Jenna thought she was mistaken at first. It wasn't the first time she'd thought she recognised one of her old comrades from the Liberator, but it had always turned out to be a case of wishful thinking.
On the other hand she thought to herself Vila is possibly the last one of them I ever wished to meet again. Jenna dismissed the thought at fast as it had come. Vila had sometimes been irritating and irresponsible but he'd always cared about his friends.
Sliding off her stool, Jenna eased her way gracefully through the mass of people in the spaceport bar. It was the sort of place where Jenna felt most at home. The bar wasn't too rough, but no one bothered about what you wore, including guns. The men and women gathered around tables were busy earning a semi-honest wage in a live and let live way. Jenna ducked round a tall, burly man, smiling up sweetly at him as he turned to see who was shoving for a space at the bar. The man nodded tolerantly to her and made room.
Jenna rested her elbows on the shiny bar top and took a better look at the man she'd seen from across the room. He seemed to be concentrating on the drink he held in his left hand. His hair was darker than she remembered but it was the moustache that made her pause. Then he turned slightly towards her and Jenna saw his brown eyes and the familiar, quirky eyebrows.
"Vila," she said softly, a surge of pleasure colouring her voice.
He turned fast and Jenna felt the muzzle of a gun pressing against her chest even before she realised he'd drawn it. What was even more startling was the coldness in his expressive eyes.
"It's Jenna," she said, even as he recognised her. Jenna had cut her flowing hair into a soft cap and added tawny lowlights to create a brindled effect. It didn't change her appearance enough to fool a friend, but she was more worried about passing guards and bounty hunters.
Vila moved the gun away but he didn't reholster it. "You didn't rejoin Blake then ?" he said, keeping his voice low.
Jenna shook her head. "Not directly, though I've taken consignments to some of the groups he was associated with." She studied Vila's face more thoroughly. He had lost some of his roundness and looked pinched, as if he hadn't been eating properly for some time. The lines on his face were of weariness, not laughter and his grey clothing had seen better days. "Come back to my ship," Jenna offered impulsively. "There's a couple of spare cabins. You can rest, eat and get cleaned up."
Vila put the hand gun away. "You have a crew ?"
"Three of them at the moment."
"You trust all your people ?" He looked as though he expected her to lie.
Jenna bit back a sharp reply. "There's still a price on my head too."
"You weren't with Avon as long," Vila said quietly. "You didn't embarrass them by escaping on your way to interrogation."
"If my crew haven't got round to turning me in yet, they probably won't betray you either," Jenna answered calmly.
"Probably." Vila swiftly finished his drink and gestured for the barman to sell him a bottle.
Jenna watched in some concern as he picked up the bottle of golden liquor and slipped it into his kit bag. "You can get a drink on my ship."
Vila shook his head. "Not enough; I like to be sure of a supply." Jenna was about to object when he spoke again. "I need it," he said simply.
Jenna swallowed her sharp remark and led him outside. Dusk was falling and their way was lit more by gaudy advertisements than by street lighting.
. As they walked to the docking cradles, Jenna saw that Vila moved with a slight stiffness. She expected him to mention it and complain but he didn't Vila had always been talkative, often too talkative, but he barely spoke at all as she took him to the Inspiration. All the time his eyes were sweeping the people they passed, never lingering on anyone long enough to draw attention. By the time they reached the right docking cradle, Jenna was starting to feel suspicious of everyone herself. She pressed the entry code into the hatch keypad without bothering to hide the sequence from Vila. Her ship had decent security but if Vila couldn't break it in less than five minutes then she wasn't in the same universe she thought she was. Once inside, she offered him something to eat.
"Not hungry." Vila shook his head.
"I'll take you to a cabin then," Jenna said. "Are you using another name at the moment ?"
"I haven't exchanged names with anyone in a while. If the crew know your real name they might as well use mine."
"For the business, I'm Byrony Swift," Jenna informed him.
Vila nodded but didn't bother answering.
The Inspiration was a compact ship, designed more for the convenience of its cargo rather than the crew. The cabins were small but well planned and comfortably fitted out. Jenna opened the door of one and offered brief directions. "Galley and crew lounge are that way." She pointed aft along the corridor. "Main bathroom is that door. Cockpit is ahead and there'll always be someone on duty there. We don't leave here for another day, local time, so you can get a long rest if you want."
"Thank you," Vila said quietly but sincerely.
Jenna smiled at him and left, heading for the cockpit.
Vila entered and closed the door behind him. Habit made him check the lock; it was perfectly standard, not too difficult for anyone with half a brain to bypass. He didn't even bother fastening it. Dumping his kitbag beside the bunk, Vila started exploring He was pleased to find a sonic shower built in one corner of the cabin and promptly stripped his clothes off and stepped inside. It wasn't as refreshing as a real shower, but he closed his eyes and let the sonics soothe his tired body. After a few minutes, the ache in his lower back had eased. The stiffness was his legacy from Gauda Prime, along with bad dreams and heavy drinking Hitting the off-switch, Vila left the shower and climbed straight into the bunk. The sheets were clean but smelt strange, like a hotel's, not a bed of his own. It was more than a year since Vila had had a bed that really felt like his own. But this bunk was a gift of friendship and offered a security he hadn't known for far too long. Vila relaxed into a deep sleep.
He slept for twelve hours and woke feeling better than he had in a while. Better in mind at least. As he sat up, Vila felt the familiar mild tremors start. The kitbag was within easy reach of the bunk. Vila fished out the liquor bottle and took a good swig. The uneasy shakiness died away and left him feeling ready to face a new day. Putting the bottle back out of sight, Vila got up and headed for the main bathroom.
Jenna was the only person in the galley when he arrived there later.
"You look better," she said, smiling.
Vila had got cleaned up, even removing the moustache. He was wearing a soft grey tunic with darker piping on the sleeves and dark trousers. The clothes were clean, if a little crumpled. "I slept well," he answered, sitting opposite her.
Jenna was eating a hot breakfast, preparing herself for a busy day of final loading and negotiation. "Help yourself." She gestured at the food dispenser.
Vila rarely had much appetite any more but it was less effort to eat than to argue with her. At least the food here was free. He fetched himself toast and coffee.
. Jenna finished her own meal and sat back to sip coffee. Vila didn't seem interested in what he was eating, which was unlike the man she remembered from Liberator. He didn't look as weary as he had the evening before, but the air of detachment was still there. And the gun was still holstered on his belt. Vila had always looked awkward with guns before. This one he wore with the unselfconscious air of a professional fighter. "What have you been doing lately ?" Jenna asked. It was a nice, neutral question.
Vila shrugged. "Drifting. I don't have anywhere worth going."
"What about cash ?"
"I can always get enough to get by. Picking pockets, raiding the safe in small shops now and again when I want a bit more, like for buying passage someplace."
"It sounds a bit small time for a professional like you, Vila," Jenna said.
"Small time attracts less attention," Vila told her. "You were one of the best smugglers once and I was the best cracksman on Earth. Look what happened to us both. We wound up on the London."
Jenna took the point. "At least my skills have a legitimate use."
"I do shows sometimes," Vila said, half-smiling. "Conjuring tricks, card tricks, sing a bit. Just in bars for a bit of cash. I like that, but standing in front of a crowd isn't the best way of avoiding attention."
"Probably not," Jenna agreed straight-faced.
"I've made enough to keep going," Vila finished. He didn't tell Jenna that most of his earnings had gone on drink.
They both fell silent.
"It's good to see you again," Jenna said. "Vila, we lift off in a few hours. If you want to travel with us, at least to Hebe, you'd be welcome."
He thought before answering. "Is this cargo legitimate ?"
"One hundred percent."
Vila took a deep breath. "Thank you." Some warmth returned to his eyes. "I will."
Jenna stood up. "I should get on with supervising things." She carried her plate and mug to the autowash.
"I'd like to go back into town," Vila said "If I don't have to pay passage for once, there's a few other things I'd like to spend money on."
"Do whatever you like." Jenna glanced at her watch. "Be back aboard by fifteen hundred at the latest please."
Jenna smiled brilliantly at him and left
There was a air of purpose about Vila that had been missing before when he returned to the spaceport town later that morning. His over-riding concern was to stock up on enough liquor to last him for the seven day journey ahead. For the first time in months he felt guilty about the amount he needed. There had been no reason to care before, but meeting Jenna had awakened his conscience to the uncomfortable truth. Standing outside the food mart, Vila found himself with no choice but to go in and buy three bottles. He wondered when he'd switched from wine to spirits. He couldn't remember. There wasn't much cash left after that, so Vila headed for a busy area. He blended in the with crowd on the pedestrian precinct, casually lifting wallets here and there. Cash was all he wanted; cards needed more organization and drew more reprisals. His nimble fingers removed the paper cash and the wallets were quietly dropped amongst the crowd without even being looked at. The owners might get them back, or someone else might take the risk of using the cards, Vila didn't much care. By the time he'd strolled up and down the precinct three times, he was two hundred credits richer and held nothing that could be identified as stolen. He paused outside a clothes shop, critically surveying the outfits on offer, then drifted in. The man lounging on the steel benches thoughtfully provided along the precinct for weary shoppers watched him enter. Taking a small datapad from one of the many pockets of his jacket, he tapped a name into the keypad. The screen showed him a familiar face. Vatinnen smiled to himself. Vila Restal was worth two million credits. The Federation bounty notice was short on details of his crimes, but even the dimmest service grade had heard of Blake and Avon, and their men. Restal's escape from custody en route to interrogation on Earth had been largely hushed up. Denied their show trial, the Federation had belatedly listed him as killed on Gauda Prime with the others. Only a few security agents and accredited bounty hunters knew he was still alive. When Restal had sensibly disappeared from sight, Vatinnen had put thoughts of a grand capture to the back of his mind and went back to his usual routine of hanging around spaceports, looking for those travelling cheap or working as casual labour on ships. A lot of them were simply the unskilled or the adventurous poor, but more than a few wanted men worked their passage from place to place. With his suspicion confirmed, Vatinnen didn't wait around to follow his target. A man like Vila Restal didn't stay alive so long by being stupid. The bounty hunter returned to the spaceport and made for the viewing gallery. It was intended for people who wanted to watch the bigger commercial craft come and go, but the private ships were also in sight. Vatinnen's viewing scopes were of the best quality. He focused them on the crew members gate and waited for Restal to appear.
Vila returned to the Inspiration well before Jenna's deadline. A heavy bag was slung over his shoulder. The new clothes padded the half dozen liquor bottles, bought from three shops, and stopped them from clinking against one another. Vila had also picked up a few bits and pieces from an electronics shop. His last proper tool kit had gone down with the Scorpio. Since then, he'd made do with a few straightforward probes and his own talent; it was less bother and there was nothing he couldn't abandon if he had to move on quickly. But he'd spotted the shop and felt a sudden urge to rebuild his kit. Those clever tools were the outward mark of his gift and Vila wanted to show off again. He reached Jenna's ship and let himself inside, recalling the sequence she'd pressed without effort. As the hatch opened, Vila scrutinized the security system. He could rig something better for her. It would be a nice thank you for Jenna's kindness.
His pleasant thoughts were rudely interrupted.
"So you're the coward." A young man stood at the top of the entry ramp. He was dressed in a well-fitting jumpsuit that showed off his slim waist and broad shoulders. Long dark hair was tried back loosely, framing a handsome face. His pose was casual, his eyes watching Vila with amusement.
"Better a live coward than a dead hero," Vila answered, making his way up the ramp.
The young man stayed where he was, blocking the way. Vila stopped in front of him and lowered his bag to the floor. The two men were much the same height, but Vila was still on the ramp and had to look up at the handsome man.
"I'm Jos," the young man said, smiling brilliantly. "I'm Inspiration's engineer."
"Then you should see about replacing that security keypad, because the code sequence buttons have lost ten percent of their return factor already," Vila told him. "Anyone with a decent set of fingers can feel it."
Jos scowled. "That's bold talk from a spineless weakling like you. How have you managed to stay on the run for so long anyway ? By hiding in sewers ?"
Vila scratched his nose with his left hand, and while Jos's attention was momentarily distracted, he drew his gun with the right. "I've stayed alive by killing anyone who threatened me."
Jos froze, looking Vila right in the eyes. What he saw there was even more convincing than the gun against his stomach.
Jenna's voice interrupted them. "Vila, put that away please." She had come down from the cockpit when she'd seen Vila returning.
Vila slipped the gun away almost as fast as he'd drawn it. Jos backed up a step.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I guess that what I heard was wrong."
"I guess so," Vila answered. He picked up his bag and followed Jenna without another word to the engineer.
Back in the viewing gallery of the spaceport, Vatinnen watched the little confrontation with interest. He couldn't quite see everything that happened but the body language indicated that Restal had threatened the other man with a weapon. According to the reports he'd memorised, Vila Restal was unaggressive and a coward. Of course, even a coward could show courage when cornered, but the dispute on the ramp of the little freighter hadn't looked that threatening. It was also interesting that the woman seemed to be in charge. Vatinnen strolled across to a public data bank and entered the ID code of the freighter. The data bank told him its name and that the Inspiration was registered to a Byrony Swift. There was no picture of her available. The only ones of Restal's old colleagues not accounted for were two women, one of whom was a pilot, if he remembered correctly. Vatinnen tapped Jenna Stannis' name into his own datapad and took a long look at the image there. Putting it away, he went back to his seat and focused his scopes on the freighter again. If there were two outlaws on that ship, a riskier approach might be worthwhile. Vatinnen didn't want the local law enforcement to get involved in his capture. He didn't intend to share his prize with outsiders.
Jenna led Vila to the crew room. "I'm sorry about Jos," she said. "I meant to have a word with him before you got back but there was a problem with the crystal shipment. The stupid courier company had it in the wrong kind of packing; it would never have survived lift-off." She cut off the grumbles and got back to the point. "Anyway, Jos does like to show off. Wants to prove he's top dog."
"I've met plenty like him before," Vila answered.
Jenna sat herself in one of the comfortable loungers and studied Vila. He put his bag down and took a seat nearby, all in silence. The man Jenna had known on Liberator would have been grumbling about Jos, and his aching back, and about how everyone else on board treated him. He certainly wouldn't have calmly pulled a gun and forced the other man to back down. Jenna began to think that life on the run had done him some good.
Later that evening, she began to change her mind. The Inspiration had cleared customs and lifted off without any trouble. Her course was set on automatic, she was running smooth and all scopes were clear. Murray, the co-pilot, was on duty in the cockpit while the rest of the crew and their passenger had gathered in the crew lounge. They were playing cards; Fleet Dalmuti under Space City rules.
"Everyone set ?" Attica asked. When the others nodded, the cargo boss pressed the control box to randomise the patterns on the electronic cards.
The ten cards in Jenna's hands flickered and changed, settling into their new values for this round. It wasn't a very good hand. She rearranged them and watched the other players. Jos looked sulky but attractive, with his mass of long, wavy hair tumbling loose over his shoulders and around his face. Opposite him was Vila, who was pouring himself another drink. The flask of wine was nearly empty already and a lot of it had gone into Vila. He didn't look as drunk as Jos did though.
"Ready ?" Attica asked, aiming a smile at Vila.
The little cargo boss seemed to have taken a liking to him from the moment they were introduced. Vila of course liked her, but Jenna couldn't recall Vila ever not liking a woman on first acquaintance. Jenna made a mental note to warn Attica not to flirt unless she really meant it. Vila was rarely backward about coming forward with women.
Attica made the first move. "Three pursuit ships." She put the cards on the low table.
"Three generals," Jenna countered.
Jos shook his head. "Pass."
"Three space commanders." Vila's trick won the round. He celebrated with a swig of wine, then played the next cards. "Four rebels," he said, putting the cards down.
Attica had to pass.
"Four planetary governors," Jenna said smugly.
Jos passed, unable to match her bid. He hadn't put any cards down yet this round.
"All four high council members," Vila said cheerfully, winning the second trick in a row. He only had three cards left in his hand and very rapidly won the round, as he had half of the others over the evening.
"Well done," Attica congratulated him.
"It just takes a little know-how," Vila said with poor modesty.
"Like knowing how to fix the controller," Jos muttered.
Because the controller randomly set the image on the cards' screen surface, there was no need to shuffle the pack, and so less chance for card sharps to deal themselves a good hand. As Jos pointed out, it was still possible to tinker with the controller's programming to get a good hand.
"This is our set of cards," Jenna pointed out.
"He could have fixed the controller when we were all working," Jos said loudly. He stared across the table at Vila.
Vila took a long mouthful of wine.
"I'm sure it isn't true." Attica moved closer to him as she verbally defended him.
Jenna was watching Vila anxiously. He had his gun holstered at his waist and at this range even he could hardly miss.
"You were the one who showed me where the game was kept this evening," Vila pointed out. He watched Jos steadily.
"You could have been pretending you didn't know where it was," Jos answered, his annoyance flushed by the wine.
"I wasn't," Vila stated flatly.
He was getting angry but Jenna was relieved to see that he appeared to be in control of himself, in spite of the amount he had been drinking.
"Vila hasn't been cheating," she said clearly. "Because there's no reason for him to cheat. We aren't playing for money."
Jos blinked; he obviously hadn't thought of that. "Some people just like to win," he said.
"And others are just poor losers," Jenna snapped. She stood up, taking Jos's arm and hauling him to his feet. "I think you'd better go sleep off what you've drunk. You're on early watch, remember ?"
The engineer glowered at his boss. "All right."
"And you owe Vila an apology."
Jos hesitated, so Jenna shook his arm until he stammered out an apology. As soon as she let go, he headed straight for his cabin.
Vila had sunk back into his seat. Attica fetched another bottle and poured a drink for him, which he took gratefully. She fussed around, apologising for Jos's behaviour and putting it down to his drunkenness. She didn't seem to have noticed that Vila had drunk far more than her crewmate but was holding it better. Jenna knew that the only way to acquire that kind of tolerance was through steady heavy drinking. Her doubts returned in a rush. She didn't have time to look after an alcoholic wreck, especially one who habitually carried both a gun and a multi-million credit price on his head. Giving Vila a dark look, she said goodnight and left to start her watch in the cockpit early.
He saw the look and understood what it meant.
"Are you all right ?" Attica leaned anxiously closer to him.
Vila liked her attention but it stirred his uneasy conscience. "Just tired," he told her. "I think I'd better go to my cabin."
"All right then." Attica smiled at him.
Vila wished her good night, half-wondering whether he should invite to come to his cabin for a night-cap. Her short, dark hair looked smooth to the touch and she smelt faintly of something flowery and feminine. She deserved something better. Back in the privacy of his cabin, Vila opened a bottle of liquor and steadily drank through it until he fell asleep.
Jos had apologised to Jenna again when he came to take over the early shift on duty in the cockpit. "I'd had more to drink than I thought," he added, flicking his hair back from his face.
"Don't bother trying to keep up with Vila," Jenna said. "He could probably drink all four of us under the table and still walk away." She stood and stretched, weary from spending so long in the small cockpit. The seats were comfortable but there wasn't much room to get up and get the circulation moving. Lack of space was one of the things she missed about Liberator. Jenna suddenly wondered what had happened to the beautiful ship.
"Was Vila always a drunk ?" Jos asked, sidling past to take the pilot's seat.
"Always keen on his pleasures but not a drunk," Jenna answered. "He used to be useful enough if you could put up with the whining."
"I imagine he's had plenty to whine about the last few years," Jos remarked, glancing over the control systems.
Jenna paused; there was still a lot she didn't know about what had happened to Blake and the others. The Federation had claimed to have lured the rebels into a trap, but what kind of a trap had killed Avon and Blake but not Vila ? Did he drink from unhappiness or some kind of guilty conscience ? A yawn interrupted her thoughts. The past would keep a few hours longer while she slept.
It was almost lunch time when she woke. Jenna found Vila sitting on his own in the galley, nursing a cup of coffee.
"Sleep well ?" she asked, getting herself some breakfast.
"As usual," he answered, making an effort to smile.
"Has Jos apologised properly yet ?" Jenna asked, sitting opposite.
"He did. I don't blame him for despising me, though." There was nothing more than dull honesty in Vila's tone. "I'm not much of a hero, am I ?"
"That's because you're a thief, Vila, not a hero."
That provoked a better smile from him. "I always knew that, but Blake and Avon often forgot. Well, Blake did. Avon never expected me to be brave, just to do as I was told." The smile faded, leaving a bitter look behind.
"What happened to the Liberator ?" Jenna asked "I wanted to get back after we abandoned ship of course, but somehow it never quite worked out."
"Why didn't you join Blake again ?" he asked in return..BR> Jenna sipped her coffee, trying to organise her thoughts. "We got separated after the Galactic War," she explained. "And by the time we met up again, I'd got this ship and Blake was busy co-ordinating several resistance movements on Ephesus. I smuggled weapons and took him between planets so he could get other groups to join up. But the Inspiration is my ship," Jenna said fiercely. "And she's not a battle ship like the Liberator. I refused to make her a terrorist ship. Then Blake was betrayed on Santiago Primus and nearly got himself killed."
"Is that where he got the scar ?" Vila indicated his left eye.
Jenna nodded. "He was out of action for months, by which time the momentum he'd been building up had faded away. Blake found it difficult to trust anyone anymore so only a few supporters stayed with him." She didn't meet Vila's eyes. "I knew he wouldn't betray me, but he'd changed. He kept telling them that Avon would come to him. Avon would bring the teleport and Orac and things would be better. They stopped believing him after a while."
"Avon did come for him," Vila said. "He couldn't cope alone any more."
Jenna gave him a frankly disbelieving look.
"It's true." Vila's hand tightened on his cup. "Avon was glad to be rid of him at first. He went to Earth on a revenge trip and let Tarrant hustle us about after crystals and asteroids. Then Servalan lured him into a trap; got him through his greed and distance programming, like they did to Blake that time. She got the Liberator, except Avon had practically destroyed it getting to her trap, and then her bombs killed Cally."
"I haven't heard her name in a long time," Jenna said. "I wondered what had happened."
"Avon got her killed," Vila said simply. "He knew it was his fault so he wanted revenge on Servalan. He got harder and more desperate. He wouldn't let anything or anyone get in his way. Then she set him up again. I told Avon it was a trap." Vila's expression was angry. "I refused to leave the ship but he didn't listen to me. They risked their lives and got nothing. But we gave Servalan seventeen million credits worth of gold that the Federation never knew she had."
Jenna whistled softly.
"Nothing went right after that," Vila continued. "Avon couldn't win any more; he couldn't even set up an alliance against the Federation. So he went looking for Blake. He just wanted to hand it all over to him. Blake could take charge, and Avon could stand in the background and criticise."
"So they met on Gauda Prime and someone betrayed them," Jenna finished.
"Not quite." Vila paused before continuing. "The Federation were there, but they didn't kill Blake."
Jenna frowned, not liking the implication.
"Blake didn't even look at me," Vila said, his eyes narrowing at the memory. "Not a word. He was only interested in Avon. But Avon couldn't even trust himself any more. He panicked, and shot Blake."
Jenna's face darkened. "Avon panicking ? I don't believe it !"
Vila sighed. "You said Blake had changed. So did Avon. He tried to murder me just a few weeks before we went to Gauda Prime." His voice was quiet but the bitterness in his eyes betrayed him. Jenna held her tongue and listened. "He was trying to be logical. There was no point in both of us dying on that bloody shuttle if getting rid of me would save his own neck. But it was murder and he knew it. Avon never apologised because he couldn't bear being wrong again. Then he thought Blake might have betrayed him, after all the faith Avon had had in him, and he couldn't cope with knowing that his faith might have been wrong. So he shot Blake before he could find out. Neither of them expected it but I think I did."
"You've had a lot of time to think about it," Jenna commented.
Vila finished off his cold coffee and longed for something stronger to numb the old feelings. "The others all got killed there. Avon shot Blake, Arlen killed Dayna and I killed Arlen. Then I got shot in the back and I didn't see the rest. The others were fighting, see ? So they got killed outright. I went down straight away and no one bothered to look at me again until it was all over. The sole survivor. They wanted Avon alive but he made them kill him because sometimes it's easier to die than to go on. And it meant he didn't have to live with being wrong about killing Blake."
"What happened to Orac ?" Jenna asked.
"I hid it before we went into the base and put a little trap on his keyslot. If he hasn't exploded in their faces, he's still hidden in a hole on Gauda Prime and it serves him right !"
"We could retrieve him," Jenna suggested. "It must be safe there by now."
Vila shook his head stubbornly. "It was Orac that told Avon to throw me off the shuttle. Plastic-brain can rot in Hell for all I care. I've managed to stay ahead of them for a year without him."
Jenna didn't bother arguing; she'd never been keen on forgiving and forgetting herself. It sounded as though Vila had had a hard time since they'd last met. One of the things that Jenna had always understood about Vila was his need for friends. Even when he'd first spoken to her in the holding cell on Earth, she'd known that he wasn't trying to hit on her or looking for someone weak to bully. He'd been looking for a friend who might not treat him too roughly. Avon had become that friend in the long run, and Avon had finally let him down. Vila had seen all his friends fall away and die. It was a harsh lesson for a man who'd demanded so little of life. "We'll be stopping in Hebe for a few days," Jenna said. "You can stay aboard the ship then if you want."
Vila's face brightened and Jenna felt better herself.
"Thank you," Vila said. "Er, could I use your engineering shop ? I want to fix myself some new tools."
Jenna smiled. "Of course, just help yourself."
Vila rose. "I'll get on with it now."
Jenna let him leave and returned to eating her rapidly cooling breakfast. There was a lot to think about.
Jenna had a quiet word with her crew, telling them not to ask Vila about his past. She also quietly warned Attica not to encourage Vila's drinking. Vila himself was making an effort to cut down his dependency. He knew the physical addiction would only lessen over time, but Jenna's reappearance and her common sense had kindled a sense of hope in him that had been dwindling ever since Terminal. The end to his loneliness did more to help Vila than any course of treatment. That, and the shame he felt when he saw Attica watching him with faith and affection. Vile didn't take advantage of her fascination with him, rather to Jenna's surprise, but he returned her kindness with a gentle warmth. Building himself a new set of thieving tools occupied the days happily, restoring his pride as the collection grew. Jos helped out now and again and made admiring comments on Vila's technical skills.
"It merely takes talent to design and build something like this." Vila held up a vari-pulse sonic probe. "But it takes a genius to use it properly."
"And I never yet met a modest genius," Jos promptly answered.
Vila laughed, even though the comment made him think of Avon. The past no longer hurt quite so much as it once had.
From time to time, Vila still got frightened in case it was all too good to be true. The Inspiration was a day's flight from Hebe when his fears seemed to be coming true.
The co-pilot, Murray, spoke over the intercom from the cockpit.
"Jenna ? We're being hailed by a customs boat."
"On my way," she answered crisply.
Vila followed her to the cockpit and gazed fearfully at the ship on the viewscreen. It was larger than the Inspiration, probably faster and was quite definitely armed. Jenna was speaking to the customs officer while Murray ran a series of scans from his co-pilot's console. Vila peered over his shoulder, not reassured by what he saw. After a couple of minutes talk, Jenna closed the communications link and took manual control of her ship.
"What's happening ?" Vila asked, his eyes round.
"We're going to dock with the Wanderer so the customs officials can come aboard and inspect the cargo," Jenna answered, her eyes on read-outs.
"They're coming aboard !" Vila gripped the back of her chair. "Are you sure this cargo's all right ?"
"If it wasn't, I wouldn't be using the main spacelanes, now would I ?" Jenna retorted, easing the controls to bring her ship into the correct alignment.
"Double-bluff ?" Vila suggested. He shivered, anxious but afraid to break her concentration as the spaceships moved closer together.
"Just go and sit in the crew lounge with whatever ID you intend using," Jenna suggested.
"I should have kept the moustache," Vila muttered.
"It wasn't that good a disguise," Jenna said witheringly.
Vila hurried to his cabin to fetch his current ID card and to take a bracing swig of liquor before the trouble started. He got halfway out of the door before remembering the gun at his waist; wearing it aboard ship would certainly draw the wrong sort of attention. He tossed it onto the bunk, took a step away, then nipped back to fetch it. He ran to the crew lounge and hid the gun under the cushion of a lounger and sat on it as the ships made contact. Jos and Attica arrived in the crew lounge just in time to see Vila hurriedly stuffing his almost-forgotten holster under the foliage of a trailing plant.
"Sit down a moment," Attica told him.
Vila threw himself back onto the lounger, then started as she squirted something into his hair. "What ?"
"Adds bulk and curl," she said briefly, aiming the canister with one hand and fluffing Vila's hair with the other. "I keep it for parties and things."
"Jenna will keep them talking for a couple of minutes," Jos added, waving around a towel to try and disperse the smell of hair product a bit.
"That looks a bit different," Attica said with satisfaction.
Vila saw Jos suppressing a smile and scowled.
Attica sprayed more of the stuff on herself and tossed the canister into the disposal. Taking the towel from Jos, she perched on the edge of a lounger and rubbed her hair as if she'd just washed it.
Just a few moments later, Jenna and three strangers entered the crew lounge. Jenna's eyes widened for a moment as she caught sight of Vila, but she kept talking.
"....holds should be pressurized in a moment, then you can check the Deheklion customs seals for yourselves."
"Very good." The sinewy, fair officer strode through the crew lounge with barely a glance at Vila or the others. Two uniformed men followed him, their eyes cool and appraising as they glanced around the room. All three followed Jenna to the rear of the ship.
"Well, they don't seem particularly anxious," Jos remarked, fetching himself a drink.
Something about the way the two men had looked around reminded Vila of Soolin. They gave that same impression of analysing the situation. "They were all armed," he said unhappily.
"Of course they are," Attica answered. "We might be dangerous smugglers," she added wryly.
"What name are you using ?" Jos asked Vila.
Vila gawped at him blankly.
"On that ID card ?" Jos clarified.
"Oh. Hammil Meredith."
"Where on Earth did you get a name like that ?" Attica exclaimed.
"Its owner was dead so I didn't think he'd be wanting it any more," Vila said.
Silence fell for a few minutes until Jenna and the customs men came back from inspecting the cargo crates in the hold.
The officer was scribbling notes into his data pad as he walked. "Everything seems to be in perfect order, Ms Swift. I'm very satisfied."
"Good." Jenna's smile was bright but Vila could tell it wasn't genuine.
"Now then." The officer stopped in the crew lounge and tucked the data pad into a pocket. His men moved on further before halting. "Are all your crew registered ?"
"Of course," Jenna answered calmly. All her ship's documentation was in perfect order, right down to the last detail of employee's insurance and the health and safety notice in the engineering workshop. She opened the folder she was carrying to find the appropriate hard copies. "I have everything right here, Officer Vatinnen."
"And so do I," Vatinnen answered. With a quick nod to his men, he grabbed Jenna's collar with one hand and drew his gun with the other.
Jenna's first instinct was to slash at him with the edge of the folder, but the gun was against her ribs too quickly. She stood very still, her eyes bright with fury.
"You, Restal." Vatinnen nodded at Vila. "Over there."
Vila stood up, frightened but outwardly calm. "They don't know who I am," he said.
"Then Stannis here has a short memory." Vatinnen grinned. "Move."
Vila did as he was told, scooting round the loungers towards Vatinnen's men. The shorter one, Fogerty, lowered his gun while the other kept Jos and Attica covered.
"Raise your arms," Fogerty ordered in a low, growly voice. He moved close and efficiently patted Vila down. "No weapons," he announced.
"OK. Check these two out." Vatinnen indicated the two crew members.
Fogerty produced a palm reader from his utility belt and told Jos to put his hand against it. The engineer obeyed. While they waited for the results, Vila took stock of the situation. Jenna was furious but she held onto her temper. Vatinnen's grip on her jacket collar kept her slightly off-balance and his gun was too close for her to risk a break for freedom. One mercenary was checking Jos and Attica while the taller one, Heidfeld, covered Vila, keeping just outside arm's reach. "How long have you been following me ?" Vila asked Vatinnen. He stood with his shoulders slumped, his face sullen.
"I'm a great believer in watching spaceports to see who drifts in and out," Vatinnen said. "I could hardly believe it was you at first. Every accredited bounty hunter who knows you're still alive would love to find you but it's a big galaxy. The odds of being in the right spaceport at the right time...?" He shrugged, but not enough to move his gun away from Jenna. He knew who was the dangerous one.
Fogerty looked up. "If this one's got anything on his record, it's not important enough for him to be valuable," he said, meaning Jos. He held the palm reader to Attica. "Come on, we want to check your past."
Attica obediently pressed her hand against the screen.
Vatinnen spoke again. "I was pleased enough to see you, Restal. I could hardly believe it when you led me straight to Jenna Stannis here."
Vila shifted uneasily. "I'm sorry, Jenna. I should have stayed away."
"I asked you here," she said, bitterness stinging her voice.
"I should still have known better," Vila pleaded, making an apologetic gesture. "I think I'm cursed. The others all died, didn't they ?"
"It happens to criminals and outlaws, Vila," Jenna said. "They all die sooner or later."
"You should have stuck to the right side of the law," Vatinnen told her.
The moment the bounty hunter took his eyes off Vila, the thief acted. His gestures and small movements had brought him to within arm's reach of the man covering him. Vila lashed out, catching Heidfeld a stunning blow against his neck, and kept turning. He grabbed the mercenary's jacket and swung him bodily round. Vila had his back to the door of the crew lounge and the mercenary between himself and the others. He grabbed the barrel of the man's gun with one hand and shoved him back with the other. Heidfeld fell right into the shot Vatinnen fired at Vila. Without stopping to see what was happening, Vila snatched the falling man's gun and fled along the corridor. Shouts erupted behind him; another shot dented the side of the Inspiration's corridor. Vila ducked and kept going. He was passing the crew cabins; up ahead was the cockpit. Maybe he could take control from there. Although the cockpit was out of sight around a sharp turn in the corridor, Vila heard the faint hiss as the door opened. Footsteps came pounding towards him. He doubted that it was Murray coming to help. Vila halted, raising the stolen gun instinctively even as he looked for somewhere to hide. The cabins were small and too easy to search. Making his mind up, Vila made for the airlock between the two spaceships. The Inspiration's crew ramp also served as the docking hatch when in space. Vila made the turn just in time. The hatch was open from this side. He dashed through the heavy space hatch and aboard the Wanderer without stopping to think.
"Hey ! Who are ...?" A mercenary appeared almost beside him.
Vila shot him from waist height. The mercenary gasped and slumped back against the wall. Vila slammed his hand against the docking hatch control panel before crouching beside the fallen man. A quick check showed him that his victim was only stunned. The bounty hunters wanted him alive, which was something, but Vila couldn't afford to take chances. After the months of casual drifting and drinking, Vila was surprised to realise just how desperately he wanted to stay alive and free. Vila changed the setting on his stolen gun and killed the mercenary. "Sorry," he muttered, getting to his feet. "Couldn't risk you coming round and helping them."
He was on a strange ship now, facing an unknown number of enemies. He needed to get moving and to come up with some kind of plan. Vila turned left and started to explore the bounty hunter's ship.
Chaos had erupted behind him on the Inspiration. Vila's sudden actions had surprised Jenna more than anyone else. By the time she recovered her wits enough to act, Vatinnen had his gun firmly against her ribs again. Jos and Attica had were in the centre of the room and vulnerable; they both sensibly stayed still. The mercenary who had been checking their palm prints had dropped his reader and snatched out his gun. Fogerty started after Vila as the thief fled, but an order from Vatinnen stopped him.
"Alert Trulli," the bounty hunter ordered.
The mercenary spoke into his communicator, alerting the man in the cockpit. Then he checked on the man Vila had assaulted. "He'll be out for an hour at least."
"Serves him right," Vatinnen grunted.
"Is that the best quality of thug you can afford ?" Jenna asked impertinently. "One who gets beaten up by a coward ?"
"Nothing so cowardly about the risk he took then," Vatinnen answered calmly. "Anyway, Restal can't run far. When he realises that, he'll revert to type."
"He's changed a lot," Jenna warned. "Vila's not the pushover he was a few years ago."
Vatinnen smiled down at her. "You want to bet your life on that ?"
Jenna already was.
A call on the intercom interrupted them. "Restal's gone aboard the Wanderer."
"Then we'll go after him," Vatinnen answered. "Lock those two in one of the cabins," he ordered, indicating Jos and Attica.
"What about this ship ?"Fogerty asked.
"Booty," Vatinnen answered. "We'll keep them docked until we've sorted this mess out and got the valuables locked up. Then a skeleton crew into Hebe."
"What about us ?" Jos asked sharply. Attica put her hand on his arm.
"If you're not valuable to us then we don't care," Vatinnen answered. "I'm an accredited bounty hunter; I don't kill civilians. Unless they attack me, of course." He didn't bother to emphasise the threat. "The Federation might be interested in knowing that you've been aiding and abetting known felons, but I might be persuaded not to mention that to them."
"If' it's worth your while not to," Attica said. Like Jos, her eyes were bright with anger but she was better at keeping her temper.
"I'm not a greedy man," Vatinnen said, smiling at her. "And I've just come into a great deal of money," he added with relish. "We'll negotiate later."
He nodded to Fogerty, who motioned towards the door with his gun. Jos and Attica let themselves be ushered away. Vatinnen started for his own ship, taking Jenna with him. They were joined by Trulli, who had already locked Murray in one of the other cabins. Vatinnen kept his gun in Jenna's ribs while restraints were clicked around her wrists. Then she was handed over to Fogerty on his return and they moved across to the Wanderer. Vatinnen and Trulli went first, their guns at the ready as the hatch opened. The two men moved as a smooth team, acting with few words. Trulli covered his boss as Vatinnen checked on the body they found slumped beside the hatch.
"Dead," he reported succinctly. "Restal's changed the setting on his gun."
Jenna spared the body no more than a glance; it was exactly what she would have done herself.
"Shall we ?" Trulli asked, keeping his eyes on the corridor.
"They're more valuable alive," Vatinnen answered. "But dead will do if necessary."
"I think that might be the only way you'll get Vila now," Jenna put in.
Vatinnen stared at her, then a smile creased his face. "I don't think so."
Vila jumped and spun round. A moment later he realised the ship's intercom was on open broadcast.
"We know you're on the Wanderer and that's where you're staying. The hatch is sealed and there's a guard on it. Now you could try to hide on my ship, while we search for you, or you can save yourself the time and trouble by surrendering to us now. If you're not on the flight deck in five minutes, we start to hurt your friend Stannis."
With that last message, the intercom went quiet. Vila took a deep breath to steady himself. The bounty hunter's ship was larger than Jenna's but he had already ruled out the possibility of hiding indefinitely. This particular corridor was a dead end. Vila hardly needed his specialized knowledge to know that this was where Vatinnen kept his prisoners locked up. There were three cells, each with independently controlled locking systems. Seizing control of the ship's computers wouldn't release those doors. Vila turned around and started making his way to the front of the ship. He put the stolen gun inside an air grille and walked empty handed to the flight deck.
"Stand very still."
Vila did as he was told, keeping his hands away from his sides. One of the mercenaries, Trulli, had been waiting for him outside the flight deck. Trulli was a professional at his job, and didn't get within arm's reach. "Open the door and walk in," he ordered, keeping his gun trained on his prisoner. Vila pressed the control panel and the door to the flight deck slid open. Vatinnen was waiting inside, his gun pointing at the door. Fogerty had his gun on Jenna. A third man, Ascari, was in the pilot's seat.
"Come in," Vatinnen said, grinning. "Very sensible of you to save us all a lot of chasing around."
"I never liked exercise," Vila answered, walking slowly forward. Two guns were trained directly on him. His brown eyes were round and anxious, revealing the fear he struggled to control.
Vatinnen moved forward to search Vila himself. He was very thorough, not only going through the pockets of Vila's tunic and trousers, he also felt around the cuffs and seams. His search revealed one lockpick, one low-frequency communicator and a telescopic probe as well as a handful of credits and a fake cash card. "Like to be prepared for emergencies, don't you ?" Vatinnen remarked, tossing the items onto the weaponry console. "Well, you won't slide your way out of my custody. You'll have to hope the Federation get careless again."
Vila said nothing. He needed a drink so much. If a bottle had been anywhere in sight, he would probably have gone for it no matter what the risk. Instead, when he looked around, all he saw was Jenna's accusing glance. He licked his lips and faded into himself.
Vatinnen laughed. "I told you he'd run true to form," he jeered at Jenna. "Cowards can get brave when they panic, but give them some time to think and just watch them run for shelter." He nudged Vila in the ribs. "Cheer up, maybe it won't be so bad. They'll probably just blank your mind and re-program you as a harmless trophy item like they did to Blake the first time. You won't be scared of anything any more."
Vila shuddered. The psychotherapists had already discovered that he couldn't be conditioned when they tried to stop him from stealing. There would be nothing but interrogation and execution for him now. A look of unutterable bleakness settled on his face.
"All right," Vatinnen stepped back. "Lock them up. Then Trulli, you and Heidfeld can take the other ship, when he comes round We'll be in port and a few million credits richer in less than two days."
"Wait a minute," Jenna said. She drew herself up straight and stared at the leader of the bounty hunters. "We might be able to make some kind of deal."
"A deal !" Vatinnen almost laughed. "What have you got to bargain with ?"
"Our value," Jenna answered. "You're going to hand us over on Hebe, right ? You'll get your reward but you don't care what happens to us afterwards. If we escaped from Federation captivity, they'd have to issue a new reward. Our value might even go up," she added craftily.
Vatinnen smiled at her. "Oh, you're very good. I can see why they deported you in the first place." He moved to stand closer to her.
Jenna smiled at him, playing on her beauty but not expecting him to be won over by just a pretty smile.
"Yes," Vatinnen said. "I might almost like to have you on my side. But I can't risk that."
"But could you risk giving Vila one or two of his tools back just before you hand us over ?" she suggested. "You'd get your money and we'd get a chance at escape. Both parties would be satisfied."
"But not the Federation," Vatinnen pointed out.
"Do either of us care about them ?"
"No," Vatinnen agreed casually. He strode away again. "On the other hand, I have my accreditation to think about. If the Federation even suspect that I might have helped you, then the reputation I've spent ten years developing goes straight down the tubes. I think I'll just take the money and your ship."
Jenna sighed as Trulli pushed her towards the door. It had been worth a try.
Their cell was narrow, with a bunk either side, a water spout and small sink and a single toilet outlet. Jenna wouldn't have chosen to share it with anyone, but in some ways it was no less private than what they'd put up with on the London. At least there didn't seem to be any internal security cameras watching. Vila sat on the edge of one bunk, his arms wrapped around himself. Jenna found herself irritated by his miserable expression.
"You didn't have to surrender quite that fast, you know," she remarked, pacing up and down in the space between the bunks.
"They'd have caught me anyway," Vila answered.
"You didn't have to make it quite so easy for them !" Jenna snapped. She sighed and made herself sit down. "These bounty hunters are professionals. They know you're going to have lockpicks hidden in your clothes."
"So I let them find some." Vila got up and produced a silver probe from under the thin mattress. He smiled brilliantly at Jenna. "I knew I'd end up in one of these cells sooner or later, so I made preparations. I hid something in each cell."
Jenna was briefly speechless as Vila crouched by the door and started work on the inside of the lock. "Can you get us out before they undock my ship ?"
"I don't know." Vila stopped work, wiping his sleeve across his forehead. "There isn't much to work from on this side and this isn't the most suitable pick."
"Well, get on with it," Jenna insisted.
The cell doors had sonically controlled locks. Vila had to set his probe to the right frequency and get it at just the right angle to interrupt the pulse code. It was fiddly work from where he was crouching. He tilted his head to one side as he listened, making minute adjustments to his probe to match the almost inaudible pulses from the lock. Most people would have needed a frequency reader to do the job accurately but Vila had been gifted with acute hearing and perfect pitch. They had stood him in good stead over the years, but the upper ranges of his hearing had inevitably declined. Ten years ago, the lock pulses would have been clearly audible to him; now he barely sensed them even with his ear almost pressed against the door. That knowledge didn't improve his temper. His hands started to tremble. Vila paused, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. A drink would have calmed him but he was trapped without so much as a drop. Vila made another attempt, getting the probe to the right frequency at last. Getting it to the correct angle was another matter. His hands kept slipping.
"Get a move on," Jenna hissed, leaning over him.
Vila bit back an answer and tried again, sliding the probe along the crack in the door. It missed the lock. Vila slumped, resting one shoulder against the door.
"Hurry up," Jenna growled. "Get us out."
"I can't do it !" Vila exclaimed, flinging the probe away. He curled up, turning away from her. "I need a drink."
"Vila ! Don't be so pathetic !" Frustration made Jenna angry. She grabbed Vila's shoulder and tried to straighten him out.
"My hands are shaking," Vila whined, holding his right hand out. It trembled visibly. "Jenna, get me something, please."
There isn't anything in here !" she snarled. "If you want some drink, you'll have to undo that damn lock and get us out." As soon as she released Vila, he curled up again.
Jenna raised her hand to hit him but managed to restrain herself. She took a quick pace up and down the cell to burn off some anger, then crouched beside Vila. He took no notice, sunk in his misery. Jenna spoke more quietly to him. "I need your help, Vila. I can't undo that lock and get us out of here."
"I'm sorry," Vila whispered.
Jenna took his shoulders and lifted him against herself. "Unless you pull yourself together, we'll be handed over to the Federation and they'll kill you. You can't just give up and die, Vila."
"Sometimes it's easier than fighting," he answered quietly. "That's why I drink. It'll kill me, but I won't mind."BR> Jenna was shocked into silence for a moment, before her fighting spirit took over. "Well I mind. For myself if not for you. I've got a ship, a cargo and some friends to fight for." She fetched the probe and pressed it into Vila's hand. "Try again. Vila. Do it for me."
Vila didn't have the strength to argue again. His back was aching but he forced himself to lean close to the lock and try with the probe. It took him another five attempts before the lock suddenly clicked free. Vila gave a sigh of relief and slumped down, wincing as he landed..
"Well done !" Jenna wanted to get moving immediately but couldn't go without him. "Are you all right ?" He was shaking and drawn.
"Crouching like that....my back hurts."
"Come on," Jenna helped him up. "It won't be the only thing that hurts if we don't take over this ship."
"I don't mind the pain," Vila grumbled quietly, following her into the corridor. "It's the suffering I never liked."
Jenna ran gracefully to the end of the short corridor and peered round the corner. "We need weapons," she said. "Let's just get back aboard your ship and hide until they've separated. Once you've dealt with the bounty hunters there, we can just run," Vila suggested, catching up.
Jenna shook her head. "Vatinnen knows who I am and he can break my cover any time. Besides, no one tries to steal my ship and gets away unscathed," she added viciously.
She trotted along the next section of corridor, Vila at her heels. He moved stiffly but still quietly, all senses alert for trouble. Jenna went straight to the docking hatches, pausing only to collect the gun that Vila had hidden in the air vent earlier. She was determined not to let the ships separate. "Can you over-ride the control panel ?" she asked, stationing herself to watch the corridor.
Vila flipped open the panel cover. "Not really my field," he remarked, examining the circuitry inside.
"I just want it jammed open."
Vila didn't answer, already intent on his task. The hatch control panel used fibre optic technology, not sonic systems like the cell locks. With the right tools it would be easy to over-ride but he didn't have them. However, Vila was nothing if not inventive. He set about adjusting the sonic probe's power supply to produce a short burst of energy that would fuse the optic wires.
Jenna assessed their situation as he worked. The control panel was just inside the short turn-off that led to the hatchway so Vila was largely concealed from anyone coming along the main corridor. She stood right beside him, the heavy gun cradled in both hands. It was still set to killing level. Now and again she glanced back past Vila, into the hatch of her own ship. It was possible for them to be spotted from that side, but she thought that the mercenaries on the Inspiration were probably busy on the flight deck. Footsteps brought her attention alertly back to the Wanderer. Jenna pressed herself closer to Vila, hiding herself from the man approaching along the corridor. Vila still had his nose inside the control panel, frantically tracing control circuits.
"I've got it !" he exclaimed suddenly.
The footsteps stopped suddenly. Jenna didn't waste breath berating Vila She dived into the corridor, firing as she went. The commotion took Vila by surprise. A stray shot hit the corner of the corridor, striking sparks and shards of metal into the air near his face. Vila jerked back automatically. His hand slipped and the probe fried a random piece of circuitry.
She ducked back into cover again, still exchanging shots with Fogerty. "I think I've injured him," she said.
A rumbling noise made Vila turn. "The hatch," he yelled. "I think it's locking."
"What ?" Jenna half-turned to look.
A small thrown canister hit the wall above them and clattered down to their feet. Vila took one look, remembered the deadly grenades that Dayna had been fond of, and dived through the closing hatch. Jenna also flung herself away from it, making for the corridor. Her action certainly surprised Fogerty, who stayed still long enough for her wild volley of shots to bring him down. Jenna also hit the deck, getting herself just around the corner from the flash grenade when it went off.
Jenna had known that the mercenaries wouldn't use explosive charges aboard ship, especially so close to an open hatch. The flash grenade mostly produced light and sound to stun its victims. If Jenna and Vila had been caught in the narrow space by the hatchway, they would have been temporarily blinded and deafened. Jenna was out of direct line of the grenade and managed to get her arms over her head. The grenade exploded with a brilliant flash and a tremendous crack Jenna swallowed, cautiously lifting her head. Her ears were ringing but she managed to get to her feet, gun still in hand, and advanced on Fogerty. One look told her that he was no longer a threat to anyone. Her next action was to check on Vila but she couldn't. The hatch between the docked ships had closed, trapping her on one side and him on the other. A glance at the control panel was enough to tell her she wasn't going to over-ride it in a hurry. Jenna didn't waste time on anger. The first thing was to search Fogerty's body for useful items, then to move on before someone came to find out what was happening. Jenna had always been practical.
On the other side of the hatch, Vila got slowly to his feet. Coloured blobs floated before his eyes and his ears were ringing painfully. The closing hatch had protected him from the worst of the effects but he was still dizzy. Putting one hand against the wall, he made his way clumsily into the corridor. The cabins weren't very far away. Vila staggered along, counting the doors grimly until he reached his own. Vila let himself in, noting vaguely that he couldn't hear the quiet hiss of the door mechanism. He sat heavily on the edge of his bunk, wincing at the stiffness in his back, and grabbed up the nearest bottle. The golden liquor was sweet and strong. Vila took several mouthfuls without stopping. New strength flowed into him. Vila gave the bottle an appreciative look and took another swig for good measure. The temptation to simply go on drinking was strong but Vila managed to put the bottle down. "I'm only supposed to be a hero once per day," he muttered to himself, rummaging in his kitbag. "Union rules, y'know."
He picked out a couple of useful multi-tools and his second gun, this one much smaller than the first. Vila took a few moments to fix its rig to the inside of his right wrist. The loose sleeve of his grey tunic covered gun and holster well enough. Vila stopped to listen at his door before remembering that he was still half-deaf after the grenade. It reminded him of the problems he'd had with the sonic probe. He made a silent vow to disembowel whoever had thrown that grenade, and opened his door. There was no one in sight. Vila hurried across to the other cabins and started unfastening locks. In less than two minutes, he had Jos, Murray and Attica gathered in one cabin. Jos had produced a gun from his own cabin and held it ready for action. Attica was stationed against the door, listening out for trouble.
"So how do we get rid of them ?" Jos asked.
Vila found the other three all staring expectantly at him. "Er.. perhaps we should.." His voice sounded oddly distant. Vila shook his head and tried again. "Er...." He began to think he should have brought the bottle with him.
The flash explosion had registered on the Wanderer's internal scanners.
Vatinnen cursed vividly. "I searched Restal myself," he muttered, pressing buttons on his flight console. The hull integrity sensors showed reassuringly green. His companion, Ascari, was calling Fogerty over the ship's intercom. There was no reply. Ascari switched frequencies and alerted the men on the Inspiration to their trouble. Vatinnen started powering up his ship's laser cannon. "The hatch is sealed shut," he said, glancing over his status displays and trying the controls. "It won't respond on automatics; the blast may have damaged it. Get down there and round them up if they haven't gone across to her ship," he ordered. "Alive if possible but it doesn't matter if they get a bit broken."
"I always did break my toys," Ascari answered, drawing his gun and checking its setting.
The mercenary slipped out into the corridor He knew every inch of this ship and moved forward with the confident grace of a dancer. Only when approaching the junction to the hatchway did he slow down, listening before he peered round. Ascari heard a faint, incoherent mumbling. A woman's voice. Stepping out cautiously, he saw Jenna Stannis sprawled at the entrance to the hatchway. She was moving slowly, obviously dazed by the flash grenade but still trying to drag herself into the cover of the short turn-off to the hatches. "There's no point in trying to hide there," Ascari said conversationally. "I could count to a thousand and you still wouldn't be out of sight."
Jenna rolled over, blinking vaguely in his direction. She propped herself up on her right elbow, keeping her left hand artfully hidden. "I think you're right."
Ascari approached her, taking the time to admire her shapely legs and figure. "Not every day I get to see a beautiful woman lying down in front of me," he remarked.
"I'm hardly surprised at that," Jenna answered, watching him more closely. He was relaxing, enjoying the sensation of power. Ascari's eyes were on her but the aim of his gun had wandered. Jenna slumped backwards, letting her legs fall wider apart. Even as Ascari gaped at her, she was firing the gun she'd kept hidden. Ascari rocked backwards and collapsed altogether at her second shot. Jenna drew herself up.
"I don't imagine you ever had much to do with beautiful women," she told his corpse. "Especially left-handed ones."
There was some consternation in the cockpit of Jenna's ship. Vatinnen's voice came over an open channel from the Wanderer.
"Go see if the hatch can be opened from your side," he ordered. "The sooner we get these ships separated and under way, the better."
"I'll go," Heidfeld offered, keen to make up for his error of letting Vila escape from the crew lounge. He stopped long enough to find some tools and picked up the small case. Leaving Trulli to familiarize himself with the Inspiration's controls, he headed for the docking hatch.
Vila and the others were in the corridor outside the crew cabins. Attica had gone to the corner to keep watch while Murray went to fetch the gun Vila had hidden in the crew lounge. Attica ran back towards them, catfooted in her soft shoes.
"One of them's coming this way," she warned in an excited whisper.
"Just one ?" Vila asked equally quietly.
"I only heard one."
"A hostage," Jos said.
"Men like them don't care that much about each other," Vila said gloomily. "Just someone else to share the spoils with."
"I think it's worth a try," Jos replied.
They could all hear the approaching footsteps now.
"Come on." Jos flattened himself against the wall by the junction.
As Heidfeld reached the corner, Jos sprang out on him. He shoved the mercenary's gun aside and simply pushed the man bodily into the wall. Heidfeld was startled but reacted far faster than the engineer had expected. He didn't bother trying to free his gun arm, but swung the tool-case round instead. The box cracked heavily into Jos' ribs, winding him. He cried out and sagged, but still clung frantically to the gun. The two men rocked back and forth together. Attica and Murray dithered, not sure how best to help. Vila didn't stop to think about it. He snatched his handgun off Murray and lunged forward, pressing the barrel into Heidfeld's neck.
"Drop it !" he yelled.
The mercenary froze. He looked Vila right in the eyes, then released his gun and his tool-case. Jos snatched up the gun, wincing at the pain in his side.
Vila kept his attention firmly on his prisoner. "Attica; get some cable ties and fasten his wrists."
She did as she was told, pulling the plastic binders as tight as she could. Without being asked, she even did a quick search for weapons and found a ceramic knife under Heidfeld's jacket. Attica stuck it into her own waist band.
"Now we're going back to the cockpit," Vila ordered. The stiffness in his back was painful as he moved. It also reminded him of all the misery and loneliness he'd felt over the last year. Vila channelled those feelings into anger.
The little group returned to the Inspiration's cockpit. Heidfeld was in front, his face carefully schooled into a mask of indifference. Vila was close behind him, the gun pressed into the mercenary's back. Jos and Murray flanked him, with Attica at the back. The small cargo chief wasn't scared, but she lacked strength and combat skills so she sensibly kept out of the way. She also had faith in Vila to see them through.
"Open it," Vila ordered.
Heidfeld pressed the door control
. Vila heard the hiss of the door opening, which meant his hearing was returning after the flash explosion. It was good news, but he wasn't in the mood to be cheered up. He hustled the mercenary into the small cockpit, trusting the other two to back him up. "Keep very still," he ordered as Trulli started to spin his chair around. Vila shifted the gun so it was visible. He dug the barrel into his prisoner's neck, almost enjoying the sensation of power. Trulli sat still, keeping his hands in plain sight.
"Take his gun," Vila said, nudging Heidfeld to one side to make room in the cramped cockpit.
Jos came past and took Trulli's heavy pistol from him. The engineer grinned as he pointed it at the mercenary. "We've got these two under control, we've got to help Jenna now."
"We can lock them in a cabin until we decide what to do with them," Murray added. He was back at the cockpit door, a couple of feet behind Vila. Attica was beside him.
Vila shook his head. "Too dangerous. We have to kill them."
Trulli grinned mirthlessly at him. "You ? A coward ? Can you really kill us in cold blood ? We're unarmed."
Vila spoke over the protests of the others. "I have to," he explained. "You know who I am, and you know Jenna now. Neither of us will be safe as long as you are loose."
"But Vila..." Attica protested. She reached out to touch him but Murray restrained her.
"I won't go back. I won't let them strip my mind out" Vila answered with a grimness they'd not heard from him before. He took a deep breath, readying himself.
Trulli acted first. He slapped Jos's pistol aside and exploded up from his seat. Jos fired instinctively but the shot scorched past the mercenary and hit the pilot's controls. Sparks filled the air as chaos broke out. Trulli butted Jos in the chest, shoving him backwards into Heidfeld and Vila. Vila was slammed back against the cockpit wall. His painful back was jarred so badly he cried out and collapsed, losing his grip on his gun. Trulli chopped Jos savagely under the ribs, driving the tips of his fingers in deep. Jos screamed, already off-balance and tangled against Heidfeld. Trulli moved to strike again.
Heidfeld was hampered by having his wrists tightly bound behind his back but he managed to stay on his feet. He heard Vila's cry of pain and half-saw, half-sensed his captor sliding down against the wall. Heidfeld shoulder-pushed Jos back towards Trulli and spun around. He couldn't get the gun that Vila had dropped, but he drew back his leg for a kick.
Vila tried to get up but his back was in agony and he collapsed back on one knee. Then he saw Attica recklessly dive forward with the knife she'd taken from Heidfeld earlier. She stabbed wildly, catching the mercenary in his upper arm. Heidfeld yelled in pain and turned on her. Attica slashed again, trying to keep him at a distance. Her efforts bought Vila a few moments to regain his breath. Still hunched against the cockpit wall, he lifted his right arm. The hidden gun slid from his wrist holster neatly into the palm of his hand. Vila fired two shots into Heidfeld's chest.
Jos was staggering from Heidfeld's push. He saw Trulli moving to attack again and fired the gun he was still clutching. More consoles exploded around them. Trulli changed his attack and slapped the gun from Jos's hand before he could blow a hole in the hull. The heavy gun clattered to the floor and vanished under a chair. Jos simply dived forward and butted Trulli in the face. The mercenary staggered back, caught his legs against the pilot's chair and sat down suddenly. Blood was pouring from his nose. Jos followed up his success with a vicious punch to Trulli's face.
Vila staggered to his feet, one hand against the wall for support. The little gun wasn't powerful but two shots at this range was enough to kill anyone. He paid no more attention to Heidfeld's sprawled form.
"Are you hurt ?" Attica asked, still gasping for breath herself.
"I'll live," Vila answered, already looking towards Jos and Trulli. The engineer had paused, standing over the injured mercenary with his fist poised for another punch. Vila simply shot Trulli in the head. The mercenary's body jerked and fell limp.
"We're safe !" Murray exclaimed.
Jos tore his gaze away from the dead man in front of him. Black electrical smoke was pouring from the damaged consoles. "Where's the extinguisher ?" he yelled.
Vila let Attica help him out into the corridor while the other two men tackled the mess in the cockpit. The air was hazy with smoke and smelt acrid. Vila stopped and leaned against the wall, his hand pressed against the small of his back.
"Did he shoot you ?" Attica asked, looking at his face anxiously.
"Not this time," Vila answered. "Old wound." He could feel himself starting to shake as the adrenaline of action drained away. "Help me to my cabin," he asked, holding out his arm.
Attica took his weight against her. "You need to lie flat. I'll get you some painkillers."
Vila just nodded. All he wanted was to crawl inside a bottle of liquor and let the rest of the galaxy go to hell. He ignored what Attica was saying about Jenna. Jenna had always been able to take care of herself.
Jenna had taken Ascari's utility belt; it hung rather loosely around her hips but it was still a convenient way of carrying equipment. With a gun at the ready, she stalked through the Wanderer to the flight deck. The door was closed and she could see a red light on the control panel. Jenna stood to one side of the door and pressed the control with her right hand. The door stayed closed.
"Damn," she breathed softly.
There was probably a telltale on the flight deck which showed that someone had attempted unauthorised access. Jenna preferred subtlety but she was running out of options fast. Standing back a pace, she simply blasted the door lock and was running in even as the door started to slide open. A shot narrowly missed her head as she ducked through the gap. Jenna hurled herself forward in a dive, relying on the knowledge of this flight deck from her brief visit earlier. She went for the nearest console, making it to cover as another shot struck sparks from the metal deck behind her. Jenna fired a fast shot from behind the slight console, then twisted around to fire from the other side. A shot answered hers. She crouched for a minute, trying to recall her surroundings. Vatinnen had to be in cover behind the navigation console on the starboard side. Jenna opened one of the pouches on the utility belt.
"Which of us has more to lose ?" she called.
"You're the outlaw," Vatinnen answered. He wasn't afraid of her but he was getting angry. No doubt most of his crew were already dead.
"I don't care if this flight deck gets blasted into scrap," Jenna answered. "Do you ?"
"Blow a hole in the hull and we'll both die," Vatinnen replied.
"If the Federation get their hands on me I'm dead anyway." Jenna turned, crouching on one knee. Keeping her head down, she tossed something towards the nav-console.
Vatinnen caught a glimpse of the flying black object and heard it rattle against the wall behind him. It was probably only a flash grenade but he was still closer than she was. Vatinnen gambled that Stannis would be keeping to cover and he dived out from behind the nav-console. Jenna was in the open and ready for him. She got a clear shot in as he appeared. Vatinnen screamed in pain, landing clumsily on the deck. Jenna took no chances and shot him again. She remained still for a moment, her gun still trained on him. A small black communicator rolled into view from behind the nav-console.
"Brave, but not too bright," Jenna remarked. She rolled the corpse over with her foot. Vatinnen's eyes were open, gazing blankly at the ceiling. Holstering her gun, Jenna scanned the Wanderer's consoles until she saw the comm unit. She switched it on.
"Inspiration ? Are you there ?"
The answer was crackly and faint despite the two ships still being docked. "Jenna ? We're all clear at this end. Your friend, Vila, certainly knows how to handle himself in a tight corner."
Jenna smiled at the sound of Murray's voice. "You should tell him; I'm sure he'd be happy to hear it. Now can someone unseal that hatch ? I want to get back to my ship."
The crew of the Inspiration, including Vila, gathered in the crew lounge of their ship a few hours later.
"The armoury and the cells could be converted to more hold space." Murray was speaking over the comm from the Wanderer, which was flying parallel to the smaller ship. "It could be the beginning of a fleet, Jenna."
"It's got its advantages," she agreed..
"Like a big gun." Vila was lying on a lounger. His back was less painful now but he still moved very carefully. The others were drinking wine to celebrate but Vila had refused. He was glad to be alive but he saw nothing to celebrate in being forced to kill. Besides, he was on his way to a hangover from the liquor he'd drunk immediately after the fighting was over. He didn't know whether to feel guilty about getting half-drunk then, or whether to feel justified.
Jenna's voice jerked him from his puzzled thoughts.
"We'll reach Hebe in a few hours," Jenna said. She paused, studying him and trying to analyse her own feelings. It was good to see that Vila had developed a bit of backbone at last but what had it cost him to find some courage ? More than Jenna would have wanted to pay. She dismissed the problem, turning her mind to more practical matters. "You'll be welcome to stay with us."
Attica added her own plea. "We like having you here."
Vila glanced at her, a half-smile lightening his face for the first time in hours. "I never said thank-you for going after him with that knife."
Attica smiled brilliantly. "It bought you some time."
"You could have got hurt." Vila looked at Jenna. "It's been a long time since anyone risked themselves for me."
"You're lazy, light-fingered and avaricious," Jenna teased.
Vila shrugged. "What more could you want in a man ?"
Jenna laughed, Jos cheered and Attica slapped him on the shoulder. Vila knew he was among friends again.