Vila and the others got back to the ship with the children. Cally directed the soldiers who were helping to set up a nursery in one of the cargo holds. Vanora had tried to help at first but it proved too disrupting. Her effect on men was still as potent as ever and she had to retire back to her cabin. She was in a foul mood at being denied access to her children. Cally had to promised that she could return once the soldiers were finished.
The children were all excited and were chattering away to her. It was strange having their clear sentences in her head but hear unintelligible sounds coming from their mouths. Their physical abilities had not caught up to their psi and mental ones yet. She had to encourage them to try to develop their vocal skills.
Cally remembered how difficult it had been for her own sibling group. Their telepathic communication was natural and came so easily that it was difficult to see the benefits of the slower and more flawed means of expression.
She knew that Vila would probably wish for a lot less need for communication at the moment. He had a very difficult task ahead, though she really didn't understand why the men on the ship found Reya so intimidating. She didn't find her so.
Vila approached the flight deck steps with trepidation. The woman inside was someone who made Argus nervous. In a good way, of course. Vila was no exception.
His foot touched the top step and he saw Reya standing at her station, with her back to him. Vila felt his knees weaken. His feet seemed frozen in place, unable to go further. It wasn’t just because she made him nervous generally but because of the news he had to give her. Vila hated giving people bad news. Jokes, funny remarks, magic tricks, those were what he was good at; things that made people happy, that brought a smile to their lips.
With her back still to him, Reya said, “You can come down, Vila. I don’t bite. I already know.”
“You do?” Vila asked in surprise as he finally came down the stairs and approached her. He looked at Sester suspiciously. The psychostrategist was sitting on the couch and was staring at Reya.
Sester had been increasingly worried since Reya heard the communications from Avon and started monitoring the teams’ return to the ship. The look on her face had instantly woken him from the drunken stupor he had been in. She had such a lack of reaction that he knew that she was trying hard not to fall apart. She was trying to remain functional because Argus needed her; and the only way she knew how to do that was to remain professionally detached.
Reya turned to look at Vila. “Yes. I’ve been monitoring the comm channels.”
“You’re taking it awfully well. Considering,” said Vila, looking at her apprehensively. Reya’s face had her normal professionalism. Vila didn’t understand it. He was expecting some kind of emotional reaction. Sadness. Anger. Fear. Something. But there was only calm.
“He’s still alive. I know he is. Avon will get him out,” said Reya. For a brief moment, emotion broke through and then returned to calm again. She was being strong because they both were for each other. “Once the children are settled, we’ll go down.”
“No,” Vila blurted out. Oh, no.
“What did you say?” asked Reya.
Vila blanched under her gaze. That’s why she’s so calm. She doesn’t know the message yet. I haven’t told her. Vila wished he had not come down the steps. He thought that telling her that Argus had not made it back would be the worst part of the news. He didn’t know that it was still to come. Vila swallowed nervously; his mouth felt dry. He needed some water, or something infinitely stronger.
“Do you have a message from Argus?” Sester asked from the couch.
Vila gave him an unfriendly look.
Reya asked “Vila, tell me what Argus said.”
“Only if you promise not to kill me,” said Vila.
“He did it again, didn’t he?” Her face was a bare whisper. There was a trace of anger in her voice and pain in her eyes.
Vila replied in a higher than normal pitch, “Yes.”
Sester got up and crossed over to Reya, reaching out to touch her on the arm. “Maybe, you’d better sit down.”
She waved him away and asked Vila, “What exactly did Argus say?”
Vila said, “He said that the children are the most important thing. We have to get them out. The Andromedans must never find out they’re still alive.” He stopped, not wanting to give her the rest of the message.
“Is that all?” asked Reya.
Vila swallowed nervously. “He said to tell you that he needs you to do this for him. And he said to tell you…that he’s sorry.” After delivering the last of the message, Vila backed up a step. Reya's fists were clenched and there was tightness in her jaw. She looked like someone who was about to commit violence. Vila asked with trepidation, "You're not going to kill the messenger, are you?"
Reya had listened to the message and then her head bowed and her eyes stared unseeing at the panel in front of her. She noticed that her hands had tightened into fists. Her whole body was tense. Reya wanted to scream, to hit something; she may have if Vila and Sester had not been there. She wanted to be alone and at the same time, she didn’t want to be.
He’s going to be fine. He’s going to come back. His head is too hard to break. Avon will get him out. She had to believe that. Damn it, Argus! Why did you have to ask me to leave you here? It hurt so much that she could barely breathe. She couldn’t say no, not when he asked. He knew her only too well. We are going to have a long talk when you get back.
Reya did what she had seen Argus do many times, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. In a way, it made her feel connected to him; imagining his deep chest rise as she took in her own breath. She deliberately relaxed her hands and laid them flat on the control panel. She could see that Vila was looking nervously at her.
Reya steeled herself and said in a calm voice, “Alright. We have to get the children out. Vila, go and get Cally. Tell her she needs to leave the cargo hold to the soldiers and come to the flight deck." Cally was the only one on the ship who knew the location of Kaarn.
"I'll just go get her." Vila took the opportunity and almost ran to get Cally. To him, this calm professionalism was even more intimidating and much more incomprehensible. He could understand her getting angry and wanting to take it out on someone. This calmness and control scared him. He hoped that he would never be on the wrong end of it. He thought Argus was a very brave man to want to come back to this.
Reya glanced at Sester and saw that he was still looking with concern at her. Her security conscious-mind wished she had known what Vila was going to say before he mentioned Kaarn. It was already bad enough that Sester knew about the hybrids. That couldn't be helped now but there was one thing she could do. Sester must never know the galactic coordinates to Kaarn. It was also a good opportunity to rid herself of his presence.
The psychostrategist approached and said, "Is there something I can do to help?"
"I need you to leave the flight deck," said Reya.
Sester nodded. "You don't want me to be here when Cally gets here. I understand." He added with an easy smile, "I'm not offended in the least, I case you were worried about conveying that impression. We psychostrategists are a realistic lot, we are not offended by suspicion. I would be disappointed if you weren't suspicious." With that, he left her alone.
Argus lay in a pool of blood. It felt sticky and warm and he could still feel more of it flowing from his wounds. His fists clenched in pain and he refused to cry out. He would not give the enemy the satisfaction.
What are they waiting for? They must know that I can’t do anything now.
The wrecked room was still empty, waiting for the victors to arrive.
No. They did not win. Not today. We made sure of that.
When he closed his eyes, he could still feel the powered grenade speed past him and hit the wall with a thud. He had quickly picked it up and threw it back out the door but had been unable to stop the second one.
Argus was finding it increasingly hard to concentrate on breathing and fighting the pain at the same time. Each breath was a struggle.
He wondered if the others were back on the ship already. He hoped they were speeding away safely with the children.
There was another source of pain; something he could not fight. It wasn’t physical. There was an aching emptiness because he missed her already. His thoughts trailed off as he heard footsteps entering the room.
He had wanted to see the faces of his enemy before the end. Of all the regrets he might have had this would have been the least important one to him, but it seemed it was the only one that would be filled.
“Check the transport status,” a firm voice of command ordered.
Booted feet stopped next to Argus and nudged him roughly. Argus gritted his teeth and bit back a moan.
“This one is still alive.”
Someone else kicked his weapon away. “Doesn’t look like for long,” someone else remarked.
Another one said, “Just kill him. If he knew anything useful, they wouldn’t have left him behind. He was obviously the most expendable one.”
"He might still have some useful information." The person who had spoken with a voice of command before knelt down beside Argus and asked, “What’s your name? Whom do you work for? The Reves? The Federation? Who told you to come here and destroy the labs? Who took the Auron woman? What information did your people take?”
Argus focused cold eyes on his interrogator but didn’t answer.
The questioner said, “You have a choice. You’re going to die anyway but how painfully will be up to you. I understand these types of wounds can be an extremely excruciating way to die for a human. If you tell me what I want to know, I can guarantee you a quick and easy death.
Argus gathered his weakening strength and spit out an angry, “Go to hell.”
The questioner did not look disappointed instead, there was a superior sneer on his face. “Our society is beyond such superstitious concepts. Perhaps the others are right, I should just kill you.”
Argus eyed the questioner suspiciously; the man seemed to be playing with him. Either he was being deliberately cruel or he was after something.
“Yes, why don’t you?” asked Argus icily.
The questioner put a hand on his injured mid-section and pressed down. Argus’s body stiffened in reaction and he let out an involuntary moan.
The questioner said, “Your people have destroyed a very important project. I must have some compensation.”
“This is not compensation,” gasped Argus.
The questioner smiled, “True. It’s more what you humans call, a ‘fringe benefit’. The compensation lies somewhere else.” He suddenly grabbed Argus’s shirt and ripped it open, exposing his torso. “An excellent specimen,” the questioner remarked as his eyes studied Argus’s broken body as if he were a prize to be dissected. “Now that your people have denied us access to Auron genetic material, I need something else to experiment on. I was hoping for a superior physical specimen. I guess you’ll have to do.” The questioner slapped Argus on the chest possessively and smiled.
Argus thought with irritation. Why do I always get these ones? Don't these people have better things to do? He really hoped it was going to end soon.
One of the others said, “Sir, the transport pod is coming back down.”
The questioner stood up and said, “Good. I want at least one of them alive. Kill the rest.”
“Should we take this one out of here?”
“No. Leave him here. They won’t be as inclined to shoot if they might hit him,” the questioner replied. The man looked down at Argus. “You may be more important that I thought if they’re coming back for you.”
The transport pod plunged down towards the underground facility. Avon didn't have a plan when he decided to make this foolish move to rescue Argus. His orderly mind could not tolerate that situation for long. He began assessing the situation and identifying their assets.
They had the resources; his mind and the skill and equipment of the soldiers were more than adequate. The opportunity was missing, they did not have the element of surprise. The alien troops would know the pod was coming back. They would be waiting; it was the same as walking into a trap. This was not an acceptable situation and Avon did not like those. There had to be another way; he just had to find it.
The soldiers were checking and rechecking their weapons. It was their only sign of nervousness. They also knew the danger they were going into.
There were only a few minutes left. The pod would begin to decrease speed as they neared their destination. Avon's mind was racing, trying to find a solution.
He looked up. There was the obligatory maintenance hatch to the roof of the transport.
Too obvious? The transportation pod imposed limits on any plan he could come up with. There were only two ways to approach this. They could take their chances and attack from inside the pod. That would definitely be too obvious and indicated a complete lack of imagination. Avon did not like being predictable.
The other option was not that much better. They could use the hatch and hide above the transport. Unfortunately, only an unintelligent enemy would not think of this already and Avon didn't think that they would be that careless.
What if we use both?