"Vila! Vila Restal!" Kerr Avon spun around quickly at the sound of the strident, female voice, one hand on Vila's shoulder and the other hand holding a small, deadly laser pistol. Vila had turned around as well, his expression confused as he eyed the woman approaching them. The crowd of locals jamming the street made it difficult for her to reach the two men. It was market day in the city and the place was packed with farmers and ranchers buying provisions.
"Who the hell is she?" Avon hissed into Vila's ear, maintaining his grip on the slightly smaller man and steering him toward the edges of the crowd. He could see that the woman was following them, still attempting to shove her way past the milling people. He could also see that she was woefully out of place on this backward frontier planet. She was dressed in well-tailored, expensive-looking clothes and Avon thought he caught the glint of jewelry flashing about her slender throat and on the fingers of her hands. Her light brown hair was done up in one of the latest, most fashionable styles, and her face was screwed up in an expression of disgust as she was jostled by sweaty, dirty frontiersmen.
"Well, she obviously knows you. All the more reason to shake her." The woman was shouting Vila's name yet again, obviously thinking that he hadn't heard her the first time. "If she doesn't shut up soon, we're going to have half the Federation down on our heads."
"You said this planet was safe!" Vila immediately protested with a yelp, suddenly looking frightened as well as confused.
"I said there weren't any Federation troops stationed here that I knew of, you idiot. I did not say it was free of bounty hunters, public-spirited Federation loyalists, greedy crimos. Federation spies, transient soldiers or law enforcement personnel. Do you honestly believe we are safe anywhere? There are people who would kill us for only a fraction of the credits the Federation is offering to pay for our capture. Even your miserable carcass would be worth a year's pay to one of these locals."
"Well, I still don't know who that woman is, Avon! Maybe we should...uh, maybe the safest way to shut her up is to just see what she wants?"
With the woman's cries still echoing above the noise of the crowd, Avon had to nod in agreement. He came to an abrupt halt and pulled Vila up even closer to his side. "She does seem to be quite persistent."
Avon lifted his arm to his mouth in a subtle move and spoke softly into the teleport bracelet clasped around his wrist. "Cally, are you there?"
"Yes, Avon. Is there trouble?" the Auron girl's voice came back over the bracelet communicator.
"We've apparently run into an old friend of Vila's." Avon's tone was dry.
"What?" Cally sounded confused.
"Just stand by in case we need to get out of here in a hurry. We are about to have a conference with the lady."
"Lady? Avon...where is Tarrant? What's going on down there?"
"Just stand by."
"All right, Avon." A note of resignation tinged Cally's words. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"Don't I always?" Avon lowered his arm and stared unblinkingly into the face of the woman, who was now only a few feet away from them. Perspiration had sprung up on her forehead, smearing her make-up, but he had to admit that she was nice looking in a soft sort of way. She had delicate, porcelain-like features, and a nicely curved figure; she was only slightly shorter than him, in fact, almost of a height with Vila. Somehow, she didn't quite fit the picture he would have had for an old friend of Vila Restal's. He narrowed his eyes speculatively, every nerve reaching to sense a trap or danger.
"Vila!" the woman gasped in relief, finally reaching Vila and falling against his chest, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him.
Vila stood stiffly, staring at Avon over her shoulder with a look of total bewilderment.
"Why didn't you stop when I called out?" the woman asked angrily, pushing away from Vila after a moment and glaring at him.
"Uh—er, I didn't hear you," Vila stammered awkwardly, trying to back up but unable to because of the press of the crowd.
"Of course you heard me!" she immediately snapped. "Do you know how long it's been? Why haven't you been in touch with me? I thought you were dead!"
Avon stood and watched Vila squirm, feeling perversely amused for a long moment, before he finally decided to rescue his uncomfortable companion. "Pardon me?" he interrupted smoothly, stepping between the woman and Vila. "You obviously know Vila, but I don't believe we have been introduced."
"Who the hell are you?" she demanded.
Avon's eyes narrowed once more. "I asked first." His voice was dangerously low and level.
She tried to stare him down but she yielded first, lowering her eyes and fluttering her hands in a nervous gesture in the face of his icy glare. "Reta Evans," she muttered. "Now, just who the devil do you think you are?"
"An associate of Vila's," Avon countered easily.
Her head snapped up at this, her eyes flashing with a spark he couldn't quite identify. "Oh, is that how it is, then?" she spat at Vila, who jumped as she lunged up close to his face, snarling. "Didn't waste any time getting a new partner, did you? Is that why you took off in the middle of the night without a word of good-bye? To be with him? Or is he just one in a long line of partner's...like I was?"
"I...I don't know what you're talking about," Vila pleaded, his face red. "I've never seen you before in my life!"
Reta gasped. "How dare you say that?" Her hand came up to strike at Vila's face but Avon was too quick for her. He caught her hand in midair and held it in a vise-like grip.
"My friend says he doesn't know you. Would you care to explain and refresh his memory?"
She struggled against his hold on her but Avon simply smiled tightly and increased the pressure on her wrist.
"Don't hurt her, Avon," Vila protested weakly, still red-faced.
"Shut up, Vila. Are you going to enlighten us or not?" he addressed Reta again.
"Avon," Vila interrupted, "shouldn't we go someplace more private?"
He inclined his head at the street full of people. Only a few were glancing their way thus far, but the looks they were receiving were growing increasingly more curious. It wouldn't do to have the local law enforcement interested in their affairs.
"Yes," Avon agreed, twisting the woman around carefully so that his arm was wrapped around her waist, making it appear as if they were simply a couple out for a stroll. "If you scream," he told her quietly, "I will very probably kill you."
Reta bit at her lips and nodded in understanding, but not before flashing Vila a glance full of bitter hatred. "You are a lowdown, slimy bastard, Vila Restal," she snarled, and then cut herself off with a strangled yelp of pain as Avon tightened his grip on her wrist.
"You will keep your mouth shut," he ordered, shooting her a warning scowl.
Vila's face had paled at her insult and he trailed behind Avon, looking miserable.
It was only a short walk to the house their rebel contact had rented for them under an assumed name. Avon wasted no time in hustling Reta inside and ordering Vila to keep a watch out the window to make certain they had not been followed. After a moment, he locked the door, satisfied that they hadn't been tailed, and the threesome continued on into the back of the small house at Avon's tacit urging.
Tarrant was sprawled out on a large tan sofa, reading a printout. A computer terminal and a printer were sitting on a desk, the terminal's display flashing with complex figures.
"What's this?" the curly-haired pilot questioned, coming to his feet as they entered and placing a cautious hand on his holster.
"A mystery," Avon replied cryptically, shoving Reta down onto the sofa and turning to the computer. He punched a few buttons, darkening the screen, then spun to face the woman. "Well?" He arched an eyebrow at her.
"Well what?" She glanced warily from Avon to Tarrant to Vila. "What the hell is going on here? Vila—are you into something big? Is that it? You don't want me to know so you won't have to cut me in on it."
"What we are doing is none of your concern," Avon told her evenly. "What you were doing shouting out Vila's name in the marketplace is, however."
"I told you: we're old friends."
"Vila claims he doesn't know you."
Vila nodded vigorously in agreement with Avon's statement. "I don't! I swear it, Avon." He leaned back against the wall, trembling slightly.
Reta stared at Vila contemptuously. "I see I was mistaken, after all," she said cuttingly. "The man I knew would have dropped the pretense by now. Vila Restal was never a sniveling coward who let all of his cronies do the talking for him. He would never have deserted a companion simply to save his own neck."
"Well, there you have it," Tarrant said snidely. "She obviously doesn't know our Vila."
"Shut up," Avon snapped at Tarrant. "There is more to this than meets the eye." He studied Reta more closely. "Exactly when did you know Vila?"
Reta leaned against the cushioned back of the sofa, crossing her legs and putting on a cautious air of nonchalance. "On Earth, of course. We worked together for three years. Three years living on the edge and he has the nerve to say he doesn't even know me."
"When you say you worked together, just what exactly do you mean?" Tarrant queried, his brow furrowed. "You mean, you're a thief?"
Reta snorted softly, pursing her lips. "A thief? Well, I suppose you could say that, although we never thought of ourselves as such. The word thief rather conjures up an image of low-class pickpockets and the like. Vila and I worked the resorts and the big businesses, you know? High society Alpha snobs and the like. Nobody who couldn't spare the change we relieved them of. Nobody could get past the security systems faster than Vila." She laughed harshly. "After all, we used to work for the same dandies during the daylight hours as security consultants!"
Tarrant whistled, both he and Avon turning incredulous gazes on Vila, who was now slumped into a chair, shivering. "I don't know what she's talking about," he moaned, wringing his hands in frustration.
"She sounds awfully convincing," Tarrant put in with sarcasm.
Reta sat up straight again, her body and features rigid. "I've had about all of this playing dumb that I'm going to take. We were a lot more than partners to each other and he ran out on me; left me to take the heat. I'll be damned if I'm going to sit here and be interrogated as if I was the one who's done something wrong! You lot are obviously up to something shady or you wouldn't be so secretive about it. Frankly, I don't give a damn what you're doing. I thought Vila was dead and it was a shock to see him alive, especially here. It never occurred to me, I must admit, that I had simply been deserted and left to take the rap in Mideast Dome. I wouldn't have gotten out of that one," she turned to sneer at Vila, "if I hadn't had a friend with lots of money. You remember our old friend Jarrod, don't you?" she finished emphatically.
Avon's eyes lit with sudden understanding. "Mideast Dome? Vila," he crossed to the other man's side and leaned over the cringing thief. "Isn't that where you were arrested the last time? Monaco sector in Mideast Dome?"
"I don't remember!" Vila wailed, his voice high-pitched. "I've already told you I don't remember. How could you know that, anyway?"
"I asked our brilliant, if testy, little computer friend, of course," Avon demurred, reluctant to mention any more names in the presence of the woman and further compromise their identities. He straightened up and turned to Reta. "I can check your story out, I think. But Vila is telling the truth: he does not remember you. The Federation had him in intensive interrogation for four months before they shipped him off to Cygnus Alpha on a prison ship."
Reta winced automatically and Avon could see that she understood the implications—that Vila had been subjected to Federation readjustment treatments and they had evidently worked to a greater extent than Vila, or anybody else, had ever realized.
"Oh—I see," Reta murmured, the hatred in her eyes lessening a bit, although she still looked wary. "What are you going to do, then?"
Avon shrugged. "First, I have some unfinished business to take care of. It will be necessary to hold you here until I find out if you are telling the truth. Then, you can go your own way."
"If I'm telling the truth," Reta sighed.
Avon smiled a predatory half-smile once again. "Naturally. If you're telling the truth." He sat down at the computer console, turned it back on, and began to key in a request, cautious to make certain that the screen was angled out of Reta's line of sight.
Tarrant stood awkwardly between Vila and Reta, his hand still hovering near his laser gun. "What shall I do in the meantime?" he asked Avon hesitantly.
"Play the watchful host and leave me alone. Try to keep the noise level to a minimum," Avon said sharply. He glared in Vila's direction. "Stop sniveling, Vila."
Vila was moaning softly to himself. As the others watched, he lowered his head into his hands and rested his elbows on his knees. "My head hurts," he whimpered.
"What?" Avon stopped his work at the keyboard long enough to take a closer look at Vila. The man was pale and trembling. He looked utterly miserable.
"I said it hurts—my head."
To Avon's surprise, he saw a tear leak from between Vila's fingers. His usual cynical reaction to Vila's claims of illness vanished. It was fairly obvious that Vila wasn't lying about the pain this time. Avon got up from the computer and left the room, but returned almost immediately with a blanket, a glass of water, and some pills. "Take these for now. We'll have Cally take a look at you just as soon as we get back to the ship."
"Why can't I just go back to the Liberator now? You don't need me here."
Avon flicked his hand in Reta's direction. "Not until this mess is cleared up. Besides, we still might have a use for you. Now take the medicine."
"What are they?" Vila asked suspiciously, holding the pills clenched tightly in one fist.
Avon sighed loudly. "Painkillers. Take them or don't; I'm not the one who's in pain, and it hardly matters to me."
Vila looked nervous but he threw the pills into his mouth and swallowed them, making a face as they went down.
Avon stood and watched him a moment until Vila's eyelids began to droop and his expression glazed over. Within minutes, he was leaning his head drowsily against the back of the cushioned chair. Avon nodded in satisfaction and went to finish his work at the computer.
Tarrant sat down at the opposite end of the sofa from Reta, never taking his eyes off her. He'd done guard duty long before he'd ever gone rebel and knew very well that social niceties were a hindrance to vigilance. Reta tried to look bored but failed miserably.
"You're from a ship called the Liberator, then?" she asked Tarrant tentatively, after a long drawn-out silence which was punctuated only by the tapping sound of Avon working the computer keyboard.
"Why do you ask?" Tarrant countered smoothly.
"Vila mentioned the name." Reta shrugged with an air of innocence. "It seems to me I've heard the name before."
Tarrant opened and closed his mouth a few times, not sure how to frame a safe reply without making the woman more suspicious. Finally, he simply nodded his head. "Perhaps you have."
Suddenly, Avon spun to face them, his features guarded and expressionless. "I think we can ask our computer friend about Vila's lady friend now," he told Tarrant.
"Did you find out—?" Tarrant left the question safely dangling.
"Yes," Avon's reply was curt. "We can leave now."
"Then, he's not here?" Tarrant persisted.
Avon shook his head slowly, still keeping his features neutral, amazed at how disappointed he felt, but not wanting Tarrant to know how much he had been counting on Blake really being on this particular world. Even if it had only been on the strength of one more tentative rumor. "No, he isn't here. It seems he was here, but he left months ago. We were given badly out of date information."
"Who are you looking for?" Reta asked with eager curiosity. "I've been here for a while...maybe I can help," she added quickly, in the face of their answering scowls.
"I doubt it," Tarrant told her before Avon could frame a more cutting reply. "It is unlikely you've heard of the man we're searching for. He travels in...more private circles."
"Does he owe you money? Is that the big seam you're covering up?" she asked knowingly.
Reta evidently couldn't conceive of any other motive than money, Avon thought ruefully. He had often perceived of himself in such mercenary terms, but he had obviously overestimated the purity of his own greed. What other motive could he have for chasing across half the galaxy, looking for Roj Blake if it weren't something less selfish? Or perhaps, he speculated, it was selfishness of a newer sort. Roj Blake most definitely did not owe him money. There was enough treasure on board the Liberator to satisfy Avon a hundred times over, and Blake had left it all in his hands. It was odd how he never seemed to have any desire to spend it anymore. The having was not quite so sweet as the wanting, it seemed.
As for betraying Blake for the reward, well--that was obviously out of the question, as long as the Federation wanted his own hide as badly as they wanted Blake's. If not moreso, he reminded himself, thinking of Servalan. He shook himself mentally, forcing himself to adjust to the fact that they had just hit one more dead end on this world. Now it was time to turn his attention to their more immediate problems: the Liberator and Vila's mystery lady.
"Did you finish your calculations?" he asked Tarrant, ignoring Reta's question. He nodded at the computer console.
"Just before you returned," Tarrant confirmed. "And Tanro knows a merchant who can get us the crystals we need."
"Are you certain you got it right this time, Tarrant?" Avon's voice was more than a little sarcastic.
The tall pilot set his jaw, but still didn't allow his attention to wander from his charge. He rose to his feet, his stance becoming belligerent. "That burnout in the weaponry system wasn't my fault and you know it. If Vila had found us pure crystals of the kind we needed, it never would have happened."
"Do you really wish to discuss Vila in relation to Keezarn?" Avon's tone was mildly questioning but his eyes were flashing a warning. "I seem to remember Vila almost dying in order to obtain those crystals; and that was most certainly your fault."
Tarrant sighed at the reminder, visibly backing down. He ran a hand through his unruly brown curls, and sat down again. He suddenly looked much older than he was, and bone tired. "Yes. I know. I've said I was sorry."
Avon nodded curtly and moved to check on Vila, who was huddled under the blanket Avon had given him. "Vila." He prodded the man on the shoulder. "How do you feel now?"
"Huh?" Vila blinked, his eyes bleary and all pupil. "Avon? Where's Blake?" He squinted, peering past Avon at Tarrant. "Blake?" he questioned plaintively.
Avon stiffened as Vila reached up a hand and curled it around his arm.
"Where are we?" Vila asked, his words slurred and halting.
"He's really ill, Avon," Tarrant commented, coming to stand next to Avon. "How could he get sick so fast?"
Avon gently pried Vila's fingers loose from his arm and shot a glare at Reta. "It is her. Something she said has triggered the memory of the conditioning that the Federation performed on Vila, I would guess. Perhaps that is what is making his head hurt."
Tarrant frowned. "Will he be all right?"
"I can hardly know that without Orac's assistance." Avon shrugged as if he didn't really care. The day was shaping up to be one long, frustrating emotional drain. "Perhaps. If he can fight off the conditioning...as he evidently did the first time."
"But he doesn't even remember a time prior to being conditioned, if we believe her!" Tarrant motioned toward Reta, sounding perplexed.
Avon simply lifted an eyebrow at Tarrant's outburst. "It is probable that Vila caused the memory loss himself in order to avoid telling the Federation everything they wanted to know. In theory, of course." He flashed a look at the woman. "Evidently, he cared more about protecting you—or somebody—than you realize." He leaned over Vila again. "Vila, can you hear me?"
Vila cracked his eyes open and moaned loudly. "Where are we?" he asked again, his expression building toward panic.
"We're safe," Tarrant soothed. "Everything is all right."
"Blake!?" Vila suddenly jerked straighter in the chair, alarmed.
"Blake is fine; Blake is safe," Avon assured him coolly.
Vila relaxed again, his eyes once more sliding shut. His hands clutched at the folds of the blanket tightly.
Avon watched him silently before moving to the other side of the room. He lifted an innocuous looking box and carried it back to the desk where the computer terminal sat. He pulled the sides of the box down to reveal that Orac was encased inside of it. With a flick of his palm, he slammed the activator key home and the plexiglas super computer came on with a squeal of protest.
*What do you want?* it demanded impatiently, *I am busy.*
Avon was in no mood to argue with the touchy piece of machinery. "I want you to search Federation files for any information regarding Reta Evans, especially in relation to any connection between her and Vila."
*Very well. However, I must point out that this trivial task is a gross misuse of my primary function—*
"Shut up, Orac," Avon snapped.
"What now?" Tarrant appeared genuinely worried and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
"Now we wait and see what Orac finds out about the lady. At this juncture she knows more about us than we do about her...regrettably. How long until we can get the crystals?"
"About three hours, according to Tanro. We're lucky to be getting them today at all. What about Vila?"
Avon turned away from Tarrant's inquiring, half-mocking gaze. "He'll be all right until we can get him back to the ship."
"He doesn't really look all right, Avon." Tarrant flashed an apologetic grin. "Not this time."
"Are you trying to pretend that you actually care what happens to him?" Avon allowed a taunting sneer to curl his lips. "Vila is none of your concern."
Tarrant's stance was once more one of tightly controlled fury, but he held himself in check with an obvious effort. "All right. Have it your way." He shrugged and leaned against the wall, folding his arms across his chest.
Reta had watched the exchange between the men in silence, her eyes wide and curious. Now, as she studied Tarrant, she suddenly gave a little gasp, her hand flying up to cover her mouth.
"What is it?" Tarrant was immediately alert, his hand reaching back toward his weapon.
"Blake," she whispered in a strangled voice. "I knew I'd heard that name before...and Liberator...and Vila Restal.… Of course! You're Blake's people. Rebel terrorists! Why, I never would have thought it of Vila."
Tarrant darted a glance to Avon. "What now? She knows who we are.…"
Avon shrugged, bending over Vila once again to check on him. "We'll be leaving soon. She won't have time to tell anyone before it's too late. Assuming, of course, that her story checks out properly."
"You're lying," Reta snapped. "You don't intend to leave me behind at all; at least, not alive. Your type can't afford any witnesses."
Avon straightened up, turning slowly to face the woman, an enigmatic smile on his face. She cringed backwards at the sight of it. "Be very careful," he advised, "that you don't give me any ideas."
"You're as crazy as Vila!" she spat, her face pale.
Avon laughed. "I could take that as an insult...but I won't."
*The security monitors reveal that the house has been surrounded by five men, all heavily armed,* Orac suddenly spoke up, sounding slightly self-satisfied.
"What?'" Tarrant dropped to his knees and crawled toward the window, his handgun drawn. "Why didn't you warn us?"
*I was instructed—*
"Oh, shut up," Tarrant cut in, ducking his head down and then back up to look out the window. "I don't see anything." He glanced over his shoulder at Avon. "What do you think?"
"We'll teleport up. There's no reason to remain here any longer. We can come back down to pick up the crystals." He moved toward Reta, producing an extra teleport bracelet from a pocket and reaching to fasten it around her wrist. He tried not to think about the fact that it had been intended for Blake. "We'll have to take you with us, of course. Just until we've finished our business with Tanro."
"I don't think so," Reta said softly, grabbing hold of Avon's hand, jerking him off-balance. He found himself confronted with a very lethal looking blaster. "You didn't search me very well, did you?" she grinned.
She pulled herself to her feet, balancing herself with Avon and keeping the gun tightly against his side. "Now, those are my friends out there." She held up a wrist, a gold bracelet sparkling on it. "A communications device; not unlike yours. I called for backup the minute you forced me to accompany you, simply by pushing a button. Vila isn't the only one who's found new partners in the trade. I'm only surprised it took them so long to track you down."
Vila chose that moment to moan, breaking Reta's concentration just long enough for Avon to make a grab for her gun, twisting sideways out of the line of her fire. Her instinctive firing still managed to singe his side before he wrested the gun violently away from her. Another bolt of laser energy came sizzling through the window, barely missing Tarrant's head and suddenly Tarrant and Avon found themselves in the midst of a pitched firefight.
Avon threw Reta to one side, making use of her blaster himself until the weapon's power supply was exhausted. With a muttered curse, he flung it aside and pulled out his Liberator handgun.
"Cally!" he finally had a moment to gasp into his teleport bracelet. "Get us out of here. Tarrant—" he gestured wildly. "Get Orac!"
Tarrant made a dive across the room for the computer just as the teleport effect swept over them and suddenly they were all sprawled on the floor of the teleport room aboard Liberator. Reta was with them; she had still been wearing the teleport bracelet that Avon had clapped on her wrist. It hardly mattered, however...since there was a large round hole in her head and she was lying very still. She'd evidently been hit by one of the stray blaster bolts ricocheting around the room just as Cally had pulled everyone up.
Cally stood regarding the group in amazement. "Avon, you're bleeding. "What's wrong with Vila...who is she?"
Avon stood up slowly, grimacing at the pain in his side. He pressed a hand against the bleeding wound and limped to Vila's side. He was curled up, lying on his side and shivering. "Vila. Come on. Wake up."
The other man opened his eyes slowly, seeming dazed. "What?" He sat up with Avon's help, his gaze sweeping the teleport room and growing more bewildered by the second. "What's going on...?" His voice seemed firmer all of a sudden, and deeper somehow. Then his gaze fell on the motionless form of Reta.
"Reta...?" he breathed, a look of horror replacing his bewilderment. "You bloody bastards! You killed her!" He turned to Avon with accusation burning in his eyes. Accusation—and no recognition whatsoever.
Without warning, Vila's fist lashed out and connected with Avon's injured side. As Avon doubled over, the breath going out of him in a whoosh, Vila scrambled to his feet. He grabbed Avon by the hair and jerked upwards.
"Get up, you," he snarled.
Tarrant and Cally stood stunned, their mouths agape.
"Vila!" Cally finally gasped, taking a step forward in response to Avon's obvious distress.
"Don't move," Vila growled. He maintained his hold on Avon as the other man awkwardly tried to regain his footing. "I'll break his neck if I have to!"
Cally stopped, throwing out an arm to hold Tarrant back as he instinctively lunged forward. "All right," she said, her tone soothing. "Stay calm. We'll do whatever you want."
Avon was still gasping for breath and attempting to struggle lamely against Vila, who now had an arm firmly locked around his neck. "Let go of me, you stupid fool!" he rasped, trying to twist sideways.
Vila's arm tightened fractionally and Avon coughed. His hands came up to pull at the arm choking him, to little avail. "I told you not to move, mate." Vila jerked his arm momentarily tighter and then relaxed it a bit as Avon dropped his hands and held still. "That's better. You," Vila turned his attention to Cally and Tarrant, "where is this place?"
"Where—?" Tarrant stammered, obviously confused. He exchanged a worried glance with Cally. "You're on the Liberator. We're safe now. You can let go of Avon..."
"Liberator?" Vila appeared lost in thought for a long moment. It was not a familiar expression to Cally or Tarrant. But then, nothing about the man seemed familiar in his current state. "No, I don't remember being here." He glanced down at Reta's still body. His expression softened for a split second, and then hardened again as he raised his eyes. "We were in Mideast Dome, on Earth, and I'd just struck: a deal with Wriker Industries," Vila pronounced carefully, his gaze darting back and forth between the two crew members. "We were going to handle all their security...they 're the biggest firm in the Dome, you know. We'd decided to go out and celebrate before we got down to making plans...," he trailed off, shaking his head slightly but keeping his gaze locked on Tarrant and the Auron. "Which one of you killed her?" he suddenly hissed.
"It wasn't us," Tarrant protested. "It was her friends; down on the planet below...Carque. Earth's millions of spacials from here, Vila!"
Vila snorted in contempt. "A likely story. How'd we get here, then? So fast? One of you knocked me out and did her in, didn't you? Bastards! Why'd you do it? Wanted in on the action? Trying to rob us?"
"Vila." Cally put out a hand imploringly. "We would never hurt you. You teleported up from the planet, just like usual."
"Teleport?" Vila stared around the room like a trapped animal, taking in the unusual equipment and the teleport bay. "This teleport thing...it can send me back to the planet below then, right?"
Cally nodded slowly. "Of course it could. Don't you remember?"
Vila still looked wary. "How does it work?"
Cally pointed at the teleport bay. "You just stand in there and we work some controls...now let Avon go and we'll talk things over—"
"Not bloody likely!" Vila began pulling Avon backward into the teleport bay. "You put me right back where you found me. And Reta, too. You—" he pointed at Tarrant, "—do whatever you have to, or this Alpha pig turns a lovely shade of blue."
Avon opened his mouth to speak but shut it tightly as Vila increased the pressure on his larynx once more.
"Mind what you say," Vila whispered into his ear, his voice low and menacing. "I have a strong feeling you're the one who did Reta in. I don't take kindly to people killing me mates."
Avon looked hopelessly at Tarrant and Cally, knowing full well that there was nothing they could do to help him. Vila might have been a coward, but he'd never been a weakling. In his current position, Vila could not only strangle him; he could easily break his neck.
Avon tried to flash Cally a signal with his eyes and she seemed to nod imperceptibly. He relaxed in Vila's grip, but remained alert to any openings Vila might inadvertently grant him.
We'll find you, Avon, Cally's telepathic voice spoke gently inside Avon's head. Don't worry.
"Avon—" Tarrant said, sitting at the teleport controls, his hands poised over them.
"Shut up and do it!" Vila ordered in a near roar.
Tarrant shrugged and moved the appropriate switches. Cally and Tarrant faded from Avon's vision and he and Vila were suddenly standing in a back alley on the planet Carque. He recognized it as their teleport coordinates from the morning before, when they had first arrived on the planet.
Vila swayed for a split second, obviously startled by the teleport effect and the suddenness of their change of locale. Avon took advantage and rammed an elbow into the other man's ribs as hard as he could. As Vila gasped and fell slightly backwards, Avon spun to confront him...only to meet up with the business end of Vila's fist again. Surprised by Vila's quick reflexes and unaccountable lack of fear, Avon hesitated a fraction of a second and the moment was lost. Vila was all over him, pummeling him with fists and getting a kick or two in besides. Avon attempted to fight back, but the injury to his side, coupled with the loss of blood and the unexpectedness of Vila's assault worked against him. Vila hammered at him savagely and without let-up, until in the end, Avon simply went limp, hoping Vila would stop beating him.
In the background, he could hear Tarrant's voice coming faintly over their bracelet communicators and he silently cursed Tarrant for his lack of patience. The noise did, however, serve to distract Vila and he sat up, still straddling Avon.
"What's this, then?" Vila asked between clenched teeth, pulling Avon's limp hand up and staring at the bracelet on his wrist. "A communicator?" He jerked the bracelet off and let Avon's arm flop back to the pavement. The computer tech winced as his hand hit and then winced again as Vila poked him in the ribs.
"I know you're still awake, rat-face. What is this thing?"
Avon cracked his eyes open. "As you said. It is a communicator."
He shivered slightly as Vila took the bracelet and shoved it into his shirt pocket. He seemed to finally notice that he was wearing an identical bracelet. He took it off, stared at it a moment, then dropped it to the ground and crushed it under one boot heel.
"And then again, it's probably a tracer, too. I think I'll hang on to yours," he said. "Might be worth something, this teleport technology." Vila patted his various pockets, finding the tools of his trade where he customarily stashed them, and looked pleased. "At least I've still got some of my handy little tools." He dug deeper into the pockets. "But I don't seem to have any ready credits." He eyed Avon speculatively. "You got any, I wonder?"
Avon shook his head quickly. "No," he mumbled. He suddenly realized that the sticky sensation in his mouth was blood and he'd most likely gotten a split lip and a loose tooth or two from Vila's beating. "It's all on the ship," he explained. "All of it's back on the ship."
Vila didn't appear to believe him, but he turned his attention to searching the still body of Reta. He removed the gold communicator bracelet she'd been wearing, and then lifted her shirt to reveal a rather large, flat bag of gold credits strapped in a money belt around her waist. "Good old Reta," he murmured. "Could always count on her to stash something away for a rainy day..." He appeared lost in thought for a moment and then he gazed down at Avon, who lay still on the ground, looking back in silence. "I suppose I'll have to keep you with me, fop. In case your friends decide to follow and try anything...think you're worth something to them?"
Avon wasn't certain how to answer. If he told Vila that they would ransom him, the crazed thief might just collect the ransom and kill him anyway. But if he told Vila that they wouldn't pay for his safe return, he might end up dead that much sooner. The problem was, he obviously didn't know this man confronting him. Any rules which might have applied to "his" Vila were superseded by this stranger.
Stranger, Avon mused inwardly, the truth hitting him. This man is probably the real Vila Restal, the original character that the Federation caught and reprogrammed. He opted for longevity. "Yes. They'll pay to have me back—safe."
Vila stared at him for what seemed an interminable length of time before finally answering, "All right. On your feet, then. We're going to have to stay on the move."
Avon reluctantly and painfully got to his feet, gasping as he tried to put weight on his left leg. "I can't walk." His entire left side felt like it was on fire. He reached out for the nearby brick wall and leaned heavily against it.
Vila shrugged. "Walk or die."
"What the hell is going on?" Cally exploded as Avon and Vila disappeared from the teleport bay.
Tarrant was already trying to raise Avon on his bracelet communicator. He looked up with a rueful grimace. "I'm not certain. Vila was ill down on Carque. Avon had some theory that perhaps his Federation conditioning was breaking down. The girl that died was connected to Vila's past life somehow. Apparently," he pronounced acidly, "the worm has turned."
"But Vila always said that the conditioning didn't work on him!" Cally protested. "That it always broke down!"
Tarrant shook his head. "If the conditioning had worked, Cally, how would Vila know that it worked? He wouldn't remember it working, if you catch my meaning. So, perhaps, he was conditioned all along, maybe even conditioned to remember that he couldn't be conditioned."
Cally frowned and bit at her lower lip. "We've got to get them back. Vila didn't recognize any of us; didn't know the ship; seemed to think he should be back on Earth. And he didn't just look dangerous, Tarrant—he was radiating hatred, especially toward Avon. We've got to find them!"
"Naturally," Tarrant nodded, then swore as a light on his console blinked out. "Damn! He's destroyed one of the teleport bracelets."
"What about the other one?" Cally sat next to him and leaned over the controls. "There it is." She pointed out a faintly blinking telltale. "They're moving."
"All right." Tarrant stood up. "I'll go back down."
"Not alone," Cally insisted. "I'll come with you."
"No." Tarrant held up a hand to stall her automatic protest. "Someone's got to retrieve the crystals from Tanro. We're supposed to be meeting him shortly and without those crystals our weaponry system is useless. I'll take Dayna with me. She's still in her sleep cycle and she'll be more rested and alert. We'll track down Vila and Avon. You get the crystals from Tanro."
"And leave no one to watch the ship?"
"Orac can monitor space traffic and the like. Without our weaponry, there's not much we could do if we were attacked, anyway. We're probably safer down on Carque," he added wryly.
Cally nodded in reluctant agreement. "I'll go wake Dayna and brief her. You catch some rest while we get kitted up."
"Be sensible," Avon gasped, virtually staggering on his feet along the darkened street on Carque. "I'll attract far too much attention, this way."
He walked one pace ahead of Vila, who followed with a blaster leveled at Avon's back. "I'm sure you aren't eager to answer any questions from curious law-enforcement personnel or civic-minded local citizens.…"
Vila jabbed him in the back with the barrel to hurry him along. "Ican do all the worrying for myself, thanks. I'm a big boy. If anyone asks, I can always tell them you tried to rob me and I'm taking you to the police."
Avon shuddered from the pain and effort of maintaining his progress down the darkened avenue. The daytime crowds had thinned out to only an occasional passerby, so thus far, nobody had taken much notice of Vila or Avon. There were more street lights further ahead, however, and it wouldn't be long before Avon's bloody and battered state would become conspicuous. This wasn't a comfort to him. He no more wanted the attention of the locals than he imagined Vila did.
Sure enough, before they reached the better-lit sector, Vila prodded Avon down an even darker side street. There he drew him aside and propped the injured man against a wall while he drew various tools from his clothing. Sidling up to a nearby aircar, it took him all of five seconds to jimmy open the door controls and swing open the vehicle's door.
"Get in and slide over." He gestured curtly with his head. "We're not waiting for your friends to catch up and I can't have you holding me back, bucko."
Avon didn't argue the point. He was in too much pain. The mere act of sliding into the aircar was enough to make his vision swim and he fumbled to strap himself upright in the passenger seat. "Where are you taking us? You're not familiar with Carque."
Vila slid in behind the controls of the aircar and slammed the door closed. The faint light spilling over from the street illuminated a cruel smile on his face. "I don't know this town, but I worked the security for Altee, Renner and Mica recently. The names sound familiar to you?"
Avon nodded, closing his eyes and tilting his head back against the headrest. "Outworld Urban Development, among myriad other industries."
"Bright boy. Yes, and they tend to design most of their outworld cities on the same plan, right? That means the residential sector to the North and East, industry to the South, recreation to the West, and business dead center. And like most ARMCO towns, they neglect some key spots in-between." Vila chuckled suggestively as he worked his lockpicks to override the ignition controls.
Avon blinked blearily. If he wasn't mistaken, at least one of his eyes was swelling shut and probably purpling up as well. He was going to be a pretty sight. "Key spots which become pockets of low-life, low grade and low income," Avon concluded for Vila. "I never thought about it before—ARMCO is very predictable."
"Not nearly as much as they used to be." Vila turned a quick, ghastly grin toward Avon as he triggered the ignition and lifted the aircar quickly into hover mode. "Not since they misplaced some patents for their new designs, and some negotiable bonds..."
"You—?" Avon muttered around his split mouth.
"Me, Reta and a couple of close friends," Vila purred. "The best part of the job wasn't the 'take,' though," he averred. "The best part was blowing Gil Renner's head off after months of sucking up to him, playing at being his security chief."
Vila made a broad gesture as he punched up the forward motion programming and sent the aircar hurtling down the darkened street. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's that Alphas bleed just like everybody else." He grinned again and glanced toward Avon. "You keep that in mind, mate."
The smell of ripe garbage and damp pavement filled the air. After the filtered atmosphere of the Liberator, Tarrant and Dayna were hard put not to cough.
Dayna waved at the air with the hand that was not resting on the butt of her blaster and wrinkled her nose. "Awful. Are you certain this is where Vila and Avon have gone?"
Tarrant clenched a pen-sized hand tracer. "Very certain. Zen's been tracking them for the past two hours. This is where they finally stopped."
Dayna scanned the immediate area. As it was now late in the evening and nowhere near the market area, the streets were nearly deserted. She didn't know whether to regard that as a comfort or not. She pursed her lips. "All right. Which direction?"
Tarrant consulted the scanner. "Northeast of here. Let's hope the bracelet is still with Avon or Vila—preferably both. If we've lost Vila, he'll be utterly impossible to find on this world with his memories in such a mess. We can't exactly afford to stick around and mount a full-scale search for him." He started off up the street.
Dayna followed. "All of this is so strange. We are looking for a man who's supposed to have regained the wits that he lost, courtesy of the Federation interrogators three years ago—?"
Tarrant nodded. "Apparently. The most difficult part of this may not be finding him. It may be determining what to do with him when we do."
Dayna frowned. "How do you mean?"
"You didn't see him, Dayna. I only got a short glimpse of him before he grabbed Avon and fled. If Vila Restal really has reverted back to the ruthless crimo I saw in the teleport room...well, suffice it to say we all might be better off if we lose him. Permanently." He flashed a significant glance at Dayna. "The only hope of rescuing Avon might be over Vila's dead body."
Dayna grimaced. "Say what you like. I've got my blaster set to stun."
"I doubt this Vila Restal will grant you the same courtesy."
The two young Liberator rebels disappeared into the night.
Vila held the teleport bracelet up to Avon's face so that it caught the reflection from the dim light on the ceiling. "How does it work, fancy man?"
Avon slumped on the bare mattress of the dank room. They had only arrived minutes before, and he hadn't had time to rest, let alone frame some sort of reply that would placate the psychopath Vila had become. "You press the silver button and speak into it," he explained quietly. He resisted the urge to talk between clenched teeth.
"Sounds simple enough." Vila drew the bracelet to his mouth without putting it on his wrist. "Hello, the Liberator," he called.
A high-pitched, crisp voice responded after a moment of subspace static. *Yes, what is it?*
Vila looked perplexed. "I don't remember anyone sounding like you up there. Who is this?"
Avon quickly realized that the man before him had no recollection of Ensor's quirky computer. "That is another member of our crew," he interrupted. "His name is Orac."
Vila nodded, accepting Avon's explanation. "Well, Mister Orac, as you've probably heard by now, I've got your friend Avon. I don't particularly care for his company and I don't think he cares for mine. I'm in need of some ready credits, though. I think you can figure out what I'm getting at."
*l do not have time for these games. If you need information, state a question, Vila.*
Vila snarled in the face of Orac's unruffled tone. "I'll try to put it in small words so that you can understand me better. Mister Orac. I need exactly one million credits. If I don't get one million credits from someone within the next hour, I am going to kill Mister Avon here painfully, starting with his outer extremities. If you take too long sending the money, you'll get back nothing but a head. Is that simple enough for you to understand?"
"Orac is a computer, Vila," Avon said wearily. "He doesn't really care one way or the other what happens to me."
Vila spun on Avon, his face red with sudden rage. "I don't give a bleedin' hell what or who Orac is, you miserable bastard! I want my money, or else I'll string your guts all over this room like confetti!" Vila screamed into the bracelet, "Do you care about that. Mister Orac?"
A droning noise sounded over the bracelet for a long moment before a reply came. *It is within my best interests to ensure the continued well-being of the crew of Liberator.*
Avon gaped at Orac's words, despite his pain.
*However,* Orac continued relentlessly, *I fail to understand why you do not simply teleport back up to the ship and obtain the credits you require for yourself. There are well over seven hundred billion credits worth of Federation currency and commodities in the treasure room.*
That moron Tarrant, Avon groaned inwardly as he saw Vila's eyes light up with incendiary greed. He never thought to warn Orac about Vila's current mental state!
"You mean you won't stop me if I just come back up there and take it?" Vila questioned incredulously.
*Certainly not. What you do with Liberator's resources is none of my concern.*
"And what about everyone else up there?" Vila drawled. "You must think me a monumental fool!"
*If you are referring to the rest of the crew, none of them are currently aboard Liberator.*
The greedy expression on Vila's face changed to one of amusement. "What a pity. Just you and all that money, Orac. I think I'll take your little suggestion and have a look around—"
"You'll need to take me with you," Avon quickly spoke up.
Vila flashed him a dark glare. "I don't need anyone, least of all you."
"Reconsider, Vila. I'm your ticket to safety. You don't know how to pilot Liberator by yourself. You don't know where the treasure stores are kept. You don't know when the rest of the crew will teleport back and you'll need your...'hostage.' Most of all, you don't know how you got to be thousands of light years from Earth and three years down the road. If you want the answers, you'll need me."
"You think any of that will save your own precious Alpha hide when I'm through with you?" Vila hissed at Avon sarcastically, waving the blaster toward him with a casual air. "I know your sort: selfish, sadistic, unpredictable, untrustworthy." He grinned. "I know, because you're just like me. And I haven't forgotten what you did to Reta—"
"I didn't kill her."
"I have no reason to believe you. I think you're too dangerous to have about, Mister Avon."
"Then why should I help you at all?" Avon snarled, his patience worn thin by pain and frustration.
"Because you can die sooner...or die a little later, depending on how useful you make yourself."
"In order to make myself useful to you, I'll need to teleport back up to Liberator with you, then. You've destroyed the second bracelet. You'll have to get another and bring it back down to me."
"And how do I accomplish that?" Vila spat.
"Orac will arrange it."
"And just why should I trust Orac not to set up some kind of trick with you?"
"If you are wearing the only bracelet, I can't communicate with Orac and plot with it while you are away." Avon shrugged painfully.
"You've got all the answers, don't you. Alpha? God, I hate your sort. I'd as soon kill you as trust you."
Avon smiled wearily. "If I were in your boots. I'd do the same."
"Damn!" Tarrant swore, suddenly shaking the hand tracer violently.
"What is it?" Dayna turned in alarm. "What's wrong?"
"I've lost their signal!"
"Maybe Vila destroyed the other bracelet," Dayna pointed out, frustrated. She scanned the empty, darkened street they stood on from end to end. "We'll never find them without that signal. They could be anywhere on the planet."
"I agree." Tarrant frowned down at the hand tracer, thinking. "Maybe Orac can pick up the signal," he finally said. "We might just have passed out of range."
Dayna shrugged. "It's worth a try, anyway." She holstered her hand gun but kept one hand firmly planted on the grip.
"Orac." Tarrant opened a channel to Liberator. "Orac, respond please."
*What is it this time?* the testy computer answered.
"Lock on to Vila's teleport bracelet and see if you can trace it."
*Well, of course I can,* Orac said, obviously annoyed by the infinite stupidity of humans.
Tarrant raised an eyebrow at Dayna, who grinned back ruefully. "Where is the bracelet, then, Orac?"
*On Liberator, of course. Now will you leave me alone?*
"What!" Tarrant and Dayna exchanged a horrified look.
"We didn't tell Orac not to teleport Vila up...," Dayna whispered.
"Is Vila Restal on board Liberator?" Tarrant asked quickly.
*I have already answered that question!* Orac maintained.
"Is Avon on board Liberator?" Tarrant began to tremble as thoughts raced through his mind. What if Vila had Avon take Liberator out of orbit? What if Vila operated the ship himself through Zen? After all, they hadn't removed Vila's voice print from the Zen computer, either.
*Of course he is,* Orac said. *Do you wish to teleport?*
"Yes," Dayna started to say, but Tarrant held up a hand to forestall her.
"Orac, can you patch me in to Zen?"
*Might I remind you that I am not a communications conduit—?*
"Just do it, Orac."
A moment passed and then the deeper, infinitely more patient and ponderous tones of Zen came over Tarrant's bracelet communicator. +Yes, Tarrant.+
"Zen, I am instructing you to remove Vila Restal's and Kerr Avon's voice print patterns from your memory. Do not, I repeat, do not accept any orders from Vila or Avon until further notice."
Tarrant let out a tense breath. "What part of the ship are Vila and Avon in?" he questioned. "We don't want to teleport into a trap," he added, answering Dayna's questioning expression.
+Avon and Vila are currently in the treasure room.+
Tarrant nodded. "As I expected. Bring us up, Orac."
Vila followed Avon warily as the computer tech limped down the long hallways of Liberator until they reached a large metal door. "This is it, then?"
Avon nodded and gestured for Vila to enter.
"You must take me for a moron," Vila demurred. "You first. Alpha. I don't fancy being conked on the head from behind." He gestured with his blaster.
Avon smiled tightly and opened the door. He reached around the corner for the light switch and the cavernous room came alive with sparkles of light. Vila stood in the doorway, his mouth gaping open. Gold credits and jewelry as well as gems of every color imaginable, overflowed their neat containers and spilled out onto the floor. He was obviously awed by what lay spread before him, and his eyes glowed with greed.
"I imagined something like this...once," he breathed. "But it was only a dream.…"
Avon leaned painfully against the doorway. I never thought I'd see the day when I would prefer the wealth of the medical unit to the sight of this room. "Don't get carried away. You can't possibly transport all of this by yourself."
Vila's ghastly smile returned in a flash. "I don't have to transport it anywhere, now do I? I can just take it with me."
Avon felt a chill run down his spine.
"Where 'd all this come from, anyway?" Vila turned a curious gaze on the glittering array of wealth. "Been doing a bit of piracy?"
Avon lifted his shoulders slightly, wincing as his muscles screamed in protest. "It came with the ship."
Vila smirked. "I always fancied having me own ship."
"That wasn't the deal," Avon pointed out in a clipped voice. "A million credits; you said you'd let me go—"
"Alphas," Vila spat out with contemptuous amusement. "Think I care about any 'deals' made with you? Move aside and let me have a look around at my treasure."
"You can look all you like, but you'd better let it wait until I get some medical attention. You can't operate this ship without me and I'm likely to be incapacitated unless—"
"You just don't get it, do you?" Vila snarled, jumping up close to Avon's startled face. "Or are you so used to giving orders and having your own way that you can't help yourself? I'll decide where you go, mate. I decide whether you take your next bloody breath. Now, the first place we're going is the flight deck of this pretty ship. Alpha. You're going to order your computer to get us the hell away from Carque before your young friends get any stupid ideas about returning to the ship. Then I'll decide where we go next."
Avon nodded in tight-lipped silence.
Tarrant and Dayna slid silently along a corridor of the Liberator, approaching the treasure room via a less traveled route. They had their weapons out and charged to stun. The door to the treasure room was open when they reached it, and they silently signaled each other into position for an assault on whomever was within. With a nod from Tarrant, they sprang into the doorway.
Vila and Avon were not inside.
"Damn!" Tarrant hissed. "Where could they have gone?" "Your tracer might be able to tell you that now," Dayna pointed out.
"Good idea." Tarrant reached into his pocket and snapped open the hand unit.
Vila gazed around at the alien-looking flight deck with a grim expression. "I've never seen anything like this before. How do you operate it?"
Avon limped to one of the lounge area couches and gratefully settled onto it. "Not easily. The technology is completely alien. It takes a skilled pilot weeks to get the hang of the controls."
"You and your friends didn't seem to have any trouble running it, did you?" Vila said sarcastically. "You don't look alien to me."
"As I said, it took us a long time to learn. As you can see, there are seven control stations requiring an individual to perform the various functions—"
"I don't care how alien the technology is, if it's a sophisticated ship then it's got to have a sophisticated ship's computer. You said Orac was a computer. Is Orac Liberator's ship's computer?"
"No." Avon rubbed gently at his side, his face turning ashen at the sharp pain. "Zen is the ship's computer."
"Call it up, then. Alpha. Tell it to shut down that fancy teleport device and break orbit right now."
"We need the others—"
"I don't need anybody," Vila snarled, stalking up to Avon. "Get that straight. Alpha. I've been cutting up your sort since I was a boy and if I take the fancy, I'll jettison you along with the trash. I doubt you'll be missed. Now call up the computer!"
"Zen," Avon commanded tiredly. "Lock off the teleport and take us out of orbit at a heading of 0075."
+This unit can not comply with your request.+
Avon's head snapped up and he stared at the flickering computer fascia. "Why not? What's the matter?"
+Your voice does not have recognition access to Liberator.+
Vila smacked the safety off the blaster in his fist and jabbed it in Avon's direction furiously. "You're pulling some kind of trick, you bastard. I promised you I'd kill you. You're not being very bright, under the circumstances. Nobody's going to miss you—" He aimed the gun.
"I might," Dayna's voice suddenly sounded from the nearby corridor.
Vila swung the muzzle of his blaster toward the sound with frightening speed and sent a shot off simultaneously with Dayna. Both bolts missed their intended targets and both Vila and Dayna feinted for the next shot. With a roar of fury, Vila sent three more bolts sizzling across the flight deck. They impacted brightly against the walls of the corridor, showering Tarrant and Dayna with sparks. Tarrant seized his blaster in both hands and launched himself forward after the third shot, intending to hit the lower deck and roll before he opened fire. Just as he did, Avon lunged out of his seat at full speed and lowered his head, ramming into Vila's midsection with all the force he could muster.
Vila went down with an explosive breath and skidded backward several feet, but the blaster remained in his hand. A second later, Dayna took advantage of Vila's exposed position and fired. With a choked off cry, Vila went rigid and collapsed where he lay.
Tarrant rose stiffly from his spot on the deck and quickly went to remove the blaster from Vila's unconscious fingers and checked on his condition. "He didn't have his blaster set on 'stun,' " he observed dryly. He turned toward Avon. "Why did you hit him with your head?"
"It was the one part of my body that hurt the least," grunted Avon, collapsing backward onto the lounge.
Vila Restal lay under restraint in the medical unit. He was still unconscious, but it was now a deliberately induced state. Tarrant, Dayna and Avon stood about the room in various poses as they listened to Orac's recitation from a nearby table.
*I have already given this information to Roj Blake. I fail to see why it is necessary to recite it again.* The small computer's lights blinked on and off.
Avon traded glances with the other two crew members. "Yes, I expected as much from Blake. He believed himself a well-meaning meddler, or else he simply justified the intrusion into our backgrounds as a necessity for his revolution. Orac, Blake may know about Vila Restal's past, but we do not. You will impart the information to us now."
"*Very well,* the computer buzzed in obvious annoyance. *To be brief, Vila Restal was the offspring of an unusual cross-class marriage bond between the Delta Iana Warfield and the Alpha Vel Misden.*
Tarrant looked up from nibbling on his fingertip. "Misden as in Major Misden of Federation Space Command?"
*No. Major Misden was Vel Misden's brother. Vila's parents were hard-pressed to discipline him when he was still very young. There are copious records that reflect a long series of disciplinary incarcerations, violent behavior, antisocial actions, and generally difficult behavior. This is probably why Vila was eventually given over to the wardship of his Uncle Ger Misden at the age of ten.*
"A chronic troublemaker from the very start," Dayna reflected aloud.
"I can well believe that, from what I've seen," Avon replied. "What happened then, Orac?"
*The volume of offenses registered against Vila become more sparse afterwards. It would appear that his uncle was a disciplinary influence on the young Vila.*
"Or else his uncle had a lot of pull and covered up the major transgressions in order to protect the family name," Tarrant said wryly. "Most likely of all, Vila simply became more subtle and sophisticated about his crimes."
*You are correct,* Orac said crisply. *On both counts. Although Vila Restal purported to take up the profession of security consultant and later security systems specialist, subsequent records show that he was utilizing this trade as a cover for accessing information and obtaining material goods illegally. Later Federation records also show that Vila felt alienated from his Alpha peers and preferred the company of Deltas, even then.*
"In short, he became a thief," Dayna put in. "No surprises there."
"This original Vila was far more than the simple pickpocket we knew." Avon shook his head. "He was unpredictably aggressive, had no sense of guilt, fear or conscience, and from all appearances, he was quite successful at preying upon the Alpha population."
*That is not quite accurate,* Orac interrupted. *Vila's most profound success was in the area of corporate and industrial espionage. In the midst of setting up and evaluating company security networks and systems, he perfected means of accessing and stealing every marketable piece of data he could get. He was so successful that he became indispensable to the major corporations he was working for. He was too important to risk losing and too dangerous for them to risk threatening, even if they became aware of his illegal activities.*
Tarrant whistled. "The man who knew everything. Orac, what happened? How did Vila get caught and conditioned?"
*Major Misden may have become aware of young Restal's activities, but nothing was done until approximately three years ago. At that time, Federation records indicate that some of the security data that Vila had stolen from major munitions and manufacturing plants related to Federation military secrets. It appears Vila was marketing these secrets to interested parties... including the Freedom Party.*
"The fool," Tarrant muttered. "How did he expect to get away with it forever?"
"No doubt he gradually came to believe that his esteemed uncle would protect him forever. Apparently, Vila became too much of a liability to his own flesh and blood," Avon speculated.
*Vila Restal was taken into custody and subjected to an immediate series of intensive and sophisticated reconditioning procedures. While Federation intelligence recommended that he was too great a risk to leave alive, Vila's uncle apparently intervened and kept him from being terminated...on the condition that he be rendered completely harmless.*
"So they laundered his mind and shipped him off to Cygnus Alpha," Avon pronounced distastefully. "The man who knew everything became the man who knew nothing."
"It's hard to believe they were the same man!" Dayna exclaimed.
"I'll vouch for that. Well, the conditioning's gone. What do we do about Vila Restal now?" Tarrant exchanged looks with Dayna and Avon.
"We put it back," Avon said grimly. "We have no option."
"Are you seriously suggesting that we imitate the sadistic Federation puppeteers and psycho-manipulators and re-condition him?!" Dayna protested.
"That is exactly what I am proposing, although I believe Orac can, with the aid of this medical unit, perform a more humane and effective job of it." "But—"
"What else do you suggest, Tarrant? Dayna? Do we keep the 'original' Vila Restal, from all appearances a violent sociopath who does not know us and doesn't care for our safety, much less our company? Do we keep this Vila who cannot be trusted not to steal the ship and its contents and slit our throats?"
"We keep you, " Tarrant joked sarcastically.
"Very amusing. No. The Vila we knew previously might be a coward, a thief and a shirker, but he had his uses and he was exactly as the Federation intended—" Avon touched his sore lip. "—harmless."
"But that's not the real Vila." Dayna shook her head, obviously not convinced of the necessity.
"We can't let the real Vila 'live,' and we are not in the rehabilitation business. If we set him off the ship on some world, the Federation or some bounty hunter will catch up with him and kill him for the crimes he didn't commit." Irony tinged Avon's voice. "The crime of being an escaped rebel, terrorist and saboteur who associated with Blake; and with me. Now, let's get it done before Cally gets back." The silence that followed reflected the Liberator crew's reluctant agreement. Without further discussion, Avon started to set up the apparatus for Vila's re-conditioning.
"Ooooh...a man's head shouldn't hurt this much if he didn't earn it drinking," Vila Restal moaned, clutching at his temples. He sat on the flight deck lounge, newly arrived from the medical unit where Cally had just released him. "All right, is somebody going to tell me how we got back to the ship? The last I remember was standing in the middle of market-day crowds on Carque."
Avon lied smoothly, not looking up from his preoccupation with a flight console. "We were set upon by a bunch of thugs," he drawled. "They smashed you over the head and then set about beating me; I imagine they thought we had money to spend. At any rate, I finally fought them off and teleported. Tarrant joined us on the ship."
Tarrant and Dayna exchanged covert looks over the distance of the flight deck. Tarrant chimed in, "Avon took the worst of it, no thanks to you, Vila. While you slumbered peacefully on the pavement they did a good job on him."
Vila stared in horror at the evidence of Avon's battering. The medical unit might have eliminated the worst of it, but the unit fell short on matters of cosmetic repair, and Avon still sported two black eyes and a torn lip.
Vila whistled. "Wow—I'm glad I missed out on the action! I don't know who the bloke was who gave you those, but I wouldn't like to meet him in a dark alley."
"Don't worry," Avon returned his attention to the console. "You won't. Tarrant, as Cally has given you the crystals, if you would be so kind as to take us out of orbit...?"