There's a large body of men coming this way. They're all armed.
Vila wished he had not gotten out of his bunk this morning. Whose bright idea was it to make him a team leader on this mission? It's not like he wanted it or even asked for it. It had been flattering that they thought he could do it. But flattery doesn't do much good when people are shooting at you.
In fact, he was sure that leaders were targetted first. Blake had been and so had Avon. They were like tasty morsels and everyone else was just the after dinner mint. Vila preferred not being the main course of any meal. It didn't matter if it was breakfast, lunch, dinner or any illegally obtained snack.
The Alphas were welcome to it. He didn't know if that made them smart or just blindingly unaware of the consequences of their roles. That's why Vila had preferred being a Delta. Even with all the inconveniences, it did have its good points. As long as you kept your head down that was. Though it didn't seem to be an option at the moment.
The sergeant's voice came from his teleport bracelet again, "Sir, there's another group approaching from the back of the building."
Vila suppressed a desire to feel his forehead to see if there was a big sign on it that said, "Magnet for trouble." He was in a battle and there was no neutron blaster in sight. His measly sidearm seemed very measly right now.
Vila knew he was supposed to say something. They were all staring at him, waiting for him to give them some direction but he couldn't think of anything. How could he tell people not to be afraid when that was all he was feeling at the moment?
Fear seemed to freeze his brain and stretch his nerves so tight that he was afraid that they would snap if he moved. He was afraid of sounding like a stuttering fool if he opened his mouth, but he had to say something.
"We should..." Vila started to say something and then he stopped. He was hoping that getting a few words out would start an avalanche and the rest would just come but he felt like a time distort engine that had just stalled. Vila knew that if he drew his pistol now, they would all see his hands shake.
The sergeant's voice prodded him, "Sir? The men can hold them off for a short while. I've taken the precaution of directing the President's security staff to help. Would you like to ask the President if he can get his staff to provide assistance?"
Vila looked around him at the President's assorted staff. They were all facing death or capture; Vila wasn't sure which was worse in this society. These people were all prepared to fight to the death. He could see it in the way they stood and the grim determination in their eyes.
He needed to be a hero now and he wasn't sure if he was up to it, never mind being a heroic leader. Vila knew that he wasn't anyone else's idea of a hero, he wasn't even his own idea of a hero; all of the stories he had loved as a child drew pictures of strong, brave men whose hands did not shake like a leaf and who were able to give stirring speeches. He was sure their mouths didn't feel as dry as a sand storm on a desert planet.
Vila's eyes rested on Corinne. She still hadn't spoken yet but she was looking at him curiously and expectantly. There was a quiet confidence in her eyes. Vila was sure he was just fooling himself, he was seeing something that he was hoping to see from a beautiful woman. Someone who believed in him, for himself.
It couldn't be. He was just being silly. She didn't even know him, she was probably seeing him like everyone else. He came from the ship where all of the others were brave, and they expected that he was like them too.
Well he wasn't. He was Vila. No matter how much he was scared, how much he didn't want to risk his life, there was something even worse for him, letting other people die. He couldn't do that. He may not be anyone's idea of a hero, but he was going to be himself. He was going to be scared and help people. Maybe in the future they might write about people who did what they had to do and still all the while being scared. Hopefully they might have a special category for people like him and they would call them heroes too.
"Yes!" Vila almost shouted into the bracelet. "I'll do that." He turned to Brent, "Mr. President, do you have weapons here?"
"Yes, there is a limited armoury." President Brent said to his staff, "We don't have a choice now. It looks like we're going to have to make our last stand here. "
Trey said, "Sir, we will hold them off here. You and your family should leave. You have the teleport bracelets."
"I couldn't let you do that. We'll stand together," said Brent.
Vila envied these people who could say and do heroic things without even thinking about them while he had to struggle with his own fears and try not to sound afraid.
Vila didn't relish a battle of any kind. He had problems shooting people close up on the best of days, never mind killing lots of them, even if they were all shooting at him. Hitting targets with the Commander on the firing range was fun but it didn't hurt anyone. Thoughts of Reya filled him with worry but he knew that Argus and the others were handling that end of things. He just had to take care of what he was supposed to do, which was rescue people.
A sudden realization hit him, no one had to die. This was not about a battle. That was not why Argus had sent him down here. He could save them all. Why didn't he think of that before? Everyone was so intent on fighting that he had been caught up in it too.
Vila said, "None of us have to do that."
They all turned to him as he explained. "We have the teleport. I can get more bracelets and we can get everyone out."
Gloomy faces hesitantly turned to near hopeful ones at this new information.
Brent asked, "How many can you get out?"
"How many people do you have?" asked Vila. He was starting to feel better about this now that he had put it into perspective. Though he didn't notice it, he was no longer hesitant and his mouth didn't feel dry.
Brent looked to Peters who had a more accurate idea of the household staff. Peters answered, "There's 102, sir including your family."
Vila was not expecting this number. With his team that made 109 altogether. "It's going to be tricky," he told them. He wondered how many the teleport could handle at the same time. They'd never tested it before. Avon might know. He probably did. But Cally said that Argus had gone to look for Avon.
The idea that Avon might be missing was not one Vila wanted to think about right now. He already had more than enough things to worry about.
There was one other who would know for certain. Vila thumbed his teleport bracelet. "Zen, do you know how many people can use the teleport at the same time?"
Zen's tired voice responded, "You are requesting the maximum capacity for the matter transmission unit?"
"Yes, the maximum capacity." Vila wondered if Avon could program the computers to sound at least a little urgent when the occasion demanded.
Zen's answer came back, "The matter transmission unit can transport eight humanoid life forms simultaneously."
"Thanks, Zen." Vila did some quick math in his head. "That makes 14 trips."
Weapons fire from outside the building caused them all to duck instinctively. They were out of time. There was return fire from inside the building. The battle had begun.
Vila's voice reflected his nervousness but also a determination. "Mr. President. About that armoury?"
Brent directed his people to arm themselves and help cover the exits. Everyone started rushing about as weapons fire became the loudest sound that could be heard.
As everyone prepared to defend themselves, Vila used his teleport bracelet comm again. "Sergeant, we're going to get everyone out but there are over a hundred people here. I'm going to coordinate the evacuation end of things, could you…take care of the battle part? Make sure the insurgents don't get in until everyone is out?"
"I'll handle it, sir. You can concentrate on getting everyone out."
Argus clenched his teeth as Cally pressed on the wound that he swore didn't need any attention until later. Cally looked at him, trying not to shake her head. She wondered why it was that men insisted on the illusion of toughness even when it was detrimental to their health.
Cally tried to concentrate on her difficult patients even though she was full of worry and fear about Avon's disappearance and her own inability to reach his mind. She could sense that Avon was in pain but her awareness of him was weak.
Cally was afraid that he had suffered a head injury, one that prevented him from trying to communicate with her. She didn't even know if he could hear her. All she could do, in the few moments she had free, was to continue communicating with him and assume that he was able to hear her. He needed her support. Whatever was happening to him, was draining what little physical resources he had.
They needed to find him quickly.
Her other worry was Reya. She had seen the attitudes of the Chandaran men during the contests. Reya was in real danger the longer she remained in their hands.
They had to rescue both of them. The sooner the better and in order to do that, they needed people who could still walk around and function.
Cally said in a voice that refused to take 'no' for an answer, "Lie down. I'm going to stop the bleeding."
There was a rebellious look in his eyes as Argus answered, "I'm fine. You should take care of the others first."
"You are bleeding all over my medical unit. Do you see anyone else doing that?" she asked pointedly.
Argus's eyes swept the room. There were wounded soldiers lying down on the bio-beds. It filled him with guilt.
He said, "No, but…I have to go find Avon. He's still missing. The Chandaran insurgents must have him." His voice had begun to rise in anger, "They set a trap for us and they still have Reya. I have to find them both."
Cally led him gently but firmly towards an empty bed. "Then it's all the more reason for me to tend to your wound first. I want you at your best when you find Avon and Reya. It will not help them if you faint from loss of blood."
"I do not faint," Argus said stubbornly.
"Would you like me to wait a few minutes?" asked Cally with the same gentle sarcasm she often had to use with Avon as she gestured for Argus to lie down.
Argus was about to complain again at this unnecessary treatment but the look in Cally's eyes made him get up on the bed and lie down without saying another word.
One of the non-injured soldiers raced in. "Sir, Vila has reported in. He says to have someone in the teleport room and get the medical unit ready in case they need it. And make lots of room."
"Room?" Argus twisted around and grunted in pain as Cally opened up his shirt to reveal a deep laser burn in his side.
She told him, "Stay still. Unless you want this to take even longer or you want me to sedate you first."
Argus lay back again and asked the soldier, "What exactly did Vila say?"
The soldier replied, "Those were his exact words, sir."
Argus had been doing a lot of under-his-breath cursing these last few days. He added a few more before he said, "Ask him for more details. If he needs help, send another team down. I'm assuming this extra room is for more people and some of them might be injured?"
"I don’t know, sir. He didn't say."
Argus muttered under his breath again. "I don't suppose he said how many people either? Ouch."
Cally said, "Sorry. I did tell you to stop moving."
Argus addressed the soldier again, "Alright. We already have someone on the teleport for Vila and his team. Tell Lt. Dain to report to me but I want him to assign a security detail to help in the teleport room first."
"And go and find out more details from Vila."
"Yes, sir." The soldier exited.
Argus asked Cally impatiently, "Are you done yet? Can I go now?"
Sester's pleasant voice came from the doorway, "Of course, she's not done yet. You still haven't finished bleeding."
Argus's voice became an instant snarl, "What are you doing here?"
Sester came in and stood looking down at him, "I'm supposed to be helping, remember?"
"You've helped more enough for today. I thought Cally gave you drugs so you could sleep."
Sester's smile was friendly but his eyes were just a little too bright and there was a slight tremor in his hands. "I didn't want to take them yet. I wanted to talk to you."
"I'm busy bleeding, remember? No thanks to you. Now go get some rest."
"You mean, like you're going to get some rest after Cally fixes you up?"
"I don't need rest."
"Of course not."
Despite the acknowledgement that he needed Sester's help, Argus's ever present antagonism towards his rival was never far below the surface. "Spare me the sarcasm."
"I didn't come here for a fight, Argus. I will go back to my room and sleep if that will help, but I wanted to thank you first."
Argus said icily, "I didn’t do it for you."
"Ah. Of course not." That was the other thing Sester had wanted to do. He wanted to understand why Argus had risked injury and his own life in order to save him. It was not like Sester to ask this kind of question, not for himself; he wasn't sure why he had. He couldn't have been hoping for a different answer; not from someone who had every reason to want him dead. "You did it for Reya and Avon. If it weren't for them, you would have let me die?"
Argus glared at him and didn't answer.
Sester had opportunities to study men like Argus. He had always been able to defeat them in strategy. He understood their motivations and their human weaknesses.
Sester laughed. The sound was abnormally higher pitched, he almost sounded drunk except that he hadn't had anything to drink. He knew Argus's weakness. It was him. "Of course you would have let me die."
For the first time, Cally interrupted into their conversation, "No he wouldn't."
Argus and Sester stared at her.
Cally added, "And if you didn't already know that, then perhaps you're no longer capable of using your psychostrategy skills objectively. Or it's something you don't want to know."
Sester looked at them both strangely. "I'll…go back to my cabin now. And sleep." He turned on unsteady feet and left.
Argus asked Cally, "What was that about?"
"I can guess but you won't like it."
Argus frowned with displeasure. "I don’t have time for this. Have you had any success in contacting Avon or at least any indication of where he might be?"
Vila gathered the next group to go up to the ship. Things were going smoothly, even better than he had hoped. Between Trey and himself, they had persuaded a reluctant Chandaran President and his family to be one of the first ones to be transported to the ship.
So far, due to the efforts of his own team and the President's security staff, there had only been minor injuries. There had only been one serious attempt to rush the building but it had been beaten back. The insurgents didn't seem to have expected such fierce opposition and were either expecting reinforcements or were going to wait them out.
There weren't that many people left to go now.
The sergeant approached Vila. "Sir, you'd better go with the next group." That group was to contain the President's security staff. Everyone else had gone up to the ship.
Vila said, "But…" Until now, he hadn't thought about the last group to leave. They would be in the most danger. They had to hold off the invaders by themselves and then leave their posts and rush to the teleport point. Hopefully the enemy wouldn't realize that the building was no longer defended before the final group could teleport to safety. Normally, Vila would have preferred not to be in any group that would be doing something that dangerous. At least not willingly.
Fear threatened again, making Vila hesitate; but only for a moment. He didn't care if they wrote about people like him one day; heroes with feet of clay but with a heart that belonged to someone who wanted to do much more. He accepted that he would always be afraid, that he would always struggle with the need for personal survival; as long as in the end, more people were saved because of him than without him.
These soldiers were heroes. They were willing to stay behind until everyone else was safe. Vila didn't know if it was just part of their training to sacrifice themselves to protect others but he knew what his role was now too.
His old mates would have thought him a fool, or that he had lost his mind, but Vila said, "I'll stay with the team, if you don't mind."
Vila wasn't sure but he could almost swear that there had been a quick look of respect in the sergeant's eyes when he answered. "Yes, sir."
Vila ducked as a laser tracer nearly grazed his ear. He was covering one of the exits that had been vacated by the President's security staff. Between intermittent ducking and thrusting his pistol out and firing off a few shots (just his pistol mind you, he was not about to risk his head), Vila wondered if insanity ran in his family for him to be doing this.
Why was it that all of the insurgents seemed to be shooting at his side of the building? It didn't seem fair somehow.
The teleport operator reported over Vila's teleport bracelet, "Sir, they're all up and safe."
It was time to leave.
Vila said, "Good. Get ready. We need a fast pick-up on this last one."
The operator responded, "I'm ready when you are, sir."
Vila contacted the others, "Alright everyone, on my mark, get to the teleport point as fast as you can. Three, two, one, mark!" Vila shoved his pistol out and fired off a few more shots and then raced to the rendezvous.
From all corners of the building, the soldiers came running.
At that point, the insurgents chose to make another rush of the building. They had just broken inside when the shimmer of the teleport energies dissipated, leaving an empty room and many confused Chandarans.
Cally's mental voice reached out to Avon again. * Avon. I don't know if you can hear me but we're trying to find you. Hang on. * A wave of calm strength and reassurance washed over him. And despite her efforts to hide it, there were also strands of her fear and worry.
Avon's heart slowed its racing. Without the drugs, he could feel his grip on reality weakening and the nightmares slowly taking hold. Cally's voice and support and that of Reya were the only things keeping him anchored.
The sounds of someone else being tortured brought back too many memories that he had been trying to forget. His concussion-weakened and nightmare-gripped mind confused Reya's pain with remembrances of his own. They became real enough that he reacted in pain every time that she did.
Avon was able to identify the name of the head torturer, a man named Grenthel. He was merciless, cruel and full of anger and hatred towards Reya.
Avon realized with surprise that at some point, amidst the sessions of brutal torture, she had become Reya to him. He no longer thought of her as the Commander. Perhaps it was because the pain connected them both.
The Chandaran insurgents wanted to break her spirit. Grenthel most of all. They needed her to announce that she was wrong and that she had cheated. They wanted her to admit that she was inferior.
What she had done in the fight chamber and the target field had been a big blow to the pride of an entire Alliance. They all needed to see her broken.
Avon wondered if it was simply a matter of outraged pride or if there was another need that was spurring them on. They almost seemed desperate to have her break and to confess her inadequacies on a live viscast broadcast to the whole Alliance.
Reya's refusal to break and her cold cynical attitude helped Avon to weather his own trials as his head injury made it almost impossible to concentrate for any length of time.
Between sessions, they left Avon to tend to her.
After another torture session ended and the Chandarans left, Avon crawled over to where Reya lay. He felt weak all over and attempts to get up only resulted in rapid exhaustion. His head throbbed and any efforts to contact Cally only resulted in more pain and very little else.
He managed to sit up and lifted Reya's head, trying to give her some water. She was weak and could barely drink.
Avon said, "You must try. You need to…replenish your fluids." He tried cradling her head in the crook of his arm and this time she was able to a sip but started coughing. Avon held her against him until she settled down again.
Reya gasped, "Don't get…any ideas." She gave a weak laugh that set her coughing again.
"Now is not the time for levity." Avon's voice was expressionless, as good as any straight-man in a comedy duo.
It almost made Reya chuckle. She was in a strange mood. "It…is for me. There's nothing…else now."
"Laughing…in the face of death?" Avon asked.
"Don't you…do that for…irony?"
"I choose… the terms…of my death."
Avon said, "You're not…going to die. Argus and the others…are looking for us."
"I know. I just…There's not…much time…" She stiffened in pain.
Avon grimaced as well as his own body's phantom agonies echoed hers. He put a hesitant hand on her shoulder until it passed. He said in a flat voice, "Don't get any ideas."
Reya gasped out a chuckle. "You're not my type."
"And neither are you mine."
Reya's swollen face could only managed a lop-sided grin, "Argus will be…glad to hear…that."
"I'm sure he would."
"Avon, if something happens…"