Title: Punishment and Theft
Fandom: Blake's 7
Summary: Something strange has been done to Avon...
Pairing: Kerr Avon (ship) & Vila Restal (pilot)
Author's Notes: Set post series and therefore spoilery, and it's friendship. Thanks to astrogirl2 for beta reading.
Punishment and Theft
What had they done to him?
He hadn't expected to survive after the troopers had opened fire. But then, the last thing he remembered as his sight faded had been Servalan's face above his, and her voice saying, "Preserve him."
Why? So that she could torture him? He was not in any pain, exactly, but the sensations were distinctly odd, to say the least. His fingers seemed a vast distance away and his feet even further. The phrase "hung, drawn, and quartered" sprang to mind, but if he had been dismembered, he would hardly feel... that strange tingling in his extremities--that word had never seemed more apposite--and parts of his swollen body.
He could not see, and this seemed on the whole a good thing. If they had stripped the nerves from his body and laid them out over a large area, no, volume, then he preferred not to confirm it visually.
Suddenly numbers flowed, a sea of numbers that threatened to engulf him and drag him under, and he almost gave in and let them. He would only find out later that most subjects did so, becoming effectively catatonic, or in some cases, insane. What saved him was that he had been a computer tech; he recognised some of the patterns and clung to them, forcing himself to forget unruly emotions and to be the thinking, logical being he had always wished to be.
There. That was a code he recognised as the signifier for a grid to be displayed on a screen. He tried to ignore the gibbering fear in the back of his mind and concentrated desperately on the data, sign of a putative outside world. Temperature and pressure readings, air supply analysis. Life support.
So he was connected to a computer that he also seemed to have access to. He stopped floating helplessly and swam in the sea of numbers, testing its limits. It was as if a door had opened and the small mental room he had previously lived in was now part of a vast mansion filled with data.
After a time, he wondered what would happen if he tried to move. Experimentally, he wiggled his fingers, but nothing happened. He tried again; again nothing... but no, that wasn't right. Something, a set of numbers there, changed. He homed in on it, examined it. What was this datum here which could take two values? A switch, a toggle: on/off; open/closed... He changed it and stretched his hands out. Ahhh, yes.
A technician ducked as the huge grapple snapped over her head. "Bloody hell, what was that?" She stared resentfully at the open port above her. "How'd that happen?"
"Just a brain spasm," the other tech said. "You get that with these setups. Time to set the manual override on. That usually fixes it." He picked up his comms set.
His hands were constrained again, and this time he could no longer change the binary setting, to his annoyance and frustration. He was exploring for something else that was modifiable to experiment on--perhaps his feet?--when he was suddenly assaulted by several images. Not in succession, or overlaid like those one sees when cross-eyed, but separate and quite distinct. One showed a vast room with people in grey overalls walking about; others several corridors and what seemed to be airlocks (a thought he moved quickly on from); yet others showed views of the huge room--or what he assumed were the ceiling and floor of it--and a flight deck with flickering screens.
He seemed to have more than the usual complement of eyes. Well now, that was very revealing. Somehow the relevant parts of his brain had been connected to several visual inputs. How could he make sense of all this; put it in a form that was easy to grasp? The screens on the flight deck gave him an idea. He knew how to organise and display data, Perhaps he could do it mentally: create his own control room, tidy, orderly, lined with screens he could choose to take note of, or not.
First, a clock; there must be a time counter somewhere. Ah, yes; now convert the nanosecond count to something more comprehensible. How long had it been since that appalling debacle on Gauda Prime? An easy calculation:138 days, over four months. He pushed that thought away; next task: a bank of image displays...
This project was sufficiently interesting to distract him from the avalanche of data and strange sensations for several days and, incidentally, to keep him sane.
Then he was moved, or at least the images of the large room moved past and changed to exterior ones: a spaceport. His feet began to push, push, push, and keep on pushing even when several visual inputs showed the blackness of space and a bright half-Earth.
He was a spaceship.
He was a spaceship?
For a moment, his mind shied away from the idea. No; more accurately, he was the brain of a spaceship. He had heard about research into the use of human brains as processors capable of the complex and instinctive fight or flight calculations that could not be programmed into ordinary Tarial-cell-based machines, but he had not known it had gone so far. "Preserve him" indeed. He was a pickled brain in a jar. He laughed wildly--and silently except for a burst of static on the internal comms.
Now that he knew, he searched for the standard ship ID file which told him that he was an Attack Class destroyer called Punishment. It was the sort of name commonly given to ships used to quell rebellion, but Avon knew that in this case it referred to him.
It was not so bad being a spaceship, and Avon came to think of himself as one. It was easier than imagining himself as a brain at the centre of a web of wires, and besides, the human mind is surprisingly adaptable.
As a child, he had lain in bed and experimented with his blind spot by covering one eye and staring at different parts of the room, fascinated by how he could not only make objects like toys and the little picture on the far wall disappear, but how his brain filled in the gap. It did so now, connecting the sensors dotted about the hull to give an unbroken surface of perception. Gamma rays tingled across it, and in a strange synaesthesia, suns called in deep, rich spectra, and the universe sang a song of cosmic microwaves and x-rays.
Avon also found ways to change that which he could. He amused himself by experimenting with the pitch and frequencies of the "computer's voice" to make it sound like Zen, changing the usual "Affirmative" to "Confirmed". He also recreated his own voice, just in case Servalan should ever come aboard, though he restricted its use to piping softly-murmured and personalised threats to each crewmember as they slept in their cabins, and crazed laughter at the edges of their awareness that stopped as soon as they stirred.
He increased the carbon dioxide levels in the air and decreased the oxygen, making the crew less responsive, though his sense of self-preservation stopped him from killing them outright. He had no wish to have corpses rotting inside him, and besides, he had no control over his own navigation.
He was, however, the tactics computer and refused, Zen-like, to attack rebel or civilian targets. "Course of action deemed too dangerous." It was after all true, if not for himself.
After seven months, the captain sent a report to HQ stating that the tactics computer needed an overhaul, and requesting transfers for the entire crew on the grounds that they believed the ship was haunted.
The Punishment was recalled to Plimmuth Spaceport.
The recall report landed on the desk of Sector Governor Sleer in response to her standing order that she be informed of about any change in the Punishment's status. She glanced at it and smiled. "Haunted?" So Avon had gone mad. She would have visited Earth to gloat over his final defeat, but there were far too many other things to worry about these days. Not only had there been an unprecedented amount of backstabbing--some of it literal--among the upper echelons, resulting in three Presidents in under six months, but the Federation Revenue Department was also doing an audit on her. This was worrying enough, but a distressing amount of her personal fortune seemed to have gone missing; the thought that at least she would not have to pay taxes on it was a very poor consolation.
She crumpled the printout and threw it in the bin.
A Space Fleet captain swaggered towards the Punishment, whistling insouciantly. He grinned at the guards. "Hello there. Just taking the crate up for a spin to test the controls out."
"First we heard of it" said the guard on the right of the entry ramp.
"Change of plan. Here you go."
The guard on the left looked at the plastisheet he had been handed. "Looks all right. Rather you than me."
"That's what they pay me for." The captain gave them a lazy and very non-regulation salute as he went up the ramp.
"Bloody flyboys," said the first guard as they walked away. "Think they're cream of the crop."
"Yeah. Wouldn't be in his place though, not with the stories I've heard about that ship."
Avon watched via the flight deck visual pickups as the pilot dropped his kit bag on the floor and himself on the command chair. Not the expected grey-clad computer tech, then; this was a reprieve, but a puzzling one. Under his black peaked cap, the officer looked disturbingly like someone Avon preferred not to remember, so he turned the forward pickup off.
The pilot was flipping on switches, and Avon felt the drive start up / his feet tense.
"Control tower," the pilot said lazily. "Captain Lari Veritas in the Punishment lifting off for a test run."
"You can't do that!" the comms crackled. "There's no one scheduled to leave today."
"If you check your logs, I think you'll find that I am. Code 83762."
There was a pause. "Sorry, sir. Good luck."
Avon knew that voice. All the same, he hesitated for 1.68 seconds before turning on the forward pickup again.
"Time distort 8." The pilot held his hands over the controls, wiggling his fingers, before punching one down. "Join Space Fleet and see the galaxy, that's what they say."
As the Earth and Sol fell rapidly away, he removed his cap and flung it across the deck to the comms officer's position, then put his feet up on the console.
There was no longer any doubt. "Vila!"
Vila's feet scrabbled dangerously near the controls before he got them on the floor. "Zen?"
Avon located and activated his other voice file. "I thought you were dead." He had last seen Vila on the tracking gallery floor, though now he thought of it, he had been lying unnaturally straight with his hands slightly lifted.
"Well, I thought you were gaga. Most of those brains go round the twist, you know." Vila's eyes and fingers darted nervously towards the airlock controls, then, only partially reassured, to life support.
Avon was hurt, a reaction which rather surprised him. "As I am incapable of altering my own course," he said evenly, "I am unlikely to kill the person who can."
"Oh?" Vila looked even more worried.
Avon would have sighed had he been capable of it but he had never felt the need before now to simulate the sound. Doubtless the fool thought he was trapped. "Why did you steal me, and what do you plan to do with me?"
Vila bit his lip.
"If it’s any consolation, I am glad you survived."
"You are?" Vila blinked.
"Well, like I said, most brains go belly up when they're connected if you see what I mean--"
"A horribly mixed metaphor, but yes."
"--insane, crazy, gaga--"
"There is no need to belabour the point."
"Oh. Well, when I found out what they'd done to you..." Vila's voice tailed off.
"Feeling squeamish, Vila?"
"Um, no, not about that. You see, first I didn't care because, well, you and computers--"
"I recall your comments on my similarity to one." And several other reasons Vila might not have cared.
"Right. But when I heard what happened to most of the brains, well, I thought no one deserves that. Not even-- well, no one does."
"I find your concern moving. What were your plans for me?"
Vila looked around the flight deck until he located a camera lens. "Is that you?"
"No more than one of your eyes is you, Vila. Go on."
He pulled a face. "I was going to meet up with Soolin's ship near Califeron then program you to go into its sun."
"Ah. Poetic and very final. I appreciate the thought."
Vila's expression wavered between relieved and wary.
"Soolin?" Avon said, thoughtfully. "She wasn't on the list of rebel dead, but you were."
"Yeah, I wondered about that too. I suppose the troopers didn't want to admit losing one of us--"
"And you were hardly going to be a threat."
"Oh, thanks! And I don’t think they ever knew Soolin was with our lot. Or knew her name, anyway."
Both reasonable assumptions. "How did you escape?"
"Through the ventilation system after they dragged you out. Typical: only ever interested in you."
"And the others?" Hoping despite all logic.
"Nah." Vila looked down. "Just me and Soolin, and we weren't in the best shape." He shook his head, as if clearing it of unwanted memories. "We made a good team though. I got us out, she did the GP native thing and got us treated by a farm vet." He gave the pickup a wry look. "Pause for joke-and-or-insult."
Avon found that he had neither. "Go on."
"She talked us through the spaceport security and I nicked a ship--"
"I see you make a habit of it."
Vila almost grinned. "Always fancied a bit of grand larceny. I let her take it because after all, I could easily get another one."
Avon rather wished he still possessed an eyebrow to raise sardonically.
"And besides, I wanted to go back for Orac."
"Ah. I did wonder how you managed to get permission to take the crate for a spin as you put it."
"Like that, did you? Orac set it up, but I had to act the part all the same. I just imagined how Tarrant would've done it." Vila looked briefly regretful.
"What did you have in mind with Orac? Another visit to the Big Wheel?"
"Something else altogether. Look, I'd had enough of that little plastic rat. He tried to get me killed--" Vila gulped, then rushed on. "He got us shot down when he told Slave to shut up, and I always thought he knew from Zen about the System scouts coming and blew up that other DSV just to make his prediction come true. I wouldn't put it past the little plastic bastard to have planned the whole Gauda Prime mess too, just for a bit of twisted fun."
Avon considered this. It was all disturbingly likely. "You were going to fire it into a sun too?"
"No." Vila's eyes lost focus as he remembered. "More like that lake we left him by."
"What changed your mind?"
Vila sighed. "Couldn't do it. He was too much like a person, like Zen, and I'd just seen too many of those die." He looked up sharply, accusingly, at the pickup, then away.
Avon stopped himself from pointing out that computers were not people; on consideration, it was probably a very good thing that Vila considered them to be. "I assume you put it to some profitable use."
Vila looked relieved at the distraction. "Let's put it this way," He retrieved Orac from his kit bag and put it on his console. ”We came to a mutually acceptable arrangement."
"If he did what I said, I wouldn't have him dissolved in acid."
Avon had not thought Vila capable of it, but he had become harder, even before Gauda Prime. "It seems to have been effective. How many millions did you make?"
"Didn't have to. I still had what we won at Freedom City."
Vila looked shifty and Avon mentally added his own winnings to that.
"Nah," Vila leaned back, crossing his legs. "Had other plans. If Orac could read any computer, he could dig up dirt on the Federation's top dogs."
Avon, who would have blinked had he been able to, instead very briefly blanked out the images from the fight deck which afforded him a small amount of private amusement.
"He quite liked the challenge too. Said it was interesting research into human motivation. When I had some nice juicy secrets, I got Orac to leak them to the press." Vila's face looked almost comically sad.
"It didn't work, did it?"
"Never saw a word of it. S'pose they were too scared to publish."
"I could have told you that."
"So I tried the non-Federated press. They published all right, but the Federation just--"
"Denounced it as propaganda."
Vila scowled. "Clever enough in hindsight, aren't you, but you never did anything much with the little rat."
"You could have asked Orac for a projected outcome."
"No thanks. Part of the deal: no bloody predictions."
"So, what did you do?"
Vila looked sly. "I told Orac to find out who would benefit most from each nasty little titbit, and let 'em know."
Avon was silent for several seconds, thinking about the unprecedented upheavals in the government in the last year or so. "That was you."
Vila, who had been rooting around in his kit bag, withdrew a bottle of virulent green liquid and lifted it wryly to the forward pickup.
"I note however that Sleer is untouched and now governor of a sector."
"Wouldn't say untouched. I nicked quite a lot of her money and set the FRD onto her." Vila took a swig from his bottle.
"She deserves more."
"Far too much money for me to ever spend so I had most of it transferred to Avalon."
"I know that," Vila said defensively. "I'm waiting, aren't I".
"Someone halfway honest to get into power. The last three presidents'd just take a bribe and roll over. I thought I'd angle for old Starkiller Samor. Seems an honest enough bloke despite his looks."
Avon laughed. And went on laughing.
Vila almost dropped his bottle. "Shit!" He looked around wildly.
Perhaps it was not a good idea to deploy the laughter that he had been using during his previous crew's sleep cycles. However, he was not certain that he had anything more sane sounding in his repertoire. "It's just that I find it amusing that a thief from the Delta levels happens to be deciding the future government of the most powerful state in the galaxy."
Vila glowered. "Oh, very funny. You were all talk about taking down the banking system with it but you never did."
"You didn't consider it yourself?"
"Not fair on ordinary people, is it? This way it's only the bastards at the top who get hurt."
"Government by the proletariat, or one of them anyway." Avon began to laugh again.
"Would you mind not doing that?"
"All right, Vila." Avon paused. "What do you plan to do with me now?"
"Oh, yes, almost forgot. S'pose I'd better tell Soolin the plan's off."
"You and Soolin..." Avon wondered briefly if Vila had succeeded in melting the ice where he had not.
"Nothing between us but our clothes. It's just that we owe each other for getting out of that mess so we stay in touch, She's back in the bodyguard business. Not my thing, unless it's my body." Vila paused. "Speaking of which, I don't suppose you have one now."
"Yes. Just not the one I had before."
"Where are you then? I mean, I think of myself as living in my head."
"Not a location I'd have picked."
"Oh, ha ha. Somewhere behind my eyes." Vila put his head on one side. "D'you think of yourself as behind that camera, then? Even if you aren't?"
"I have multiple visual pickups, so that would be somewhat problematical." Avon considered the matter. "The computer room, although I doubt very much that my brain is physically there. It would need nutrients so it's more likely to be--"
Vila paled. "All right, I'd rather not know. I'd like to pretend you're still Avon, thank you very much, not a grey lump floating in a jar."
"Very graphic and possibly with an element of truth. I am however still Avon."
"Oh, I know that, but it's a bit disconcerting with you all round me. I mean there's nowhere to look, nothing to really see."
"Here." It was not difficult to reproduce from memory an image of the old Avon and display it on the wall screen to one side of the flight deck. "Does that help?"
Vila looked doubtful.
Perhaps it was a little dour, but Avon had never possessed a smiling picture of himself, just the standard ID ones. He edited it so that the lips were pulled back to reveal the teeth he had seen often enough every morning when he brushed them.
"That doesn't look like my smile?"
"It does, a bit too much if you ask me. It's like those toothy scaly things that live in rivers waiting to bite someone. A crocodile."
"Ah." Avon had noticed in the past that his smile had often failed to evoke the friendly response he had expected, finding that a grave persona seemed more attractive. No one had ever told him why. He closed the mouth again and turned the corners up, wrinkling the eyes; he had read somewhere that this was a sign of a genuine smile. "Is this better?"
Vila looked relieved. "It is, yeah. You look like the Avon I remember back in the days before Bl-- before the Andromedan War." He rushed on. "Might help if you animate it when you speak."
"I'd have to research the effects of speech on facial structure first. It would at least serve to pass some time if I had the relevant data."
"Oh, Orac can get you that." Vila hooked Orac's key out of his breast pocket, leaned over, and slapped it in. The computer whined into life. "Say hello to Avon."
There was a pause as Orac's lights flickered rapidly. "Fascinating."
"That thing," said Avon, "had better not overwrite any part of me."
"Of course not!" Orac said in its usual superior manner. "I have no access to the entity called Avon itself, just the other computers and memory."
"You can leave those alone as well unless I request new data." Avon was no longer sure where his memory stopped and digital memory began. Was he now laying down new information outside his brain?
Orac sounded offended. "I have honoured my agreement with Vila Restal and will continue to do so."
"He has too." Vila patted Orac and stood up and stretched. "You got a galley on this sh-- I mean, on you? Wouldn't mind a cup of tea and a snack."
"There is a drinks and snack dispenser to your left."
"Oh, nice. Not even the old Lib had that." Vila served himself a tea. "Space Fleet do themselves well." He peeled back the plastic wrap on a protein bar and took a bite. "Or maybe not." He wandered around the flight deck, looking at everything.
Avon watched him, absurdly pleased to see him again. "Vila."
"Where do we go now? In both the metaphorical and literal senses."
"Oh, right. Califeron first; that's where my ship is." Vila turned to look at the forward pickup, not the one Avon happened to be using. "S'pose I could rewire you on the way to give you navigation."
"I would appreciate it, and I can show you what to do. While you're at it, I should like control over all my functions."
Vila's eyes flicked towards the airlocks.
"Just in case someone unwelcome like Servalan comes aboard," Avon said patiently.
Vila bit his lip, thinking about it.
"Vila. Do you remember me calling you in that shuttle?"
He nodded, his eyes widening.
"You knew where I was. You knew when I was getting close. I gave you a chance." Avon hesitated, but made himself say it. It was easier, not being face to face. "Couldn't you give me one now?"
Vila stood silently for a moment, then walked over to the screen displaying Avon's face and stared at it as if looking for something. "Yeah. All right."
Avon watched Vila deftly rerouting and splicing wires. He was seeing through a remote camera that Vila carried with him, showing Avon parts of his spaceship self he would never otherwise see.
"What sort of ship do you have, Vila?"
"Just an old wanderer class, like the Scorpio. Pays to fade into the background." Vila examined his work and nodded, satisfied. "That gives you all the internal door controls. Just about done."
"An Attack class is a lot faster."
Vila backed out and closed the panel. "You mean you."
"Not to mention a lot bigger, with proper long-term living quarters. As you have discovered, the captain's cabin is quite comfortable."
"You making me an offer?" Vila held the remote up to point at his face. "I didn't think you wanted a crew."
"I don't. You are interestingly unpredictable at chess and have an amusing facility with words."
"You sound like Orac." Vila frowned, thinking about it. "You'd get sick of me."
"If you are worried about not being able to visit the fleshpots and low dives--"
"Hey!" Vila set off towards the flight deck, offering Avon swinging views of the floor as he dangled the remote from a hand.
"--of various insalubrious planets and space stations, we could come to a mutually acceptable agreement." He watched successive views of Vila coming and going as he passed corridor pickups, trying to read his expression. "We can separate for periods of time, then meet up again."
Vila stopped on the flight deck and held the camera up again, giving Avon a disconcertingly close view of his face. "You mean that, don't you?"
"I am not in the habit of making offers I do not mean."
Vila smiled slightly. "Before either of us make any decisions," he strolled over and threw himself into the command chair, "I've been thinking too."
Avon switched to the flight deck pickups. "It's becoming a habit."
"That android Vinni that killed Tarrant's brother, well, we could get one built and put your brain in it. It'd cost a lot but you'd be amazed how much those corrupt sods in the government have and how easy it is to get." Vila grinned a crocodile grin of his own. "While making it look like another one of 'em did it."
"I am in awe of your hitherto hidden Machiavellian tendencies."
"Well? What about it?"
Avon was silent for a while. What would be the advantages other than looking like a human? He would no longer be able to gaze into suns, feel the tingling whisper of cosmic radiation, experience the universe on several levels he was unable to describe in human terms. He would have only two eyes, and the vast sprawling mansion of software and data would be forever lost. He would be trapped in a puny body instead of the huge and powerful one and was now home. No, him.
How to tell Vila without making him feel inferior? (And that concern alone made him realise how much he had changed in others ways.) Ah, yes. "My lifespan is likely to be much longer."
Vila nodded. "Understandable. I suppose we'd better change course, then."
Avon raised a virtual eyebrow, glad that he had the ability back.
"Not much point in me collecting a ship I can't use, is there? I'll let Soolin sell it for whatever she can make. I'd say head for Xaranar. Big spaceship manufacturing planet and they don't ask questions if you have enough money."
"Why? Are you planning to modify me?"
"Nah. Just a new paint job so you don't look like a Federation destroyer any more. And a new name." Vila gave him a sideways glance. "How about Untouchable? You always wanted to be."
And I was wrong. "No."
"I didn't like it either." Vila grinned sideways at him, "I've got a suggestion you might like better."
"Here we are," Vila said, looking at the main display screen. "Xaranar."
"I observe you are still in the habit of stating the obvious." Avon manoeuvred towards the massive orbiting maintenance dock.
"And so are you."
Avon almost laughed but remembered the effect on Vila, and instead gave him the crinkly smile he seemed to like. "Touché." He had his facial animation up and running now, and he and Vila had even considered simulating other, more powerful faces for Vila's campaign of confusion and scandal. "Of course, your choice of Xaranar has nothing to do with the tropical resorts it also boasts?"
"I consider all aspects of a planet and its society before deciding on temporary residence," Vila said virtuously, standing up.
He was now dressed in plain brown suede instead of Space Captain black, but there were, Avon was amused to note, palm trees and cocktail glasses on the bright turquoise shirt Vila wore under his jacket. "I see your taste is as impeccable as ever."
Vila grinned. "I'll blend right in, believe me. He hesitated. "Look, d'you want to keep Orac till you come back for me?"
"I should hate to deprive you and the revolution of it. I can contact it easily enough should I wish." And Vila did not need to know that Avon had instructed it to contact him should Vila get into trouble. There was a clunk as Avon docked, and a series of whines and thuds as the tubes connecting his airlock to the space station deployed and were secured.
Vila picked up his kit bag. "Right, I'll check the maintenance people have the repaint specs right on my way out. Goodb--" He shook his head and grinned. "See you."
"Indeed you will."
Avon disconnected and moved slowly away from the orbital space dock. Behind it floated the marbled blue-green planet where Vila was now playing the tourist in a luxury resort. The latest news had Fleet Warden Samor named as the most popular and likely possibility for next president, and a certain Governor Sleer seemed to have gone to ground in her private palace.
Avon smiled, rolling to view himself in the curving, polished surface of the dock's living quarters. He was now painted matt black picked out with lines of silver which Vila had called "go faster stripes". The black faded into that of space, and the silver lines gave the impression of quite a differently-shaped, rakish, and smaller ship.
He brought up the animated pilot persona he had created by merging the features of several hundred faces to come up with someone who looked average and very forgettable. "This is Captain Del Keeler departing now." The name had been Vila's idea: two relatively common names, the first in memory of a pilot they had both known, the second one of his execrable puns.
His new name, picked out in silver, rippled past, reversed and distorted in the curved surface of the dock: Second Chance. Vila was right. It was a good name.
Avon peeled away and hit Time Distort 9.5, no longer thinking of his drive as his feet, bound for a double black hole that promised to be very interesting observed with his new perceptions.