Argus was almost growling with frustration and anger by the time he and the soldiers returned to the ship without Reya. No one would admit to seeing Reya leaving the fight chamber. No one saw the people who had taken her. They were obviously lying. Someone had to have seen something. It was a public area.
His fists were clenched when he came off the teleport pad. Argus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He could not afford to let his emotions get out of control, no matter how much he wanted them to. Reya needed him to think clearly and get them all out of this mess.
Argus went to the ship’s internal comm panel. “Zen, locate Sester.”
Zen’s voice responded, “Sester is currently located in his assigned guest cabin.”
Argus directed one of the soldiers who had come back with him, “Go and get Sester. Bring him to the medical unit.”
The soldier acknowledged and went off on his task.
Argus went to the medical unit. Cally was checking on some readings when she saw him enter. She asked, “Did you find her?”
Argus snapped at her, “Does it look like it?” He pushed down his frustration again. “I’m sorry. No one admits to seeing anything. No one saw her leave.”
“They’re obviously lying.”
Argus took a deep breath again to calm himself. “We’re not going to have much help in finding her.” Argus looked down at Thenard, “How is he?”
“He’ll be fine. I was able to repair the injuries.”
“Has Vila reported in?”
“Not yet, they just went down a little while ago.”
Argus asked, “Has Avon found any useful information about the coup?”
“I haven’t talked to him yet. I’m not sensing anything from him, he must be busy.”
“Alright, I’ll go and talk to him. He must be in his lab.” He headed towards the exit and then paused, “Oh, by the way, Sester is on his way here to see me. Tell him to come to Avon’s lab.”
Argus arrived at Avon’s empty lab. He was mystified. Nothing in the lab indicated that Avon had been here recently.
He went to the comm panel. “Zen, locate Avon.”
Zen’s responded in its normal tired sounding but patient voice, “Kerr Avon is not currently on the ship.”
Argus asked with shock, “What? Where is he?”
“That is undetermined.”
Argus was beginning to feel a headache coming on. This was starting to compete with one of the worst days of his life. “How can he not…wait a minute…Zen, has Avon come back to the ship yet?”
“Negative. He has not returned by teleport.”
Argus cursed under his breath. He used the comm panel to contact Avon’s teleport bracelet, “Avon. Where are you? Are you still in the observation booth?”
There was no answer.
“Avon! There’s danger. They’ve got Reya. You have to come back to the ship.”
There was still no answer.
Sester entered the lab and saw Argus’s agitation. He asked immediately, “What’s going on?”
Argus waved him to wait. “Zen, are you still able to pick up the signal from Avon’s teleport bracelet?”
“Affirmative. The signal is registering within normal operational parameters.”
Sester listened with interest.
“Where is it coming from?”
Zen responded, “It is currently broadcasting from the observation booth.”
“He must be in trouble.” Argus raced to the teleport room and Sester decided to follow him. Argus hoped it was a simple case of Avon having another one of his collapses. He wished he had left someone with him.
Sester asked, "I take it Avon is missing?"
"I don't know yet!"
Argus rushed to the teleport controls and set the coordinates for pick-up. He activated the switches and directed hopeful eyes on the teleport pad.
No Avon appeared. Argus tried it again but there was still nothing. He went quickly to the comm panel, "Lt. Dain, get a team of four together and report to the teleport room immediately. I also need someone on the teleport."
Argus contacted Cally in the medical unit. “Cally, Avon is missing. He never came back to the ship. I’m going down to see if I can find him. Can you try to contact him with your psi abilities?”
Cally’s voice sounded concerned, “I will try.”
Her response, when it came back was full of concern now. “Argus, I can’t reach Avon’s mind. I only have an awareness of his presence. He must be unconscious. He does not appear to be in a nightmare or I would be able to sense something.”
“Alright, Cally. I’m going to head down with a team. Keep trying to contact Avon.”
Sester was leaning to the side of the teleport control. He asked, "Now will you tell me what's going on and why I was summoned?"
Argus stared at his nemesis for a moment, his face hard with tension. "They've taken Reya."
Sester was in shock. "Who took her?"
"The Chandarans. It was after she won the fight." Argus's fist hit the edge of the control console in anger and disgust at himself. "It's my fault. I should've realized what they were going to do. I knew they wouldn't like her winning. I should have anticipated their actions. It was all my fault. I should have been with her. I should have thought of everything." The guilt ate at him like a cancer.
The tone of accusation in Sester's voice made Argus react negatively, but it was overridden by the guilt. "I have no excuse."
"Something must have happened. What was it?” Sester repeated the question again like a rushing tide that could not be ignored.
When Argus didn’t reply, Sester said, “I know you, Argus. Something urgent must have taken your attention away."
"You don’t know me at all!"
"I know that you would never have left her alone without a reason. What was it?"
Argus was loath to say. He didn't want to give himself an excuse.
Sester said, "You obviously sent for me, for a reason. You need my services and those services require that you tell me what the full situation is, or my help will be very limited."
Argus said reluctantly, "During the contest, there was a coup attempt and we were caught up in it. They captured the Chandaran President."
"You went to rescue him?" It was a rhetorical question, Sester already knew the answer.
"Yes." Argus didn't know how everything could have gone so wrong when it had appeared to go so right.
"I left him in the observation booth. I told him to come back up when the teleport was free."
"And he didn't?"
"I should have left someone with him. I should never have left Reya alone. I should have…"
"You can't blame yourself for everything, Argus. You can't anticipate everything that will happen."
Sester’s attempt at sympathy left a bitter taste in Argus’s mouth. His enemy knew that he had failed the person they both loved. His voice was like a low warning growl, "Stay out of my business, Sester. That's not why you're here."
Sester said with acerbic dryness, "You haven't told me what my business is yet. I have repeatedly told you to use me and you refuse to. This is the kind of situation that I’m very useful in. Psychostrategists specialize in human dynamics. I would have seen the possibility of this happening. In that way, it is your fault. Your stubbornness and your unfounded jealousy have blinded you. You had resources at your disposal to prevent this from happening and you didn’t use me."
Argus was angry at Sester for saying these things. He wanted to shout at him to get out; but he couldn’t. Sester was right. It really was all his fault and he needed Sester’s help to get out of this mess.
Argus grimaced and swallowed his pride. “You’re right. I need your help. Avon…and Reya need your help.” The sourness of his own failure churned in his stomach.
Sester could see the turmoil and anguish on Argus’s face. The admission that he needed his enemy in order to help Reya was a galling one. Sester said, “I haven’t won. This is not about winning. If we lose Reya or Avon, then we both lose. We have to get them both back.”
Argus inclined his head in a bare acknowledgement.
Sester asked, “Can you set aside your animosity towards me until we get them back?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Argus said curtly.
“That’s not enough.”
“That’s all you’re going to get.”
Sester said, “Alright. You realize that Avon may have been captured and that we might be going down into a trap?”
Argus asked, “Why do you think I’m going down with a team?”
“I’d like to go down with you, if you don’t mind.”
“Just stay out of the way until we clear things.”
Sester said pleasantly, “You won't even know I'm there.”
Argus said, "I will.”
There was a look of amusement on Sester’s face, not shared by his rival.
Lt. Dain and the team arrived armed and ready. Argus told them the situation. “Be careful, they might be expecting us."
The observation booth only seemed to contain Avon’s teleport signal, there were no other life signs in the room. They all drew their weapons as they stood on the teleport pad. Sester joined them.
Argus said, “Send us down.”
Argus hated it when Sester was right.
The team teleported a short distance down the corridor from the observation booth. When there appeared to be no signs of opposition, they advanced.
Unfortunately, the trap was not inside the room.
Suddenly, from both ends of the corridor, groups of heavily armed Chandarans rushed them with rifles firing. Chaos immediately broke out as both groups targeted at each other. Men on both sides were hit and went down.
Sester was frozen in shock as he watched a Chandaran point his rifle towards him. He felt odd, as if everything was moving in slow motion except for him. Sester was feeling a mixture of amusement and horror at his own impending death, or at least injury. He couldn't seem to move. The idea that someone might come to his aid didn’t enter his mind. Why would someone help him? There was no reason for them to. In fact most of them would probably welcome an unavoidable casualty that none of them wanted on the ship anyway.
Argus saw the danger. He immediately ran and tackled Sester so that they both fell to the ground. The Chandaran's shot hit Argus in the side. Argus swore and made a quick snap shot before the Chandaran fired off a second one. The Chandaran hit the ground and lay still.
The short, intense fire-fight was over. Two Chandarans lay dead, the rest were in various stages of injury. There were sounds of moaning. Several of the Athol soldiers were also wounded.
Argus got up and looked down at Sester, "What the hell were you thinking just standing there?"
Sester shook himself as his paralysis passed. He looked up at the man who had saved his life. "You're hurt."
Argus had a snarl on his lips. "No thanks to you." He looked over the scene and directed the soldiers to gather their wounded and return to the ship.
Sester couldn’t think clearly. Nothing seemed to make sense. Argus confused him most of all. "I'm sorry. I don't know what happened." Sester brought his hands up, they were visibly shaking. An odd smile appeared on his face. "Imagine that."
Argus looked at him strangely. He said, "You're in shock. We’ll get you back to the ship."
Avon’s head hurt. His concentration was fragmented as consciousness returned. A groan nearly escaped his lips but he suppressed it. The almost automatic reaction came from painful experience. If they thought he was still unconscious, no one would hurt him. Most of the time.
His mind was drowning in confusion as it tried to sort out where he was. Reality was a tenuous thing for a man whose mind had become a game for someone else to play with. All he could do was hang onto the points of recognition.
Pain. Ever present pain. Splitting his head. Every time he tried to think, there was more pain. Don’t think. Let the thoughts come.
Sharp pains in his side. More broken ribs. Predictable brutality from unimaginative thugs.
The feel of metal biting into his wrists. Cold, cruel bands that he felt, even when he wasn't wearing them. These ones felt different. Why? Did it matter?
Cold, hard floor.
Avon hazarded opening his eyes a sliver.
Darkness. This triggered an involuntary fear.
Avon never used to be afraid of something like the absence of light. The Detention Centre changed that.
Out of the shadows, the nightmares came. In the darkness, Sester twisted his mind.
No! He did not want them to win. He couldn't let them win. His mind was his own. Pain fragmented Avon’s mind as he tried to think. He stopped pushing and allowed the thoughts to come to him again.
Avon was tired. He couldn't stop fighting, but he was tired. Tired of living. Tired of being a plaything for other people.
* Avon! *
Shock. Avon remembered.
Cally's mind was reaching for him. He was no longer a prisoner at the Detention Centre. That nightmare was finally over. Relief filled him and joy that felt alien, because his life had never been one to know such things.
At least, not that he remembered. Now why did he have that thought? It wasn't time for such thoughts. They could wait.
Nothing else mattered now except the thread of Cally's presence reaching out to him. He still didn't know where he was or what was happening but he was no longer alone.
He had Cally. It was a fact. A comforting, immutable fact. Something that made sense and didn't make sense at the same time.
* Avon! Where are you? Are you alright? *
She was aware of him, but she didn't know where he was.
Avon gathered his pained and fractured mind and tried to send his thoughts out. He knew it was not like the projection that Cally was capable of but he hoped that with their closeness, it would be enough.
* Cally. * Avon's mind seemed to burst into pain again. The concentrate required for their communication caused agony. His thoughts fragmented. Memories bubbled to the surface. Vila. Argus. And the Commander. For some reason, Cally's presence drew up the things that did not fill him with fear.
There was a stab of pain in his head as Avon remembered something else. The Commander fighting. In a large empty room.
The recent past finally caught up to him. Avon groaned involuntarily as the memory of the impact of a laser rifle hit his head. Memories always made themselves real in his mind.
A weak voice said, "Avon?"
Avon could barely hear the sound, but he knew who it was. He opened his eyes. As they adjusted, he realized that it was not completely dark, there was a dim light emanating from the ceiling.
Avon's own voice sounded weak as he said, "Commander?"
Reya's voice was almost a whisper but the relief in it was clear, "Yes, Avon." There was a brief pause. She asked, "Are you alright?"
Avon recognized a person in severe pain but who was trying not to show it.
He had a flash of memory of himself, jaws tight with pain but refusing to acknowledge the hurt as he spoke. Avon said, "The question should be, are you alright?"
There were sounds of chains rattling and a suppressed groan. "I've been better."
Avon slowly rolled his body, grimacing from the agony in his ribs and his head. Just that little movement seemed to exhaust him. He paused to catch his breath. With the dim lighting, he could make out a shape. Reya was chained to one of the walls. She hung limp but her head was raised to look in his direction.
He said, "They've hurt you."
Reya spoke like a person who was struggling to breathe. "They've…tried to but they don't think they've…succeeded yet." She tried to laugh but only managed a choking groan and gasping combination. Avon grimaced as Reya's pain echoed with his own body's remembrance of past agonies.
There was pain in his head again as he tried to respond to her. Avon said, "Laughing is not advisable."
Reya gave another laugh expressed as pain. The sounds subsided and there was silence again. Avon asked, "Commander?"
The use of her title almost made Reya laugh again but she was able to suppress it this time. She said in a faint gasping voice, "Avon, I've always…meant…to say this, you… don't have… to call me Commander. It's…my rank. Not…who I am."
Avon wasn't quite sure why he still called her that. Or indeed why he started calling her that. "Very well…Reya."
Reya's voice was becoming more faint as she said, "I can't talk. Need rest. But if you could keep talking…tell me how they got you."
Avon understood her request. Too many sense memories were being re-awakened by what was happening to Reya. It was not just his own that were triggering it. Avon tried to think through the pain in his head, tried to fight for concentration.
She needed to hear his voice but there was no telling who was listening to them. Avon fought for each word, each thought as he tried to keep her conscious. "We…were in the observation booth…watching the contest. You gave…an impressive…performance."
There was no reaction from Reya. Her head hung down and there were only sounds of laboured breathing. Avon wondered if she was still conscious.
Reya's barely audible voice said from the gloom, "I thought...you weren't going...to call me that."
“Why do you…sound…like that? Is…something wrong?”
He told her, “Nothing…of importance.”
“I…you should stop…tell me later.”
Avon ignored her request and stubbornly went on. “We saw Gravis…trying to kill you. Argus rushed down…to help."
Reya said, "Playing…hero…"
Sometimes, Avon had a way of saying things so flatly that it made you wonder what he really meant. "Don't think too…badly of him."
Reya almost laughed again. "Can't tell if…you're being serious."
This time Reya's laughter was a weak coughing sound. "Continue."
Avon hesitated and then he said, "He wasn't playing hero."
"I know." Those two words held a wealth of meaning that Avon did not want to explore. He was not the kind of person to deal in sentiment. Even with Cally it was difficult.
Avon said, "The device they were using on you…was neutralized."
"It was a device then? I thought…it might be."
"Yes. It was. We managed to disable it. I'm not certain…what happened next…but Argus reported…that he was caught up in something…and couldn't come back to the observation booth. I had something to do…and didn't go back up to the ship. The Chandarans came in. One of them…hit me over the head. That was the last thing…I remember until I woke up here. I haven't been able to contact Cally."
Reya had fallen silent again.
There was no response, only an increasingly weak and laboured breathing.