Although Avon had not been counting, it took him over five years to find Vila.
That included the two years he spent as a Federation prisoner on Gauda Prime, but it still added up to more time apart than they had ever spent together. After two years, the rebellion overthrew the Federation occupation on Gauda Prime, and Avon had drifted aimlessly. He had spent a restless year with the rebellion, seen by them as both hero and a demon in turn. He had taken shelter and safety from them, rebuilding what the Federation had taken from him, and then he had set out on his own.
It didn’t take much research to find out what had happened to his crew after he killed Blake. For the two years he had spent in the Federation detention center, he had assumed them all dead. It was three years later that he found out that Vila had somehow survived. That one hit him worse than the others. Vila had been there with him, at the beginning. He had been one of Blake’s original seven. If Soolin or Tarrant or Dayna had lived he would have smiled with the knowledge, and let it go. But Vila was different. Even though it was not in his nature, he realized now he had debts to pay to Vila, apologies to make, wrongs to right.
That gave him a purpose.
It wasn’t a prison cell or maximum security prison Vila was being kept in, though. There would be no daring rescue or sneaky escape. Vila’s trail led him right back to Earth. In fact, to the Delta grade levels of London Dome. The realization had made Avon laugh for the first time in years.
It hadn’t been easy to smuggle himself back to Earth. Though the Federation was still being attacked by resistance fighters on all sides, Earth remained an impregnable fortress; the seat of the Federation’s power. Without the ease of teleportation, Avon had to go in the hard way. He landed in New Cairo and worked his way north.
It took him three weeks from arriving on Earth to find the sector Vila was in. It was nondescript and plain, moderately run down but livable, just like most Delta areas. There were Delta slums and ghettos, but Vila lived in a quiet little flat in a quiet little complex in what was probably considered a nice part of town. For two weeks Avon watched him come and go, learning his routine.
Vila wasn’t a prisoner, not in the traditional sense. He was a dutiful, gainfully employed citizen. He woke at the same time every morning, got dressed, had breakfast. He was out the door on the hour and at work within twenty minutes. He spent his day mindlessly operating a machine that pressed datacube storage cases, checking them for faults. He took breaks at four hour intervals, ate the same lunch in the employee cafeteria every day, and clocked out every afternoon. He smiled the same way each evening when his little flat came into view and each night, his bedroom light turned off at the same time.
Despite everything he had been through, Vila had been successfully reconditioned by the Federation into another happy, mindless drone and released back into the wild. After those two weeks of observation, Avon chose his moment to intervene. Vila had been broken and something had to be done.
It was a fifteen minute commute from Vila’s work to his flat, and a public transport train was used to speed up the process. At the end of the work shift, it was a crowded train and very public; the perfect place for them to meet. As Vila boarded the same car every evening at the same time, it was easy for Avon to be on the train before him, waiting. To press the issue, Avon sat in the seat Vila usually took.
The action was such an ingrained part of daily routine for Vila, that he almost sat on Avon before he realized the seat was occupied. “Oh, sorry ‘bout that,” he said. “Almost didn’t see you there.”
“Vila,” Avon said, his voice soft and calm, though he felt the tension catching in his throat.
He was rewarded with a polite, disinterested smile. “Do I know you, then?”
Avon clenched his teeth tightly at the non-reaction, not having realized how difficult this would be; how much he had missed that voice. “Yes,” he managed.
“Think I’d remember a face like that,” Vila said. He leaned against one of the posts in the car as the train began moving. “Know I’d remember a nose like that.”
“Vila, it’s me,” Avon said in a hard whisper. “Avon.”
“Think I’d remember a name like that, too,” Vila said with a grin. “Some kind of joke, is it? Avon.” He laughed. “Sounds like an Alpha name, you ask me.”
In a flash, Avon was on his feet, one hand gripping Vila’s forearm to prevent him from pulling away. “Your name is Vila Restal,” Avon practically growled. “You were a member of Roj Blake’s resistance group on the Liberator. Remember, Vila. You must remember!”
“Hey!” Vila said in alarm, his eyebrows coming to angry points. He pulled back, jerking his arm out of Avon’s grip. “That isn’t funny!”
“And I’m not joking,” Avon countered. “I don’t know how, but they’ve conditioned you. Put you in one of their retraining facilities and erased who you were.” Vila had always said he had been able to resist manipulation like that from the Federation, but it seemed that after Gauda Prime his luck and skill at resisting had run out. “You have to remember, Vila. We haven’t much time.”
“Much time?” Vila shook his head. “What’re you talking about?”
Drawing closer to Vila again, Avon explained. “I’ve got a ship outside the city, waiting to take us away. From there we can rendezvous with a space hopper that will take us to some people who can help. They’ve got doctors who can nearly reverse the conditioning process. But we haven’t got time—we have to get off on this next stop.”
Shaking his head, Vila said, “Why’re you doing this to me? I’d say it was some kind of joke, but this is sick, even for the deranged. You ought to have your head examined, you should.”
“Vila,” Avon hissed. “Vila, it’s me.”
“Piss off,” Vila snapped. “Don’t want any trouble.”
The train slowed and the doors opened—this was their stop. Without warning or explanation, Avon grabbed Vila’s arm and forced him off the train. His cries of protest rang through the car, causing many heads to turn, but by the time anyone thought to do anything, the doors had closed automatically and the train had moved on. Once alone, Vila jerked free from Avon again, practically skipping backward in his effort to get away.
“The hell’s wrong with you!” he demanded.
When he discovered Vila was back on Earth, Avon had suspected Vila had had his mind altered, but he hadn’t realized to what extent. “I’m telling you the truth,” he insisted. “We were together for years, you and I, with Blake. We were on the front lines in the Intergalactic War against the Andromedans, Vila. You and I fought off Supreme Empress Servalan times immeasurable. You must remember, Vila. Blake and Jenna and Cally. And Gan, Vila. You must remember Gan! He was your friend.”
Vila was staring at him with open hostility—disbelief was in his eyes, but something kept him intrigued.
Encouraged, Avon went on. “He died, Vila. Don’t you remember when he died? You locked yourself in your cabin for days. And when Cally died, you drank yourself stupid! You must remember that, Vila! Tarrant and Dayna! Soolin! You must remember!” Avon took a deep breath, staring at Vila, and shook his head. “We fell at Gauda Prime, Vila. I thought Blake had set us up and everything fell apart around me. You remember that, don’t you? The sirens wailing, the troops coming in, shooting you all down? Everyone is gone but you, Vila. They’re all dead, but you survived. Can’t you see? I thought you were dead. They said you were shot in the back. You must know that’s true.”
Vila began to shake his head, slowly. “You’re wrong,” he said. “I don’t know who you want, but I’m not him. I’m not that man.”
“Vila!” Avon shouted. “Vila! I need you. I need you to remember this!” He gripped Vila’s arms, holding him immobile. “I need you to remember me!” Vila seemed stunned into silence, and Avon pressed on. “The airlock, Vila. You must remember that. We were coming back from Malodar. Egrorian tricked us, Vila. The shuttle was too heavy to hit escape velocity. I tried to throw you out an airlock, Vila. You must remember that, you must!”
“No!” Vila cried, pulling away, into himself. “I know who you are, now! I’ve seen you on the most wanted list! Kerr Avon, they call you. Avon the Merciless! Avon the Ruthless! You’re the one responsible for destroying Star One, they say! You killed billions with that, and destroyed the defenses against the Andromeda galaxy and let the aliens in! You’re insane!”
“Those are lies, Vila! We were crew, together, Vila. You and I! We’re the last! Vila, snap out of it! You’ve been brainwashed by the Federation! You were a master thief, Vila. And a brilliant lock pick! You must remember that! You must!”
“Why would I want to?” Vila retorted. “Why would I want to be a part of any of that? Who’d want to be responsible for all those deaths? Why would I want to remember being some kind of criminal?” His eyes locked on Avon’s. “Why would I want to remember you trying to throw me out an airlock? Is that the kind of friend you were? That the kind of friends a criminal has? What kind of life is that?”
“It is truth, Vila,” Avon snapped. “It is not always pretty, but it is real. It is who you are. Not this vacant drone, working in a mindless job for the benefit of the Federation. You are better than that, Vila.”
“If I’m all that,” Vila said, “then how come it took you so long to find me?” he countered. “Must have not been many people missing me, were there? Just you, is it? Best they could send, are you? A fellow threatened to throw me out an airlock? What’s that to go back to then, huh?”
In the distance, Avon could hear the next train approaching and knew their time was short—soon the platform would be full of workers again. “It’s different now, Vila. You’ll see. Just come with me,” he urged. He paused, looking at him pleadingly. “I can’t leave without you.”
“Forget it,” Vila said, his voice confident and cool. “You’re wasting your time. I’m not going with you anywhere.”
“I need you, Vila.”
“That’s funny,” Vila countered, just as coolly as before. “’Cause I don’t need you.” He squared his shoulders. “But you know who I do need?” He looked directly into Avon’s eyes, and seeing Avon didn’t know the answer, he said, “My wife, Beth. Did you reckon on her, when you made this plan? What about Sally and Ann, eh? Did you think about my daughters when you cooked up this scheme of yours? I can tell you didn’t. You’re the type that only thinks about himself. Well, my life might be meaningless to you, but I’m happy. Happier than any rebellion ever made me. You can keep your resistance. I’m not doing anything that’d put my family at risk.
“Now get out of here, before I call the Feds. I remember you, Kerr Avon. I remember you’ve still got a bounty on your head. You want to keep it, you won’t come round me or mine again.”
The train screeched to a halt around them, and Vila pushed his way through the exiting crowd to get back on board, heading back to his family and his simple, happy life.
Avon found himself alone in a sea of strangers, staring at the train door Vila had disappeared through, wondering how the Federation doing something so wrong could have possibly turned out so right. The departure chime sounded and as the train pulled away, leaving Avon alone, he broke into an uneasy laugh, grimacing and smiling in loss and joy all at once.