"Now. Now. Commander. No need to become violent," said Sester. "I can explain." Sester had already prepared a plausible explanation which would avoid any pain for himself.
"You can explain
?" asked Argus angrily. "Nothing
could possibly explain
what Servalan has done to Avon and Vila."
Avon and Vila? Sester was relieved. He had been right; Reya had not told Argus. But this was interesting.
"I think we're talking about two different things. What did Servalan do to Avon and Vila?"
Argus's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What did you think I was talking about? What did you think you had to explain?"
Sester lied smoothly, "I was going to explain that it wasn't my idea to be sent as the liaison."
Argus wasn't sure he was satisfied with this explanation but he had more important issues to deal with.
"What do you know about what Servalan did to condition Vila? What memories did she implant in him?" asked Argus. He took a step closer, invading Sester’s private space, increasing the intimidation factor.
Sester asked, "You mean the Gauda Prime ones? Didn't you have those undone?" He was never intimidated by physical threats; they only amused him.
"We thought we had. But Professor Tarkson works for Servalan. You must have known that. You arranged it all," said Argus.
"Professor Tarkson. Yes. You're right. We were controlling him," said Sester. "But I directed him to reverse the conditioning and remove the blocks. Didn't it work?"
"You tell me," said Argus.
"You have to let know me what you're talking about, Argus. I may be a psychostrategist but mind-reading is not one of my skills."
Argus told Sester what just happened in the medical unit between Avon and Vila.
After Argus's account, Sester said thoughtfully, "It does sound like what was done with the Gauda Prime setup. But I have no knowledge of this."
"You expect me to believe that?" sneered Argus. "You're Servalan's right hand man."
Sester laughed. "No one can be Servalan's right hand man. Not unless his name is Avon."
"You're jealous of Avon?"
Sester chuckled. "Hardly. I don't think I could survive the kind of interest that the Federation President has in Avon."
"You're saying that she is trying to shape Avon to be her partner?"
Sester smiled. "I think she has much more ambitious plans that just partners."
Argus had a distasteful look on his face. "Why can't Servalan leave Avon alone? Hasn't she done enough to him? When will it end for him? When he's dead?"
Sester said seriously, "You may not believe this, Argus. In fact, I don't expect you to. But I don't want Avon to suffer anymore than you do."
"You're right. I don't believe you," said Argus. "If you were being genuine, you would tell me the truth."
Sester sighed heavily. "I know that Servalan has private files on Avon. They contain everything that was done to him. Information that is not in either the official records or the top secret ones. I have never seen them."
Argus said sarcastically, "If you've never seen them, then how do you know that they exist?"
"Servalan told me. After I found out about the microsurgery which was done, which I did not know about, I confronted her."
"You did that, for Avon?" Argus asked sceptically.
"Yes. I know it seems like a crazy concept coming from me, but I do occasionally do something that can be interpreted as, not evil."
"That still remains to be seen," said Argus cynically.
Sester looked speculatively at the other man and said, "I have an offer to make."
"I'm not interested in any offers from you," said Argus coldly.
"Can we get past Reya for a moment? Just long enough for you to hear what I have to say, before you reject it outright?"
"It has nothing to do with Reya."
"Now it's my turn, not to believe you," said Sester.
"I don't consider you a threat, Sester. Just an annoying irritation."
Sester did not want to let that challenge go without giving a scathing response of his own, but he knew that it would be counter-productive to what he needed to achieve.
Instead he asked, "Are you going to listen, or should I waste my time somewhere a little less hostile?"
"Say what you have to say," said Argus, with an attitude that said, I will hear but don't expect me to believe you.
"If you accept me onboard as the Federation liaison, then I will try to find out what you want to know."
"You're proposing a trade?" asked Argus in disbelief.
"Why would I propose a trade that does not give me any benefit? This is not a trade, Argus. Servalan is sending me as the liaison. If I do not fulfill this role, then I won't have any leverage with her."
Argus smiled sarcastically, "Then your benefit is that she won't punish you for not doing what she wants."
"It still doesn't negate my offer. Does it matter why I'm doing it? I will help you find out what Servalan did to Vila."
"Of course. But you're going to have to help me by accepting me onboard as her liaison."
Argus considered this. He did not like or trust Sester. In fact he was sure he hated him. But if he could find out information that would help Avon and Vila, it might be worth accepting Sester onboard, at least temporarily.
Argus said, "This will not be permanent. And I have conditions on your staying on the ship."
Sester inclined his head in acceptance. "It's your ship. I will abide by your rules." He suppressed a smile. Once he understood what Argus's weakness was, it had been too easy.
Avon looked up at the glare of the lights overhead. His mind was confused for a moment; there was something not right about what he was seeing, but he couldn't identify what it was. The confusion soon passed. It was all too familiar: the depressing gray walls, the hard metallic surface of the sleep platform, the menacing lights which were always too bright and the coldness which penetrated into his bones and made him shiver. And the pain. The ever-present, familiar, almost comforting pain; the only indication that he was still alive.
The door to the cell slid open. Avon struggled up to a sitting position; his shackled hands hampering more than helping. He would face his tormenters with the only thing they had left him, the arrogant defiance they had never been able to wipe from his face. Who will it be this time? He didn’t know why he bothered to wonder anymore. It was always the same. The only time he was safe was when the door stayed closed.
He reflected on how ironic it was that his safety was determined by the state of a door. Once he had thought that being wealthy enough would keep him safe from the people who wanted to use him. It seemed like a long time ago. He no longer had that possibility now; a dead man has no future. Avon felt death creeping up on him, consuming more of him each day; the breaking down of his battered body, the slipping of his embattled mind and the spirit slowly bleeding to nothing.
A woman walked through the entrance. Servalan. The architect of his demise.
Avon leaned back tiredly against the cell wall. He gazed at her impassively as she approached. She stood looking down at him; the poised and beautiful snake and her bound and helpless victim. This woman had the power of life and death over him; the power of pain and control. And he hated her.
“You look terrible, Avon,” she said pleasantly.
He didn’t respond and only continued staring at her.
She smiled and asked, “Is it going to be one of those conversations?”
“I don’t know, is it?” he responded in a weary and disinterested tone. His eyes carried a dead emptiness; when he stared, it was no longer with disturbing intensity but a mesmerizing spiral into nothingness. What semblance of a life he had before, no longer existed; replaced by a futilely defiant wait for the end.
“That’s better,” she said in a pleased tone.
"The answer is no, Servalan." His manner was hard and gave nothing away.
"I haven't asked you anything yet." She was still speaking with an air of civility.
"The answer is still, no. It will always be no. Now either get to the torture or leave me alone." There was no energy in Avon's tone. Just a statement of fact.
“They tell me that you still refuse to tell us what we want to know,” she said to him.
Avon was wracked by a painful cough. The pain in his ribs made it difficult to breathe. When it passed, he leaned back against the wall again.
He told her, “You should save yourself the aggravation and just kill me. I will never cooperate with you.”
Servalan smiled again. She said, “Speaking of collaborations, do you remember, I said once that I considered you a future friend?”
Avon’s lips curled in a half-snarl, half-sarcastic smile. "You should have yourself checked for delusional tendencies, Servalan. That will never happen.”
“Oh, Avon. Something is only a delusion, if it doesn’t happen. I have the power to make things happen. You should know that by now.”
“Save your breath. Your power to gloat doesn’t impress me.”
“There is one thing about you which impresses me,” said Servalan.
“And what’s that?”
“Your ability to drive away everyone who cared about you,” she said in a voice that was smooth and crafty. “Or should I say, kill?” The civility was no longer civil.
Avon had a strong flash of guilt and anger, and then he controlled his reactions. Servalan was trying to bait him again. She knew that this was an area that made him vulnerable, that put him on the defensive. He was not going to give her that advantage. Avon glared at her and said, “Enough, Servalan. I’m tired of playing your games. I would rather be tortured, than to continue this conversation."
Servalan ignored him and said, “You still do have one friend, Avon. But it won’t be much longer.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked her with cold suspicion in his eyes.
“You will know soon enough. When he’s ready. We’re preparing him for you.”
“Who are you preparing?” he asked her.
“Vila?" Avon asked, reacting in surprise before he could stop himself. "I thought you said he was dead?” The dark emptiness had a spark of life still.
“You should know better than to believe me, Avon. It was convenient for me to have you believe that he died. Now it is convenient for me to have you know the truth.”
Avon didn’t understand why, but news that Vila was still alive took some of the bleakness away. His mind race as he thought of the implications of what Servalan was saying. Maybe the others are still alive too.
“The others are dead,” said Servalan. “In case you were wondering.”
“I don’t believe you.” Avon felt very tired. The concentration required to battle this dangerous woman always drained what little energy he had.
“I don’t blame you. I have all the power. You have none. I could say anything and you would never know if I was telling the truth. But for what it’s worth, I am telling you the truth this time. The others all died on Gauda Prime; everyone except you and Vila. I have a very special use planned for Vila. That is the only reason why he has been kept alive. In a way, he has you to thank for that.”
“Does this indecent bout of truth extend to telling me what that reason is?”
“Vila is of great value to me because he is the only friend you have left. I am going to take that friendship away from you.”
“What are you saying?” Avon's voice raised in anger. The unaccustomed emotion surprised him; for months he had felt nothing but hatred, pain and loneliness. This was anger still, but an anger that had it’s source in an unreasonable hope; that he was not alone. Not since the day he found Anna did someone else's existence mean so much to him; not since the day he stood in shock over the body of a friend he had just killed in error.
“You know what I’m saying. I am going to leave you with nothing, Avon. I will make Vila hate you. The sight of you will make him want to kill you. And then I will allow him to escape so that he will turn everyone against you. Those who aren’t against you already, that is. They all know you killed Blake, you see.”
“You made sure they knew.”
“You will never condition Vila to do that. He is resistant to conditioning.”
Servalan said with a derisive sneer on her lips, “You mean those pathetic attempts at conditioning they use for the Deltas?”
“Yes. They were never able to stop him from stealing.”
Servalan laughed. “Does it make any sense to you that someone with a will as weak as Vila’s, would be able to resist any kind of conditioning?”
“Then why were they never successful at stopping him from stealing?”
“You’re assuming that the conditioning was to stop him from stealing.”
“If not that, then what else?” asked Avon.
“What is required from all Deltas in the Federation? Mindless obedience to and fear of authority figures, of course. To let people better than they are, do their thinking for them. Unfortunately, Vila escaped before his conditioning program was completed. They tend to do them in bulk groupings for the Deltas in the rehabilitation facilities. It was easy for them to lose track of someone as slippery as Vila is. And who has a penchant for getting out of tight places.”
Avon felt a pang of guilt and a growing anger. Conditioned. He had often accused Vila of being easily led. Now it seemed that part of the way he viewed Vila had been based on a lie. He wanted to laugh at the irony of another relationship built on falsehoods, but the only thing he felt was a deep sense of failure and regret. There was a look of pain in his eyes.
“Why did Vila think he was being conditioned against stealing?” he asked, still not quite believing her.
“I’m surprised at you, Avon. The answer should be obvious. That was part of the conditioning. Vila assumed afterwards that he was being conditioned against stealing. That would be a logical assumption for someone who has no sense of scope. A typical limitation of the Delta mind.”
“He is not a Delta,” said Avon angrily. For some reason, he felt the need to defend Vila against Servalan.
“I know. I did say that Vila told the interrogators everything. Including the part where he bought a Delta rating to avoid military service. They were able to verify that, by the way.”
“So he was an Alpha?”
“Oh, Avon. Did you want to believe that? Of course, he wasn’t. What a notion. What grades are required to do compulsory military service? It's not the Alphas. Not us. We're too valuable.”
Avon nodded in understanding. “The Beta and Gamma-grades.”
“Vila was born a Beta. But he had the limitation of a labour grade education.”
Avon didn’t care what Servalan was saying anymore. All he could think of was that Vila was still alive, and it made him feel less alone.
“You’re going to let him go?” he asked her. Avon knew that he no longer had a chance; Servalan was never going to let him go. The only thing he could hope for was a quick death when she was finally finished with him. But somehow, knowing that Vila would have a chance, made things easier to bear now. He was glad that at least one person would be able to escape this nightmare. Even if you are going to be used against me. At least you'll be free. Do a good job, Vila. Don't be lazy. Or they'll take you back.
"Not yet. He has another purpose to fulfill for me first," said Servalan. The smile she gave him sent chills down Avon's spine.