The full complement of crew was present; minus Jenna. Everyone was at their normal stations. There was an empty feeling on the flight deck, even though they were also joined by three additional guests. Everyone stole glances at the vacant pilot's station. Despite everything that had happened, Jenna was still a friend and a valued team mate. They had been through a lot together. It was Jenna's choice to leave them but it was still hard to accept. Additional pleas from Cally and Vila had produced no results. Jenna was determined to pursue her own course. She stopped responding to further attempts at contact.
"Is that it?" asked Vila. "Aren't we going to do anything else?"
"There's nothing we can do, Vila. We've exhausted all options. I've tried making contact with the rebels who were with her but Jenna seems determined to avoid us. She must have told them to steer clear of us," said Argus.
"She's made her choice," said Cally sadly.
"Yes. She has," said Argus.
No one wanted to voice their fears; the next time they met, they might no longer be on the same side.
Argus continued, "Even if we were able to find her. I doubt we could have persuaded her from her path. You've both talked to her."
Vila looked depressed. He turned to Avon and said, "She really wants to kill you."
Avon was about to say that she would be joining a long list of people with the same intentions; but he refrained and stayed silent.
Cally looked at Avon curiously when he didn't say anything. He was actively listening to their conversation but had not participated; even though it concerned him.
"We can't let her back onboard. Not in her current mood," said Argus. "I've left a message for her. She will know how to contact us if she ever changes her mind."
"Hopefully it will be 'when' and not 'if'," said Cally. "And before the hatred consumes her."
Avon had been silent throughout this exchange of words. As the others continued talking, many thoughts went through his mind.
The crew had all made a decision to stand by him. He didn't doubt that they could care about him but he was one that others had used most of his life. Sometimes it was difficult to believe that it could ever change for him. Sometimes it was easier to believe that everyone just wanted him for his abilities. It was less disappointing when people inevitably betrayed him; when they no longer found him useful, or when they found him too useful.
It was an illogical impulse, but Avon wanted to believe that they cared; that he mattered more to them than what they could use him for. Cally, Vila, Argus and even Reya had helped him when he was barely functional. They had done it when he was of no use to anyone; when there was doubt if he would ever be useful again. They weren't demanding him to change; they knew who he was and yet they had been willing to help him.
The most surprising one had been Vila. Of all of them, Vila had the most reason not to help him. The other surprising one had been Argus. Avon had not wanted to like this man. But Argus had helped him and asked nothing in return.
Why is it different now? thought Avon. You are the same people. Some of you. Did you care before? Is it my perceptions which have changed? Is it because I've been too weak to push you away? Is it because you feel pity for me? Or is it something else?
Avon had noticed that Cally had been watching him when she thought he wasn't looking.
Does it matter why? Or is it enough that they do care?
Avon studied each one of his crew mates as they discussed the situation with Jenna. Perhaps it's time to take another step.
Avon said in a clear voice, "Thank you."
They all looked at him in surprise.
"What? Did I miss something?" asked Vila.
"What are you saying, Avon?" asked Cally.
For some reason, Avon felt embarrassed. He realized he wasn't just trying to convey gratitude.
While he was at the Detention Centre, they had tried to reduce him to something that was barely human; trying to finish a job which the Federation had been trying to do with him most of his life. A tool that was still human tended to be problematic when required to do things which were inhuman; it made him less efficient, less reliable. At times he wondered if he was still human.
They had never been able to wipe out his humanity completely. He no longer reacted to things as normal people did; in that they had succeeded in making him more like a machine. But he got very good at hiding that he cared, even from himself. No one could ever prove that he did. If they knew, he would have been sent for more nauseating bouts of retraining or readjustment. He developed a hatred of anyone who sought to manipulate him.
They tried to inspire attachment and loyalty to the Federation. It had backfired because he saw what they really were. The more they tried to control him, the more he sought to be free of them.
At the Detention Centre, he fought what they were trying to do. He clung to those things that still made him human. It wasn't the logic or the reason; it was the memories of his crew mates and his interaction with them.
After all the things that had been done to him to make him into a machine, Avon desperately wanted to be human again.
I have never understood why it should be necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or, indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all.
Avon almost laughed as this memory came unbidden into his mind. He remembered it well. None of the others understood what he had been trying to convey; none except Cally. He was certain that Cally would understand what he was trying to do now. It didn't make it any easier.
Perhaps it is necessary sometimes. Perhaps it is not enough to only take action that is needed.
He said again clearly, "Thank you for doing this. None of you had to. I appreciate that you did." There was unfamiliar warmth in his voice. It sounded strange coming from him.
Vila's jaw dropped. "I can't believe my ears. Cally, I think something's wrong with Avon. Or maybe this is not Avon. Maybe it's one of the aliens."
"Don't be a fool, Vila," said Avon.
"That sounds more like Avon," said Vila nervously.
"It is Avon," Cally said with certainty. Her senses had been concentrated on him since his silence had made her curious. She was aware of his feelings of embarrassment.
"Are you sure?" asked Argus. The last thing he needed was to protect an Avon who was not real.
"I'm sure," Cally said firmly. Her eyes never left Avon.
"Is it that alien a concept that I could express appreciation?" asked Avon.
Vila said, "Well, yes. I mean, no. I mean…you have before. But this time it's different…I'm confused." He looked around for help.
"You're not just thanking us for what we're doing, are you Avon?" asked Cally.
Avon stared at her without expression for a moment. Sometimes he felt very naked with her. It was disconcerting.
Avon smiled mischievously. "Perhaps Vila is right. I am an alien."
"I'm going to quietly have a heart attack now. Don't anyone stop me," said Vila.
"It's not that bad," said Argus said to Vila. "I'm sure we can all adjust."
"You mean to Avon? Or me having a heart attack?" asked Vila.
"Both," said Argus.
Avon turned to Vila, "If it makes you feel any better, I still plan to insult you. That won't change."
"Thanks awfully," said Vila.
"Don’t mention it," said Avon.
"I'm going to keep insulting you too, you know."
"I'd be disappointed if you didn't," smiled Avon.
"Has anyone seen Sester?" asked Cally. She preferred knowing where the psychostrategist was; she still didn't trust him.
Argus said flatly, "He's no longer on the ship."
From the couches where she, Allren and Ture were sitting, Reya looked sharply at Argus. He hadn't told her that. Even though he had forgiven her and said that he understood, from his attitude she suspected that it wasn't quite true.
"That's a relief," said Cally. "Do you know where he went to?"
"He didn't say. I didn't ask," said Argus curtly.
"Well, that's rude of him. Going away without saying goodbye," said Vila.
"You've never met him. Why would he say anything to you?" remarked Avon dryly. "On the other hand, perhaps you have met."
"Well, next time you leave the ship, see if I say good bye to you," said Vila with mock seriousness.
"Please don't," said Avon. A grin touched the corner of his lips.
"What do we do now? We seem to have exhausted all the entertainment value from this planet," said Vila.
"There is something I need to discuss with all of you first," said Argus. They all turned their attentions to him. After all that had happened, the old routines felt strange.
He explained to them about the temporary alliance with Servalan.
"Avon and I have agreed to this arrangement but I'd like to hear what all of you have to say. Especially you, Cally. I know that you have a strong reason to hate Servalan."
"You agreed to this?" Cally asked Avon. There was a tone in her voice indicating that she found it hard to believe. "After all she's done to you?"
Cally studied him as he answered her question. They had spent a night together in her cabin; Avon sleeping on a makeshift cot near her bunk. Even though it was a small step, for Avon it was a large one. She wondered if things would be different now between them now.
Avon turned to her and answered, "I still have an overriding desire to kill her. If that's your concern."
"You know it's not."
He gave her a wry smile. "I also have an overriding desire to survive. None of us will if the aliens or these invaders gain a foothold in our galaxy. What we're facing is as dangerous, perhaps more so than what we faced at Star One. This threat is more insidious. For that I would be willing to go into an alliance, even with Servalan."
"First you save her, and then you kill her?" asked Vila.
"Exactly," said Avon.
"You're saying that the invaders and the aliens are not the same group?" asked Cally.
"It's highly unlikely that they are. Their technology is more advanced than ours but its source is not alien. More a natural progression from our current level."
"That's all we need. Two groups of hairy aliens with designs on us," said Vila under his breath.
"Then we're in real danger," said Cally.
"Do I take it that we all support this alliance then?" asked Argus.
"Well, if it's down to being eaten by hairy aliens or not being eaten by hairy aliens, my choice is not being eaten," said Vila.
"I agree," said Cally.
Argus looked at Avon and said, "Then it's unanimous, we all chose Vila's not-being-eaten-by-aliens option. And we all fight together."
They all nodded in agreement. Their three guests, Reya, Ture and Allren also nodded.
Argus continued, "We have a lot of preparation work to do. Not the least of which is making contingencies in terms of working with Servalan. I don't have to remind any of you that we will have to watch our backs the entire time we are working with her."
"Yes, she can stab you in the back while looking you in the face," said Vila.
"Yes, I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her. I believe that's one of your Earth expressions," said Cally.
"Before we do that. I think some rest and recreation is in order. We're all tired. And we've been stressed beyond our limits these past weeks," said Argus.
"A holiday! I can't remember the last time I had one of those," said Vila.
Argus pointed out, "And since we have this alliance now. We can go anywhere, even within Federation borders. There's a place not far from here. In the adjoining sector. Pleasure City."
Vila said enthusiastically, "I know the place. They've got the ultimate in sensory experiences. Anything you want, they can do. And I mean anything. I've always wanted to go there." He was clearly relishing this idea.
"I don't know if that sounds like a place I want to go to," said Cally.
"I don't know. It might be interesting," said Avon speculatively.
"You're interested in such a place?" Cally asked.
"I'm not adverse to a little pleasure," said Avon.
"Am I hearing a unanimous vote for Pleasure City?" asked Argus.
"Yes. Avon agrees as long as he only has a little fun," said Vila with. "And if Cally will go with him," he added with a smirk.
At this Avon glared at him.
There had been an embarrassing situation during the morning cycle on the ship. Avon had exited Cally's cabin and run into Vila. He had given Vila the same glare then.
"I don't know why you have to be so shy about it," said Vila. "It's about time. We're all very happy for you."
Avon continued glaring at him. Vila didn't seem to notice that he wasn't joking anymore.
"Leave it alone, Vila," said Cally warningly.
The tone in her voice stopped Vila from adding another comment.
The others watched this encounter curiously.
Argus interjected and said, "Ture. Allren. We can drop both of you off wherever you want to go. Or you can go to Pleasure City with us."
Allren looked at his partner. Ture nodded.
"We'll join you. I've always wanted to visit the pleasure centres," said Allren.
Argus said, "Zen, set course for Pleasure City in Sector Eight. Speed standard by six."
Servalan studied her psychostrategist. They were both in her office onboard her command ship; currently on its way back to Earth sector. She had not talked to him or asked him a question since he had sat down; she watched him impassively.
Sometimes Servalan found that silence was more intimidating than actual words; especially if her target was feeling guilty or was actively trying to hide something.
Sester had not answered her question the previous day; the one concerning the woman who had escaped with him. He had been very clever with his deflections. Servalan found that intriguing.
A psychostrategist was most vulnerable when they were personally involved. That's why they were trained, almost conditioned, to treat others as puppets. Sester didn't seem to realize that she suspected something between him and the woman. This blindness pointed to something very personal.
Sester didn't seem concerned by the silence. He appeared relaxed, almost amused. This tactic wasn't working on him.
I should have known, thought Servalan.
She smiled and said, "How are you feeling? I understand that you received a serious injury?"
"I'm fine, Madame President," he answered her; wondering what she was up to now. So the games are starting again. He was not fooled by her concern in the least.
"I want you to report to the medical section," she told him.
"That's not necessary. I told you. I'm fine."
"I still want the medical staff to clear you first. I have many things for you to do. Not to mention all of your normal duties which I have had to take up."
"Of course, Madame President."
"I have made a temporary alliance with the Justice crew. To deal with the alien threats," Servalan informed him. She decided he didn't need to know about her private agreement with Argus.
Sester reacted in surprise. "Is that why you came to Papos?"
"Yes," Servalan acknowledged.
"But knowing you, that's probably not the only reason. One of the reasons has to do with Avon, doesn't it?"
She smiled. "Of course. He is never far from my thoughts. You will be my liaison with the Justice crew."
"I would prefer not to," said Sester. This was the last thing he needed. Sester wasn't sure what Argus would do to him the next time they met.
"Did I say that it was a request?" asked Servalan.
"Avon still holds me responsible for what was done to him. I would be the last person he would want to see on a regular basis."
"This is not a choice," said Servalan.
"For me or for him," said Sester.
"I'm glad we both understand each other. Go and report to the medical section," said Servalan in dismissal.
After Sester left, Servalan contacted senior agent Gorman from the Central Security team on Papos.
"Have you been able to discover anything more about the female prisoner?" asked Servalan.
"We've found out her name is Reya. We haven't been able to identify a last name. We are in the process of running her through the Federation database. Shouldn't take long to find out who she is, as long as she's in the system. It appears that she and your psychostrategist were captured together."
That's very interesting, thought Servalan. You were together even then.
"Keep investigating. I want all the information you can find on her."
"Yes, Madame President."
Servalan closed the connection and smiled speculatively. She enjoyed the games with her psychostrategist. This one was going to be interesting.
She knew very well what forcing the continued association between Avon and Sester would do. The agreement with Argus had been not to harm Avon; she had never promised not to keep him off-balance.
It was also good to remind Sester who was in control. He had been away from her for too long. He needed a reminder.