“This is miserable,” Vila said, holding his arms above his head. A steady, hard rain was beating down on both him and Avon. The water ran right off Avon’s waterproof red leather, but Vila’s yellow jumper was drenched. For some reason Avon refused to explain, they had teleported down outside the complex they were headed for—right into a downpour.
“It's called rain,” Avon said. “I would expect even a Delta to have been taught about it.”
“Oh, shut up,” Vila said. “Just get on with it. The sooner we get inside, the sooner I can crack this stupid security door of yours and the sooner I can go curl up in my nice dry cabin again.”
“And here I thought the troglodytes were extinct.”
Vila glared at the back of Avon’s head. “You like your solitude much more than I do.”
“That is true. You have an annoying habit of being always underfoot. Why the sudden desire for seclusion?”
This was getting a bit close to home. “Wouldn’t expect you to know what day it is.”
“On the contrary,” Avon replied, eyes still fixed on the streets, watching for the patrol.
“Oh?” Vila ignored the little leap of hope in his heart. Avon didn’t even have to say anything nice, so long as he knew what day it was. Vila didn’t need a celebration; it would be enough just to have any acknowledgement at all. Not even Gan had said anything.
“Oh, right.” Vila scowled. “Very funny.” Accusingly, he said, “You know, this whole expedition would be a lot more bearable if we still had our surface clothes.” Avon’s back went rigid, and Vila couldn’t help a vicious little grin.
“It is unreasonable to assume that surface clothes, which are meant to be worn outside in inclement weather, would require dry cleaning.”
“No one else ever had any problems reading the washing instructions.”
“The coast is clear.” Avon was suddenly serious. “Come on.”
“Don’t go changing the subject on me now!” Vila called. Avon had already darted across the street and vanished down a side alley, leaving Vila alone. He looked both ways and hurried after him. “And don’t leave me!”
The alley, when he arrived, was empty.
“Avon?” Vila froze. “Avon?” he called, a little louder. He crept along a short distance, fighting down panic. “Avon, where are you?” There was no answer, and he felt himself starting to despair. “This isn’t funny, Avon. Where the hell are you?”
He was about to contact Blake on his communicator when a door further along the alley opened and Avon’s head popped out. “Vila, you fool!” he whispered. “Hurry up, before you’re seen!”
Relief flooded through him and instead of protesting, Vila spanned the distance between them and hurried through the door. “Don’t run off on me like that!”
Inside the building it was cold and Vila had soon dripped a puddle on the floor. He rubbed his hands together and hoped he would warm up before they got to the security door Avon wanted cracked. The last thing he needed on top of all this bad luck was to screw up opening a lock.
“Well, now.” Avon was staring at him distastefully. “We can’t very well have you traipsing about looking like that.”
And why not? Not that Vila was going to complain if it meant getting out of these cloying, wet clothes. “You were the one who insisted on teleporting down outside the complex.”
Avon flashed a smile. “I did, didn’t I?” The sod really was delighting in Vila’s uncomfortable predicament. Typical, really, for the Alpha git, but did it have to be today, of all days? If Vila hadn’t known better, he’d suspect Avon chose the rainy complex on purpose. “Perhaps in the future you’ll learn to dress more reasonably.”
“What, you mean like a half-baked crustacean?” Vila gestured at Avon’s red leather as he attempted to wring out his sleeve.
Either the insult didn’t faze Avon, or he was ignoring Vila. “I suppose we will have to find something for you to change into first.”
Vila’s protest died on his lip as Avon moved on, leading the way down several corridors and stocking bays like he knew exactly where he was headed. When he came to a pair of double doors, he pushed them open and stepped through into a large, brightly lit open area lined with storefronts. It appeared they were in some sort of shopping district, which was hardly the sort of facility Vila expected them to be breaking into.
“Just what are we trying to steal here, anyway?”
“The upper levels manage the scheduling for much of the Federation’s commerce,” Avon said. “If we can get our hands on the distribution center locations, we may be able to cause a considerable disruption.”
It was an explanation, but Vila felt it didn’t really add up. “And they keep these . . . distribution schedules in a safe on the top floor of a shopping complex instead of in a computer somewhere?”
Avon ignored him.
As there were no uniforms lying around to be easily pilfered, Avon made a beeline for the nearest store selling clothing. That was all very well, but smuggling out dry clothes without being noticed by the attendant behind the desk wasn’t going to be very easy, even for a thief of Vila’s considerable talents. By the time he caught up, Avon was busy not very stealthily rifling through the garments on display.
“Look,” Vila said, “I don’t need you to explain everything to me. I just like to know what I’m risking my life for. Why didn’t we just teleport to the upper level?”
“It was too dangerous.”
That was a pathetic answer, even for Avon, and Vila just glared at him. He was ignored again, so Vila circled a few of the clothing racks, wincing at the trail of water he left behind him.
“Put this on,” Avon said, following him. He pressed what appeared to be a suit made of brown suede into Vila’s arms.
“Avon, we can’t afford any of this stuff,” Vila said, clutching the items. He eyed a lovely cream jacket on another rack. In a whisper, he leaned in and added, “And it’ll be hard even for me to steal from a place like this. Clothing just isn’t my style.”
“Shut up and go and put it on. I will worry about payment.”
Unable to protest Avon’s tone, Vila obeyed. At least Avon wasn’t ignoring that.
The dressing room had a hand drier in it, which Vila used with relief. The brown suit came with a darker brown polo-neck jumper which he pulled on first. The jacket was little baggy, but it still looked quite nice and felt deliciously warm compared to his soggy clothes. He dried out his socks with the drier, put his shoes back on, and swapped his tools from his wet clothing to his new dry ones.
He dumped his wet clothes in a recycler and ran his fingers through his hair. All in all, it was quite an improvement, really. A suit made entirely of suede wasn’t cheap, but if Avon was footing the bill, he wasn’t about to complain.
When he met up with Avon again, the stupid sod didn’t even bother to acknowledge his return, though Avon had managed to dry out and comb his own hair. “I’m not paying you back for this,” Vila said. “Seeing as how it is your fault.”
“We will write it off as a work related expense,” Avon said, not taking the bait. He stalked out of the garment store.
Vila gave a sheepish smile to the store attendant before following Avon. “So how do we get to this security door of yours?”
“There should be a lift,” Avon said, scanning. He nodded when he spied it and headed over. “I will have to override the codes to gain access to the upper floors. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds.”
When it arrived, the lift was empty. They stepped in and Avon promptly got to work. The override wasn’t anything Vila couldn’t have done himself, but if Avon wanted to do the work for him, who was he to stop him? Now that he was warm and dry, things were a great deal more pleasant—and he was getting a nice new suit out of the deal, too. Maybe today wouldn’t be so bad after all.
On the top floor, Avon drew his gun and darted into the corridor first. When he signaled that the coast was clear, Vila followed his lead. Somehow Avon maneuvered them through several identical looking areas, and Vila marveled at his ability to know where they were headed. It was rather impressive, though he’d never say so.
At length, they came to a large, beveled glass wall with a door set into it. “I'll take care of the receptionist,” Avon said in a low whisper. “According to the floor plan, the security door will be straight in the back, on the right. I intend for us to be back on the ground level before the alarm is sounded.”
Vila tightened his grip on his own weapon and nodded his readiness.
Avon braced himself, kicked the door open and they charged in. “Put your hands on your head!” he ordered. When the receptionist did, Avon shot him.
“Avon!” That was downright unnecessary.
“He should be out for more than an hour,” Avon said, shoving the man to the floor to get at the computer. “Now move it!”
“What about guards?”
Avon checked the computer monitor. “There aren’t any. They must think the door is security enough. So, get to it!”
Vila shot a lingering look at the poor receptionist, then hurried past, heading for the back right of the room. No matter what Avon said, he was keeping a wary eye out for guards and other personnel.
At first, he didn’t see the safe. The door was nearly seamless, integrated perfectly into the wall it was set in. If he hadn’t known it was there, even his trained eye would have skimmed right over it. When Vila realized what he was looking at, his heart gave a little leap. “Avon!” he loudly whispered, putting his gun away. “Avon, you should see this!” It was a bit staggering, the beauty of it. “More like a work of art than a lock.”
“Come on, Vila!” Avon’s voice was far from patient.
“It’s an honor!” Vila replied. Taking on an incredible door like this was a job he was more than happy to do! It was unlike any security door he had ever seen before. It took him a full twenty seconds to even find the input device and when he finally did, chills ran down his neck at the ingenuity of the design. He began a series of scans to determine the relay sequence required, and set to work overriding it without alerting the system to what he was doing.
It was tricky. It was deliciously tricky, and Vila had to back out and start over more than once. His heart was pounding, but with exhilaration. The seconds ticked away as he grew more and more familiar with the mechanics and electronics of the lock. He could lose himself for hours figuring out all the components of this magnificent door.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have hours and Avon had caught up with him and was now practically breathing down his neck as he disengaged the final safeties. Vila’s intuition served him well, and a minute and twenty-six seconds later, he heard the resounding click of success.
The door gave a pleasing hiss as it swung open on an automatic hinge. Vila stepped back, beaming at it in admiration.
As soon as there was a big enough gap, Avon darted inside, leaving Vila to his reverence.
The unexpected curse made Vila blink out of his reverie. “What’s wrong?” Vila called, cautiously peering into the room Avon had entered.
“Damn, damn!” Avon was sorting through data crystals on the shelves, searching in vain for something that apparently wasn’t there. “It’s not here!”
“I don’t care.” Even the job going bust wasn’t going to dampen the high cracking that door had given Vila.
Avon’s icy glare didn’t even faze him. “What?”
“I said, ‘I don’t care.’ Opening that lock was more than worth it. The room could be empty for all I care.”
“You’re a fool,” Avon said, sounding pleased with the insult.
“And you’re a pompous git, but I don’t keep reminding you of it, now do I?” Vila gestured to the contents of the room. “Come on, Avon. There’s got to be something of value in there. You don’t put a security door like that on a room guarding homemade vidshows. Let’s just take something and go.”
“It’s probably a diversion,” Avon said, exiting the secure room and waving Vila to follow him. “A red herring. We think there must be something of value behind that door because it is so impenetrable.”
“Impenetrable. I like that.”
Avon gave him a hard look, but continued. “Our attention is focused there, while they’ve hidden the actual distribution center locations in another, much more secret place.”
Vila shrugged. “So where’s that?”
Avon’s expression fell. “I don’t know.”
“I thought you said this was going to take six hours!” Vila shut the door and reengaged the lock. Now that he was over his lock picking high, the rest of the job was just not adding up.
“I had calculated a significantly larger welcoming reception,” Avon said. “And rather imagined the door would take you longer.”
“It nearly took two minutes!” Vila cried, affronted. “That’s practically a lifetime in my field.”
Avon seemed to be mulling things over. “Well, we can’t wait around here. We’ll go back to ground level for a while. If the alarms haven’t been tripped, I will find a computer terminal and try to access the mainframe. Perhaps I can contact Orac and can utilize its help.”
“Should we let Blake know?”
“No!” Avon said sharply. Then, a bit more calmly, he said, “No. Blake doesn’t need to know about this. Not unless it takes longer than six hours.”
Vila eyed him suspiciously, and then shrugged. Vila wasn’t going to force Avon’s hand, but he’d call Blake over Orac to help them out, any day. “What about him?” He gestured to the unconscious receptionist once they started on their way out.
Avon stared down at him with obvious disdain. “That might pose a problem.”
“So might that,” Vila said, gesturing up to a security camera. Its recording light was blinking red. “You really didn’t think this one all the way through, did you? Not like you.”
“There were rather a lot of parameters to match. I admit I was a bit rushed. “
“Then you can coordinate the next one,” Avon said. He left the receptionist where he was and typed something on the computer. In a few seconds, the recording light on the camera went off. “That should buy us some time.” He drew his gun, darted back into the corridor and hit the button for the lift. “They will undoubtedly expect us to leave the way we came. We’ll lose them in the lower levels.”
Vila’s eyebrows shot up as they stepped into the lift together. “You’re going underground? Willingly?” Avon gave him a sharp look, and Vila decided to drop the subject. For now.
“They may not activate the alarms,” Avon said. “Once they review the contents of the safe and see that nothing has been stolen, they will most likely assume we have left. Broadcasting that their top security door has been breached so easily is probably not something they will want to publicize. I should still be able to gain access to the mainframe, even from the lower levels.”
“You realize that schedule might not even been housed in this complex.”
“Very probably,” Avon said reluctantly.
“Maybe we should contact Blake now.”
Avon glared at him again, but Vila just smiled. Avon was up to something, and that was always a fun time to poke at him.
They exited the lift on the ground level and had a tense time dodging obvious guards patrolling the shopping complex. Avon found a stairwell entrance to the lower levels and overrode the security lock to gain access in a matter of seconds. It sparked messily, but did the job. It was almost impressive.
“How far down are we going?” Vila asked as they started on the stairs.
“Five levels.” As if rethinking his quick reply, Avon said, “That should suffice. We don’t want to stand out too much.”
Vila watched Avon as he took the stairs two at time, his heels ringing loudly in the stairwell. “Avon, you stand out anywhere in that get up.”
Upon reaching a landing, Avon turned back and gave him what looked like a genuine smile. “Thank you.” He started down the next set of stairs.
Amused, Vila shook his head and continued following.
Stepping out into the fifth underground level was a bit like coming home. It wasn’t Earth; it wasn’t even a Dome, but the feelings were the same: the musky stench of recycled air, the distant hum of generators, the flickering, unreliable amber lights. He took a deep breath and found it remarkably calming.
The door of the stairwell deposited them in a corridor which emptied into the lower level version of the ground floor shopping district. All the rundown stores made Vila feel right at home, but Avon looked distinctly out of place. “You sure about this?” Vila asked.
“Yes. We will wait there awhile, to see if they sound any alarms,” Avon said. He was pointing to one of the nearest buildings, seemingly at random. That it was a homey looking pub Avon had selected did not escape Vila’s notice.
Before Vila could make a comment, Avon started toward it, leaving Vila to stare after him speculatively. Waiting out an alarm in a pub? It was too good to be true. He laughed at what he was considering—that any of this could be intentional—and shook his head dismissively.
Avon had already settled into a ragged looking booth by the time Vila arrived.
“You’ve got to let me order a drink, Avon,” Vila said, sliding into the seat across from him. “You can’t take me into a pub like this and not let me have a drink.” The venomous glare Avon shot him pushed all thoughts this was premeditated right out of Vila’s mind.
“If you must,” he said, disgusted.
Vila perked up. “Thanks!”
“What’ll it be, boys?” the barmaid asked when she arrived.
Avon looked at her, startled.
“Two pints, please,” Vila said. He smiled with delight at her, watched her eye sweep over Avon’s red leather in amusement, shrug and move off to fill their order. When they were alone again, he took great pleasure in explaining. “Barmaid. Only you poncy Alphas have self-dispensing drink systems.”
“I didn’t want a drink.”
“In that case, I’ll have yours, too,” Vila said, still smiling.
Avon momentarily bared his teeth. “Finding a computer terminal down here may be more difficult than I had anticipated.”
“Take your time,” Vila said. “I’m in no hurry.” The drinks arrived promptly, and Vila took a long pull of one. He sighed with delight. It was just like home brew. “Sure you don’t want one? It’s great.”
“I shudder to think what it’s made from, down here.”
“Suit yourself.” Vila downed half of the first pint before settling back against his seat, relaxed. “Reminds me of home, this place. It’s nice.”
“And here I thought sloths lived in trees.”
Vila just grinned. That was hardly an insult: sloths were cute and energy efficient. Avon probably didn’t think he even knew what one was. It was surprising technical-minded Avon did. “I wish Gan were here. I bet he’d love this.”
“One of you is bad enough.”
Across the room, someone sat down at an ancient looking piano and began playing a bawdy pub song. Several patrons joined in singing. Avon straightened in his seat, a bewildered look on his face. “What the hell is that?”
“Eh? An old drinking song. Honestly, what did you Alphas do for fun?”
“I realize that,” Avon said. “But what’s making that noise?”
Vila stared at him. “The piano?” He gestured to the bar, where a large mirror was set up. In the reflection, the piano could be seen, although it was hidden from their viewpoint by the tables. It was a bit odd, seeing a piano five levels down, but as they said, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Vila had seen far stranger things down below, on Earth.
Avon stared for several seconds. “I’ve read about them, but I never imagined the sound was so horrific.”
It was a bit out of tune, but Vila’s mind was elsewhere. “You mean Alphas don’t even have pianos?” Vila was agog.
“This kind of . . . music is for Deltas and other such primitives. I was never very fond of it myself. Especially not the sort with . . . words.”
“Lyrics,” Vila said. “You know, Avon. Every time we talk, you make me glad I was born a Delta.”
“Yes, well. I’m sure the low intelligence helps.”
Vila ignored the jab by finishing off his first pint and starting in on the second. “It’s no wonder they drug your lot to the gills,” Vila said. “Otherwise, everyone’d be too depressed to go to work. I’ve seen your levels. No pictures on the stark white walls, nothing worth watching on the vidshows, no music, hardly anything suitable to read. Big fancy cages are still cages, you know.”
“You act as if they do not also drug the majority of the Deltas,” Avon said. “And I would rather be a little unimaginative than bleed to death in whatever passes for a surgical unit down here.”
“Hey, nothing’s perfect,” Vila said. “I’d sure as hell like better medical service for the Delta grades. Still, if I have to die, I’d rather it were as me than as some Federation drugged zombie.”
“I think I’ve waited long enough,” Avon said, getting to his feet. “If they’re going to pull an alarm, they will have done so already. I’ll see if I can locate a computer terminal, so we can get out of this cesspool.”
“Take your time. I’ll wait here!”
“I suppose you might as well get something to eat, while you’re at it,” Avon said. He fished a few credits out of his belt pouch and laid them on the table. “Have Orac teleport you out if there’s any trouble.”
Vila pocketed the credits, and then looked up at him. “Orac, still? And just why not Blake? He does know we’re down here, doesn’t he?”
Avon stiffened slightly. Vila thought he looked momentarily panicked. “Of course. I will deal with Blake myself, later. I would rather he not learn we may be returning empty handed from you.”
Vila shrugged. Avon was a terrible liar, but that was a reasonable enough explanation. “Well, it’ll be your funeral.”
Avon glared at him for a few more seconds, then turned and stalked off.
When he was gone, the barmaid sauntered back over. “Your friend didn’t like his drink?”
“Oh, don’t mind Avon. He wouldn’t know how to have fun if it came up and danced in his lap.” Vila sighed. Avon was impossible at times, but at least he was company. “He’ll be back, though. Just went to make a call. How about another one of these, my lovely?” He smiled, holding up his glass. “And maybe a sandwich or two? You make cheese toasties?”
By the time Avon returned, Vila had eaten his fill and downed another two pints. He had also acquired some new friends and was leaning against the piano, singing along cheerfully with several considerably inebriated patrons.
Avon looked for him at their previous booth, grimacing when he didn’t see Vila.
“Over here, Avon!” Vila called, gesturing him over. The song ended and he made his way over, draping an arm around the visibly disquieted Avon. He wasn’t drunk by any means, but Avon didn’t need to know that. It would be fun to rattle him a bit. “Good ol’ Ave. You came back. That’s always nice. How’d it go?”
Avon stared at him, pulled his lips back as if to growl, and then seemed to think better of it. “We may as well not have even gone on this fruitless venture,” Avon said. His shoulders dropped and he didn’t sound as angry about that fact as Vila had expected. “They sounded the alarms on the upper level anyway. Furthermore, every access terminal down here appears to have been rewired by toddlers. None of them are even worthy of the name computer.”
“It’s not all bad, Avon,” Vila said happily, guiding them to the bar. “I’m happy, after all.”
Avon looked him over. “And that is supposed to make it worthwhile?” He shook his head. “You’re like a pig in filth.” He turned on his bar stool to glare at the countertop.
Vila leaned back, resting his elbows on the counter and looked up. He could see Avon brooding, reflected in the mirror overhead. “Maybe so. Still, can’t complain.” He smiled. Today had been wonderful, and as hard as it was to believe, he was pretty sure it hadn’t all been accidental. “Save for the rain, this has been like one long, unexpected present to me.” He laughed. “Hey, even the rain got me this nice new suit.” He stroked the soft suede thoughtfully, before looking back up at the mirror. Avon’s face was cold and unreadable, but Vila’s heart was warm. “It’s my birthday, you know.”
“How ironic.” Avon’s face still revealed nothing.
“Thirty-two,” Vila said.
“I didn’t realize you could count that high.”
If that was how Avon wanted it, Vila could play along. “The universe went through a lot to organize this day for me. Don’t you ruin it.” It was hard not to smile. He was feeling indescribably light and happy.
Leaning back, Vila pretended to watch the patrons at the piano, but he really kept his eye on the overhead mirror. After a few seconds, his vigilance paid off— when Avon thought he wasn’t being watched he gave into a completely satisfied smile.
Unable to help himself, Vila matched it with one of his own.