Cally, Jenna and Ture had tried several exit points from the city already and they all seemed to be controlled by Federation Assault troops. Since all three had prices on their heads or were persons of interest to Federation Security, none of them could risk running the checkpoints. And especially not since the troops seemed to be doing identi-scans on everyone. It appeared that anyone not registered in the Federation database were being detained.
"They must be making sure none of the invaders are left here," said Jenna. "Unfortunately that's not good for us."
"If anyone was looking for the capsules, they would have found them by now. There's been more than enough time," said Ture.
"Yes. It was a long shot that we would find them," said Jenna.
"But we had to try," said Cally.
Cally was afraid. She knew what would happen to Avon if the Federation found him again.
"Maybe Vila found them and brought them back to the residence already," said Jenna.
"Hopefully," said Cally. "Assuming they didn't run into the checkpoints."
"Well if they did, then they might be trying to find a way to get back in," said Jenna.
"I'm sure there weren't this many Federation Security troops on the streets when I left the city," said Vila.
"There weren't," said Avon.
"How would you know?" asked Vila.
"These aren't Security troops. They're assault troops," said Avon.
"They all look the same to me."
"They're not. Security troops ask questions after they shoot you. These ones just shoot and don't bother about the questions."
Avon and Vila were watching the Federation Assault troops from a very discreet distance. The troops had set up an access point at the outer perimeter of the city. Anyone entering or exiting had to undergo security identification scans and registration. Some people were being detained.
"I wonder what they're looking for?" mused Vila.
"You don't suppose they're looking for us, do you?" asked Vila nervously.
"That's a possibility. They could be looking for the occupant of the third life capsule."
"But that's you."
"Yes. That's assuming these assault troops are affiliated with the group in the woods. Regardless, it won't do either one of us any good being identified by Federation interests."
"I like your way of thinking," said Vila.
"That makes it all worthwhile," said Avon sarcastically. "We need to find a way into the city and connect with the others. We're exposed out here."
"How do we do that?" Vila looked at him expectantly.
Avon had a feeling of uneasiness when Vila looked at him like that.
When did you start trusting me like this again? Don't you remember Malodar?
Avon remembered. He had almost killed Vila there.
No. Not killed. Almost murdered. The thought triggered a sickening feeling in his stomach. His mind pushed down feelings of panic and dread. It was a good thing Servalan had not known about this; else she would have used it against him too.
Avon remembered telling Jenna once that the only thing that he knew of guilt was what he had read about. He was being facetious then. No one on the Liberator knew of the feelings of guilt which ate at him. They did not know of the dreams of Anna which haunted his nights, not until he went looking for Shrinker. Losing Anna had been so devastating that he didn't want to care about anyone else; he did not have room to care for anyone else; at least not until he met Blake and the others. Then thrown together for mutual survival, he had learned to care for them too.
Not that he had ever been an outwardly emotional man. His caring was expressed in his actions; not in the trappings of sentiment human beings put such a high value on. Sentimentality destroyed objectivity and warped reason. For him that was death. It was his intellect and his genius which kept him alive. Without them, he was as helpless as everyone else was.
While his crewmates accused him of being an unfeeling machine, he risked his life to save them. It never seemed to make a difference; they still questioned whether he had a heart even after he saved them. It didn't matter to him. His caring was independent of how others felt about him. He cared and he acted. If others only accepted a caring which came with trappings they could recognize, it mattered little to him. The only one who came close to understanding that about him had been Cally.
Avon had never followed the normal conventions of morality. He had always found that morality in a Federation society was highly variable and utilitarian depending on where in the power hierarchy of society you were. He had his own morality. That morality had never involved cold-blooded killing.
Before he met Blake, he had only killed once in his life; and that only out of self-defense. The man with the exit visas had nearly killed him first. The longer he was with Blake, the more he was called on to kill; at times killing seemed the only logical option for survival. But he had never thought he could kill a friend.
The killer of friends.
Avon's stomach twisted. He grimaced in pain and nearly doubled over. His train of thought was bringing him too closely to thoughts of Blake. He wasn't ready to deal with that yet. Because of what Servalan had done to him, he wasn't sure he would ever be able to deal with it.
"Avon! Are you alright?" said a concerned Vila. He put his arm around Avon to steady him.
"What happened on the shuttle, Vila?" Avon asked. Vila was shocked at the anguish and pain in Avon's voice.
"What shuttle? You came down in a life capsule. Don't you remember?"
Avon gripped Vila's shoulder. "No. On the shuttle. I don't understand. Why did I try to kill you?" Avon's mind was filled with confusion about the events of that day.
He had replayed the shuttle incident over and over in his mind in the days afterwards. Avon had tried to understand his own actions but he couldn't.
Did the burdens of leadership and the danger wear me down? Was I only acting out of pure survival instinct by then?
Vila reacted in shock. He forcibly broke Avon's grip and pushed him away. Avon fell backwards. He stifled a groan as his weakened knee twisted and he collapsed to the ground against a tree.
Vila's mind was filled with anger and confusion. It had been along time since he had thought about the shuttle. At times he had almost convinced himself it had been a bad dream. Sometimes, when he was drunk, he almost could. Familiar feelings of hatred and betrayal surfaced.
"You were a bastard!" he half shouted at Avon. "That's why! A selfish bastard!" Vila's voice choked.
There was such bitterness in his voice that Avon grimaced again.
"I'm sorry, Vila."
Avon's voice was so quiet that for a moment, Vila thought he had imagined it.
"Kill me, if you want to. I won't say anything," Avon looked up at him. There was no emotion on his face but there was a hard set in his eyes.
"Who do you think I am?! I'm not you. I don't kill my friends," Vila spat out angrily.
Each word was like a dagger of guilt aimed at him. Avon's stomach twisted again. His jaw tightened at the pain but he showed no emotion.
"Then take ORAC and leave me here." There was a dead flatness in Avon's voice. He leaned back against the tree. His face was pale; exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him.
Vila took a step backwards.
"You want them to find you?"
"Yes." Avon's voice was quiet.
Vila suddenly realized what Avon was saying. "You want Servalan to find you."
At this Avon didn't answer. He stared straight ahead, not looking at Vila.
For along time after Malodar, Vila had wanted Avon to pay for what he had nearly done to him. He had wanted to hear an apology and he had wanted to see this man hurt.
Vila shook his head. He remembered seeing the marks of torture on Avon's body; could still remember the screams of pain as Avon tried to free himself from the conditioning. And he would never forget the looks of despair and hopelessness in Avon's eyes as he begged Vila to kill him on the ship.
In his greatest anger, Vila would never have wished what Servalan had done to Avon.
Maybe you've already paid enough, thought Vila. The anger was gone. It was replaced with pity as he regarded the broken man before him. He came over and knelt down next to Avon.
He put his hand on his shoulder and said quietly, "I forgive you."
"What?" Avon lifted his head to look at him with blank confusion.
"Just don't do it again."
At Avon's continued look of bafflement, Vila explained, "I figure you've saved me two or three times. So we can call it even."
Avon's continued silence made Vila feel uneasy.
"Can you say something sarcastic? Uncomfortable silences make me nervous."
"Your application of math leaves a lot to be desired," said Avon. It was a weak attempt but it was all he could manage at the moment. "But your application of sentiment is impeccable."
Vila wasn't sure but he thought he spotted a compliment in there somewhere. He gave Avon a slight grin. "That's more like it. I think."
He helped Avon to stand and said, "Let's get back to the ship and it can be like old times again. We can dump Argus somewhere and you can take back your ship. We can think up lots of ways to get rich. It'll be like Freedom City. The girls can stay if they want."
"No, Vila," said Avon.
"Why not?" asked Vila. It sounded like a brilliant idea to him.
"I can't lead."
"What do you mean? Sure you can. You've done it lots of times," said Vila.
"That's not what I meant. I don't trust myself to lead. And neither should you. Not until I'm sure I won't do the same things again."
"Oh," said Vila thoughtfully. "That's probably a good idea."
Avon was in no hurry to explore the idea of regaining control of the Justice; not until he was sure of himself. In the meantime Argus was useful.
You can continue to lead the others. Assuming you survive. And I will follow if I chose. But I will be watching you.
Even though they had worked well together against the invaders, Avon was still undecided about him. Despite what Argus had done, Avon still did not understand what motivated the man.
Blake had been easy to understand. He never hid what he was. In that way he and Avon were both very much alike. And even though Avon had thought him a fool, he had respected that honesty.
Avon's stomach twisted again. I have no right to call him a fool. Not anymore.
"Avon?" Vila asked with concern when Avon's face grimaced in pain "Are you alright?"
Avon wondered if he would ever be again. He pulled himself together. In order to function, he could not afford to think about Blake.
"Thank you, Vila," said Avon. "It was. Unexpected."
"I'm surprised myself," said Vila.
"Not to mention embarrassed?" asked Avon with a tone of light sarcasm.
"Don't mention it," replied Vila lightly. "I mean, really don't mention it. Wouldn't want my reputation ruined or anything."
"Don't worry. I will still insult you as usual. I wouldn't want to ruin my reputation either," Avon reassured him in the same light tone.
We can never go back to the time when you trusted me, thought Avon. Too much time has passed. Too many things have been destroyed. I am no longer the same man you once knew. But perhaps I can find in myself, someone you can trust again.
Someone I can trust again.
Consciousness was returning like a slow moving stream flowing into the mind; which was fortunate considering Sester had a blinding headache. He tried to think but thinking hurt.
"He's awake, sir."
Unfamiliar voice. I'm being watched. At least two in the room. What happened? How long I've been unconscious?
Each thought was painful. He was finding it difficult to have anything more than short bursts of thought.
I have to think. He needed to think in order to stay alive.
As his mind moved closer to consciousness, he was starting to register more pain. This was in a different part of his body; it was like a hard knot of agony. He heard himself moaning.
Sester tried to open his eyes but the first shaft of light was like a painful dagger piercing directly into his brain. Bad idea. For now.
Instead he tried to remember what happened. His last memory was of being on the ship with Avon, Argus and Reya. They had been in a battle with the aliens. He remembered the ship being hit and explosions. That was the last thing he remembered.
The act of remembering seemed to bring about more pain in his head; but he had to continue.
Did we win? Have the aliens taken over the ship again? Where are the others? Was I injured in the battle?
Sester screamed in pain. Someone was pressing down on the knot. It was excruciating. He couldn't move away from the pressure, something was restraining him.
I need to find out what's going on. Sester opened his eyes. Despite the pain, he kept them opened. He recognized his tormentor. It was Senior Controller Dayto.
"That's better," said Dayto as he saw that Sester now had his eyes opened. "We're going to have a talk about what you're going to do for us."
This again. That must mean that we won. You have lost your powerful ally. So you are going back to your original plan.
"Why?" asked Sester in a barely heard voice. He didn't seem to have the energy to speak. "I'm not going to say anything different than I did before."
Sester wished that it was not so difficult trying to think right now. He needed his mind fully functional.
Dayto's hand pressed down against Sester's wound again. Sester cried out in pain and moaned as the pressure continued. His breathing was in short agonized gasps. He twisted against the straps securing him to the bed.
"I think you will say something different and very soon," said Dayto with a cruel smile. When Sester stubbornly refused to say anything further. Dayto instructed the interrogators in the room to continue. He got out of their way and leaned back against the wall while he watched.
The senior interrogator, Croft approached him and asked, "What do you want done with the woman, sir?"
"Do we know who she is yet?" Dayto asked.
"No. She's surprisingly resistant. But it's only a matter of time."
"Continue to soften her up," instructed Dayto. "I want to know who she is."
"Very well, sir."
"What is being done with her now?"
"The standard treatments. Sleep deprivation. Physical exhaustion. And rotating interrogation sessions."
"That fool that was working on her yesterday, I want him kept away from her."
"He wants another crack at her, sir."
"I don't doubt it, but I have no use for incompetence."
"He is one of our best, sir."
"You had better have better ones then or you're not going to get anywhere with her. She's a professional."
"Do you think she was assigned to protect him?" asked Croft.
"That's what we need to find out."
"I'll work on her myself," said Croft.
"Good. And Croft. Keep your hands off her."
"It's going to be hard to work on her if I can't touch her, sir," he said facetiously.
"I mean it Croft. I don't want her spoiled. At least not yet. If she is more than just a bodyguard, we need to find out first," stressed Dayto.
"You think you might get more use out of her if she was more than just a bodyguard?" asked Croft.
"We can work around your restrictions. There are many other options available."
Dayto was about to say something else but he stopped. It was too quiet. He approached the bed where Sester lay. There were several med-techs working on him.
"Did he agree to give us what we want already?" Dayto asked one of the interrogators.
"No, sir. He just passed out. "
"Well, wake him up and continue," said Dayto. He wondered if they needed better training procedures for interrogators. Some retraining therapy might not be a bad idea either.
One of the med-techs turned around and addressed him, "He's not in good shape, sir. He's very weak and he's suffered internal damage again. We have to fix the injury first unless you want him to keep passing out from blood loss."
"Make it fast."
"I would recommend a different form of persuasion. Unless it is your intention to continue allowing him time to recover, while he's receiving medical treatment."
The Senior Controller did not expect Sester to give in that easily. He would have been disappointed if he had; but he was hoping for faster results.
Once the invaders had left, his group had thought they would have a chance to gain control but circumstances had gotten in the way. Now there was a Federation strike force in orbit and Federation assault troops occupying key areas on the planet. They were running out of options. He was hoping that Sester would be able to see something that they couldn't.
"Very well. Fix him up and then have him and the woman transported to our secure facility."
To Croft he said, "Make sure you keep him and the woman away from our Federation friends until they've been secured."
"Yes, sir," replied Croft.