Delivering the Chandaran folks back down to the planet was not going to be easy. Tensions were still high planet-side. Regular monitoring of communications channels had revealed that various interest groups were jostling for power and position. Not exactly the safest of situations.
It had to be done carefully, safely and with as little attention as possible.
Thelis, President Brent’s former second and one of the masterminds of the coup was currently in control. There were noises that he was about to declare himself president. No one seemed to know for certain.
There were other rumours as well. Ones about the mysterious disappearance of the infamous new Champion of Chandar. Some said she was dead. Others said she never existed and was a computer-generated hoax. Still others said it was a conspiracy by the Tellar Union. Some said that Reya was really a man in disguise, surgically-altered to fool everyone. Still others spoke of genetic experiments.
No matter what flavour the rumours took, they all had one thing in common; no one wanted to believe that a woman had become a Champion of Chandar. They were certain that no woman could possibly do what Reya had been capable of doing. Anyone who could provide comforting proof was given their day on the Alliance viz casts.
At times, people seemed far more interested in these rumours than the current political upheaval. Most likely because treacherous and murderous politics was not an uncommon thing in Chandaran society.
Vila had the Chandarans on the ship separated into groups by location. The first assemblage was gathered in the teleport room and flowed out into the corridor. The team of soldiers that had been with him at the Presidential Residence, waited on the teleport pad. Vila was checking the first set of coordinates with one of the military engineers on teleport duty.
All farewells and best wishes had been given already in the cargo bay. There was no space in the crowded teleport room and the corridor outside for anyone except those who needed to be there.
There were anxious but excited faces. No one knew what to expect but they all hoped that their families were alright. There was sadness because some of them never expected to see each other again.
The crowd parted and Corinne entered hesitantly, she had one of the Justice's pistols strapped around her waist. She was also dressed in masculine attire and had a wisp of a beard on her face.
Vila immediately went over to her and asked, "What are you doing here?"
Corinne said, "I want to help."
Vila looked around in vain for a quieter corner so they could talk privately. He settled for backing into a corner and facing towards the wall. "I don't want you to go down. This could be dangerous." His voice was concerned. All he could think of was the kiss they shared on the flight deck. It had been brief but very memorable. Of course, Corinne's father had chosen to come looking for her at that moment. The man did have the worst timing, or perhaps the best, depending on what his perspective was. Vila wasn't about to broach that topic yet.
Fortunately they had broken off the kiss before he came in. President Brent did seem to stare at him for quite a long time before he took Corinne away. But that may have just been his imagination.
Corinne's voice was grave and there was a hint of steel in her voice, not unlike her mother’s. "But you're going. Cally is. All of the soldiers are. I've never had the opportunity to do something like this for someone else. I want to, Vila. I can take care of myself. You don't have to worry about me. I can fight and handle weapons. I won't be a liability."
"I didn't say you were going to be a liability." Vila was torn, he didn't want her to go and at the same time, he didn't want to hurt her feelings. He could see that this was important to her but she was becoming important to him too. Vila did not want to see her get hurt.
For some reason, his mind went to Argus and Reya. Perhaps because those two had a relationship that he wished he could have some day. Not the part about Argus putting his foot in his mouth all the time around Reya, but the other things. He remembered Argus's reaction when Reya was hurt. He could see that it tore him apart. But there was something else he had learned watching the two of them interact. Argus would never refuse Reya the ability to choose her own path. He loved her enough to bear the pain of her decisions when she chose them, even if he didn't want her to make them. It was because of the level of respect he had for her. It was the degree of freedom they gave to each other. They were truly equals who loved one another as equals. Vila had never seen a relationship like that before, he had always envied them that.
Corinne said, “I appreciate you protecting me but you don’t have to.”
“Your parents agree to this?”
“They’re concerned but they know I must do this. It’s important to me. And they trust you and your team.”
Vila hadn't really thought seriously about a relationship until now. He'd never had anyone to think about in this way. There had been Kerril but memories of her filled him with regret. He had made a mistake with Kerril, he had only found it in himself to say that he liked her, more than anyone he had known. She had had the courage to say that she loved him.
In the end he showed her how he felt by letting her go while he stayed behind with Bayban. There were many days he wished he had gone with her, or at least told her that he had felt the same way. He had made a mistake then. Vila was determined not to make on now.
In a situation like they were going into, it was difficult. His instinct was to protect Corinne and keep her out of harm's way. But he didn't want to take away her right to make decisions about her own life. She'd had more than enough of that in this society. It was a place where women had no rights and everything was taken from them, even the right to be a human being.
Corinne's face was anxious and resolute and she looked at him expectantly and hopefully.
Vila knew what he must do. "Be careful and stay with me. Let the soldiers do most of the work. They're trained for it."
Corinne's face face brightened into a smile. "Thank you, Vila."
Cally squeezed through into the crowded teleport room. She was also dressed in the masculine attire common to the planet but she had a full beard on. “Sorry, I’m late. I was delayed.”
Vila asked worriedly, “Is it Avon again?”
Cally adjusted the medical bag over her shoulder and checked her pistol. Her voice was tight and she was trying to avoid his eyes as she said, “Yes.”
Vila said, “Maybe you shouldn’t be coming with us. You should stay and take care of Avon.”
“He wanted me to come. He said this was more important.”
Vila said, “Alright. We’ll make this quick.”
Vila and Cally joined the soldiers on the teleport pad. When Corinne stepped up behind Vila, Cally glanced at him with a question.
He responded, "It's alright, she's coming with us."
Vila told the assembled Chandarans, “Right we’re going down first. We’ll send word if it’s safe. Put us down.”
After Cally reluctantly left Avon in order to go help the Chandarans, Reya and Sester were deep in thought on their side of the medical unit. Avon was unconscious again, knocked out by sedatives. Cally’s attempt to bring him around had not been pleasant for any of them, especially not Avon.
Both Reya and Sester were watching Avon’s sleeping form. Reya remarked sadly, “He’s not doing very well, is he?”
There was a long pause before Sester replied, “No. He’s not. It’s getting worse. The loss of control is almost complete.”
“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”
“I can guess.”
Reya turned to Sester. “Did you have something to do with this?”
Sester didn’t answer her but there was a pained look on his face. He got up slowly and slid off the bed, ignoring the pain from his chest wound.
Reya asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to help.” Sester felt weak as he stood by the bed and hung onto it for support. He turned to look at her. “You asked if I had anything to do with this. Yes, I did. Indirectly. I didn’t do the actual damage, that was left to the specialists, but I was responsible for it.”
“I don’t understand how you could do this to someone.”
“Don’t you? You know very well what cruelty human beings are capable of. You just don’t want to believe it of me.”
Reya asked, “Did you want to do this to him?”
Sester smiled wryly. “You want to know if I had a choice? I would like to say that I didn’t but that would be a lie. It wasn’t even a matter of if I wanted to do it or not. That never entered into the equation. It never entered my mind. I was there to break Avon and that is what I did, by any means necessary. Most of it not very pleasant or humane.” He looked directly into her eyes and said, “I didn’t see him as human then. Psychostrategists don’t see people; we only see puppets to be manipulated. We don’t react to other people's pain and suffering on a personal level. They are only useful symptoms to be used and studied.”
“But you don’t risk your life to help a puppet to escape.”
Sester turned his head to look at Avon again. “That’s true.”
“And you don’t see him as a puppet now.”
“No. I don’t.” Sester hadn’t really thought about when or why he started seeing Avon differently; which was odd for him. Out of habit and because of his profession, he had a tendency to analyze everything. “At first I learned to respect him and then at some point, during his treatments, I began to see him as human. I’m not even sure why.”
Why did I? What made him different from all the others? Avon was highly intelligent but that was not enough.
Reya had been studying Sester as he talked. There was an open honesty about him that was hard to resist. He could be a very likable man, even when he wasn’t trying. She asked, “Do you see me as a puppet?”
Sester looked at her sharply. He’d never considered that before. “You know that I don’t. I don’t think I ever did.” He gave her an easy smile, “And if you ask me why, I couldn’t explain that to you either.”
Reya didn’t say anything for a few moments.
Sester said, “I’ll be right back.” He moved carefully away from the bed, mindful of the pain and the general weakness he was feeling.
She asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I told you. I’m going to help Avon.” Sester stopped by Avon’s bed in order to catch his breath. He looked down at the unconscious man. He’d never had much use for feelings of regret. He’d never entertained them before until he met Avon and now he regretted almost everything.
He opened up the drawer that Cally used to store the bio-injectors she used for Avon. Taking each one out, he found the one he wanted. This one contained the drugs patterned after the ones at the Detention Centre. Checking the indicator panel on the side, it was as he had feared. There were only four. He had suspected as much.
Sester was very observant about many things. He couldn’t help it; he did it without thinking about it. One of the things he had observed was the daily injections Avon received from Cally. Sester knew the ones that had been used for him at the Detention Centre. He had warned Cally the dangers of removing most of them from Avon’s system. It was obvious that she hadn’t taken him seriously.
Sester understood why she had done it. He had proof in his hands what she had done and why. Two were the necessary ones used to maintain the physical systems that had been virtually destroyed. The other two were the ones to prevent the nightmares: one used during the day and the other was the sedative mixture. She had not used the other ones that regulated the operation of his mind.
It was not surprising that she would be opposed to giving those to Avon. Controlling someone’s mind would have been abhorrent to her. It was a decision based on sentiment and not rationality.
The fact was that the control was needed. Avon’s mind could no longer function on its own; not with what had been done to it. The steady deterioration should have told them that. It wasn’t just a matter of dealing with the emotional and psychological trauma brought about by the torture and mind manipulation. What was done to Avon went far beyond that.
These people had no idea. He doubted if Cally understood everything in the files that he had given to her. She wasn’t a medical specialist, barely more than a field medic, even though he knew that she was studying to become a doctor.
Avon had received a great shock on seeing Grant again. It had brought back the old memories and the horrific nightmares about Anna. Servalan's machinations had pushed Avon to the brink. She didn't know that Avon no longer had the ability to handle it. Sester wasn't aware until now that Cally had not followed his advice about the drugs.
Avon had seemed to have been handling things, but Sester realized that he should have known. He shouldn't have assumed. It was his error. The strength of Avon's mind had been able to hold back the results of the deterioration until now. Now things were getting desperate. For a man who was use to such tight emotional control, being flooded with an uncontrollable tide of almost overwhelming emotions would be horrible.
Sester had brought a full set of drug supplies from the Detention Centre and given them to Cally. He hoped that she was still keeping them somewhere. He couldn’t imagine that she would have thrown it away. She would have kept it just in case. Unfortunately, no one seemed to realize that the ‘just in case’ situation was now. He had to find them.
The avenue was quiet. So quiet that it almost seemed unnatural. Or at least Vila thought so as he and his team watched the object of their attentions, a residence building just down the block. Of course, it could just be his natural nervousness but he didn’t want to take any chances.
“What are we doing?” whispered Corinne.
Vila replied, “We’re waiting.”
Corinne was getting impatient. He imagined that when she came down with them that she thought there would be more to do. “I can see that, but why?”
In Vila’s reckoning, the less there was to do, the better. That meant you weren’t rushing about trying not to get shot because you had done something stupid. He and Avon had that in common. Neither of them minded doing things, even dangerous things at times, but there was no need to make them more dangerous than they were. You only had one life; you might as well not throw it away because you couldn’t afford to think first.
Vila said patiently, “I want to make sure it’s safe. Cally, do you feel anything? Any danger? Anyone with designs on us.”
Cally had her eyes closed and had been opening up her perceptions of the life around them. “Not that I can tell. We’re too far away for me to get anything other than very vague impressions.”
He asked her, “Anything vague and unfriendly?”
“This is Chandar, Vila. It would be unusual if I didn’t get unfriendly impressions.” She scratched the beard. It seemed to irritate her skin.
“Well, that’s no good. How would we know if it’s regular unfriendly or ‘us’ unfriendly?”
“We don’t. Not unless we get closer.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that.” This shortcut to avoiding danger was not proving very short. They were going to have to risk getting closer. Well, at least Corinne might be happier that they were going to do something finally, even if it was only to move closer to the building.
He said to the gathered soldiers, “Sergeant, get the men to go around the building. See if they can spot anything. Not too close. We don’t want to let anyone know in case they are watching the building.”
The sergeant acknowledged the orders and moved the team out.
Vila said to Cally and Corinne. “Let’s get a little closer.”
Sester stared down at the small box he had found. This was not the full supply he had given to Cally. They were just samples, one of each drug that he had brought back with him. She had kept these for analysis. He couldn't find the rest of it and he had searched the entire medical unit.
Sester was tired as he looked down on the unconscious man. One dose of each. Just enough to bring Avon's mind under control again. But then what? This deterioration was progressive and irreversible without specialized surgery. Servalan's people were the only ones who knew what had been done and how to fix it. If it could be fixed that was. He suspected that some of it wasn't. Servalan and her people wouldn't have cared to return Avon to his original state. She wanted him this way; hovering between a half-life or one controlled by her.
Sester's hand tightened around the box in anger and the pain of guilt. He had been just as responsible for this as she was. There was only one way to fix this but Avon would never agree to it. In truth, Sester didn't trust Servalan either. She couldn't be trusted to let Avon go if she got her hands on him again.
Just one dose. Enough for Avon to make his peace and to do the things he needed to do before his mind descended into madness. Sester wanted to give it to Avon now. He wanted to talk to him. He didn't expect forgiveness, he did not want Avon to hate him less, but he wanted to say he was sorry.
It was a selfish desire, the drugs should be saved for when Cally and Vila got back. Avon needed time with people he loved more than apologies from enemies whom he could never forgive, who didn't deserve to be forgiven. Sester sighed and put the box down on the table beside Avon's bed. He went back to his own resting place and wearily climbed back onto the bed.
Reya had been watching him the whole time, wondering what he was up to, wishing she knew what he was thinking. She could see his increasing weariness and almost a sense of desperation as he looked through the medical unit. He was favouring the side of his body that was injured, it was obviously bothering him. Sester wouldn't tell her what he was looking for but it seemed he had found it in the end. It didn't seem to fill him with happiness. He seemed depressed and even more tired when he came back, his hand pressing against his chest where the wound was.
She asked with concern, "Are you alright? Did you find something to help Avon?"
Sester leaned back against the head of the bed. There was a hard set to his eyes as he answered her. "I will find something. I'm not going to let him die."