The Hand of Friendship
by Nicola Mody


The last thing Blake saw as the darkness descended was Avon's face, beginning to twist into a manic grin, and the first thing he saw as it lifted was Deva's concerned one.

"You're all right, Blake. At least you listened to me about the armoured vest."

"Avon," Blake croaked.

Deva compressed his lips. "He still managed to get three bullets into you through it, even if they didn't hit anything vital."

Blake considered pointing out that the extra weight Deva regarded as a health risk had turned out to be the reverse, but there were more important matters. "Avon..."

"Avon's in confinement with his people, the ones we've found so far, anyway."

Blake tried to sit up, winced, and fell back.

"Don't be a fool," Deva said, exasperated. "You mightn't have been badly hurt, but you lost a lot of blood. Just stay here where you're safe till we've finished the mopping up."

"Mopping up?" Had Avon gone on a rampage?

"That Arlen stray you dragged in—" Deva rubbed his arm, which Blake now saw had a field dressing on it, "—turned out to be a Federation agent. She must have had a tracer because they attacked just after you were shot, but Klyn managed to get an alarm call out."

"The Federation found us?" Blake tried to sit up again.

Deva pushed him firmly back. "It's under control. Our people here counterattacked, and Jenna turned up with her crew. It's almost all over. We don't need you for the moment."

All right then. There'd be time to figure it all out later. Blake closed his eyes and drifted off.


He was feeling considerably better when Deva came back few hours later to tell him that the base had been retaken.

"Well done, Deva." Blake sat up stiffly. "Of course, we’ll have to fall back to Decima now we've been compromised." Decima. He ran a hand through his hair, sighing.

"I've already organised that. And packed your gear." Deva gave him a critical look. "How d'you feel?"

"Like death warmed up, as..." Blake paused, frowning. " someone I know once used to say." He shrugged, irritated at the enduring gaps in his memory. "I want to talk to Avon."

"Is that wise?"

"Deva, my friend," Blake said heavily, "you think everything I do is unwise." He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. "Take me to him."


Avon was locked in one of the smaller dormitory rooms. He sat on the bare mattress of a bed, his head down and his hands dangling between his knees. He did not even look up when Deva opened the door. Blake could see dressings on an arm and one shoulder, just visible under the leather jacket thrown over it.

Tarrant was lying on another bed, looking more battered and exhausted that he had when Blake had last seen him. The only other person in the room was a blonde woman with a bandage on her head, sitting cool, self-contained, and somehow detached on a third bed. Blake had no idea who she was. Where were Cally and Vila?

"Avon," he said softly.

Avon's head came up, his face briefly alight with... hope? Relief? "Blake!" He narrowed his eyes in suspicion "I shot you."

"How do you think I survived this long on Gauda Prime? Body armour. Even so, you did a good job." Blake let his jerkin fall open to show the bandages.

Avon stared, his face white and strained. "Did you set us up?"

Blake leaned against the wall, feeling tired. "I set this up, not you." He sighed. "I found you and the others on a convict ship. I thought I could recruit more of the same..." he spread his hands, "...quality. I left clues for Orac, things only you might understand. I hoped you would come. I wanted—"

"If that was the case, your wording was somewhat ill advised," the blonde woman said coolly. "According to Vila, everyone Avon knew ended up betraying him."

Ah. Blake knew how that felt. He turned back to Avon. "And where are Vila and Cally?"

"Cally—" he looked away, his face distant and cold, "—we lost with the Liberator. I don't know where Vila is."

"In the meantime," said Tarrant from his bed, "what are you going to do with the rest of us? Keep us locked up even though we didn't do anything?"

"You did enough," said the woman, "feeding Avon's suspicions."

"Tarrant misunderstood. As did Avon." Blake held his hand up to forestall Deva's objection. "I didn't lock you up and I don't plan to."

"He tried to kill you!" said Deva, outraged. "Quite a few people are in favour of taking him out and shooting him, you know."

"He didn't kill me though. Avon gets a second chance." Blake sagged. "Not everyone does. Do you know what I'd give for one?"

Deva shook his head. "Whatever you did, Blake, it wasn't this bad." 

It was on Jevron, ravaged by floods, droughts, famine, and war, that it had happened. They'd found out who he was, the people he had thought were allies, and despite the stand the Liberator had made against the Andromedans, they'd realised what a rebel would have been doing at Star One. Blake had protested that he hadn't damaged it, that the invaders had done that, but he knew himself why he'd gone there and perhaps they'd read the guilt in his face. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, they'd said; then let him live with the consequences like they had to. A man Blake didn't even know had stopped them halfway through and taken him away to recover, half-insane from pain and guilt.

His name was Kaplan. He had shared the little food he had, then said he was going to get help, that he had contacts. And Blake had watched, one-eyed and patched like Travis, as what little remained of civilisation on Jevron collapsed, as people killed each other for food, weapons, shelter, and finally, for the meat on their bones.

So when they broke into Kaplan's basement, he was ready. He'd fired until none of them moved on the bloody floor, and it was only then that he realised that these people were well fed, that Kaplan was one of them, and what he had been shouting when Blake shot him down.

"We've come to rescue you. Avalon—"

His face wet with tears, he'd set the power-pack on one of their blasters to overload—he had to hide the evidence; the cause was all-important—and escaped just ahead of the blaze. And Servalan as it turned out. She had been a useful scapegoat for the pyre.

He still saw their faces in his dreams. He'd give anything not to have killed them. 

"Wasn't it?" he said to Deva. "Let them out. They can help with the move to Decima base if they're able."

"Decima?" Avon's voice was strained. "Was that one of the clues?"

Blake nodded wearily.

"And what is this base called?" Avon's face was as controlled as ever, but Blake could see that his hands were shaking.


Avon bowed his head, and Blake took a step forward, his hand out. He never completed the movement.

"Blake!" Jenna burst in. "We found Vila. You'd better come."

"What's wrong, Jenna?"

"They tortured him. Blake, he won't believe it's me."

"I'm not sure I do," muttered Tarrant.

"Take me to him, Jenna."

Avon stood up. "And me."

Blake nodded curtly.


Vila was in one of the lower-level offices, lying on a stretcher, his face ashen and his eyes half-closed. Blake drew in his breath with shock at the sight of his hands: swollen, misshapen, and discoloured. He heard Avon whisper something behind him. Vila's name?

The base doctor, Zhao, looked up at Blake from his side. "I've given him a painkiller that should last for a few hours."


Vila's eyes widened. "You're not real. Go 'way. You're dead, Avon shot you."

"Yes, he did, but he didn't kill me. As you can see." Blake spread his arms to show his bandages. "You're safe, Vila."

His words did not have the effect Blake intended; Vila cringed, whimpering.

"Vila! It's me."

"Tricks," Vila whispered. "You're a dream, like on Terminal. Don't care who you are, won't tell you."

Jenna frowned, puzzled. "Why would he think that? Who else would we be?"

Blake stared down at Vila with pity. "They tried to 'readjust' him more than once, and you know what they did to me." He looked at Zhao, who was about to leave. "They didn't try anything like that, did they? Tampered with his mind?"

"Oh, no. The ones who did this—" Zhao jerked his head to the corner when two men lay dead, "—were very crude. They just used what was to hand."

Blake tore his eyes away from the tools on the table and the severed ropes on the chair in front of it. "How bad is it?"

"They pretty much broke every bone in his hands." Zhao shook his head. "If they hadn't killed those two before I got here, I'm not sure I wouldn't have done it."

"His hands," said Blake, appalled, "of all things."

"He should be all right till we get to Decima if I immobilise them. He needs a better surgeon than me but Scopazzi can handle it." Zhao took Vila's left hand.

"Please," Vila begged. "No more. S'no good, won't tell. Might's well kill me."

"It's all right, Vila," said Jenna soothingly as Zhao began to bandage the hand. "He's trying to help you." She hesitantly touched his hair.

He screwed up his face and pulled away from her. "You're not real either. Liars!"

"We're both real," said Blake. "I just told Tarrant that story because I once knew a man with the same name and I didn't trust him."

Vila stared uncomprehendingly, then turned his head away. "Don't care who you pretend to be, you're not getting it. Useless bloody piece of plastic but all the same, you can kill me first."

"Orac!" said Avon, from behind Blake. "They tortured him for Orac."

Vila yanked his hand from Zhao's and tried to press himself against the wall, supporting himself on his elbows. "Get him away from me!" he shouted. "Murderer!"

Avon stiffened, his eyes dark with quickly suppressed pain. He turned to leave.

"Where the hell are you going?" Blake demanded.

"To get Orac, what else?"


Avon was back in less than five minutes with the computer. He handed it wordlessly to Blake.

"See, Vila? We have Orac, so no one's trying to hurt you or deceive you to get it."

Vila stared at Orac, then at Avon. "You gave it to them!" he said. "Bastard!"

What had happened between them? Blake shook his head and put his hand on Vila's shoulder. "It's all right now, Vila," he said helplessly, hoping it was true.


Decima Base was in the southern hemisphere, in a mountain valley where it posed as a part of the ground from above; grass and flowers grew on the roof, providing insulation as well as camouflage. This was the base proper, where those who passed Blake's tests were trained, and where any wounded recovered after treatment.

Blake found the surgeon, Scopazzi, during one of her breaks. She was sitting in a rest room off the ward with her feet up, her face tired.

"How's Vila?" Blake dropped into a chair opposite. "Have you been able to do anything for him?"

"Which one's he?" Scopazzi asked wearily.

Blake nodded towards the large glass window behind her which showed the ward where Vila lay with his bandaged hands looking like a mummy's boxing gloves. "The one who was tortured."

"Ah, the hands. Zhao says he's stable enough, though I believe they've had to keep him under sedation. It'll be a delicate operation."

"You haven't got to him yet?"

"I will. First it's the seriously-wounded whose lives depend on it, then those who aren't in immediate danger, then the rest."

"Right. Move him to the top of the second group."

Scopazzi's thick black eyebrows drew together. "Because he's your friend? I didn't think that sort of favouritism was what you—"

"Yes, he's my friend. His hands are also his livelihood."

"Ah, yes, he's the thief."

Blake caught the disapproval in her drawl and stood up. "It was Vila's hands and Vila's skill that got us into Federation bases, into Central Control, even helped find where it was," he said, keeping his voice even. "And his hands were the ones on the weapons that held the Andromedans back until the fleet came."

Scopazzi held her own up. "All right, all right, I'll move him up the list." She shrugged. "It'll be an interesting exercise anyway, and good practice for Zhao. I'll get him to assist."


Blake had made it clear to Deva that Avon would get the second chance he hadn't, so he and his crew had the run of the base.

Now that they had recovered from their wounds, they were beginning to take advantage of it. Tarrant had got to know the pilots and would be going with one of them in a supply run. Soolin spent most of her time in the room assigned to them or with a fellow Gaudan, Klyn, who reported that she had a strong analytical bent. Klyn was back at work now her ribs had healed and pointedly still wearing her repaired armoured vest even though Decima Base was considered secure. Avon seemed to be always in the background wherever Blake was, his face closed and his eyes watchful.

So when Blake went to see Vila after the operation, Avon was there, just outside the door.

Blake stopped Scopazzi on her way down the ward. "How did it go?"

"Very well. He should get 80 to 90 percent of normal function back."

Blake saw the look of horror on Vila's face. "Not good enough."

"We did our best and that's much better than he'd get anywhere else," Scopazzi said tartly. "Unfortunately he requires extensive therapy. It is ironic that in the Federation, they'd assign a medical bond slave to provide it—for someone who rated it anyway—but here I doubt you’d find anyone with the time or the inclination." She lifted a finger to stop Blake speaking. "And before you repeat the speech about how valuable his hands are, remember that ordering one of your people to do it would be counter-productive. They wouldn't know what to do and would resent having to spend hours doing something very repetitive for someone they only know as a Delta and a thief. I doubt you’d find a volunteer."

Blake flushed angrily, and Vila glared, but at Blake.

Avon watched Scopazzi walk away. "What, incidentally, is her problem?"

"She's a brilliant surgeon who objected to being assigned to work on mutoid modification." Blake sighed. "Unfortunately Vila's hands were probably the most interesting challenge she's had here. Not that I particularly want to provide her with more." He frowned. "I'd better see Deva. Perhaps he'll have some ideas about who I could ask."

"I'll do it," said Avon.

Blake looked at him in surprise.

"No!" said Vila from behind him. "Not Avon. Keep him away."

"Some sort of expiation?" Blake raised his eyebrows at Avon.

"You can think whatever you like."

"I refuse!" said Vila indignantly. "Don't I get a say?"

"Don't be stupid," said Avon, not taking his eyes from Blake's face. "You put up with it or have crippled hands."

"You're talking as if they're the only two options!"

"All right, Avon," said Blake, wondering again what had gone wrong between them.

"Orac will supply instructions on what is required." Avon nodded to Vila. "I will see you tomorrow."

"Sod off," said Vila.


Avon arrived the next morning armed with a plastisheet covered in diagrams and text. Vila had been moved to the end of the ward, ostensibly so that his therapy wouldn't annoy the other patients as much, but Avon suspected Blake's hand in it. Vila was lying quietly, looking out the window at the peaceful late spring scene.

"It's not real," he said.

"You mean the flowers? Oh, they're real. If anyone finds this place, it doubles as a private nursing home. The base proper is underground."

"Oh, it's you." Vila turned his head to give Avon a brief but resentful look. "Go away."

Vila's hands were flattened out and bound to paddles to keep the fingers straight. Avon sat down, put his instruction sheet on the bed, and took one. Vila pulled it away. Avon patiently took it back and began to unwrap it.

"Can't you take a hint?"

Avon said nothing. He removed the last layer of dressing; Vila's hand was no longer swollen and only a little discoloured. Avon couldn't even see the cuts Scopazzi must have made.

"I don't want you here."

"There isn't anyone else."

"I'd rather have no one than you."

Avon took Vila's hand in his, looked at his sheet, then gently lifted the index finger.

Vila tensed, then relaxed when it did not hurt. "Did Blake make you do this?"


"Guilt, then."

Avon continued to raise and lower the finger. "No."

"Yeah, forgot. You don't know the meaning of the word."

Avon worked in silence, his head down and his eyes only on what he was doing.

"I heard what that doctor said. It's just because you and Blake want my hands, isn't it. I'm just a broken tool you have to fix."


"Oh, come on. It's all I was ever wanted for, being a thief. And it was the same with you lot. It was 'Well done, Vila', when I got through a lock and the rest of the time it was 'Shut up, Vila, you’re a fool, Vila'. You didn't even need a thief after Blake left. I wasn't even on weapons. I really was a spare part, so don't tell me you're doing this for any reason other than you've got some use for me."

Avon had thought he'd inured himself to the pain of loss after so much of it, but when he'd seen Vila on that stretcher with his swollen battered hands and tear-stained face, his carefully-built wall had fallen and allowed it all back in. And it was surprising how much still had the ability to hurt.



Avon was working on the other hand, doggedly, gently, his face down as if he were intent on one of his gadgets. Because he was now between Vila and the window, Vila had to look at the ceiling to avoid seeing Avon. The therapy didn't hurt—in fact it was quite pleasant—but Vila didn't know how long he could stand having Avon there. It wasn't as if he could ignore him. He could still see him out of the corner of his eyes unless he turned his head completely away and he didn't want to look at the few remaining patients who seemed to include him in their dislike of Avon. Anyway it seemed this base was full of Alpha bastards at the top and crimos at the bottom, and where had mixing with either got him?

"I don't see the point of this," he said at last. "What's the best I can expect, eh? Ninety percent of normal function, and even a hundred's not good enough. If I can't be me, I'm nobody."

Avon said nothing.

"Ever wondered why I never went with Kerril? She wouldn't have wanted me on that world. She fell for a clever thief and I couldn't have been that there."

Avon began on another finger.

"Look, there's a way out for both of us, you know. I've seen where they keep the painkillers and other drugs and I could talk you through the lock. A bit too much in my drip and I'd just go to sleep."

Avon dropped Vila's hand and even though Vila wasn't looking at him, he thought that he might have shocked the careful lack of expression off his face.

"Don't be ridiculous," Avon said, and started manipulating Vila's finger again.

"Why not? If I can't be a thief, I'm not just harmless. I'm as useless as you always said." Anger suddenly welled up inside him, most of it at himself. "Worthless!"

Avon's fingers tightened on his, making Vila wince. "That is untrue."

"Oh, is it? That's what you always said. And Tarrant told me you said you only kept me around because it was useful to have a thief on board."

"Tarrant is a fool."

"Oh, he lied, did he?"

"Tarrant was told only what he needed to know."

Vila narrowed his eyes. It was surprising how good being angry felt, like being drunk. He wondered what Avon would do if goaded. It wasn't as if he had anything to lose now. "You object to the method, then? A gun's more your style, is it?"

Avon leaped to his feet, his hands clenched, and for a moment, Vila thought he'd gone too far. Death was one thing but he didn't think he could take any more pain. Avon went to the window however and stood there, breathing hard. After a few minutes, he came back to the bed and sat down again.

"I thought you wanted to live forever," he said neutrally, taking Vila's hand and beginning to pull the fingers gently back.

"I'm tired."

"You will feel differently once you're better."

"That's the point, isn’t it? I'll start to get all attached to life and then with my luck, people I don't even know will start shooting at me again."


"All right. I'll wait till I'm better."

"You couldn't." Avon looked at him, but Vila kept his eyes on the ceiling. "It's not in you."

"Wouldn't be hard," said Vila bitterly. "All I'd have to do is stick close to you." This time he couldn't help but sneak a look, and saw a brief look of pain in Avon's eyes. Ha! Got you.

Avon was silent for quite a long time. Finally he said, "I did not play chess with you because of your talent as a cracksman."

"Is that supposed to be some sort of consolation? You only played with me because Jenna was the only other one who knew how and she didn't like you. And if that was so important, why didn't you bother after... after we got to Xenon. Dorian had several sets, so don't give me that. And while we're at it, don't bother telling me I amuse you." Vila was almost shouting now so that the snotty Alpha and Beta bastards in the ward were beginning to look. "Because that stopped long ago too."

Avon said nothing for almost an hour. Then he said, almost casually, "Why didn't you tell them where we hid Orac?"

"You'd expect me to, wouldn't you? Useless, worthless—"


"Yeah, that's me."


Avon's voice was so mild, Vila gave him another sidelong look, but he had his mask on again. "Well, once I did, they'd have killed me."

"Hardly a believable motive in the light of your recent request. Besides, I've been tortured. Death is not such a bad alternative."


Ah. That could be one reason for Vila's hold on life being less than his usual firm grip. Avon remembered how seductively easy it would have been in that palace cellar, how he'd almost given in. And how much Vila had helped him throughout that ill-considered little venture.

Avon concentrated on making the recommended small repetitive movements to Vila's thumb and tried not to think about that. He had put up a wall to keep it all behind, but it wasn't as enduring as Servalan's. He stole a glance at his watch. The session was almost over. Just twenty or thirty more to go.

The silence must have got to Vila. "If you must know—" he said, and stopped, obviously unable to continue. Avon pretended he hadn't noticed and waited for Vila to compose himself. "If you must know," he said at last, "it wasn't for you or Blake or even that little plastic waste of space. It was because if I'd given in, everything I'd done since I met Blake would have meant nothing."

"Ah." Avon stopped work. Vila really did have a core of steel, and more pride than he probably realised. "Now that is hardly the act of a cracksman, a chess player, or a clown."

Vila looked startled, then suspicious.

Avon stood up. "That's it for today. It will be a longer session tomorrow."

It was a small victory that Vila did not object.


Soolin was on her bed in their room, sitting cross-legged and examining a Federation blaster which she had reduced to parts. "How was it?"

"Difficult and depressing." Avon lay down on his bed and tried to relax his aching hands.

"Poor Vila."

Avon closed his eyes. He'd been talking about himself, but yes, poor Vila. Poor Dayna too. She hadn't deserved that meaningless death which he hadn't even noticed at the time; Soolin had had to tell him about it, and about Vila avenging it. He had been in shock but to be honest, neither of them had mattered at the time.

He knew where it had all gone wrong. 

He'd lost Blake—twice, and the Liberator, and Cally. It had hurt more than Avon had thought anything would, more than Anna had (not that he'd ever had her to lose), perhaps because they'd all fallen from his grasp so quickly and easily.

And what did he have left? Just a rusted planet hopper and a crew consisting of two impetuous young people, a woman he knew nothing about, and Vila.


The last one from the beginning when everything had seemed possible. If he lost Vila... but then, he'd learned as a child that it was best to get the worst over with as fast as possible. That was one reason he'd sent Vila and Dayna to meet the Space Rats. Vila was clever and cunning when he was forced to be, and Dayna was tough: either he'd gain a stardrive or have nothing left to lose.

He'd also found something else when Plaxton died: she hadn't mattered to him so it hadn't hurt at all. What was a little numbness that hadn't been there before? Yes, this was an excellent strategy. Avon bared his teeth in a humourless grin. You couldn't lose what you didn't care about. And Vila had even helped, with his sullenness and drinking.

Cally had said to him more than once after Blake left that he'd lost his sense of purpose. Well, that was one thing he could get back. He'd see what he could do with a fast ship and an expendable crew. 

There was no point in regret. He could not change the past, and neither would he want to. It had been necessary for his survival at the time, that ... self-administered anaesthetic. But now he was going to have to address the side effects.

"Why would someone who hasn't done anything wrong hate himself?" Damn. Had he said that out loud?

"Because when bad things happen, sometimes the only way to make sense of the world is to assume it's your fault," said Soolin.

Avon turned his head to look at her.

She gazed back, cool, self-contained, any pain well hidden. "Anything else seems outrageously unfair, you see."


Avon arrived the next morning with his instruction sheet and a small bag which he put in the corner. He sat down. "Vila," he said cautiously.

Vila looked at him warily.

Avon was reminded of a very strange book he'd read as a child, something about a little prince who lived on an asteroid without atmosphere or indeed anything else; a patent fantasy. One thing he remembered though was the advice on how to tame a wild animal by sitting a little closer to it each day.

He unwrapped Vila's right hand and began work. Vila's silence gave him the chance to consider his words, and then to try to gather the courage and will to speak them. It was like when they'd tried to teach him to dive.

He had managed the requisite two lengths in the well-named freestyle, but failed diving. He had stood on the edge of the pool, shivering, and unable to commit himself to an action that would result in entering an uncomfortably cold and wet substance head-first. It did not matter how often he had mentally rehearsed it; he could never bring himself to do it.

In the end he'd simply jumped. And failed the test.

It had already been at least two hours. Might as well get it over with.

"You're not entirely useless," he said abruptly. "You did get us off Ultraworld."

"Huh. With the stupid primary school jokes I was starting Orac off on? No wonder the brain blew up."

"It was undoubtedly outside its experience, yes. You also piloted the Liberator out without hitting too much."

"And got just told to get to my own station."

"You're not the only one that's happened to." Avon said dryly. He considered his arsenal. Ah, yes. This one might elicit a wisecrack. "You rescued Tarrant."

"Not Cally though."

"No one could have."

"Didn't know that though, did I?"

"You tried."

Vila looked away.

"You managed to get Orac off the Liberator."

"Yes, and look where that got me. Little plastic bastard."

Avon decided to leave that one alone. "You rescued the crew on Mecron."

"You ordered me to."

"Only to get a circuit board." Avon regarded Vila thoughtfully. "You seem to have rather a negative view for one normally given to extravagant boasting."

"You set 'em up, I'll knock 'em down."

Avon shook his head. He looked at his bag and decided that now was not the time for the Anna business. He racked his brains for something else. "I saw you face Servalan down over Pyros."

Vila looked startled. "You never said!" He glowered. "And that's typical, isn't it? If I was such a valuable crewmember, why was it always insults, then?"

Avon had no ready answer. The insults, as Vila called them, had been an amusing game back when Blake had been on the Liberator. No one in the crew doubted their own worth then, even though it was never stated. But then no one had really meant the insults either. Not until later, by which time Tarrant and Dayna had picked up on them. Still, there was no point in dwelling on what could not be changed.

He sighed. "Why do you need someone else to tell you who you are, Vila?"

Vila's hand jerked in his. Avon kept his head down and continued working on it as if nothing had happened. There, think about that.

After a while, he stole a glance at Vila. He looked rather lost. Avon knew how he felt. His self-imposed isolation was no longer an option; they were both in terra incognita.

"Forget the painkillers," Vila said at last. "You couldn't get me a decent drink or three, could you?"

"Did that help?" Avon asked with interest.

Vila looked glum. "Only for a while."

"Then no."


Unlike the day before, Avon was still there when they brought lunch in. Vila brightened at the sight of the nurse with the trolley.

"Ah, good," she said briskly to Avon. "Since you're here, you can feed him."

Vila looked as appalled as Avon felt.

She slammed down a bowl of soup and a plate of freshly-baked bread. "There you go."

"I have no intention—" Avon began stiffly.

"You're the therapist, aren't you? Here, there's one for you too."

Avon looked at the disconcertingly orange substance. "What is that?"

"Pumpkin soup." She walked away.

Avon and Vila looked at each other. Avon dipped a spoon in the soup and held it out to Vila.

"Not on your life," said Vila, recoiling.

"What do you suggest? You can't use cutlery yet."

"I can. Tie the spoon to my wrist."

Avon raised his eyebrows, but did so. Vila bent his hand out of the way, laboriously filled the spoon, and raised it clumsily to his mouth. By twisting both his wrist and head, he managed to get most of it in his mouth. The rest ended up on his bedclothes and his face. Avon expressionlessly wiped it off with a napkin while Vila screwed up his face.

"It would be tidier if I fed you," Avon said noncommittally.


"I suppose it depends on which is the most degrading."

"For you or me?"

"The thought had crossed my mind."

Vila considered it. "This isn't as bad as being spoon-fed,"

"Unless it's by a young woman?"

"Goes without saying."

In the end, more than half the soup and most of the bread (cut up into squares by Avon) ended up inside Vila while Avon ate his own, finding that it was more palatable than it looked. He then cleaned up the mess Vila made while they both did their best to pretend they were thinking about something else when he got to Vila's face.


The remaining two hours passed in silence, but it seemed to Avon that it was an easier one. At the end, he carefully rewrapped Vila's hands, then opened the bag he had brought with him. Words alone might not work, and they were also too hard to say, but perhaps Vila would understand this.

He got out two glasses and put them on Vila's bedside stand while Vila watched avidly.

"Wine isn't recommended for patients recovering from surgery, however—" he filled the glasses with a bright green liquid and put Vila's water straw into one, "—adrenaline and soma is. I went to considerable trouble to locate some."

Vila's eyes widened.

Avon lifted his glass. "Corpse reviver," he said softly.

Something changed in Vila's face. It wasn't a smile but one could imagine it was the beginning of one.


The next day, Vila's hands had improved enough due to the passive therapy and the daily regeneration treatment for Avon to make a change.

"Today, you have to resist any movement I make to your fingers or hand."

"I thought I could lie back and let you do all the work!"

"Not any more."

Give Vila his due; he tried hard although it can't have been particularly comfortable. He pulled a variety of suffering faces but he seemed to have got over his initial depression.

"You could at least say something to take my mind off this," he grumbled after a while.

You don’t have one. That's what Avon would have automatically said once, but would it be received the right way? Perhaps not yet, not after so many real insults.

"You're about as interesting as the other stuck-up Alphas in this place."

Avon looked up to be met by hostile glares from the three remaining patients. "Some of that may be me not being exactly persona grata, but I see your point. Blake may not realise that he has a grade war brewing, and that's worrying in someone who presumably wants to demolish the whole system."

"What d'you mean?"

"As you've noticed, there is a preponderance of higher grades here, and a corresponding proportion of lower grades and local recruits at the new Horizon base and," Avon grinned humourlessly, "in general, the pointy end."

"But Blake wouldn’t—"

"Not deliberately, no. He says it's the distribution of skills. I have pointed out that retraining and education would be truly revolutionary."

"What did he say?"

"Not a lot. I hope I made him think. There is, after all, always a first time."

Vila frowned. "Why isn't Blake, well, annoyed about you shooting him?"

"I gather he did something similar once. And succeeded."

"Oh." Vila thought about that. "So that's why he's different."

"We're all different, Vila."


It was a short session that day to avoid overworking Vila's healing muscles, so Avon was finished in time to make a strategic withdrawal well before lunch.


The next day however, he stayed to make Vila use the cutlery.

"Hmm. Your fine muscle control is much improved. I think we can celebrate."

"Oh?" Vila looked hopeful.

Avon poured out two glasses of adrenaline and soma and gave Vila his, this time without a straw, then produced a chessboard from his bag. "This will be good practice."

"Where'd you get that?"

"From the mess. When I said where I was taking it, several people evinced surprise that a Delta could play."


"Black or white?"


Avon began to set up the black pieces and let Vila do the others. "Where did you learn?"

"From an Alpha on CF1. Manager of an accounting firm who got creative."

Vila would have been all of 14 then. "How long did it take you to beat him?"

"Couple of weeks."

Avon shook his head. "What would you have been with an education?"

"Overworked and bored?"

Avon considered his own past. "Yes. You're probably right."

Vila looked at the white queen. "Bit boring, these pieces. Don't know what they always have to look the same."

Avon shrugged. "Tradition. Get on with it."


Vila's regeneration treatment was completed the following day and he was discharged. "We've gone as far as we can," said Scopazzi. "The rest is exercise and practice."

Vila's first challenge was to get dressed. He glared at the shirt and trousers Avon had brought for him. "Buttons?"

"It's a challenge. Consider yourself lucky I didn't include a belt."

Vila's best efforts were not good enough and Avon had to do his shirt up for him while he screwed his face and eyes up just as he had when Avon had wiped his face.

"You've been assigned the empty bed in our room."

"I suppose they're keeping all the troublemakers together."

"Something like that."


The only one in the room was Soolin, who was lying on her bed reading a bookpad. She lowered her book and smiled. "Hello, Vila. It's good that you're up and about again."

"Well, I hope so," said Vila, not very optimistically. He looked around the room. It was sparsely furnished: just the beds: a small wooden table with two chairs; and one wardrobe. His bed was the closest to Avon's. He wouldn't mind betting Tarrant and Soolin had deliberately chosen the ones furthest away. He examined the two spare outfits on his bed. "More buttons and tabs and zips," he complained. "Why couldn't you find some elasticized stuff?"

"As I said."

Vila sat down. "Soolin'll help me get dressed, won't you, Soolin?"

Soolin looked from one to the other. "All right."

"She will not," said Avon.

"Why not?"

"Because she'll still be dressing and undressing you six months from now."

Vila sighed dreamily at the thought, and behind Avon, Soolin smiled faintly.

"However if I do it, it will be an excellent incentive for you to learn how."

"Hmph." Vila slumped. "Where's Tarrant, anyway?"

"On a supply run."

"Sounds a bit pedestrian for the Fleet's finest. Right, what do you do for fun around here?"

"Requisition a bookpad and download something to read," said Soolin, picking hers up again.

"Normally I'd be delighted, but a week in bed—"

"—is too much indolence even for you?" Avon grinned. "Come on, get up. Blake has asked me to build a prototype sensor shield. You will assist me."

"Do I get a choice?"

"Not until I'm finished and you're fully functional, whichever comes last, no."

"Oh, right. Tell me again I'm not a tool," Vila muttered as he followed Avon out.


"Number eight probe." Avon held his hand out and waited patiently while Vila carefully picked it up and gave to him.

"When did you find time to build that?"

"I didn't. I'm adapting a ship's field generator." Avon looked up briefly. "From Scorpio. Tarrant fetched it."

"Oh. That should be quick, then."

"Not necessarily. I'm putting a camouflage circuit in."

"Like that Sopron thingy?"

"In a way. Instead of reflecting back a larger version of the enemy however, it will simply mimic its background."

"So a ship would just disappear into the starfield?"

"Something like that, yes."

"So how does that make it different from that cloaking thingy you made for the Liberator?"

"The Federation learned to look for areas of nothingness on their sensors. This won't provide any. And since you haven't dropped a tool in two days, you can do some wiring to my instructions."

"Oh, thanks. You do well, you just get rewarded with more work."

"That's the way it goes."

"And how does it go?" Blake asked, coming in.

"Steadily." Avon barely paused or looked up.

Blake loomed over them. "It's good to see you up and about, Vila."

"Thanks. I think." Vila looked at him warily. "I suppose you're planning all sorts of ways of making it not so good."

Blake laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "I've missed you."

"Really? I hope people go on doing that."

"Ah, Vila. You haven't changed."

Vila frowned. Yes, I have. We all have. "Blake? You've got a good surgeon here, even if she's a bit sharp. Um, so to speak. So why haven't you had that eye fixed?"

Blake froze.

"Out of the mouths of Deltas," said Avon. "I would assume it has something to do with whatever it was that you regret."

Blake turned to go.

"Punishing yourself is not productive, nor much of a memorial to whomever it was you—"

"That's enough, Avon," Blake growled.

"And while we're at it, you do realise you have a class war building up here?"

"The Horizon people will be moving out to a new base soon."

"Ah, so you support the Federation's policy of separate development? And I thought you were a revolutionary."

"I think I'll just slip out for a moment," said Vila.

"You will stay." Avon turned back to Blake. "Vila is a case in point. He'd make a good security officer and it might alter the perception of Deltas here."

"Vila is an exception."

"He doesn't have to be."

"Don't mind me," Vila muttered.

Neither Blake nor Avon noticed; they were already at it hammer and tongs, whatever tongs were.

"Do I have a choice here? Waits for an answer. Were you expecting one, Vila? Of course not, Vila. Bloody typical." Vila sat back to watch, obscurely reassured that they'd both finally stopped pussy-footing around each other.


Vila was free in the afternoons—free, hah!—so one day he went outside, after first checking with Soolin's friend Klyn that it was safe.

It wasn't till you got out of a dome, ship, or building that you realised there was so much background noise inside. Out here it was almost completely quiet except for an occasional birdcall. And a bit nippy.

The base was in a mountain valley, all bright green grass, wildflowers, and pale clear sky overhead. It was surrounded by tall tree-clad hills which made Vila feel as if he were at the bottom of a bowl. He looked back at the base, or at least the bit of it above ground. He could just see the windows under the grassy eaves, but once he'd gone uphill a little, the base just looked like a mound. Clever. And Klyn said the stuff on the roof even provided insulation.

Vila had never minded being outside—as long as the weather wasn't too weathery, anyway. It had been his own special bolthole back on Earth; funny that it never occurred to the various bullies and police who pursued him never to look outside.

He walked as far as the first trees and a little way into them, the pine needles soft under his feet. A dead branch crunched, and he bent to pick it up. It crumbled in his hand, but it reminded him of when he'd carved little presents for his mother. She'd told him she preferred gifts not to be stolen—everyone had their funny little ways—so he'd always made her something, and even though wood was a luxury item in the domes, it was plentiful enough outside. He'd learned the hard way though that you had to dry it out first.

Hmm. He hadn't done any carving since she died, but maybe that would be good practice for his fingers. And it wasn't something someone else was making him do, either.


It wasn't hard to find seasoned wood. There was a broken chair like the ones in their quarters, leaning up against the wall of the workroom, waiting to be fixed. It was perfect.

The tools Avon used were locked in a drawer in the workroom. It was a very simple lock, designed to keep the general public out rather than a thief, but Vila waited another day before he felt confident enough to attempt it. It was merely a mechanical system of wards and he only took two seconds to open it, but that was several times longer than he should have. He selected three low-temperature laser cutters.

He discarded his first two attempts on pieces of the broken chair leg, but it was good practice and by the third, he was feeling more confident about getting his old skill back.


The first test of Avon's sensor deception device was on two flyers outside. He and Vila installed it in one, then Avon climbed aboard while Vila got into the cockpit of the other.

"All right," said Avon over the comms. "I've turned it on."

"You're still there," said Vila, looking through his windscreen. "I mean, I can still see you."

"Of course you can, you idiot, unless you've got Tarial cells in your head and I doubt that from the sheer lack of logic. Look at the sensors."

"Oh, right. Yeah, according to them, there's nothing there."


"Um... nope, I'm getting the same readings as the rest of the valley. The only bit that looks different is the base."


"So we're finished then," Vila said hopefully.

"Not until it's been tested on the blockade and we install it in all the shuttles and ships used here."

Vila sighed. "I might've known."


Tarrant was the one who volunteered to take a ship through the blockade. Typical; he had a worrying lack of fear, however Vila wouldn't mind betting none of the other pilots trusted Avon or his gadget.

It worked.

"Well done," said Blake, "This base hasn't been much use since they blockaded the planet."

"Worth a party?" Vila asked. Never knew your luck.

Blake frowned.

"It might release a lot of tension," said Deva.


Sprawled on his bed, Vila watched as Tarrant checked himself in the mirror. "You're looking extra sharp tonight."

"Why, thank you, Vila." Tarrant flashed a smile at his reflection and patted his curls into place. "Right, I'll see you lot later." He strode to the door, where Avon was installing a lock. "What are you doing, Avon?"

"I don't like the idea of anyone being able to walk in," said Avon. "Register your palm print on the pad. You too, Soolin."

"Who's Tarrant trying to impress?" asked Vila after Tarrant had left.

Soolin put her hand on the pad and smirked. "Jenna."

"She'll eat him alive! What about Blake?"

"If Blake is interested," Avon said, screwing the lock casing on, "he's left it too late."

"It'll never work," said Vila. "They'd need separate ships for a start."

"They're going to Califeron together tomorrow morning," Soolin said as she went out.

"Separate shifts then." Vila almost felt tempted to join them, just to see the fireworks if one told the other what to do. He stood up and rubbed his hands together. "Party time."

"I suppose you're planning to get drunk." Avon stood, dusting his knees down.

"I'm not planning anything."

"Good." Avon went out, closing the door behind him.

Vila stared. "Hey, wait for me." He tried to open the door. It was locked. He slapped his hand on the pad but of course it wasn't recognised. Bastard. Hah, he'd missed something: he'd left his tools behind.

Vila was so angry, he was operating at white heat, but when he opened the door, Avon was leaning against the opposite wall, smiling just like in the old days.

"Three seconds from start to finish," said Avon, pushing himself off the wall. "Not bad at all. I always suspected you could have got through that one on the London."

Vila grinned back. "Not with a hulking great guard beside it. I try to avoid locks with those."

Avon shook his head, amused. "Let's go."


The main office was full of people, but it didn't take long to see that they were all in groups.

Tarrant was over with the pilots, waving his arms around, probably describing his daredevil and invisible path through the blockade. Vila wouldn't mind betting he was making whooshing noises. Jenna was looking both amused and at his bottom. Hmm, Tarrant might have a chance there.

Soolin was with Klyn and Deva, probably talking about communications or data analysis or something equally dry. Thinking of which:

"First things first. I think I'll get some food and drinks in."

There was a table right by the door, covered with bottles, glasses, and plates of ordinary food made up into party dishes: little squares of bread with cheese and a pickle; wooden skewers with pieces of fruit, cheese, vegetables; spicy meatballs with dipping sauce. Vila filled a plate with a vegetarian selection, nibbling as he went, and was just reaching for a glass when a nearby conversation got his attention.

"All right, Avon's clever, I grant you that, but I wouldn't turn my back on him."

Vila turned his slightly so he wouldn't be recognised, and picked up a bottle of wine.

"I don't know why Blake trusts him."

Vila froze with the bottle over his glass.

"Favouritism. He's one of the original so-called seven."

Vila put the bottle down, unused, and sneaked a look at where he'd left Avon. Avon was standing absolutely still, listening. Oh, shit.

"And the only other one is a thief and a Delta."

"Wonder why Avon spent so much time with him?"

"Blake ordered him to?"

"No, Deva said he volunteered. I can't imagine why a man who probably never finished school would matter to someone like that."

Vila looked at Avon again. His face was white with fury.

"It's obvious. They're both criminals. Restal's skills are useful to him."

Avon spoke in a dangerously quiet voice. "I won't comment on your manners because I never bother with them myself, but talking about people without first checking whether they are present shows a lamentable lack of intelligence, forethought, and grasp of basic tactics. As for Vila Restal—"

I don’t want to hear this. Vila put the two closest unopened bottles under his arm, grabbed his plate, and nipped out the door.


"As for Vila Restal," Avon said, "he has more wit, intelligence, and adaptability then you three combined. He is also a comrade in arms, a concept you part-time play-revolutionaries obviously don't yet grasp."

He'd seen Vila disappear with two bottles. He was probably off to get drunk. Avon briefly considered following him, but if Vila didn't want to be found, he wouldn't be. Giving Blake a much larger piece of his mind than last time struck him as much more stimulating.


Vila had a good idea why Avon had told Tarrant he despised Vila and he didn't want to hear it again. Need to know, indeed. No, it was because he was ashamed of liking someone like Vila. It was only a matter of time, if people talked like that around him, till Avon decided that Vila wasn't worth it, like after they lost the Liberator. Maybe it was time to go, before that happened again. Jenna and Tarrant were off to Califeron tomorrow; no time like the present, and Avon had as good as said he was fully recovered.

He ended up in the work room. He put the plate and bottles down, and looked at them. Getting blind drunk only worked for a short time and if he was leaving tomorrow... He pushed the bottles away. He needed to think.

He owed Avon. Avon had given him back his hands, and something more. His self-respect, such as it was? The old Avon? The friendship he'd thought was gone? Yes, all those, but he didn't want to see any of them disappear again.

Vila got up and went over to where he kept his wood carving project, behind some of the broken items waiting for repair. He only had three more pieces to finish. There'd be plenty of time.


When Avon got back to their room, Vila wasn't there. He frowned, but where could he go? He shrugged. He'd find him in the morning.


But when he woke, he could see by the dimmed light that Vila's bed hadn't been slept in. He got up, unable to sleep any longer, and turned the light on full to dress.

"What're you doing?" Soolin sat up, rubbing her eyes.

"Vila isn't here. Have you seen him?"

"Not since last night." Soolin frowned. "Perhaps he got lucky."

She didn't appear to like the thought, but Avon didn't have time to think about that now. "I doubt that very much," he said shortly, pulling on his tunic.

He didn't feel like breakfast or combing the base, so he went to the work room.

On the table were a plate containing crumbs and a few empty skewers, and the two bottles. Both, one of red wine, and the other of the gut rot the Gaudans dignified with the name of whisky, were still unopened. Avon raised his eyebrows. The only other items on the table were some tools and a flat wooden box with a note on it with two words: "Avon. Thanks."

Avon pulled it towards himself and opened it. In the top was a wooden board divided into squares of light and dark wood: Gaudan pine either left natural, or stained a rich brown. A chessboard. Avon removed it and found the pieces packed neatly in foam underneath, their feet to the centre.

The 'black' pieces faced him: squat little three-dimensional caricatures. Avon reached out to touch the queen. Servalan, with Travis as her king. Avon smiled; they were beautifully made. The bishops—or advisors—either side were Bercol and Rontane, two of the more visible faces of Federation politics. The knights were a generic Terra Nostra drug-pusher and a large woman who looked vaguely familiar. Oh yes, Alta Morag. She must have been the prosecutor in Vila's case too. Clever touch, making the most active arms of the Federation drugs and perverted law. The rooks were—Avon sat back, startled—Egrorian and Pinder. The portrayal of Egrorian was quite cruel: sly, avaricious, lecherous. Pinder, holding a broken arm, was pinched and resentful.

Why those two? Avon sat back. It wasn't an attack on him; the set was a gift. No, it was Vila's way of saying that he'd got over the events on that shuttle, that these were the ones ultimately responsible, that it was all right to acknowledge what had happened. Something lifted from Avon.

He leaned over the box again. The pawns were helmeted storm troopers, each one slightly different.

Pawns. Vila hadn't made himself a pawn, had he?

Avon rotated the box to look at the 'white' pieces, and let his breath out. No, they were... squat little figures in fur-lined parkas, like Inuit. Who were they? Themselves in their cold planet gear? No, the faces were stylised, almost blank. Avalon's people on that hellish planet they'd rescued her from perhaps?

The king was of course Blake, but a younger, more sure Blake with both his eyes (physically if not mentally, at least) and those ridiculous wide sleeves he'd favoured. Jenna was the queen, standing proud with her chin up and hair flung back. The bishops were Gan and Cally. Oh, yes, good choices, the most moral of them all. He picked up the little Cally and cradled her in his hands, allowing himself regret for a few moments.

The knights were Tarrant—of course!—and Soolin, he supposed. Avon frowned. Vila hadn't quite got her face. He picked the piece up and examined it more closely. Ah. The hair was pulled smoothly over to one side and gathered over one ear, and the face was half Soolin's features, coolly ironic, and Dayna's, fierce and proud, so that from one side it was Soolin, and from the other, Dayna. Very clever solution to fitting nine people into eight pieces. That meant that the rooks were him and Vila.

Indeed they were, standing in little stylised turrets. Why rooks? Because they were the furthest from the centre? Simply because they didn't fit elsewhere? Suddenly Avon imagined Vila sitting opposite him, his eyes twinkling.

"What's it rhyme with, Avon?"

Avon smiled, then sat very still. Why would Vila pass up a chance to see his reaction?

He jumped up and strode to the comms and punched in the number for Blake's quarters.

"What the hell is it, Avon?" Blake said sleepily. "Do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Yes. Eight thirty. When do Tarrant and Jenna leave?"

"Dammit, Avon... Nine, I think. Why—"

Avon closed the connection and headed for the door. He stopped, then turned back and put the chess board and note in the box on top of the figures, closed it, and tucked it under his arm.


Vila sat on a crate beside the shuttle, waiting for the loading to be finished. He was taking nothing with him but a few tools that he had made into picks in his spare time.

When Vila said he was leaving with them, Tarrant had just said, "All right, Vila," but Jenna had asked why.

"I want a fresh start."

She looked thoughtful. "Fair enough. Does Blake know?"


She hesitated, then nodded. "Well, it's your decision."

Yes, it was, and probably his first real one for years. Not that he wasn't already regretting it a bit. It was scary striking out on his own. Sure, he'd almost always worked alone back on Earth, but then he'd go down the pub where they knew he was good for a drink and a joke. Somewhere he belonged.

Vila slumped, his elbows on his knees and his hands dangling between. He looked down at them. They'd always make him remember good old Avon, and that was how he wanted to remember him. Yes, best to leave before all that changed.


He looked up. It was Avon, running towards him.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Well, Califeron first. It's a hub so I've got a bit of choice from there."

"Hmph." Avon stopped in front of him, looking angry. "And you didn't think to ask if anyone else wished to go?"

"You?" Vila blinked up at him.

"I might possibly consider it."


Avon hesitated.

You can't say it, can you?

"You play good chess."

That's the best you'll get, Vila.

"And this place could do with some irreverence," Avon added.

Vila gave him a sly, sidelong look. "You and me on a shuttle together? Even though I've lost weight?"

Avon smiled faintly. "As long as no one has hidden any neutronium on it, why not?"

Blake, arriving out of breath and in time to catch this last exchange, nodded to himself as if he'd understood something.

Not by half, you haven't, Vila thought. He shook his head at Avon. "You wouldn't like it."

"How do you know? What are your plans?"

"Find somewhere safe where I can do the occasional job and maybe get to know people."

"How would that differ from staying here? Blake and I were—"

"I was going to offer you the post of security officer," Blake interrupted. He was unshaven and still panting slightly, and Vila could see Soolin was there too, beside him. She was frowning.

"I'd get bored."

Blake pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yes, that's what Avon said. So we talked about it and came up with the idea of a small team who could work from here or be sent out to tackle problems elsewhere. Avalon has a security leak and could do with some help."

"Oh, yes? Like who?"

"Experts in computers, locks, and data analysis."

"Avon and me and... Soolin?" Vila looked at Soolin.

Soolin nodded and just stared back at him, waiting. As if his opinion mattered.

They were all waiting. For him.

He had a choice.

"Besides," Avon held the chess set out, "it would seem a pity to break up the set."

Vila smiled. "All right. I'm not promising anything, mind, but I'll give it a go."

The end