Argus was intermittently amusing but he was too serious for her taste. He was decorative enough. In her imagination, she could visualize how his muscles rippled as he moved. He would doubtless be vigorous and have great stamina. Servalan’s lips parted in a predatory smile. She wondered how he was doing since they last spoke. He should have contacted her by now; she was expecting him to. He would have to soon. She would be very disappointed in him if he had not figured it out yet. Servalan looked forward to that moment.
Servalan's heart skipped a beat. She knew why she was really out of sorts. The Federation President missed her playmate. He was never far from her thoughts. Avon had become so much a part of her life and consciousness that when he was gone, she felt alone. She needed someone and he was the only one who had been able to fill that empty place since Don Keller had left her.
Servalan used her bio-metric print and opened a locked drawer in her cabinet. Her hands ran over a collection of multi-coloured data crystals, almost caressing them. These were a record of Avon's stay with her; every moment was precious. She chose one at random, went back to her desk and slipped the crystal into a reader.
The vid footage began. Avon was in the imaging chamber. He looked exhausted, as he normally was in the crystals. His body was encased in a sensory unit. His head was surrounded by sound-image projectors which fed images and visions directly into his mind. Sound amplifiers sent pounding impulses which strove to destroy his will to resist. A steady stream of drugs kept him disoriented and controlled.
Silent tears streamed down Avon's face. "No." He would have shouted but his voice was painful and hoarse, he was trying to shake his head in denial of the visions but no longer had the strength or energy to. He must have been screaming for hours already; desperately fighting a battle he could never win. Now the only thing he could do was react in helpless horror to what they were feeding into his mind. "Vila." The lie was becoming the reality.
Servalan's heart hurt for him at the time but it had to be done. She had hardened herself, it was for his own good, and hers; it was for them.
Servalan watched in fascination at the scene unfolding on her monitor. She had never known Avon was capable of caring for anyone except himself and the select few; his love for Anna had been a surprising revelation. That he still loved her and was willing to die with her; even after knowing she betrayed him had made Servalan look at him with new eyes.
As she continued to watch the footage, Servalan became even firmer in her resolve. She was determined to take everyone away from Avon, so that in the end, he would only have her. He would finally have to come to her.
Vila hated dark and cramped places. He had as long as he could remember. In his nightmares as a child, he would whimper in fear and curl up in a ball, hoping to make himself as small as possible so that the darkness would not notice him; would not come and take him. He knew later that it was foolishness. The darkness was not a living being; it could not harm him.
Much later, he began having another dream. In that dream, the darkness took on a face and a horrifying voice.
Vila. Vila. Vila.
"No!" Vila woke up in a cold sweat and bolted upright in his bed. The darkness of his cabin filled him with fear and he hugged his knees. His face was wet. He was shivering and his breathing was ragged.
It was that dream again. The dream which made him hate Avon. It was as bad as the other dream which haunted him these days, the dream where he beat Avon with his fists until he collapsed on the ground.
One was real and one was obviously fake, a construct of his increasingly troubled mind.
It seems so real. He could feel his fists hitting Avon; could hear the other man's grunts of pain as each strike hit him; could smell the sweat and blood from a man who knew nothing but agony; could see the deadness in Avon’s eyes as Vila hit him again and again until he could no longer stand. Vila could feel his own rage, his anger at being betrayed. And a voice encouraging him; giving him suggestions. He couldn't remember.
Vila shook his head. How did the other nightmare turn into this one? He wasn't even asleep this time. This one seems so real. But it can’t be.
Vila hated these dreams. He had made a decision to make a fresh start while on Pleasure City. The friendship of Ture and Allren had filled him with shame. They had inspired him to begin again in his relationship with Avon. Vila had planned to talk to him, to air out their differences; to bring into the open some ugly truths about what they had done to each other. But then these nightmares had started. Now he could barely stop himself from being filled with hatred whenever he was near Avon.
His head was pounding, it was making him nauseous. Oh great. That's all I need.
He needed a pain blocker but that meant going to Cally. Avon was with Cally; these days, wherever Cally was, Avon was bound to show up sooner or later.
I'll have to go when she's on her shift on the flight deck. Vila looked at his desk chronometer. Another four hours. What am I going to do until then?
"Avon, you don't need to follow me around. I'm not going
anywhere," said Cally. She never thought that she would be the one to say that to him
. Since they had made the breakthrough before leaving Pleasure City, he seemed to want to be with her, a lot. That development had only involved kissing each other; she was almost afraid what would happen when they finally did sleep together, in the intimate sense, not the literal-but-not-really-literal sense they were now.
Cally smiled reflectively, he was a very good kisser; at times passionate, teasing, insistent and gentle.
Seeing her smile, Avon asked, "Cally?"
"Sorry, I was thinking about something."
Avon was certain there was a subtext he was not getting. It wasn't surprising; he was never very good at that kind of interpersonal interaction. Sometimes Cally baffled him; she was like a puzzle he needed to solve.
"Avon, don’t you normally need a period of solitude?"
"I don’t understand."
"We've been together for the last forty-six hours. Constantly together."
"I didn't realize I was doing that," said Avon in dismay. "It just seemed, natural."
"A natural instinct? I'm surprised at you, Avon," she said teasingly.
A look of mild annoyance crossed Avon's face, and then the corners of his mouth lifted in a trace of a grin, "My last natural instinct didn't turn out too badly."
"No it didn't." She smiled in response, stepped closer and kissed him; he responded immediately. They were both getting quite good at this; not to mention it was very pleasurable.
"Argus. Are you going to let me in?" asked Reya. She was standing outside his cabin; he had not responded to her repeated buzzers. The door slid open and she saw him in the doorway. He stood aside to let her in and then he stepped out. She could almost feel the heat of his anger.
"Argus, this is getting ridiculous. You can't keep avoiding me," she said in an exasperated tone.
He turned to go without talking to her.
"Can we talk about this? Please?" she asked, putting a hand gently on his shoulder.
Without warning, Argus whirled around, grabbed her hand and slammed her hard against the wall. Her normal instinct was to protect herself and fight back but she knew something was wrong, she decided not to resist until she determined what was going on. Normally he would never hurt her but the last day or so, he wasn't being like himself. The breath was knocked out of her as she hit the wall.
Argus held her immobilized. The look in his eyes scared her; it was still Argus staring back, but a completely different one. The intensity of his gaze was disturbing. He let go of her hand and backed away.
“Don’t follow me,” he told her in a strained voice. “Please. Reya. Not right now.”
He turned away from her and almost ran, down the corridor.
Reya looked after him. There was something very wrong. She was determined to find out what it was but he had asked her not to follow him.
Argus arrived on the flight deck as Cally began her shift.
Good, Avon’s not here with her, this will be easier, thought Argus.
His mind and emotions were tightly in check. The discipline learned during sessions designed to resist mind manipulation under torture, were very useful when dealing with Cally. As long as she didn’t suspect.
She was busy making routine checks on the ship’s systems with Zen.
She looked up. “Avon’s in his workshop. If you’re looking for him.”
“No. I was going to ask if you would mind switching shifts. I’ll take this one.”
“Are you and Reya having another argument?” asked Cally.
Argus was startled. Of course you would guess that.
“How did you guess?” he asked wryly.
“History? Is there anything I can do?”
“No. Thanks. It’s something we have to work out on our own.” Argus felt uncomfortable lying to her. The truth was, he didn’t know what was wrong, but he had a sneaking and troubling suspicion.
“Alright. Let me know if you do,” she told him before heading for the steps.
Argus watched Cally until he was sure she was gone. He checked further down the corridor, to make sure that no one would disturb him, then he came back and instructed Zen to use his special contact protocol.
Servalan appeared on the screen.
“What did you do to me?” he asked her with a frosty anger the moment she became visible.
Servalan smiled innocently, “Why, Commander, whatever do you mean?”
The word echoed in Argus’s mind when she spoke it; he tried to shake it off. His hands tightened in a fist. It felt as if he was uncomfortable in his own skin and he needed to break out.
Argus had been trying to keep himself contained. At first it was only a growing restlessness. Then it was an almost irresistible urge to act; something violent and destructive. It was a state which was disturbing in its familiarity. He had felt this way before; sometimes before a military campaign or mission. But this time it was also different. He felt like a bomb about to explode; but unable to.
He had tried to keep to himself; had fabricated an argument in order to isolate himself from Reya. The last few hours had been agony but his discipline had just been enough to keep it under control.
It had started shortly after he had talked to Servalan.
“You don’t look well,” she noted clinically from the vid screen.
“What. Did. You. Do. To. Me?” he asked again in a tight voice, each word punctuated like a strike.
She smiled again; this time it was no innocent smile. It was that of a snake that had its coils around its victim and was squeezing slowly and deliberately. “Just a little demonstration. I believe the point has been made quite effectively. Did you manage not to hurt anyone?”
There was a flash of guilt in Argus’s eyes as he remembered the look on Reya’s face as he slammed her against the wall. He didn’t answer Servalan’s question as the implications of what she was saying, hit him. She had been able to control him, somehow; had been able to turn him into a dangerous killer without a target.
The conditioning. That must be it. The conditioning he had received as part of his specialized Federation military training; he was never told what some of it was meant to achieve. He seemed to be subjected to more sessions than was normal, even for an officer in the Special Forces.
There was never a memory of the sessions afterwards, not even a recollection that he had them, not unless he consciously thought about it, which he was never inclined to do. Now that he was thinking about it, he never remembered the sessions unless he was in the presence of someone who did remember, usually the people who were involved in the conditioning process or those who had the authority to command; people like Servalan.
No. This can’t be. Have they been controlling me all along? Have I been a danger to everyone? I must still be a danger. I have to get away. I have to remove myself. Remove the threat.
Servalan could see the progression of emotions and realizations reflected in Argus’s face as she watched him on her vid screen. She could guess what he was thinking; could follow the inevitable flow of emotions; anger, outrage, fear, determination, sacrifice. It was time to step in.
“You needn’t worry. I do not have the kind of control you’re afraid of. You don’t have to kill yourself.”
“Why should I believe you?” asked Argus warily, every word indicating his complete mistrust of everything she said.
“Because you won’t remember this after we speak. I have no reason to lie to you.”
Argus’s face twisted in an unpleasant scowl. “It was the conditioning I received as part of my training then.”
“To an extent.”
“What do you mean?”
“Come now, Commander. Can’t you guess by now?”
Commander. The word made him feel ill at ease again. “Zen!” Argus tried to tell the computer to record the conversation.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Commander. Not unless you want me to make you forget now. I can do it very easily and instantly.” Servalan didn’t even bother to add a tone of menace. The threat was very clear.
Argus hesitated. “Belay that, Zen.”
The computer responded, “Confirmed.”
Argus asked, “Why the charade then? If you had the ability to do this to me all along? Why go through all that when we were at Papos?”
“It is not that kind of control. The conditioning cannot make you do anything. It only opens up certain aspects of your character and makes them dominant; and suppresses others. You are more inclined to do certain things; more willing to follow certain orders.”
Argus had a sickening feeling. “They made me a monster.”
“Hardly that, Commander. You just became a more effective tool.”
“A cold-blooded killer, you mean.” Argus had always felt that he was; now he knew that it was even truer.
“If that was the requirement, yes.”
“If I had known…”
“You would have refused? You did. Many times.”
“I don’t remember.” He desperately tried to wrack his mind for even a sliver of recollection; but there was none.
“No. You wouldn’t. Those memories were always removed. It would have been inconvenient to have you remember them. You’re a killer with a conscience. They were never able to get rid of that weakness.”
“I will stop you and the Federation. One day. I won’t have to remember this to do that,” he said with cold and deadly resolve.
“One day, perhaps, it will no longer be necessary to have people like you, Commander.”
“Don’t tell me you regret this. I won’t believe it.”
“It is one of the burdens of leadership, as you must know. To do things which are necessary, because to not do them, would be infinitely worse.”
“So the end justifies the means?” he asked cynically.
“Didn’t you already make that choice, Commander? When you decided to protect Avon?”
Argus felt sick. He had willingly and unwittingly walked into a trap; or he had never left it.
She continued, “The things the Federation found inconvenient have made you very valuable to me. Your conscience. Your sense of compassion. Your capacity for self-sacrifice. Without them, I would not have been able to extract that commitment from you. You are willing to do almost anything to protect Avon. I needed you to do that.”
"You manipulated me, for your own purposes." His voice was hard.
"Are you surprised?"
Argus wanted to reach across and strangle her. His urge to kill had finally found its target. "I should kill you." He really wanted to.
"Stand down, Commander," said Servalan. It was the tone of command. "Don't do something you will regret."
Argus pushed down the growing anger. To his shock and dismay, the tension began to ease. The lesson was now complete.
"Was the agreement even real?" he asked her bitterly. It was a serious mistake thinking I could trust you, even a little.
Now that her point had been made, Servalan felt generous. She still needed him to believe in the agreement.
"That part of it is real," said Servalan.
"And the rest?"
"You should have been more careful. But I promise you, as long as you honour our agreement, Avon will not be a target for the Federation."
Servalan smiled, "Or me. But there must be no repeat of what you did at Pleasure City. Or the next lesson may not be as harmless as this one. Now tell me where you are going that is so important."
Argus's lips formed a snarl. “I am not here to serve your interests, no matter what you do to me.”
Servalan shook her head, “You still haven’t learned. I am not doing anything to you. It is what you can do to others, which scares you.”
“You cannot take the chance that I will hurt Avon.”
“You mean that, you cannot take that chance. Let me see: Avon, Cally, and who else?”
Servalan continued, “Be sensible, Commander. I am not giving you any orders. Not this time. I only want to know where you will be, in case I need to contact you.”
He ignored her demand and said, “This arrangement does not give you the right to dictate what I can or cannot do, outside of what I agree to.”
“True. But while you are commissioned on a task for me, you will not pursue your own agenda.”
“As long as I fulfill my commission, you have no say on anything else,” Argus continued pushing. Despite her display of power over him, he could not allow her to gain control over his actions or that of his crew.
“You are not fulfilling your commission if your actions negate my purposes in sending you.”
“Then you should state your purposes more clearly. Unless…in doing so, you’re afraid that I would not have agreed in the first place?”
Servalan smiled and inclined her head. You are cleverer than I thought. She said, “Then I should be very explicit as to my goals the next time.”
“If you dare.”
“Now tell me where you are going next.”
Argus hesitated. He had won this battle but she had also made her point. “We are headed to Sector Ten.”
“To deal with the alien presence there?” she asked. This will be interesting.
“We will be doing that,” said Argus guardedly. He was not about to tell her the primary reason.
“You should have told me earlier. We are supposed to be in this fight together. Or have you forgotten?”
“I will let you know if your help is required,” said Argus.