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The Oath

By Alice C. Aldridge
Victor Maryatt studied the records on his desk screen, deliberately ignoring the pale, defiant young woman seated apprehensively across from him. Her dangerous political sympathies had finally come to the attention of the Security Division and early yesterday morning she had been taken in for a very preliminary interrogation.

Maryatt's lips thinned in disgust. Even a short session with the lowest level of Security's experts had left the girl with bruises of body and soul. He wouldn't have interfered except Kiera Cameron was one of the best patient therapists in his division despite her politics. If anythingcould be salvaged from the human wreckage he had attempted to reconstruct in the OR, she was the only one who could do it.

He glanced up briefly, noting that her normally neatly styled dark brown hair hung in lank disorder around her ashen face and her open, empathetic gaze had been replaced by a cringing, submissive expression. He shook his head in disgust at what the Security Division had already done to her.

Finally he spoke, attempting to hide his concern with a brusque impersonal observation.

"I warned you that any hint of association with Blake's Freedom Party was dangerous."

"I only glanced through some of information disks circulating among the Beta class workers. I never went to any of the rallies," she protested weakly.

"The mere appearance of sympathy with the resistors is evidence enough to condemn you to the slave pits," he hissed angrily. "You idiot! Ever since Kasabi's defection, Space Command has been in a full-blown state of paranoia. You should have destroyed those disks as soon as they came into your hands to avoid any hint of contamination by dangerous ideas."

Kiera's eyes narrowed at the implication that Maryatt was more than a little familiar with the Freedom Party's beliefs and goals. She started to question him but the look of mixed anger and fear on his face reminded her of the high probability that this conversation was being recorded as evidence against her and she quickly stifled her curiosity.

"I realize that...," she answered woodenly. "I was just curious about the Freedom Party's wide appeal, from the lower class Delta labor grades to disaffected Alphas like...Blake."

"Curiosity can be a fatal trait, as I'm sure you are well aware of by now. Leave such political matters to the High Council and the Supreme Commander. All that should concern you now is how to save your own skin.Besides, Blake and his followers have been dealt with ...permanently."

The medical officer pushed away from his desk and began pacing restlessly around his spartan office. Kiera flinched at the note of finality in his voice and put further curiosity firmly out of her mind. "What do you want from me, Surgeon? With my loyalty under suspicion and every person I speak to scrutinized for possible rebel sympathies, I doubt I'd be welcome in any ward in this hospital."

"" Maryatt answered bluntly. "But this case is anything but ordinary."

He paused, his hands clasped tightly behind his back, staring out the narrow window in his office at the looming, sterile grey towers beyond. "I've just finished surgery on a critically wounded young officer who suffered severe laser burns to his face and upper body during a battle in the lower levels with Freedom Party dissidents.

"And he's still alive?" she questioned in amazement. "The shock alone should have killed him, if the blast didn't charbroil his brain! Why bother even trying to salvage such wreckage?" she questioned harshly.

"Gifted officers like Space Commander Travis are few and far between and Supreme Commander Servalan does not intend to lose him." Maryatt's voice held a precise, cautious note.

"TRAVIS! That butcher! All he's `gifted' at is murdering innocent civilians in cold blood!" Her expression twisted bitterly "So he finally winds up paying the piper after all."

Maryatt spun angrily around to confront her, his fists clenched as he leaned over his desk, spitting out a warning. "Don't be so quick to judge a field officer until you know the truth behind such `massacres', Therapist Cameron. I'm beginning to believe your sympathies for the Freedom Party might actually be more than just a minor flirtation with dangerous ideas."

Kiera took a deep shuddering breath, realizing that only Maryatt stood between her and the sadistic whims of the Security Division.

"I...apologize, Doctor," she grated through tightly clenched teeth. "I spoke out of turn. What were you saying about assigning me to the heroic Commander Travis?"

Maryatt seated himself at his desk again and pulled up Travis's medical records, tilting the screen so that Cameron could view them too."Amazingly, despite the destruction of his left eye and portions of his face by the blast, actual damage to the brain itself appears minimal. At least as far as we can tell by neuroscans and EEG readings."

Still the professional clinician despite her fear and disgust, Cameron questioned, "Has he regained consciousness yet? These are just basic delta wave patterns with erratic theta spikes that only show minimal neuroelectrical discharges. That indicates little more than an automatic reaction to pain or other unpleasant stimuli."

"We've been using a sonic sleep inducer for the past forty-eight hours to allow his body and brain optimum recovery from the initial shock that he experienced."

"Then how can you be sure he retains any brain function at all? This certainly isn't conclusive evidence." She gestured to the faint readings on the screen.

"I know." Maryatt shuddered at the horrifying memory of his medical team's arrival at the charnel pit that was the aftermath of the Federation's bloody suppression of the Freedom Party -- the moans and hoarse screams of the survivors, the stench of blaster-charred flesh, the gore-splashed,

mutilated corpses scattered like so much rubbish.

"I was one of the first medical officers on the scene and even though he was barely conscious,

splattered with his own blood, Commander Travis was still on his feet, gasping out orders, directing the mop-up." He shook his head in disbelief. "I don't think he was even aware of the severity of his own injuries."

"Battlefield syndrome. Shock provides its own anesthesia," Cameron shrugged indifferently.

"I'm quite aware of that, Therapist," Maryatt responded in a chill tone."But when we managed to get him down on a stretcher, just before he was evacuated, he finally seemed to realize how badly he was injured. He was half-delirious with pain and shock but he. . . made a request of me."

Cameron was silent as Maryatt contradicted himself. "No. . .first, he ordered, then after the drugs began to take effect, he pleaded, `I don't want to live half a man, Surgeon. Do you understand? I won't be the object of anyone's pity!'"

"Then why did you operate to save him?" Cameron asked emotionless.

"As I said earlier, Supreme Commander Servalan does not wish to lose an officer of Travis's caliber and I'm not foolhardy enough to ignore her direct orders, no matter what my personal feelings might be."

The doctor rubbed his upper lip thoughtfully. "The hero who led the strike force that put down the Freedom Party insurrection will be invaluable to her - if he survives."

"If...I thought you said that he had."

"Survived the surgery. Yes, he has," Maryatt answered grimly. "He's quite strong and physically resilient. But when he regains consciousness, that will be another problem altogether. If what he said just prior to his surgery is any indication, we will be dealing with a man hellbent on self-destruction."

"Give him to the psychostrategists," she tried to answer calmly. "They can easily erase such suicidal tendencies."

"Perhaps," Maryatt disagreed. "But they have little experience in dealing with the severe physical trauma that he has suffered and the devastating effects it can have on the mind. It will require a gifted therapist to provide the care necessary to stabilize his condition enough before the psychostrategists can even begin their task. I want you to take charge of him personally, Kiera. You're the only one who can keep him alive and sane in the interim."

"Why should I?" she demanded harshly. "I know this is a temporary assignment at best. The Security Division has already decided my guilt. Within days I'll be under a surgeon's knife being modified or enroute to some hellhole of a slave labor colony. Why waste my last hours as a human being trying to salvage a man who's better off dead?"

"If you take the assignment and succeed, there is a possibility that it will weigh in your favor. Be a mitigating factor when final action is recommended in your case." He studied her shrewdly.

"Depend on the mercy of the Security Division?" she snorted in disbelief. "Small chance of that."

"Then there is the matter of your oath." Although the words were spoken barely above a whisper, they seemed to echo loudly in the small, sparely furnished room.

"What oath? My oath of allegiance to the Federation was a particularly ugly corpse that the interrogators enjoyed resurrecting at frequent intervals," she sneered.

"I was thinking of an older one . . .that you swore when you first became a therapist. . .and healer. `The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of my patients, according to my ability and judgement and not for their hurt or for any wrong.'"

Kiera's face was rigid with suppressed emotion and her voice a tattered whisper. "You are a heartless bastard, Victor, and a hypocrite as well."

"I do whatever is necessary for the well-being of my patients. Will you take the case?"

"Do I have a choice?" Her voice was barely audible.

"This may be the last voluntary decision you ever make," he retorted coldly. "Consider it well."

"Damn you, Maryatt," she cursed colorlessly, her head sagging in defeat.

After a brief pained silence, she looked up her face haggard and eyes cold as a winter glacier.

"How much longer until you bring him out of the induced coma? Do I get any time at all to . . .prepare."

He took in her battered, exhausted features and after studying the records on his screen one last time, made a quick decision. Travis would be a difficult patient - arrogant, stubborn, and reluctant to endure the patience, empathy and compassion that were Therapist Cameron's primary tools. He honestly doubted that Kiera could have salvaged the young officer even before the interrogators began their destructive violation of her mind and spirit. Still, he had to make some effort for both their sakes.

He ordered curtly, "I imagine he can stand another twelve hours of induced coma so you can clean up and get some rest. But I'll expect you here promptly at 0600 tomorrow. We'll take him off the inducer shortly thereafter."

A pained nod of resignation was her only reply.

As his mind constantly replayed the horror of his last battle, Travis drifted wretchedly between oblivion and white-hot agony. The more he tried to retreat into darkness, the more insistently his caretakers prodded him back to wakefulness. He attempted to fight off their ministrations, but the weakness of his own body betrayed him, leaving him helpless to resist.

Gradually he became more aware of the sounds and smells around him. The muted hum of machinery. The singed smell of his own burned flesh and the pungent ointments and creams that they swabbed on it at agonizing intervals. The thick bandages, covering the upper half of his face and the stump of his shoulder. Muted fearful whispers of his caretakers and the one sharper voice who seemed to be in command.

Command. As he'd once commanded the fear and respect of his subordinates and troops... and the admiring glances of the Senators' wives and beautiful women drawn to power. But no longer, not after what that rebel malcontent Blake had done to him.

He gritted his teeth, holding back his screams at the memory of the white hot laser blast that charred his arm as he raised it in a futile effort to shield his face. Even that agony paled beside the anguish he experienced a microsecond later as his left eye was boiled away by the blast. The images ravaged his nervous system, threatening to rip away his reason and leave him a gibbering madman.

He stirred feverishly, trying again to retreat into the welcoming darkness and away from those searing images that constantly replayed inside his head like a broken vidtape. Away from that shattered image of himself, blinded and maimed; an object of pity and scorn Damn that bloody surgeon! Why hadn't the man obeyed his command? Did he think he was doing Travis a favor, salvaging the wreckage of his body; trying to fit broken and missing pieces back into some mockery of a whole man.

Travis was all too aware of the fate of human wreckage that occasionally survived their tour of duty in the Federation Space Forces. Cast off as little more than flotsam, aged and crippled troopers lived a precarious hand-to-mouth existence back in the crowded Delta warrens that most of them had joined the service hoping to escape.

Officers like himself fared little better, unless they managed to ingratiate themselves with a powerful Senator or cultivated Alpha grade friends or political connections. But he had none of those powerful connections and damned little influence within Space Command itself.

Why had the surgeon left him to the mercy of these caretakers and their well-meaning efforts to drag him out of the darkness? One particularly determined individual prodded and manipulated him on a daily, almost hourly, basis. Changing his position at frequent intervals to improve circulation. Putting him through range of motion exercises to maintain mobility and muscle tone - as if he'd ever need it again!

He groaned in angry frustration and his tormentor halted in the middle of the methodical flexion and extension of his remaining arm. A disembodied voice echoed out of the darkness, "Commander Travis, are you awake now? Did the movement cause you pain? Nod your head if you understand me."

He cursed savagely under his breath. Bad enough that they were trying to salvage his useless body, but judging by the questioning note in that voice, they weren't even sure he hadn't been brain-damaged in the blast!

He ran his dry tongue across cracked lips before demanding in a tattered rag of a voice, "Where's that damned surgeon? Why didn't he obey my orders?"

His caretaker ignored his questions, although he heard the click of a summoning beeper. The medtech then spoke to him in the slow, deliberately patient tone of someone addressing an idiot child.

"I've summoned Dr.Maryatt, Commander. Lie still until he arrives. He will evaluate your progress and answer any questions that you have."

That calculated soothing note only agitated him further and he tried to sit up, dragging at the numerous wires and monitors and almost dislodging the tubing that fed into his veins.

"Damn the man," he grated hoarsely. "I told him...."

The hands pressing him back against his pillow were no longer quite so gentle and the calm, dispassionate voice held a hint of irritation. "You must lie still, Commander. You still need the drugs and fluids in this intravenous line."

He subsided, too physically and mentally weakened to resist any longer.

"Why?" he whispered, despairing "Why didn't he let me die?"

Moments later when someone hurried in, Travis appeared to have lapsed back into his earlier unresponsive state, although he was actually conscious, listening intently to their discussion of his present condition.

"What happened?" He recognized the surgeon's voice.

"The patient regained momentary consciousness and had voluntary control of his extremities."

The tech's tone was calm and precise, yet Travis sensed strong emotions held tightly in check.

"What about his mental status?" Maryatt demanded. "Was he oriented? Did he know who or where he was?"

"Brain damage appears minimal. He was aware of his identity, spoke rationally, even seemed to have short-term memory recall of recent occurrences." There was an uneasy silence. "He was aware of the severity of his injuries. . . and remembered his orders to you quite clearly."

"However, the Supreme Commander's orders took precedence."

"She wants him kept alive?"

"More than ever, since the Council dealt so leniently with Blake, merely mind-wiping and reprogramming him." Maryatt's voice held a note of apprehension. "The Supreme Commander wants to assure that Travis survives as a tangible reminder of Blake's threat to society."

"Or to her ambition," the first voice answered dully.

"If Travis recovers completely, she may be inclined to intercede on your behalf."

"I stopped believing in happy endings a long time ago, Doctor." As the second voice echoed in the room as cold and inhuman as any mutoid's, Travis drifted off to sleep, wondering at Servalan's sudden interest in his survival.

When he woke, it was to the unwelcome shifting of his head from side to side. He muttered weakly in protest and reached up stop that uncomfortable sensation. His grasping fingers encountered two delicate fine-boned hands and the cool metal of scissors. The hands jerked away from his tentative touch, then captured his wrist, pressing it down to his side.

"Are you awake, Commander?" The voice was weary and somewhat irritated.

"I suppose. Just what were you doing?" he demanded peevishly, then winced at the sound "My head feels like the end of a four-day liberty on a pleasure planet."

"Dr. Maryatt ordered me to change your dressings today. To see how the bone grafts are healing and if there's any sign of infection in your remaining eye."

"What does it matter?" he responded dully. "I'm blind. Why should I care if I have one remaining eye or two empty sockets!"

There was a momentary pause before the medtech continued, "The likelihood is that you are not blind. The initial shock to the nerves should have worn off by now, allowing the possible return of function in your remaining eye."

A small spark of hope flared but he stifled it at once. "So what. I'm still just half a man - crippled, useless!" A cloying note of self-pity filled his voice.

"At least you'll still have a mind and will of your own," the voice erupted almost hysterically. "Some people don't even have a chance of that much!"

"What the hell do you mean by that?" he demanded in confusion.

"Nothing." The hysteria suddenly lapsed into sullenness. "Nothing at all. Raise your head, Commander. I need to cut through this gauze." The cool, dispassionate note was back and he complied with the orders.

As the tech carefully pulled away the soiled, blood-stiffened bandages, he felt gentle fingers brushing through his hair which was matted with sweat and dried blood. "I'll have to see if I can't get you cleaned up a little better before I put the new dressing on. This mess is an ideal growth medium for bacteria."

"Might as well shave it completely," he muttered in disgust.

There was the ghost of a wry chuckle in the medtech's voice. "I think not, Commander. You're prickly enough without having to deal with the constant itch of regrowing hair under your bandages." The voice quickly returned to its detached professionalism as the tech cautioned him,

"I've dimmed the lights in the room but when I remove the patch over your right eye, you may still see a bright flash. It's a kind of actinic aftershock. Nothing more."

Travis was silent, feeling the painful tugging sensation as the blood-caked dressings were removed and hearing the barely audible indrawn breath as the tech confronted the ruin of the left side of his face. He knew it was probably little more than raw oozing flesh. He'd seen the aftereffects of laser weapon blasts often enough to have no illusions about his appearance.

Surprisingly, he actually seemed to have some nerve function remaining on what remained of the left side of his face. There was a deft, careful touch against his cheek and the faint scent of wildflowers clinging to the medtech's fingers, banishing the heavy antiseptic odors surrounding him for a brief moment. He took another cautious sniff, glad that the heavy sour odor of infection, that he knew only too well, was absent. Yet he wondered if he'd ever be able to erase the memories of the charred cooked meat smell of his own burning flesh.

The patch over his remaining eye was lifted and cool liquid trickled on his encrusted lashes. A gentle touch sponged the area as the tech ordered,

"Open your eye, Commander. I need to observe for any signs of bleeding or infection."

He obeyed her and to his shock was actually able to perceive a dim, fuzzy figure hovering over him.

"I can see!" he gasped hoarsely.

"I warned you about the light," she admonished.

"It's not bright," he retorted, "but dim and blurry. And I did see movement and shifting light."

She continued to work, ignoring his agitation, squeezing ointment into his lower lid and then replacing the patch.

He grabbed her wrist angrily. "I said I can see!"

"I'm happy for you, Commander," she bit off sarcastically. "Now if you'll let go of my arm so I can finish with my treatment, hopefully, I can prevent you from losing that vision to infection or optic nerve damage."

He dropped weakly back against the pillow as she continued applying unguents and creams to the slowly healing upper left side of his face. Then he heard the sound of running water as she filled a basin, probably to clean him up as she had promised earlier. He shook his head in irritation at her continued ministrations,

"If you've finished with the dressing, leave the clean-up job to one of the labor grades. I'm sure there are other patients who need your skills more than I do."

There was a pained silence, then the therapist answered coldly, "I have no other patients, Commander. I'm under suspicion because the Security Division has questions about my loyalty. Surgeon Maryatt was able to obtain a small grace period for me in hopes of assuring your recovery. But you are my only patient and I am solely responsible for your care."

"What happens if I don't recover?" he snapped.

"Probably the same thing that happens if you do." She clenched her fists tightly at her sides, but her voice was inhumanly cold. "The Security Division does not relinquish its prey so readily. But if you do decide to die, I imagine the Supreme Commander will oversee my punishment personally to insure that I suffer adequately for my `incompetence'!"

She started to move away from the bed, but despite the bandage over his remaining eye, Travis reacted with an animal-like awareness, capturing her wrist.

His grip was strong, almost bruising, despite his weakened condition.

"Is that why Maryatt assigned you take care of me? So Servalan would intercede with the Security Division. What are you guilty of anyway? It can't be a minor infraction like negligence or insolence if Servalan's youronly hope. What's your real crime? Selling drugs to the Terra Nostra? Orcadavers to the black market organ banks?" His voice held a contemptuous sneer.

She froze in dismay, frightened that he had overhead Maryatt's warning, yet angry and defiant as well.

"Why, I'm guilty of the only *real* crime in Space Command these days, Commander. Murder, looting, bribery, and corruption are all accepted steps to power and promotion. But political discontent or curiosity about such outmoded ideas as freedom and equality. . .those are capital offences,punishable by death when the judge is feeling generous, or slavery, mindwipe or modification if the Federation decides my body can still be of use!"

Travis trembled with outrage, his grip tightening as though he would crush her fragile wrist.

"You're one of them!" he spat. "One of the stinking rebel slime that crippled me, left me half a man! Did you take the assignment to admire your handiwork? Or to see if you couldn't finish me off completely! Get out!" he gasped weakly. "I don't need a traitorous bitch like you hanging over me like a vulture, feeding off my pain. I'll die like a a soldier, dammit! Without your stinking, disloyal hands on me!"

The therapist was shaking almost as hard as he was, though whether from anger or fear, he couldn't tell. With a sudden jerk, she yanked her arm out of his weakening grasp then spun away, stalking out of the room and slamming the door behind her with an angry finality.

His fading strength fueled by anger and a sense of betrayal, Travis ripped away the wires and monitors attached to him. Then ignoring the outraged alarms of their interrupted circuitry, he jerked out the IV tubes and needles, leaving a wet, bloody trail dripping in his wake as he lurched out of his bed and over to the room's single window. In a violent, impotent fury, he smashed his fist bloodily against the clear plass, not certain whether he was bent on escape or self-destruction. But the unbreakable material resisted his rapidly ebbing strength and he slumped wearily against its cool, clear surface, until a platoon of technicians and orderlies rushed into the room. Moments later, a hurriedly administered hypo sucked him into darkness before he could do any further damage.

Travis woke reluctantly, aware that someone was in the room with him,pacing back and forth in obvious agitation.

He demanded hoarsely, "Who's there? If it's that damned traitorous therapist..."

He attempted to sit up but suddenly realized that he was imprisoned by heavy restraints at ankle, waist, and wrist. Trapped! He struggled futilely but the nylon straps were well-secured. The anonymous pacer paused in his back and forth ambulation and came over to the bed, standing there silently until the soldier felt a prickling sense of unease creeping up his spine.

"Who's there? What do you want?" he rasped.

Someone fumbled with his straps, unbuckling the restraints, then raising the head of his bed until Travis gasped weakly, dizzied by the sudden change of position. A hand steadied his head, pressing a cup against his lips until he took a sip of its contents almost involuntarily. It was only water, but its cool wetness was more welcome to his dry throat and cracked, bloodied lips than any offworld rotgut he'd ever drunk in celebration of surviving another battle. He gulped eagerly, avidly, until the cup was pulled away from his grasping fingers.

"That's enough for a start. Don't want to add insult to the injury that you've already tried to do to yourself." The voice was male, brusque, and vaguely familiar.

"Maryatt?" Travis guessed.

"In the flesh, Commander, and wondering why you're so dead set on undoing my best efforts to save your life." There was a waspish note to the voice that triggered Travis's anger.

"For what?" The soldier slumped weakly back against his pillows. "To live as a blind, crippled wreck for the rest of my life? Oh, I don't doubt that the Supreme Commander wants to parade my shattered hulk in front of the Senate and High Council as a demonstration of her zeal in dealing with resistors and malcontents. But I told you I'd rather die than be such a pathetic display."

"Really?" the voice drawled sarcastically. "Then perhaps I can help you put an end to your miserable existence."

Travis heard a faint rattling and, moments later, an smooth metal object was pressed into his fingers, which were then guided to his throat. "Start here under the jaw and make sure that you drag all the way across both carotids or it will take twice as long. You'll gurgle and choke, drowning in your own blood before you actually lose consciousness."

Travis fingered the blade, which was less than two inches long and not terribly sharp. It would leave an ugly, jagged wound and it would take him agonizing minutes to die. He opened his hand and let it clatter to the floor.

There was a satisfied grunt as the surgeon bent down to retrieve his pocketknife, then Travis demanded sullenly,

"Why were you so sure I wouldn't do it, Surgeon? You'd have had a hell of a mess to explain to Servalan if you were wrong."

"I doubt if I would have stayed around to try," was Maryatt's rueful reply, then he sobered. "In spite of that grandiose, overly dramatic gesture earlier, you don't want to die, Commander. It was obvious even before I operated that you were a survivor. People who want to die usually manage, most often from shock while they're still on the operating table. Their heart stops and attempts at resuscitation almost always fail."

Maryatt's voice moved away for a moment, then he turned back toward his patient.

"Do you know that your heart stopped twice during the surgery? The first time we brought you back with drugs and cardioversion. The second time, it restarted on its own...before I could give a single order. You have an almost superhuman will to live, Commander, and no matter how much you protest, dying is not on your present agenda."

"At least with that traitorous therapist gone, I'm less likely to be murdered in my sleep," he muttered.

Maryatt's voice held a sharp, accusing note, "You're wrong, Travis. Driving Therapist Cameron away was stupid. In fact, I wondered if I hadn't made a mistake saving your life, since Blake had obviously broken your nerve. But then I realized you're like an animal in a trap, tearing your own flesh and savaging anyone that tries to help you in your desperate efforts to escape being a prisoner in a useless body. What you don'trealize is that Kiera Cameron is the only one who can help you escape from that trap."

"What do you mean?" Travis asked dully.

"You've heard about the new advances in cybernetics, haven't you? The artificial limbs hooked into the body's own neuromusculature? Stronger and more powerful than the limb that it replaces and capable of having numerous auxiliary devices added as needed." Maryatt's voice was cajoling.

"Why do I need her then? Just send me off to the nearest cyberneticist to be rebuilt... better than new."

"You fool," Maryatt sneered. "Didn't you hear what I said about the body's own neuromusculature? Right now you can hardly lift your head off that pillow. Unless you begin conditioning and rebuilding your body soon, you will never regain the proper nerve and muscle function to be fitted for any kind of cybernetics."

"Cameron has been working tenaciously to prevent the stiffening of your joints and atrophy of your muscles and has the skills necessary to help you regain the strength and endurance you've lost. You need her, Travis. Without her expertise you'll become the pitiful wasted hulk that you despise. And you will have given Blake the final victory!"

Travis was silent and withdrawn for so long that Maryatt threw up his hands in resignation. Obviously, his words had not penetrated that unyielding wall of pain that the soldier had withdrawn behind.

He shrugged and headed for the door but before he could leave, there was a hoarse, half-whispered acquiescence.

"Send her back, Surgeon. I'll be damned if I let that rebel scum Blake put me in my grave unless I can take him with me."

Maryatt felt his momentary sense of relief chilled by the stark hatred in the other man's voice. But he left to fetch the therapist.

But despite Travis's acceptance of Maryatt's advice, it was nearly two days before the neurotherapist returned. During that time though he received adequate treatment from the other staff members of his physical condition, there was little or no awareness of the unseen mental and emotional wounds affecting his recovery. No one else seemed able to tap the inner core of resilience necessary for him to regain his strength. Empathy and compassion were not skills the average health technician had much practice with since the Federation did not encourage their development.

The solitude and sight deprivation wrought its own particular damage upon Travis's psyche and he retreated from the darkness surrounding him by demanding opiates and sedatives at increasingly frequent intervals. He was not a coward, but the prolonged isolation left him with no distraction from a constant repetition of the horrifying images of his clash with Blake.

When he did manage drag his mind away from the replaying of that mental tape, other specters from earlier skirmishes and battles came back to him. He used the drugs in an attempt to banish the bloated spirits that lurked in the shadowed corners of his room and whispered in voices dry as old bones, but to little avail. Soon he was sunk in a half-delirious stupor, surrounded by painful visions from his past - family, friends, lovers and enemies - all ripping away pieces of his sanity with cold steel talons.

The physician who took charge of his case in Maryatt's absence removed the facial dressing in hopes that restoring some visual stimuli might put an end to the increasing delirium and hallucinations. Other than a single basilisk glare that dismissed him with cold disdain, the Space Commander had not acknowledged anyone's presence since Maryatt had left... and his physical and mental condition continued to deteriorate.

That decline finally began to cause consternation among the labor grades and support personnel on the ward. They knew that the Supreme Commander had given orders that Travis must survive and if he died, by any means that might be counted negligence on their part, the whole ward would suffer for it. That anxiety was reaching dangerously explosive levels when Maryatt finally returned with Kiera Cameron.

Following Travis's violent outburst two days earlier, Kiera had been back in the clutches of the Interrogation Division within the hour. They had begun their work in earnest before Maryatt had arrived and although he had risked Servalan's wrath in retrieving her from their attentions a second time, he feared it was of little use. Whatever skills or abilities Cameron had once had, were, in all likelihood, eradicated by the physical and mental abuse that she had experienced the past two days.

Still, he had to try. He spoke in a gentle, pleading tone of voice,

"Kiera, I know you can hear me. I know there's some part of your mind, your will that they couldn't violate. Your patient needs you. Unless you can reach him, he won't survive. Only Death will be the winner."

"Why should I care?" she muttered, anguished. "After what he's endured, what I've endured...death would be a mercy, for both of us."

"Don't make it easy for them," he argued, trying to maintain a cold logic despite his own fears. "The Security Division feeds on hopelessness and despair. If you give up now there will be nothing left of you, even before they do their worst. Resist them just a little longer. Use your skills one last time."

Cameron glanced at him sidelong out of reddened swollen eyes. "Why?" she choked. "What does it matter? My skills will be erased along with my memory, once they are finished sifting through my mind, prying out secrets that don't exist."

He gripped her shoulders in a painful, bruising grip, "Because of the oath...for the sake of what will remain of your inner self that no psychosurgeon can completely erase. No matter what they do, you will have fulfilled your duty."

" oath..." Cameron whispered numbly to herself, then stumbled blindly away from Maryatt into the darkened room.

As she paused in the shadows just inside the door, trembling and trying to gather her strength, she heard a painfully hoarse whisper echoing from the direction of the hospital bed.

"Hold your fire, you fools! Wait until they're in range and don't waste your shots. There's no chance of reinforcements unless we hold the spaceport!"

The rasping undertone died away to harsh, panting breaths and Kiera stood beside the bed reluctantly. In the pool of light cast by the overbed fixture, she saw his whole unbandaged face for the first time. It was gaunt with pain, with dark unshaven stubble along his jaw and cheeks making him look even more wasted and hollow-eyed in its harsh glare.

Only his brilliant blue-grey eye held any sign of life. It burned like an unquenchable flame within those pain-shadowed features, although it might be simply fever fueling that guttering fire. The dressing on his left shoulder was stained and stiff with drainage and the whole room stank with the smell of his sweating, fevered body.

She dimmed the harsh glare of the overbed lamp and then activated the indirect lighting throughout the room. Her presence and the softer illumination banished the demons and ghosts that Travis had hallucinated hovering in the shadows, sucking away his life with leechlike avidity.

He stared truculently at her thin, fragile figure as she moved around the room; turning on the air recirculators to dispel the thick, musty air,changing his stiff, uncomfortable dressing and stripping the sweaty, twisted linens from his bed. With a brisk impersonal efficiency, she had him bathed, shaved, and lying in a clean bed almost before he could gather his fever-scattered wits to berate her for her absence.

Finally, as he settled back against the plumped pillows, fresh sheets smoothed around him, she resumed the same passive range of motion exercise routine as though she had never been gone. He jerked his hand peevishly from her grip. "Well, it took you long enough to get here!"

She stood for long moments, her eyes downcast and empty hands clenched tightly at her sides. "Getting me out of the Security Division's clutches a second time proved difficult, even for a man with Maryatt's influence."

Travis leaned forward slightly, reaching to tilt the therapist's chin up with his remaining hand. Though she flinched at his touch, she did not try to escape. With an experienced eye, he recognized the bruises showing starkly against her fair skin and the reddened welts from electrodes,probes and other less savory devices.

"They were eager enough in the little time that they had you," he remarked. "Why? What do they want from you?"

She shivered at the unwelcome memory of those cold, inhuman voices, delving into her thoughts and memories in their relentless search for something more than the minor discontent that she had spilled out so readily. But they wanted further evidence of sedition and disloyalty among her colleagues and coworkers and they were determined to rip that information from her mind, even if it didn't exist.

"I don't know," she whispered mournfully. "I'm nobody. I have a few friends and even had a lover or two, but no one powerful or influential. Certainly no one on the Council or Senior Echelon. No one important that I could have tainted with my doubts, contaminated with my rebel sympathies I only wish I did! Then I might have an advocate. . .a deliverer. Someone to rescue me from this."

Travis's hand dropped weakly to his side. "Even friends in high places couldn't protect you from the consequences of your traitorous association with Blake's Freedom Party."

Too weary and heartsick to deny the commander's unjust accusations, Cameron recaptured his hand and resumed her methodical flexing, extending, and rotating each joint and muscle in its turn. Travis endured the procedure in stony silence, somewhat peeved by Cameron's dogged persistence yet drawing a kind of warmth and strength from her touch.

For the rest of the day he endured that plodding, gentle routine. But early the next morning, when she had finished the first round of exercises, he demanded impatiently, "I can't very well get my strength back lying in this bed, letting you do this constant passive therapy. How long before I can get up and begin to walk around?"

Cameron stared at the young officer, pale and trembling from just the minimal exertion of the passive routine. She was beginning to see Maryatt's reasoning in assigning her to Travis. She was not impressed by his rank or intimidated by his hostile attitude and verbal abuse. She simply provided a rock-steady presence that he pushed and shoved against to regain his strength. Yet, there seemed to be more to it than that. As though his steel struck sparks from her flint; the conflict of their personalities somehow reigniting his will to survive. She shook her head at the bitter irony.

Still, he would argue and protest every reasonable limitation that she tried to impose on him. It was probably better to let his discover his limitations now rather than waste their time and energy wrangling about it in the days to come.

She stated in an absolutely neutral tone of voice, "Dr. Maryatt has left your course of treatment and therapy wholly in my hands. I see no reason to keep you in bed if your strength has returned. You are free to walk as far as you are able."

His piercing gaze narrowed as though he was weighing her words for hidden meaning. Then, with a convulsive effort, he pushed himself upright, swinging his long legs off the bed until his feet touched the cold tile floor. For an interminable few seconds he swayed there, seated on the side of the bed; cold sweat tracing thick oily runnels down his sides and his face so white it was almost green. The bulky dressing on his left shoulder gave his lean torso a hunchbacked appearance and he wavered weakly back and forth, trying to adjust his balance to compensate for his missing arm.

Finally he grated out through tightly clenched teeth, ",dammit!"

Silently, her face an emotionless mask, Cameron stood at his right side, propping herself under his uninjured shoulder, his arm draped across her back, hers wrapped around his waist. Even wasted by fever and injury as he was, the flesh that remained was solid muscle, making him a heavy weight for her slight frame to support. Still, the soldier's iron determination kept him on his feet, going a good six paces farther than she believed possible. Finally his knees began to sag and she steered him back to his bed without any protest.

Adjusting pillows and sheets until he was comfortably settled once more, Cameron admitted with a grudging admiration, "You're stronger than you look, Commander. At this rate, you'll be out of my disloyal, seditious clutches within the week."

His head rolled restlessly against the pillow as he muttered in a tightly controlled voice, edged with pain and horror. "But my left arm...the pain! It still it did when Blake fired! The flesh melted...running down my side like molten lava! Why do I still feel it?" he demanded hoarsely, "Why...when it isn't even there anymore!"

Jerked out of her own fear and self-pity by the anguish in his voice, Cameron tried to soothe his tortured agitation. She placed one hand gently on his forehead, brushing back the dark tangled hair that spilled down. She clung to his right hand tightly, offering her strength and reassurance.

"It's phantom pain, burned into your mind by the trauma of the injury. The medication will ease it and eventually the memory will fade as your body heals."

Travis was silent for so long that Cameron thought he might have dozed off, exhausted by his earlier exertion and the weakness that still gripped him. She started to relinquish her grip to fetch his pain medication, but he clutched at her hand refusing to let her leave. "No drugs, therapist. Not for pain in my mind. . .pain that isn't really there."

"It's real, Commander," she pleaded, oddly intent on sparing him this distress. "As real as any other pain."

But he shook his head in stubborn denial, withdrawing into some grim inner place that she could not reach.

But Travis's rash efforts to hasten his recovery were premature and over the next few days, his body took its revenge for those hasty actions. With his small hoard of strength exhausted, all he could do was lie weakly in bed, wracked by fever and chills, swearing at his treacherous body and therapist, impartially.

"Travis's physical condition is improving steadily, despite his impulsive nature," Maryatt dictated in his progress notes. "Therapist Cameron appears unmoved by the soldier's febrile curses and continues her careful deliberate treatments. Despite his stubborn refusal to request pain medications, she administers them at the regular intervals necessary for his tolerance of scheduled physical therapy. She coerces the increased intake of fluids and solid foods required to rebuild his strength by dogged perseverance that pushes past curses, sullen withdrawal, and active refusals with the remorseless, unpitying force of a glacier grinding down to the sea."

Maryatt paused his dictation at that intrusive thought as he contemplated Travis's slow but steady physical improvement. Glacial was truly an apt description of the frozen state of Therapist Cameron's mind and heart. Or perhaps anesthetized might be even more accurate. She was like a wild creature paralyzed with dread, trapped within the claws of a deadly predator. Numbed by shock of her capture, only the body's automatic systems still working; heart pumping, lungs gasping, muscles trembling in a fruitless effort to escape before the final fatal blow was struck.

That hopelessness had characterized Cameron's mental condition after he had retrieved her from the Security Division's clutches the last time. She knew there was very little chance of Servalan intervening in her case, even if Travis did survive. Yet, her caring and compassion was such an ingrained part of her nature that she would still throw out the last lifeline of her skill and empathy even when all hope for her own survival was gone.

He pinched the bridge of his nose tightly and massaged his throbbing temples, trying to banish the guilt-born pain that threatened to consume him. He had a private meeting with Supreme Commander Servalan later this morning.

She had taken an intensely personal interest in Travis's recovery since the Council had overruled her recommendation for Blake's summary public execution for his crimes against the Federation. Blake's death would have assured the rise of her political fortunes, perhaps even to the Presidency itself, by demonstrating her ruthless competence where her predecessors had failed.

With her ambition momentarily thwarted by her enemies on the High Council, Maryatt had the sinking feeling that her plans for Travis, now that his recovery seemed certain, would revolve around destroying those who had circumvented her plans and Blake himself for being their unknowing instrument.

When he gave her the favorable report on Travis's recovery, it would probably be his last opportunity to make a plea for clemency on Cameron's behalf. Yet, considering Kiera's shattered emotional status after being subjected to the brutality of the Security Division, he wondered if it might not be more merciful to her, not to mention a good deal safer for himself, to allow the Supreme Commander to take the edge off her thirst for vengeance with Cameron's blood.

He pushed himself wearily out of his chair pacing wearily around his modest office. He straightened the medical records on his desk and repositioned holos of his wife and family without really seeing them.

Safer for him and ultimately beneficial to Travis. The commander's physical recovery had reached a point where the retraining therapists could begin their cybernetic reconstruction work. Without Cameron's unsettling and very human presence, Travis would readily readjust to the harsh requirements that his loyalty to Space Command demanded of him.

He paused in midstride, his gaze suddenly caught by the ancient archaic symbol hanging on his wall - two serpents entwined around a winged staff.

A caduceus.

Emblem of healers since time immemorial. Archaic and outdated as the oath that he had flung in Cameron's face to goad her into taking on her present patient. Her final patient if Supreme Commander Servalan and the Security Division had their way.

He shook his head in frustrated denial. That oath bound him as well, reminding him of the duty he owed a fellow healer. No matter how hopeless the cause or the fact he was placing his career and life in danger, he must make the plea for mercy in Cameron's case. He had a duty to do so, not only to preserve her life and valuable skills but also for the future lives that would be lost if those skills were erased.

He stared bemused at his reflection in the small window as he straightened his tunic and checked his appearance self-consciously before going to confront that she-viper in her den.

"A noble, futile, cause, indeed," he thought wryly to himself. "You sound just like that fool Blake and his Freedom Party, with his pretty words about freedom, equality, and self-determination. What that idiot didn't realize is that the great majority of Federation citizens wouldn't know what to do with freedom if it was handed to them on a silver platter. All most people wanted was a warm bed, regular meals, and the occasional bloody spectacle with enough soma or happy dust to numb their minds to the grinding drudgery of their daily lives. Bread and circuses kept the ancient Roman mobs at bay. Soma and tri-vid shows were the opiate of the Delta masses these days."

He shuddered as he put aside those grim, disheartening thoughts. Hopefully Servalan would recognize Therapist Cameron's value and the necessity to have her at Travis's side to assure his complete mental and physical recovery.

Despite the frozen horror that had remained after her last encounter with the Security Division, the process of rehabilitating Travis somehow enabled Cameron to begin healing herself as well. It was a slow recovery, with memories of her interrogators often leaving her weak and trembling with fear and revulsion but something about the stoic, stubborn willfulness of her patient served as a balm to her own ravaged mind and heart.

Travis had put aside his earlier antagonism about her politics and begun treating her with a kind of gruff tolerance, as though she was a junior officer guilty of some minor infraction of the rules instead of the fatal crime of sedition that the Security Division had branded her with. She found him much gentler and more forbearing than rumor had led her to believe, although he had little patience when she tried to explain what had attracted her about the ideas of Blake's Freedom Party.

"It's not that I was dissatisfied with my own life, Commander. It was just that so much of what the Freedom Party said about freedom of choice and opportunity seemed...right and ...fair. And their description of the effects of wholesale use of pacification drugs and mind control on the worker grades was so. . .so. . .dehumanizing!"

Travis's mouth twisted with scorn as he gritted out in a deep, harsh voice, "Just the kind of fuzzy-brained nonsense that I'd expect from a privileged Alpha grade systems engineer. Ivory tower idealism with no grasp of the reality of life on the lower levels. Without the pacification drugs, the labor grades would constantly be at each other's throats like the animals they are. Before the invention of sona gas and tranquigene, the lowtown alleys ran with blood every night and without the firm hand of Space Command enforcing order, they'd have brought their lawless anarchy into the upper class enclaves with bloody-handed thoroughness."

"You sound like that sort of violence was something you witnessed firsthand," Cameron questioned softly.

"Where I grew up, the only law was survival of the fittest, the strongest." His voice was a hoarse whisper. "Most people prefer security to freedom, if they're given a choice."

"But the only people given that choice are the wealthy and powerful," she protested weakly. "Is it right for a chosen few to dictate the laws instead of equal justice for all?"

"Equality. . .another one of Blake's fairy tales," Travis spat angrily. His remaining eye held an oddly vulnerable look despite his rage-filled voice. "No one willingly chooses a weakling or a fool for anything if a stronger, smarter man is available. As for shattered, broken hulks like myself, we're discarded as useless. Despite your so-called belief in Blake's ideals, you're no different than the rest. You look at me, half-crippled and useless, and shudder in disgust. No one - no woman - will ever again give the wreckage that Blake left of this body a second look."

Kiera heard the doubt and self-loathing that welled up from the soldier's tormented spirit and it was almost more than she could bear. But rather than dropping her eyes before that laser-bright gaze, she stood fast, drawing on her deepest inner reserves of compassion. . .and something else.

"You're wrong," she denied huskily, her throat tight with so many emotions that she could hardly sort them out. Fear was one and a last desperate hope of finding a protector and savior. But that wasn't foremost in her thoughts. Rather, her empathy and compassion for the man and not the soldier, had been fueled by a slow growing admiration for his strength and resilience into a deeper, warmer emotion that she was almost afraid to examine too closely.

Yet, she gazed at him with something more than the clinical detachment that she had relied on for the past weeks. He had a strong, resolute face, set with lines of discipline and determination rather than the cruelty and dissipation that she had seen on other senior officers' features. His piercing grey-blue gaze revealed a keen penetrating intelligence. Even with the scarring of his face and his missing left arm, there was an inner strength and resolve about him that made her feel safe in his presence, despite the fear of the Security Division that haunted her.

Her task was almost finished now that he was strong enough for the retraining therapists to begin his cybernetic reconstruction. She had fulfilled her duty. And yet...there was something in his voice. An emotional void. An unhealed wound to his psyche that drew her back to his side.

Tentatively, she reached out to touch his face, her fingers resting unflinching against the scarred flesh as well as the smooth. "You're wrong," she repeated as an unexpected tenderness welled up inside her. "Any woman with eyes to see, will look past the scars, the missing eye and arm to your inner self. Your courage. . .your strength . . ."

She broke off suddenly, her mouth too dry to say anything more. Neither of them were surprised as he reached up to cup the back of her head, his hand twining in her dark hair and pulling her down to him, unresisting.The kiss was gentle and undemanding despite the growing tension Cameron sensed he held tightly leashed. For a heartbeat, she wondered how such a harsh, grim mouth could be so tender on her own. Then there was no more room for thought but only the passion and warmth that burned between them.

Then, a coldly sniggering observation chilled both of them as though they had been plunged into an icy stream.

"Well, isn't that a pretty sight?" A short, stocky, black-clad figure leaned on the door frame and sneered suggestively. "Space Commander Travis, heroic nemesis of the rebel Blake and his traitorous Freedom Party practicing his charms on of one of Blake's own agents inside Space Command. Or was it the other way round, Commander? Was she trying to seduce you?"

Travis's expression was as chill as a nitrogen glacier on Scandia. "Major Cain!" he spat venomously. "Get out! This is no concern of yours."

The Space Major, who wore the crossed daggers of the Security Division, smirked at the other officer. "Quite the contrary, sir. The Supreme Commander thought that this traitorous scum might attempt something like this. Seduce you, use her physical charms, such as they are, to convince you that she had changed. That she was no longer a follower of Blake's disloyal, traitorous ideas. Perhaps even make you believe that she admired, even loved you. . .despite your very obvious disabilities!" The major's sneering glance raked across Travis's missing arm and scarred face with deliberate scorn.

Travis's gaze flickered over to Cameron, suddenly uncertain. To his dismay, she stood silent, trembling like a bird mesmerized by a snake.

Finally she gasped a strangled denial. "That's a lie!"

"Oh?" was the major's oily rebuttal. "Which lie is that? That you're no longer one of Blake's followers? Or that you've fallen in love with this human wreckage?"

Cameron stared at Travis in mute, desperate appeal and despite, his own doubts, he attempted to forestall the other man's actions. "Surgeon Maryatt knew about her political sympathies but trusted her loyalty enough to assign her to my case."

Cain's smile held an unusually cruel edge. "A dangerous assumption on his part. I can assure you that we shall be watching him much more closely in the future. Besides, considering the damage that Blake had already done to you, I imagine that the Surgeon assumed that the therapist could do little more than speed your dying. But you seemed to have recovered despite her efforts. The Supreme Commander will be pleased."

The cold, calculating note in Cain's voice sent shivers up Cameron's spine. Yet, there was no way for her to warn Travis or even protest the fate that awaited her.

Two dark-visored troopers entered the room at Cain's direction and seized her in a remorseless grip. After a momentary panic-stricken glance at Travis, she subsided in dull-eyed resignation. Travis's face had settled into harsh lines of anger and resentment.

"What are you going to do with her, Cain? Surely, the Supreme Commander won't welcome a trial that would demonstrate to the High Council any weakness or disaffection within our own ranks?"

"Quite true," Cain admitted reluctantly. "Although we seem to have excised this cancer before she infected anyone else with her disloyalty." Cain's flint grey eyes held a speculative warning glance. "Of course, you and Surgeon Maryatt have been exposed to her traitorous ideas. I imagine that the Security Division will be watching the two of you closely for any signs of . . .contamination."

"Of course," Travis replied through gritted teeth. "The therapist. . .what will be the likely disposition of her case? Slavery? Exile?"

"Oh no," Cain's smile was superciliously correct. "The Supreme Commander thinks that she is much too dangerous to be running around loose with her mind and talents intact." Out of the corner of his eye, the major caught a glimpse of the horror that broke through the numbness suffusing the therapist's fragile features and savored the likelihood that his next disclosure would evoke a similar response in the arrogant officer he confronted.

"She will be mindwiped, of course. Then modified and assigned as one of Servalan's personal guards. . .always under close observation."

To Cain's disappointment, Travis's expression remained remote and unreadable, although his remaining eye was as dark and cold as an abyss.

The major gestured to his guards to remove the unresisting therapist. For a moment her gaze was locked on Travis's face as though seeking something - whether hope or forgiveness or simply to commit his features to her memory for the short time that memory remained her own.

Cain turned back to the stony-visaged space commander. "Since your physical recovery is obviously complete, the Supreme Commander has ordered that you be sent to the cyberneticists and retraining therapists later today. I hear that she's even requested the services of one of the best psychostrategists to make sure you're mentally up to par."

Travis's lack of response only encouraged the Security officer in his revelations. "One Carnell by name. He'll soon have you chomping at the bit to obliterate rebels and malcontents from here to the Outer Worlds."

Travis turned his cold cyclopean stare on Cain, who suddenly felt a chill wind of death and madness blowing about his shoulders. He shivered as he saluted more briskly than he intended. "By your leave, Commander. I have duties that must be attended to."

After Cain had beat his hasty retreat with his prisoner, closing the door firmly behind him, Travis sat alone in the darkened room. The ghosts and spectres hovering in the shadows crowded close around him once more, their skeletal fingers again savaging his heart and mind, tearing at his reason.

But two of those apparitions had a disturbingly solid appearance. Their bodies still lived; walked the same earth, breathed the same air that he did. Only their minds and memories had been extinguished...or soon would be.

Blake's burly frame confronted him, arms akimbo, gloating in victory. "I've won, Travis. Crippled your body, destroyed your mind. Even seduced away the one woman who might have looked past that ravaged face and given you something more than pity or contempt!"

His ghostly figure pulled Cameron's unresisting body into his expansive embrace as Travis stared helplessly.

"Damn you, Blake!" he screamed, a tortured rasp. "The cowards and hypocrites on the Council may have spared you. But I won't forget! I'll destroy you, Blake! If I have to hunt you down to the ends of the universe, you'll pay for your crimes! If it takes the last breath in my body, I'll have my revenge!"

But the rebel's spectre did not reply, only melted away as though it had never existed.

As that bitter, bloody oath echoed in the darkness, Travis began to banish Kiera's gentle healing touch from his mind and soul.


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