Spin Doctor

A/N: Blake's 7 isn't owned by me. It was created by Terry "Dalek" Nation and made by the BBC. No money is being made from this work of fanfiction. I don't know where "Pitba" comes from – I get the feeling I'm not the first to use it. Google didn't give me a reference, alas.

Warning: My first fanfic, written some seven or eight years ago. Never posted until now. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

PGP: but if you remember the series 2 episode 'Gambit' that will help immensely.

oOo

Krantor's frown was touched with incredulity. Him? Here? How dare he? It had been nearly four years, but Krantor never forgot a face, even that of the nondescript man who had just walked into range of scanner three. Currently the mobile features were set in a mixture of ingratiating apprehension, as well they might be considering Krantor's rising fury. Krantor was seriously considering tossing the miserable little rat down a recycling chute. The master of Freedom City clicked his fingers and a flamboyantly-attired man with a wig that made him look like his head was on fire stepped forward.

"Sir?"

"That man," Krantor said lazily. "What is he doing here?"

Toise hadn't become second-in-command of Freedom City, still one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on personal prudery) pleasure planets in or out of Federation space, by asking his master stupid questions or saying "I don't know." "I will ascertain momentarily," he said.

"See that you do so. No – wait." Krantor waved a silver-painted hand across the screen, returning it to its default setting of "mirror." For a minute he looked his reflection in the eye as he sat in thought, and stroked the white cat purring in his arms before putting it down on his desk where it yawned and began washing its paws with the same lazy expression in its eyes as its owner. "I think I will take a more personal interest in this one." He smiled up at the gaudy young man now hovering at his side. "How pleasant it is to catch up with old friends."

His aide smiled back just as coldly. "Indeed. If I may ask a personal request…?"

Krantor waved a hand. "Of course, dear boy. What will it be? Your finger on the button that… removes this mess?"

"Actually Krantor, I'd like to hear his story. I expect it's a good one. Unofficially as well as officially he is meant to be dead."

Krantor nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. Very well. I shall invite him back for a last drink with… old friends."

He stood and straightened his brocade tunic, checking in the mirror that no genuine expression other than a smile had cracked his makeup. This season he was Louis the 14th and he couldn't allow a little thing like emotion to break the façade of the Sun King. Then he walked out, Toise at his heels closing the door behind them.

The cat jumped up onto the desk, tail flicking across the mirror which immediately tuned itself in to the view of the casino floor. It then sat down to wash its ears but looked up from its toilette at the sound of cheers coming from the monitor. Someone was doing very well on the Big Wheel.

oOo

Krantor eased his way into the throng around the Big Wheel. People were so intent on the gaming they hardly noticed who was standing behind them until Krantor actually had to tap them on the shoulder or elbow. He wasn't sure whether to be amused or disgusted that no-one had bothered noticing him.

Then he reached the table and saw why.

The player with the extraordinary run of luck was not, as he had at first suspected, the obsequious little man with the receding light-brown hair. That man was standing next to… Krantor's mind drew a blank.

It appeared to be humanoid, though probably not human given the elaborate bronze exosuit with strange swirling motifs and the tri-digit hands. When it turned slightly, it could be seen that the face was covered by some sort of boxy grill that suggested a muzzle – there was no suggestion of how the creature might see through it, if it indeed had eyes. It was a little taller than its human companion who was standing in a sort of cringing half-crouch, but not taller than most of the men crowding around it. A small pack perched high between its shoulders could be the recycler for the suit, but Krantor wasn't informed enough on alien biologies and technologies to be definite, nor was he that interested. At present his interest consisted of two things:

1. An alien (or possibly a robot) was about to break the bank.

2. The last man to break the bank at Freedom City was standing next to it, darting it nervous looks occasionally when he wasn't grinning like a moron at the way the pestilential creature consistently chose the winning number.

The ageing croupier raised her hands at a hasty signal from Krantor. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Big Wheel is closed." She winced, her pinch-painted lips disappearing as if she'd bitten into an Amagon pickled lime: the cold fury in Krantor's eyes would have liquefied nitrogen.

There was a huge cheer from the crowd. Krantor noticed that the mousy man was kept on his nervous toes stopping people in their attempts to congratulate the alien by slapping it on the back. When Krantor stepped forward and purred "Vila" he thought the man was about to die on the spot. What a pleasing response that would have been.

The alien turned, showing that the patterns continued unbroken to the front where they flowed into a complicated knot at the base of the throat where a red crystal flickered. The crystal looked valuable, Krantor thought, automatically assessing ways out of this mess. The creature pointed one of its thick fingers at Krantor. "Bzzt," it said imperiously.

Vila was still pale and trembling. "Bzzt!" the alien repeated, sounding impatient.

"Oh, ah… This is the man who owns Freedom City. His name is Krantor." Krantor noted that Vila raised his voice to speak to the monster. "Hello Krantor, how's the Klute?" Vila added in a quieter voice, trying to smile.

Krantor had infinitely more practice at disingenuous smiles and returned the thief's paltry attempt with one of his best (careful not to crack his makeup, of course). "He decided to retire after that dramatic game he had against you." Actually, Krantor had lost all faith in the vicious little creature and had had the Klute reassigned to the kitchens where he was to be scrub-monkey until he paid off the money Vila had won from Freedom City. "Perhaps you would like to play him at chess again? Or your friend – does he play?"

A rasping crackle from the alien. Krantor couldn't make anything of it beyond a query, but he didn't like the autocratic tone. Vila, apparently, understood more. "You'll have to speak up if you want to talk to him. He understands our speech but hasn't got a proper translator built into his suit so that we can all understand his language and…"

Vila was rambling; apparently the alien thought so too, for it crackled again and Vila winced. "Awright, awright. Chess. It's a sort of game – a competition humans play sometimes. Don't try it today, not here anyway. I'll teach you sometime if you like." His smile turned smug and grated on Krantor's already raw nerves. "I'm very good at it. Just ask old Krantor here. I beat his master player." Vila puffed out his chest and buffed his nails. "Well, played him to a draw, anyway."

"Bzzt-zz?"

Vila deflated. "Well, maybe not today. After all, we're here for your fun, not mine. I'll come back and beat the Klute again another day."

Krantor hid a predatory smile behind one manicured hand. No more days for you, friend Vila. "I must confess, Vila, I've never met anyone quite like your friend here. Won't you introduce us?"

"Um. Of course. Krantor, I'd like you to meet Ahab. Not his real name, o'course. I gave him one because his sounds like static, and as he's kind of an ambassador he needs something we can all say. Ahab, this is Krantor."

Krantor held out his hand. "Ambassador Ahab? Charmed."

The ambassador tilted its head to one side and stared at the hand.

"Uh, they don't shake hands."

"Of course not," said Krantor, recovering smoothly and lifting the disdained hand to pat his elaborately curled and powdered wig. "Well, Ambassador. It is an honour for us to have you grace our humble premises with your presence, and I am hoping to catch up with my old friend Vila. May I offer you a drink in my private quarters?"

Ahab's head swivelled towards Vila, who, Krantor noticed with some interest, seemed to be sweating as well as trembling. "Bz zzz zt."

"Um, Ahab would be pleased to accept your offer," the unhappy thief translated. He turned back to the alien. "I really don't think –"

"Bz-zz-zt, Zztz!"

Krantor didn't need an interpreter to tell him the alien had just said you don't think, Vila. He smiled his internal smile. So Vila knew very well he was in trouble, but he was too scared to leave this creature alone with Krantor. So it was this… Ahab… who was the one making decisions and dictating directions. Well, well. This should be an interesting story indeed. He reached out and put a hand on the bronze arm. The material felt slick beneath his fingers, not cold or metallic at all. The alien spirals black-etched into the shining surface had grey-green veins randomly threading pathways between them: these throbbed in a triple beat. Krantor thought queasily that he could have waltzed to the pulse of this creature. "If you would just follow –" He froze.

The alien suddenly grew even more alien. It drew itself up stiffly, and Krantor could feel the glare emanating from behind the windowless visor. He snatched his hand back, aware of how the crowd was watching avidly. He ground his teeth as he inclined his head towards the door.

"After you," Vila said, more cheerful than he had been since Krantor had arrived on the scene.

oOo

Once in Krantor's opulent quarters they lounged in a huge, central overstuffed collection of cushions – that is, the three humans did. Ahab remained standing, looking around at Krantor's carefully decorated rooms with the white cat twining itself around the alien's feet and purring to shake statues off their pedestals. The legs of the alien must have been as slippery as the arm, for the cat kept falling over. "I took great pains to recreate a finer era," Krantor said loudly, ignoring his traitorous cat. Ahab nodded and buzzed something at Vila.

"He wants to show you some of the art of his people," Vila translated, rubbing the back of his neck in perplexity. "Seems you've got some artistic tastes in common and he – well, I think it was a compliment he gave you. Never heard one from him before." He stood up. "I'll just run back to the ship and grab one of your knick-knacks for him," he said loudly to the bronze-clad figure.

The alien rasped a brief command, pointing a finger at Vila and then stabbing it towards the ground. Vila sat down hurriedly, his cheeks reddening. Another series of harsh squawks and chitters and Vila looked angrier but subdued. Apparently satisfied Vila knew his place, Ahab bent to pat the cat which squirmed in ecstasy before turning back to examine the room.

"Tell me, friend Vila," Krantor went on more quietly. "Can the Ambassador hear us if we speak in more moderate tones?" Vila shook his head and tossed back his fourth glass of Antarian red (Krantor winced at the abuse of an excellent wine, but then Vila had never been one who appreciated the finer things in life).

"Nah. Deaf as a hanging judge," he replied equally quietly, glancing at Ahab.

The alien appeared to be interested in a reproduction of a pre-atomic painting showing three large pink ladies disporting in some Arcadian paradise. Krantor suspected the creature was confused. A quick tour of some of the lower dens and brothels of Freedom City should go some way to enlightening it – him, Vila had said. What an amusing idea…

"You were the one who chose the name, then." Perhaps Vila had a better education than Krantor had supposed. "So… is there much resemblance between your travelling companion and Melville's Captain Ahab?"

"They're both loonies who like to go chasing around after something stupendously not worth the having of."

Vila looked seriously worried, so Krantor edged around that subject. "What does it look like under that suit?"

"Dunno. Never seen any of them in anything but. They can't breathe our air. Oxygen's poison for them."

"How curious. Life for us is death for them." Krantor idly studied his nails.

"It's a funny old universe, as my old Mum used to say," Vila offered happily, downing the last of his drink and holding his glass out to Toise for refilling, which Toise did graciously as if Vila was the President of the Federation come on a social visit.

Krantor had always secretly admired the way his protégé could smile in the face of such imbecilic adversity. "A wise woman, your mother. How did you meet up with the – what is it? And along the theme of a strange universe, I've heard of your death from two reliable sources –" Krantor winked at Toise; might as well get that story his lieutenant had been hoping for "– an official Federation broadcast of your and Kerr Avon's executions concurrent with a rumour that you and your comrade Avon were killed escaping from custody after that dreadful affair on Gauda Prime."

Vila winced and his face went bitter. He gulped at his wine. The alien turned and rasped something that made the thief scowl and put the drink down. "There's a bit of truth in both. I escaped and Avon was executed. But it's probably not a story you want to hear."

"Come now," interjected Toise smoothly. "You're among friends. You're quite the legend around here, you know, Vila. Since your wonderful win here four years ago people know that it's possible to fulfil their wildest dreams. Even the Andromedan war couldn't destroy our business thanks to the publicity you brought us."

Vila perked up. "Really?"

"Really," said Krantor. "So, between old friends, how about a story?"

An expression of sorrow passed over Vila's face. "You're not going to like it…"

"Let us be the judges of that." Krantor smiled, showing all his teeth.

Vila really was a fool, given the trusting way he smiled back. "Well, you know about Gauda Prime? Yeah, everyone knows about bloody Gauda Prime." He grimaced. "Well, there we were. Me, Tarrant, Soolin and Avon." He scowled on the last name. "We were the ones they managed to catch alive, anyway. Federation stunned us and took us into custody. But Soolin had a contact on GP and when she got her chance she decided to take Tarrant with her. He was useful, y'see," he added bitterly. He obviously wanted more wine, but under the watchful eye (or undisclosed optical sensory equipment) of Ahab he didn't dare. "Good pilots are useful. Avon would've been useful too, but he was under the tightest security they had there. Plus Tarrant was really bitter over Dayna's death and Soolin probably didn't need much convincing to leave him to the tender mercies of the Federation interrogators. Besides, Avon was damn near catatonic after shooting Blake and taking so many stun shots, so maybe he wouldn't have been any use to Soolin and Tarrant anyway. I hear they're doing well as pirates over in Sector Nine these days. And as for taking me with them…" He laughed. "I guess she decided I was just so much dead weight. I was a loss she could cut. I was –"

"Oh, now." Toise interrupted smoothly to stem the drunken flood of self-pity before Krantor could lose his temper and throw the thief into the recycler before the story was finished. "A man of your talents? Why, Freedom City resounds with stories of your cleverness."

"Really?"

"Really. You'll have to tell me how you defeated Bayban one of these days," said Krantor. "That sounds an immensely deft and courageous feat for one man."

"Sure. And it was just one man – me. Vila Restal, destroyer of Bayban the Butcher. Or Babe, as his mum called him…" Vila burped. "You're a good friend, Krantor. Not like everyone else. Anyway, where was I?"

"You were escaping from the Federation," Krantor said, hoping that this part was well after Vila stopped feeling sorry for himself.

"Oh, right. Easy, really. Well, easy if you're a genius with locks, o'course, Krantor me old mate." He patted Krantor on the shoulder with a slightly unsteady hand.

Krantor turned his grimace into a smile. "Like you."

"Zactly. Like me. I was on a transporter, me and Avon was. Were. And at nights I'd leave my cell and go for a look around. Find out guard she- guard ske- guard timetableses an,' an' such. And one night I foo- I founded a shuttle. So I took it." He swirled the wine and stared into it morosely. "Could've taken Avon. Could've. But he'd been silent as a, as a… thing… as a stone since Gauda and I was worried he might suddenly nut off at a bad moment. 'Sides, he'd never been nice to me and I wasn't going to go on one more shuttle ride with him. Nope. Wasn't going to let that glum bastard try to throw me out an airlock a second time." His brown eyes darkened with memory. The alien wasn't looking, and Vila took his chance to down the rest of his drink.

Krantor hoped the alien wasn't about to get bored while Vila wasted time being maudlin, but Ahab or whatever its name was seemed content examining the contents of the room. Currently it was peering into the case of Krantor's prized collection of fire opals from the Sagittarian sector.

"So I take – I took the shuttle and I left Avon behind and the Federation killed him after they decided he was too crazy to be any use to them but they didn't catch me. Nevercatchme. Oh, when I escaped from the transporter they fired on me and blew up the shuttle, but I made it to an escape pod. I'm not a pilot, but I'm a survivor, me. They didn't catch me." He grinned proudly, but the grin faded. His voice lowered. "That was when I really got into trouble," he added, with a meaningful glance at Ahab. "Bunch o' those things plucked my capsule out of space and onto their ship." His voice took on an air of awe. "Thought I'd seen the greatest ship in the galaxy when I was on Liberator, but that was just a, just a, thing… just a rowboat compared to what they have as their exploratororory vessels."

Krantor's aide glanced towards the alien. "What did it want with you?"

"They were curious. Are curious. They're thinking of making contact with humans – never could be bothered up 'til now and I don't blame them, but now that we're moving across the galaxy into their territory they thought they'd at least have a look at us. So they decided I should be a sort of persononon… pers'nal tour guide for one of their decision-making people so as they could find out about humans." He lowered his voice even further and Krantor and Toise leaned closer. "Truth is, they want to know if they should wipe us out. The Federation's nothing to them – I've seen what their ships can do. Faster'n anything we've got, more firepower, and, especially after our tussle with the Andromedans, they've got the numbers." He licked his lips. "I don't like the Federation, but I don't want them Pitbas to wipe out my species."

And what species would that be? thought Krantor. "'Pitbas'?"

"Yeah. Pain In The Bum Aliens." He raised his voice back to normal conversation level and added, "I thought ol' Avon could be an arrogant, snide, foul-tempered bastard and as nasty a piece of work as you'd find outside of a Federation torturers' convention, and I thought I'd be safe once I was shot of him." He darted a frightened look to make sure the alien wasn't listening as he lowered his voice for his next announcement. "But Krantor… there is a whole species like him, only worse." He sat back, the triumphant bringer of bad news. Then his face crumpled and for a moment he looked as if he were about to burst into tears. In fact, thought Krantor, the wretch looked like a puppy that had inadvertently messed on an expensive Carellian rug. "I'm sorry, Krantor," he was pleading. "I'd never have brought him here but he heard about the place and insisted. I can't say no to anything he wants or he'll space me without a suit. It's too dangerous for him here. He's high-ranking, from what I can tell, and too stupid to know when he should back off. Nearly got me killed when he started a fight over Tau Ceti way." He sniffed. "Never even apologised. Don't think they know how. No 'please', no 'thank you'. Just 'get out of my way, human scum', an' what sort of a way is that to make friends? And if he gets killed his people are going to come in en masse and torch human space – en massacre, heh… starting with where Ahab, damn his soulless carcass, got his, and not stopping until they've wiped out every single human alive. And you've been so nice to me…"

He began to sob, leaning on Krantor's shoulder and snuffling. Krantor savagely repressed the urge to throw him off and shoot him. This fool had brought a member of a homicidal species to his planet, a planet where people regularly "disappeared." If this alien went the way of most of Krantor's less welcome customers, Freedom City would be a smoking cinder when Ahab's friends came looking for revenge. Gods, what a mess. And punching out Vila (his most pressing desire) wouldn't help matters. He patted him on the back instead, and tried to remember what kind people were supposed to say in these situations. What was it? Oh yes. "There, there. There, there, Vila. Things will be all right." It sounded wooden to Krantor but the misbegotten thief straightened up and wiped his eyes.

"They will?"

"Of course." Krantor offered him a handkerchief – Sonetian lace – and the dreadful little man blew into it wetly. "No, no. Keep it. With my compliments," he added weakly when the thief tried to give it back.

"Ta." Vila pocketed it. He sniffed again. "Why do I always find myself in these messes?" he whined. "It's always me. Poorolme."

"Well," said Krantor, thinking fast to ward off another outburst. He didn't want to lose any more of the handkerchiefs, not with the Federation embargo on Sonetia II so strict even his normal free trader contacts couldn't get through. "Perhaps it is time for more formal talks between our two species to begin." Or three species, if you count Vila. Krantor wrinkled his nose. He'd never liked dogs, particularly the soppy spaniel variety. They always looked like they were due to be kicked by someone like his own good self. "I have many contacts throughout human space and they are always glad to meet new people with technologies and valuables to barter with."

"Oh, they've got that, alright. Technology coming out their ears. In fact I think that's what they use for their ears…"

Krantor smiled at Vila's attempt at a joke, and at the thought of a new species with unlimited wealth. They already seemed to like gambling, he just had to figure out how to stop them winning...

"In fact…" Vila dug in one of the pockets of his motley tunic that had seen better decades. "In fact… Where is it? Oh, here it is. I always carry a spare." He held up a small black blob triumphantly. "'s another translator. Would you like to talk to Ahab about your ideas yourself? Just stick it in your ear."

Krantor winced at the idea of inserting something that had been in Vila's ear into his own ear. "I would be delighted," he cooed. "How does it work?"

"Body activated. Just pop it in yer lug-hole and it does all the rest."

Toise looked less than pleased, but Krantor ignored him. "Like this?"

"Yeah. That should do it."

There was an unpleasant hum in Krantor's ear which he ignored. It got louder when he stood up and walked with Vila to where the alien was still hovering over the fire opals.

"I've given the other translator to Krantor," Vila said, smiling hopefully like a dog that had just done a clever trick that might win it a bone. "Now you can talk to him and –"

The alien spun around. Krantor thought he heard the crackle resolve into a brief, almost human rasp that could have been: Vila, you idiot! then there was a dreadful squeal of feedback that deafened him. Monitors discretely placed around the room flickered, roared or exploded.

Krantor screamed and dropped to his knees, clutching at his head, clawing out the translation device. He had a brief vision of Ahab reaching down to him then the alien was knocked away by the blast of an energy pistol, green gas jetting from its shoulder.

Vila screamed: Krantor realised if he'd heard that he couldn't be completely deaf after all. He shook his head and rolled over, carefully pulling himself back to his feet and leaning on the opal case.

Vila was kneeling next to the alien ambassador, whimpering. It didn't help Krantor's nerves that the thief was whimpering "We're all going to die," over and over again. A savage wave of Krantor's hand stopped Toise from shooting the wretch in the back. "Haven't you done enough?" he hissed.

Toise was pale under his rouge. "My profoundest apologies, Krantor. I thought he was trying to kill you."

"No, his friends can do that for him, thanks to you." Krantor paused before a mirror and tried to reclaim his decorum. A scrape in the silver foundation showed a little of the natural colour of his cheek but he smoothed that over easily. His wig was skewed and one curl had come away in a pale wisp that refused to be patted back into place by his shaking hands. He sighed, more in resignation than in real anger. Old habits die hard, and it took more than a major diplomatic incident to dent his vanity. He stood over Vila, peering down at the still figure of Ahab. The alien was sprawled half over on its back, the backpack tilting it sideways so that the smoking rent in the exosuit's shoulder was half-hidden. There was a strong smell of chlorine (was that what the green gas had been?) and the crystal at the alien's throat increased its flickering, briefly blazing in an ominous blood red glare before going dark.

"Is he…?" Krantor spoke softly. The loss of a potential source of wealth he could cope with eventually – the loss of Freedom City and his own life were what he did not care to face.

Vila nodded. "Dead? I think so," he whispered. "That red thing he wore around his throat was a signalling device. It told his people where he was and what he was seeing and doing. Now that it's cut out he must be dead, and they'll know it too and then there'll be hordes of them coming after us… they'll come after me first, just you wait and see. He wasn't trying to hurt you, Krantor, he just wanted to get the translator out of your ear. I think he liked you. There must be something we can do… I don't want to die," he wailed.

"Neither do I," snarled Krantor, close to hitting the snivelling coward. "Think, damn you, Vila. You know these things better than anyone else. What can we do to stop them declaring war?"

"Um… um… um… oh, I wish I hadn't drunk so much…" Vila rubbed his eyes. "Hang on, I remembered something. Ahab and I were sitting around once having a few drinks – I had to have his drinks for him, o'course – and we were talking about human customs and how they compared with the Pitba's customs. And he said that there's some sort of blood payment. If a Pitba kills another Pitba they send back the body with a gift for the family of the dead Pitba."

The intercom chimed.

Krantor motioned for his aide to answer it.

"What sort of 'gift'?"

"Dunno. That's the trouble. I don't know what they like. Before we came here Ahab was getting pretty bored with humans. He seemed to like you, Krantor." Vila's soft brown eyes swam with tears. "I'm so sorry, Krantor…"

"Krantor…"

"What is it?"

Toise frowned unhappily and his beauty spot dropped into the carpet as he scratched his chin. "Docking reports that that strange ship you were curious about has just powered up. And all the monitors that are still working are all showing the same message."

Krantor held onto the edges of his fraying temper. "What message?"

"Ah…" the aide glanced at Vila. "They all read: 'Vila you idiot'."

Krantor took a deep breath. "Anything more you care to tell me?"

"Well –"

"Not you, you idiot. This idiot here." He kicked Vila lightly. "Anything else that little translator of yours might have done?"

"Dunno. But I think that it's Ahab's ship that's starting up."

"It certainly seems like an alien ship. We still haven't been able to get spectrographic readings of its drive emissions yet, but –"

Krantor waved his aide into silence. "Vila, why would the ship start automatically?"

Vila frowned in thought. "Perhaps it knows its master is dead and it has an autofunction to return the body home."

Krantor thought that plausible.

"Sir -!"

"Shut up. Vila, we need to get your dead friend on that ship. What sort of a gift will stop a fleet of Pitbas from demolishing my station?"

Vila's eyes stole towards the case of fire opals. Krantor winced, but then realised that Ahab had seemed particularly interested in them. "Best if you give them Ahab's winnings, too. They'll think you killed him for the money otherwise," Vila advised.

Krantor ground his teeth, but the thief made sense. "How little they know me."

Vila nodded and looked down at the corpse. Krantor's white cat had crept out from under the curtain and was trying to jump onto the dead alien's chest but kept sliding off as if the creature was greased or had some sort of force-field around it. Vila sighed and picked up the cat, hugging it close. "Poor li'l thing liked Ahab. Don't worry, Krantor. I'm sure when they get his body back with the opals and stuff they'll forgive you. I'll record them a message to tell them what happened and how this was all just a big accident."

Krantor smiled grimly. "Why record a message? You will be going back with Ahab."

Vila's look of horror was priceless – not that it was priceless enough to replace the opals, of course, nor the five million credits the alien had won. "Me?" he squeaked. "But I'll be alone on a ship with a rotting corpse and…"

"And you seem to think you have a choice in the matter." Krantor pulled a gun out of his pocket and pointed it at Vila.

oOo

Krantor stood in his private viewing deck. Toise stood just behind him, still subdued from the fiasco, his golden flame wig drooping a little. They were watching the wink of starlight reflecting off the polished hull of the alien craft as it headed back to Pitba space. The only other person present was a technician trying to fix the monitor that still read, as most in Freedom City did, "Vila you idiot". Bets were being laid in every level as to the origin and meaning of the phrase, which did nothing to improve Krantor's temper. He had no intention of enlightening anyone over what had happened.

His aide's communicator beeped, and Toise spoke into it quietly at first, then louder with disbelief.

"Well?"

The aide chewed some of his lipstick off his upper lip. "The readings have come back on the drive spectrum of the Pitba ship."

"And? Spit it out, man!"

"No ship has ever visited Freedom City with a drive quite like it. But… several of our associates reported that they have a drive signature on record that, while not quite the same as this, was very similar."

If Toise didn't hurry up his delivery Krantor felt quite capable of having him washing dishes alongside the Klute.

"That drive was one known as a stardrive, installed on the ship Scorpio. It was the ship associated with –"

"I am aware of who crewed it. Is this so-called Pitba ship still in reach of our deep-range orbital weapons?"

"No sir."

"Get out."

oOo

As soon as the ship cleared Freedom City Orbital Control and began to speed away, Vila pushed the cat onto the floor and poked cautiously at the prone figure lying on the couch just as it had been left by Krantor's men. "Hey. Anyone alive in there?"

When there was no answer Vila began to worry in earnest, shaking the alien form and pushing at the buttons hidden amongst the motifs around the collar. "Come on… don't do this to me… you were the one who said the suit should've stopped the worst of any fire." Despite how he'd been acting in front of Krantor, there was no drunken unsteadiness in the precise way his fingers flew over the buttons and catches. With a hiss the helmet came loose.

When Vila carefully eased the helmet off, the revealed Pitba face looked remarkably human. But the skin was unusually pale next to the sweat-curled dark hair and the eyes were closed. Vila frowned and reached to look for a pulse. He jumped back and cursed when the eyes opened and stared up at him. "Avon. Thought you were dead for a minute there. Should've known you were too nasty to die."

Avon smiled smugly. "'An arrogant, snide, foul-tempered bastard and as nasty a piece of work as you'd find outside of a Federation torturers' convention'? I mustn't deprive the universe of my talents."

Vila gave him his patented wide-eyed look of innocence. "Well, I had to put on a show for the marks, didn't I?"

"You were very convincing."

"The best lies are based on truth," Vila replied, helping the unsteady "alien" up. "I thought that with your new gadget that shot wasn't meant to hurt you."

Avon rubbed his head and grimaced. His dark eyes were shadowed. "I think it hit the personal deflector field of the torso and slid over the arm at just the correct angle to rupture one of the supply lines. It was the power surge that knocked me out. I'll look at it after I'm sure we're not being followed. If there is ever a repeat of this ridiculous charade we'll stick to the original plan of you picking the locks on the gem cases as I am – ah, careful! – as I am heartily sick of getting shot. But right now, let's get Orac back to normal."

Vila unstrapped Avon's backpack. Inside, a one-eighth version of the crystal computer was humming like a mechanical mosquito. "Orac, resume normal size." The pair watched as Orac grew to its more usual dimensions then Vila picked it up and followed Avon onto the flight deck.

"Orac," rasped Avon, still pale and shaky from being stunned, and Vila was reminded that not too long ago he'd been hit with nearly enough stunners to kill a man, "plot us a course out of here. Monitor for any pursuit." He collapsed into the pilot's position and tapped Orac's suggested course into his console.

Vila felt the thrum of their new stardrive change pitch as the ship sped into the darkness and away from Freedom City. He sighed happily and dug into his pockets, laying across Avon's station a long line of the most perfect fire opals he'd ever come across in his career as a thief. It was a sight to make anyone feel better. Especially someone as avaricious as Avon. "Plus the five million credits, naturally. Some of us are good at getting five million credits," he added slyly, just to get a reaction from Avon who'd been convicted for trying to steal that sum.

"Naturally. And it was Orac and I who won the five million credits."

Vila was piqued by Avon's indifference. "That took fast thinking on my part for us to keep them and the opals, I'll have you know. If not for me we'd be –"

Avon took off the awkward gloves and flexed his fingers. "Boast later. Just like after your last 'project', I've got a headache." He closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He started and muttered an oath as the cat jumped into his lap. "What the hell is this doing here?"

"It seemed to like the energy field of your suit. Krantor thought your species would like to keep it as a token of good faith." Vila was grinning fit to bust at the way the cat rubbed its head against the stone-faced tech's hand.

"It will shed fur into sensitive equipment." But Avon allowed the cat to curl up in his arms as he leaned back again. The cat curled up happily and its purring gradually slowed until it, too, was asleep.

Vila sighed and reached for the list he and Avon had written out and taped to the central console. Crossed out beneath the heading of Projects were: Stardrive, Major bender at a good pub, and Teleport.

Very carefully, and with a great deal of satisfaction, he put a red line through where he'd written in his round hand: Break the bank at Freedom City again.

The next word was inscribed in Avon's blocky print, and it still made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "Hey, Avon. Avon. Avon."

"Hnh?" The dark eyes flickered open, tired and annoyed, and Vila thought a little guiltily that Avon didn't seem to look in the best of condition after one of Vila's Projects. Maybe taking Avon on a three-day drinking binge had been a bad idea. Oh well. It had been fun at the time. Well, Vila had had fun, anyway. "What is it now?"

"Hey, Avon," the thief wheedled in his best "getting-around-Avon" voice. "Since we both did so well out of Freedom City, how about we do another one of mine?"

Avon eyed him scornfully as he shifted the cat to a more comfortable position. It yawned and started purring again. "Which one? 'Punch out Tarrant,' or the 'Thousand virgins in red fur costumes'?" He snorted.

"Well, even the second one's probably got more chance of success than your next choice," Vila countered defensively, "plus it'd be a lot more fun."

"Not for me." Avon folded his arms around the cat and shut his eyes. End of conversation.

"Bet it wouldn't be for you, no," Vila muttered to himself, rolling his eyes. But he taped the list back to the console, staring glumly at the next item on the list.

Servalan.