"Jenna's back?" Vila asked again in astonishment as Avon stepped off the teleport platform and unclasped his bracelet.
Avon said expressionlessly, "You're repeating yourself."
"I know but…Jenna's back?" Vila came around the controls and eyed him from head to toe, looking for telltale signs of damage. "Is she…still alive?"
"If you mean did I kill her, the answer is no." Avon put the bracelet back on the tray and headed out.
Vila followed, still reeling from the shock of the news that Jenna, their once and never-again crewmate, had been on the same planet with Avon and both had survived the encounter. "Couldn't get to a gun fast enough or Argus stopped you?"
"Neither. We've agreed to work together."
Vila did a double take. "You did? Are you crazy? She wanted to kill you the last time."
"I remember." Avon continued walking and Vila ran to catch up.
"Don’t tell me she's had a change of heart."
Avon turned and a smile lit up his eyes. "Don't worry. She still wants to kill me."
"That's not funny, Avon."
"I never said it was."
"But you're smiling."
Avon continued walking. "It's an expression of irony."
"I don't care if it's irony, agony or acrimony. You shouldn't be working with her."
"That makes no rational sense," said Avon as he paused at the door to his lab.
"Well, neither does working with a woman who wants to kill you. I have a bad feeling about this, Avon."
"It would be a surprise if you didn't. Now if you'll excuse me." He opened the door and hesitated before going inside. "Jenna has a vested interest in keeping me alive."
"She does?" Vila asked doubtfully.
"She needs me to find the antidote to the Shade poison."
"You mean, you're safe as long as you're useful to her?"
"Exactly." Avon entered and the automated sensors gradually turned on the light.
"Well, I still don't like it."
"You don't have to." He sat down at the computer terminal to check on the simulation program he had developed to test Shade antidotes. "Argus is arranging for a security detail while I'm down on the planet."
"I suppose that's alright."
"Now that we have your approval, I have work to do." He began fine-tuning the program.
Vila had a troubled expression on his face. "I wish it didn't have to be like this. We used to be friends." Avon appeared to be too absorbed to be listening. "I know you don't want to admit it but we went through a lot together. We cared about each other. We need each other. It shouldn't be like this."
Avon's fingers slowed and then stopped, poised over the keys. He said in a quiet voice, "I killed Blake. She will never let go of her need for vengeance. I…," his throat tightened, "don't blame her."
Vila stared at him in surprise, for once at a loss for words. The lab was quiet except for the faint humming of machines that neither noticed. Vila said hesitantly, "You've…never wanted to talk about it before."
"I still don't," said Avon as he began pressing on the keys again. As quickly as his mood for sharing something personal had come, it had almost passed.
Vila said, "Gauda Prime was a mistake."
"A fatal one."
"You can't keep blaming yourself, Avon."
"Then you can blame me too. I was just as responsible as you were. I never tried to stop you. None of us did. I just stood there. At least you tried to find out if he'd betrayed us. Not that it did much good. Why wouldn't he answer your questions, Avon?" That was something Vila had never understood. "Was he even listening? I know he used to do that to you but it was stupid to do it then. Didn’t he see that? What was wrong with him? Was he insane? When Tarrant said that Blake betrayed us…I don't know what I was thinking. I was afraid, Avon. I couldn't believe that he would be a bounty hunter. But…"
Avon had stopped again. There was a heavy pain that he had never been able to rid himself of. Not since the day he stood over Blake's body in shock at what he had done. Some regrets could be minimized; the killing of a friend, no matter how mistaken, was not one of those that his rational mind could.
Blake's friendship had always been a burden, but that day, it had become an indictment. His voice was subdued. "You thought he betrayed us."
Like Avon, Vila had avoided thinking about the painful events of that day but now that he had started talking about it, all of the unanswered questions and thoughts came tumbling out. "He wouldn't answer your questions, Avon. He used to do that when he knew we wouldn't like what he was planning. He wouldn't tell you that he didn't betray us. We didn't go there to hurt anyone, we were looking for Blake, but we saw his people try to kill Tarrant and the others at the base treated us like the enemy."
The memories came one after each other, like a torrent of visions, each vividly clear, burned into Vila's memory.
It was almost as if it was happening again. The fear and danger as they ran through the base looking for Blake. "When the bounty hunter recognized you and tried to shoot you, and you took his rifle, we thought we had to get to Blake and get out quick. I mean with a place full of bounty hunters after our heads, it wasn't safe for us anymore. But you had to find Blake, you wouldn't give up."
Then the shock and pain at the image of the man who was almost a stranger, telling them that he was behind their icy reception. "Then when we saw him..." Vila was filled with anguish. "...and he said that it was his base and he'd arranged it all. And that he'd been waiting for us. But those people at the base were trying to kill us. What kind of arranging was that? What was he doing?"
Vila remembered when they found Tarrant. They had all gathered around him, glad to see that he was still alive. And for the first time, even Avon had admitted it. They were a small group banded together against those who would harm them at the base. It was as Dorian had said of them. They cared about each other, they belonged to each other, and they stood together against all who would harm them. What had Dorian called them? They were a gestalt. And in the end, they had stood together against Blake when they thought he had sold them.
Vila remembered how hurt Avon sounded when he thought that Blake had betrayed them. The look of pain on his face had surprised him. Even after the people at the base had tried to kill them and Tarrant told them that Blake had sold them, Avon had not wanted to believe. Not until Blake told them that he was behind it all.
"And he brought that woman with him. She had her gun on us the whole time. On you. Why didn't he tell her to put her gun away? We all did and you pointed your gun away from him. Why did he keep treating us like the enemy? And why wouldn't he tell us that he hadn't sold us?"
Avon breathed through clenched teeth as his stomach churned. Blake was always an arrogant fool. As was I. His lungs strained to keep up with the increased stress. The memories of that day were at the corner of his consciousness, threatening to flood his mind. He couldn't let them overwhelm him.
Avon stuck a hand into his pocket and brought out one of the medicinal patches that Cally had provided. He slapped it to the side of his neck as Vila watched anxiously.
Avon's voice became quieter as the drugs spread through his body, taking away the pain and feelings of panic. Vila could barely hear him. "It doesn't matter, Vila. In the end, I was the one who killed him."
"Then I did too. I let you shoot him and didn't try to stop you. I think…I'm not sure what I was thinking…" Vila didn't want to look too carefully at what he had been thinking that day. The man he had liked and admired but had increasingly lost faith in, had admitted to betraying them all. At least that was what it sounded like and how could he not believe it? Blake had done it to them before.
And the final shocks that had sealed their fates. Vila suddenly had a crazy idea. "Avon…do you think…have you ever thought that it might not have been Blake? Maybe an android? Or a clone?"
Avon grimaced at another sharp stab of pain that seemed to escape the drugs. "It was Blake. I know it was him."
"But how do we know? We never saw the body after, did we? He looked broken up, not like the Blake we knew."
Avon knew that even with the medicinal patch, he would be hearing Cally's voice in his head soon if he didn't end this conversation. "Stop, Vila."
"None of this speculation changes the facts." None of it took away the guilt.
Vila had a bad feeling. "Avon…you're not going to let Jenna kill you, are you?"
"I'm not the sacrificial type, or have you forgotten."
Vila had a very bad feeling. Avon had deliberate blinders about himself sometimes.
Jenna went to visit Captain Atton on his ship. The sleek, well-dressed smuggler and his crew had been running Shade and some other clandestine supplies for her. It was a courtesy to visit him on his ship rather than telling him to meet her at her office. Not to mention, she didn't want prying ears to hear this conversation.
Atton leaned back in his chair, the master of his domain who felt comfortable in his own environment. "You've come up considerably in the world, Jen. You don't need us anymore."
"That's where you're wrong." Jenna was just as relaxed. "There has been a reversal of fortunes lately. I don't think it's safe for any of us to stay much longer."
Atton steepled his fingers together. "That's the first I've heard of this."
"I have inside information."
"Of course you do." Atton's eyes were shrewd. Jenna had the impression that he was measuring her carefully. "You've been working closely with them. You have your own operation."
"Then you know that I would know if there was danger."
Atton said with sardonic approval, "You're preparing a way out for yourself."
"You could say that."
"And you want me to take you back onboard?"
"Not exactly. I want to hire your crew to do something for me. And for safe transport back to Earth Sector."
Atton studied her over his fingers. "With the money that you've directed our way with this Shade deal, I can retire."
Jenna wondered what the shrewd smuggler had in mind. "As you said, I'm responsible for making you richer than you've ever dreamed of but I'm not saying that you owe me."
"I certainly hope not."
There was a sly smile on her face. "But for old time's sake? And because you enjoy the challenge?"
"You were never with us long enough to develop any 'old times'."
She persisted, "And the challenge?"
"You've forgotten the most important incentive."
Jenna laughed. Atton had always been greedy and an opportunist. "Of course, you'll be paid double…"
"That's outrageous!" She had expected Atton to ask for more, she would have been disappointed if he hadn't, but this was excessive, even for him.
"We're rich now, remember? You have to make it worth our while. And the challenge has to be interesting enough." Atton smiled. "Besides, five times is nothing to you. You're even richer than we are. Now what is this challenge?"
Kirsten looked sceptically at the three round balls of different coloured something that Corinne had placed in front of her. Cold mist rose from its unappetizing surface. "What is this?"
"I thought I'd introduce you to my favourite food on the ship. It comes from Vila's planet. This is ice cream," Corinne said enthusiastically.
"They freeze cream and make it into food? That doesn't sound appetizing." She eyed it suspiciously and poked at it with a spoon.
"That's what I thought at first but it's delicious. Try it."
"I don't know." She didn't want to disappoint her companion but the idea of iced cream was turning her stomach. "Maybe not right now."
Corinne put her spoon into the bowl and scratched out a sliver of the brownish coloured one. "Just one taste?" She held it out towards her encouragingly.
Kirsten sighed. They might be fellow Chandarans but Corinne's bright disposition and enthusiasm made her wince at times. She opened her mouth reluctantly and took a tentative taste, hoping she would be able to keep it down.
It was…Oooh. The sharp taste of cold chocolate, smooth and creamy, it was melting on her tongue like velvet. "This is…" She grasped for words that would describe this…it wasn't even a taste, it was a sensation. "This is wonderful!" Her face had the kind of smile that accompanied the reaching of an indescribable climax. Maybe not that kind of climax, she thought with a private grin, but close to it.
Corinne was smiling. "I told you, you'd like it."
Kirsten scooped out a large spoonful and said offhandedly, "It's alright." Then she chuckled. "Yes, you were right." She put the glorious new dessert into her mouth and let it melt slowly.
"Wait 'til you try the light green one with the bits in it. That's mint chocolate."
"I think I like this ship already. At least the food dispensers."
"Vila's already tried everything on the menu. He said it's much better than his old ship."
As if on cue, Vila came into the dining area and headed straight towards them. "I think I just heard my name. Nothing good, I hope," he said with a grin.
Corinne cleared a place for him at the table. "What's your name again?"
Vila rolled his eyes and sighed with theatrical resignation, "I knew it. They never remember me in the morning. Not unless I…" He swiftly whispered something in Corinne's ear and then pulled back and looked at her with an expectant grin on his lips.
Corinne's mouth formed a perfect circle. "Oh." Her face turned a light shade of red and she suddenly had difficulty forming coherent words. "Well…I…you can do that?"
Vila said, "I'm sure. At least, fairly sure. I had Argus and Reya test it out. They didn't seem to complain. He had a big smile on his face the next day."
"Hmm. It does sound interesting."
Kirsten had finished half her bowl already. "What sounds interesting?"
Vila had a momentarily naughty idea but quashed it immediately with a cough. He seemed to be doing that a lot these days. Being around Corinne was definitely doing something to his imagination. Well, more than just his imagination. "Nothing. It needs two people. And…" He winked at Corinne. "…we already have two."
Before she realized what she was saying, Kirsten said, "I have two."
Already? thought Vila, wondering which of the lucky soldiers had her attention.
Kirsten said quickly, "I can have two." She missed her wandering psychostrategist and wondered when he would return.
Vila suddenly realized he didn't want to explain the intimate details of the mechanics to her. It was fine telling a man, that was different. "Let me know who it is when you want to try it. I…can't tell you."
"You told Corinne."
Corinne rescued him. "He'd die of embarrassment if he told you."
Kirsten looked at him with appraising eyes and said teasingly, "You don't look the type, Vila."
Corinne said with complete sincerity, "He can be many types. He's very gifted."
Kirsten nearly giggled at the horrified look on Vila's face. "You're right, he does embarrass easily."
Vila started in on a choking fit.
Corinne looked at him with concern, "Are you alright? Do you need some water?"
Vila waved his hand to reassure her. "N-no. I'll be fine."
"You don't look fine."
There was a pained look on Vila's face. "Can we talk about something else? Please?"