Cally and Sester stopped outside of the guarded cabin that housed Poul and some of his associates. Cally had been trying to keep a neutral and professional attitude with the psychostrategist. Like Argus and Avon, she couldn't help her automatic hostility towards this man; she was always on her guard around him. If she hadn't been, she knew it would have been very easy to be taken in by his warm and friendly manner. Even more now because they were supposed to be working together.
In terms of charm, Sester was even more potent than Blake, without the undercurrent of obsession or aggressiveness. He came across as sincere and open. The man seemed genuinely interested in people and was naturally sociable. Of course, Cally knew that being a psychostrategist, it didn't mean that he was interested in people personally. She maintained a very cynical attitude towards anything he said or did.
Sester had made her trust him. He had provided friendship and kindness at a time when she needed it. She didn't know until he had shown up again later that it had all been a lie. He had used the knowledge he had obtained from her in order to torture Avon. It was why she was very wary of his interest in Reya.
She was very worried for her. Cally had known the side of Sester that he used to trap others. Reya only saw it as an indication of a caring friend. Cally had made that mistake once too; she was determined not to make it again. She wanted to make sure that Reya didn't either.
Sester had the ability to press all of the right buttons to make you do exactly what he wanted, without you realizing it; or even if you did know what he was doing, and didn't want to. This was a very dangerous man.
Two guards framed either side of the door like silent sentinels. Sester and Cally were acknowledged by the soldiers.
Sester asked, "Any problems with them?"
One of the soldier responded, "No, sir. They've been quiet."
Cally pressed several buttons to activate the visual panel that Avon had set up so that they could see inside. There were four occupants of the room. Poul and another man seemed to be arguing but they were keeping their voices low.
Sester asked Cally, "What's their mood like?"
Cally had her hand to her temple and her eyes were closed as she tried to concentrate her perceptions towards the people inside. "There's much anger and frustration."
"That's to be expected. Anything else?"
She opened her eyes. "They appear to be working themselves towards some sort of action but I can't tell what it is."
Sester grinned. "Then it looks like we came at the right time."
Together they observed the men inside. Sester noted a myriad of details; the way they held their bodies, their manner when they talked, the position of their heads, the movement of their eyes coordinated with what they were saying, the particulars of the gestures used and many other things that a psychostrategist had been trained to observe and analyze. Because the men were whispering, not everything could be heard. Only what the occupants on the inside chose to be overheard. For Sester this in itself was very indicative. People didn't have two minds to be able to split their attentions fully. In what they chose to reveal, they often left clues.
In some ways psychostrategists were like telepaths. They were able to read people and know what they were thinking and feeling; sometimes even things the person they were reading weren't aware of themselves.
Sester and Cally sat in an empty cabin when Poul was brought in by two guards. His attitude was distinctly antagonistic as he was led to a chair and unceremoniously 'guided' to sit.
Poul's mouth seemed to be stuck in a perpetual and hostile sneer as he looked at both of them.
Sester angled his head towards Cally and remarked, "He doesn't seem to like us."
Cally's voice telegraphed into his mind without ceremony or warning. * Do you plan to question him or are you only here to provide entertainment? *
Sester glanced at her and suppressed a smile. There would be no element of humour and irreverence in this interrogation.
Sester said to Poul, "We know you're planning to escape."
Poul's eyes widened in involuntary surprise even as Cally projected her own shock, * What are you doing? *
Poul recovered quickly and tried to sound affronted, just a bit too convincingly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Sester gave him a friendly smile. "Why don’t I tell you what you're planning? That way we can avoid the unpleasantries."
The tell tale signs told Sester that his words were having the desired effect even before Cally said into his mind, * That increased his stress level. *
Sester knew that he didn't really need Cally here to do what he needed to do. Her limited psi abilities with humans would not have told him anything that he couldn't read himself. Of course, her most useful role for Avon and Argus, was to keep an eye on him and to maintain control on what he was doing. It was very obvious. They hadn’t even attempted to be subtle.
Sester could do superiority very well. "You didn't realize we could hear you, did you? The sound pickups in the room are far advanced to anything your people have."
There was a flicker of uncertainty in Poul's eyes.
Sester stared at Poul and let a few seconds pass, allowing the information to work its way towards fear. For a man in a weaker position, the lack of information was a serious handicap.
Cally told him, * He's afraid and uncertain. *
Sester finally continued, "You were planning to fake a suitable emergency requiring medical treatment."
Poul could barely suppress a contemptuous laugh and a look of relief. He said with scorn, "If you say so."
Sester smiled confidently. "So you are planning something."
There was anger on Poul's face as he realized that he had just been manipulated.
Sester wasn't finished. "Do you think it would disrupt your plans much if we put you in separate cabins?"
Poul said angrily, "You can't keep us here forever."
"Now why would we do that? You don't have any value to us and we can't just let you go either. It does present somewhat of a dilemma." Sester's brow furrowed as if he was thinking about this difficult problem. "Of course the simple solution would be to kill you."
Poul said contemptuously. "You wouldn't do that."
Sester's voice became a deadly chill, the voice of a man who was used to ordering other people's deaths without hesitation. "That was before we wanted something from you. Now your lives have become a useful bargaining counter. How many of you do you think we have to kill before we get what we want? Do you think the others would volunteer you first or are they more self-sacrificing than you are?" Sester smiled pleasantly.
* He doesn't like what you've said and he's confused. *
Sester couldn't blame Poul. He knew that the man was brave enough to die without revealing anything. The problem was that Poul knew that not all of the men in the room were. The idea that he could die for nothing other than a gesture of personal defiance wasn't a pleasant one. Sester knew this from his study of the men in the room.
He could easily have started with one of them first and save himself the trouble of having to manipulate Poul. Poul was the prize though. He was the leader, he would possess more useful information than the rest. If Poul fell, the others would likely fall as well.
Sester said, "How about a compromise? I have a few questions. Some of them are in your best interest. Some are not. I'll let you decide which interest you want to serve given the new circumstances."
Poul's eyes narrowed. "What new circumstances?"
After Poul told them what they wanted to know, Cally and Sester were conversing outside the room before they reported to Argus.
Cally said reluctantly, "You're very good."
"Not good enough. We have a better idea but still nothing specific."
"We were limited by Poul's lack of knowledge about Thelis's operations, not your skills."
Sester said in a light teasing tone, "You should be careful, Cally. One might think that was a compliment."
There was no light tone in Cally's response. "It's only a recognition of your expertise as a dangerous manipulator."
Sester said pleasantly, "For a psychostrategist, that is a compliment. And it's hardly a secret now. You all know what I am."
Her eyes contained the hardness of past betrayals. "Yes. I do."
Sester inclined his head in recognition of their history. "Yes, you do. But now that expertise is available for your purposes."
"I'm not ungrateful for what you've done to help us and Avon."
Sester added, "But it will never be enough?"
"I would be lying if I said otherwise."
He told her, "I appreciate your honesty. I know that you don't believe me, but I am committed to helping Avon."
She fixed him with a look that seemed to want to penetrate into his mind. "How long does guilt last for a psychostrategist?"
After reporting to Argus, a thoughtful Sester went looking for Vila. It had been a long time since they last spoke together. Someone had mentioned that they had seen him in the dining area.
Sounds of laughter could be heard before he entered the room; Vila and a woman enjoying themselves. He stood to the side of the door in order to look inside without being seen. It was Vila and Corinne and a table full of small bowls. They appeared to be having fun.
Sester pulled back a bit so that they wouldn't notice him and continued to observe. It looked like Vila had found a new friend. Or something more than just a friend.
He was happy for him. Sester decided not to intrude and headed off to his cabin to spend a quiet evening playing solitaire chess.
Unknown to him, Cally had rounded the corner and saw him observing Vila and Corinne. At first she was suspicious and hid in order to watch what he was doing. She opened up her senses to catch what she could and was surprised at what she found.
There was a strong sense of loneliness and isolation. For a moment, he seemed human. But only for a moment.
It wasn't a surprising find. Sester was on a ship full of people who considered him the enemy. Cally reminded herself that he had chosen this path. No one had forced him to do the things he had done.
She had asked him how long guilt lasted for a psychostrategist. He had stared at her and then walked off without answering. More than anyone else on the ship, she knew that he did feel guilty and he regretted what he had been part of. But she was too close to Avon's suffering and anguish to be able to forgive his torturer. As Sester walked off in the other direction towards the guest cabins, Cally wondered if there would be a day when she would be able to hate him less.
Perhaps if he found a way to help Avon to recover all that had been taken away from him. She had doubts that it was possible. The damage and degree of alteration that had been done was too extensive. Cally headed off to her own cabin to spend time with Avon.