Cross The Border

Leah Rosenthal & Ann Wortham

A hand fell heavily on Vila' Restal's shoulder, and he felt his insides turn to solid ice, despite the suffocating heat of the air. His shovel and work forgotten, he turned.

"You now, I don't remember you on my work crew," the tall, stringy foreman spoke, phrasing himself as if he were just resuming an interrupted conversation. He kept his voice low and laden with the threat of violence. It was a tone typically used by those of his ilk. "Are you lost or just stupid?"

Vila straightened painfully. "I'm sure you're mistaken. I've been with the C-555 crew since last planetfall."

"I know my tally, friend, and I've been watching you for the past few days. I rechecked. You ain't on it." The voice had become only slightly harder, but Vila could sense the building hostility; he'd had enough practice at recognizing it.

He dropped the pretense with a sigh. "You're right—I'm not supposed to be on your crew, friend. It's your business to make sure the slime don't run away. I'm certain no one's going to demerit your pay if one adds on."

The foreman eyed him sharply, digesting the words. "You run from one of the outer crews?"

"Does it matter? I'm working."

The foreman stared at Vila for a few more seconds, then pursed his lips. The thief recognized the potential for the all-too-common brand of cruelty plainly revealed by the other man's expression, but he remained silent.

"You're right, minum—I can get in just as much trouble for an unaccounted for body as a missing one. But as long as you're pretending to be part of this outfit, you'd better remember that I'm going to treat you exactly like the others. You get your work done and jump when I say so, or you're adding nutrients to this fine young world. You can disappear as easily as you came. Am I clear?"

Vila wiped a bare wrist across his wet upper lip and nodded, taking up his shovel. He resumed working, but was acutely aware of the foreman's presence still beside him.

"I'll be watching you, slime." The man finally left, no doubt to terrorize the rest of his charges in retaliation for his confusion.

Vila kept digging, inwardly relieved. With variations, he'd gone through the ritual with a dozen other foremen on a dozen breaker crews over the past year since Gauda Prime, and it was always a gamble. It was fortunate that he was good at gambling. By all rights, he should be dead, many times over. I used to enjoy gambling, he thought, his lungs straining in the steamy air as he turned the loamy tropical soil of this world. Before I became such a chronic loser. I'm not sure why I play anymore. It isn't survival… If I wanted to, I could have found a bolt-hole by now, faded away.

I could be a lot more comfortable than this, anyhow. Even as he thought it, a stubborn, metallic sense of guilt pervaded the notion. He knew all too well why he had jumped his first slave labor crew on Gauda Prime, only to melt quickly into another. He knew why he had followed his discovery of this unpublicized network of Federation slave gangs with a succession of such jumps for the past year, checking each one, watching with the eyes of the hunted…and the hunter. He had to find out what had happened to the others.

He'd been surprised at first, by the strength of his urge. When he had first come to in the confines of the slave ship, his only thought had been gratitude that he was alive. Vila had never been one to discount the fact that as long as you remained alive, there was hope. Three weeks of the hardest and most grueling labor of his life had changed his mind quickly. It had been no mercy on the part of the Federation to spare his life, only to send him to a breaker crew. The crews existed for one purpose alone: to be used until they fell. Whether for political expediency or punishment, the men and women on the crews broke ground on new worlds, performed the impossible or most dangerous labor on others, and just generally went wherever the considered whim of a division directorate shipped them. Many were crimos, pirates, smugglers or hopelessly unconditional psychopaths. Some were righteous individuals with powerful enemies, sent to be conveniently silenced and forgotten by distance and death. A few, like himself, were political embarrassments that were best consigned to oblivion, away from the eyes and memory of the Federation populace. They all shared one common fate, however: few lived out a single year on a breaker crew.

Even so, Vila might have applied his special talent and escaped several months earlier. In point of fact, he had. Rather than seeking the safety and idleness he'd always longed for, he'd found himself jumping from crew to crew, fading ghost-like between them to reappear in the next. And each time, it would take the supervisory personnel days to recognize his presence among the anonymous gray mass of their charges. Vila wasn't surprised; as he'd point out to each of them in turn, it was their duty to see that none of the crew escaped. There was no point in calling attention to the fact that their lack of watchfulness could not keep some fool from breaking in, whatever the reason.

And Vila had his reasons, all right. Nor had his search been futile. The first fruit it had borne had been bitter indeed. He'd found Tarrant a day too late, face down in the snow on a world called Tay, three arrows in the young pilot's back. The native population of Tay had rightfully resented the Federation crews that had been sent in to strip it of its wealth, and guerrilla activity had been heavy. Sent to act as a buffer between the locals and the more legitimate Federation colonization personnel, Tarrant's crew had been whittled down to a mere hundred by the time Vila had "joined" it. Judging by the scars on Tarrant's body, death may have been the only escape he would have ever accepted.

Vila had come across Soolin next, four miles under the surface of the planet Arielia, mining for a mineral of which he'd never learned either the name or value. Vila nearly didn't recognize the woman loading raw ore in the near darkness of the tunnels. She certainly hadn't been happy to see him. She had made it frightfully, painfully, clear to the thief that she was tired of running, tired of fighting, and violently hateful of the people who'd shared Xenon Base and the Scorpio with her. When Vila had tried to make her see the light of reason, to point out the living hell she'd traded it for, she hit him with a large rock. She kept hitting him with it, until the foreman pulled her off of him and dragged her away. She was still screaming. Clearly, Soolin was insane, lost forever in the security of the womb of mines on the world called Arielia.

It had taken Vila a few weeks to heal, weeks during which he had not been allowed to remain completely idle. As soon as he was capable, he'd made good his escape and switched to a crew bound for the Serpent Cluster. During the long journey, he'd despaired of continuing the search. As much as there remained the possibility of saving even one of the people he'd known, he didn't see the point. Discouragement hung heavy in his mind; he decided that he'd set a time limit to his quest and then call it off as a bad job, his duty fulfilled. He would then get permanently lost.

In the stark metal holds of the barracks on that outward bound journey, he'd finally acknowledged the truth of it to himself. He'd always hated to be alone, one of those traits one picked up early, raised as a dome Delta. Because of that same upbringing, he'd never been afforded a real family. Later, a family had been made nearly impossible by the choice of "profession" that he'd made for himself. A thief could ill afford loved ones, waiting at home, vulnerable to enemies and the law. A thief could not afford a home at all. He had resigned himself to that lonely existence by the time he had been put aboard the London, five years and a universe before.

Then came Blake, offering Vila both "home" and "family" in his desperate bid for an ideal political universe. In trade, the price Blake had demanded was the constant risk of obliteration; the sacrifice of any hope for permanent security. But, Vila was no longer alone, Having little choice, the thief had stayed on…at first, in the hope that a better opportunity would arise. It took very little time for him to discover that there was no going back.

And so he'd stayed, despite the danger, despite Blake's growing fanatical desperation. Despite the disappearance of Blake himself, and his succession by a cynic gone berserk. And in the end, it had all gone berserk.

Vila flinched at the memory, chilled despite the hot sun. And I'm still looking…because they were the closest thing I ever had to a "family," a "home," he thought acidly, putting fresh effort into his digging. The work helped him forget the pain sometimes. Never the people, though. He didn't want to forget the people. He knew what that kind of forgetfulness was like, too.

He'd found Blake.

It had been on the work crew just before this one. Elsewhere on this same unnamed frontier hellhole of a planet in the Serpent Star cluster, Vila had been unloading heavy cargo from a freighter at the port. It was dray work that would have been more efficiently performed by hydraulics, perhaps, had the Federation the resources or desire to spare them. They hadn't, and Vila and his work crew had been spending days at the backbreaking lifting under the scrutiny of the port foreman.

One of the men who had taken a plascrate full of survey equipment from his hands had been Blake. Had been, Vila emphasized to himself, driving the thought home hard as a man would strike a spike. It had taken him days to isolate "Blake" long enough to speak to him in relative privacy, just before curfew. When he had, there was no flicker of recognition in those familiar eyes, no spark. Indeed, there was nothing at all. For whatever motive, the Federation had seen fit to wipe the man's mind as clean as a newborn's, leaving nothing but a body suited for heavy labor. Mentally cored out like a piece of fruit, "Blake" had smiled at Vila's gentle queries and silently fallen asleep.

Vila had run that night, and kept running until exhaustion and despair made him stop. The next morning he located another work crew, and with typical deftness, he slipped in amongst them, sick at heart and empty of spirit. This turned out to be another error; the crew was immediately shipped southward, to clear terrain near the equator. Vila could have escaped, but with nothing but wilderness surrounding the work camp and having no taste for roughing it among the flora and fauna of an alien world, he opted to stay.

And here I am, stuck in the middle of nowhere for no reason at all. Well, this is the last of it. When I get out of here—if I get out of here—I'm done searching. Did my duty. More than did it. I don't care to know what else I'll find. They've won, and I don't want to see anymore of their leavings.

He took another shovelful of soil and tossed it aside, before he realized that the sun had been blocked and the first few drops of rain were starting to fall around him. He turned immediately toward the main camp. There was no use going any further with the digging once the daily downpour started, he'd learned. Everything would be a sea of mud until the sun broke through later, and then the foreman would drive them out again to pick up where they'd left off. In the meantime, there were other tasks to be done. There were always other tasks. In the pelting rain, he headed back.

His sleep was disturbed before dawn along with that of the rest of the crew, rousted awake by the gruff tones and hard jabs of the foreman. They were travelling today, a short march to some nearby outpost that needed extra arms and backs even more than this one. Grim resignation on his features, Vila pulled on his gray work boots and adjusted the few possessions he had managed to hang on to in the past year. Beyond the essentials of his own cup and a stolen ID bracelet, they consisted of a set of carefully accumulated makeshift tools for breaching security systems, and a small, spring-action polymer dagger. These stowed on his person, he pulled on the stained cap that would serve as his only protection from the relentless sun yet to rise, and joined the shuffle of weary crew toward the door.

The outpost resembled purgatory as nearly as anything Vila could recall since Gauda Prime. Most of the trees had been felled, and with a lack of protection against the sun and rain, the open ground varied between foul-smelling swamp and pounded dust. As Vila's crew arrived, it became all too clear why they'd been summoned: the crew that had preceded his had been nearly decimated by the conditions. The heat, insects, grueling work, danger, and relentlessly poor treatment had taken their toll. There were few of the original crew left at all, and as Vila watched, a man and a woman were carried away by four others who were in only slightly better shape, under the watchful gaze of a foreman.

The sounds of clanging metal and machinery went on in the glare of morning sun as Vila's crew was added to the force already laboring to cut ground at the far periphery of the outpost. The breaker crews were seldom given energy tools; they were too easily adapted into weapons.

Vila bent to lift one of the power saws from a small collection nearby and joined his fellow prisoners at the base of a large tree.

Morning passed into midday, an uninterrupted routine of felling, cutting, trimming, hauling and wrestling with the stubborn forest. There was a short commotion at noon when a crewman trimming limbs from a newly-felled trunk was attacked and bitten by one of the reptilian residents. It disappeared back into the foliage, leaving the man writhing on the ground as the quick-acting poison went straight for his nervous system. In seconds, the man lay dead. The rest of the nearby crew backed away, watching silently as the foreman ambled over, took in the situation and spat on the ground in disgust. They could almost see him mentally crossing one off of his crew tally as he unslung the riot stunner from his shoulder and sprayed the foliage for a few seconds, to prevent a repeat performance. He did not bother to check for the reptile, and the crew didn't bother to protest. He could have used the stunner just as easily on them, and probably needed less provocation to do so.

Vila went back to work, sectioning the forest giants into logs, trying to protect his eyes from the flying sawdust and sweat, flinching from the insect bites he was powerless to prevent. The air reeked of the swamp and unwashed bodies; he could not remember the last time he'd been completely clean. It might have been on Xenon Base. Even as his mind wandered to escape the torturous surroundings, his eyes mechanically sought every face, searched over every set of features that passed him…living or dead. It was a habit he'd developed, along with crew-hopping.

The sun had slid below the rim of the tallest trees and was painting the horizon a dusty crimson when the crew stopped for the day. They were collected into a single unit and fed. It was certain that the foremen had been told that their charges would spend the night on the cleared ground where they currently sat eating. As the thief squatted on a dry patch, blending into the gray anonymity of crewmen, he suddenly spotted a familiar face.

Her beauty had been undeniable, once. No matter what she did, no matter how many people died because of a strategic decision or political gesture at her command, she had always been beautiful. Now, it was only by the instinct with which the long-hunted knew its foe that Vila Restal recognized Servalan where she crouched nearby in the gathering darkness.

He made no move or gesture to gain her attention; in fact, his expression barely changed as he watched her finish her ration and gather herself to sleep. If Vila Restal had learned nothing else in the past few years, he'd learned that there were times when his eyes were best left open and his mouth kept shut. And so he did not miss the automatic movement of her glance, as she cast it once, then again, at the unmoving form of the body that lay on the ground near her, already curled up.

Vila watched both figures, and waited for full darkness and the clamor of night sounds from the tropical jungle to mask him before he moved. Nearly dragging himself along the ground, he worked his way over by centimeters to avoid the scrutiny of night guardsmen, until he was just beside her. When he'd decided that she was still asleep, he moved the few extra meters that separated her from the other form.

He had a harder time recognizing Kerr Avon than he'd had with Servalan. Ill-suited to the sustained, backbreaking physical labor for which most Deltas were bred, and no doubt badly treated after his capture on Gauda Prime, the man who lay in exhausted slumber on the ground bore little resemblance to the one Vila had come to know on Liberator, then Scorpio. In the dimness, Vila was almost grateful that he could not see everything. From what he could observe, Avon was hanging on mainly by force of will.

Vila allowed himself a bitter smile. There was little doubt someone in Federation command had a ghastly sense of humor. Placing Avon and Servalan together on the same slave crew could only have been a deliberate decision.

He watched the two of them sleep for a while. I suppose you must have told them everything they needed to know from you, he thought sourly. Or they wouldn't have thrown you out here with her, to rot. Not that it would have made much sense for you to hide anything…the rest of us captured or killed along with you and the Scorpio teleport system available for them to examine. And it wouldn't have taken them long to find where we'd hidden Orac. Not that they got anything out of that. I was there, the day you programmed the little box to self-destruct if it were ever taken by the Federation for more than a few days.

He laughed inwardly at that. Orac, it seemed, was "dead," too. He wondered if the Federation puppeteers had wiped Avon as completely as they had Blake, if the man before him wasn't as empty a shell. Vila didn't believe that, though. The tormented face he could see revealed in the starlight was nowhere near as peaceful and innocent as Blake's had been.

"Avon," Vila whispered.

"He's awake, but he can't answer you." The voice came from directly beside Vila, low and weary.

Vila started, but he didn't turn to confront Servalan. "Why not?"

"He doesn't speak anymore. He hasn't since Gauda Prime. How did you find this crew?"

"Does it really matter?" Vila whispered back tonelessly. "Can he move?"

"Not very well. You'll need help, if you're going to get him out of here."

"You used to be more subtle, Commander," Vila hissed under his breath.

"I can't afford subtlety here. If you don't get Avon off this breaker crew, he won't last out the week. If I don't leave with you, I won't last much longer."

Vila did turn to glance at her then, but his expression did not change. "Are you looking for mercy?"

Her large brown eyes searched his with a depth of feeling that he'd never seen unmasked. "In any form you may choose to offer."

His jaw shifted. "Get ready. We're going to make for the 'hopper."

The Federation planet hopper stood solitary in the starlight, silent and floodlit on the small landing area cleared for it. Although it was guarded, the vehicle was constructed to sit low against the ground, and Vila had located several blind areas where a person might approach undetected within minutes of observing it. That person would have scant time, however.

He scurried back to the brush where Servalan and Avon lay concealed, seeking to make as little noise as possible. One chance would be all they got, and he had lost all of his appreciation for the luck of the draw. He didn't want to lose everything on the snap of a stray twig.

"How fast can you move?" he murmured to Servalan.

"As quickly as I have to, half dragging him." She emphasized her words with a gesture toward Avon, who lay nearby in the darkness. The computer tech had not had an easy time of it getting this far, and was breathing with an obvious effort.

"I didn't come all this way just to leave him here," Vila hissed back. "Move when I give the signal."

He crawled back out to time the guard's next pass and when the Federation trooper nearest his side of the hopper turned into one of the blind areas, Vila gestured. Servalan and Avon followed him, their pace seeming achingly slow to the thief's heightened sense of urgency. They barely made it to the side of the ship before the guard from the other side appeared, his weapon casually poised in front of him. The man's helmeted head was turned toward the nearby tropical forest standing just outside the range of lights illuminating the hopper. His attention thus occupied, he did not see Vila approach him from the curved side of the ship. The guard died silently, the blade of Vila's spring-action knife sliding across his throat. The thief wiped the blade clean on the soldier's uniform with a grimace of distaste, seized the man's weapon and hurried back to the hopper, ignoring his fellow prisoners. He jammed himself up against the side of the vehicle to steady himself as he worked on the hatchway lock and alarm, silently counting off the time until the first guard would return from his circuit,

With only seconds to spare, the mechanism hissed softly and the hatchway slid open, extending a short ramp to the ground. Servalan nearly dragged Avon inside. Vila took a precious moment to make certain he'd destroyed the alarm completely, then he resealed the hatch. Servalan was leaning against the wall, panting and scanning the corridor ahead as she propped Avon upright.

"Get him into the cockpit," Vila ordered tersely, waving the barrel of the blaster. He got no argument.

They hurried toward the front of the ship, still doing their best to keep silent. When they arrived in the small cockpit, however, there was no one on duty within. Vila eased Avon out of Servalan's grip and settled him into the pilot's position. He eyed the man who was revealed in the half-light of the controls. "I can fly her once she's up, but I can't bypass the flight computer and get it started. Can you do it?"

With pained, weary motions, Avon scanned the equipment before him and nodded silently.

"Better do it now, then," Servalan commented from a side viewport. "The first guard's just found the second."

Avon was still punching at the flight controls when Vila turned back. The thief shuddered; the lighting was still dim, but he could make out the condition of Avon's hands as the other man struggled to execute the takeoff sequence and bypass Federation codes. The mind still seemed capable, then; the flesh was in poor shape indeed.

With a muffled roar, the engines kicked in and a building whine signaled Vila and Servalan to grab the nearest flight chair for the ascent. In moments, the hopper was climbing skyward, building speed in order to escape from planetary gravity.

They reached the silence of space without interference. Vila waited and watched, nodding once to himself as if confirming a thought.

Avon let his hands fall from the controls, his arms shaking with fatigue as he slumped backward into the control seat. His eyes closed.

Vila took over, setting an outer orbital course and throwing more of the ship's systems to life. When he'd added more light to the cockpit, he glanced back for a better look at the man in the seat beside him, and his mouth immediately compressed to a thin line. No comment escaped him for a while. He worked the ship outward in as inconspicuous a course as he could, trying to remember the many times he had observed Del Tarrant doing the same thing.

A half hour passed before he took his own hands off the controls and relaxed. He rose, threw off the small sack of possessions he'd slung over one shoulder and stretched, eyeing Servalan. She looked little better than Avon, he noted. Still, you must have been added to Avon's slave crew later. You're no better suited to that kind of physical labor than he is. Alphas….

He nodded to himself and gestured toward the rear of the ship. "This way."

Servalan levered herself wearily to her feet, and the two proceeded some distance down the corridor before she stopped and turned to face him defiantly.

"I must credit you for finding us." She regarded him steadily. She stood as imperiously as she ever had, as if an empress in exile. "It couldn't have been easy. I never considered you the loyal sort, though, Vila; are you merely out for revenge?" Her voice was somewhat hoarse, but level.

She knows, Vila thought. I guess she would. "Did you arrange that little party on Gauda Prime?" His tone was as even and impersonal.

She kept her gaze on him and shrugged cautiously. "It was my strategy. I hadn't counted on any of you being taken alive, however. Arlen defied my orders when she had the weapons set for low damage level."

"So Avon talked, and he told them that you were the former Madam President Servalan." Vila smiled slowly. "And they gave you a longer trial to prove it, and then sent you off to keep him company."

She rubbed the sides of her arms. "He held up longer than they expected, considering the crew he'd been assigned to. Even so, I've been faking him through the past week."

"So you didn't want to die alone, either." Vila's slight smile remained.

"It was the only chance I had. It seems to have worked—"

The spring-clip on the blade was silent. Before she'd finished the last word, Vila had driven the knife into her ribcage to the hilt, and he kept it pressed there until the surprise started to fade from her features and she slid down the metal wall.

"No more chances for you, Servalan." Vila pulled the blade free. She lay crumpled on the metal floor like a broken doll. "The 'mercy' I promised you. More than you could ever understand or deserve." He turned back toward the cockpit, and settled wearily back into his seat.

Avon's eyes were wide, staring at the crimson blade of the knife still clutched in Vila's hand for a while before raising his gaze to meet that of the thief.

"I had to do that, y 'see," Vila said quietly. "Because you never would. Next, I'm going to see to the ship's stores and get myself a drink of water. Are you thirsty?"

They had only been in flight for a day when the signal came in. Vila had spent the time in methodical activity: seeing to the controls, checking their outward bound course, dragging Servalan's corpse to the airlock and consigning it to a burial in space. There seemed to be sufficient fuel for a short trip, but no more.

Avon had lapsed into an exhausted sleep shortly after Vila had given him water, and the tech currently lay on a bunk at the rear of the hopper, wrapped in oblivion and a thermal cover. Vila had looked him over shortly after putting him there, but there was little he could do under the circumstances. He was not a medical man, and most of the damage would take at least as long to repair as it had probably taken to acquire. Vila's own physical condition needed attention. He looked at the star chart programs and waited.

Avon rejoined Vila at the controls when a day had nearly passed, ship's time. Vila had been dozing for several hours, but the signal had wakened him and he'd been watching it on the scanner for some time.

As Avon eased himself back into his chair, Vila threw him a quick sidelong glance and gestured at the screen. "You're just in time. If you can eat anything, there are some rations on the console over there. I figure we've got about ten minutes before they intercept us. No sense facing it on an empty stomach.'

He received no reply, of course, but he watched carefully as Avon took one of the concentrated nutrient packages and worked it open.

Nothing to say have you? I shouldn't be surprised. You've said enough for a lifetime and none of it to anyone's benefit. Not even your own, Kerr Avon. You're better off, this way. No lies, no cynical declarations that even you never believed, no selfish philosophy, no betrayal. No, I wouldn't be surprised if you never say another word. For that matter… maybe you can't. Who knows what they did to you…

The flight computer notified Vila that a ship had pulled alongside, and was initiating a docking sequence. He remained passive as the larger vessel tractored them to match velocity and docked. When the telltales on the control board requested that he open the airlock, he simply complied and rose, stopping only long enough to tuck the dead Federation guard's gun under one arm. Avon set down the nutrient and stood as well. Vila exchanged a silent look with him and then started down the corridor to the airlock.

The hatch hissed open just as they arrived, and a lithe, ebony form bolted through, a weapon held rock-steady in her arms. Its barrel sought the two escaped prisoners as if it had a life of its own.

Very likely, it has, Vila thought ruefully, considering the woman who bore the exotic blaster rifle. "Hello, Dayna."

"Vila… Avon!" The young woman lowered her weapon and gaped.

"Taken to a little piracy?"

"You're alive!" She approached hesitantly, her eyes searching the two, taking in the familiar, if ravaged pair. "I can't believe it…you 're alive!" She looked as though she wanted to embrace them, to test their reality in her arms, but the ingrained caution of years on the run froze her at the hatch door.

"I suppose some of that's open to debate," Vila shrugged, allowing a half smile to escape him. "Got room aboard your ship for a couple of escaped convicts?"

"Of course! Come with me—oh Vila, how did the two of you…?"

"It's a long story. I'll tell you over anything alcoholic, if you've got it. I've been dry for nearly a year. A tough one, I can tell you."

She grinned honestly. "I'll bet you can." She led them onto her own vessel, gesturing the way. "I'll get the two of you something. Avon…?" She regarded the silent computer tech with considerably more reserve.

Why wouldn't she? For all intents and purposes, he's the walking dead, and he looks the part these days.

"He's a bit on the quiet side," Vila explained at Dayna's puzzled frown. "If you've got any adrenaline and soma aboard, I think it wouldn't go amiss with either of us."

Dayna hesitated, then resumed her smile and led them upward through the larger vessel, chatting all the way. "I'm sorry you've had it rough. After the ambush on Gauda Prime, I was being transported for some kind of interrogation, I think. The rebel group from Praetor broke up the Federation convoy and captured some of the ships. They set me loose, and I've been running supplies for them for the past year…well, I'd also been doing hijacking some, too." Her mouth quirked at the corners, with a familiar smile that was playful and fierce, as Vila remembered it. "That's how I found you."

"All by yourself on this thing?" Vila cocked his head, looking around at the rest area they'd reached. The room was small, but comfortably outfitted.

"The rebels are running a bit shorthanded, out in this sector. This is my ship, the Eye of the Storm. Are you interested in crewing on?"

"Possibly," Vila sighed, accepting the drink she offered and watching to make certain Avon got one. He turned the glass in his hands and studied its depths. "Are you certain you've got a use for us, though? I'm the same fellow you didn't think too much of, back on Scorpio. And I'm fairly certain Avon's still—er, unpredictable."

"I think I can manage," Dayna said. "Actually, we need you both. As I said, we're shorthanded…and Lakar's group managed to recapture Orac a short while back. It seems the Federation's had him all this time, but couldn't use him."

"Oh?" Vila raised an eyebrow in surprise.

Dayna shrugged, placing her hands on her hips. "He wouldn't help them. Something about that silly little box being afraid to die, if you can believe him."

Vila remembered the destruct program Avon had built into the computer and he laughed. "So he wouldn't commit suicide. Orac turned out to be a coward, too."

"Well, maybe Avon can convince him it's safe to come out," Dayna shrugged. In the meantime, you're welcome to ride with me. How did you—?" she started to ask, gesturing toward the two escapees, her expression betraying curiosity.

Vila sighed heavily, set down his untouched glass with regret and stood up as if to stretch out the weary kinks. "I'm sorry, Dayna. I think you know."

He shot her.

She flew backward limply, the force of the Federation officer's rifle at high setting throwing her against the far wall. Although no external wound showed, Vila did not need to check more than a moment to be certain she was dead. When he straightened and stood, Avon was on his feet, his eyes wary with alarm and shock. Those same haunted eyes followed Vila as the other man retrieved Dayna's armament and checked it over.

He's expecting he'll be next. He's afraid. Not used to the tables turned this way, are you Avon? There was still too much sadness edging Vila's thoughts for much resentment, though.

"She was working for the Federation," he explained harshly, heading upward toward the flight deck. He didn't bother to turn around; he knew Avon would follow to hear the rest of his words. "I suppose she was the natural choice to finish off this little drama. She was still young enough to brainwash and carry it off, and I'd likely trust her over any of the rest of you. Well, I would have…once."

The questions remained plainly revealed on Avon's pale features as they arrived on the empty flight deck. Vila looked around, taking in their improved equipment. "None of it made much sense, y 'see. Too many of us were alive, on the slave gangs. Alive, but useless to do any more damage to the Federation if we escaped. Soolin, stark staring mad. Tarrant suicidal—he got his wish, by the way. Even Blake. He's perfectly healthy, Avon. I believe he's happy the way he is, too, but there isn't a blessed thought left in his head." Vila paused to draw in a hard, painful breath.

Avon stood watching him, silent and tense.

"Only you and me, and Dayna unaccounted for. And you not talking. I thought the breaker gang system was lax, that I was lucky, getting in and out as often as I did, but nobody's that lucky. Not me, anyway. My guess is that you told them everything they wanted to know, but by the time they discovered Orac wouldn't talk to them, it was too late. You'd stopped talking."

Vila settled into the pilot's chair and immediately reset their course, his nimble fingers working the navigator controls. "So they cooked something up, when they realized you'd never talk again. That you didn't care anymore. They worked up something to make you care. Servalan said you hadn't talked since Gauda Prime…but I knew right off that had to be a lie because you'd obviously told someone who she was."

The thief heard a soft sound nearby as Avon settled into another control seat. This is a good ship, a fast one, he observed abstractedly.

"They knew I'd try to get away and look for the rest of you," he continued out loud. "They had to have known from the start that I could escape, that's what never made any sense to me. I guess I'm pretty predictable myself, or else that's something they learned after Gauda Prime. I was the logical choice to spring you from the breaker gang. I don't know whether Servalan was in on it or not—but she wasn't surprised to see me. And she told me that keeping you alive was her only chance. As if she knew I'd be along. I couldn't take the chance. Anyway, I couldn't afford to watch both of you. And I knew you'd never be able to kill her. You never could; she was too much like you, Avon. It would've been like killing yourself."

I think I could even like you this way, Avon, Vila speculated. I can babble all I like, and you'll never be able to stop me again, call me names, dismiss my ideas as the prattling of a Delta idiot. It'll be like purgatory for you, he chuckled to himself. Hard on the heels of the amusement came a bitter sense of shame.

"Well anyway, I knew we were being set up. I suppose they left the others for me to find, keeping my hopes up…keeping me looking until I found you. It wouldn't matter if I took them along, even if I could. They were harmless, the way they are now. They wanted me to get you out of that hellhole, to think I'd escaped; they wanted you to think you were on safe ground again. Then they'd get you back together with Orac, and you'd unlock it for them willingly—remove the suicide program, and then they'd kill us, once and for all." Vila cocked his head to one side, his eyes focused on the starry forward screen. "Mind you, I wasn't quite sure of all of this, at least not until Dayna showed up. All too convenient, y 'know. That's what I thought, anyway." He turned his head to read the reaction on Avon's face.

The other man was staring at Vila with an expression that wasn't quite as blank as Vila might have imagined.

Vila grinned slowly. "I know what you think. You think I've gone mad, don't you? But you aren't quite sure, and you haven't got a choice, so you've just got to trust me and hope for the best. That's what you're thinking, isn't it?" Vila's voice had gotten very harsh as he went on. "How does it feel, Avon? I had to live with that for two bloody years. How does it feel, now that the shoe's on the other foot?!"

He saw the tension in that weary form seated across from him and another pang of reproach and compassion tempered his tone. He scowled. "Well, I don't think I'm mad. Anyway, I'm not mad enough to lie and tell you you'll always be safe with me." He allowed his words to sink in before turning back to the controls. "But I've gotten used to you and I guess it's about time I did my share to hold things together and make sense out of this mess you've made. And now we've blown a little hole in the Federation's neat script and we've got a good, fast ship and we're free again. Only they don't know that yet. I'm not going to let it go to waste. The first thing we're going to do is spring Blake."

Avon's reaction was all too readable.

"He deserves an end with a little more dignity than that, I think. And as soon as the Federation realizes their plan's gone bust, they'll kill him. He's an untidy loose end, y'see. I'm going to offer him over to Avalon, if I can track her and her people down. Maybe she can do something for him. He can still be a figurehead or symbol or something, like you've said. Anyway, she owes him one." Vila went on. "Then you and I are going to find a nice, quiet corner of the galaxy somewhere and relax. Build up our strength and pocket money, and lay the groundwork for whatever comes next. You can go off somewhere if you like, but the Federation's always going to want you back, so they can pick your brain for Orac. Maybe we can relieve them of that burden and go back and take that snotty machine off their hands. And we've still got a few connections out there, some aces of our own—there's Destiny and Lindor and Horizon, Albion and Teal and Vandor and…"

Vila's voice trailed off as the forward viewscreen suddenly sported bright white letters, clearly written across the starfield.

SHUT UP VILA.

Vila Restal stared at the words for a moment, then slowly turned his head to regard the man beside him. Avon's expression had not changed, but his work-callused fingers rested beside the computer input controls before him.

He met Vila's gaze with level calm.

Welcome home, Vila thought to himself with an overwhelming feeling of sudden relief. Welcome home, at last….

Originally published in Raising Hell #2

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