Avon had rushed to the teleport room as Argus and the others arrived. Argus was directing the injured to be conveyed to the medical bay while he arranged security on the single injured alien who had survived.
Avon stood back out of the way as he watched this activity. There was a lack of emotion on Argus's face. Just the proficient and detached calm of a man doing his job.
After the last man had exited, Argus stood staring after them into empty space, his hand absently covering the still wet wound on his arm.
Avon said in a voice devoid of emotion, "You're dripping."
Argus turned startled eyes to him. "What were you saying?"
Avon said, "You're bleeding."
Argus looked down at the deep slice on his arm. "I suppose I am."
Argus's voice was flat. "Innes died." He was the soldier who had rushed into the room with him, shoulder-to-shoulder and with guns blazing.
Argus's eyes closed and his head bowed. His jaw tightened in anguish. "Innes, one of the soldiers. He died on the mission. Not that you would care, you never knew their names. I doubt if anyone cared to know their names."
Avon kept his voice neutral. "It's frequently easier not to care if you don't know their names."
Argus opened angry eyes. His voice was full of bitter sarcasm. "Is that what you do, Avon? Keep them nameless so you don't have to care? Just like you did with the women?"
For Avon, it was much easier not to care. For him love had always ended in pain; the agony of being betrayed or the anguish of a soul-emptying loss. Caring enough to be hurt was foolishness. The deeper the love, the greater the devastation.
His pragmatic mind had presented him with a logical solution, just not a human one. It was what he told everyone. Perhaps if he said it enough times, pushed enough people away, then he could believe it too.
At Avon's silence, Argus asked, "Do you wish that we had never remembered our childhood? Never remembered that we had been friends? So that you don't have to care? Is that why you refuse to let me call you Kerr?"
"You're a fool."
Argus looked down at his bleeding arm and grimaced. He was starting to register the pain. "I suppose I am. A stupid fool." Unconsciously he squeezed with his hand, causing the blood to flow again. And more pain.
Avon grabbed his hand away and asked sharply, "What are you doing?"
Argus looked up at him. The pain of too many wounds making his eyes squint as if it were blinding him. "Another one died, Avon."
Anna's voice from the past haunted Avon's present. How much pain do you think a human being can endure, Avon? She had asked him that once as he held her in his arms after they had shared an intensely physical interlude.
In a physical sense or a psychological one? he had asked for clarification, as if it were an intellectual exercise.
Anna had twisted around to look into his penetrating eyes. And then she had kissed him deeply, the question ignored in a flurry of passion. She had never asked him again.
A cold-blooded question from a woman who knew from the beginning what she was planning to do to him.
How much pain can a human being endure? As he looked into the eyes of the man who carried the burden of too many lives, he knew the answer, they both knew it.
Avon's eyes softened slightly and a voice escaped from the place that his conscious mind could not control. "It wasn't your fault. All of them followed you willingly."
"I never asked him, Avon. I should have…I should have…" Argus shook his head. "Maybe he wouldn't have died today if I had."
Instinct caused Avon to reach out and put his hand on Argus's shoulder. "Jack, don't do this."
He felt a connection to this man. Not just because of a shared childhood that he barely remembered, but because of the pain. Their lives had been destroyed by people who would own and use them. But even more, there was the pain that would forever bind them to an agony they could barely face, because of a debt that could never be repaid.
Argus said with a voice ripe with pain, "Avon…Kerr…I can't do this anymore..."
"But everyone…needs me to."
Argus asked in a tormented voice, "Why me?" His eyes glazed over and he collapsed while Avon tried to grab him. Avon staggered back under the weight. Sester had been leaning against the doorway, listening quietly. He quickly came over to help. They carefully lay the wounded man on the ground and knelt down beside him.
Sester said softly to himself, "Who else could it be?"
Avon asked, "What did you say?"
Sester lifted contemplative eyes to meet his. "Nothing." That you want to hear.
Avon said, "We'll need help carrying him."
Sester said, "I'll do that." He stood up, went to the comm panel and called for assistance. When he came back, Avon had his hand over Argus's wound, applying pressure to stop the bleeding.
Sester knelt down as well. He couched his voice in soft concern, and pitched just a little higher. Reminiscent of younger times. "Kerr…"
"He has to go on."
Sester's eyes held a degree of concern that he would never have shown if Argus had been conscious. "They broke his heart and he's been trying to put the pieces back together ever since."
Avon said with bitter sarcasm, "You should know. People like you tore him apart and tried to make him into something he never wanted to be."
"They did it to all of us, Avon."
"You never resisted very much, if I recall. You always wanted the privilege they represented."
"Don't call me that."
Several soldiers came in to carry Argus to the medical unit.
The women were in high spirits after the First Challenge had ended. There was a debriefing session and an impromptu celebration. Laughter and smiles abounded. Reya found the hugging a bit excessive but tolerated it with resigned acceptance. These were civilians. Some latitude had to be given.
Other than for the news of the success of the mission that had thwarted the aliens' attempt to replicate and replace the Chandaran President, they had not yet been informed that they had suffered a casualty.
Karita was exuberant and was giving personal demonstrations of different parts of her match. She said to Reya, "That last fall, it was…incredible. He didn't know what hit him."
The shy Alara was by herself in a corner. Corinne saw that she was unusually quiet, even more than normal, and came over to talk to her. She remarked, "You did really well."
Corinne's greeting roused Alara from her thoughts. "Thank you,"
"You don't seem very happy."
Alara had to raise her voice to be heard above the boisterous noise in the room. "I was just thinking."
Having been raised on Chandar, Corinne felt a closeness to these women that none of the others did. "You don’t have to worry about what's going to happen to you. These are good people. They'll protect you and I'm sure the Tellarans will take you in."
Alara said, "I know but…Chandar is my home. I don't know if I would feel comfortable elsewhere."
"You don’t feel comfortable here."
Worry lined Alara's face. "Not anymore but maybe that's a good thing."
Corinne looked at her curiously. "You're thinking of staying?"
"I…don't know. If it's true that my man is an alien, I will probably be claimed by one of his relatives. If not…"
"You would go back to him?" Corinne asked incredulously. "But you can't, Alara. You can't go back to that life."
Alara's eyes were pensive. She looked like a woman trying to make a hard decision. "You've shown me a different life and for that I'm grateful. But when I was fighting down there and I was talking to Brady…"
"Yes, that was the man I was fighting."
"What did he say?"
"Well, it wasn't what he said exactly. We're all doing this because we want the men to see us differently. And maybe that can change things. After talking to Brady…I'm…starting to think it might be possible."
"That's why you want to stay?"
"Yes. I want to continue fighting but in a different way. Would your mother mind if I asked her what she did to change your father?"
After being treated by a deep tissue regenerator, Argus disappeared from the busy medical unit before a blood infuser could be attached to his arm.
Avon found him in the storage room that had been converted into a temporary morgue. Argus stood in solitary attendance over the body of the soldier who had been killed, his head bowed and his back vulnerable to whoever wanted to come in.
When he heard the door slide open and someone coming up behind him, Argus said without turning around. "I wanted to be alone."
Avon stopped beside him and looked down at the body. "I knew I would find you here."
"Is there an emergency?"
Argus asked with tired resignation. "What is it?"
"You're going to create an emergency if you don't go back to the medical unit. I'm not carrying you."
"You won't have to."
The soldier looked almost peaceful with his eyes closed in death. Avon wondered if it was possible to have that kind of peace in life. That kind of certainty.
Blake had had it and Avon had envied him that. But it was a certainty without any peace. Avon had always believed that it was the certainty of a fool, a simpleton. Or a dream of the insane. Only a man who couldn't afford to think could be so certain about things that made no sense in their world.
But none of that mattered now. He had killed Blake. And now, like the childhood friend who stood in silent vigil over a slain comrade, Avon had a debt to pay.
Avon's eyes closed as emotions threatened to bubble to the surface. He tried to remain in control. His jaw tightened as his stomach twisted in the pain of guilt and loss.
Blake. This man had confused him when he was alive. Full of such compassion and humanity; the insane dreamer that he had derided but, against his better judgement, had wanted to believe.
Then there was the fanatic who didn't know that his actions and the way he treated his crew made his words and dreams a hypocrisy. This was the man that Avon had come to hate.
Unlike the others, Avon had seen both clearly from the beginning. The two halves of Blake; the man and the madness. The dreamer and the destroyer. One had drawn Avon to him and gave him a reluctant hope; the other had driven him away and made Avon want to be free of him at any cost.
Blake was dead now. Avon grimaced at the increased pain from his stomach. He had killed him. It didn't matter if it had been in error or that he had snapped because of one more betrayal by a man that he both loved and hated, had finally proven too much to bear.
Now he would never be free of Blake. He would be haunted by the man's memory and the guilt forever. It was a fitting sentence.
Argus turned to the silent man beside him. A tight grimace marred Avon's face. What thoughts were troubling this tortured man now? Was it possible for either one of them to be free from the ghosts that haunted them? Argus asked worriedly, "Avon? Are you alright?"
Avon roused himself from ghostly thoughts. His face became emotionless again. "You're the one who's hurt."
"I'm fine. This is nothing."
"You left before they finished treating you. You need time with the blood infuser."
Argus turned to look at the soldier again. "I…needed to be here."
"It's not going to bring him back."
"It's not about that. It's…about respect. I wouldn't expect you to understand."
It would be easy for Avon to say that he didn’t, but it would have been a lie. If Cally was here, Avon knew that she would say Argus needed a friend. He needed someone who could listen and understand what he was going through. Avon understood, perhaps more than anyone did, the burdens that weighed them both down.
Avon's words came hesitantly. Even though he had been sharing with Cally, and a little with Vila, it was still something that came very unnaturally. "I once risked my life because of the memory of a dead woman."
"I'm sorry, Avon. I forgot about Anna."
"Tell me about Innes."
When Vila arrived back at his cabin to retire for the night, Corinne knew that something was wrong. "Vila, what happened?"
Vila sat down heavily on the bunk that Corinne was trying to prepare for the night. His shoulders were slumped. "One of the soldiers died today."
"Oh no!" Corinne sat down and put her arms around him in comfort. "What was his name?"
Vila looked at her with pained and troubled eyes. "His name was Innes."
Corinne said with silent sorrow, "Oh no."
Vila asked, "You know who he was?"
"Yes. He was one of the soldiers who gave me training. He taught me field hand signals and some other things. He was very nice."
This depressed Vila further. "I…had to ask someone what his name was. I never knew any of their names. They were just soldiers. They did the shooting so I wouldn't have to. But they weren't just soldiers, Corinne...and now Innes is dead. And I had to ask someone his name." He was depressed. "They all call me, sir, and I don’t even know their names." And he felt guilty.
"We should do something nice for him. Do you know if he had any family?"
The idea that he could do something brightened Vila's attention. "We should find out. We should…hold some kind of ceremony for him." He straightened up and said with resolve. "I’m going to know all of the soldiers. Every one of them."