For the Birds

Leah Rosenthal & Ann Wortham

It was a simple, straightforward mission—no Federation ships lurking about, no sign of alien complications, no apparent dangers on the planet revolving serenely below the Liberator — so, Blake decided to send Avon and Vila down for a look around. The two men could do with a bit of time away from the ship, and Zen maintained that the climate below was pleasant, indeed very temperate.

He'd toyed with the idea of going himself, but Cally had convinced him of the wisdom of staying behind this time. Avon still wasn't fully recovered from injuries he'd received in their last raid against the Federation, and the computer tech needed the time off more than Blake did. But, he wasn't about to send Avon into unknown territory alone. Vila was the logical choice to accompany him, in spite of the fact that the two men argued with each other constantly. They seemed to genuinely enjoy each other's company and their verbal sparring.

Blake didn't think Avon would have welcomed anyone else along, anyway.

He'd be less suspicious of Vila than he would of any of Liberator's other crew members—he was beginning to complain that they were "mothering" him. Yes, this nameless planet at the edge of the galaxy was just what the doctor had ordered: remote, pleasant, safe.

"But I don't understand why I have to go with him," Vila was complaining loudly, casting a dark glare in Avon's direction. "If it's so safe down there, what's he need me for?"

Blake didn't even bother to look up from the chessboard he was bent over; Jenna had his king cornered once again. "Would you like to go down to a strange planet by yourself, Vila? Of course you wouldn't. And I wouldn't send you—or Avon—by yourself. There." He moved his knight decisively, smiling up at Jenna, who was watching him with a cool, predatory gleam in her eyes.

"Oh, let him stay behind, Blake," Avon said, in a bored tone. "I won't be down there very long, anyway." He was standing in front of Zen, his arms folded across his chest. He still looked pale, his hawkish features strained, but Blake knew he'd collapse before admitting he didn't feel well.

"Absolutely not. Vila is going with you to check out that planet. It could be just the base we've been looking for."

Avon snorted, his upper lip curling in a sneer. "How stupid do you think I am, Blake? That planet down there is of no strategic value whatsoever—not to the Federation and certainly not to us. There's hardly likely to be any rabble down there for you to lead."

"Oh, really?" Blake smiled at Avon brightly. "I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about. Why else would I be sending you and Vila to check it out?"

"Your twisted idea of rest and relaxation, I suspect," Avon muttered morosely "I don't know why Fate has decided to saddle me with you and your ridiculous cause, Blake, but someday your 'concern' for me will be the death of one of us."

"I don't like the sound of that," Vila babbled nervously. "If I've got to go, why don't we just get on with it? Are there any beaches down there, Zen?"

Avon turned slowly to glare at Vila, who grinned at him sheepishly. Vila knew that Avon couldn't swim to save his life.

+Affirmative, + Zen, the flight computer intoned, its visual display flashing. +One-third of the planet is ocean; the remainder is primarily tropical.+

Vila beamed happily. "Hey, that doesn't sound so bad. It could be fun, after all, Avon. Just you and me, nobody to bother us, palm trees swaying in the sun, swimming—"

"No swimming," Avon snarled, interrupting the smaller man's happy chatter.

"All right, no swimming. C'mon, let's go." Vila was out from behind the weapon's console and tugging at Avon's arm. "Blake won't be down there," he added slyly into Avon's ear.

"You've just convinced me," Avon said, glancing sideways at an impassive Blake. "Blake's beginning to remind me more and more of a mother hen lately." His gaze moved to encompass Cally and Jenna as well. "You all are."

Blake's smile only broadened at Avon's words. "You may snipe at me all you like, Avon, as long as you go."

"Checkmate!" Jenna crowed, pushing her blonde hair back from her face and relaxing into the cushions of the flight deck couch.

"What?!" Blake turned his attention back to the chessboard, watching Avon covertly out of the corner of his eye. The computer tech stood still a moment, obviously undecided, with Vila still pulling impatiently at his sleeve. Then, sighing loudly, he pivoted and exited the flight deck, Vila bouncing at his heels.

"I will teleport them down safely," Cally's telepathic voice rang in Blake's head.

He nodded without looking up and heard the telepath following after Avon and Vila. With a grimace, he looked up into Jenna's amused face. "I guess you beat me this time," he admitted.

"This time?" Jenna's eyebrows arched meaningfully. "The last three times, Blake."

"I've been worried about Avon," he tried to excuse himself.

Jenna began to laugh and, after a short sulking silence, Blake found he couldn't help but join in.

The planet was everything Zen had promised and more. Vila was delighted. Cally had put the two men down on a sandy stretch of warm beach which was lined with tropical vegetation and trees; the thief had immediately pulled off his boots and socks and darted into the surf. Avon watched from a safe distance, his features coldly aloof, but an amused twinkle in his narrowed eyes.

"Come on in," Vila called, laughing as a wave crashed against his shins and sprayed him with salty water. "Loosen up, Avon."

Avon shook his head, a small smile playing about his lips. "I'm going to explore a little, Vila. It is what we came for."

"Maybe you came to explore—I came to relax." Vila leaned over to grab at a shell the surf had washed up at his feet. "Look at this, Avon!" He held it up in the air. "Pretty, innit?"

Avon continued to smile indulgently, nodding in acknowledgment. "Very nice, Vila," he agreed. He pivoted around slowly to survey the foliage that swept back from the edges of the beach, dense and thick, more jungle than anything else. The only animal life in evidence were a few brilliantly colored birds, wheeling lazily overhead. Avon stopped his circling just long enough to watch a pair of them glide past and into the trees.

A sudden prickling sensation at the base of his skull was the first indication of trouble he felt. Seized by a sudden, inexplicable sense of danger, he whirled back to Vila—only to find nothing but the rolling sea and an empty stretch of beach.

"Vila?" he called, raising his voice and taking a step forward, puzzlement and worry creasing his brow. "This isn't funny, Vila. Where are you?"

Silence surrounded him, even the crash of the waves seeming muted in the desolate emptiness. Then, there was the unmistakable sound of a twig snapping and the rustle of a vine. He turned toward it, not attempting to hide his annoyance. "Vila—"

His words were choked off with a startled grunt as he found a long wooden spear resting against the tip of his nose. A ring of at least ten tall, excessively hairy humanoids surrounded him, all of them holding spear-like weapons of varying lengths. He glared down the length of the spear that was still shoved up in his face, then noted, with a relief he didn't even want to acknowledge, that Vila was alive and apparently unharmed. He was standing behind the ring of natives, his hands bound behind him with leather thongs and a cloth shoved in his mouth. He was still barefoot and his suede shirt was hanging open, the lacings undone. His brown eyes were wide, frightened and flashing a sheepish apology toward his friend. Avon nodded almost imperceptibly, acknowledging it.

The natives themselves were large in stature, much taller than Avon, and stocky in build. Their dress consisted mostly of soft animal skins, which covered them practically from head to toe; their facial features were obscured by elaborate, brightly colored feather headdresses, which were sculpted in various forms, but all bird-like in general appearance.

Avon finally grew tired of standing still and shifted backwards slightly, raising an eyebrow at their captors. "What do you want?" he asked, a bit skeptically. These people didn't exactly look like they'd speak Galactic Standard.

He didn't receive a verbal reply, but several of the burly natives moved forward and pulled his hands roughly behind his back to secure them as Vila's had been. He struggled briefly when they tried to shove a dirty rag into his mouth, but he was forced to acquiesce to their demands in the end. A filthy cloth in the mouth wasn't as dangerous as a filthy spear through the throat, after all.

"Avon. Vila. Respond please." Cally turned to Blake in exasperation. "You don't suppose they're ignoring us on purpose, do you?"

Blake rested a hand on his chin thoughtfully, turning to face the Auron. "Why, Cally? Why would they ignore our signal?"

"Perhaps to get even with you for making them go—Avon would love a chance to annoy you and you know how much influence he has over Vila."

"You don't really believe that, do you?" Blake was skeptical.

Cally's reply was short. "No."

"Well, Zen did say the planet was safe and Orac concurred," Blake mused slowly, thinking out loud, "So what kind of trouble could they have possibly run into?" He glanced at Cally again; she shrugged, noncommittal. "Perhaps their bracelets are malfunctioning," he continued. "Have you tried bringing them up?"

She shook her head, her brown curls bouncing. "I didn't want to until we were certain they might be in trouble."

"Try it now." Blake turned back to face the teleport alcove, his fists clenched tightly at his sides.

Cally flipped the appropriate switches, trying to locate the signal from Avon and Vila's bracelets, then activated the retrieval mode on the teleport. The teleport area hummed and hissed but neither man materialized. "They aren't wearing their bracelets," Cally spoke quietly, the color draining from her face.

Blake glanced over his shoulder at her, his eyes dark and worried. "I think I'd better go down."

The trek through the jungle was long and arduous for Avon; even with the protection of his long-sleeved leather jacket, he gained more than his share of scrapes and slashes from the dense undergrowth they were shoved through. He could only imagine what Vila must be feeling, barefoot as he was and with his shirt hanging open. Unfortunately, he was unable to check on his companion because the natives had hustled him to the front of their column while Vila was kept to the rear. No doubt they wanted to keep the two men separated to discourage an escape attempt.

But, what worried Avon the most was the removal of their teleport bracelets. The largest, burliest of their captors had taken a fancy to the metal bracelets when Avon's had started beeping, and both his and Vila's had been removed. They were now hanging on a thong around the native's neck. Avon could only hope that Liberator was still able to track their signal.

After what seemed like hours, they reached a clearing with thatched huts placed haphazardly around the edges of it and a large communal fire burning in the center. A huge totem pole towered over the central fire and Avon grimaced at the sight of it. It was carved from some sort of porous looking rock and was evidently meant to represent a giant bird creature. Its expression could best be described as fierce. Well, thought Avon, that at least explained the elaborate headdresses their captors wore. They probably worshipped the totem.

Avon and Vila were roughly pushed to a hut and thrust inside. One of the largest natives was posted across the doorway as a guard.

Avon rolled over on to his side, working at trying to spit out the foul tasting cloth while running an eye over Vila. The other man had simply lay where he'd fallen and now his eyes met Avon's balefully. Avon hoped he didn't look as bad as Vila for the other man was covered in small scratches and bruises, giving his skin a patchwork appearance. He finally managed to work the gag out of his mouth and spent a few moments coughing and spitting from the lingering taste of it.

"Don't look at me like that," he finally rasped at Vila. The thief was still staring at him. "It wasn't my idea to come down here. It was our Fearless Leader, as usual. Well, don't look at me like that!!!"

Vila's gaze turned sad and trusting. Avon was reminded of a bewildered puppy he'd once found when he was a child, which only served to irritate him further. The last thing he needed was Vila counting on him to get them out of this mess. He growled low in his throat, jerking his hands futilely, hoping to loosen the bindings. His struggles only seemed to pull the thongs tighter. He finally managed to scramble to his knees and he backed up to Vila's face, reaching down to pull the cloth out of the other man's mouth.

"I don't know why I'm doing this," he mumbled dejectedly. "You'll only drive me insane with your nonsensical prattling."

"Blake will find us," Vila choked, clearing his throat several times.

"Blake is an idiot!" Avon snapped, his temper fraying beyond his ability to control it. "You're an idiot! I'm an idiot! We're all idiots, Vila, do you hear me??!?" He shoved his face right up into Vila's, obtaining a wicked satisfaction when the smaller man tried to cringe away.

"Whatever you say, Avon!" Vila agreed quickly, finally managing to inch backwards a little. "I'm an idiot," he quavered, obviously frightened.

Avon made a conscious effort to get a hold of himself and moved away from Vila. "Sorry," he mumbled, shifting around to glare at the backside of the guard at the door.

"Avon? What do you think they want with us?" Vila questioned tentatively, his tone plaintive.

"Frankly, I haven't the faintest glimmering of an idea. I'll tell you one thing, though, Vila—this isn't my notion of fun in the sun."

"Me either, to tell you the truth," Vila mumbled dejectedly.

There was a faint stirring outside and the guard stepped away from the door to allow the chief native, still wearing Avon and Vila's teleport bracelets, to enter. He gestured at Avon and two of the hairy creatures moved in to grab the dark-haired man by the upper arms, pulling him roughly to his feet and steering him toward the doorway.

"What are you doing with him?" Vila wailed, staring wide-eyed at his friend being dragged off. "Avon?" He shuffled across the floor on his knees, desperate not to be separated from his companion.

The chieftain called a halt to the removal of Avon and surveyed Vila through narrowed, beady black eyes—the only facial feature visible through the feathers of his headdress. Then, he made another casual gesture and Avon was released…only for Vila to be seized and hauled to his feet.

Avon fell back to his knees and glared up at the chief defiantly—Vila was a nuisance but he was Avon's nuisance; besides, he'd be damned if he was going to just sit around and wait for his turn. "What do you want with us?" he demanded. "Let Vila go."

The chief eyed him contemptuously then spread the fingers of his very large hand across Avon's face and shoved the much smaller man backwards. He sprawled onto his back, hitting the packed dirt floor with a thud. It took a moment for him to clear the buzzing from his head, and by that time Vila had been hustled out of the hut, protesting loudly, and he was alone. "Damn," he whispered. "Damn, damn, damn." He renewed his attempts at loosening his restraints, cursing Vila for a fool the entire time.

The first things Blake saw when he teleported down were Vila's boots and socks lying discarded on the beach. Hope that it had all been a sick practical joke on Avon and Vila's part died in him as he picked up one of the brown leather boots, then turned in a slow circle, searching for any further sign of his missing crew members. He finally forced himself to look out into the rolling waves, half afraid that he would see something familiar bobbing in the water. He knew Avon couldn't swim—what if there had been an accident…? Filling his lungs, he tried calling out.

"Avon! Vila!" Silence save for the crashing waves, was his only answer.

Hanging his head and drawing another deep breath, he trudged up the sandy expanse a ways, but any footprints had been washed away by the encroaching tide. Even in the short time he'd been walking, the water had crept close to the edge of the jungle.

Giving it up as useless, Blake picked his way back to his starting point and collected Vila's other boot and socks. As he bent over to pick them up, his eye was caught by a scuffed about patch of ground and he leaned closer to study it. The signs of a struggle were evident. Following the marks into the dense vegetation, he could see that a definite path had been cut through the vines, leading into the interior. Well, it was the best—the only—lead he'd found so far. Straightening up wearily, he raised his teleport bracelet to his lips. "Liberator," he spoke into it quietly.

"Yes, did you find them?" Jenna's voice came back immediately.

"No," Blake said bitterly. "But I found evidence of a struggle. I think we can assume they're in trouble."

"I assumed that the moment they went missing, Blake," Jenna returned sharply.

Blake grunted in acknowledgment. "I suffer from optimism, I know. It's a fault."

"What are we going to do, Blake?" Cally's voice interrupted before Jenna could frame a suitable retort again.

"I'm going to follow this trail I've located. You and Jenna sit tight. I'll check in every hour—sooner if I find anything." He was already moving off into the jungle as he spoke.

"Be careful," Jenna warned, and a similar thought rang in his head from Cally.

"I sense they are in danger, Blake," the Auron telepathed. "I do not wish to upset Jenna, but Vila is very frightened—Avon, too."

He nodded to himself at Cally's words. He didn't need her sensitivity to emotions to know that his friends were in danger. He was starting to find evidence of blood splattered on the upturned leaves of vegetation—possibly it wasn't Avon's or Vila's, but possibly it was. Most likely it was. At least Cally had been able to "feel" them; they were alive.

Avon had managed to exhaust himself with trying to get his hands free and finally had to concede defeat. He made himself as comfortable as possible, sitting with his back against one side of the hut, and brooded.

Realistically, he knew Vila was right: Blake would come after them. But how long would it take Liberator to locate them in this jungle without the reference point of their teleport bracelets? How long before help arrived—and what if it was too late? Kerr Avon was many things, but he had never been an optimist. He didn't try to fool himself with hope of rescue but rather wracked his brain for ways to escape.

Unfortunately, he was unable to give the problem the concentration it deserved—his mind was too filled with horrific visions of what might be happening to Vila. His ears kept straining for the sounds of screaming, and when none came, the silence began to gnaw at him. Perhaps they had gagged Vila before they tortured him…or perhaps they'd cut out his tongue; for one sick moment he even allowed himself to consider the pleasantness of that idea. Once he thought he heard the distant sound of laughter—perhaps they were tickling Vila to death—but the noises soon faded away. Maybe Vila was simply showing a streak of previously hidden courage and was suffering in silence.

Time seemed to drag interminably but finally he heard footsteps outside again, the guard moved aside, and Vila was thrown in. The thief stumbled, falling to his knees, gasping and red-faced.

"Are you all right?" Avon inquired casually, carefully keeping his features impassive.

Vila looked at him, struggling to catch his breath. "I think we're in big trouble, Avon," he gasped. "Big trouble."

"I did have that impression," Avon said evenly.

Vila moaned inarticulately, shuffling over to Avon's side on his knees, where he leaned over to peer into the other man's eyes. "Well, you were right!"

"Spit it out, Vila," Avon snapped. "You're obviously dying to tell me what happened to you. What do our hosts want from us?"

"They want...," Vila paused dramatically, "Us!" He settled himself next to his companion with a groan.

"Well now, obviously they want us." Avon was not impressed by Vila's raving theatrics. "But what exactly do they want to do with us?"

"They're women, Avon. All those tall, hairy creatures that strong-armed us here—they're all female. The men here are small—like us—and kept as slaves." Vila stopped, still breathing heavily.

Avon turned to stare at him, his interest piqued now. "How did you learn all this? Did they speak to you?"

Vila's face turned even redder and he didn't meet Avon's inquisitive gaze. "They took me to the chief's hut. When we got there, she took off that feathered headdress and, frankly Avon, she wasn't bad looking. I saw a number of men and they appeared to be servants."

"Go on," Avon prompted, amused at Vila's embarrassment.

"Well, she took off all her clothes. It wasn't hard to figure out what she had in mind, Avon."

"Even for you, I imagine," Avon couldn't help cutting in.

Vila favored him with a scathing glare. "Yes, well, you might remember I took your place, Mr. Alpha Superior."

"Hmm," Avon agreed placidly, stifling a laugh. "So what did you do?"

"What do you think I did?" Vila's voice climbed up an octave. "I did what I had to, to save our lives."

"Of course." Avon nodded his head gravely, his expression perfectly serious. "Thank you for saving my life, Vila." Exaggerated sincerity dripped from his words.

Vila made a sour face. "Twist the knife a little deeper, Avon, why don't you? I daresay your turn will come soon enough. They obviously mean to keep us around as pets or something."

It was Avon's turn to look dismayed. "Blake will find us," he muttered fervently. "He'll find us soon or I'll never forgive him."

Roj Blake came hurtling through the doorway to land sprawling face down in front of Avon and Vila. The two men exchanged glances over the rebel leader's disheveled curls, their expressions mirror images of sadness.

"Maybe they'll take him next," Avon commented morosely, "but I'm not going to count on it."

The flight deck of the Liberator was quiet when Cally entered; Jenna was checking navigation figures and Zen and Orac were both silent.

"We've lost Blake," Cally reported matter-of-factly, striving hard not to overwhelm Jenna with the full brunt of her concern. It was more than simply a case of Blake being out of contact, she'd "felt" something…something she couldn't quite describe. She only knew that it was evil.

Jenna's head snapped up, her eyes boring into Cally's "What? We've lost him…what do you mean?"

"I was talking to him—he thought he'd found some kind of settlement of primitives. Then, all of a sudden, he said he saw Vila and the transmission was abruptly cut off. I couldn't reestablish contact." The Auron bit at her lower lip, worried and perplexed. I have a fix on where he was, though…. Oh, Jenna, I did warn him not to go down alone. I would have gone with him had he allowed it…."

"Did you try to reach him telepathically?" Jenna's voice went hard, all business.

Cally nodded. "Yes, immediately. He was there; I think he heard me.

But…," she trailed off uncertainly, not wanting to worry Jenna over a simple "feeling."

"Go on," Jenna urged, taking a step toward her. "What else?"

"I felt something evil, Jenna. I felt it before—when I tried to reach Avon and Vila. I think one of us should go down."

Jenna was silent a long moment, staring at nothing. Then, nodding decisively, she set her jaw and moved to pick up Orac. "We'll both go. Bring the guns, Cally."

"Wuzzat?" Blake murmured groggily, trying to roll over so his face wasn't buried in the dirt of the hut floor. "What happened?" He finally made it on to his back and blinked up into Avon and Vila's faces. His two crew members were leaning over him, their features wary.

"What are you doing here, Blake?" Avon asked with a sneer, no sympathy for the rebel leader's undignified position showing.

Blake continued to blink. "Rescuing you?" he offered tentatively.

Avon's expression didn't change; his eyes didn't even so much as flicker. "I must bow to the ingenuity of your plan—even I have not been able to fathom it. Care to explain how it works?" His tone was mildly curious. "Keep it simple for Vila's benefit," he added.

Vila transferred his intent glare from Blake's face to Avon's. "Save your own neck next time, ingrate," he spat.

"You're the one who got caught 'playing' on the beach," Avon snapped back, his tone turning vicious. "We wouldn't even be in this mess if it weren't for your childish proclivities and Blake's mistaken assumption that I need a mother."

"Leave it, Avon!" Blake raised his voice, sitting up to separate Avon and Vila. He really wasn't in the mood for one of their squabbles. "What's going on here?" he asked in the sullen silence. "Presumably you've found out something about what these people want."

Avon smiled wickedly. "Ask Vila."

Blake turned his attention to Vila, who was blushing a deep shade of red. "Well?"

Vila cleared his throat. "Uh, they want our, uh, services, Blake. At least, that's the impression I got."

"What he means, Blake, is that they have 'taken a fancy' to us," Avon interrupted Vila's stumbling explanation. "We are evidently more intriguing than their own men."

Blake was appalled. "Their own men…? You mean those hairy creatures are women?"

"According to Vila…yes."

Blake stared at Vila appraisingly. "How did you find out?" he questioned hesitantly, not sure he really wanted to know.

Vila ducked his head and mumbled something, his chin sunk against his chest.

"What?" Blake said, leaning closer. Vila only mumbled again. "Speak up, man!"

"How do you think I found out?" Vila finally snarled, lifting his head to glare challengingly up into Blake's eyes.

"Oh." Blake's reply was contrite. "Of course. Sorry, Vila."

"You're going to be a lot sorrier if you don't put your brilliant rescue plan into practice soon, Blake," said Avon cuttingly.

Blake began to blink in confusion again. "How so?"

Avon sighed loudly. "How obtuse are you? Do you ever think about anything besides your sainted revolution? Think, Blake. They've had their fun with Vila which leaves…" he trailed the words off, an eyebrow quirking upward.

Blake could feel the heat of embarrassment rising up the back of his neck as Avon's meaning sank in. He knew he sometimes suffered from incredible naiveté. "Oh." He cleared his throat nervously. "Well, at least we know they'll take good care of us," he commented, his streak of optimism rearing its head. "They'll want to keep us in good physical shape."

Avon shook his head sadly. "Maybe. Then again, maybe these women are akin to the Black Widow cult on Fortrania 5. They share some of the same characteristics of that group—the fierce totem, obviously meant to represent a retributive God, the elaborate costumes, the ritual mating. They took their name from the black widow spider, you know. The female of the species eats her mate once he has satisfied her."

"The black widow?" Vila queried, his voice trembling. "You don't mean us?"

"Yes, I'm afraid he does," Blake cut in. "There was a rather large communal firepit in the center of their village."

"And they all seem to have quite a hungry look in their beady little eyes, come to think of it," Avon added. "That's probably why they were so willing to take you over me, Vila." He glanced pointedly at Vila's ever so slightly pudgy middle. "You're plumper than me." Avon suddenly grinned ferally as his gaze now raked Blake's considerably larger frame.

Vila began to shake in earnest now. "But they've already had what they wanted from me!" His eyes grew wider as he turned a frantic gaze on first Blake, who was starting to look distinctly ill, then Avon. "Do something!"

"Look at it this way, Vila," Avon said placatingly, "you finally get to be first at something."

"First to be eaten isn't quite what I'd choose!"

Cally and Jenna crouched at the outer edges of the native encampment, studying the comings and goings of the large aliens. There seemed to be a lot of interest in one particular hut, so they crept around the sides of the village until they were positioned as close to it as they dared, then settled down to wait.

Cally had tried to telepath a message to any of their missing crew, but something in the vicinity, some magnetic flux perhaps, seemed to be blocking out all her efforts. By straining their hearing, they did manage to filter out the murmur of various voices and Jenna was certain she could hear the strident, complaining tones of Vila.

"Let's just go in and get them out," Cally maintained stubbornly, determined to rescue the men at all costs and not really caring how they went about it. She'd trained as a guerrilla fighter, she knew jungle warfare, and she had absolutely no scruples when it came to killing those who held her companions captive. The sense of something evil had also increased when they had teleported down to Blake's last coordinates and now, in close proximity to the village, it was overwhelming. "Jenna, it is evil," she insisted, pressing her point home by drawing her laser weapon.

The blonde pilot shot out a hand and grabbed Cally's wrist. "No. We daren't just rush in. We don't know what kind of trouble Blake and the others are in—we could make it much worse."

Cally sighed, exasperated. "What then? We can't sit out here and skulk forever. We've got to do something." She had never been very good at waiting; action was more in her line.

"We'll watch just a little longer; maybe learn something. Can you tell where the 'evil' is, Cally?" Jenna's tone was curious, not disbelieving.

The Auron shrugged, holstering her weapon and jerking her head in the direction of the village center. "The feeling is emanating from over there," she whispered. "From that statue, I think."

"Ugh," Jenna wrinkled up her nose in disgust as she studied the giant winged creature. "Not very pretty, is it?"

"Evil seldom is," said Cally sorrowfully. She settled back on her haunches, resigned now to having to wait.

Avon had no sure method of reckoning time, but he felt that at least several hours had passed since Blake had been unceremoniously dumped into their prison. Vila had finally exhausted himself with his pessimistic absurdities and had fallen asleep curled up against Blake's side. The larger man didn't seem to mind, although he didn't show any inclination to sleep himself. Avon had made a conscious effort to stay awake—he wanted to brood and he definitely wanted to spend some time thinking about all the mistakes he'd made in his lifetime. He put joining up with Blake at the top of the list; tolerating annoying thieves came a close second. Still, he found himself dozing, his previous injuries coupled with his recent abuse, taking their toll on him.

He wasn't to be allowed to rest in peace, however. No sooner had his eyes slid inexorably shut, than their guard stepped aside and once more the head bird herself entered. Avon recognized her by the enormity and color of her headdress—she had the largest, most elaborate mask of any of the natives.

Vila jerked awake with a startled grunt when Blake elbowed him in the side. He stared up at the glowering native for one groggy moment and then his face went beet red. Avon could only surmise he had recognized her as his "sweetheart."

The alien jabbered something to the two others who had followed her in and they crossed the room to pull Vila roughly to his feet. They untied his hands and began, without ceremony, to strip the clothes off of him. The chief stood and watched, her arms crossed over her chest.

"Uh, oh," Avon mumbled. "It looks like I was right. They do not mean Vila well."

"Avon! Blake! Do something!" Vila was wailing, trying to twist away from the hairy natives, who were pulling at the waistband of his pants. He squirmed violently until one of them finally slapped him across the mouth with a distinctly causal gesture. Vila immediately shut up, only his eyes and a soft whimpering continuing to betray his fear. He licked a trace of blood from his lips.

Avon winced in automatic sympathy. There had been many times he'd felt like doing the same thing to silence Vila—but seeing it actually happen was something else entirely. It angered him, and he could read a building rage in Blake's eyes, as well. Unfortunately, there was little either one of them could do to help Vila. It was only a matter of time before their own turns came.

Once Vila was naked, he was dressed in a long, flowing red robe and then a cape made of bright blue and green feathers was draped carefully across his shoulders. He was shivering but remained quiet, offering no further resistance. It was obvious to Avon that poor Vila was petrified with fear. He understood the reaction, under the circumstances.

The natives now seemed pleased with Vila's appearance, standing back and eyeing the man up and down and making noises of approval. At another signal from their leader, they prodded Blake and Avon to their feet and the chief came forward to take Vila by the arm and lead him out of the hut. Avon and Blake were shepherded after.

"What now?" Avon hissed at Blake.

Blake's eyes were still burning with rage. "I don't know," he admitted bitterly. "Do you have any ideas?"

"Not a one." Avon stared resolutely ahead at Vila's feathered back. "Save perhaps we should say goodbye to Vila…."

Blake's face twisted. "That 's not funny," he said in a savage whisper.

"It wasn't meant to be."

Jenna blinked awake at Cally's nudge in her side and scrambled quickly to her knees, leaning forward to peer in the direction Cally was indicating.

"Look," the Auron pointed. "It's Avon and Blake."

Jenna nodded, biting at her lower lip. "I wonder what they have in mind to do with them?"

Cally suddenly gasped softly and clutched at Jenna's forearm. "Jenna, that's Vila in the front, in the feathered cape!"

The three prisoners were being herded in the direction of the central fire, which had now been fed until it had achieved bonfire status. The leaping flames outlined the cruel beak and talons of the overseeing bird totem in the growing gloom. Night was falling and the entire scene began to take on a mystical unreal appearance. A high-pitched whistling sound drifted to the hiding women, scratching just at the edges of their hearing. Then, the villagers came spilling out of the huts scattered around the large clearing, all of them wearing the colorful feathered masks and many of them sporting long sweeping capes akin to the one Vila was dressed in. They began to dance around the roaring fire in a slow, undulating line. The effect was one of brilliant, flashing color…and it was eerie.

"I've got a very bad feeling about this," murmured Jenna. "What do you think's going on, Cally?" She turned to her companion, trusting the Auron's instincts. The alien girl had been right before.

Cally looked thoughtful. "I believe they are about to sacrifice Vila to their pagan god. I can think of no other explanation. We can wait no longer."

"You're right," Jenna nodded, "but this is going to require a little finesse." She felt the weight of precious seconds ticking irretrievably by as she studied the ritual dance. The fervor of the dancers was increasing in intensity; Avon, Blake and Vila were being held off to one side.

Jenna's gaze was suddenly drawn to the glowering bird totem as the flickering lights threw it into sharp relief and a spark seemed to ignite inside of her. "I've got it!" she exclaimed, berating herself for a fool. In her old smuggling days she never would have taken so long to come up with a plan, albeit an unconventional one. "Cally, you're going to have to go back to the Liberator and get what we need. I'm certain Avon picked up some anti-grav units last time we were on Ciseron."

Vila Restal had never pretended to be a brave man; in fact, he'd always tried to make it quite clear that he wasn't brave, that he didn't care to be brave, that he had no intention whatsoever of ever being brave. But, for some perverse reason, Fate kept throwing him into situations that demanded he be brave. Life was definitely an unfair proposition all the way around.

He stood dejectedly at the edge of the madly whirling and whistling aliens—a veritable horde of them, he thought morosely—and knew he was doomed. And what an undignified way to go: taken advantage of and then eaten by a bunch of large, hairy females who worshipped a giant bird. Oh, he was sure Blake and Avon would save him if they could, but there was no sense in hoping for a miracle. One lesson he'd learned at an early age was that if you don't hope then you're never disappointed.

The dance finally seemed to come to an end with the majority of the participants dropping to the ground to lie in crumpled heaps of feathered disarray. Whether their falling was voluntary or the result of exhaustion, Vila wasn't quite certain. The leader, who still clutched his arm in an iron grip, began to pull him forward, singing something out in a trilling voice. He resisted a moment, his instinct for survival asserting itself, but her strength was greater than his and he soon found himself standing on a platform at the foot of the great statue. The flames from the bonfire were so close to him that he could feel his skin searing from the heat. Sweat began to roll off of him in rivulets and still he shivered, feeling a great coldness settling over his heart. He purposely avoided looking at his watching friends, knowing the guilt and anger that would be eating at Blake without having to see it reflected on his face and knowing, too, the pain and impotent rage that would be shining in Avon's eyes. The one thing Avon couldn't stand was being helpless. Vila didn't want to see it so he continued to whimper softly to himself and stared into the flames.

And then, without warning, the crowd of people below him began to mutter and ultimately scream in terror, turning their faces up to the dark sky as the air was filled with the sound of humming and a strange vibrating. Vila was as scared as the natives as the noise grew in volume until it sounded like the beating of a huge pair of wings. It was growing closer and Vila ducked his head, having the uncanny feeling that the bird statue above him had come to life and was going to personally eat him for dinner.

As he cringed away, a flashing light shone over his head and the wings seemed to hover directly above him. Then whatever it was swooped down and lifted him into the air. He kicked his legs frantically, and tried to wriggle free but to no avail. He tried to scream but the air was being sucked from his lungs due to his accelerated rate of ascent.

"Yeeoww," he finally managed to yelp, vertigo slamming into him as his stunned senses realized he was flying high over the village, the fire burning brightly directly below him. In its light he could see the stunned villagers scurrying to and fro, their faces turned upward, their fingers pointing at him.

"Shut up, Vila," a familiar voice snarled next to his ear, "and enjoy the ride. Or would you rather I drop you…?"

"Jenna?" the surprised Vila quavered. He began to laugh with hysterical relief.

"Get us out of here, Orac," he could hear Jenna ordering and the teleport effect washed over him just as he caught a glimpse of Avon and Blake being held up in the air by some sort of anti-grav contraption made to look vaguely avian. A very smug looking Cally was driving it.

"They were going to kill me," whined Vila piteously, running a finger around the tight collar of the red robe he was still dressed in. "They were going to kill me and you two just stood there and gawked!" He screwed up his face, pinning Blake and Avon with a woeful puppy-dog expression.

"What do you suggest we should have done?" Avon hissed, rubbing at his bruised wrists as Cally released them from behind his back. The Auron moved on to untie Blake, who was watching Avon and Vila with a bemused look. "Perhaps we could have fought them off with our teeth. Or maybe we could have seduced them as you did—"

"Avon!" Blake interrupted before Avon could go on. He leveled the smaller man with a withering glare. "Leave Vila alone. Your precious dignity was kept intact, remember. I think you owe Vila some degree of thanks for that, at least."

"He's an idiot, Blake!" Avon spat, transferring his anger to Blake.

"I quite agree," Vila muttered, half to himself. "I'd have to be to have saved you. Actually, I think you're just jealous that they preferred me."

"Oh, shut up, Vila."

"Leave him alone!" Blake reiterated. "He's been through enough without you adding to it."

"And you think that's my fault?" Avon was openly incredulous. "We wouldn't even have been down there if you hadn't decided to play 'Mother Roj' again."

"I thought you could do with the rest!" Blake all but shouted.

Avon bowed mockingly. "I thank you for your solicitude. I am now quite recovered from the injuries I suffered in the pursuit of your noble Cause. Unfortunately, I have new injuries to take their place—not to mention exhaustion, dehydration, hunger…shall I go on?"

Blake turned away, shrugging his broad shoulders. "It's pointless to bicker with you, Avon. Why don't we just drop the whole thing?"

"Not a chance," Jenna interjected. "I want to know what the hell happened down there."

Cally was looking puzzled. "Are all Earth men so childish, Jenna?" she asked, cocking her head as she studied the bedraggled, bickering threesome. "I'd like to know what happened, as well," she added, her tone brooking no argument.

"They were going to sacrifice me," Vila started to babble before Blake or Avon could stop him. "They tortured me horribly and made me, uh," he stammered, his words trailing off and his face turning red. "You know," he mumbled, "Those horrible, hairy creatures were female."

"We get the picture," Jenna assured him, trying hard not to laugh. "You were obviously irresistible to them."

"Anyway," Vila went on, trying to regain his composure, "if you hadn't come along when you did, it would have been Blake and Avon next. A bit of a comedown for Alphas, wouldn't you say?"

"I'm not sure I understand," Cally spoke slowly. "How is it that you saved Avon's dignity, as Blake says?"

"I'll explain it later," Jenna told her, giving up the fight and starting to giggle. Blake and Avon were blushing now.

"But—"

"Later, Cally." Jenna was doubling over now. "I think we'd better get Vila to the medical unit, though and make sure he's all right."

"Why shouldn't Vila be all right?" Cally's brow furrowed. "He looks all right…."

Avon was mumbling to himself, every other word sounding suspiciously obscene. "Well, I'm going to my cabin," he announced, spinning on his heel to leave.

"Aren't you even going to have the decency to come with me to medical and hold my hand?" Vila sniveled, looking hurt.

Avon gave an inarticulate growl as a reply and marched off.

"I'll hold your hand," Jenna soothed Vila, patting him softly on the shoulder. She found herself unconsciously stroking the silky bird feathers that his cape was made of. Vila was beaming.

"How did you think up that rescue?" Blake suddenly queried, sinking gratefully into a chair behind the teleport console with a heavy sigh. "It was inspired—but unique."

"Oh, it was all Jenna's idea,' Cally told him, moving to stand near the rebel leader and eye him clinically for possible injuries. "I knew something evil was taking place in the vicinity of that statue and when we saw them bring you three out to it, with Vila all dressed up, we decided they were going to sacrifice you. Since it seemed like they worshipped a god who looked like a giant bird, Jenna surmised that they would be sufficiently frightened by the appearance of their god in the flesh, to allow us to spirit you away. The rest you know. We rigged up some anti-grav units, had Orac do some sound effects and swooped down to save you."

"Yes, and a good thing we did, too," said Jenna. Vila had now rested his head against her shoulder and she continued to pat him absently. "It would never do for the great Roj Blake and the implacable Kerr Avon to have to suffer a fate worse than death, would it?" Vila whimpered softly when she stopped stroking his hair. She stared down at the thief who was practically wrapped around her and smiled indulgently.

Blake looked embarrassed and rose to his feet with a nervous "ahem." "Yes, well, I think I'll just go to my cabin and get some rest. Avon's going to be hard to live with for a while and I'm going to need my rest—"

"You do that," Jenna said, nodding her head and tossing a knowing smile in Cally's direction. "Cally and I will take care of everything…as usual."

Blake glared sullenly and muttering to himself, stalked off in the same direction Avon had taken.

Jenna burst out laughing once more. "Come along, Vila. Cally and I will check you over and put you to bed."

"But I don't understand," Cally grumbled again, moving to help Jenna support Vila to the medical unit. "They are behaving like children. We rescued them. Why aren't they happy?"

Jenna smiled slyly. "Don't worry about it, Cally. I'll give you a few lessons in an old Earth custom. It's called 'smoothing ruffled feathers' and it can be quite fun. We'll draw straws to see who gets who…."

"I think I begin to understand," Cally said, the glint in her eyes turning feral.

Jenna smiled broadly.

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Ashton Press/Ann Wortham

Leah Rosenthal

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