If I hadn't been so weak. Maybe it wouldn't have happened. Even though her mind told her that it was a foolish thought, that she had been helpless to forces beyond her control, it didn't help. She could not shake the feelings that weighed her down.
Cally was aware of Reya's anguish. This was the strongest impression of her companion since they had first met. They both stopped just outside the doorway of the cargo area, watching the children for a few moments.
The sight of the children made Reya feel even worse. Most of them weren't crying anymore but they clung to the soldiers, hugging them tightly, as if afraid that, if they let them go, the soldiers would leave too. In turn, it was strange to see the looks of gentle compassion and helplessness on the faces of men who normally were tough and hard. They were bulwarks of security in a world that had suddenly turned uncertain and frightening.
Before they entered Cally asked, "Are you sure you want to do this now?"
"I have to," said Reya. "I might not have the courage to later." She steeled herself and entered. Everyone turned to face the new arrivals and looked at them expectantly.
Cally took Reya's hand. She projected into her companion's mind, * Can you hear me, Reya? *
The sudden voice in her mind gave Reya a start. Cally's mental voice was very recognizable and sounded right next to her. She replied, "Yes, I can hear you."
* We'll do this slowly so that you can get used to it and so that the children can get used to you. * said Cally.
* All right. *
Cally said, * Children. *
A tiny voice responded, * Auntie Cally. We still can't hear mother. Do you know where she is? *
This was going to be painful. * I have something to tell you. *
* Did you find her, Auntie Cally? * The little voice belonged to Brina. It was full of tentative hopefulness. Cally could sense all of the children's hope. She really wished she had good news to tell them. To be faced with something this awful at such a young age was terrible but they had no choice but to tell them.
In Auron society, they never lied to the children, no matter how difficult the truth; but it would be a truth tempered with compassion and understanding. In a psi-enabled society, it was virtually impossible to keep something like this a secret. Even if they weren't all fully telepathic with each other, their impressions would be more than enough to reveal what they did not want revealed.
With the power of the children, it was hard to tell what they would be able to find out on their own. So far, they had been good and had kept to the boundaries that Cally had set. But they were still children and were reaching a difficult age where the testing of boundaries was normal.
Cally and Reya had decided that telling the children would be less harmful in the long run. It would still be traumatic but much less so than if they lied to them and the children found out later on their own. Not to mention, they did not want to set that kind of example for the children. Especially not these ones.
Cally said, * Yes, we both have something to tell you. This is Auntie Reya. You haven't seen her yet because she's been busy keeping the ship running. *
Brina's little voice said, * Oh. Uncle Argus loves Auntie Reya! *
"Who told you that?" Reya blurted out in astonishment. The children had never seen the two of them together. She wondered how they knew.
* Did I say something wrong? * asked Brina worriedly.
"No, no, no…I'm sorry," Reya said more gently. "It's fine. You just surprised me. That's all."
* You need to pay attention now, children. I want you to listen to Auntie Reya. If you're troubled then tell us. But try not to speak all at once or you will scare Auntie Reya. *
* Yes, Auntie Cally, * responded various children's voices.
Cally looked at Reya encouragingly. Reya swallowed nervously, and then she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She began, "Cally told me that you felt something terrible earlier."
Brina, who seemed to be the stronger of the children, said, * Yes, Auntie Reya. * Some of the children began sniffling and whimpering at this mention of the traumatic event.
"Do you know what happened?" she asked.
Brina replied, * Mother was sad and scared. And she was angry. Then we felt something very terrible and we can't find her anymore. Why can't we find her, Auntie Reya? Why did she go away? *
Reya grimaced at Brina's questions. How do you explain to children that their mother was a treacherous woman? Some of the children started crying again.
Reya asked, "Something terrible happened. That is why your mother went away."
Brina asked, * Where did she go? Will she come back for us? *
Reya replied gently, "I'm sorry children, but your mother can never come back. There was an accident. I did something…"
Brina interrupted, * Is mother dead? *
Reya stopped in shock at this question then she answered, "Yes, I'm afraid so. I'm very sorry, children. I…"
Brina said, * We could feel mother doing something after she talked to us. We didn't understand what she was doing. Did she do something wrong? *
"Why do you ask that?" asked Cally.
* Mother was trying to do something with her mind. It was a bad thing. You said we should never touch people's mind like that. *
Cally and Reya looked at each other. Reya said, "Yes, children. Your mother was scared and angry and she made a mistake. She did something bad. Because of this bad thing, I became very confused and did something that caused her to die. I didn't mean to do it. I'm very sorry." Reya's face reflected the misery and guilt she was feeling.
Brina looked at her gravely. * We know, * she told Reya. * We know you didn't mean it. *
"I'm very sorry," Reya said again. "I wish I could bring her back for you."
* We do too, * said Brina, sending what appeared to be a sad sniff along with her words. * Auntie Cally. We understand why you told us not touch people's minds like mother did. It is a bad thing. We will not do it. * Cally could hear all of the other children voicing their agreements.
"I'm glad, children," said Cally.
* Auntie Cally. Was mother a bad person? *
Reya and Cally looked at the child in shock. Cally said, "Your mother was scared a lot of the time and the world we live in is a dangerous place. Sometimes she would do bad things because she was scared. And when you do bad things sometimes very bad things happen in return."
* Why would she do that? * asked Brina, not understanding.
"I don't know, child. Only your mother knew that."
The children seemed to fall silent but Cally was aware, at the edge of her consciousness that they were conversing with each other.
Brina broke the silence. * Auntie Cally. Sometimes, we didn't talk to mother much. She thought some things that scared us. Is it bad not to like her? *
Cally sighed sadly and responded, " It is right not to like the bad things. But do not think too badly of your mother, children. I believe she did love you. *
Brina said sadly, * We know she loved us. She told us to take care of each other before she left. We think that's a good thing. *
"Yes, it is, children," said Cally.
Brina said, * Can we still be sad that mother's gone? Would that be all right? *
"Yes, children. You should be sad when someone dies. Especially someone who is close to you."
* Then we will be sad, * said Brina gravely.
Reya rubbed the child's head, "I love these children."
Cally said, "Yes. I do too. It's going to be difficult leaving them behind."
Reya said, "Children, I have to go back to work now. But if you have any questions, or if you want to talk to Cally or me about what happened with your mother, then don't be afraid to ask us."
Brina responded, * We will, Auntie Reya. *
Reya said to Cally, "I'll send Vila back."
Cally touched her arm, "You have to let go of this."
Reya nodded slowly and said, "I know. Maybe in time."
"You have too many things to worry about," said Cally.
"Yes. We have to get back to Argus and Avon." Reya left for the flight deck.
Vila, who was at the main flight console, glanced at Sester, who was sitting by the couches and had barely noticed him coming in. Sester seemed to be staring off into empty space. He'd been doing that for quite awhile.
Now that Vanora was gone, Vila finally felt clear-headed for the first time in days. He remembered what he had begun with Sester. It was time to return to it. He said, "A credit for your thoughts."
For a moment, Vila thought the psychostrategist had not heard him then Sester twisted his head around to look at him. Sester asked, "Why do you want to know?"
Vila said with a casual defensiveness, "No reason. Just making conversation. I don’t like silence, especially when it's so loud."
Sester said, "I don't feel particularly sociable now."
"Alright. I can take a hint," said Vila.
Sester turned around and stared blankly out into space again.
After a few more moments of silence, Vila asked, "This thing with Vanora…"
Sester turned to stare at him again and said with a controlled tenseness, "I also don't feel like talking about Vanora."
"Alright. You don't have to bite my head off. Then what are you doing hanging around here if you don't want to…." Vila stopped when he saw Reya arriving back onto the flight deck and Sester immediately turning around to follow her movements.
Vila thought to himself, So that's what you were waiting for. I should have guessed.
Reya said, "Thanks, Vila. You can go back and help Cally. We'll be arriving at Kaarn soon. "
"Don't mention it. Did it go alright with the children?" he asked worriedly.
"They're handling it better than we hoped," said Reya. "But it will still take a long time for them."
"It seems like it's going to take a long time for you too." He was normally a bit intimidated by this formidable woman. It was strange to see her so uncharacteristically vulnerable.
"I'll be alright. I can't think about that now. We still have Argus and Avon and the others to rescue." It made her uncomfortable to have so many people concerned about her.
Before Vila left, he asked in a quieter voice, "Are you sure you want me to go? I could stick around here for a bit." He glanced pointed at Sester.
"No. It's fine. I can handle him."
It wasn't Reya handling Sester that Vila was worried about, but he didn't say anything. The sooner things could get back to normal and he could keep an eye on the slippery and dangerous psychostrategist, the better.
Power utilization curve is still too high. Avon was working on something on his computer. He was trying to keep his mind occupied. Will have to increase the efficiency of the distribution nodes. He heard grunts of pain and movement next to him. Avon looked up from the screen. Argus was attempting to get up and having very little success, he finally gave up and lay back down.
"That was interesting," said Avon. "Did it make you feel any better doing that?"
Argus looked over and saw Avon staring at him. "I was trying to get up."
"I could see that. I wouldn't recommend doing it again," remarked Avon dryly. He returned to what he was doing. What if I realign the nodes?
"I feel better," said Argus defensively.
Avon said without looking up, "That doesn't mean that you should be getting up. Your temperature has gone down but your injuries still need time to heal. Not to mention that you still have grenade fragments inside you."
"My temperature is down? That's good," said Argus in relief.
"That still doesn't mean that you should get up," said Avon.
"You've said that already," said Argus irritably.
"Just wanted to make sure you got the message," said Avon.
Argus scowled. "I've got it. What are you doing?"
"Designing an anti-detector shield to protect the Aurons," said Avon.
"You mean a planetary one?"
"Yes. At the moment, they are protected by secrecy alone. That won't last indefinitely. They need a more permanent form of defence. I'm adapting the design of our anti-detector shield for large-scale operation."
"That's a good idea." Argus continued to watch Avon at work. Avon seemed absorbed in his task but there was something else.
Argus asked, "What's wrong?"
Avon stopped what he was doing but did not look up. He seemed like a contemplative statue, bent over the computer unit. Then he said, "Cally has missed the last two contacts."
"Oh. That may not mean anything. Didn't you say that her ability to communicate with you telepathically was weakening because of the distance? Maybe they're too far now, even with the children's help."
"Perhaps," said Avon, still looking down at the computer screen but not doing anything.
"Don't tell me, you're not worried. Worrying about something you can't do anything about is not rational. And Avon never does anything without a rational basis."
Avon was still looking at the screen without moving. "I am worried. My instinct tells me that something's happened."
Argus said, "I thought you didn't trust in instinct."
Avon frowned. "I don't. I hope mine is wrong."
"Now you've got me worried," said Argus.
"As you said, perhaps it is nothing," said Avon.
"They should be at Kaarn by now. They're probably on their way back already." A period of silence fell between them as they thought about this.
Argus said, "I don't think I ever thanked you for coming back for me. At least I don’t remember doing it. My memory's a little fuzzy about the last few days."
"There's no need."
"Are you going to give me some logical excuse why you had to save me?"
"Only if you need one," said Avon.
Argus gave a brief grin then he asked, "Do you think that having an anti-detector screen will be enough to protect them?"
Avon asked, "Did you have something in mind?"
"I do have a few ideas." The two of them began discussing the protection of Kaarn.