The sun was shining brightly overhead, bathing the two men in a warm golden glow, and Vila Restal couldn't remember ever feeling quite so relaxed and happy. It had been a long time since he and Avon had had an opportunity to simply sample the pleasures of any of the planets they visited in the name of the rebellion—but this time had been different. At the conclusion of long and boring negotiations with the ruling council of Darrin 4, the Council of Twelve had insisted that Blake and his crew avail themselves of the pleasures of the planet's galaxy-renowned entertainment facilities.
Vila, true to form, hadn't needed much urging. Avon had been a little harder to convince, but the threat of having to stay behind with Blake while he worked on refining a treaty with the council members, was enough to send him after Vila.
"This place is terrific!" Vila enthused, staring about him with wide brown eyes. Everywhere he looked there were rides, pleasure houses, eating establishments, as well as bars and buildings of unknown purposes with intriguing pictures painted on their sides. It was a small city. "I can't believe I'm actually here."
"Frankly," Avon muttered, "I can't believe I'm here, either."
"Oh, come now, Avon," Vila huffed. "You can't tell me you never dreamed of coming to a place like this when you were a little boy."
"Oh, I dreamed about it all right; I used to suffer from nightmares quite often, in fact." Avon glanced around, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
Vila shrugged, too happy to allow Avon's gloomy attitude to dampen his spirits this time. "Lighten up," he said, casting an amused glance his friend's way.
Avon glared back at him sullenly.
The two men picked their way up and down countless streets, Vila dragging Avon into every establishment that caught his fancy and Avon dragging the thief back out again before he could get into any real trouble.
"We've only got an hour left," Avon told Vila as they exited Vila's latest indulgence: a topless girlie show. Avon had feigned disgust and refused to pay the garish, outlandish performance anything more than perfunctory attention. He had, however, been intrigued by an unusual liquor concoction called a "sombrero" and had drank quite a few of the sweet drinks before Vila was ready to go. The unaccustomed amount of alcohol had overloaded his system and given him a raging headache. "Let's go back now," he demanded.
"But we haven't seen everything yet!" Vila protested.
"Be sensible. We couldn't see everything if we stayed here a year."
Vila's eyes began to gleam. "That wouldn't be such a bad idea."
Avon sighed heavily. "I'm not going any further. I'm going to sit down." He sought out a convenient bench next to a sparkling fountain and sank down onto it, stretching his legs out in front of him and crossing them at the ankles. He folded his arms across his chest and set his chin. "I'm staying right here."
Vila looked confused a moment, then he too set his chin. "All right then. Sit there and sulk. I'm going on."
Avon simply stared at him. "If you're not back in exactly one hour, I'm leaving without you, Blake be damned."
Vila shot Avon a withering glare and strode off, never once looking back. He was tired too, but he certainly wasn't going to admit it to Avon. Besides, something seemed to be pulling him in the direction he was heading, and he realized that he'd been feeling the subtle draw all afternoon. It seemed to be growing stronger now as he approached one edge of the giant entertainment complex. Vila began to tremble slightly, not sure what he was afraid of, but knowing his instincts were screaming in protest. Every nerve in his body told him to turn tail and run straight back to Avon and safety.
From somewhere he summoned the courage to fight his superstitious urges, not wanting to give in, not wanting Avon to know he'd been frightened by something as intangible as a feeling of impending disaster. So, he kept on right to the far edge of the crowded buildings, following the lure of something unseen, only felt—and then there it was, waiting, silent and forbidding, just for him. It certainly looked unpretentious enough: a small, striped tent, not even a permanent structure, it's colors gay yellow and red and a small inconspicuous sign posted in front of it, held up only by a wooden stake. The sigh said simply: "Fortuneteller."
Vila shivered again, darting his eyes around furtively, feeling as if everyone in the crowd of humanoids around him was watching. But no one was so much as glancing his way. And no one was approaching the small tent, either.
With a sigh of trepidation, almost weariness, Vila trudged toward the narrow entrance to the fortuneteller's tent, the attraction of whatever was inside calling to him. He tried to justify his actions rationally. He was curious, he told himself. Even Avon often succumbed to curiosity and wasn't afraid to admit it. Why should a Delta thief be any different?
He had to duck his head slightly to enter the tent. It was cool and dark inside, and Vila stood uncertainly, feeling strangely calm now. He blinked his eyes rapidly, trying to adjust them to the sudden change in lighting.
"Come in," a soft, feminine voice beckoned in a musical tone. It was pleasing to Vila's ear, reminding him of trilling brooks and tropical forests. It was a sort of refreshing, "green" sound. He blinked faster, wanting to see the owner of the voice.
"Come in, Vila, I have been waiting for you," the fortuneteller repeated, and Vila heard the soft rustling of silks.
He took a hesitant step backward, seized again by fear in spite of the woman's even, unthreatening tones. "How—how did you know my name?" he questioned warily. After all, the name of Vila Restal was on the Federation's most wanted list. Perhaps this woman was some sort of bounty hunter.
There was a noise like the fluttering of a bird's wings and again the muted rustling sound as if the fortuneteller was shifting position. "I mean you no harm, Vila," she spoke.
"But how did you know my name?" he insisted.
"I know many things…and nothing."
Suddenly, a dim light flared in the rear of the tent and he found himself stumbling toward it, drawn like a moth to a flame, still confused and weary but not really frightened. He could see a shadowy figure behind the light, draped from head to toe in mauve colored cloth. Feeling a twinge of disappointment that he was not to see the face that went with the wondrous voice, he eased himself cautiously down into a chair across from the mysterious figure.
"Who are you, then?" he asked, having to clear his throat several times to force the words out.
"Sometimes I am Alexandria," she replied, her tone amused. "For you, I will be she. And you are right in what you are thinking: you were called here."
"By you?" Vila leaned forward to try to peer past the veils she wore. His fear had fled totally now and only puzzlement remained. "Why?"
"There is a choice to be made; a Destiny to be decided. You are the chosen one."
"Eh?" Vila barely stopped himself from laughing. "Me!?" He wasn't quite able to restrain his incredulity. "Even if I believed in that kind of mumbo jumbo, why choose me? Why not Blake? Or Avon?"
"Because you, unlike your friends, possess an innocence which cannot and will not be corrupted."
Vila did laugh now. "Innocent? Me? Have you ever got the wrong person! I haven't been innocent since I was five years old!"
The fortuneteller laughed as well, a musical tinkling sound that filled the tent with a strange, alien music. "Your innocence is of the soul, and of the heart, Vila. The most important kind, some believe." Suddenly her laughter stopped and a dark chill seemed to fill the air. "Do you care for your friends?" the woman asked gravely.
"Answer truthfully," she warned, "for the consequences of your answer could be their deaths—or their lives."
Vila bit back the flippant reply that was dancing on the tip of his tongue with a great effort. "Yes, I suppose I do," he asserted.
"Good. Then you are the proper choice." Alexandria's words were firm and sure. "You will watch now."
Vila jumped back, startled, as the dim light that had hovered over the center of the table they were seated at flared brighter and a large crystal ball became visible practically in front of his nose.
"Watch closely," the fortuneteller told him in a hushed whisper.
"What am I looking at?" Vila questioned, lowering his voice as well, intrigued in spite of himself. This hocus-pocus stuff was a bit odd but he'd always suffered from a bit of a superstitious streak. He found himself unaccountably believing in this strange woman.
"You will see many things if you but watch," Alexandria admonished him.
As Vila concentrated on the swirling eddies in the depths of the crystal, faceless people began to take form in it. Then, they began to develop features and he could see himself standing on the flight deck of the Liberator, Avon in front of Zen, obviously shouting out orders, and they were in the middle of a space battle with strange alien craft. Blake wasn't anywhere in sight. Then, the scene changed and again Vila was standing on the flight deck, only there was a stranger standing next to him, a tall curly-haired man with an arrogant expression. A lithe, young woman with ebony skin and black eyes entered the tableau and Vila stared, bewildered. "Who are those people?" he asked, not removing his eyes from them.
"They are your companions—perhaps," Alexandria answered softly, her voice sounding as if it was coming from a great distance.
"But I've never seen them before!" Vila wailed in confused distress. Now the scene had changed again and he stood on the flight deck alone, the ship falling apart around him. "What's happening to Zen?" he whispered in horror. But before a reply could be made, the ship exploded in a brilliant flash of light. And then Vila stood on the flight deck of a much smaller ship than the Liberator, an unfamiliar ship crewed by unfamiliar people. He stared at the crystal in consternation. The only face he recognized was Avon…and even Avon looked strange and twisted, somehow.
"What's happening?" he whispered, mesmerized and horrified at the same time.
"You see a fire that is not yet ignited," the fortuneteller explained simply.
"You mean it's the future?"
"Only one possibility, Vila Restal, but the one for which you and your companions are destined."
Vila closed his eyes as the light in the crystal faded once more and he hung his head, his thoughts whirling. "Our future? But no one was there; no one but me and Avon. The others were all strangers to me."
"Ah, your other companions had traveled on, Vila," was the cryptic answer.
"Eh? They died? Is that what you mean? Are they dead?"
Vila's head shot up, his eyes blazing. "You said I would decide their fates," he challenged, not sure why it was important he have a say in this future, but knowing in his heart that it was.
"And so you shall—if you have the courage to do so. If you are willing to bear the responsibility."
"Will I be able to change what I saw in that thing?" Vila gestured at the now dimly glowing crystal. "Will I be able to save my friends' lives?"
"There are no guarantees. Sometimes the entire Fate of the galaxy can rest on one turn of a card…as it does now." A deck of nondescript cards appeared in front of Vila, seemingly out of nowhere. "Turn the card, Vila Restal," the woman spoke quietly, her music muted. "Turn the card…if you dare."
Hesitantly, Vila stretched out a shaking hand to stroke the top card. It was warm to the touch, an electric, fuzzy feeling. He paused as time itself seemed to stop, and considered what he was doing. Did he want the responsibility of deciding his friends' fates? And he didn't harbor any more doubt that that's exactly what he would be doing if he turned that card over.
He looked up, every inch of his body trembling. "What if I don't turn the card?"
Alexandria shrugged through her veils. "Who can say? Perhaps that is the right choice; only you can know. Only you can decide."
"I don't know," Vila quavered, torn with indecision. What if he turned the card and brought disaster on himself and his companions? And yet…did he dare leave their fate, their very lives, in the hand of fickle chance? He had a unique opportunity to be a guiding force, perhaps….
Screwing up his face with determination, Vila drew a deep breath and flipped the top card over. The Fool looked up at him, laughing at him. He stared at it a long moment, not sure what it meant, but he soon became aware of a tinkling, happy sound and raised his head once more to stare at the form of Alexandria. Understanding came to him and a broad grin split his face, his eyes lighting up, his entire body tingling with excitement. "I saved them, didn't I?" he babbled. "It means I saved them!"
"Yes, Vila," she answered solemnly and directly, nodding her veiled head. "You will save them all."
"And that other future? The one I saw in the crystal?"
"In that possibility, Vila, the card was perhaps never turned—or it was turned by another."
"Avon's never going to believe this!" Vila crowed, smug and pleased with himself, even though he didn't really understand how the turn of a card could save them all.
"No," Alexandria said quietly. "He will not believe you."
Avon was waiting impatiently when Vila scurried back to him, panting breathlessly. "Avon," he gasped, pulling at the dark-haired man's arm. "You've got to come and see this."
"Slow down," Avon said snidely. "What exotic liquor have you been imbibing this time? It's obviously addled what little brain tissue you possess." He "allowed" Vila to continue to steer him toward the edge of the complex.
"I haven't been drinking," Vila said, running his words together. His brown eyes were suspiciously bright and his face flushed, belying his protestations of innocence. "I've met someone."
One of Avon's eyebrows arched upward. "I suppose there is someone for everyone, Vila," he quipped. "Even a Delta such as yourself."
"That's not what I meant," Vila panted, trying to make Avon walk faster by pulling at his shirt sleeve. "Hurry up, will you?"
The two men finally reached the outskirts of the clustered buildings and Vila skidded to a halt, causing Avon to almost barrel into the back of him.
"Ooomph," the computer expert complained. "Would you make up your mind, Vila, whether you want to run or stand still?"
"It's gone," the smaller man was mumbling. "It's gone." He began to cast about frantically, pacing back and forth and spinning around in circles like a dog questing for a lost scent.
"What's gone?" Avon's exasperation was growing noticeable.
"Avon." Vila grabbed at the other man, clutching the front of his shirt desperately. "I'm telling you, it was right here! A striped tent. There was a girl, Avon, and a crystal ball, and music…" He trailed off, seeing the disbelieving look in his companion's eyes.
Avon glared down at Vila hands which were still clutching his shirt front, then stared at the thief's face. "There's nothing here, Vila. You have been drinking again, haven't you?"
Vila released Avon, thrusting him backward away from himself, his face twisted. "I haven't had anything to drink; I swear it. There was a fortuneteller and she said I could change the future."
"Now I know you're drunk," Avon said wryly, a wolfish grin lighting up his features.
"A lot you know," Vila mumbled, his eyes now downcast. "I saved everybody, she said. I saved the whole galaxy, in fact," he embellished.
Avon sneered. "You're not drunk; you're delirious." He took Vila by the arm, steering him back toward the mainstream of the facilities. "Come on, we'd better get you back to Liberator before you start seeing little green men in pink bunny suits."
"I didn't imagine it," Vila muttered sullenly, casting a forlorn glance back over his shoulder as Avon led him away. For one split second he heard the music and laughter again, then it faded away as if it had never been. Vila shook his head sadly.
Time passed quickly on the run and Vila soon put the strange incident on Darrin 4 behind him, never really accepting Avon's theory of a drunken hallucination, but unable to produce any tangible proof that Alexandria had existed. He knew, though, and he had to satisfy himself with that. Somehow, he felt that Cally, of all the crew, came closest to believing the story he told; but even the Auron girl seemed a bit skeptical when Vila spoke of changing their future. Perhaps she would have been more willing to believe if the supposed "rescue" of his companions had not occurred at his hands.
In any case, other matter filled Vila's days with worry and fear and his current problem was a case of very bad radiation poisoning. The fact that Avon, Jenna and Gan all suffered along with him did nothing to ease the pain of the fact that he was slowly dying. Perhaps he had imagined Alexandria and her portents of the future, for it certainly looked as if he and the majority of his companions were destined to die—if Blake and Cally did not locate Ensor and a supply of decontaminants on the planet below, that is. They had been gone on inordinate amount of time.
"Vila, how do you feel?" Avon's voice spat from the communicator and Vila screwed up his face. He knew what was coming. They'd be going down to the planet to search for Blake and Cally. Never mind that he could barely stand up. Avon wouldn't care.
Aristo revolved slowly below the Liberator, serene in her isolation, unconcerned with the petty problems of the Federation and a small band of freedom fighters who faced off on her surface, the ownership of a supercomputer known as Orac in question.
"What are you going to do?" Cally asked of Servalan and Travis, staring at them, obviously knowing the answer.
"What do you think I'm going to do?" Travis replied contemptuously.
"I think you're going to kill me—with or without orders from the Supreme Commander," Roj Blake said, resigned and solemn.
"With orders, Blake," Servalan said, obviously enjoying the rebel leader's discomfort. "Go ahead," she added, glancing at Travis. The leather-clad man raised his arm with every intention of firing, but before he could prime the laser in his hand, a blast of laser fire seared him and his bionic arm dropped to his side, mangled.
"Don't move," Kerr Avon hissed, running into view with Vila at his side.
"Good shot, Avon," Blake said mildly, seemingly not surprised by his computer expert's sudden appearance.
"I was aiming for his head," Avon returned just as mildly.
Vila pushed past him and headed for Blake and Cally. "You took your time!" he accused, his head pounding with a constant dull ache. "What have you been up to?"
"We had a few minor problems," Cally told him gravely, glancing pointedly at Servalan and Travis.
"Did you bring the decontaminants?" Vila asked hopefully.
Cally reassured him. "Yes, we've got them."
"Tell them to bring us up," Blake ordered, as Avon moved to join his companions.
Vila needed no further urging; he'd be glad to put this planet behind them. "Jenna, stand by," he spoke into his bracelet.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Travis snarled, glaring at Blake. "C'mon, then, why don't you kill me?"
Avon immediately raised his weapon to oblige the man but Blake's arm stayed him, stopping him from pressing the firing mechanism barely in time.
"No," the rebel leader insisted.
But it was too late. Vila, standing behind Avon, chose that moment to lean forward and jostle the computer expert's arm. He didn't know what instinct made him do it, he only knew that something seemed to push him inexorably forward. "Ooomph," he gasped as he made contact with Avon's body.
"Vila!" Blake yelled as the impact jostled Avon just enough to cause his finger to tighten and a bolt of energy sizzled from his weapon—straight into Travis' heart.
The Space Commander crumpled to the ground without a sound, dead before he hit.
Blake looked ill, but Avon simply smiled a cool, enigmatic smile and turned to help steady the swaying Vila. "Saved by a fool," he commented, to no one in particular. "Blake, your noble idealism is going to get us all killed one day, but it appears that Vila has just removed one stumbling block from your path!"
Authors' Note: A slightly different version of this story appeared in the original issues of Magnificent Seven #3. The story does not, however, appear in reprints of Magnificent Seven #3. This version was printed in The Road Not Taken.
Original artwork copyright © Leah Rosenthal, All Rights Reserved