"How do we keep twenty-four babies quiet?" asked Argus. He was completely at a loss at what to do. Baby care was not an area covered in the Federation military training manuals. Other than a vague idea that they needed nutrition and maintenance every so often and were extremely fragile, they might as well have been aliens to him.
Vila replied, "It's not that hard. If they're hungry, you feed them. If they need changing, then you change them. Sometimes they just need someone to hold them. Or you could try singing lullabies to them. That used to…"
"Lullabies?" asked Argus. "But…but…I don't sing! What are we going to do? We can't do singing while we're trying to get out of here. It's not…professional. What will the aliens think if they hear us singing? Either they've been invaded by madmen or we've got the children." For some reason the idea of babies was putting him in an unreasonable panic. Babies did not belong on a mission.
Vila said, "I don't know why you're acting like this."
While Argus was having his incomprehensible panic attack Avon decided to see if he could contact Cally. He sent out his thoughts, hoping she was still keeping an awareness out for him.
* Cally *
The response was almost immediate. * Yes, Avon? *
* We have found a way to rescue the children and prevent the Andromedans from looking for them * Avon told her.
* That's wonderful news! I knew you would be able to find a way * said Cally. There was a clear current of excitement with her sending.
Avon was only intermittently listening to Argus and Vila arguing but he heard Argus saying, "We still don't have a way to keep the children quiet. And singing to them is not a solution."
Vila said, "Well, I don't hear you coming up with any better ones."
Argus said, "Babies are not my specialty."
Vila said, "They're not a specialty. They're just babies."
Avon said to Cally * We have a problem however. We are going to try to convince the aliens that the children have been destroyed. But in order to do that, the children must not make any noise while we're rescuing them, or the Andromedans will know that we've taken them. Is there something you can do to help? *
Cally replied * Of course, Avon. We will speak to the children and explain to them that they need to be quiet. Give me a few moments. *
Avon turned his attentions back to Argus and Vila. He asked, "Are you both finished?"
The two men looked at him. Argus asked, "You have an idea? Something better than singing?"
Avon replied, "Infinitely. I have spoken to Cally." He told them what was planned.
When he was done, Argus remarked, "That's a much better idea than singing to them."
Vila remarked, "I think the commander would be very interested to know that you don't like children."
Argus said, "I did NOT say that. Don't you dare tell her that. It's just that they're not…"
"Professional?" asked Vila.
Argus said, "That's not…"
* Avon. * Cally's voice came to Avon again. Avon gasped and his eyes closed in pain. His hands went to his head and he collapsed to his knees.
"Avon!" Argus came forward immediately and grabbed him; guiding him to the floor.
"What's wrong?" Vila asked with concern on his face.
Avon gasped a reply, "The voices. Too many of them." His mind began shutting down, trying to protect itself.
After Avon told her what was needed, Cally and Vanora connected to the children and explained what was going to happen and the necessity to be quiet.
When they were ready, Cally projected her thoughts to Avon again * Avon
* Without warning, twenty-four curious little minds followed their connection to Cally and found Avon's mind. They were all excited as they tried to speak to him.
Cally was instantly aware that Avon was in trouble. She telegraphed loudly * Stop shouting children! Leave Uncle Avon alone. Do not speak to his mind all at once. He is not like us. He is not used to so many voices in his head. You're scaring him. *
The twenty-four young minds all stopped projecting and pulled back. Cally was aware that their mental presence was still close and they were all troubled.
* We're sorry, Auntie Cally. We didn't know. We didn't mean to hurt him. * one of them told her. She could sense that they were all feeling terrible.
Cally reassured them * I know children. It's all right. *
* Is he going to be all right, Auntie Cally? * another one asked. She could sense their concern.
She told them * Uncle Avon has a strong mind. He will be fine. He just needs time to recover. *
Cally concentrated and tried to touch Avon's mind. She was aware that he had retreated behind a mental wall in order to protect himself and was still in this protected state.
* Avon * She called out to him in a gentle voice. * Are you all right? *
She heard a faint and tentative reply * Cally? What just happened? *
Cally responded * The children were still linked to me when I projected my thoughts to you. Somehow, they were able to follow that connection and found your mind. They were excited and were trying to speak to you all at once. It was too overwhelming for you. Your mind retreated in order to protect itself. *
Avon's thoughts were stronger as he said * The voices are silent now. *
* Yes. I have told the children to be quiet and to give you time to recover. They know that they have to be careful and cannot speak to you all at once. You're the only mind they have linked with that was not Auron. They didn't understand. *
A tiny voice projected * We're sorry if we hurt you, Uncle Avon. We didn’t mean to. *
At the unfamiliar voice in his mind, Avon paused, then he said * I understand. *
* Auntie Cally said that you are coming to rescue us * the little voice said.
Avon replied * Yes. We will be there soon. It is important that all of you remain quiet while we're doing this. Do you understand? *
* Yes, Uncle Avon. Can we still talk to you like this? * the little voice asked.
* Yes. You may. But not too much. It is best not to distract me during the rescue * said Avon.
* We understand, Uncle Avon * the little voice responded.
Cally's voice interjected * Alright, children. Uncle Avon has to work now. *
Avon felt a gentle current of warmth and encouragement flowing from the children before they became silent in his mind. For a moment, he was frozen in amazement and then his mind relaxed and he heard Argus's voice.
"Avon!" Argus shouted his name, trying to shake him from his stunned state.
Avon opened his eyes and noticed that he was on his knees and Argus was holding him. Vila was crouched next to him with a worried look on his face.
Avon said, "I'm fine. It was a momentary shock. The children found their way to my mind because they were linked with Cally. I was not prepared to handle that many voices in my head."
Argus breathed a sigh of relief. "You had me worried there. Are you alright?"
"Yes. My mind retreated in order to protect itself. Cally has spoken to the children and they will do as we ask."
"Good." Argus helped him up and let go of him. "Are you sure you're alright? Do you need time to rest?"
"I'm fine. Are we ready to proceed?" asked Avon.
Argus replied, "We're still waiting for the diversions."
At that moment, they could hear several explosions and then alarms going off. "And there they are," said Argus. "Shut them all down, Avon."
Vila handed Avon the handheld computer unit that was dropped when he fell to his knees. Entering a single command code he had already set up earlier, Avon disabled all of the security systems, as well as the internal and external communications and transportation systems.
On the flight deck, Reya was still waiting for communications from the team below. She was getting a bad feeling.
Using the ship's comm she said, "Cally, can you get to the teleport room?
Over the comm speaker Cally's voice asked, "You've heard from them?"
Reya said, "No. But I have a feeling that we're going to have to do a very fast pickup once they report in."
"I'll go there immediately."
In his guest cabin, Sester had finished the entire bottle he had obtained from the dispenser but he still had not achieved what he wanted. He could still feel; he could still remember. The thought of Argus coming back onto the ship and having to watch him with Reya was already agony for him. Sester picked up the empty bottle and threw it across the room but even that did not work. It did not shatter into pieces.
He got up from his chair and stood on unsteady feet. I need to see her. He knew what he had promised her and he was sincere about it. It was not a game anymore. He cared about her too much to cause her more misery. She had extended a hope of friendship and even though it was not enough for him, it would have to be. Sester slowly headed for the flight deck.
While the aliens were occupied with the explosions at the other end of the complex, Argus and his group gained access to the maturation chamber without incident. He and the soldiers quickly disposed of any opposition as well as the scientists working on the children.
They all approached the maturation pods apprehensively, not knowing what to expect. Argus found himself becoming increasingly uncomfortable and stayed back. The unreasoning panic he had felt before had not left him; it only got worse as he neared the children. He wasn't sure why he was feeling this way.
Everyone was finally able to see the babies lying in the growing pods. They were all mesmerized by the tiny figures.
Vila was the first one to speak, "Wow. They look human."
"Of course. What did you expect?" asked Avon as he sat down at a control station and began to check the readings on the panels controlling the maturation chambers. Everyone else was still staring at the children. The children stared back at them with curiosity in their eyes.
As Avon began to understand the readings, he became concerned.
Vila said, "Well, they're supposed to be part aliens too. Shouldn't they look a little more alien-y?"
One of the soldiers said, "They're beautiful."
Argus approached the babies tentatively in order to get a closer look. They were very beautiful; sweet and innocent. Argus had an unpleasant flash of memory. He gripped his rifle and nearly staggered back; the memories of the civilian massacre at Zircaster came back to him in a flood.
Innocents. So many innocents. Their blood is on my hands. Argus felt ill. His jaw clenched as he tried to remain focused on the mission. I have to rescue these children. They cannot die. I will not let them die. His face took on a grim calmness; his eyes swept the room. He could not let any of them die. The children. Avon. Vila. The soldiers. None of them. Not anymore.
The only ones who will die here will be the Andromedans.
Argus ordered the soldiers, "Plant the bombs. Quickly. Make sure that all of the pods will be destroyed completely." All of the soldiers tore themselves away from looking at the children and began to do what they came here to do.
Two of the other units arrived and began helping as well.
Vila was still looking down at the children. He tentatively tried to engage them by making faces and funny noises. Some of the children were giggling. "Avon. Do you notice something?"
Avon was still trying to understand the controls on the panel. He asked absently, "What are you talking about?"
Vila replied, "They all look familiar."
Avon looked up and glanced over at the children. He said "Of course." Then he looked down at the panels again and continued working.
"What do you mean, of course?" asked Vila.
"They're clones," replied Avon without looking up.
"Well, I know they're clones," said Vila. "But they don't look like Vanora."
"They do," said Avon.
Vila said, "I think you need your eyes checked, Avon. They don't look anything like Vanora. They look like Cally."
Avon replied, "So did Vanora before she had facial reconstruction surgery done."
Vila asked with frustration, "What? Why didn't anyone tell me that? Did I miss a memo?"
"You read memos?" asked Avon absently while he entered some commands and began changing some of the panel settings.
Argus came over and asked, "How's it going, Avon?"
Avon replied, "The growth rate of the children has to be stabilized and brought back down to normal levels. If we removed them now, it will kill them. At the rate their bodies are growing, it requires a constant stream of nutrition. They are also being fed drugs that help them deal with the problems associated with such accelerated growth. Without them, they would be experiencing great pain. "
"How long will it take?" asked Argus.
"Not long, I'm already doing it now," said Avon.
"We don't have that much time," said Argus. "Dain and his men won't be able to divert them much longer."