by Nicola Mody


"Ooh, look! They've got some new ones!" Tash pulled her mother and father over to the shop window. "What cute little things!" Enchanted, she pressed her nose against the glass. "I like the one in the corner. It's got such big sad brown eyes." She looked up at her mother hopefully.

"We're not letting you have a pet, and anyway you should never choose the runt of the litter."

"I can stay and look at them though, can't I?"

"All right, just for a little while," her mother said indulgently. "They are quite interesting things. The black and silver's rather magnificent."

"Yes, it is," Tash's father said, "but it'd probably have your hand off."


"Well might you skulk in the corner like that, Vila," Avon said savagely, "given that this is all your fault."

"No, it wasn't. I was asleep."

"Oh, asleep on watch is supposed to be an excuse, is it?"

"Well, I wasn't the one doing illegal experiments."

"Stop it, both of you," Blake said, exasperated. "We have been over and over this. Blaming each other won't help."

Avon turned his attention to Blake. "Yes. Particularly since you were the one who suggested a nice quiet picnic on that peaceful planet."

Cally, sitting in the lotus position in an attempt to relax under extremely trying circumstances, sighed and looked patient. Jenna gritted her teeth, lay down and pulled a very large and fluffy cushion over her head.

Gan came to his feet. "Look, this is not doing any of us any good."

"If you can't contribute anything intelligent, shut up," Avon snarled. "Which means I doubt I'll ever hear from you again."

"That's not very nice," Vila said. "None of it was Gan's fault."

"No. He'd have to have at least a couple of synapses firing to be capable even of your idiocy." Avon stood up, looked down his nose at Vila, and walked towards the far end of the cage with as much dignity as he could muster. His boots crunched as he stepped into the litter tray. "Turn around, all of you."

Vila grinned. "He's shy. Doesn't want anyone to see his bum in case we notice the 'Tarial Inside' sticker on it."

Avon ignored him.


Night watch bored Vila silly.

The novelty of being in sole charge of one of the most powerful ships in the galaxy had worn off long ago. Once, he had paced the deck grandly, imagining everyone leaping to the orders of Rebel Captain Restal, terror of the Federation. When these fantasies staled, he had entertained himself by practising quick-getaway manoeuvres like sling-shots around neutron stars and tight loops under power until the night the sudden acceleration drove Avon's face into the carton of ice-cream he was eating in the rest room at the time.

He'd tried watching commercial vidcasts on Zen's big wall screen, but Avon found out and said that if he was going to die, he'd prefer a more dignified exit than being blasted to plasma in his bed because a suicidal fool was watching ancient space opera reruns instead of the forward sensors.

Vila had then amused himself by making up his own version of his favourite rerun, Star Trek, with Blake as the Captain of the USS Liberator, Avon as his Vulcan first officer, Jenna as a hot-shot pilot in a towering blonde beehive, Cally on comms in an extremely short skirt, Gan as a Klingon security officer with huge facial ridges (well, bigger than the ones he had now, anyway), and Vila himself as the highly intelligent, witty and charming engineer with his lovely assistant Seven of Nine. Making up stories about this crew and their valiant battles against Travis of the Borg and Servalan the evil sex-mad Betazoid, and illustrating them using the latest graphics software Orac had downloaded for him, had entertained Vila for weeks until Avon found the drawings and printed them out. For some reason, they had all been very annoyed, especially Blake. Vila suspected it was the ripped shirt revealing his less than trim chest that had offended him, though Jenna seemed not to mind, as she came back for copies later.

After that, Vila had resorted to writing limericks, but when he'd left a few on screen by mistake once, even Gan had been angry with him. Well, it was hardly Vila's fault if 'Gan' rhymed with 'Servalan', was it?

So now they had taken away all his fun, what did they expect? He tried to fight the boredom and stay awake, he really did, but sometimes the urge to have a little snooze around two or three in the morning was just too hard to resist, and anyway Zen would wake him if something happened.

And he couldn't help having the occasional nightmare, whether in bed or on watch. The dangerous life of a rebel didn't suit one of Vila's sensitivity, and Servalan's recent e-mails hadn't helped. So there he was, captured, and struggling to escape before she could get the cuffs on him, when suddenly he was pinned down by an enormous weight.

"Get off me, Servalan, pick on someone your own size!" he protested, then woke to find himself slammed back in the flight chair by massive acceleration. What was going on? Oh, no, the turbo-button was pressed down, he must have hit it in his sleep. Vila flailed at it but couldn't reach it, then thought of his telescopic alarm-probe. Panting with the exertion, he took it out of his tunic, extended it, and whacked at the button several times before managing to turn it off.

He sat in his chair with his eyes wide and a hand clamped over his mouth, listening to the outraged yells over the intercom from the rest of the crew who had doubtless been thrown from their beds and flattened against the aft walls of their cabins. He was in trouble now.

Then he realised that he was not the only one.


"All right, Vila. Explain." Blake looked even angrier than after Vila's recent little excursion to Space City.

"I didn't mean to, honestly. I had a dream and lashed out a bit and must've hit something. Anyway," Vila said resentfully, "nothing should have happened. That button was deactivated."

Blake turned slowly to Avon and raised his eyebrows.

"I was investigating the hyperdrive facility."

"Even though I said to leave it well alone?"

"I consider that decision very high-handed and short-sighted, even for you."

"Avon, one day you will go too far."

"I think we just did!" Vila said, relieved that the pressure was off him.

"Shut up, Vila!" They both rounded on him.

"Oh, now look, it's not that bad. If we got here, wherever it is, we can get back again. Where are we anyway?"

Avon stalked over to his station and pushed a few buttons. "In another galaxy, it appears."

"I bet we're the first humans. We could name it. How about Vil—"

"It has a name already, you fool. M33—"

"That's a bit miserable for a full-grown galaxy. I really think—"

"—also known as Triangulum. Part of the local group, near Andromeda."

"Well, that's a relief," Vila said, "not far away at all then." Everyone looked at him. "Oh, come on, look on the bright side. No Feds, no Servalan, a nice little holiday."

Blake looked thoughtful. "We do have to wait for the energy banks to recharge. Orac, locate us an uninhabited planet with a pleasant climate and Zen, put us in orbit around it."


The picnic was Blake's idea.

"I fail to see the point of consuming perfectly good food outside in," Avon paused and added with distaste, "weather."

"It'll be fun," Vila said. "We picked a nice spot, and it's warm and calm, not at all weathery."

"I think I'll stay here and enjoy the lack of company."

"No, you won't. We're all going," Blake said firmly.

"Then I can only hope that you have something better to eat than Vila's cold pizza from two days ago."

"Oh, we do," Vila said. "We raided the stasis store. Well, there is pizza and some cold curry butties for me and Gan," he admitted, "but we also have quiche, salads, stuffed olives, roast duck, fresh fruit, and a chocolate cake."

"Oh, very well," Avon said, mollified, "though I'm amazed you can even pronounce quiche." He noticed Vila's tool box beside the hamper. "Are you expecting to break into something down there?"

"It's my spare one, full of liquid refreshments," Vila grinned. "All tastes catered for. Real ale, a nice dry white, a smooth full-bodied red, mineral water, beer, and whisky."

Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all.


It wasn't. Avon stretched himself out on the grass in the warm sun, feeling the light breeze caress his face and hair. He felt pleasantly replete and extraordinarily relaxed, lulled by the soft rhythmic sound of the sea. "Another glass of white, Vila," he said lazily.

"I'll have to get another bottle," Vila yawned, got up, and wandered off towards the stream where he had put the drinks to keep them cool. He returned with considerably more haste, his eyes huge with terror in a white face. "F-f-f-fu-fu—"

"Complete that word, Vila, and I'll give you such a slap," Jenna said.

"Furry aliens!"

Vila's eyes rolled up and he collapsed face-down beside Avon, who was about to push him away in disgust when he saw the dart in Vila's back. He pulled it out, rolled Vila over and patted his cheek, but there was no response.

"Blake!" He shook the blissfully sleeping Blake. "We've got to get out of here, now!" He was just raising his bracelet to demand teleport from Orac, when he saw the aliens emerge from the trees, four times as tall as a human and perhaps twenty times as massive. "Orac—" he said, but never completed the sentence as he fell forward, as thoroughly drugged as the others.


Tash pulled her parents into the shop. "What are those things in the window?" she demanded.

Klim, the 'dealer in pets, domestic and exotic' as it said on the door, shrugged. "No one knows, but I thought they might interest people. They were captured out near the edge of the galaxy," she said to Tash's parents "I think you'll find I'm the only dealer who has them in stock."

"Odd-looking things," Tash's father said. "No real fur, just a bit on top."

"Oh, they've adapted to it. See, they've covered themselves in skins, probably from their prey, and some sort of silky stuff they might produce in their guts like some insects do."

Tash pressed up against the bars, intrigued. "They must be very clever."

Klim shook her head. "No more so than sea creatures with their shells."

"Are they girls or boys?"

"Had a devil of a job sexing them," Klim said. "You have to get the outer coverings off and they didn't like it. Four males and two females. The fur seems to be a sexual marker—the females have more."

"Mine's definitely a little boy then," Tash said with satisfaction. "He's got the least of all."

"'Mine'?" Tash's mother looked severe. "You're taking a little too much for granted."

"Oh, please? Please can I have him? He's so cute and I promise I'll look after him."

"We'll see."

"That means no, doesn't it." Tash's ears flattened to the top of her head and her tendrils went blue and limp with sadness, drooping almost to her shoulders.

"It means we'll see."

"It means no." Tash hung her head and went out, letting the door slam behind her. Parents could be so unfair.


"I have to say that this is ironic," Blake said. "I devote my life to freeing people from the oppressive boot of the Federation and end up in a slave market."

"Pet shop," said Vila, who had spent many wistful hours with his nose pressed against the windows of such places in the Alpha levels, and had made do with taming rats and cockroaches.

"Is there a difference?" Blake demanded.

"Here we go." Avon sneered. "Are we now going to add animal liberation to our brief? You never bothered before about the rights to freedom of Cally's downtrodden moon-disc. Not to mention Vila."

"I like that," Vila said resentfully. "If I was a pet, I'd be treated a lot better."

"You may yet find out."

They all looked anxiously at the two aliens outside.


Thod and Mux had recently lost their prize Snaggle-Toothed Tree-Snake, winner of 'Best in Show' for three years running. The Pet Show was only ten days away, and their only chance for a prize now was to buy something so exotic that it had a fair possibility of landing 'Best in Species'. The new things in Klim's window could fit the bill. They made their choice and went inside.

"We'd like to buy the biggest one of those things you have on display. The blue and black," Mux said.

"Ah, yes. Impressive, isn't he."

Thod was doubtful. "He might need some training. He looks a little out of condition."

"Are they easy to handle?" Mux asked.

"Oh, yes," Klim assured her. "Just give them a quick tap on the nose. It doesn't hurt them much, but they don't like it. The big one's a very good choice. Quiet and well-behaved. Not like the little brown in the corner. He's opened the cage several times—you can see I've had to put a plank of wood across the top. Too heavy for him to lift now."

All three of them peered into the cage. The brown in question looked sadly back. His nose looked slightly swollen, as did that of the black and silver.

Klim removed the plank, opened the top of the cage, and extracted the blue and black for inspection.

"We'll take him," Mux said. "And a nice leather collar and lead for walkies."


The Liberator crew watched Gan being put into a cardboard carry-box.

"Good luck, Gan!" Vila called.

"You see?" Blake said. "It's a slave-market. That proves it. Gan was the biggest and strongest of us."

"Pet shop," Vila said. He hoped he was right.


"Breakfast, for what it's worth." Avon looked at the bowl of dry food with disgust. "I'm just glad I don't know what it's made of," he said. He reluctantly took a handful, wincing at the pain in his back. Sleeping on the floor after losing a fight with Jenna for the fluffy cushion had not improved his mood.

Vila screwed up his face. "Me too. I suppose if I don't know if there's meat in it, it's all right, isn't it?"

"A self-deluding vegetarian. Every time I think I've plumbed the depths of your idiocy, I find I'm wrong."

"Don't mind him, Vila," Cally said. "You do what I do. I imagine I'm eating food I enjoy." She chewed contemplatively, closing her eyes.

Vila sniffed mournfully at the biscuits in his hand. He might as well give it a go. "Jam roly-poly. I really miss that. It was my favourite."

Jenna sat up. "Oh, take a cold shower, Vila! Or—" she looked scornfully at Cally, "—imagine yourself taking one."

Vila was hurt. "It's a pudding, Jenna. My mum always made it for me on my birthday. With a nice soy-sausage toad-in-the-hole for main course."

Jenna stared at him. "Are you winding me up, Vila?"

Vila pouted and ignored her. It was always a mistake to talk about life in the Delta levels. These snotty Alphas never lost an opportunity to make him feel inferior. Just as well he hadn't mentioned the pudding Doty next door used to make so often, though he'd never much liked spotted dick.

"I wonder how Gan is," Blake said.


Gan was exhausted. The previous evening he'd been collared then attached to a lead and forced to run around a large grassy and wooded area several blocks from where the aliens who had bought him lived. And early this morning, he'd been taken round the block three times before being served some minced-up meat which he'd been hungry enough to eat. He now lay panting in the wicker-work basket that was his bed. Damn, here they came again. What did they want now?

Though he now suspected Vila was right—he was a pet—he could not understand just what they expected of him. He stood in the back-yard, staring puzzled at inclined planks of wood, large pipes, ladders, and hoops. He was being prodded up a plank. He sighed and decided to go along with it. This had to be better than Cygnus Alpha would have been.


Sorp wanted to be a fur-stylist when he left school. Not just a fur-dresser, but a famous stylist with his own salon. His head-fur was spiked and bleached at the ends in the latest fashion. Unlike boring traditionalists, he had not restricted himself to the long fur on his head, but had dyed large swirling yellow and purple patterns all over his short velvety black body-fur to the admiration of his class-mates. He was entranced by the creatures in the pet shop window, especially the pink and white one with all the blonde fur. It would be perfect to practise on. Any mistakes would be private ones, unlike that embarrassing time all of his head-fur had frizzed up so tight it gave him a headache.

He went into the shop. He had plenty of money from his evening job sweeping up fur-clippings at the local salon.


Everyone watched in horror as Jenna was plucked from their midst.

"Just keep your teleport bracelet on," Blake called after her.

Avon scowled. "For all the use that will be."

"Hope may be all we have." Blake said gently. "Without hope—"

"—there is no hope? Is that how that particular platitude ends?"

"Well, it's true."


Tash's hearts skipped a beat. There were only four left. She sighed in relief—her favourite was still there, and, what's more, looking right at her, the cute little thing. Aw, he was just so adorable. Tash tapped the glass gently.


Vila got up and went over to the window and rapped his knuckles on the glass in response to the alien outside, which promptly dropped to a squat and bared its teeth. The tendrils at the side of its head turned bright pink and quivered, and the dark brown furry face was pressed against the glass. Vila squashed his nose against the window too, his brown eyes staring directly into the large almond-shaped golden ones outside.

"Have you no shame, Vila?" Avon asked.

"It's the one from yesterday," Vila said. "It likes me."

"Yes, well. It does not look particularly bright."


Klim rubbed both pairs of hands together when she saw Freb coming. A guaranteed sale. Freb was retired after almost a century as a loyal accounts clerk. He was a quiet and timid little ginger-furred fellow, who had never mated and filled his days (and his small flat) with a large and varied collection of pets. City by-laws stated that twenty was the maximum number allowed per domicile, and skirting close to this seemed to be Freb's one meek flirtation with danger.

"Good morning, Freb. What can I do for you?"

"I'm looking for something a bit different."

"Hmm, let's see. I have a Tarsian warg-strangler an Andromedan trader sold me."

" you have any wargs?"

"Sorry. No."

"Better not then. I've had some unfortunate accidents in the past, and the neighbours do complain about the noise when they kill each other. What about the things in the window?"

"What are you looking for this time?"

"Something nice and quiet. Clean in its habits."

"Well, with this species, the males seem to be more aggressive. There is one female left, very quiet."

"Oh, no. There was that time when that nocturnal thing had all those babies, more than fifty. Lucky the council didn't find out before most of them ate each other. I'm up to seventeen at the moment. I'm sticking to males."

"Since you're such a good customer, Freb, I have to tell you that the two with straight fur are a bit noisy and argumentative. I've got one curly male left. Want him?"

"Why not?"


"Blake! Look out!"

"There's nothing you can do, Avon." Blake stood, stoically watching the huge hand descend and grip him firmly.

Avon tried to prise a finger away from Blake, Cally bit another, and Vila rushed forward to pummel ineffectually at a third. Three more hands came into the cage and held each of them apart and helpless while Blake was removed. As he was lifted, he called out to Avon, "Contact Orac. It's our only hope."

"Well, now," Avon drawled, "there's an idea that hadn't occurred to me. What with, pray tell?"

Blake gave him a wryly amused look. "No doubt you'll think of something."

Avon slumped and stared straight ahead. Vila looked at him uncertainly. Best to avoid him when he was like that. He looked at Cally, who was spitting out bits of fur, furious at the humiliation of her easy defeat. He sighed and went to his corner and sat down with his knees pulled up to his chin.


Poor things, Klim thought when she looked in on them after Freb left. They're pining. Probably can't count much past three and they've suddenly noticed half the litter's gone. She found some small brightly-coloured balls and a couple of rattles and put them in the cage. Perhaps that would distract them.


Tash ran all the way to the pet shop. Oh, no, another one was gone! But the brown one was still there, huddled in his corner. Tash's tendrils drooped and darkened in sympathy. The animal looked up at her with his sad eyes, then ran to the window as he had done yesterday. It was almost as if he was begging her to take him home with her. Then he picked up some balls and began to throw them up and catch them, one after the other, faster and faster until they blurred into a bright circle about his face, which was still turned to her in mute hope. Tash clapped all four hands and jumped up and down with delight, her ears pricked straight up and her tendrils rigid and as yellow as her eyes.

"You clever little thing! Oh, I could just pick you up and hug you!" She stayed for as long as she could, watching his tricks. He was now working with just one ball, bouncing it off his feet, knees and head. Entranced, Tash obscured the view by misting up the window with ecstatic sighs. She would bring her parents tomorrow. They would have to let her have him.


"You whore, Vila."

"Shut up, Avon."


Blake was appalled. The place was a sweat-shop, overcrowded and badly-ventilated. Perhaps he could mobilise the labour force. He went from alien to alien, trying to communicate, but was met by blank stares, curious sniffs, half-hearted growls, or was simply ignored. There must be suppressants in the food and water. He would have to fast, just as he had on Earth, but he would get through to these people.


Jenna hid under the bed, hoping the sadistic bastard wouldn't look for her there. She felt the floor shake as the alien's feet clumped into the room, and winced at the impact of his school-books hitting the bed above her. She sneezed at the giant dust-balls—damn!—and crawled behind a model ground-car as large as herself. No, too late, he'd found her. She was dragged out by one leg and lifted, dangling upside-down in the alien's grasp, then put on a table and held firmly. She began to struggle at the smell of the chemicals. What was he planning to do to her today? She hoped nothing worse than the statically-charged dandelion hairdo she now sported, the same bright pink as the gauze tunic she wore. But somehow she knew there was worse to come.


Deg had really wanted that lizard in the pet shop. He'd asked Klim to keep it for him, and he'd saved his allowance for days, but then Zul had bought it. What really added insult to injury was her telling Klim that she was buying it for him. It just wasn't fair. She didn't really want it. She only did it to spite him. Just like with the dishes every evening. Deg like drying best and Zul preferred to wash, but just to be mean she'd make him wash, and smirk at him the whole time, her tendrils a really annoying shade of puce.

Deg looked thoughtfully in the pet shop window. During history today, he'd had the brilliant idea of spending his savings on a pet which Zul would like. He wouldn't offer to swap. He'd just wait and see whether she forced him to, or left things the way they were but was eaten up with jealousy.

"D'you want to buy one of those?"

Deg looked round in surprise. It was Tash, the dark-brown girl who was in Zul's class.



Tash was a friendly girl, and Deg knew she'd been on the receiving end of Zul's meanness more than once. She would understand. He told her.

"And you think she'd like one of these things?"

"Well, there are lots of lizards, and no one's ever seen anything like these. I bet she'd swap."

"Only if she thought it was her idea." Tash gave Deg a sidelong look. "If I were you, I'd go for the red and gold."

"You would?"

"The other two are a bit drab, don't you think? The gold trim's pretty and I think the curly fur's nice."

"Not the black and silver?"

Tash grinned. "Well, you could. He looks a bit vicious so he might bite Zul."

"He might bite me!" Deg said in alarm. "No, I'll get the red." He went into the shop.

Tash sighed with relief. He hadn't even looked at her little brown. She put her hand on the window, and he came over and put his little paw up to the glass. Then, as Klim took the red and gold female out, he turned and ran to the back of the cage, and stood clutching the bars, looking out as she was packed into a carry-box.

"All right, what did you want to show us?" Tash's mother said.

"This!" Tash rapped on the glass.

The brown ignored her. Tash rapped again. He turned his sad little face to her, and slowly came forward, picked up three balls and began to juggle them dispiritedly.

"See? He's really clever!"

"Hmm." Her father seemed to be coming round.

"Perhaps he is," her mother said, "but I think he's caught something. His eyes are leaking."

"They weren't just before!"

"Enough, Tash! I said we'd think about it. Come on, you need a furcut."

"I hate furcuts!" Tash followed her parents reluctantly. "I like my fur hanging in my eyes."


Vila dropped the balls and trudged back to sit beside Avon. He was rather too close for Avon's comfort, but he did not object. It was more than half an hour before Vila spoke.

"So it's just us two now."

"As always, you show an enormous talent for stating the obvious."


"Yes, Vila."

"What will happen if no one buys us?"

Avon looked at Vila's miserable face, and bit off the sarcastic remark he had been going to make. They had both seen the furry grey owner of this place giving lethal injections to more than one animal. It had been kindly and gently done, the alien holding the victim in its lower pair of hands while a third stroked it and the fourth administered the dose.

"That brown one likes me," Vila said.

"Its parents appear to have better taste."

Vila drew up his knees and put his head in his arms. Avon almost put his hand on Vila's shoulder, but stopped himself just in time.


"Look what I've got!"

Envy flashed briefly across Zul's cream face. She sneered. "What is it?"

"Something much more interesting than a lizard."

"Prove it."

"All right. Come outside. Let's see if they can both fetch."

In the yard, they put the pets down on the lawn and Deg rolled a small ball away from them. "Go," he said to his one. "Fetch!"

Cally looked at the rust-coloured alien, and the cream one with the reptile. Both were crouched down, jabbering incomprehensibly, pointing enthusiastically at the ball. It was painfully obvious what she was expected to do. Cally sighed and walked with dignity across the bluish round-leaved ground-cover, picked up the ball, brought it back, and politely handed it to the reddish alien.

Zul seethed.


The language barrier was proving too much for Blake. He had been growled at, licked, sniffed, but none of the captives appeared to understand him. How did one express the concept of freedom? Mime it? Ah, yes, that might work.

Blake pretended he was in a cell, his hands pressed up against the invisible walls on three sides, then grasping and shaking the bars on the fourth. He mimed being released, rushing out the door delirious with joy and delight. Of the seventeen or so creatures there, only a handful were looking at him and he couldn't see anything more than faint curiosity in their eyes. He sighed, decided to give up for now, and lay down amongst the warm bodies by the fire.


Jenna was furious. Green hair? With her white bodysuit and pink gauze tunic, she felt like the flag for the Novitalia province. Did this alien have no taste at all? To add to her displeasure, she had badly swollen eyes and itchy lips due to an ill-considered attempt to use the alien's paint-box as a makeup kit. Her only consolation was imagining just what she would do to Avon and Vila when she got her hands on them. And Blake too, but those thoughts were somewhat more pleasant.


Gan had mastered the obstacle course in the back yard, including the flaming hoop (a recent innovation), and was now slowly learning which actions were expected of him at which alien command. He now knew the sounds which meant run, stop, sit, jump up and down, and lie down waving his arms and legs in the air. He wondered if he'd been bought by circus performers. If so, he drew the line at a high-wire act.


Beft and Slok were inordinately proud of their chitin collection, and had decided to purchase a guard animal. Klim showed them something called a Tarsian warg-strangler, but they thought the black and silver thing in the window looked much more intimidating and was aesthetically pleasing as well. It would match their décor. Klim stocked a large collection of lamentably cheap pet accoutrements, but she did have some higher quality merchandise, the couple was pleased to find. They selected two matching stainless-steel food and water bowls, a black leather collar with small steel spikes, a pet-futon covered in black silk, and a carton of gourmet pet food.

Avon, observing from behind bars, approved of their taste. And when the grey alien opened the cage and fished him out, he had to acknowledge that the beige and the coffee really were creatures of great discrimination.


Avon turned and looked at Vila. He was pressed against the bars, one hand outstretched towards him. Annoying as he was at times, Vila had been a congenial, entertaining, and surprisingly intelligent companion, and Avon was quite fond of him, loath as he was to admit it even to himself. He would probably never see him again. He smiled faintly and nodded. "Good luck, Vila."

"You too."


Oh, the poor little thing. He was the only one left. Even when Tash tapped on the window, the animal just looked at her, then curled up in a ball again. She went into the shop.

"If no one buys him, what will happen?"

"Well, I can't keep him forever," Klim said.

Tash's lower lip and tendrils both trembled.

"Tell you what though, I could let you have him for half-price, seeing as he's the last one."

"Really?" Tash brightened. "Hang on to him for me. Don't let anyone else buy him!" She ran home as fast as she could.

Klim smiled. It was true that she couldn't keep pets which didn't sell indefinitely, but she put off the inevitable as long as she could. And she was sure she could sell that thing easily, as the others had all gone for a good price, but one of the delights of this business was the rare perfectly-matched pet and owner. The little girl had been there every day, and the creature had obviously taken to her.


"Mum, Dad, he's the last one and he looks so sad, please let me have him."

"I said we'll think—" Tash's mother said.

"If I don't buy him, she'll, she'll, you know..."

"Darling, it's just an animal. It won't know. It will just go to sleep and never wake up," Tash's father said.


"It'll be in whatever heaven those things go to."


Tash's mother looked at Tash's father. "Perhaps she's old enough for the responsibility."

"And it'll break her little hearts if anything happens to it."

"He's half-price," Tash said.

"Oh, all right then."


Klim put some straw in a box, deposited Vila on it, and closed the lid. Terrified in the dark enclosed space, he pounded desperately on the sides, yelling for help.

"He doesn't sound very happy," Tash said. She opened the box, took Vila out, and held him over her shoulder with one hand, stroking his head and back gently with another. Both relieved to be out of the box and scared to be so high above the ground, Vila clung tightly to her fur. "He likes me!" Tash said.

"I can see that." This really was what this job was all about. "Your first pet?"

Tash nodded.

"I'll throw in a tray, a bag of litter, a couple of bowls, and some dry food, just to get you started." Klim put the things into a bag which Tash took in one of her lower hands. "Be careful he doesn't escape on the way home."

"He won't. He likes me." Tash beamed and left the shop.

Out in the street, surrounded by aliens even bigger than the one carrying him, Vila shut his eyes and pressed his face into the warm soft fur, and Tash sighed with pleasure. When she got home, she gently prised him loose and held him out to her parents. "Here he is! Isn't he cute? I'm going to call him Pooky!"

"Yes, yes, he's lovely. Take him to your room dear. Just let him get used to that for now."


Vila stared about himself, stunned. The bed he was on was larger than his cabin on the Liberator, and the room was the size of a small spaceship hangar. The alien set up the hated litter tray in a corner—Vila really must figure out alternative arrangements—and put out food and water for him. She suddenly rushed at him, picked him up, threw him in the air, hugged him suffocatingly, then covered his face and head with wet licks, crooning affectionately. Then he was firmly placed back on the bed among huge stuffed monsters while the alien pointed a device at him. The light almost blinded him, and he tried to crawl under a pillow.

"Silly Pooky," Tash said. "It's only a camera. Look!" She pulled out the exposed plate and held it up to the light.

Vila stared at another terrified-looking Vila which suddenly materialised in front of him. He reached out hesitantly and passed his hand through it. A hologram. Oh, right. He gave a sickly grin and allowed himself to be posed in the tentacles of a furry pink octopus, riding a soft fuzzy dinosaur-thing, peeking pertly from under a pillow, leaning nonchalantly against a pot containing a small tree, sitting on a chair, some books, the dressing-table. This wasn't so bad. It was more attention than he'd get in a month on the Liberator. Then the alien threw herself on the bed against the pillows, grabbed him and put him on her lap, picked up a device, and suddenly the room was filled with huge slavering monsters, all screaming at him. Vila yelped and attempted to dive off the bed, but was caught by a foot and dragged back. Everything had gone quiet, so he opened one eye. The aliens were still there, but frozen in place. Vila put out a hand to touch the nearest one. More holograms. 3D vidcasts. Bloody hell, his heart wouldn't take much more of this. And he needed the litter tray now.

"Mum!" Tash yelled. "Pooky thought the holo was real! Isn't that just adorable?"

"Yes, Tash," came the patient reply.

Vila took the opportunity to escape, slid off the side of the bed and made a dash for the tray. He stepped in, then stopped and looked round at the alien who was lying on her stomach staring at him with frank interest. Oh, no.

"Mum? Dad? Pooky's in the litter, but he's not doing anything."

"Of course he won't while you're there, Tash," her father said. "Those things probably go off somewhere private in the wild."

"But I want to see."

Vila crossed his legs.


Tash reluctantly rolled off the bed and went out of the room. Vila was relieved in more ways than one. After a decent interval, Tash came back in. "He's very clean," she reported. "He's covered it all up."

"Of course," her mother said. "That's to hide his scent from predators." In the living room she smiled at Tash's father. "She'll be occupied for weeks with that thing."


That night, Vila slept in Tash's bed, curled up in the crook of her arm against her warmth. It was quite nice, actually. Took him back to when he was tiny and slept in his mum's bed. He wondered how the others were.

Avon lay on the tasteful pet futon in Beft and Slok's elegant living room beside the chitin display cabinet. He had dined rather better than at the shop. Cally's method had its uses—it had been almost possible to convince himself that his dinner had been lobster mornay. He now tried to tell himself that he was not worried about the rest of the crew, distracting himself with the thought of all the alien electronics in the room.

Cally sat on the straw in her carry-box doing Auron relaxation exercises. She had had a stressful day. She and the reptile had been weighed, measured, and argued over. They had been taken to a lake and expected to jump in the water to retrieve the fish the two children had stunned with a small explosive charge. Cally had refused and the lizard had to be rescued when it was thrown in and sank. She suspected that they had been meant to fight when they were put in an emptied toy box together, but Cally had taken a moral stance and the lizard had gone to sleep. They had then been tied to parachutes and dropped from an upstairs window. Cally was beginning to think there was some sort of primitive rivalry involved, in which case she could understand the rust-coloured one's disappointment that she could not scuttle up a wall and across the ceiling.

Blake had mimed the attempted take-over of the London, and the escape in the Liberator, reducing it to the basics—crawling furtively through narrow spaces, hope, despair, hope again, walking bravely into the unknown, then punching buttons and being pushed back in a flight chair by high gees. He had a greater audience than for the invisible cell act which was very encouraging, but he had been unnerved to find the alien overseer looking at him curiously at the end. Had he seen it all? Did he know what Blake was doing? One good thing though was that if the food was drugged, it didn't work on his extragalactic metabolism, which was just as well for he had been damned hungry and had given up his fast. Now pleasantly full, Blake yawned sleepily by the fire among the rest of the bond-slaves. He could probably make it out on his own, but he owed it to these people (and the memory of those he had not been able to rescue on Cygnus Alpha) to take them with him.

Freb was puzzled. Just what had that been? Some sort of mating dance?

Jenna slept face-down on a cushion on the floor because her now deep-blue hair was braided with copper wire. Actually, it didn't look at all bad. She had a gown it would look rather good with. It was bloody uncomfortable though. She lulled herself to sleep by imagining Avon with a bright orange mullet and Vila with a green afro. Bastards. It was all their fault.

Gan slept peacefully in his basket in the laundry, dreaming of the course in the back yard, and the running in a large circle at the end of a lead they had started him on that day. His arms and legs twitched a little in his sleep.


The next morning, Vila decided that the first thing on his agenda was to get rid of the humiliating litter tray and at the same time gain access to the outside. He climbed over Tash's arm, waking her.

"Pooky!" She grabbed him and hugged him and licked his face.

Vila, who had detected the recurring sounds of 'Tash' and 'Pooky' the previous day and drawn logical conclusions, decided that name would be the next to go. First things first though. He wriggled out of Tash's embrace, slid off the bed and crunched into the litter tray. He looked down at it, turned and pulled a face, pointed out the window, gave Tash an appealing look, then ran to the door and scratched on it.

"You want out?" Tash put her head on one side and considered it. He was small and would be easy enough to catch. "All right, then." She got out of bed, picked Vila up, hugged him so tight he could hardly breathe, and carried him outside and put him down.

Vila gave her a grateful grin, patted her leg reassuringly and disappeared behind a bush. When he re-emerged and came obediently back to her, Tash was delighted.

"Good Pooky!"

Time to nip that in the bud. "Vila," Vila said firmly. He pointed at Tash. "Tash." Tash's eyes widened, her ears stood up straight, and her tendrils quivered and turned pink. Vila pointed at himself. "Vila."

"Vila?" Tash blinked at him. He had a name? Admittedly it wasn't the monosyllabic one the People had once they could talk, but was only a pet or baby name. Still—could he be that intelligent? With such a small brain? Nah, just cleverer than most animals, and probably a lot more fun. "Come on, Vila," she said and was so gratified that he followed her obediently back inside that she took him to breakfast with her.

"The first time that thing gets on the table or puts its paws in the food, it's out of here," her father said severely. But Vila was so well-behaved, sitting quietly on her lap, and so charmed her parents with the delicate way he took each morsel Tash gave him in his little paws and lifted it to his mouth, that they relented.

"All right, Tash. Your Pooky can eat with us."

"He's called Vila."

"Oh? I thought it was Pooky."

"His name's Vila. He told me."

"Whatever you say, dear." Tash's parents exchanged an indulgent look.

At dinner, Tash's mother said, "We may have got that thing cheap, but you know, I think he'd have been worth the full whack. He does grow on you."

"He's an improvement on the one Beft and Slok got," Tash's father said. "That black and silver you liked the look of. The damned thing's got behind their holo and chewed the wiring. They can only get 2D now and the colour looks a bit dicey."

Tash's mother sniggered. Those two were for ever boasting about owning the latest technology. Serve them right.


All in all, Vila thought in bed, that had been a very productive day. He only had to scratch at a door to be let out, he was now eating food intended for, well, not pets anyway, he had got rid of that revolting name, had a nice bath in the hand-basin, and begun to communicate with the alien girl Tash. In fact, this might not be a bad life after all. He might learn the language and teach Tash how to play chess.


Avon had removed several components and quite a bit of circuitry from behind the holovision display unit and was attempting to put a subspace communicator together while the aliens were out. On a return trip behind the unit this morning after the repair-alien had come and gone, he was puzzled to find the wiring coated with some sticky substance. On cautiously touching his tongue to his fingers, he found the stuff was extremely hot, something akin to the chilli Vila and Gan liked, uneducated palates that they had. He was amused. They obviously thought he was eating the wiring. He removed what he wanted, some of it newly-installed, took it behind the couch where he had hidden his unfinished device, and began to work on it.

When he heard the aliens' vehicle pull up outside, he stopped and climbed up over the couch and onto the windowsill where he intended to look as if he were taking a nap, the pretence of innocence having been beyond him since he was six. However the sight which greeted him drove that idea out of his mind.

On a front lawn across the street, Vila was playing with an alien, the dark-brown one who had come to look at him each day at the pet shop. Avon found himself unaccountably pleased that the fool of a thief was safe. He watched Vila hurl a ball from quite a distance to the alien, and raised an eyebrow. He could make a creditable fast bowler. Vila raced across the lawn, his eyes on the ball being returned to him, caught it expertly, rolled, stood and threw it back. Hmm, not a bad fielder either, come to that. Avon wondered what Vila would be like at the crease. Like most Deltas, the idiot had undoubtedly wasted his talents on football, but he was a fast learner. Avon lost himself in a short but very pleasant dream of playing a leisurely afternoon game of cricket on Liberator's huge and empty cargo deck with Blake and Vila, with hot buttered scones and a nice cup of tea to follow.


Exhausted, Vila sprawled on the grass, panting. Enough was enough. Tash rolled him over onto his back, and tickled his tummy, making him helpless with laughter, then lifted him up, licked his face and hair enthusiastically while he beamed with delight, and put him over her shoulder.

It was then that he saw Avon in the window across the street. The contempt was almost palpable. Vila glared and tried to assume a position of greater dignity, but Tash's hand flattened him to her fur while another stroked him soothingly as she walked back towards the house. Vila was sure he could see Avon smiling. He raised a fist, and slowly extended two fingers.


That evening while Tash was doing homework at the dining table, there was a tap at the bedroom window, waking Vila from a light snooze on the bed. It was Avon. Vila quickly slipped off the bed and climbed up the window-seat to the sill, where he managed to raise the catch and push the window open.

"Well, if it isn't the common domesticated lap-thief."

"Look, Avon, if you've come across here just to insult me—"

"I need your help. I'm building a subspace communicator so I can get hold of Orac."

"Really?" Vila grinned in delight. "Need me, do you? Admitting I'm useful?"

"Not at all. You do however have a delicate touch, though I've always been somewhat surprised that you possess opposable thumbs." Avon paused and looked at the window-catch. "I assume you can get out of here any time you like."

"Don't even have to do that," Vila said proudly. "I just scratch at a door and they let me out straight away."

"Indeed. They probably think your bladder is as weak as the rest of you."

Vila ignored this. "When d'you want me to come over?"

"Tomorrow morning when yours is at school and mine are at work."

"How do I get in then?"

"You come around the back."

"And? I'm not climbing a tree you know. I'm not very keen on heights."

Avon hesitated. "You come to the back door."


Avon looked embarrassed.

"What then, Avon?" Vila persisted.

Avon looked away. "There is a...flap."

Vila hooted with laughter while Avon tried to look dignified.

Tash came in with her books. "Hey, what's going on?" She dropped everything and rushed to the window. "Ooh, it's that mean-looking black and silver. Go away! Stop bothering my Vila! Shoo! Shoo!" She pushed Avon off the windowsill, then, holding Vila securely, peered out. "Oh," she said. "I thought it would land on its feet."

Worried that Avon might have been hurt in the fall, Vila craned his neck over Tash's protective arm. He could see Avon, savagely brushing soil and twigs from himself, striding towards the road. Half-way across, he was transfixed by the headlights of a ground-vehicle and had to make a headlong dash for it.

Vila didn't think Avon would be in a very good mood tomorrow.


Tash had left for school, her mother had left for work, and her father had left the breakfast dishes in the sink while he enjoyed a holovision show about the care, feeding, and pruning of carnivorous plants. Vila did his best to ignore the unpleasant images and scratched at the patio doors. Tash's father, without taking his eyes off a plant ingesting something the size of a pony, let him out.

Terrified of the enormous vehicles, Vila made several false starts before he finally committed himself to crossing the road in one record-breaking sprint. Heart still pounding, he went round the back and let himself in the Avon-flap.

Avon was not, as Vila had predicted, in a good mood.

"What happened to your nose?" Vila said.

"Shut up and make yourself useful. If that's at all possible."

The night before, Avon had received several very hard whacks on the nose with a rolled-up magazine after Beft and Slok had sat down to watch their favourite holo program on the arts and discovered it was now in black and white. The fact that it now matched their décor had not seemed to matter to them.

Avon's mood improved however as Vila's dexterity and the professional tools he always kept with him in a pouch in his tunic made the work go much faster. They stopped at midday to raid the fridge. Avon hoisted Vila up to the middle levels from which he threw down a selection of leftovers into Avon's food bowl below. They then got into the freezer section, luckily at floor level, and managed to lever the lid off what seemed to be ice-cream and eat enough of it to wish they'd been more circumspect.

"A rather odd flavour. A somewhat musky aftertaste," Avon said.

"Mm. Goat's cheese and halva I think," Vila said.

They both drank rather a lot of water from Avon's water bowl, then removed some components from Beft and Slok's audio system and went back to work. Two hours later, Avon thought he had finished.

"Think your gadget will work then?"

"It is not a gadget."

"Oh come on, it hasn't even got an outside."

"Vila. I have no intention of educating you in either logic or topology so I shall let that pass. Give me that probe." Avon tested a couple of circuits, pressed a button, then leant forward over the bizarre collection of alien hardware. "Orac."

"What is it now?" came the irritated answer. Avon smiled and Vila sat back on his heels in surprise. "Well? I finally have the opportunity to investigate a new galaxy and some peace and quiet to do so. I might have known it wouldn't last. Is this important?"

"You know what?" Vila said. "I bet that little plastic sod chose that planet on purpose for our picnic."

"Yes. That had occurred to me."

About the same time it occurred to me, I bet, Vila thought resentfully, packing his tools away.

"Can you trace the origin of this transmission, Orac?"

"Of course."

"Then get the Liberator here and into orbit over this location as soon as possible. That is a direct order."

"Very well." Orac sounded sulky. "However it will take about 26 hours, 7 min—"

"Just do it, Orac. Then contact me on this frequency." Avon sat back. "I rather think a little celebration is in order." He picked up his device and stowed it back behind the couch.

"Got anything in mind?" Vila looked around the room with interest. He pointed at a decanter on the dining table. "What's that stuff?"

"Ah, I knew you'd jump at the chance to poison your system and damage your few remaining brain cells. And I have no idea, but doubtless it has an intoxicating effect on the alien physiology."

"Have to see what it does to ours, then." Vila clambered onto a chair and up onto the table. "Look, they've left glasses out, and just the right size too."

Avon arrived beside him. "They may look like tumblers, but to those brutes they'll be small shot glasses. That stuff must be pretty strong. Leave it, Vila."

"Oh, now look, let's be logical. Alcy molecules, well they're the same the universe over, aren't they? And none of the food's affected us." Vila looked sideways at Avon. "Just a little taste. But you'll have to help me with that bloody great bottle."

Avon sighed. "All right, but just a very little taste, Vila."

Between them they tipped the decanter and poured two small drinks. Avon sipped his cautiously and put it aside with an expression of distaste, while Vila took a good swig. He looked impressed.

"This'd clear your sinuses. Reminds me of some stuff we used to brew up on CF1. Brain-washer we called it."

"You're a fool, Vila."

"Oh, come on. It's not often we escape from aliens, is it?" Vila's face fell. "I'm going to have to tell Tash, you know. She'll miss me."

Avon snorted.

Vila drained his glass and looked at Avon a little goggle-eyed. "She's fond of me," he said reproachfully. "She'll be worried. She'll be out looking for flattened Vilas on the road." He looked thoughtfully at Avon's glass. "Don't you want that?"

Avon sighed and pushed it across to him.

"Thing is, I'll have to tell her somehow." Vila finished Avon's drink.

"That would seem to be somewhat difficult considering the problems you have communicating with your own species." Avon put the glasses back beside the decanter and climbed down to the floor, followed by Vila, who stopped in the centre of the room, swaying.

"Just had a thought," Vila said.

"I suppose it happens occasionally."

"They don't drink much of that stuff for a reason."

"As I already pointed out."

"Yeah, but it's not the alcohol, is it? Can't be any stronger than Terran booze and I only had a tiny bit. There's something else in it—" Vila gulped, looking very pale, "—and I don't think..."

"Not often, no."

"...don't think it agreed with me." Vila looked at Avon miserably. "Avon? I don't feel very well..." He vomited spectacularly over Beft and Slok's pale carpet.


"Oh...think I feel a bit better now."

They both heard Beft and Slok's vehicle pull up outside, looked at each other in horror, and fled in different directions.

It was the first thing Beft and Slok saw. Slok shrieked, threw all four hands up, his tendrils tightly curled and bright green with shock, and ran to the laundry for cleaning supplies, while Beft rolled up a magazine about modern architecture and grimly began to search for Avon. She hauled him out from under a chair, and held him dangling by one leg. Slok came back with a shovel and a bucket of soapy water just as she was raising the magazine to belt him a really hard one.

"He's going to get more than his nose hit this time," she said.

"No, push it in it," Slok said. "That's what you're meant to do. They don't like their noses in it."

"Really?" Beft dropped the magazine, crouched, and, holding the struggling Avon firmly, begin to force his face down.

Vila watched, appalled, from under the chitin display cabinet. If he did nothing, he suspected Avon might kill him. He briefly considered emerging and taking the blame and suffering the consequences, but that only seemed marginally better than being killed. But there was a third option. He crawled out, ran to the centre of the room, stopped well out of range and made loud retching noises, then bolted for the Avon-flap. Beft released Avon, who rolled out of the way and fled for cover, but she was too late to catch Vila.

Vila ran round the side of the house and straight across the road, mercifully empty, in the open front door, and didn't stop until he was in the haven of Tash's room.

Tash was sitting slumped on her bed looking miserable, everything in her room turned upside-down. She must have come home, found he'd been missing all day, and been looking for him. Feeling guilty, Vila went to her and tried to climb her leg.


She picked him up and held him tight, stroking his hair and saying his name over and over, interspersed with what Vila supposed were endearments. Moved, he flung both arms as far around her neck as he could manage, and kissed her furry cheek, then, on second thoughts, licked it.

"Oh, Vila!"

Her arms tightened around him. Poor little girl, about to lose her pet. Vila wondered how he could possible explain it to her. At least he could show her how he felt about her. He pressed his face into her neck, happily putting up with the squeezes and licks.


Avon sat on the chair closest to the flap and watched the clean-up operations with a detachment he hoped expressed his total non-involvement. It seemed to have worked, because his food bowl was placed on the kitchen floor as usual when Slok served dinner. Deciding grudgingly that Vila seemed to have used his wits for once, Avon sauntered into the kitchen and pretended he was eating beef stroganoff.

It was later, when Beft turned on the holo and the entire room filled with snow that Avon decided discretion was the better option and left with dispatch through the pet-flap and climbed a tree.


Over in Tash's room, Vila, who was being cuddled by Tash as she watched a comedy about a group of accident-prone soldiers in the Second Andromedan War, saw Avon, silhouetted against a window, go up a tree like a monkey. He was impressed. He never knew old Ave had it in him. Remembering all the snide remarks Avon had made about Blake and Jenna being treed all night by Travis and his mutoid that time, Vila decided to say nothing, but to keep it as a weapon to pass on to Blake. After all, he and Blake needed any advantage they could get. Avon was usually well ahead of them both on points.


The next morning, Avon waited until he saw Beft and Slok drive off before he came down. He didn't know it, but they were going to the Pet Show, as they always did each year. This time, they thought, they might also keep an eye out for something as elegant as Avon but less trouble.

Avon came down, opened and ate a sachet of gourmet pet food (seafood risotto if he closed his eyes), powered up his communicator and called Orac. The Liberator was on its way. He hoped that everyone was still wearing their bracelets, but there wasn't very much he could do about that, so he filled the kitchen sink and took a nice relaxing hot bath.


It was the weekend and Tash lay in as long as she could, with Vila curled up beside her on the pillow. When he finally got off the bed and scratched to go out, she followed him, afraid he'd disappear again, but he came straight back to her and was as cuddly as he'd been the night before. Reassured, after breakfast Tash got out her art set. She picked Vila up and sat him on the table, patted him on the head to make him stay, and started to draw him. The mischievous little thing wanted to play though, pawing at her crayons and paint-sticks and pulling at her sheet of paper. Finally, amused, she got out another sheet and let him have some colours.

Vila picked up a blue-green paint-stick half his own height, and carefully drew a line. Then, using brown, he drew a large figure standing on it with two legs, four arms, pointed ears and yellow eyes, and beside it a smaller light brown one with only two arms. Tash stopped and stared, surprised. The drawing was very simple, but beyond any mere animal.

Vila saw her looking, and pointed to the figures in turn. "Tash," he said, then, "Vila." Above them he drew a yellow sun. Then off to the side, he drew another one, much smaller, and laboriously drew eight concentric ellipses in black round it, then a small blue-green ball on the fourth one. Tash held her breath as he drew a line between it and the ground the two figures stood on, then connected the two suns. They had done the solar system at school two years before. He stood there, looking at her, his funny little face cocked to one side.

"Go on then," Tash said, jiggling with excitement. "Tell me where you come from."

With a fat crayon, Vila drew two spirals on the far side of the sheet, and lines connecting Tash's home system with one, and himself with the other. Tash's mouth dropped open. Not just from another planet, but another galaxy! But he was continuing, drawing another line from his galaxy to hers, with a strange spiky object on it. A spaceship? Tash squeaked. Vila smiled at her, nodding, then put five small figures beside his own. He babbled incomprehensibly at her, then pointed to each in turn, saying slowly, "Vila, Avon, Cally, Blake, Jenna, Gan." Then he drew another ship above them, and talked rapidly, gesticulating all the time, but all Tash could understand was the repeated words or names 'Orac' and 'Zen'. Then Vila stood on his own figure, jumped to the ship, and waved goodbye to her.

"Oh," Tash said sadly. "I get it. Your mummy and daddy are coming to get you all and take you home, aren't they?" Her ears flattened and her tendrils went dark.

Vila came and gave her as much of a hug as his little arms could manage.


Deg and Zul were tied in their competition. They had tried to race Cally and the lizard, but when they were released from their boxes, they just wandered around aimlessly. It was Deg who thought of starving them and putting bowls of food at the other end of the hallway.

"Ready?" Deg had a hand ready to take the lid of Cally's box.

"Yes." Zul glared at him. "No, wait."

"What is it?"

"It still counts as a win if one eats the other one, doesn't it?"

"Oh, all right. Ready? Go!"

Cally had not been fed since the previous morning, and as soon as she saw the food in the distance, she realised what was expected of her. She sighed. Such primitive beings, just like humans, always vying with each other. Cooperation was a much more civilised option. The poor reptile obviously could not see the food nor smell it, so Cally walked to the end of the hall, picked up its food, and brought it back to it. She then gave the two alien children a look of patient superiority which crossed species barriers, and walked back to her own bowl with dignity.

"You know what?" Deg said. "That's a really annoying animal."

"You're right," Zul said. "I'm sick of this. Let's play another game."


Blake was trying to demonstrate the idea of solidarity to his fellow captives by showing how hard it was to break kindling when it was bundled together. He didn't seem to be getting through. Some of them sniffed at the wood, others gave it a chew, most just looked at him out of dull defeated eyes. Blake sighed. He couldn't think of what else to do.


"Look what Vila did!"

Tash's mother looked at the picture doubtfully. "Really, Tash, you're much better at drawing than that."

"Course I am! I didn't draw it. Vila did, didn't you, Vila? See, he drew our galaxy and his one. And these are his brothers and sister, and his parents are in the ship." Tash earnestly explained the picture. "...and they're coming to get him back."

Tash's father smiled. "That's very good, Tash. You have a wonderful imagination." He took the picture and carefully fixed it to the notice board.

"I especially like how you made it look as a small child drew it. Very clever," Tash's mother said. "But you know a child that young wouldn't know much about astronomy."

Frustrated, Tash held Vila out for them to look at. "It's not that he's that young, I think he's about the same age as me. But he's little. I'd like to see you do a drawing that good with a paint-stick almost as big as you." She pouted and cuddled Vila.


Jenna looked at herself in the mirror. She was particularly glad that Avon couldn't see her like this.


Gan ran around the large ring in front of the sedately pacing Mux, careful to keep his lead taut as he'd been trained. He'd been paraded in, prodded and examined (he still felt embarrassed about that), put through his tricks, and now five performers had been selected to run around to acclaim. He hoped he didn't have to do it all over again. He really didn't like the flaming hoop. The spectators hummed in what he'd learned was applause. An announcement was made, and the hums rose in volume. Gan was lifted by Mux and placed on a stand. An alien placed a shiny blue sash over his head, and he was dazzled by the flashes of cameras.


"The Liberator is in stationary orbit above your position," Orac said sulkily.

"Teleport," Avon said.


For a brief instant, each of them were outlined in light before they disappeared—Vila from Tash's arms in front of her parents' astonished eyes, Avon from the austerely tasteful living room, Cally from the hallway where she sat cross-legged at her food-bowl, Blake from the midst of Freb's pets, Jenna from Sorp's dressing-table where she glowered at her image, and Gan as all cameras were turned on him as winner of the Best New Species prize at the Pet Show.

They arrived all bunched up together in the teleport bay. When the melee had sorted itself out and Blake, remembering the debacle at Centero, had counted them all, everyone had a good look at each other.

"Why, Jenna! You look just like—"

"Not another word, Vila." Jenna glared at Vila and Avon, who had almost identical expressions on their faces, and stomped off to the flight deck. When the others got there, she was at her position, her hand hovering over the turbo-button. "If anyone says anything, I'll press this right now and they'll need a fish-slice to get you all off the wall."

"All right, everyone to your positions," Blake said mildly. "Zen, plot a course for our galaxy, and Jenna, take us out of here."

When Jenna turned off the hyperdrive back in their own galaxy, she took the opportunity to leave while everyone else was still sprawled in their flight-chairs, recovering.

"Jenna? Are you all right?" Blake asked.

"Just going to bleach my hair," Jenna muttered.

"Bleach?" Blake looked disillusioned. "I thought it was naturally blonde."

Jenna rolled her eyes. "With eyebrows this colour? Really, Blake."

Vila sat up groggily. "I don't much like travelling that fast," he complained. "Feel like I've been turned inside-out." He looked at Gan with interest. "You've lost a bit of weight, Gan me old mate. And what's the ribbon for?"

Gan looked embarrassed. "A prize of some sort."


"It was at a show."

Vila's eyes sparkled. "You were a champion at a pet show?"

Gan ripped the sash off. "I'm going to get something decent to eat. And I don't want to talk about this ever again."

"I will join you," Cally said. "I could eat a Tarsian warg and the strangler that killed it." She added thoughtfully, "Now I know what it is like to be a pet, I feel even closer to my moon-disk."

Blake sighed and got up. "I'll be in my cabin." He had felt bad enough about not being able to free the alien slaves, but now he realised that he had spent a lot of energy trying to talk to animals, he felt even worse.

Avon looked at Vila. "You've come out of this the best. You look very well-fed and sleek."

Vila's face fell. "You might laugh, but she really liked me. I liked her too. I like children." He looked away. "She'll miss me, you know." He waited resignedly for the inevitable insult.

As Vila could not see him, Avon smiled fondly. "Come on, Vila. For some reason I rather fancy some ice-cream."

Vila brightened. "Funny, that. You noticed it too, did you? Poor Jenna." He grinned. Jenna's hair had been done in soft peaks, each one a different pastel colour. "She had vanilla, strawberry, pistachio, lemon, caramel..."

"...blueberry, coffee, mango, banana, chocolate..."

"We could make a Jenna sundae!"


The simultaneous and spectacular disappearance of all six of the things sold from Klim's shop, one of them recorded by three holovision channels, made headlines for days. The owners became famous, Tash especially, being the only one the aliens had communicated with. The picture Vila drew and the device Avon made were much studied, then put in a museum. The fact that the ship that arrived in orbit just before the aliens all disappeared had promptly left at such an enormous and unattainable speed was both unnerving and a great relief. After all, no one wanted to meet the parents of children capable of making a sub-space communicator from holovision parts.

In all the excitement, no one thought it worthy of note that three of Freb's pets escaped, or connected this with the sightings shortly afterwards of vermin at the spaceport and the subsequent theft of a small ship.

The end