Argus, trailed by the sergeant, made his way to the main cargo bay where many of President Brent's people were being housed. There should have been chaos with so many people milling around or at least elation at having escaped death, or even higher spirits because of the adrenaline that must still be pumping through their veins but there was a sombre atmosphere and groups gathered together talking quietly.
Vila came over immediately when he saw him. He was somewhat nervous. There was a whole cargo hold full of people that Argus probably had not expected to be rescued along with the President and his family.
Even though Vila was sure he had done the right thing, he was still apprehensive. He had been imagining conversations like…
Argus asking with a stern voice, "Vila, refresh my memory. What were my orders?"
In his mind, Argus's voice sounded like the one he used on the flight deck during that unavoidable brawl; the voice that made grown men quake in their boots
And his own voice, for some reason sounding like a small, nervous, mouse.
"You said to go with President Brent and rescue his family."
Then Argus's laser eyes would sweep across the cargo bay slowly while Vila wondered if he should have hid some of them in the storage rooms.
And Argus's voice, in that low bass he had when he was about commit a controlled explosion at someone, would boom, "These people are all related to him?"
Of course Vila's imagination stopped at that point. Even in his head, he wasn’t sure how he was going to answer that question.
Vila waited for the dreaded conversation to begin but Argus just stared at him. It was taking so long that Vila wondered if he had suddenly grown an ugly mutation in the middle of his forehead and Argus was just too shocked to say anything.
Unexpectedly, a warm smile appeared on Argus's face. "You can relax, Vila. You did well.”
“I did?” Vila wasn’t sure how to take this considering he had been expecting something else.
“Yes, you did very well. You showed good instincts and initiative."
Vila breathed a sigh of relief. The safe rescue of the Chandarans made all the fear worthwhile but the warm and genuine praise made him feel appreciated on a ship he was finally starting to call home. He wanted to make sure though. “You don’t mind all the people we brought on board?”
Argus told him, “You did a good thing, Vila.”
Vila felt embarrassed all of a sudden. "I…didn't know if I could do it at the beginning. Or at the end. Or even in the middle."
Argus said simply, "I did."
A big grin spread across Vila's face. He said, "I wish you'd told me that. Then maybe I wouldn't have worried so much."
Even as he said this, Vila wondered if he should tell Argus that it was never a good idea to believe in someone like this. It could get you into all kinds of trouble. Didn't Argus remember that he was a thief? Maybe he had forgotten. Should he remind him?
"It's because you worry, that he does trust you." Sester's variably welcome and unwelcome voice seemed to always come from assorted doorways.
Sester came towards them. He saw the inhospitable look on Argus's face and said with his usual pleasant manner, "Yes, I know. You want me to take my drugs, get out and go to sleep. Or in whatever order I can manage that will get me out of your way." His eyes were still overly bright and he looked very energetic. Sester said just a bit too cheerfully, "Hello, Vila."
Vila looked at him strangely. He could swear that Sester was acting drunk though he didn't smell any alcohol on him. "What's the matter with you?"
"Oh. Don't worry about me, Vila." He gestured expansively towards Argus. "He certainly doesn't. Not unless I was useful." He gave Argus a big smile, one calculated to irritate and annoy.
"Get out." The low tight voice. Anger controlled. Eyes hard. The body dangerously still.
Vila could almost swear that he could feel his toes freezing. He felt tempted to ask Argus what was wrong with him but after what Argus had just said to him, it didn't feel right to ask it.
Something was obviously going on with these two, something else. It really wasn't his business but it was still his job to keep an eye on Sester. Maybe he could find out what it was after this whole mess was sorted out.
Sester said, "No. Not this time. I am here to help you find Avon and Reya and I'm not going to leave until we do."
Argus's extreme dislike of this man warred with the need to find Avon and Reya before it was too late. He pushed down his antagonism. "You can barely stand."
"I don't need my feet in order to use my mind."
Argus's voice was almost like a growl when he said, "If you fall down, I'm not picking you up."
Sester smiled again. This was a different one. "Of course."
There was something in that expression that made Argus want to tell him to leave again but he controlled himself. He couldn't afford to lose this man's help right now.
Argus asked, "You have an idea about how to find them?"
"As a matter of fact, I do."
The Chandaran President and Marlena came up to them. Brent asked, "Could I talk to you for a moment? You've already done so much for us but…we have a request to make."
Brent had asked Argus to help his people to rescue their families. There were those who wanted to stay, to continue what Brent had started. Others wanted to get their families out before it was too late. Marlena told them that the Tellar Union would gladly accept anyone who wanted refuge.
Brent offered to give what help he could to help them find Avon and Reya. He believed that he still had some people who were loyal to him and had escaped the chaos.
Vila, Cally, Lt. Dain, Marlena, Corinne and most of the soldiers would help the Chandarans while Argus and Sester worked with Brent to rescue Avon and Reya.
Argus, Sester and President Brent met in Sester's cabin. Everywhere else on the ship was crowded and Argus didn't want to be in his own room. It reminded him too much of Reya. He was afraid he would not be able to concentrate.
He asked Sester, "You mentioned that you had some ideas before?"
There was no antagonism between them, just two professionals focussed on an important task.
Sester said, "We should question the prisoners that you had brought up from the President's observation booth. Their leader, Poul may be of use. He may know where they're being kept or know someone who might know."
The hostile Poul was brought to Sester's cabin under guard.
He sat on a chair facing them, his hands bound in front of him. "You're not getting anything out of me, Brent! You and your thugs can torture me all you want!"
Sester remarked casually to Argus, "It sounds like he just insulted you. Though in this society, thug might actually be a compliment."
Argus asked coldly, "Should I disappoint him?"
Sester said with an amused smile, "You know that I don't mind but it might be hard for him to answer questions if you beat him to a pulp."
Poul said angrily, "Don't think that you can scare me with your little act!"
Sester unexpectedly stood up and crossed over to Poul. His manner became cold and menacing and his voice was a threatening whisper in Poul's ear, "Oh no? Do you know who Reya is?" Sester had suddenly made himself a person to be feared.
For a brief moment, Poul was frozen in shock by the confusingly abrupt change from the pleasant, joking man with all smiles to the dangerous one that was speaking next to his ear. "You don't scare me," Poul said with lips that were trying to sneer but found themselves touched by fear. "She's just a woman."
Sester was almost hissing the next part. "She is never just a woman. She is more than you could ever hope to be." Sester paused and circled Poul like a predator contemplating where to strike next. He suddenly leaned forward again and whispered menacingly into Poul's ear. "She is also his bond-mate."
Sester straightened up and pointed straight at Argus. The look on Argus's face froze Poul's blood with fear.
After more psychological manipulation by Sester and with a little help from Argus, Poul became much easier to handle. He told them that the instigator of the coup was Thelis, the Second President.
Brent's face fell in dismay, "Thelis and I have known each other for a long time. We're friends."
Sester said, "Not anymore."
Poul had also told them that he had no idea where Reya or Avon were being kept. It could be one of a dozen safe buildings the insurgents used while they gathered their forces. With some more 'coaxing', he gave them a list.
Argus looked it over and remarked, "Or it could be any number of buildings they've taken over since then. This isn't getting us anywhere."
Poul also told them that while they would never give up Reya, they might exchange Avon for Brent. And he might be able to help arrange the trade.
Argus was immediately opposed to this idea. "That's out of the question."
Sester's face was thoughtful. "Wait a minute. Let's think about this."
Argus faced Sester and said, "No, we're not."
Sester held his hand up. "Listen to what I have to say first."
The Chandarans were in the room again. Reya screamed in agony in between angry refusals of their demands and cold, cutting remarks. It was the latter that confused and angered the Chandarans, making them even more brutal in their treatment of her.
Avon could feel each strike and each application of pain as if were his own. He bit his lip and tightened his fists, trying to stop himself from screaming as well. His clothes were drenched with sweat. They had dumped him in a corner of the room, out of their way, his head, facing the wall. They bound his hands behind him, so that there was nothing he could do to stop them. Any attempts to turn around only rewarded him with a vicious kick to the back.
The sounds of pain finally stopped.
One of the Chandarans said, "We should just kill her. We've been at this for two days, she's never going to break this way. A nice public execution. It will do the same thing."
Grenthel said, "No! She must break. It’s the only way to undo the damage of the contests."
Avon heard Reya's weak and pained voice told them, "You're fools…if you think…you can…undo… what I achieved." She stressed the last word with what little strength she still had, knowing it would antagonize them.
Reya grunted in pain as someone hit her. She gasped for breath.
Every loss of control and resort to brutality by the Chandarans was a triumph for Reya, despite the painful cost. It was her defiance of all of them. She was still winning, even in here.
The men were becoming increasingly frustrated and they didn't know why. The chains told them that they were the ones with the power. Their ability to inflict pain was their expression of their superiority. But for some reason, their control was slipping in this room. They could feel it, they didn't understand it and they definitely didn't like it.
Despite a voice that was a bare whisper, Reya said with biting sarcasm, "Does it make… you feel superior.. to beat a defenceless…opponent? Or does your… society…not recognize the…concept of...honour?"
Grenthel's angry voice shouted, "Shut up, woman! You will not speak unless spoken to. And you will only tell me what I want to hear."
She said dismissively, "Violence…is the refuge…of those…"
Reya began to scream again.
In his corner of the room, Avon's body stiffened in reaction to her pain. He couldn't see what they were doing to her but in many ways this was worse. His imagination, dredging up his own horrible experiences at the Detention Centre, made it even worse.
Reya's defiance was what connected his experience to hers, even more than the pain. He was developing a great deal of respect for this woman, even though his logical mind told him that she was a fool for continuing to bait them. What did the defiance do in the end but cause more pain and bring her closer to death?
He had often asked himself that at the Detention Centre. In the dark days when there didn't seem to be any hope, he had asked himself that. In the shadows, his mind had told him one thing but his will and his spirit had refused to do it; just as she was refusing now.
The screaming stopped abruptly.
Grenthel asked, "Is she dead?"
A scratchy-voiced Chandaran answered, "She's unconscious. But she will die if you don't stop now. She needs medical attention; she will not be able to stand much more of this."
Grenthel's voice was full of menace as he asked, "You want to help her?"
The scratchy-voiced man quickly denied this. "Of course not! I hate her as much as you do, but it will not help us if she dies before she can undo the damage. Think, Grenthel! You have to slow down before you kill her. No one can take this and survive for much longer. We're just lucky that she hasn't gone into shock from loss of blood yet."
Grenthel said with ill-humour, "Alright. Take her down. Give her an infusion. Just do enough to keep her alive. Nothing more."
Avon could hear the sound of chains being unlocked and people laying Reya down on the floor. There were other sounds that he couldn't identify but which he assumed were the Chandarans rendering medical aid.
He couldn't hear any sounds from Reya. This most likely meant that she was still unconscious. It was a small mercy. He remembered the ministrations of the medtechs at the Detention Centre. Sometimes, the torture didn't seem as bad.
Someone gave Avon a light kick in the back, causing him to groan in involuntary pain. The kicker, a smooth-voiced Chandaran asked, "What about this one? He's of no use to us. Why are you keeping him alive?"
Grenthel said, "He's still useful as a hostage. We know his people rescued Brent. Once we find out where they are…"
Smooth voice asked, "You think they'll give Brent up in return for him?"
"We'll find out," said Grenthel. "What I want to know is how they were all able to escape the residence."
"I thought there were tunnels under the palace. Or secret exits?"
"There aren't. We had one of our groups check."
Someone else asked, "Who are these people?"
Grenthel said, "That's another thing I want to find out. They're not from this Sector."
Smooth-voice landed a harder kick against Avon's back, causing him to groan in pain. "Why don't we just question this one? We might get more out of him than her."
Scratchy-voice said, "I wouldn't recommend that. I've already told you, he's suffered a severe concussion. Assuming he can answer questions at all with any clarity, prolonged questioning or pressure of any kind might kill him."
Grenthel did not like people who thwarted his opportunities for aggression. "I really am beginning to wonder whose side you're on, Aiken. First her and now him? Why are you trying to protect them?"
The scratchy-voiced Aiken said, "I'm beginning to wonder what you have against me doing my job, Grenthel. Are you going to take responsibility if either one of them dies before they've outlived their usefulness? Do you want to explain it to HIM then, or shall I?"
Grenthel's menace-dripped voice said, "You over-estimate your usefulness, Aiken."
Avon could hear the iciness in Aiken's voice. "To you perhaps, but to HIM?"
Grenthel's voice conveyed the sneer that must have been on his face. "He hasn't taken control yet. He still needs our support."
Aiken's voice did not hide his open antagonism, "I'm sure he will be very interested to know that you think that."
"I'm not afraid of him and certainly not of you, Aiken."
Aiken challenged him, "Then why don't you torture her to death? Or this one? Then we'll see who you're really afraid of."
The sound of Aiken and Grenthel's voices were so close together that Avon could imagine that one of them had invaded the other's personal space.
The tension in the room was so explosive that Avon expected them to come to blows but instead, Grenthel said, "This isn't over, Aiken."
"Not by a long shot, Grenthel."
Through the haze of pain, Avon was fascinated by this confrontation he was hearing. Some interesting and useful things were being said, if only he was in a position to use them.
Grenthel's voice still held a tone of menace even though he asked, "Are you done yet?"
Aiken seemed to be the one rendering medical aid. "We're done. She'll live for now, lucky for you. You should give her some rest if you don't want her to keep passing out."
Avon could hear a snarl from Grenthel and then many feet moving towards the exit. The door slid open.
Aiken's scratchy voice said to one of the others, "I could do with some rest myself. How is the take-over going?"
Smooth-voice said in a quieter voice, "You should be careful, Aiken. Grenthel's dangerous."
"So am I."
"Don't say I didn't warn you. We've taken the Government complex and the main military, communications and…" The sound of voices were cut off as the door slid closed. The lights were extinguished again and only the dim luminescent strips from the ceiling provided illumination.
In the dark, Avon tried to think past the pain in his head. He now knew why he had been spared any torture. It was something that had been troubling him.
It was still puzzling though. Either Aiken was an incompetent medical practitioner or a more humane one than he should be in this society. Avon's concussion was severe, but it should not have stopped them from questioning him.
The other interesting thing, of course, was a mention of a HIM. Grenthel was obviously not the leader of this coup. All of the men in this room answered to someone else. The third interesting point was the power struggle that appeared to be going on. Whoever this HIM was, not everyone accepted his leadership.
This kind of conflict could serve their purposes. Avon was certain it was something they could get Sester to use against the Chandarans. He had to escape.
Reya groaned. She was unmercifully conscious again.
Avon grimaced with her. They both had to escape.