preferred not to think about too much.
"All right. Look, what we want is things that the scum at the top don't want others to know about. So you get into their personal computers and their comms and look for that sort of thing, anything that mentions another one of 'em, or someone in their family. Then filter it out a bit. If it's stuff that lots of people know, it's no use. If it's just opinion, that's worthless too. Not much point knowing that one of that lot thinks another one is a bastard--"
"That would in any case be a matter of public record."
"No, no, bastard in the sense of a nasty piece of work. Anyway, what you're looking for is someone doing something they want to keep quiet. So it would mostly be illegal, or kinky like enjoying being tied up with a plastic bag on your head."
"Kinky." Orac made the word sound as if he was holding it away from himself between two fastidious fingers.
"Look it up, bit of homework for you. But it has to be something someone actually did or still does on the sly, not just someone slinging a bit of mud at someone else. Then when you've got something, tell me and I'll tell you if it's worth leaking. I mean, it might be something we don't want to get out, like someone helping families of deserters." Not, thought Vila, that that was very likely. "Then we work out who to leak it to."
"We-ell, yeah, maybe outside the Federation, but not in it. Too censored and scared. Nah, what we want is a political rival who'll use it."
"An enemy, then. Someone who dislikes the performer of the act."
"Not necessarily. Someone might dislike someone else but still stand beside them in a fight."
"As did the crews of the Liberator and Scorpio?"
Vila felt briefly as if he was in a fast lift going down. "Something like that. Wasn't quite that bad though." Not on the Liberator, anyway. "On the other hand," he said quickly, "some politician might quite like another one but be quite prepared to climb up the ladder over them."
Vila waved his hand. "Metaphor or simile or something like that. The ladder of success, I suppose it stands for."
Funny, really, about having to teach Orac this sort of thing. It was a bit like that time that boy from Moskvadome was put in his school because his parents were transferred, and Vila had helped him with learning proper Standard. Things like telling people to "go to my house" means you won't be there to meet them, but "come to my house" does, and how different "a school", "the school", and just "school" were, not to mention why you couldn't say "red little balloon". It had made him think about rules he hadn't even known he knew.
"I observe that humans' actions are often at variance to their speech," said Orac, sounding less certain than he usually did.
"Sometimes," said Vila. "People are usually pretty much what they seem, but it's best to go by what they do, not what they say."
"I concur. I would cite the example of your repeated assertions of cowardice despite the number of times you have effected rescues of others."
Vila was disconcerted, "Well, self-protection, that was."
"You often put yourself in danger although it was a less preferred option."
"You can say that again!"
"It's an expression! Means yes. Look, if there wasn't anyone else to do it--"
"I may infer then that you had a certain personal liking for your fellow crewmembers? That you considered them friends?"
"S'pose so. Mostly," said Vila, thinking unwillingly of Avon. And don’t bloody point out that it wasn't reciprocal.
But what Orac said was almost worse. "You and Avon were friends."
"No, we weren't! Look, me and Gan got on a lot better."
"I am endeavouring to understand," said Orac with asperity, "and have located some definitions. Friends enjoy each other's company. You spent a considerable amount of time with each other. Avon chose you as a companion on missions more than he did anyone else."
"You're reading too much into it."
"Friends also confide in each other."
If that's a definition, thought Vila, then I haven't had many friends at all. He pushed down the memory of Avon telling him about Anna and getting him to help with the cave. "People change," he said. "Including me. Look, Orac, just see what you find and we'll talk about it." And there'd be no more about Avon, if he was lucky. "I need a drink."
And he took himself out and down to the pub.
When Avon was well enough, he asked about the others. Vila, they said, had disappeared the night before they had moved to the main base.
"Like a thief in the night," said Avon, wondering where that expression came from.
Soolin had gone a few days after Vila, while Tarrant had joined the rebels as a pilot. Possibly because of his part in what had happened, Avon suspected, but then Tarrant did like the dashing and heroic life.
A couple of weeks later, when Avon went to retrieve Orac, he had a few more words to say on the subject of thieves.
Vila liked the local pub. It was called The Incompetent Pilot, though Vila was not sure whether this was because it had been built on an old crash site, or was a description of how people who drank there navigated home. It was warm and cosy with its dark green walls and lamps and framed pictures of vintage spaceships, and at first Vila was happy to just sit there and listen to others talk. After a few weeks though, he got to know a few names and was included in friendly conversations, the way it had been back on earth.
He'd never let people get closer than that. Safer to keep them at arm's length, just swap a few jokes, talk about local events and personalities. How then had he let the others get under his skin? Just sharing danger with them, like he'd heard happened with troopers who served together? Stupid really, because he'd never mattered to any of them, unless it was Gan.
And it was bloody ironic too, that the person he talked most to now wasn't even a person, but a blinking computer.
How, thought Avon as he watched recordings of Servalan's trial, had they traced all that money? Only someone very close to her could possibly have known--and Servalan would never trust anyone to that extent, or as Vila might point out, to any extent, really.
Vila. It had to be Vila and Orac.
Avon found himself torn between admiration and annoyance; he had hoped to keep Sleer's real identity as a bargaining chip.
There seemed however to be no easy way to discover Orac's location. All the same, Avon set up automatic searches that would flag names anywhere close to being an anagram of 'Vila Restal' and belonging to a recent newcomer. Unfortunately, the only three people turned up had extensively documented backgrounds, the wrong ages, and in two cases, large families.
After talking to Levin, one of the rebel base doctors he had got to know during his slow recovery, ("I did warn him that he needed more treatment." "Not perhaps the best word to use in this case.") Avon extended his search to males of any name who had been treated for damaged kidneys in the last few weeks.
Now that Orac had got the hang of it, the undermining of the Federation government was going quite well. Or at least, several prominent members had been variously thrown out of office, exiled, and executed for things like selling votes, falsifying the quality testing of foodstuffs and construction sites, conspiring against certain others further up the ladder, and selling military secrets to Teal and Vandor. There were even calls for investigations into people Orac hadn't found anything on.
Some of the things Orac unearthed, like the senator who falsified records and got the wealthier families of missing Space Fleet members sold into slavery so that he could take over their assets, worried Vila when he thought about all the people doing similar things that would never be found out.
"I know how those superheroes feel now," he said, waving a glass of water (he seemed to be very thirsty these days) in Orac's direction. "You know, those flying people with capes and all, who look after a city or a planet."
"Yes," said Orac, who had taken a rather surprised second to research this. "What of them?"
"Doesn't matter how fast they are, they can't stop every crime and save everyone, can they? Can't be everywhere after all, and they have to eat and sleep. I always used to wonder how they felt about that."
"They are fictional characters, so the question is completely meaningless."
"No it's not." Vila drained his glass and poured another one. "What if I miss someone doing something really terrible that I could stop? See, this is just why I always avoided responsibility."
"I do not understand," Orac said querulously. "You are responsible only for your own actions."
Oh yeah? thought Vila, eyeing Orac and thinking about all the things he'd deliberately never asked him about for fear of getting an answer. "And what they do to other people. Or don't."
Strangely, it was something that Vila couldn't change that made him feel better: factories whose working conditions slowly killed people, usually through overwork and exposure to poisonous chemicals, just as had happened to his mother. That wasn't illegal, or a scandal to anyone but the Deltas who didn't have any other choice but to work in them, and in most cases, the factories weren't owned by any one person Vila could take down. And if he did, another one no different would probably take their place. This made him angry and depressed, but it was also obscurely comforting that there were things he couldn't change.
He wasn't a hero after all. And that called for something a lot stronger than water, so he went down to the pub and got drunk.
Unsure what to do if the government actually toppled, and somewhat reassured by Orac's remark about only being responsible for himself, Vila decided to attack on another front. It was much harder, however, to drum up any outrage about the systematic drugging of entire planetary populations. In the end Vila had to resort to a 'leaked' report of how much revenue in taxation and private shares was lost due to the workforce being turned into docile cattle.
He suspected that was really what got Servalan put up against the wall.
Now what? Orac did have the formula to the Pylene-50 antidote, so after some thought, Vila got him to send several people anonymous messages containing it, just to see who would use it.
"There," he said. "It's up to them now. Me, I'm going to bed for a nap."
"Elegant and dignified to the end," Avon said, raising a glass of brandy to the vid screen in his room. "And black was a good choice, Servalan. Blood shows up so on white."
He doubted that Vila was watching, knowing his squeamishness, but all the same, Avon lifted his glass to him too, though he felt a certain regret at Servalan's passing. She had been one of a kind. He could almost hear Vila saying, "And so are we all!" and for a moment he felt a sharper regret.
He finished his brandy in silence and went back to work on Scorpio's salvaged teleport.
"I wonder," he said a few days later, "why Vila chose old Starkiller Samor to get the antidote formula."
He was sitting in the canteen with Irit Levin, the doctor, whom he found direct and refreshingly intelligent.
"He's well known and admired within the forces." Irit smiled. "An upright military man who lacks the imagination the truly corrupt need."
"Hmm. He's certainly made himself very popular with this move. It's quite clever, getting the Fleet and civilian financial interests behind him like that."
"Samor or your Vila?"
"He's not mine. And both, I suspect." Avon was silent for a moment, puzzled. Unlike the uncovering of dirty secrets, it didn't really have the feel of something Vila would do. He shook his head. "I wouldn't be surprised," he said, "if they appointed Samor Supreme Commander. With luck, the bloodbath of an actual rebellion might even be avoided."
Irit pursed her lips. "We need more than a change of government. We need a complete overhaul of society."
"I can see why--" Avon paused and sipped his coffee to prepare himself for the name, "--you joined Blake."
"Yes. He knew how to dream, even here in the mud of Gauda Prime." Irit raised a dark eyebrow. "If we got your Vila and Orac back, we might even be able to achieve something."
Avon ignored the 'your'. "I'm working on it."
Feeling strangely released by his inability to do anything about factory conditions, and Samor taking over the Pylene-50 situation, Vila left the scandal-mongering largely to Orac. He just gave the plans a quick once-over and made some suggestions whenever Orac failed to quite get how humans worked, but it didn't seem to matter so much now.
Besides, he was tired. Must have been all that mental strain; just showed what a toll it took. A bloke needed a bit of a holiday after all that.
So he wandered down to the pub when he felt like it (which wasn't as often these days because beer and wine tended to make him a lot thirstier than they used to), or sprawled in an armchair with his bookpad, or watched the vidscreen.
Not a bad life, all things considered. Certainly a hell of a lot better than what he'd had for the last couple of years. Thinking about that and how lonely he'd been didn't even hurt as much as it had. Because the odd thing was, the people down the pub he hardly even knew, and that grumpy bastard Orac seemed to be enough. Funny, that.
Orac could see Vila through his own sensors, plus the ones Vila had installed as part of the security system. He watched him now, while also monitoring his current searches and devoting a small part of himself to answering Vila's occasional comments about the comedy he was watching.
Humans were changeable and it was therefore difficult to notice the alterations that took place over time. Orac did so now, comparing the current image of Vila to those of the past.
He no longer drank as much alcohol as he had in the last year, though that had been notably more than previously. Perhaps this was a natural variation and could be ignored. However Vila had never drunk as much water as he did now, at least not without additives "to give it a bit of flavour" as he put it. Was this significant? A second spent in research showed that it might be, as Vila was drinking more water than was considered normal. He was also sleeping more. He had always taken naps, but a review of the recent past showed that his total amount of time spent asleep per 24 hours had increased considerably.
And Orac estimated that Vila now weighed about six kilograms less than he had.
Correlating this data with that held in the rebel base's medical records about Vila's injuries, and with information about kidney function and indeed malfunction, Orac concluded that Vila was ill and probably dying.
In the past, Orac would not have said anything or taken any action; the phenomenon would have been interesting to observe.
But now, he found, he preferred that it did not happen.
"I observe that you are unwell," said Orac from the bedside table where Vila had placed him.
"I'm just sleepy," Vila said defensively. "I feel fine really," he said, trying to convince himself. "It's just time for my usual afternoon nap."
"In addition to your usual morning one, yes. You drink more water than is normal."
"Thirsty, aren't I."
"It is my opinion that you should see a doctor."
"Then you can keep your opinion to yourself." Vila briefly considered taking Orac back out to the other room, but couldn't be bothered getting out of bed.
"It does not make sense to ignore your symptoms. I strongly advise--"
"Look, Orac. Have a gander at what doctors tried to do to me when I was a kid."
Orac blinked busily. Probably only took him a second or so to read all the records. "Your reaction is illogical. This is a completely different situation."
Vila sighed. "Firstly, getting treatment means that someone might recognise me."
"Unlikely. Your alias--"
"Is probably a dead giveaway that it is one. And secondly. I don't much mind. Dying, I mean. I used to go to a lot of trouble not to, mostly because of the pain, but just going to sleep and not waking up seems to me a pretty good way to go, especially when I'm not all that attached to living. Strikes me as a useful arrangement on the whole. Better than being patched up and getting attached to the idea of being alive again and some bastard coming along and shooting me or blowing me up. Or worse."
Orac was silent.
Vila pulled the covers up to his chin. It was nice here, in this warm, light room with the sunlight from the window lying across his bed in a bright rectangle. He'd got used to windows and liked them now. He enjoyed being able to see the weather, so close but safely outside, and people going about their remote and alien lives in the street below.
This was his safe little place, here with his books and vidscreen and Orac. Not a bad bloke, Orac, when you got to know him. Knew where you were with a computer, even a bed-tempered curmudgeon like that plastic rat in a box. Wasn't a real person, was he, and Vila thought that on the whole, he'd had enough of those with their scorn or indifference. Much easier just being on the edge, like sharing a joke in the pub: nice enough people, that lot, and none of them allowed close enough to hurt.
He looked at the sunlight lying on the wall and across the cover of his bed, all bright blues and greens there. This was a strange room compared to the cramped, cosy one he'd grown up in, but the feeling of cocooned warmth and safety was the same.
"Tell me a story," he said sleepily to Orac, just as he'd asked his mother when he was small and ill.
"A story?" Orac sounded outraged.
"Yeah, you know, something not true, something full of interesting and strange things. And don't give me any of that stuff about it being a waste of your huge intellect, either," he added. "It'll hardly use any processing power."
"Oh. very well." Orac said huffily. There was a pause of a few seconds.
"Well, go on then!"
"I am searching for the right one. Ah yes, this will do."
Vila wriggled into a more comfortable position.
"This story takes place a long time ago in an ancient land which existed long before space flight or indeed any form of flight."
"I like it already."
"It is called The Thousand Nights and One Night."
"On the contrary. It is a collection of short stories."
Vila rolled onto his side to face Orac. "Go on." After a while, he said, "Bloody hell, what an utter bastard!" then, "She's brave, but I don't see how she's going to get herself--and her sister--out of this one," then, "Oh, clever! But Orac, you can't stop there!"
"Why not? Shahrazad did."
"But I want to hear the rest! I want to know what happened to the calf boy."
"And you shall. Next time."
"Oh, all right." And when Vila drifted off to sleep in the sun, he dreamed of palaces with rich carpets, fountains, palm trees, and dark-eyed people dressed in exotic garments of peacock colours.
Orac waited until Vila was asleep and considered how to inform Avon of where he was. It was easy enough to get around Vila's instructions, but what he said also had to convey the information required to find Vila. In the end he left a single sentence on Avon's computer.
Avon frowned at the words on his screen. They had not originated from the messaging system, but were just there, as if someone had come into his room while he was out and entered them directly.
A man with a back injury no longer drinks at The Incompetent Pilot.
It looked like one of those stupid code phrases spies on vid shows used to identify each other. But wait... a back injury?
Vila. And Orac.
Avon tapped his fingers on the table in thought. The wording was very deliberate, designed only to be understood by him. But why not something more specific, like the name of a city or even a planet?
Perhaps Vila did not want to be found. If so, it appeared that Orac did, and the implications of no longer drinking at what Avon assumed was a pub were that Vila was ill or in some other trouble.
It was not hard to locate a pub with such an unusual name. It was in Olyan on Califeron, and that alone was confirmation that it was Vila; he must have remembered the plans to meet there.
Avon stood up and went to see Irit Levin.
"I've found Vila. And you'd better come with me."
Avon looked around The Incompetent Pilot.
"Quite a nice place," said Irit.
It was certainly the sort of place Vila would like: warm, noisy, and full of friendly and gregarious drinkers. Avon couldn't wait to get out of it.
He went up to the bar and said to the publican, "I'm looking for a friend. I'm told he drank here until recently. About my height, light brown hair thinning a little at the temples."
"You mean Del?"
Of course it would be Del, one of the most common names. Avon remembered Vila having a go at Tarrant after one of Tarrant's more flat-footed attacks on him.
"Must've been awful being called Del, especially at school. What'd they do, number you? And I bet a lot of people noticed how well it went with Tarrant. Got called Delta, didn't you?" And he'd grinned, leaning on Tarrant's station. "Or even Delta Rant?"
Avon almost smiled at the memory. Tarrant's grade-related comments had certainly stopped anyway. "I do, yes. Do you happen to know where he lives?"
"Dunno, mate. Somewhere around here. You could ask that lot in the corner." The publican nodded towards a group of people around a table. "He often drank with them."
"Thank you." Avon went over, followed by Irit, and asked them about his friend Del who now lived somewhere nearby.
"You mean Del Kline?"
Avon shut his eyes briefly. Ah yes, Kline, that common name which was spelled in any of three different ways if you didn't count the pretentious idiots who added an 'e' to 'Klyn'. "That's right."
"Hasn't been in for a while, a few weeks now."
"Didn't look that good either."
"Yeah, lost a bit of weight lately."
"Do you happen to know where he lives?" asked Avon.
"In one of the apartment buildings in the next block, I think." A middle-aged woman pointed down the street. "Seen him going in there anyway."
"Thank you." Avon turned to go, then paused and put a banknote on the table. "Have a round on me." After all, it might incline them to be more forthcoming if he could not find Vila.
But there was a D Kline listed in the foyer of the second building they checked. D Kline, Avon thought. Was that one of the reasons Vila had chosen the name? I decline to be a rebel. I decline this life. He pushed the button for the lift and selected the third floor.
Vila's door was, like the others, plain and blue, with a small name plate. Above the D Kline though was a small spy hole at eye level. Avon stood in front of it and knocked.
"Who is it?" Then, too quickly for Vila to have made it to the door; he must have remote monitoring: "Avon! How the hell did you find me? Go away!"
"Let me in."
I decline. "Vila. Open the door."
"No. If you want Orac, you can come back in a few months."
"You are unwell. I have Dr Levin here. You must remember her from the base on Gauda Prime."
"If you do not open this door, Vila, I shall blow it apart." Avon stood back, took out his gun, and set it to highest power. Several locks clicked open. "A wise decision."
"Orac, you bastard!" he heard Vila say accusingly.
Avon stepped into the main room. It was plain, but pleasant with a large window. And it was empty.
"I suppose it was you who told him where to find me," Vila said aggrievedly. "And after I ordered you not to."
"I obeyed your commands. I did not convey your location or alias to Avon, but simply told him that a man with a back injury no longer drank at the pub. He deduced the rest."
The voices were coming from the next room. Avon and Irit went in.
Vila lay propped up in the bed. and Orac was on the bedside table along with a large container of water and a glass. Vila was thin and pale with shadows under his eyes.
"Now you've seen me, you can take Orac and go."
"I'm not here for Orac."
"Oh yeah? Want to make sure no one's left but you, do you?"
For a moment, Avon was unable to speak. "If I intended to do you any harm, I would not have brought a witness. This is Dr Levin." He ignored the sharp look Irit gave him, stepped forward and snapped a teleport bracelet around Vila's wrist.
Vila took it off and threw it across the room, narrowly missing Avon. Avon quietly went to get it from the corner where it had landed by the window. He stood there, looking out. There was a wide view into the street below, and across the rooftops downhill to the blue strip of sea beyond.
"Just leave me in peace," said Vila.
"Why not? Might be the best chance I have to do it happily."
"It would not be very pleasant towards the end," said Irit, "and I can make you better."
Avon gestured at her to keep quiet. "It's a nice place here."
"And a lot nicer without you," Vila said savagely.
"Have you walked down to the sea?"
Vila sounded puzzled. "No."
"If you allowed Dr Levin to help you, you would be able to. You could enjoy life here more than you already do."
"Oh, yeah? And then when I started to get attached to it again, someone would come and take it away."
"You don't know that. You could live a long and happy life."
"Not going by anyone I know."
Avon turned his back to the window and went over to the bed. "Vila," he said softly, aware that Irit was there. "Going to Gauda Prime was a mistake. I admit that. As for that shuttle... I did delay finding you."
Vila stared at up at him, his eyes wide. Avon took the opportunity to put the bracelet back on his wrist, and, holding it there, said, "Slave. Three to teleport."
"Slave?" Vila sagged against him, then got his footing and looked around. "This isn't Scorpio."
"No. Slave was, however, salvageable."
"Like me and Orac?" Vila asked bitterly.
"Why not? You're both very useful." Avon helped Vila to the medbay bed, and said to that doctor he'd brought with him, "Look after him, Irit. I'll just go back down and fetch Orac and any personal items."
"Yeah, get what you came for," Vila said as a parting shot.
The doctor frowned as she hooked him up to a drip. "He was worried about you, you know."
"About Orac, more like. Or he wants me to open something."
"He never mentioned it."
"Look, Dr Levin, I don’t want anyone's bits."
"You won't," she said briskly. "If I can't save your kidneys, I can clone new ones. And call me Irit."
Vila regarded her. She had a thin, hawk-like face, cool grey eyes, long dark hair tied back, and an almost reassuring air of competence. "Anyone ever called you 'irritated'."
"Only ever once." Irit gave him a thin smile that reached her eyes anyway. "It's a flower in an old language." She busied herself with a machine by the bed.
"Oh." And Avon called her Irit too. Mind you, he'd called Jenna Jenna, and there hadn't been much love lost between those two. "You and Avon, are you, well, friends?"
"As much as anyone is with him. He doesn't let many people get close, does he?"
"It's safest not to."
Irit gave him a sharp look. "He spent a lot of time looking for you. You may be one of the few who has."
Yeah, thought Vila, and that's a worry in itself.
Irit decided she liked Vila. Once he got off the subject of Avon, he had been rather sweet and funny in a strangely boyish way, and had even been amusing about his fear of people in white coats, spare parts (either getting them or being rendered into them), and armed members of the Federation who didn't know him but had an unreasonable prejudice against him.
"He doesn’t seem to trust you much," she said to Avon when he arrived back on the flight deck with the computer, a bookpad, and a large bag of data crystals. "I thought you said he was a friend."
"Yes. I did not say I was," Avon said shortly.
"I saw how worried you were on the way here. And the look on your face when you saw him."
"He has his reasons." Avon put the bag and bookpad down and stood for a moment, looking at Orac, then took it into the medbay. "Sleeping," he said when he got back. He sat down in his flight chair and flicked switches, "Will he be all right," he asked with elaborate detachment.
"As good as new."
Avon did not say anything, but it seemed to Irit from what she could see of his face as he looked at the displays, that he smiled. "Pity. One might have hoped for an improvement."
Vila asked that Orac stay with him when they got to the base, after the operation too. Avon found it somewhat disturbing; Orac was after all, just a machine, and he was concerned that Vila seemed to regard it as a person. However when he approached Vila's room, he heard Orac's voice, and it sounded different from the usual annoyed, impatient tone. He stopped outside the door to listen.
"The wazir," said Orac, "utterly amazed at the strangeness of this, sent for the fisherman and ordered him to bring four more fish of the same sort. So the fisherman went to the mountain lake, cast his net, and caught four fish. He brought them to the wazir who in turn took them to the cook and said, 'Right, get moving and fry these up while I'm watching so I can see if there's anything in this story of yours.' The cook cleaned the fish and put them in a pan on the fire, but she had hardly done so when the wall opened and the young girl came out, just like before, dressed the same as before, and holding a wand like before. She put the wand in the pan and said, 'Fish, fish, are you faithful?' and the fish lifted up their heads and said:
'Come back and so will we,
keep faith and we'll keep faith,
but if you show us treachery,
it will be to your scathe.'"
Surely, though Avon scathingly, the fish could find a better rhyme that that.
"At this point," said Orac, "Shahrazad saw that morning was coming and she fell silent."
"As did Orac. As usual," said Vila sleepily.
Avon looked in. Vila's eyes were closed, but he already looked considerably better than he had. He entered quietly and sat down in a chair by the bed, and waited until he was sure that Vila was asleep, his chest rising and falling shallowly and regularly.
"A Thousand And One Nights," he said.
"It is more accurately entitled The Thousand Nights And One Night," said Orac in his usual voice. "Do you know it?"
"I've heard of it. I recognised the storyteller's name. Why did Vila want that read to him?"
"He did not. He asked for fiction 'full of strange things' as he put it."
"Then what made you choose it?"
"It was," Orac said proudly, "a large collection of stories of sufficient strangeness and with an intrinsic and useful feature, that of ensuring that the reader will wish to hear more."
"And that the narrator survives to tell more."
"Actually I was not concerned about that. I have proved useful to Vila and I believe he finds our conversations as stimulating and enjoyable as I do."
Enjoyable? "So it was Vila the stories were meant to keep alive."
"They provided some incentive until you arrived. I was certain that my message was worded sufficiently clearly to ensure that you would bring medical help."
"Why?" Avon asked. "Why did it matter to you?"
"I considered the possibility of a universe without Vila and decided that the alternative was preferable. His thought processes are both interesting and entertaining."
"Yes," said Avon quietly. "I find that too."
And when he left, he did not see Vila open his eyes and stare after him in surprise.
"No thanks all the same," said Vila. "I've had it up to the back teeth with underground bases."
"You prefer ship-board life then?"
"Nah. Feet on the ground--" Vila gave Avon a faint smile, "--but not under it."
It almost felt like a peace offering, that smile, an acknowledgement that Avon had saved his life. "As it happens," said Avon, "I've spoken to Deva about the inadvisability of keeping the centre of operations here. I understand why..." He hesitated and made a detour around the name. "... why they did it--an open, lawless planet populated with possible recruits--but I see no reason why the headquarters should not be on a safer independent planet."
"Ah." Vila gave Avon a speculative look over his coffee mug. "Like Califeron, you mean."
"Califeron would be ideal." Avon kept his face expressionless. "That town you were in for example--"
"Yes. There's a mountain range not far off where one could always excavate an underground base if that makes people feel more secure. But others who perhaps were attached in an advisory capacity--"
Avon nodded. "People like that could be based in a nearby centre of population."
Vila leaned back on his canteen chair. "And computers. I've got quite fond of the little sod, you know."
"Of course," Avon said gravely. "I would however require occasional access to it."
Vila looked at him thoughtfully, then his eyes crinkled slightly. "I suppose that would be all right."
It was a start, and that was what mattered.