“Vila, I know you’re here, come out.” Avon’s voice was calm and perfectly confident.
Vila remained motionless in the compartment. Trying to keep absolutely still and quiet though he could feel himself trembling and his breath caught in his throat. He really does know I’m here, he though in despair. He’s really going to kill me. Vila’s nerve broke then and he cried out, “Avon, please! There must be another way!”
“Ah. There you are.” Avon’s voice was followed by the rattle of metal on metal, as the hatch to Vila’s hiding place was torn open. “Get out.”
“No. Listen, Avon. Egrorian must have done something to the shuttle.”
“Very probably, but I’m out of time. Get out.”
Vila shook his head stubbornly, though his voice trembled. “No. If you’re going to kill me you can bloody well shoot me here and drag my body to the airlock. I’m not going to meekly trot there like a sheep to the slaughterhouse.”
“Move, Vila. Now!” Avon snarled, and reached in to haul him out. Vila fell hard onto the deck, yelping in pain as his right ankle twisted underneath him. He struggled to his feet and limped a few paces away from Avon.
“Don’t. Please,” he whimpered. Avon gestured with the gun and gave him a shove. “Move!”
Having little choice, Vila obeyed.
Outside the airlock Vila turned to face Avon.
“Don’t waste your breath, Vila. I haven’t got the time to listen to your begging,” Avon snapped before Vila could open his mouth.
“I wasn’t going to,” Vila answered quietly. “It’s just that,” He swallowed hard, “I don’t want to be awake when the air starts to go. I don’t want to know. I want to be dead before you put me in there,” he finished in a rush.
Avon nodded and his voice was unusually gentle as he answered, “Yes. All right, Vila.”
Vila turned around and closed his eyes. He felt the cold metal of Avon’s gun touch the back of his neck. NO! his mind rebelled, No. Not like this. Not like this.
Vila swung round, ducked under the weapon, and threw all his weight against Avon’s middle. Avon fell backwards, winded and caught completely by surprise. Vila snatched the gun and scrambled back to his feet. He trained the weapon on Avon as he slowly stood up.
“I’m impressed,” Avon drawled. “I didn’t think you had it in you.” He stared Vila full in the face and slowly walked towards his until the gun barrel touched his chest. “Can you actually kill me though? I don’t think you can.”
Vila didn’t answer. His hands were shaking and sweat was stinging his eyes, clouding his vision. Avon shook his head slowly. “I didn’t think so.” Startlingly fast, his foot lashed out and connected with Vila’s injured ankle. With a gasp of pain, Vila staggered and Avon snatched the gun from him. He lashed out, striking Vila hard across the face with the weapon. Vila crumpled to the deck, blood streaming down his cheek.
Avon levelled the gun at him and backed away towards the airlock controls. He was brought abruptly to a halt when his heel struck a clear, plastic cube. He stopped, puzzled, and stared at it. “Couldn’t possibly be that heavy…” His eyes widened. “Neutron material. Egrorian. Vila! You were right!” Avon shoved the cube, slowly towards the airlock. “Vila, I need your help to shift it. Vila! Get over here.”
Vila lay unmoving where he had fallen. Avon eventually managed to push the cube into the airlock and jettison it. Leaving Vila where he was, he sprinted back to the flight deck and corrected their flight path. “Orac, what’s the current position?”
Time to orbit: one minute forty seconds. Remaining flight time: two minutes.
“We’re going to make it,” Avon sighed in relief.
That is what I said.
“Just pilot the shuttle, Orac.”
With their flight path stabilised, Avon left Orac at the controls and headed back down to the airlock. Vila sat leaning against the wall. He had one hand clamped against his face and there was blood trickling between his fingers.
“Vila? We’ll reach orbit in a few minutes. It’ll take another ten minutes or so after that for Scorpio to retrieve us.”
Vila didn’t answer.
“It was the neutron material weighing us down. Egrorian must have planted it aboard the shuttle. You were right.” Avon paused again but Vila was still silent.
“Come on Vila. Aren’t you even going to say ‘I told you so’?”
Avon sighed. “Let me see your face.”
“Leave me alone,” Vila finally said. His voice was dull, emotionless.
“Vila, be sensible. You’re bleeding.”
“So? What are you going to do about it? We ditched the medical kit.”
“Just let me see, will you?” Avon snapped.
He grabbed Vila’s wrist to pull his hand away from his face. Vila resisted for a moment before giving in. He stared numbly at his red-covered hand as Avon let go. “Oh, I am bleeding aren’t I? A lot.”
“Head wounds always bleed a lot, Vila. It doesn’t look serious. You’ll be fine until we get back to the ship.”
“That was too close!” Dayna exclaimed as Avon and Vila arrived back. She stared at Vila, “What happened to you?” One eye was swollen shut and there was blood all down his face and neck as well as over a lot of his tunic where he had wiped his hand.
“He hit his head,” Avon cut in before Vila could answer. “Turbulence.”
“Turbulence,” repeated Vila, staring at Avon.
“So what happened?” Dayna asked.
“Egrorian had planted a piece of neutron star material on the shuttle. Its weight was preventing us from reaching escape velocity. I got rid of it.”
neutron star?” Tarrant asked.
microscopic fragment of one. It's
the only possible explanation. It
was unbelievably heavy.”
how could Egrorian have planted it aboard?”
must have reprogrammed that automatic landing bay of his.”
“And you moved it on your own?” Soolin queried.
Vila nodded. “I hit my head.” He sighed. “I think I’ll go and get cleaned up.” He started to limp across the flight deck. Soolin frowned and caught his arm.
“Here, let me see to that cut first.”
She steered Vila, protesting, to a corner of the flight deck and pushed
him on a couch. “Sit still.”
Back at Xenon, Vila sat on a treatment couch, fidgeting while Soolin treated his injuries.
“What happened to your ankle?”
“I fell over.”
“In the turbulence?”
“Is that when you hit your head?”
“I suppose so.”
“Avon’s balance must be better than yours, I suppose?”
“What?” Vila sounded startled. And worried.
“Well he hasn’t got a mark on him. I suppose he managed not to fall over?”
“Yes. No. I mean, no, he didn’t fall over. Can I go now?”
“No. I want you to stay off that ankle. I’ll tell Avon you need a few days rest. He can rearrange your shifts.”
“Thanks, Soolin.” The relief in Vila’s eyes was more than could be explained by his usual aversion to work and Soolin frowned as she left him to get some sleep. She was coming to some rather unpleasant conclusions about what had happened on that shuttle flight.
It took Soolin a few days to decide to talk to the others about her suspicions. Vila had been unusually quiet and Avon had been in a more sour mood than usual, even allowing for the loss of the tachyon funnel and his near death aboard the shuttle.
“Soolin, I don’t quite know what you’re getting at. You think Avon and Vila are lying about what happened on the shuttle? Why would they do that?” Dayna asked. She was obviously uncomfortable with this meeting, behind Avon’s back.
“Vila would, if Avon told him to,” pointed out Tarrant. “The question is, why would Avon lie about what happened?”
“Vila didn’t get that cut on his head by falling over, the angle is all wrong. There were other bruises too, on his arms. His ankle too, a sprain wouldn’t bruise like that. He was attacked. And there was only one other person on that shuttle.”
Dayna shook her head but Tarrant merely looked resigned. “Avon.”
“Think about it, Dayna,” Soolin insisted. “We didn’t read any turbulence, and there’s no reason the extra weight would cause any. All it did was alter the angle of their flight path.”
“They were throwing out all the excess weight,” Tarrant continued. “From Avon’s point of view that would probably include Vila.”
“You think Avon tried to kill Vila.” Dayna was still incredulous.
“To save his own life? He wouldn’t hesitate.”
“But why wouldn’t Vila say anything about it?” Dayna demanded.
“He’s too frightened. You must have noticed what he’s been like these past few days.”
“Well he did nearly die, that’s enough to upset anyone.”
“Vila’s had close calls before now and he always bounces back. This was different.”
Dayna sighed. “Okay. Supposing you’re right, what do we do about it?”
“We need to talk to Vila.”
Vila’s door was unlocked which was sufficiently unusual for Dayna to admit, “All right. I agree. He’s not acting like himself.”
“Vila?” Soolin called, standing in the open doorway. “Vila, are you here?”
A bitter laugh came from the next room. “Not hard to find, am I?”
Soolin frowned and looked at the others. “Vila, we want to talk to you. Can we come in?”
“Why not? Can’t stop you can I?”
Soolin walked through into second room with Dayna and Tarrant following her. “Vila?” At first glance she couldn’t see him. She walked across the room and then she found him. She sighed. “Oh, Vila.”
He was sat on the floor, curled up between his bed and the wall. He held an almost empty bottle in his hand and judging by the debris on the floor it was far from his first.
“What d’ you want?” he slurred without looking up. “Come to tell me to crawl out of my bottle and do some bloody work for a change? No use at all, am I?”
“We were worried about you, Vila.”
“Why? Locked yourself out of your room have you? Need someone to go crawling around in Scorpio’s innards do you? Maybe you just need to lose some ballast, but shhh, that’s a secret isn’t it. ‘M in trouble now. Can’t do anything right see. Not even just keep my mouth shut.”
Soolin looked at the others, she had been worried about Vila but hadn’t expected him to be in such a bad way. She was used to his drinking and complaints but she’d never seen him anything like this drunk nor heard such misery in his voice. Dayna shrugged helplessly. Tarrant sighed and shook his head before stepping forward. “Come on, Vila. Out of there.” Soolin moved aside and Tarrant picked Vila up and propped him upright on the bed. Vila protested feebly as Dayna pried the bottle out of his grip.
“How much has he had?” she asked, staring at the empty bottles scattered about the room.
“Too much,” Tarrant said, grimly. “If he hasn’t given himself alcohol poisoning it won’t be for lack of trying.”
“We ought to get him to the medical unit.”
Tarrant nodded and picked Vila up again.
Trying to keep Vila awake, Soolin kept talking to him, afraid that if he fell asleep that he wouldn’t wake up at all.
“What about the shuttle, Vila? What happened?”
“Not s’posed to tell. Not fair to ask me questions when I’m drunk.”
“How did you hurt your head?”
“No you didn’t. What happened?”
“Stupid. Should have shot him while I could.”
“You tried to shoot Avon?” Soolin was caught by surprise. This was not what she’d expected to hear.
“Couldn’t. Damn him, he knew I couldn’t. Took the gun back off me. Hit me. Stupid stupid. Couldn’t do it even to stop him chucking me out. Should have kept quiet, should have hid better. Useless.”
“You’re not useless, Vila.”
“Am. Everyone knows I am. Useless thing to do, just go and hide. Useless. Just hid. Then when he found me, just walked to the airlock like he told me to. He didn’t want to have to carry me see? So tired.”
Despite Soolin’s efforts he drifted off, slipping quietly into unconsciousness.
The three of them stood around at medical unit waiting for Vila to wake up. Eventually he moaned and stirred.
“Vila?” Soolin moved to his side. “How do you feel?”
“Everything hurts.” Vila’s voice was hoarse and faint but he sounded more like himself.
“Here,” Soolin proffered a milky coloured drink, “this will help.”
Vila gulped it down and lay quietly for a few more minutes. “Thanks.” He tried to sit up. “What happened?”
Tarrant moved to help him prop himself up. “You were busy drinking yourself into a stupor when we found you.”
“Why didn’t you tell us what happened on the shuttle, Vila?”
“What?” Vila’s voice rose in alarm. “Nothing happened.”
“Vila, we know. You… Well, you were very drunk when we found you and you were talking about what happened.”
“Avon?” Vila sounded close to panic.
“He doesn’t know. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Well, Avon didn’t seem to want to.”
“Did he tell you not to?”
“Vila, why do you care what he wants? He tried to kill you!” Tarrant sounded genuinely confused.
“Well I’d say that’s a hell of a good reason not to make him angry with me!” Vila flared. He sighed heavily and his voice dropped to almost a whisper. “And, and I thought… I mean… I didn’t think…”
“What?” Soolin’s voice was gentle. “Vila?”
Vila paused a long moment before responding almost inaudibly, “I didn’t think any of you would care.”
Silence followed Vila’s words. Soolin realised she’d badly misread Vila. Always assumed the incessant teasing had simply rolled off him. Now she found herself remembering all the nastier incidents, the casual bullying, the needling about his drinking… How did all of us miss this? she asked herself. She looked around at the other two. Dayna looked surprised and rather hurt. Tarrant slowly nodded his head in understanding.
Vila rushed on, his voice sounding suddenly loud in the silence. “It’s not like I don’t know what you all think of me. I know I’m lazy and I know I’m a coward. I’ve known Avon longer than any of you and he decided I was expendable. So I must be.” He paused for a moment before finishing, “Mustn’t I?”
“You’re not expendable, Vila.” Tarrant stated firmly. “Avon was wrong.”
Soolin added. “None of us consider you expendable, Vila. I thought you knew that. I’m sorry.”
“You really thought we wouldn’t care what happened to you?” Dayna asked.
Vila nodded miserably.
“So now what?” Soolin asked. “Avon has to know sooner or later.”
“Well I’m not going to be the one to tell him.” Vila sounded more himself now, but was obviously still nervous at the thought of facing Avon.
“You do realise,” Tarrant put in, “that things would have been no different if it was any one of us on that shuttle. I don’t see how we can carry on as before knowing that our nominal ‘leader’ is happy to kill any of us any time to ensure his own safety.”
“Agreed,” Soolin said. Dayna dipped her head in agreement.
“We’d better go and talk to him then.” Tarrant sighed and reached to fasten his weapon at his hip.
“Tarrant!” Dayna protested.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be necessary, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Soolin sighed. “Come on then.”
Vila hung back as they walked out of the room. “I don’t want to.”
“Vila. We have to do this together.” Dayna put her hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be all right.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not afraid of what he’ll do. I just don’t like this. Telling him he’s out on his ear after all this time.”
“Vila, your loyalty is heart-warming,” Tarrant said wryly, “but Avon clearly doesn’t share it. After ‘all this time’ he was still ready to shoot you and drop you out of an airlock.”
“I know that,” Vila muttered. He stopped arguing but still trailed along slightly behind the others.
Avon looked up from tinkering with Orac as the others walked in.
“Well now, don’t we all look serious?”
Tarrant began, “Avon, we’ve been talking.”
“Clearly. And you’ve decided that your own sense of self-preservation conflicts with mine. I rather suspected Vila wouldn’t keep his mouth shut once he got a few drinks inside of him.”
Vila flinched at the accusation and Dayna put her hand on his shoulder in a reassuring gesture.
“So what have you decided to do about it then? No doubt you’ve had a long, thoughtful debate about it. Do tell me your solution.”
“We want you gone, Avon,” Tarrant said bluntly.
“We’ll put you down on some neutral planet and you can do as you wish,” Soolin elaborated. “As long as you stay away from Xenon base and all of us.”
“I see.” Avon’s voice was still perfectly calm. “And if I don’t agree?”
“You’ll agree.” Soolin smiled. “That sense of self preservation you set so much store by will see to that. Because if you don’t agree, I’ll shoot you myself.”
Vila looked as if he was about to protest at that but Dayna squeezed his shoulder and he fell silent.
Avon shrugged his shoulders. “Very well then. Shall we go? I believe Keltos is the nearest non-aligned planet.” He walked calmly past Dayna and Vila.
“Avon…” Vila started. Avon turned his head and cast him a glance filled with such contempt that Vila visibly wilted. “Shut up Vila,” he sneered.
Vila turned away. “Drop him off then. I’ll stay here, I’ve been on the last space-flight I ever want to share with him.”
Dayna cast a worried glance at Vila, then at Soolin. “I’ll stay here too.”
Soolin nodded understanding. “We won’t be long.”
“Are you all right Vila?” Dayna asked after the others left the room.
Vila watched on a monitor as Scorpio lifted out and headed for open space and didn’t answer.
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