There didn’t seem to be any general danger but Argus had been very insistent that he drop what he was doing and come immediately. He hadn’t explained why. Vila grumbled again.
When he arrived at the flight deck, everyone was already there, those Argus called the command crew. Avon was leaning against Cally’s flight chair as they conversed together. Argus and Reya were arranging items on the table. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned towards Vila as he came down the steps.
Vila looked around in confusion. There was a feast laid out. It looked like real food, not the stuff that came from the dispensers. If this was an unannounced party, it was the kind of interruption that he wouldn’t mind at all.
Vila asked cheerfully, “What’s going on? Are we having a party? What's the occasion?"
Avon walked towards him and said, “A birthday."
Vila asked, "Whose birthday is it?"
Avon replied, "Yours."
Vila’s jaw dropped open in surprise. “Mine?”
Avon said, “Yes. We're somewhat late but the sentiment is genuine. Happy Birthday, Vila.”
Vila remembered that it had been his birthday a week ago. He’d almost forgotten. He hadn’t had anyone to celebrate with in such a long time that he usually let it pass; until it had become a day just like any other day. On a ship it was even easier. The artificial days and nights were so monotonously the same that unless you made a real effort, even the days of the Federation standard week were hard to distinguish. Everything tended to run according to the duty schedules.
Vila was still flabbergasted, “I don’t know what to say.” Everyone gathered around the table where the food had been laid. The aromas were enticing.
Vila could barely contain himself, it all looked so delicious and it had all been prepared for him.
Reya said, “I had my brother’s kitchens prepare it especially for you. The food is all natural. None of it is synthesized.”
“This is amazing! I’ve never had a feast full of real food before!” Vila was beside himself with joy and without warning, hugged her.
Reya was startled but smiled and hugged him back. “You’re welcome. The idea for the celebration was Avon’s. He’s the one who planned it.”
Vila turned in surprise to Avon, “This was your idea?”
Avon almost seemed to look embarrassed. He said, “Sometimes actions and words are more effective when they’re combined.”
Vila smiled and as he was in a hugging mood, he hugged Avon. “Yes, they are. Thank you, Avon!”
For a moment, Avon looked embarrassed at the unfamiliar gesture from someone other than Cally, but he relaxed and a slow, almost shy smile spread across his face. “You’re welcome.” It was such a strange and unfamiliar look on Avon's face that they all stared at him, making him feel even more uncomfortable.
Argus said, “We’ve all prepared something to give you, Vila.”
“Presents!” exclaimed Vila as Argus handed him a package.
With almost trembling fingers, Vila carefully removed the wrapping. Inside was a dark brown satchel. When he undid the clasp and opened it up, it spread out to reveal an assortment of tools, each neatly in its own compartment.
Argus explained, “I had one of the engineers from Athol find this for me. It’s a kit like yours but much more compact and there are some special tools that I understand are normally very hard to obtain.”
Vila pulled out several of the instruments and studied them closely. “With these I can break into anything! I bet…” His eyes were wide with the possibilities. There was one special tool he was certain would be very useful with the new locking mechanism he had been studying earlier. “I can’t wait to use this! Thank you!”
“I’ll try to find something suitably challenging for you to play with on our next mission,” said Argus with a grin.
Next was Reya's turn. She picked up a long, black metal tube from the couch and gave it to him. “Happy Birthday, Vila.”
Vila took it eagerly and removed the lid from one end. He shook out several rolled up pieces of flexible but strong paper-like material. Vila’s breath caught in his throat as he unrolled them to reveal several drawings of the children they had rescued. Each was lovingly rendered in soft pastel colours. One scene was of him performing magic tricks for the children. Vila was stunned. He blinked back tears, not wanting to them to fall on the precious drawings.
“Thank you so much!” This time Vila wrapped his arms around Reya, and kissed her on the cheek. “You’re not scary at all,” he said as he let go of her.
“Not today,” agreed Reya. They both smiled.
It appeared to be Avon’s turn as they all turned their heads towards him.
Avon said, “I don’t have a package for you.”
Vila tried to not sound disappointed. “You’ve already done a lot arranging this birthday for me, Avon. Thank you.”
Avon said, “My present is something that couldn't be wrapped. I have to show it to you.”
They were all intrigued as Avon went to his flight station and entered some commands. He said, “Watch the main view screen.”
They all turned to look at it. On the screen appeared an official looking display.
Federation Central Registration Bureau
User Access Code and Encrypted Data Stream required.
Enter Access Code: __________
“This will only take a few moments.” Avon began working on the panel in front of him. Before anyone could ask what Avon was doing, he had already gained access to the system. Screen after screen of library and archive listings appeared.
They all looked at each other with puzzled expressions on their faces. Even though it did not show on his face, Cally could sense that Avon was excited and happy about what he was doing.
They all reacted in surprise when Vila’s face appeared on the screen. A much younger Vila. “Hey, that’s me!” He unconsciously ran his fingers through his own much thinner hair. “That’s my Federation file. What are you doing with my file?” He asked nervously.
“Don’t worry,” said Avon reassuringly. The screen view changed from the picture to another screen.
Name: Restal, Vila
Place of Birth: Earth Sector, Central Dome West
Privilege Grade: Alpha
Vila stared hard at the screen and then he rubbed his eyes. They all seemed to have the same need but the screen still read the same.
Argus asked, “Vila, have you been an Alpha in disguise all along and didn’t tell the rest of us?”
Vila said in bewilderment, “No.”
At the same time, Avon said, “Yes.” They all stared at him.
Vila asked, “Avon, did you do this?”
Avon looked self-conscious at the attention being directed at him. “Yes. The Federation Grading System is an obsolete method of classification that fails to recognize the true value of the people it tries to categorize. I took the liberty of making a correction to your details. If you’re agreed, this will become part of your permanent record.”
Vila said, “It’s not that the Grade is that important to me. But since you’ve gone to all that trouble…”
"You wouldn't want to disappoint me? That's very thoughtful of you," said Avon with an amused smile.
"That's me. Thoughtful is my middle name," said Vila.
"That doesn't appear to be on your permanent record. Would you like me to add it?" asked Avon, putting his fingers on the controls in front of him.
"Don't you dare!" said Vila with mock warning.
Everyone laughed. They were all relaxed and enjoying this time together.
After Avon concluded what he needed to do, the screen returned to the star field.
Cally spoke up and said, "My gift is also something that couldn't be wrapped. But neither is it something that you can see."
Vila wondered what it could possibly be.
* Can you hear me, Vila? * Cally's voice spoke in his mind.
Vila responded in surprise, it was as if she was talking right next to his ear. "Yes, I can hear you."
Cally said, "Good. When I talk to Avon like this, we discovered that the children could follow my connection to him and talk to him too, even over long distances. With their combined powers, they are capable of a much greater range than even the most powerful Auronar. We are at the outer limits of their current reach but they can still communicate with us. That is my gift to you."
"That's wonderful, Cally! Thank you!" Vila gave her a great hug. Tears were threatening to escape again. As Cally hugged him back, there was an expression of fondness on her face.
Argus said, "Often we get so busy with our lives and agendas that we forget to appreciate the people around us."
Vila let go of Cally and turned to listen.
Argus continued, "You're an important member of this team, Vila. You make a valuable contribution with your skills and you have a common sense and perspective that the rest of us don't. You're quick witted and you ease the tensions with your gift of laughter. You make this a more complete team. But beyond that, you are also a friend. And as a friend, I would like to extend our best wishes." He leaned down and took a glass of clear golden liquid from the table; the others did the same.
They all followed Argus as he lifted his glass to offer a toast. "To Vila, a valued friend and team mate. May you live to see your dreams realized and to be able to enjoy them."
After the celebration was over, all of the food had been eaten and drinks imbibed, Cally and Vila retired to his room. Vila took the sketches Reya had given to him and unrolled them onto the table.
Cally said, "I only have to contact the children and give them a direction to your mind. They will be able to do the rest themselves."
Vila asked with surprise, "You don't have to be here?"
"No. The ability to do this lies with the children. I only help them get a location fix on your mind. Are you ready?"
Vila nodded. He was both excited and nervous.
Cally said, "Then sit down and relax." They both sat next to each other.
* Can you hear me, Vila? *
"Yes. Loud and clear. Wait a minute; I know they can talk to me with their psi abilities. You've done that before, but will I be able to talk to them?"
Cally smiled, "Yes. That is an ability the children have that I don't. They can pick up thoughts from your mind."
Vila asked with alarm," You mean, they can read minds?" He was really looking forward to being able to communicate with the children but the thought they might be able to know all of his thoughts was disturbing.
Cally said reassuringly, "So far, they do not seem to be able to. They are only able to read surface thoughts. They cannot go deeper."
Vila said nervously, "So far?"
Cally had started exploring the breadth of the children's powers when she was working with them on Kaarn. What she found had constantly amazed her. "There is no knowing how far their abilities will grow as they mature."
Vila said, "I'm glad we rescued them. We couldn't leave them to the aliens."
"I'm going to contact the children now." Cally closed her eyes and concentrated.
* Brina, * Cally projected her thoughts with as much force as she was capable of.
It didn't take long for an answering response, the children were already waiting.
* Auntie Cally! * the young voice was excited and full of joy. * Is Uncle Vila there? * Cally could 'hear' intermittent chatter from the other children.
Cally responded, * Yes. He's here. Do you remember what I said before? *
Brina said, * Yes, Auntie Cally. We won't forget. Uncle Vila is like Uncle Avon, we will not scare him. *
* You're good children. * Cally touched Vila's hand and projected to him. * Vila, the children are here. If you wish to speak to them, just think the words consciously in your mind. You can verbalize the words if that will help you. *
Vila's eyes took on a faraway look as he tried to remember the children's faces. He said tentatively, "Children?"
* Happy Birthday Uncle Vila! We're so glad to hear you! We miss you so much! *
Trying not to disturb Vila's time with the children, Cally got up silently and headed to the door. Before exiting, she turned to look at Vila, to make certain that things were going smoothly before she left. She smiled as he picked up one of the sketches and looked at it lovingly as he continued speaking to the far away children. He seemed to need to verbalize his words. She suspected it was a human thing, communication needed to be tangible for them.
Cally smiled softly to herself. She was glad that Avon lived more in his head than most Earth people. Mental communication seemed to come naturally to him.
Seeing that everything was more than fine, Cally left quietly.
Without giving any warning, Avon used his override command to open Sester's door. It slid open to reveal Sester rubbing a towel through his damp hair. Sester's eyes widened slightly in surprise at seeing Avon and then he smiled. "You know, one of these days you're going to do that and I might not be dressed."
Avon's lips curled in an unpleasant smile, "If you don't like the circumstances of your stay on this ship, you could always leave."
There was still a friendly smile on Sester's face as he dropped the towel on the table and sat down. "One of these days, you will reach the limits of what I'm willing to accept from you."
Avon sneered sarcastically. "Is that meant to be a threat?"
"Just a friendly piece of information," said Sester.
Avon's tone became deadly cold. "I doubt I will reach your limit before you reach mine."
The psychostrategist's casual affability was in sharp contrast to Avon's barely disguised hostility. Without any indication of concern, Sester said, "Now that does sound like a threat."
Avon stared daggers at his nemesis, the man who had tortured him without mercy. He was not going to be able to rest until this man and the woman whom he served were dead. At times when Avon stared into Sester's ever friendly face, he had an involuntary shiver of fear. This man was always most dangerous when he was being pleasant. Avon hated that he had this reaction; he could not afford any weakness when facing Sester.
Avon said, "I like to be clear. I would hate for you to have any doubts."
They watched each other carefully, two wary opponents looking for an opening to press their advantage.
"How thoughtful of you," said Sester. "Why are you here, Avon? I don't think my arm has recovered from the little lesson you gave me the last time you were here so I would appreciate if we keep the pain to a minimum."
Avon said with controlled hostility, "I will give you the same consideration you gave to me."
At Avon's words, Sester had a brief flash of guilt and an unbidden image came to his mind; Avon moaning in agony in the isolation chamber, pushed beyond the point of exhaustion because Sester would not let him rest.
Sester said with resignation, "Do what you came here to do, Avon." Unconsciously he touched the tracer bracelet on his wrist.
Avon said angrily, "Do you think that accepting torture from me will absolve you of any guilt in what you and Servalan did to me?"
Sester sighed. "Like you, I'm a realist. I know nothing will. But I know that it will make you feel better, temporarily."
Avon spat out an angry, "Don't try to manipulate me, Sester."
"That was not my intention," said Sester.
"You expect me to believe that?" Avon asked cynically.
"It happens to be the truth."
"Truth to you is just a piece in a game. You use it when you think it will produce the effect you want," said Avon.
Sester said, "Normally what you say is true. I don't deny it. Except when I feel that I owe you the truth."
Avon said challengingly, "Then tell me what Servalan's plans are."
Sester paused and then he burst out laughing. "Not that kind of truth. I was referring to a more personal honesty. Now who is trying to manipulate whom here?"
Avon took the small control unit for the tracer bracelet from his pocket. Sester asked, "Are you going to try to torture me for the information?"
"It is tempting," said Avon, holding the unit while a menacing smile spread across his face, one that did not touch his eyes. "But Servalan might consider it a breaking of our agreement."
Sester said half jokingly, "Yes, the President does prefer to do that type of thing herself."
Avon glowered at the reminder. He knew only too well the kinds of things Servalan liked to do personally. Avon demanded, "Leave the Commander alone."
"Ah. That's why you're here." Sester was puzzled. He was almost certain that Avon and Argus had been behind Reya's request to keep the information about the children and the Aurons secret. He asked mischievously, "Which Commander?"
It was most likely that Avon wanted to introduce some doubt about what had occurred. They wanted to keep their unwanted guest off-balance. Sester almost smiled, this kind of tactic didn't work against a psychostrategist, not when he knew all of the players involved. It was a game of cat and mouse, with each one vying to be the cat.
Avon lifted the control unit up and said, "Guess."
Sester said, "Of course. Are all of our conversations going to be like this?"
Sester laughed again. "I have always appreciated your honesty, Avon."
For the first time since Avon entered the cabin, Sester became serious, "I also have a piece of honesty for you. You cannot get rid of me that easily, Avon. Neither one of us has a choice on whether I stay or not."
"We shall see," said Avon. He shoved the small control unit back into his pocket and left.
As Avon walked back to his own cabin, he stopped and extended a hand out towards the wall for support. He felt drained and his whole body was tight with tension.
Neither one of us has a choice on whether I stay or not.
Avon's hand curled into a fist and he hit the wall in anger and frustration. He refused to feel helpless again. He leaned against the wall and tried to relax. Can't let Cally know. He didn't want her to worry about him, she was already worried enough.
At least one thing had been achieved; the stage had been set for Vila's work.