It was hard for Sester to convince the doctors that there was nothing wrong when all of the evidence was on the floor and stained his clothing. Avon had managed to wipe most of his off and had headed to the shower facilities before anyone noticed. Using all of his persuasive powers Sester finally encouraged the observers to believe that it was just a nervous stomach brought on by the dreams during the night. They had taken the precaution of leaving him a container in case of future incidents.
After his own foray to the shower facilities, Sester was literally clean but he didn't feel it. He had spent longer than normal trying to scrub himself before he realized that he was unconsciously trying to rid himself of the feelings of guilt that seemed to soak into every fibre of his being. Cheerful smells of breakfast greeted him when he re-entered the observation room. Avon was seated on his bed, already eating and watching the cleaning robot finish up.
Sester adjusted his bed for sitting and climbed back onto it. The tray next to him contained fruits, eggs, crispy meat, toast and a refreshing drink resembling coffee. The smells were enticing but his stomach was not convinced it was a good idea to eat anything yet. He settled for the coffee-like drink and left the remainder untouched.
Avon seemed to be ignoring him, whether deliberately or out of habit was hard to tell. He was turned away from him so that Sester couldn't attempt to glean clues from his inscrutable face.
There was an awkward silence; at least for Sester it was uncomfortable. He doubted if Avon found the lack of conversation something to be concerned about but after what happened earlier, Sester felt some verbal exchange was required. Everything had changed after all.
He absently played with the tracer bracelet on his wrist and thought about what happened. The memories of the dream were gone. All that remained was the knowledge that he and Avon had known each other as children and that they had been friends. He had called him Kerr and Avon had called him Charles. It must have been during his time at the Academy. He’d lost that name when he entered the Guild.
His mind reached back to simpler times. It was hard to believe that they could erase someone’s existence from his mind so thoroughly that there was no indication of a problem with his memories. There had to be something. No one was that thorough.
He put his hand to his temple and rubbed it. The old nagging pain was back. Why couldn’t that have faded away too? It was annoying; he’d have to learn to ignore it again.
His head tilted in speculation. Why was it recurring now? Was it an effect of the drugs? Or was it something else?
He looked over at Avon and asked, “Avon, when you try to remember what was forgotten in the past, do you experience any pain?”
Avon swallowed what he was chewing. “I’ve never remembered enough to know where to look. Why all the questions?”
“But you do now. Can you try it?”
Avon eyed him suspiciously. “What is the purpose of this?”
“Let’s call it an experiment. You want to find out what happened as much as I do.”
Avon could find no fault in the reasoning. His eyes closed and his mind cast back to a past that was obscured; as much by his own desire to leave it behind as in someone else's scheme to deny him his memories.
It had been an isolating time. His strongest impressions were of grey walls and learning computers. Endless tests of mind and body. Adults with questions and demands. The desire to be left alone. He needed something but he couldn't identify what it was. Emptiness.
Avon's hand went to his head. He was getting a headache. An implacable voice invaded his thoughts.
The mind is the only reality. Avon repeated automatically, "The mind is the only reality."
Nothing else is important. "Nothing else is important."
Cold logic. Rational thought. Nothing else is important. Cold against his body. Suffocating. Blinding lights. "Nothing else is important."
A faint voice tried to reach him. It was full of concern. "Avon! Break out of it!" Pain again. Avon groaned.
He knew this voice. It was concerned for him. It was important. It was... "Nothing else is important."
Sentiment is an illusion. "Sentiment is…no!" Avon cried out in anguish. Something was being torn away from him. It was hard to breathe. Cold against his body, surrounding him. He was drowning.
The faint voice tried to reach him again, like the sound at the end of a long tunnel whose sides were collapsing inward. A caring voice. “Avon, let go of the memory!”
A sudden vision of a computer lab with many seats. Pain lanced through his head. Avon hissed. A computer lab for many people. He was dizzy. Avon groaned as the pain increased.
The faint voice tried to break through, “Avon, let go of the memory!”
“No.” Avon tried to hold onto the slender thread of a room.
The faint voice said, “Avon, you have to let go! It’s only going to get worse and…I suspect that...Avon quickly, what do you remember?”
Avon struggled against the pain but the room was already fading back into the shadows. “A room. Full of...computers. A voice…” The memory was gone. “I don’t remember.”
There was a hiss and the feel of something cold against his neck. The pain eased and he felt calm again. Avon opened his eyes. He was lying on his back. Sester and the observers were nearby with concerned looks on their faces.
The doctors examined him. They were worried but Avon agreed to rest and not attempt to access any more memories until the other specialists were there and they could return him to the examination room. The doctors reluctantly returned to the other end of the room.
Sester was sitting up on his bed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you to remember."
"Your hypothesis appears to be correct." Avon sat up and readjusted his bed. He leaned back tiredly against the pillow.
“I should have found a different way of testing it."
"It was a valid test," said Avon impassively.
"Not if it hurts you."
"A minor consideration. It was the only way to be certain. Do not let sentiment interfere with our goal."
Sester's face became intent. "And what is our goal?"
"The truth." Avon crossed his arms over his chest and his eyes became brooding. "You asked me what I remembered?"
"What did I say?"
"You said there was a room full of computers. And a voice."
Avon's lips pursed. "Memories without context are of little value."
"Agreed. But there is one thing we are certain of now. The pain is connected to our minds touching an area of memory that has been hidden from us."
"That will be useful."
"I thought so." Sester glanced worriedly at Avon's pale face. "You can't stand much more of this."
"That is none of your concern."
Like a petitioner trying to be heard, Sester leaned towards him. "Let the Tellarans heal you. At least enough so that you can stand the strain of the memories."
Sester's expression became exasperated. "Do you think that punishing yourself will serve any purpose? What happened to that rational mind of yours, Avon? The only thing it does is make the guilt more bearable at the expense of punishing others."
Avon snapped harshly, "What are you talking about?"
Sester's voice was like a rush of wind that could not be denied; whipping around Avon, surrounding him, pushing at him and penetrating through him until he could no longer deny its truth. The others had not heard this voice before. "What do you think happens to Cally or the others when they see you suffering? How many collapses have you had? Do you remember the looks on their faces? Have you asked yourself how Cally feels? She is intimately connected to you. Do you know if she feels what you feel? She worries about you all the time. Is that the life you want for her?"
The psychostrategist's words punctured holes into Avon's protective shield, using his own guilt and his concern for the others like weapons against himself. Avon drew in a sharp pained breath. "I never thought…"
Sester's grimaced and stopped himself from going further. He had gone too far. "I'm sorry."
Avon's voice was low. "I underestimated you."
"You were right to be wary of me but it doesn't make what I said any less true. There is nothing more powerful than personal truth."
Personal truth was a powerful thing; it stripped away all pretence and self-delusions. Even Avon's. "I will consider what you've said.""
While Avon went for a walk with Cally, Sester entered the examination room and headed straight for the table with the synthesis machine. As he slid a bio-injector into place, he wondered what the Tellarans had found out about it. He pressed the required buttons.
Avon could not bear the stress of more memories. He was consciously trying to access them, but each time he had less control over them. The drugs only worked to a certain extent. They could not stop him from trying to touch the chaos and being overwhelmed by it. They were going to consume his mind.
The only way to stop it was to relieve the need. Sester took up the injector and read the screen on its side. The instrument was full. "You wanted the truth, Avon."
A voice from behind him asked, "What is the truth?"
Sester whirled around in dismay. Avon and Cally stood like accusing spectres in the doorway.
Avon looked pointedly down at the object in Sester's hand. "What are you doing?"
Food on Tellar was an experience to be enjoyed, not an item of nutrition to be wolfed down on your way to more important activities. Whenever Vila and Corinne had the chance, they went down to Tellar to sample the local cuisine from the different continents. Their favourite one so far was the outdoor café where they had run into the cleaning robot, Spot.
At night, the tables were illuminated with dim lights and a band played soft music nearby. People spoke in soft voices to each other. A singer with a mellow voice sang of the struggles of love and trust in a universe that believed in neither.
Vila scrolled through the menu panel at their table. Delicious-looking pictures caused their mouths to water. Enticing aromas drifted over from the tables around them.
Vila’s stomach was trying to hurry him along as it rumbled unashamedly. He asked, “What do you feel like today?”
“How about something hot and spicy? This one looks good.” She pointed a finger at a dish that looked like a hollowed out fruit stuffed with various meats and vegetables.
“It says…” Vila bent his head down as if to read the fine print. “…that it’s so hot that you have to sign a waiver before you eat it.”
Corinne bent forward, trying to read around his head. “It does not say that.”
Vila grinned, “It should. It has a spicy rating of five. That should be enough to set your pants on fire.”
Corinne smiled, “Well, I’m not wearing any pants so that’s alright.”
Vila winked and tilted his head to the side. He knew she wasn't. Corinne wore a black dress with red accents. He thought she looked elegant and beautiful.
After entering their orders, one of the friendly attendants came by and recommended something called a Blueberry Tea, that didn’t have any tea in it. It was based on an old Earth drink that had been introduced to Tellar centuries ago. This stirred their curiosity. They ordered two as an after dinner drink.
They made light conversation as the dishes arrived and they took pleasure in the food. As they enjoyed each other's company, Vila's mind became increasingly preoccupied with a worrying thought.
Towards the end of the last dish, Corinne asked, “Vila, are you worried about something?”
Vila paused as he was about to spear the last elusive red fruit that resembled a small tomato. “Why do you ask that?”
“You just seem lost in thought.”
Vila felt guilty. “I suppose I've been. I didn’t want to burden you.”
Corinne said, “Your problems are my problems. I mean…if you want to share them with me that is. Even if I can’t do anything, it might help to talk about it. I want to be here for you.”
This was one of the things that Vila had been thinking about. “I know you do."
“If you’ll have me that is.” She still seemed shy and unsure of herself at times.
This was awkward. Vila had avoided bringing this topic up because it wasn’t something he wanted to think about yet. Whenever he did, it always depressed him.
“You don't ever have to worry about that.” He reached over and took one of her hands in his. "I will always want you."
"Then what's wrong?"
Vila lightly traced the back of her hand with his fingers. "Corinne, what did you think of the patrol we went on with the Tellarans?"
"I'm glad we were able to help. It was terrible seeing what people can do to each other. I thought it was just on Chandar but it's everywhere, isn’t it?"
Sometimes Vila forgot that she had already experienced a great deal of ugliness and cruelty in her own life. In his mind, she was still an innocent who needed to be protected. "I love it here, Corinne."
"I do too."
Vila looked into her eyes. "I would love to spend the rest of my life here with you, but I can't stay." He heaved a heavy sigh. "I can't believe I said that. If this was ten years ago, I would have stayed with you and enjoyed the good life. It's what I've always dreamed of. But things are different now. I'm different. I've been fighting the Federation for a long time. Most times, I believed in what we were doing, but I never liked the killing. And in the end, it was all for nothing. We killed all those people and things are worse now than when I started. Then seeing all those people the other day, the dead and dying on both sides. They were real people. It didn't matter what side they were on. I'm not sure I could kill like that again. If someone came to me today and said let's fight for freedom by killing many people, I don't think I would go with them. But the way the Tellarans fight, that is me. That's something I can do and I want to do it. I want my life to mean something. I don't want to leave a trail of blood behind and nothing else. Maybe I want to make up for all the lives I've taken. I've spoken to Argus."
"What did he say?"
Vila remembered the surprising conversation he had with Argus. "He said we can't afford to do it with the Andromedans. The Tellaran way takes too long. But he would think about it in our fight against the Federation. I think he's sick of the killing and violence too."
"But he's a soldier."
"I know. But he's different. I don't think he likes killing, at least, not anymore. I'm trying to convince him and Avon that Sester might be able to help them find a better way. He knows all kinds of tricks with people. Tellarans have their own psychostrategists who work for good. If Sester could be like that…"
"Then the four of you would be a great team against the Federation," Corinne said enthusiastically.
Vila said, "Not me. The three of them. Argus, Avon and Sester."
"No. I'm not like them. I'm just a thief."
"No, you're not. You're much more than that. They're all Alphas. You see things differently than they do. You're the one who is trying to put them together. They can't see it themselves but you can. You have an instinct that they don't. They're going to need you. And you can encourage them to be more like the Tellarans. And I'm coming with you."
Vila's breath was taken away. There was nothing he wanted more than to save people with Corinne by his side. But the responsibility of another person weighed heavily on him. He couldn't think of himself. "There is nothing I would like more. But you're young, Corinne. You have your whole life ahead of you. You belong here."
Corinne squeezed his hand, "We belong together and we will watch out for each other. I may be young but I also want my life to mean something. Don't push me away."
Vila stared at her, drinking in her presence, trying to commit every detail of her face to memory. She was a woman who saw something in him that he found hard to see. She believed in him and she wanted to be with him. It was a very good feeling. In some ways, he needed her as much as she needed him. They made a good team.
This was what the Tellar Union was about.
"I will not push you away." Vila smiled and traced his fingers lightly along the back of her hand. "It's not the four of us."
Corinne covered his hand with hers, "But it is. You're just as important as the others."
"It's the seven of us. Not just the men. It's also you, Cally and Reya. You're the ones who keep us honest. You all have special abilities. And if there is one thing that I've learned on Tellar, women are crucial. The psychostrategists may have been important but it was the contribution of the women that changed Tellaran society."
Corinne asked, "Does that mean that we're going to stay together?"
“For better or worse. That’s something they used to say in the ancient days.”
“No matter what.” Corinne grinned, “Even if you lose all your hair and all your teeth fall out.”
Vila grinned and ran his fingers over his head. “The first part might be sooner than you think.”
A white shirted attendant with a splash of red cloth on his chest pushed a cart over with a flourish. It was time for their special Blueberry Tea. He put two large clear glasses on the dark surface of the cart and poured a shot of something into each one.
Vila took a deep whiff. "Good brandy."
The man smiled. "You have a discerning nose." Next, he picked up a metal container, poured more brandy into it, and lit it on fire. Colourful flames licked over the lip of the container and threw shadows over the faces of the audience.
There were excited ooohs from Vila and Corinne and the people in the tables around them. The attendant took the flaming cup and held it aloft. He picked up a similar cup and held it below. Fire spilled from one container to the other and back again like a stream of liquid flame. The attendant poured the still flaming liquid into each glass and handed one to each of them. The liquid was clear.
Corinne carefully put her nose to the edge of the glass as the dying flames lit up her eyes with gold accents. She exclaimed with delight, "It smells like blueberry tea."
Vila took a careful taste of his when the final trace of flame disappeared. "It tastes like blueberry tea…with a kick."
They clinked their glasses together. The clear sound had a formal quality, like an unspoken promise.
(This video is the closest I could find to what is done for a Blueberry Tea. This one is for a Flaming Spanish Coffee.)
It appeared that the observation room was the place to be if you wanted to hear things to shock the mind. It was Argus's turn and judging from the hardening of his expression, he didn't seem to like it anymore than Avon had liked finding out about his shared memories. Sester had prudently made himself scarce.
Avon waited expectantly.
Argus wondered if this was another obligatory test from his partner. The man seemed to need constant reassurance. "Avon, you're not serious are you? You want to remove Sester's tracer bracelet? Tell me that you have something else up your sleeve? Perhaps one that he has to swallow? Or maybe a device implanted under the skin?"
"I want him to be free of a tracking device."
"Why? Then we can't keep track of him."
"That is the general idea."
"Stop joking with me, Avon."
"Do I look like I'm joking?"
Argus studied Avon's sober and nearly expressionless face. "Actually you look very serious. But then you usually do. You must be joking though. You were the one who insisted that we watch him carefully. You were the one who wouldn't trust him as far as you could throw him. You gave me a hard time about that if I recall. And now you want to remove the tracer bracelet? Our only way to keep him under control? This is either a special brand of Avon-humour that I haven't yet learned to appreciate or you are testing our relationship again."
"Now that's an interesting idea," said Avon.
"So this is a joke? Can we talk about something more serious now?"
"This is not a test. I am quite serious."
"For Terra's sake, why?"
"My trust in him has reached a level where this step is necessary."
"What level? And what step? You’re telling me that you trust him?" Argus couldn’t believe his ears. "It must be my turn to have dreams because this can't be real and you're not the genuine Avon."
"Would it help if I hit you?" asked Avon dryly.
"Can you tell me why you trust him all of a sudden?"
"You wanted my cooperation in giving him a chance several days ago."
"Yes but you know I didn't mean this. This is taking trust to a level that's dangerous. We can't risk it." Argus wondered if he should take Avon by the shoulders and shake him. Maybe Avon was having a crazy waking dream of some kind. Or maybe he was. Argus rubbed his head. He was expecting a headache any minute now.
"I gave you my cooperation."
"Yes, and I gave you my reasons. You haven't given me any yet other than you trust him."
Avon's stares could convey a wealth of meaning in a single glance. Or they could still remain mysterious and unsolvable even with a detailed instruction manual.
Argus knew what this one meant. "You want me to trust him because I trust you?"
Argus sighed. It was a test. "Very well. But if he makes a wrong move?"
"I will take care of him personally."
Avon studied Argus for a moment. There was an element of honest simplicity about this man. When Argus trusted, it was real, not empty words only backed up by sentiment.
Avon had never met an honest man before. There were a few who appeared to be but they had all been bitter disappointments. He had long developed a highly cynical attitude about human beings.
He thought he had found truth once in Anna; he had taken a chance on her. What a fool he had been. Despite his well-known pragmatism, he was committing that foolishness again. It made him far more human and irrational than he would have preferred to be but he couldn't help himself.
He had chosen to trust Cally. And now, Avon knew he trusted Argus too. He kept testing the man, expecting to have his cynicism rewarded but Argus appeared to be stubborn.
Avon knew that Argus was not perfect. In fact he was highly imperfect. But there was one thing that was not. His caring was genuine. It was not something easily tossed aside when there were more important agendas to fulfil. There was no element of the hypocrisy that Avon had hated in Blake. Avon bit back a groan as his stomach twisted in pain.
Argus immediately asked with concern, "Avon? You alright?"
"It's nothing." Like Sester, he would never be free of the guilt. It no longer gave him the right to criticize. Avon focused back on the man in front of him.
Argus had a tendency to sacrifice himself which was worrying but he was fierce in protecting his own. He would never view them as tools to be used or soldiers to be sacrificed. Argus had never looked to him as a follower, but as an equal. For that alone, Avon was willing to follow him.
Avon said, "I have reasons for doing this. I have reasons for trusting him but..."
"I trust you, Avon. You don't have to explain."
Sester waited by the door, expecting to pause there to take in the atmosphere of the observation room before he entered. Unfortunately, Argus noticed him first. There was no point in waiting. Sester entered the room. He had no doubts that the two men had been discussing him but there was no telling what Avon had told Argus about their dreams. He doubted if it had been very much. Avon tended to be a private man, especially about personal matters.
Avon was deliberately being even more expressionless than ever and there was a frown on Argus's face that nearly missed being a snarl. Sester smiled.
Argus said harshly, "Stick out your hand."
Sester looked between the two men. He asked jokingly, "Do I get an anaesthetic first?"
"Now!" said Argus. He added with a troubling smile, "The one with the tracer."
Sester looked at his former childhood friend. "Avon?"
"Do as he says."
Sester lifted up his bracelet-adorned wrist and extended it towards Argus.
Argus immobilized Sester's hand in his strong one. From his inner pocket, he took out a short thin rod.
Sester continued his light banter, "I hope that's sharp."
Argus glared at him and then with a swift movement, thrust one end of the rod towards Sester's wrist.
Despite Sester's confidence in Avon, he flinched involuntarily. The rod slid into a small hole that Sester hadn't noticed before. Argus twisted and there was a click. The bracelet snapped open and Argus removed it from his wrist.
Sester rubbed his suddenly free wrist and gave him a pleasant smile. "Thank you."
"Thank Avon. If it was up to me, you would still be wearing it," said a gruff Argus.
"I have no doubts about that. That's why I wanted to thank you."
Argus snapped the bracelet closed. It seemed to make an ominous sound. "I don't know what you've done to convince Avon that you can be trusted but it won't work with me. I'm only doing this because I trust him."
"You're a good friend."
Argus managed a half snarl, "What do psychostrategists know about friendship?"
Sester looked over at Avon. The man was still staring at him but not saying anything. Avon trusted him enough to set him free but not much else. He was not going to help him with Argus. "Only what I've read."
Argus "We're all puppets to you."
"Not anymore. But I don't expect you to believe that."
"You're right. I don't."
Sester held up his arm. "Then put that thing back on."
Argus extended the bracelet towards him. For a moment, Sester wondered if the man meant for him to put the tracer back on his own wrist. Without taking his eyes off Sester, Argus handed the bracelet and the key to Avon. "You answer to Avon. I would not recommend crossing him."