When an Auronar wakes, it's with their minds first. The stirring consciousness reaches outwards, expanding from a place where the self has withdrawn in order to be a separate entity at rest. They instinctively reach for their partner first.
Avon's walls were thick and high. When she travelled along them with her mind, touching them, searching for the illusive cracks that might let her through, she could see the scars. The thick, calloused scabs that felt hard to the touch of her mind. She would press against it and be repulsed, but not before she could feel the pain that lurked just beneath. When he was asleep, there was no active defence, only the wall. In a conscious state, his defences became dynamic, pushing people away, presenting a prickly exterior, barbs that darted out to attack those who dared to threaten him.
He controlled himself when he was with her. He trusted her; enough to let her enter occasionally. With her, he had become a man who had not conquered his fear of sentiment, but loved despite the fear.
Cally glanced over at the chronometer. It was time. She had to apply the stimulant before the nightmares could have a chance to take hold. The injector was in the drawer by the bed. She took it out and pressed it against Avon's neck. With a sigh, she depressed it and heard the hiss as the drugs entered his system. It would take a few moments.
Which Avon would wake up to greet her? Was it the one last night? The one who deliberately left himself open so that she could clearly see his love and not as through a puzzling maze of action and occasional clumsy sentiment? Would their mutual pain be enough to connect them as they had last night?
Today was an important day. Avon had promised that he would give the therapies a chance. She knew that he would keep his word.
Cally propped her head up on one hand and waited for him to wake. With her other hand she caressed his body, gently and affectionately. They had shared great intimacy and immense pleasure last night after she had opened up the deepest parts of her mind to him. The 'knowing' of each other had made the experience even deeper and enabled higher levels of sensation.
She felt more relaxed and free of tensions than she had in a long time.
The last time she felt this free of tension was on Auron. Before she had decided to take up the fight against the Federation. When she left her own people, it had been a frightening and isolating experience. Even in the midst of a group of Terrans, she was always alone. She had felt like a person who was both deaf and dumb. Seeing people but unable to engage with them in the way she wanted to; a hunger that would always go unfulfilled.
She’d never realized how precious it was to be part of the whole; to be able to hear the background music of minds; to know that you were never alone. What she shared with Avon last night had filled a deep need within her.
Avon's eyes opened and saw her. Some of the openness was still there. He had not lost all of it yet. His voice was a husky whisper as he asked, "Are we going to carry on from where we left off?" He touched her lips and traced his fingers gently along them.
Cally's hand ran its way sensually up his chest, carefully avoiding the scars. Her voice was full of a yearning that belonged to the world of dreams. "I would like to. I wish that this time would never end. I wish that we would never have to go back to the real world. I wish…"
"You wish that what we shared last night, the openness I was able to achieve would become permanent?"
Her eyes searched his, wondering what decisions they held. "I know that to do so would not be you. It's not something that is natural for you."
Avon gathered her up in his arms, pressing the warmth of their bodies together. Something profound had changed inside him last night. How he perceived her had been altered. He didn't know it until he heard the longing in her voice.
She was no longer just a person he loved outside of himself. He had felt her pain and her deep sorrows, her aching loneliness and terrible guilt as if they were his own. He had experienced her strength and also her vulnerability and brokenness. She did not have the defences he had; he knew she did not want them. She had become a part of him and him a part of her. He knew that when she hurt, he would feel it.
"No, Cally. You're wrong. It is a part of me. This will always be a part of me. It is a me that could be; one possibility that we know is real because we've both experienced it. But you're right in saying that it is not natural for me. It will never be the dominant part. I think we both know that too. But it is there now and it will never go away. I will not let it."
Vila and Corinne were sharing a meal together at an outdoor café on the planet. It was a restful place where your favourite tea did not come with a side of suppressants. People sat here in comfort with no other purpose other than to watch people go by, to read a data-novel or chat with friends.
It was a relaxed and cheerful place with no dark shadows of security people threatening or the spying cameras that watched everything. It was clean here but without the artificial sterility of most worlds. The natural world blended seamlessly with the artificial one of technology. Real flowers and plants added a sweet fragrance and energy that no machine could reproduce.
Vila loved it here. It was a place he wished he had been born in rather than the slums of the Delta grids. He'd told someone once that he'd picked the wrong parents. He hadn't really meant it. It was just one of those defensive smart-mouthed things he used to say when he felt inadequate. But he wished now that he had had the ability to pick the right planet.
At first, he hadn’t appreciated Tellaran society. He didn’t think it would be a place he would feel comfortable in. His skills as a thief didn’t belong here. The one thing that defined who he was, that made him valuable, didn’t mean anything here.
As he got to know the people of Tellar, he realized that it didn't matter. They valued him for who he was here.
He had been absently staring at Corinne, his eyes resting on her as they invariably did. She made him feel good about himself too. There was a way she had of making him feel special, as if he was the most wonderful person she had ever known. But she hadn't met many people who were very nice so it wasn't surprising.
It made him nervous. He knew he wasn't as great as she felt he was. She thought of him as a brave hero, someone who did things for everyone else and wasn't selfish. If only she knew. He was like that sometimes but there were too many times that he hadn't been.
It made him very protective of her. He wanted to shield her from the things about himself that he didn't like. And it made him want to change even more.
"Vila?" Corinne was looking at him with a puzzled look on her face.
How long had he been staring at her but thinking about something else? He hoped it wasn't too long. "Yes?"
"Can I ask you a question?" They had both finished their meals and were lingering over their second cups of tea.
"What is it?" He picked up his cup and brought it to his lips to drink.
"You don't have to answer if you don't want to. I know it's none of my business."
Corinne always tried not to offend anyone. Vila knew that if he let her go on, she'd probably convince herself not to ask what she wanted to.
"It's alright. Ask away," Vila encouraged her.
"It has to do with Avon and Sester."
"Oh." Vila could see why she was nervous about asking him.
Noticing his reaction, Corinne said, "I don't have to ask it if you think it's none of my business."
"No. That's fine. I'll try to answer if I can."
"When we were back at the medical facility, Avon seemed very hostile towards Sester."
Vila chuckled, "That's putting it mildly." No one had told Corinne about the relational mines on the ship. He was surprised she hadn't asked him much earlier.
"Can you tell me why?"
Vila's face became serious as he wondered what he should tell her. "Avon was a prisoner of Servalan for three years."
Corinne was horrified. "That's terrible."
Vila grimaced as he tried to imagine what it must have been like. "Yes. Very terrible." There was a lump in his throat as his mind brought up images of the ugly marks he had seen on Avon's body when he helped Cally tend to him in the medical unit. Vila felt a chill in his bones. He said again, "Very terrible."
"How does Sester fit into all this? I know he's a psychostrategist and he works for the Federation."
"He worked for Servalan. She used him to torture Avon." Vila's stomach was churning as he remembered that she had used him as well. She had conditioned him to do it but it didn't make him feel any better. "Servalan used Sester to break Avon."
"Oh." Corinne became very quiet. He could tell that she was thinking about this. "I can see why Avon would hate him." She stopped to think some more. "But he's on the ship now? Helping all of you?"
"Yes. But he's still working for Servalan."
Corinne was perplexed. "I don't understand. If he's working for Servalan, then why do you let him on the ship?"
"It's complicated," said Vila. And getting more complicated by the minute. "We have a temporary truce with Servalan because of the alien threat."
"You're working together like during the invasion?"
"Yes. Until the aliens are removed from our galaxy, we're working together. That's why Sester is here. He represents the Federation."
Corinne didn't seem to like this idea. "But isn't that cruel? Sester tortured Avon. Why would they send him to be the representative? Wouldn't they know what that would do to Avon?"
Vila hadn't really thought about it like that before. He'd just accepted it as something Servalan would do. "Yes, Servalan knows. That's why she sent him."
Corinne's forehead was crinkled in puzzlement. "Sester doesn't seem like a cruel man. It's hard to believe that he could torture someone. And he acted like he cared about Avon in the medical facility."
"It's complicated," said Vila. He wasn't sure he understood it all himself. "You have to be careful of Sester. He's very nice on the outside but you never know what's going on on the inside."
"You mean he was just acting?"
"No. I think…" Trying to understand Sester was as hard as trying to understand Avon a lot of the times. "He is sorry for what he did to Avon and he has been trying to help him recover. It was Sester who gave us the information so that we could rescue Avon from Servalan. He did it at great risk to his own life."
"So he's a good man now?"
"It's hard to say," said Vila cautiously. He did like Sester despite everything and he believed he was sincere about wanting to help Avon, but he didn't trust him entirely. "I think part of him is good but not all of him. And he still works for Servalan."
"I still don't understand. If he feels sorry for what he did then why doesn't he stop working for Servalan? "
That was a good question. He wondered if Sester would tell them the truth one day. "I don't understand it myself. I'm not sure he does."
Beep. Beep. / Excuse me please. / A small polite voice called for their attention from somewhere near their feet.
Vila and Corinne looked down in surprise. A robot in the vague shape of a dog with ears that rotated was the source of the polite request. It had brushes and other implements attached to in various place. A small brush extended from its side and gently tapped Vila's leg, causing him to lift both feet.
The little robot said brightly, / Thank you. / It extended various devices and began cleaning underneath the table. Corinne lifted her feet too. They both stared in amazement at the little machine.
"Sorry, it's not supposed to bother customers." A blond man in a white jacket came up to them. He said firmly, "Spot. Come out of there."
The little robot back out from underneath the table and tilted its head up to look at the man. It gave a little beep of query.
The man said, "You know you're not supposed to bother customers."
/ I'm sorry. / The little robot hung its head in apology.
Corinne said with a delighted, "Oh that's cute."
The man grinned. "I'm still trying to work out the courtesy sub-routines. And its learning circuits seem to be malfunctioning." He bent down and patted the robot dog on the head. The little thing's ears rotated in pleasure and it gave a few little happy beeps. "Now go and clean over there and remember about not bothering the customers. Alright?"
/ Alright / its little voice acknowledged as it moved away.
The man introduced himself warmly and extended his hand, "The name's Rubris. I'm a sanitation engineer."
They both got up to greet him. Vila said, "I'm Vila and this is Corinne."
"I thought I recognized you."
Vila asked, "You're a sanitation engineer?" He didn't want to say but in the Federation, that was just a fancy name for a garbage man. Not exactly a job that everyone wanted. It was always one that was strictly assigned to the lower grades and the lower the better.
"That's right," said Rubris. The man didn't have the automatic resentment and defensiveness that characterized some 'sanitation engineers' he knew back in the domes.
Vila said cautiously, "You seem to like your work."
"Oh, I love it. It's an important job and I get to exercise my creativity."
Vila blinked at that, wondering how creative you could be with garbage. He asked, "Creativity?"
"Yes. I helped to design the new cleaner-bot." He waved his hand towards the happily cleaning robot several tables away. It was working on a piece of cake that someone had just dropped on the ground. "I improved the interaction sub-routines. Spot is my first prototype with the new one."
"So you're an engineer who designs robots that do cleaning?"
"I help. I work in the Waste and Resource Management Department." Rubris said with humour, "I believe you would call us 'garbage people'."
"You…seem to like what you're doing. It's not that I don’t think it's important but back on Earth, garbage disposal isn't a 'glamorous' job. You're usually stuck with it or you were unlucky." Vila couldn't believe he was talking about garbage.
"Oh, no. Not here. Sanitation engineers have an important role in the functioning of our society. And it's not an unpleasant job. It's only one if you make it one." Rubris seemed to be sincere in what he was saying and his voice was warming to the subject. If Vila didn't know the subject matter, he'd say the man was passionate about it.
"How do you make garbage pleasant?" Vila's nose almost wrinkled as he remembered some nasty reminders of how unpleasant garbage could be when you lived in the packed lower-grade grids of the domes.
"Why does garbage have such a bad reputation in most societies?"
Vila wondered what kind of world this was. Did they condition everyone to like their jobs? It was the only way he could think that someone would like dealing with something as smelly as garbage. "Well, I suppose because it smells, it's messy and there's so much of it. In the Federation, a lot of the garbage is shipped to waste planets or moons."
Rubris sighed sadly and shook his head. "Such a waste. I couldn't believe it at first when I read about it in school. People gather resources to make things, use a small fraction of it and then most of it ends up on these waste dumps. Then they gather more resources and do it all over again. So all you're left with are planets that have been plundered of all resources or are choked with pollution and ones that are full of waste. And then you move onto the next planet to start over again or you live in domes because everywhere else is has been destroyed."
Corinne said, "The way you describe it, makes people sound like parasites. Or a virus."
Rubris tugged on his ear nervously. "I didn't mean to make it sound like that. It's just…the way it seems to work in other places."
Despite his 'prejudice' about the subject of garbage, Vila was starting to find this discussion interesting. "So what do they do here?"
"We try to live in harmony with our environment. That's the main task of the sanitation engineers. We don’t just deal with waste, we coordinate with all departments to make sure that there is a responsible use of resources and that there is maximum reuse of all materials. We have no need for dumping planets."
The little cleaner-bot came back and reported happily with a wag of its tail, / All done! /
Rubris patted it on the head, sending it into a frenzy of tail wagging and ear rotating. "Why don't you go and bring the garbage to the Reprocessing unit?"
The little robot said cheerfully and wagged its tail, / Alright! / It trundled off.
Rubris said apologetically, "I'm afraid it’s a bit too enthusiastic. I'll have to work on it a bit more."
Corinne said, "I like it."
Vila glanced mischievously at Corinne and said with an exaggerated sigh, "Yes, I'm afraid Corinne can a bit too enthusiastic at times too. I'm not sure if anything can be done about her."
"Hey!" said Corinne.
He grinned at her.
Corinne said with mock outrage, "Wait 'til we get back to the ship!"
"Then I think I'll stay here," said Vila, still grinning.
Rubris said, "If you need a place to stay, I have an extra room."
Corinne said, "Don’t encourage him. He just wants to get out of shoe shopping."
Vila sighed, "I'm not getting out of it, am I?"
"Not a chance. But if you're good, you can get one gadget."
"Just one?" Vila was trying to look forlorn but he couldn't help it, he started laughing. "Alright, I give up."
Corinne chuckled. "Alright, you can get as many as you want. But you might want to clean up your cabin a bit. Last time I nearly tripped over one of your gadgets."
"Hmm." Vila looked speculatively after the quickly disappearing robot. He asked Rubris, "Do you have any bots that pick up stuff and put them away?"
Sester was pacing in his cabin. He was almost frantic in his movements. Sleep had eluded him all night. All he could think of was the confrontation in the medical unit. The one that had made him snap out at someone, something he rarely did unless he was pushed too far. Cambrin made him feel threatened and defensive.
He was toying with the idea of asking Servalan to remove him from his position here. Not just toying, he was thinking of manipulating her. Sester knew that Servalan had many reasons for him to be here. She was not about to do him any favours unless he gave her some.
The buzzer to his cabin chimed. Sester, who rarely snarled, did now. He was not in the mood for visits of any kind.
With irritation in every step, he went to open the door. He started on his message of unwelcome, "Leave me…" Sester stepped back in surprise. "Reya."
The irritation disappeared. She was a rare and beautiful sight framed in his doorway.
Reya looked much better now and there was colour in her cheeks rather than the pale pallor she still sported a few days ago. "Can I come in?"
Sester looked just outside his door to the left and right. The corridor was empty. He asked with hesitant and bewildered hope, "Alone?"
There was an earnest quality on her face that told him what she wanted to talk about. "You can see that there's no one here with me."
"I think you'd better go. I know what you want to talk about. You're only going to waste your time." Even as he said this, he stepped aside and she entered.
Reya may normally be hard and professional in her manner, the Commander that everyone was respectful of, but her voice today was gentle, "You're not a waste of my time. You never have been. You may think that I regret ever having met you…"
Sester had lost any trace of casual affability. He said bitterly, "Don't you?"
"I will never regret knowing you. I know that you're capable of great good."
"Then you don't know me very well, Reya. You should ask Avon and Argus. They'll set you straight." He started pacing.
"I don’t need to ask anyone. I know. I think Cambrin knows too. Though I’m not sure how. That's why you had that confrontation on the planet."
Sester's voice was tight with tension, "You don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you do." She touched him gently on the arm.
Sester whirled around and pinned her to the wall. Reya was still not recovered sufficiently to react fast enough. His face was very close to her. She could feel the heat of his body fuelled by the passion of the tangle of emotions reflected in his eyes. She could tell that he wanted to kiss her, that he still desired her, but she could see him struggling to control himself.
Reya decided to trust him and stayed passive, waiting for him to do something.
Sester let her go and stepped back. There was torment in his voice. "I'm sorry. You'd…better go."
Reya looked at him with compassion, "Not until I say one thing."
Sester said in a harsh and anguished voice, "Say it and go."
Reya looked down as she tried to determine what she wanted to say that would reach him. She looked up and took a deep breath before she said, "I love you."
Sester's mouth opened in shock.
"But not in the way you want. We both know that will never happen."
Sester closed his mouth and nodded. His eyes did not meet hers again.
Reya continued. "I don't know why you're still working with Servalan. I know you have your own reasons but I don’t think that you're sure of them anymore. I know that you believe your whole identity is tied up in being a psychostrategist. And for you that can only mean one thing. You may not like it, but Cambrin has shown you that a different way is possible. You can be a psychostrategist and not be a tool to harm others."
"Not harm." There was sarcasm in his voice, "Just a tool for a different set of masters."
Reya shook her head. "No. You know it wouldn’t be like that with us. Or with the Tellarans. I get the impression that they would welcome you with open arms."
"But not you?"
Reya grimaced. "You know I would but…"
"The others never will." Sester lifted his head to look at her. It almost seemed like there was pain in his eyes.
Reya wanted to reach out to him but she knew he had reached a difficult crossroads. He was the only one who could decide which path he wanted. She asked gently, "Do you want them to?"
Sester became very still and then he laughed. It was a sound full of self-mocking and cynicism, not his normal light, pleasant laugher. "Don't fool yourself, Reya. That is another thing that we both know is not possible."
"You do want it, don't you? You hope one day, that you will be able to do enough that they'll both forgive you?"
Sester's tortured eyes met hers and he asked, "Do you think I deserve it?"
"That isn't what you want to know. Because you already know my answer. The question is, do you think you deserve it?"
Sester gave a short laugh. "You'd better leave."
Reya said, "Alright." She headed for the exit. The door slid open but she lingered for a moment at the threshold. Reya turned around and asked, "You will think about it?"
"I can't guarantee anything."
Reya nodded and left.
Sester stood staring at the closed door for a long time.