"Am I human?" Avon's voice sounded lost. In pain. It was as if all of his greatest fears had been concentrated in that single question.
Cally could barely breathe. Everyone in the room may have heard Avon's words but she was the only who felt his agony. She wanted to go to him, to surround him both physically and mentally with her comforting presence.
She was only peripherally aware as the specialists at the panels worked frantically. She knew that they were trying to compensate for the great increase in stress Avon was feeling. He was taxing their machines.
She could feel his distress. His calm state was difficult to maintain under the onslaught of feelings that threatened to overwhelm him.
The Tellaran methods did not artificially force different states, they were gentler and used the body's own natural mechanisms to heal and maintain control.
She sent her presence to him, surrounding him in a mental embrace. In a calm voice, she told him, * Yes, you are, Avon. You have always been human. Whatever they did to you, they could not remove that. *
Avon was trying to analyze his way out of the situation but seemed besieged by what his logical mind was trying to tell him.
Cally turned beseeching eyes to Dr. Kendric. "Avon needs help. He's afraid that he isn't human."
Sad compassion overlaid Dr. Kendric's professional manner. She nodded. "We will help him.” She moved closer to the bed and the man whose eyes seemed to be closed tightly. “Avon, can you hear me?”
Avon’s turned to look at her. The question reflected in his eyes was so loud that he didn’t have to say anything.
Kendric’s calm voice was tinged with compassion and understanding. “Your mind can rest, Avon. Genetically you are very human. There is no doubt of that. Your profile proves it.”
Avon asked, “But what they did...” His voice trailed off.
“On a biological level, your profile contains some of the best gene sequences that humanity is capable of. It predisposes you to exceptional development. Especially on the mental level. They tried to produce the best mind.”
“Then they failed. I am not perfect.”
Those words brought up a bittersweet memory for Cally.
Avon's voice from the past. It's a pity we're not all as reliable as Zen.
And her own teasing voice as she leaned back against him. But I thought you were.
Cally remembered his annoyed face then. She always knew how to get to him; knew how to touch his greatest insecurities that were always hidden beneath a veil of hard arrogance. It was no longer a light teasing matter. It was a fear that was making Avon question his own worth. The one thing he had always been sure of, he was no longer.
It was a frightening thing. What did they do to him? How could they so easily tear out the foundations on which his life was based?
With another jolt of reminiscence, Cally recognized the look on his face and the sense of loss in his voice. It was the face he had that day in the dark cellar; when he confronted the woman he had loved more than his own life, and found out that she was nothing more than the illusion of a fool.
Anna had nearly destroyed him that day. For a while, he had been lost, unable to go on; a man without a reason to live. A man who had not wanted to let go of a shattered illusion, even if it meant his own life. But life had been cruel again that day and he survived, against his will as so many things had been in his life.
Dr. Kendric's voice continued, “Yes. They failed. But not in the way you think, Avon. No one is perfect, not even a machine. Nothing is ever infallible. What they achieved in you was not infallibility but a mind that could achieve things no one else could. Your ability to learn and absorb information is incredible. You have knowledge and expertise in many unrelated disciplines. Did you not find that unusual? You solve problems. You overcome obstacles. You create and build whatever is needed. You are able to fail and overcome that failure."
Avon's expressionless voice said, "You are describing a machine. A very sophisticated one."
Kendric said, "Yes, what they made in you was the ultimate biological computer, with all of the creativity and intuition that makes you superior to a real computer. But they failed because you are not a computer. You are still human."
"Many people would disagree with you," said Avon bitterly.
Cally said fiercely, "They would be wrong."
Kendric agreed, "Yes, they would be wrong. You are very much human, Avon. A flawed human. As are we all. Where most of us struggle with our baser instincts, you have had the additional struggle between that which makes you a machine, and that, which makes you human. In that flawed humanity, you have saved many lives. That is your natural instinct; one they were never able to remove even though you tried to convince yourself and everyone else that they have. That is why we have followed your actions with great interest. You are a man with many weaknesses but it is your human strengths that usually win out; even if you have to wrestle with yourself to do it. Despite your flaws, you have saved far more people and harmed far fewer people than those who have a reputation for caring."
"Not everyone," said Avon with sudden anger.
"Yes, you are flawed," Dr. Kendric's eyes were filled with compassion. "And you have to pay the price of those flaws even as others reap the benefits of your struggle to be human."
Cally could feel Avon's anguish. "He has been paying." Her eyes widened as she understood something for the first time. In a voice that was barely a whisper, she asked, "Avon, do you want to get better?"
Vila felt a soft, warm female body snuggled up against his. Was he dreaming? Usually in his dreams, he could see something, not just feel it. He opened his eyes and smiled. Corinne's head was resting against his chest. It was a dream and he hoped never to wake up from it.
For a change, everything was going well for him. He was happier than he had been in a long time.
Sienna said that the Tellarans would welcome him to stay. He would have to learn all of the duties of being a citizen and attend the required education, of course. Something about biweekly civics hours where he'd have to vote on things and add his input. That didn't sound too exciting. But she said he should have no problems getting a charter to set up as an entertainer.
It was very tempting. He was afraid to admit to himself that he was considering it. Not just for him, but for Corinne as well. She belonged here. These were her people. She had already seen enough of human cruelty and ugliness on Chandar. He did not want her to have to face more of it.
It wasn't as if he hadn't already done enough for freedom. He'd faced death more times than most people had in several lifetimes. It was time to let someone else take their turns. There was a whole ship of people who were much better at it than he was.
He and Corinne had just found each other. Vila didn't know if he could bear to let her go.
But he couldn't let the others go either. Avon, Cally, Argus, Reya and the soldiers. He couldn't let them go on without him. He knew he would feel horrible if anything happened to them and he wasn't there.
And he had promised the children.
Vila was torn as he looked down at Corinne. He knew what he wanted to do, and what he had to do. Both decisions would tear him up inside. Why did it have to be so hard?
Vila hugged Corinne.
She stirred and her eyes opened. "Good morning."
When she said it, with a sparkle in her eyes, Vila could believe that every morning could be happy from now on.
He grinned, "You're cheerful this morning."
"I can't think of a reason why." Corinne grinned mischievously.
"I can't either." Vila hugged her a little closer to emphasize how much he couldn't think of it either.
"Oh." Corinne blushed.
"Servalan." Sester's voice was smooth; deliberately calculated to charm the dangerous woman who appeared on his viewscreen.
"Is this a social call?" The Federation President was a cold and unassailable statue of ice.
Sester said, "I do miss your voice sometimes."
"Did you also miss my last orders?" asked Servalan with icy warning.
Sester brushed his fingers along the edge of the flight control panel and asked casually, "You mean about Avon?"
His attitude instantly made Servalan's eyes narrow, as he knew it would. Servalan asked, "What are you hiding from me?"
Sester gave a light sarcastic grin, "You know me so well, Madame President."
The warning was like a thin blade reaching out towards him. "Sester."
Sester looked up at the screen with unflinching eyes. "I've failed."
There was a flash of anger in Servalan's eyes. Her words were like daggers. "What happened to Avon?"
"The deterioration of his mind has reached a critical stage. Even with the help of the people here, they cannot stop his mind blocks from breaking down and plunging his mind into chaos."
"Why has Argus not contacted me?"
"For the same reason why Avon never will."
"The fools!" said Servalan with annoyance.
"For once Servalan, stop playing games with Avon's life. Help him without any conditions, before it's too late. Now is not the time to play games."
Servalan looked at him with interest. "It is the perfect time to play games."
"Why are you trying to do this for him? What do you get out of this?" she asked with suspicious eyes.
"My life?" A self-mocking smile formed on Sester's lips. "As I recall, you don't react well to failure."
Servalan returned his smile with a cold one. "I also do not react well to people who have their own agendas."
"Then send me back to the Guild and tell them what I've done."
"What makes you think that I haven't told them? How do you know that I haven't already informed them that you disobeyed orders and helped Avon to escape?"
Sester said cynically, "If you had, I would not still be here, playing games with you."
"I wouldn't presume too much if I were you. I would replace you without a second thought if I no longer found you amusing."
"Oh, I don't doubt that. But you would have one less advantage over my replacement. You would have nothing to hold over him."
Servalan laughed. It was the kind of sound that would send chills down a lesser spine. Sester was made of sterner stuff. He knew that he had achieved what he wanted.
Servalan asked, "What do you want for Avon?"
Sester had thought this out carefully. He knew that he could not push Servalan too far. Anymore and he would be the one to pay the consequences as well. "The reason why he is in this condition now is because the crew ignored my warning about the drugs and destroyed them."
"You want a new supply?"
"That's not enough. Avon will see it as more control on your part. He will never agree to be dependent on your…good graces."
"Of which I have none."
Sester said, "I want the synthesis machines, with the appropriate codes."
"You're not in a position to make demands." Servalan was almost smiling.
“But as your psychostrategist, I am in a position to tell you that if you don't do this, then Avon will be lost to you. What good is a shell if the mind is gone? I have done all that I can for him. If you want him to die, then now is the perfect opportunity. If not, then you are the only one who can save him.”
Servalan's eyes were unyielding, but so were Sester's. After awhile, Servalan said, "Very well. You will have them."
After the communications had ended, Sester sat thinking. It had been ridiculously easy to manipulate Servalan. Her obsession with Avon made it easy. He should have been congratulating himself but instead he was caught in a dilemma. Every day he spent on this ship, he was losing his objectivity as a psychostrategist. Not only were these people no longer puppets to him, there was something even more dangerous to him on this planet.
Sester knew that Cambrin had repeatedly tried to see him. It was very obvious what the man wanted to do.
He could not lose his identity. The Guild was his life. They were his family; the only one he had ever known. What they did was essential, if not always pleasant. He had always been dedicated to his duty; with a little free interpretation in order to do his job.
Sester knew that he had stepped past the line; he had acted for personal interests, to the detriment of his duty. He knew that he should have arranged to have himself removed from this job.
But he couldn’t. Sester made his hand into a fist and hit the edge of the panel, causing several of the switches to activate. He quickly turned them off.
If Servalan had told the Guild what he had already done, they would order him back. A shiver ran up his spine at the thought.
This should be an easy decision for him. He had a great deal to lose by continuing to help Avon. Then why couldn't he do it? Why did he stay? Why was he risking everything that had always been important to him?