He was thinking about Gan when he did it.
Blake was dead and Cally was dead. Now Tarrant and Dayna were dead too, and Avon wasn’t likely coming back, and all Vila could think about was how much he missed Gan’s comforting, solid presence. Through all the years, Gan was the only one who had ever really understood him, though the others had tried. Gan had appreciated him, but Vila hadn’t really appreciated Gan until it was too late. Vila hadn’t even thought about him in at least a year; he had been too busy trying to hold on to the last shreds of Avon’s sanity.
Now those were gone too, and Blake with them. Might as well have taken Vila; why he kept surviving he didn’t know. Should have been him back then, instead of Gan. By comparison, Vila felt weak and useless; Gan was good, reliable, dependable. That was Gan: dependable. Gan would have known what to do.
And that’s when it occurred to Vila to ask. He didn’t have Zen anymore, and he didn’t think Avon had actually done it, but it couldn’t hurt to ask, could it? It had worked when Blake had run off on them after Gan’s death, after all.
After the shootout at Gauda Prime, Vila and Soolin had been locked up at the base to be dealt with at a later day. It was only a matter of days before Vila had picked his way to freedom—and Orac—and Soolin had killed a guard and solidified their freedom. Unfortunately, Vila had been wounded in the final escape. After some persuasion, he convinced Soolin to drop him and Orac off at a neutral world hospice. He hadn’t wanted to endanger her any more than necessary. She would be safer without him, and he didn’t want to burden her.
The medical treatment wasn’t excellent but it was suffice and the hospital was situated in a huge old cottage in a pleasant, sleepy village far from Federation eyes. Crossing the empty infirmary to where Orac sat by the bay window, Vila slid his activation key in place and settled on the ledge as the computer churned to life.
“What is it now?” Orac said.
“Not in the mood for any of your lip today,” Vila said, leaning on Orac’s casing.
“I do not have any lips to give!”
“Haha, very funny. Now, listen up. Got an important question for you.” He tried to remember exactly how he had phrased it back then, when he had asked Zen on Blake’s behalf. “Did Avon leave me—us—any message? You know, in case . . . in case something were to ever happen to him?”
“I am not a message relay service,” Orac replied. “I must protest this gross misuse of my systems. There are far more efficient ways to store messages with delayed delivery.”
“I don’t need a lecture, Orac! Can’t you just answer the question?”
Vila’s eyes darted back and forth as he stared at the winking box. “Yes? Yes he left a message or yes you can answer the question?”
“Yes, I can answer the question and yes, he left a message.”
“Good ol’ Gan!” Vila cried, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. It was probably nothing. Not a message to him personally, anyway. Something for the whole crew, only he and Orac were the whole crew now. Well, and Soolin, but who knew where she had gone after dropping him off?
Suddenly nervous, Vila said, “Well, go on then.” Gesturing with his hands, he said, “Come on, play it.”
There was silence, and then the sound of Avon giving a soft snort of mirth. “It would figure,” said Avon’s voice, emanating from Orac’s casing. “Only you would remember that stupid message.”
Vila straightened his shoulders at the words, but he was smiling. Just hearing Avon’s voice, even prerecorded, was comforting. Besides, wasn’t really an insult, was it? Not like Dayna, Tarrant or Soolin could have remembered something Blake had recorded before their time. Besides, Avon had remembered it. “That makes two of us,” Vila said.
“Well, it’s good that you did, as this message is meant just for you, Vila. I strongly suggest anyone else listening in right now leave the room. I can wait.”
Looking up at the empty infirmary, Vila shook his head. There were three beds, but all were empty, and only his had the covers turned down. Looking at the warm sheets he had just vacated, Vila was unable to suppress a shiver. According to the ward sisters, he wasn’t even supposed to be using Orac, but he had always felt there were some rules in life that were all right to break. This was a special case.
“Oh, get on with it you egotistical git,” Vila said. Knowing the message was just for him had sent chills coursing through him and the anticipation was killing him.
“All right,” Avon said. “If you’re listening to this message, it means I am dead.” Vila’s face fell at that, though he knew it wasn’t true; not yet, at least. The recording had Avon give another puff of air that would have been a laugh from someone else. “I always thought you would go first, somehow, but I suppose now I am glad that it was me. You always depended too much on other people, Vila. On me especially. Though you may not think so, it will be good for you to be free of me.
“There are some important things I feel I need to say, but those can come later. First, I want to address the more immediate. Obviously, I have no way of knowing the state I was in when I was unfortunately killed, nor do I know how long it took your simple brain to find this message—or even if you ever will—but I would, nevertheless, like to discuss my remains. I would prefer not to be entombed on Earth. Cremation would better suit me, if it is at all feasible at this point. I only ask you not keep my ashes in a jar on the flight deck or something equally crass. Scatter them somewhere appropriate. Over an ocean, perhaps.
“What possessions that remain to me I leave to you. This includes Liberator. Do with it as you like, but if you pass it on to Tarrant, dead though I may be, don’t let me find out. I would rather you found Blake and returned it to him. I regret now that I cannot.”
Something was twisting in Vila’s gut as he listened, and he realized the recording had been made years ago—before the destruction of Liberator, before Cally’s death. How long had it sat dormant in Orac’s databanks? When had Avon recorded it? Why hadn’t he wiped the message when he returned from whatever job inspired him to make it?
He didn’t have time to ponder very long, as Avon continued talking.
“Once my death had been entered into the Federation system, my numbered accounts are programmed to turn over ownership to your authority. You will be locked out of several accounts still—do not take that as a challenge—but detailed instructions are included with each account, explaining what I want done with the contents. Yes, there are other measures in place to take care of them, in case you decide to expire before getting around to them.
“There is also a box for Cally, in my quarters. I think you will know it when you see it. It is keyed to open only to her fingerprint, so I appreciate you not forcing the lock. It is likely she will find it on her own, but if that is not the case, please give it to her. I also have a message for Blake,” he said, sounding somewhat reluctant, “but if he wants it, he will have to figure out where that one is himself.”
It was almost too difficult for Vila to listen to, Avon talking about the things he had left for people he had since killed. Pressing a knuckle into his cheek, Vila gritted his teeth and carried on listening.
“And now I come to the end, Vila. I certainly am surprised. Of all the paths fate could have woven for me, this is not one I had ever devised for myself. It is not one I am particularly happy with, either. I do not enjoy being a condemned criminal. I resent having been shot and betrayed back on Earth. I miss Anna every day. But there has been some good since then, too. Liberator has given me more wealth than I could ever have truly amassed on my own. It has given me a purpose, however futile it may be. In the strange scheme of things, it has also given me you. Foolish, bumbling, idiotic Vila. Aggravating to a fault. Cowardly, weak and lazy.
“You are everything I am not, Vila. But that means you are also compassionate and caring, gentle and soft. You are happy and funny, bright and warm and . . . loving. You deserve someone like yourself, Vila, so why you fixated on me just belies your foolishness. I had thought, after we put Anna to rest, that it would help. Perhaps I could finally stop seeing her ghost in my dreams. Perhaps what part of me she still held on to I could try to give to you. Unfortunately, if you’re listening to this now, that isn’t going to be possible anymore. I suppose it is fitting I should die trying to avenge her. I realize that is of no comfort to you, but you are a survivor and will carry on.”
There was a tear clinging to the end of Vila’s nose, but he couldn’t move to brush it away. His mind was whirling, realizing now when Avon had recorded this message. It had been before he had let himself be tortured for days on end, trying to find Shrinker, to get revenge for Anna. It would have been so easy for Avon to die down there; it made sense he would have recorded a message then. That was a period in their relationship when . . . when they’d had a relationship. Things hadn’t worked out how either of them had expected. Anna’s ghost wasn’t put to rest, she was killed by Avon only after utterly betraying him, and that had haunted him. It had haunted him more than her initial death ever had.
Vila realized now that was where it had all begun to fall apart for them. He had believed things had improved after that, but they hadn’t—not really. The events with Anna had devastated Avon, and he had taken Vila’s comfort in a dark time. Avon had used Vila to numb his pain and in Vila’s naivety, he had thought it was Avon returning his affection.
The tear dropped off his nose, and still Avon continued, after a lingering pause. “I never gave you enough credit, Vila. I should have, but it’s just not my way. It’s much easier to disdain and insult, especially around the others. What little humanity I could show to you in private had to be locked away in front of the others. I know you know that, but it bears repeating. I put you through hell and gave you very little in return. You deserved much better. With this ship and Orac and the money you will now have, I hope you will find someone who will make it worth your while.
“It never really was me, but I suppose, in my dreams, I hoped it could be.”
Silence echoed through the room, and Vila found himself crawling up onto the window ledge, drawing his knees to his chest as he stared unseeing at Orac. In the far distance, the sun was setting, sending the world into twilight. Leaning against the window, the icy cold glass sucked the warmth right out of Vila’s body, and he didn’t even feel it. In a way, Avon was dead. The Avon in the recording was, anyway. If the one still living were to somehow return, he would never say those sorts of things to him. Not after Gauda Prime and Malodar. Not after Terminal.
There was a click somewhere inside Orac, and then the computer said, “Amendment One.”
“Vila,” Avon said. It was a different voice to the one that had just been speaking; gruffer, more impatient and demanding. Vila straightened almost immediately in response. “If you are listening to this, then you are a sentimental fool with your head in the clouds. Undoubtedly now you are mourning the death of your great leader. I recommend you stop it. There are still things I require of you before you are entirely free of me. Orac will give you the location of several of my numbered accounts. These have instructions on how I wish the contents to be processed. There is a share of the money in it for you, so it will be worth your while.
“As I have apparently been killed in a most foolish manner—you should have talked me out of going to Domo—I expect my body is not entirely incinerated. If this is the case, clean me up—use some of that money I am leaving you—and send me on to Servalan. I think she will enjoy the view. Perhaps they will put on a parade in my honor. Make it look good, Vila.
“Then I recommend you find your bolt hole and hide. Tarrant is not likely to tolerate you on Scorpio when I am gone. Oh, and Vila. I am merely dead; try not to drink too much. There’s really no rush for you to join me.”
Unable to help himself, Vila sniffed. That was rather more like it, really. The cruel Avon he had come to know so well over the past year; the one who disregarded him just as much as the others did. He had rather expected something like that. Coming on the heels of the first message though, it was a cruel blow. Apparently Avon hadn’t realized the first message hadn’t been overwritten. Most of the same instructions were there, only without the heartfelt padding.
Well, Servalan would get Avon all on her own, if she had her way at his trial. Vila wouldn’t have to lift a finger to see that get done properly. That just left dealing with Avon’s accounts. It would have to be a damn good cut of the money to make it worth his while.
“Amendment Two,” announced Orac, startling Vila out of his quiet fury.
“Don’t you ever shut up?” Vila bitterly said, palming away his tears.
Avon forged on heedless, his voice intense, quiet and cold. “What I am about to do is something you may not ever understand. I am not sure I understand it myself, anymore. I need to find Blake. That is the only thing that makes sense to me, anymore. I want to hand this ship, this little crew I have managed to piece together, back to him, and I want him to make it work. He was never very good at it, but I admit now that he did a better job than I have. He will make sense of all of this, and you can go back to picking his locks. It will be off my shoulders, Vila. If Blake doesn’t make sense to me, at least I will be on my own then.
“I just can’t do this anymore, Vila. Failure is not something I easily accept. I prefer to gamble. If I lose my money, I don’t just walk away. I keep gambling, because eventually I will win and it will pay off tenfold. Eventually those deaths will be worth it for the good it brings about. That is the idea, at least. Only, it didn’t really work with Star One, did it? And it didn’t work with Anna, or Terminal or with Keiller’s gold heist. It didn’t work on Malodar and my rebel alliance didn’t work.
“Now, it seems Blake didn’t work, either. Or, perhaps he has. Perhaps I’m just dead. Perhaps that’s for the better. I delivered you to Blake, now he can sort out my mess. I wish I knew. I wish I knew the outcome now to what you’re listening to. I wish I knew if this were the right thing to do, or if it’s just another Federation trap. I wish I could make myself talk to you instead of recording this for you to listen to after I am dead. But I can’t. You know I can’t. I know I can’t. I can’t talk to anyone. I can’t reveal a single flaw. Everything I have done up until now has been flawed. Every little plan has fallen apart because I have let someone in, trusted someone. I can’t do that anymore.
“This time it’s airtight, isn’t it, Vila? I stand or fall of my own accord. If I told someone, some flaw might present itself and the plan would fail. So I can only trust myself. I am the only one left to trust. Only, it isn’t that I don’t trust you, Vila. Even after that shuttle, I trust you. I just can’t tell you. I can’t give you the knowledge to betray me with. Don’t you understand that? I hate you because I can no longer allow myself to care about you. I cared about Anna and she destroyed me. I cared about Blake and Cally and about the Liberator. Everything I care about destroys me, Vila. I wait, every day, for you to die, for the other shoe to drop, so I can let my breath out. So I can stop. And every day you survive I am thankful that you have and frustrated. You should have left me long ago, Vila.”
Vila had stopped breathing shortly after Avon had begun speaking again, not wanting to miss a single word. The Avon in this recording was even more different than the first two—so broken and desperate and real. It was well known Avon was fighting against many problems, but Vila hadn’t realized it was quite this bad. There was also no way he could have known how much he had personally affected Avon. Avon trusted him. Avon cared about him. Avon had hated him for a year because he couldn’t let himself care about anyone. It was so logical to the way Avon thought it was hard to believe Vila hadn’t realized it sooner, on his own. He wanted to react to the words Avon was saying, wanted to reflect and process them, but there wasn’t time as the recording forged on.
“I suppose you saw me as a broken man you could fix. And I am a broken man, Vila. I am the most broken man you are ever likely to see. I make those crimos seem like clowns. I thought you could fix me too, you know. I thought maybe you were just foolish and stubborn enough to do it. Many have tried, but most people do not push hard enough and give up when I get too mean. That wasn’t a problem for you. You got under my skin. You made me react. You made me feel. It could have worked. But then people died. Things changed. You stopped. You got scared and I got even meaner. I wish you had left, because I have hurt you and you didn’t deserve it, and now I am too far gone, I think. Now you’ll have to rely on Blake. And.
“And. You’re listening to this message. So I am dead. So none of this matters anymore, anyway, does it? I didn’t mean to ramble like that, though maybe it will do you good to hear it, if it makes any sense. If you ever listen to this message. If Orac survives this ordeal I am putting him through. If you survive. Perhaps you will die first. If I could have killed you, do you know I would have? To end my suffering and to end yours. I can’t, though. I couldn’t then and I couldn’t now. That would be cutting my very last tie to humanity. You are the good in me, Vila, did you know that? All that remains. I had it all worked out once, how you sort of . . .” Here, Avon laughed. “How you sort of completed me. Poetic, isn’t that? A dying man’s last words. I suppose they ought to be.
“You are the light and I am the dark, you know. All of that. Similar enough that we work well together, but you were my last bit of conscience. That’s why I can’t kill you. And it is why I kept you. No, that’s not why, but it helped. It was a good excuse. And now you’re free. Or we’re both free. I didn’t want it to end like this, Vila. I never expected a happy ever after, not really, not deep down inside, but I thought. I thought there might be a middle ground. I thought the few years I would have would be glorious ones, not this.”
It was almost too much for Vila to listen to. All of the things that had been in Avon’s mind for years he had never revealed even a hint of. Vila had had to scrap and guess and claw out every compliment and bit of praise Avon threw his way. To hear all of this at once, coming from an unguarded Avon that he couldn’t comfort was just overwhelming. It made the infirmary seem impossibly big and empty. It made the darkening twilight outside the window that much more oppressive. It made his loneliness so much keener.
“Well, I am dead now, Vila,” Avon said, his voice quiet and sad. “You can have what’s left of me. This glorious empire I’ve built myself. Throw me a grand funeral that no one will attend because Kerr Avon refused to let anyone like or care about him. It would be now at the end of everything that I realize that it was not worth it. I would rather die happy than like this. I would give it all up just to have myself back. I don’t even know who that is, anymore. It’s a funny feeling, not knowing who you are.
“But the wheels are in motion, now. The pieces are set, the game is in play. I can’t stop anymore. I have to see this one through. I have to roll the dice one more time. I have to gamble it all, because if I win, perhaps I can redeem everything. Perhaps I can fix it. And if I fail, then . . . then I hope I have delivered the rest of you. You are, at least, free of me. I wish it could have been different, Vila. All of it.”
This time the silence continued to stretch on. Vila knew there wouldn’t be another message recorded after that one, but he held his breath in hopes that perhaps, somehow, there would be. A final addendum from Avon, saying he had decided not to go through with it; he wouldn’t take that risk, at least not alone.
He had though. He had gambled his life and lost Blake and Tarrant and Dayna theirs. Vila wanted to be angry with him, furious for his selfishness. It was no good though. Avon was broken. That message had been the ramblings of a sad, ruined man and had torn Vila up inside to listen to. To think that it had been recorded at some point when Vila, had he been in the right place at the right time, could have overheard. Perhaps he could have stopped Avon. Perhaps he could have forced the issue. Perhaps he could have even made the gamble work.
But it was too late now.
Avon was going to be convicted and executed and then the Federation was going to come after Vila. He could find a bolt hole and hide, but there were no guarantees. Without people like Avon and Blake to protect him, and without a fancy ship like Liberator or Scorpio to hide on, and without a pilot like Jenna or Tarrant to command it . . . well, he was only one person. They would find him.
There wasn’t even anyone left for him to record a message to.
“But Avon isn’t dead yet!” Vila cried. “Perhaps there’s still a chance.”
“A chance for what? Is that a question?” Orac asked. “I must insist you be more specific!”
“No,” Vila said, furrowing his brow thoughtfully. “Quiet a moment.” His brain was coming alive with thoughts. It was a foolish gamble, thinking of rescuing Avon, but Vila had long ago accepted that trait in himself. Anyway, his track record was better than Avon’s, wasn’t it? He wasn’t insane yet, at least. Sure, he was just one man, but he would rather forever regret trying to rescue Avon than forever regret not trying.
“All right, Orac,” he said, his mind made up. The sun had set and the room was now black but for Orac’s twinkling lights. “We’re going to rescue Avon from that Federation installation. I shouldn’t trust you, but I’m going to, at least a little. I need a plan to get out of here, break in there, get Avon out—safely I might add—and then have an escape plan to get us both off world together. Putting your massive brain to that task should keep you busy a few hours, right? Oh, and figure it out before they execute him, yeah? Might come as a surprise, but I’m rather more fond of that insane pompous git alive than I am dead.
“Oh, and Orac? See if you can’t work a bottle of wine in there somewhere. It’s going to be a long week and I could use a drink after all that.”