She always picks mining colonies,
thought Jenna with a sigh of distaste. At least a grower colony would have had better food.
She tried to clean the soot off the table before the bar server put down her meal of meat stew and strong ale. The server was looking at her unpleasantly while she did this. Jenna could guess what the pasty-faced woman was thinking. Off-worlder. Can't even stand some honest dirt.
The woman dropped the tray on the table with a loud crash, spilling some of the ale into the stew.
"Forty-three credits," said the server. "Pay in advance."
"Forty-three? You've got to be joking?" exclaimed Jenna.
"Do you want it or not?" the woman asked, reaching for the tray before waiting for Jenna's answer.
Jenna put her hand on the tray to stop her. "Do I get to taste it first? Before I decide?" asked Jenna.
The server repeated, "Pay in advance."
"Not very original are you?" said Jenna sarcastically. From the smells coming from the bowl, Jenna rebelled at paying this amount for some suspicious meat of unknown origin. She suspected this was one of the special off-worlder prices.
Her stomach growled. She hadn't eaten since this morning and even then she only had an energy bar on the transport ship; the space lines joke of a meal for the low priced tickets. Everything had changed after the alien invasion and the destruction of Star One. Living had gotten much more expensive and much less pleasant.
Jenna took out her credit marker and handed it to the server. The woman entered several numbers on her arm register unit and swiped the marker over the reader. There was a beep and then the woman handed it back to her. Before she left, the woman said with a sarcastic smile, "Enjoy."
Sadist. Jenna picked up the spoon and regarded it suspiciously. She looked in vain for something to wipe it on and settled for her not-too-clean sleeve. They must wash these by hand, she thought. I thought only the most primitive colonies did that. Or a penal colony.
She dipped the slightly cleaner spoon into the stew. Runny stew. I hate runny stew. This is more like soup. If I had wanted soup, I would have ordered soup. She doubted if the serving woman would let her change the order now, or to give her the forty-three credits back. Jenna took a spoonful into her mouth. The thing had no taste, what she hoped were the vegetables were more like mush and the meat was rubbery. She could taste a bit of the ale which had been spilled into it earlier. Jenna picked up her mug and poured half of the ale into it and stirred it around. She took another taste. At least it tastes like ale soup now. She began eating hungrily.
I hope you're here, Avalon. I don't fancy checking out every backward mining planet in this sector. Somehow though, she felt as if she was fated to.
Avon cried out in pain as the whip cut into his body again. His head hung in exhaustion; the metal restraints cut into his wrists. He felt the tension ease on his overstrained arms as the chains were lowered. His legs could not hold the weight and he collapsed to the ground; with barely enough energy to land on his front rather than his raw and bleeding back. The cold floor felt soothing, helping to distract from the pain.
Feet approached; he was too tired to lift his head.
"Hold him down." Servalan. If he could, he would stand up and meet her with as unflinching a gaze as he could muster. Strong, cruel hands gripped his arms and legs, pressing him against the ground.
He felt something cold and wet poured onto his back. And then the pain. Despite his efforts, he moaned in agony and strained against the hands.
"Stay still, Avon." The liquid progressed along his back, dripping down his sides, producing pain as it seeped into every cut the lash had opened up. He was gasping for breath. Avon cried out.
Cally woke up with a start and looked over in alarm when she heard the cry. Avon was on his cot, sleeping faced down. His body was taut with tension; his arms seemed to be straining against something. He was moaning.
Pain. She was aware of the sharp sensation at the edge of her consciousness; her breathing quickened and her own body stiffened as she reacted to his agony. Cally quickly got out of bed and went to Avon's side. She put one hand on his head, attempting to reach him in the way she had been able to once before on Papos.
She projected as strong as she could into his mind, hoping the physical connection would help. Avon. Hear me, Avon. It's Cally. What you're seeing is not real. It's only something in your mind. Come out of it, Avon. She sent comfort and reassurance.
A faint voice responded, trying to break through the pain. Cally? It was so faint, she almost missed it.
Yes, Avon. It's me. You must wake up. What you're experiencing is not real.
She was aware of his mind struggling. The pain began to subside.
Avon opened his eyes.
"Avon? Are you alright?" Cally's concerned voice was just behind his ear. Avon slowly rolled to face her, wary of the half-remembered pain from his back.
"Yes, I'm fine now." His eyes met hers and saw the love and concern there. "I've made you worry again."
"Would you rather that I not?" she asked.
"Yes. And no." The old uneasiness was still there, the fear of allowing someone else in. To no longer be alone. To risk trusting someone other than himself. But there was also something else now, a conscious recognition of a decision that he had made with Anna once. He loved Cally, and in that love he was willing to risk anything, to give up everything.
A soft smile touched her lips, "Do I get to decide this time?"
"I know what you're going to say."
"Does it make you uncomfortable?" she asked.
"I would be lying if I said, no. But I am not uncomfortable with you. Only with myself."
Cally pressed her hand against his chest lightly, feeling the warmth of his body through the loose cream shirt he wore. As she touched him, Avon gave a slight shudder. Cally could both feel his body recoil and sense it from his mind. Her instant reaction was to lift her hand but Avon placed his hand over hers. "It's fine," he told her. Cally knew that it was not, but she could see the determination in his eyes and hear it in his voice.
Avon closed his eyes and concentrated. He told his confused body that this touch was not from an enemy; there was nothing to fear, nothing to fight; he tried to overcome the irrational emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. It was a battle. His breathing increased to meet the demand of the struggle.
Cally looked on with concern but didn’t say anything; giving him space. He had to do this on his own; the strength and will had to be his. She knew that it was important to him to be able to fight this for her. Slowly she began to feel his body and his mind relax. His eyes opened and he regarded her with unsuppressed affection. A slow smile played on his lips. He said, “It's closer now.” She didn’t have to ask him what he was referring to. They both knew that he was still not ready. The battle had been won, but the greatest difficulty still lay ahead.
Avon let go of her hand and reached up to trace her shoulder with his fingers, and then down her bare arm. Her breath caught, she was barely breathing with the sensations his touch was producing. Reaching up to caress her cheek, he asked, “Are you still willing to wait?”
“Yes. That will never change,” she reassured him.
“I believe you.” He gently guided her down into a kiss.
Sester had been the model of harmless cooperation since being let out of his cabin several days ago. He followed Argus around without complaint, occasionally giving a suggestion but generally keeping to the sidelines. There was a casual, relaxed manner about him as he watched Argus preparing and planning; interacting with his crew and the Athol military unit.
The psychostrategist was enjoying himself; mainly because he could trace the increasing frustration in the other man’s attitude towards him. It was not difficult to determine that Argus desired a confrontation; he wanted a reason to throw Sester off the ship, to get rid of this perceived threat. Sester gave him none.
“What are you doing?” asked Vila as he sat down next to Sester and watched the activity on the flight deck with him.
“Same thing I was doing the last time you asked,” said Sester, letting a bit of irritation enter his tone. He didn’t know whether to be annoyed or suspicious at the thief’s questions. Vila seemed to be showing an inordinate interest in him lately, either trying to engage him in inane conversation or hovering nearby. The experience Sester had with the lower grades did not give him much appreciation for them. They were usually painfully obvious and easily manipulated.
Sester was aware that Vila was somewhat different though. There were flashes of intelligence at times which seemed incongruous with his manner. Vila seemed to invite the impression of the fool. Not unlike Avon’s attempts to appear cold and purely rational.
Never assume anything. That was one of the cardinal rules of psychostrategists when handling their human puppets. Dealing with humanity was not a science, it was an art. The Justice crew was proving to be an entertaining challenge. For now he would do nothing except what they demanded of him. He wondered how long the frustration could be stretched before someone snapped. He knew it wouldn’t be him; he was having far too much fun.
Vila was aware of the man beside him as they sat watching Argus work. He knew that the psychostrategist was crafty; he recognized the type. Sester was better than any he had seen before though. The man had such a lack of obviousness that it was easy to miss the deliberateness.
He knew that Alphas usually dismissed Deltas like him. The lower grades were normally regarded as irritations to be sloughed off or humoured by people like Sester; definitely not much of a threat, except of the violent kind.
Well, two can play this game.
“Have you had breakfast?” Vila asked another harmless and meaningless question.
Vila asked puzzled, “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Famished,” said Sester. He was ravenously hungry at the moment.
“I don’t know what psychostrategists do when you’re hungry. But Deltas usually eat. Do you have pills or something you take instead?” asked Vila with seemingly genuine curiosity.
“Ask Argus,” said Sester.
“Argus has pills? Is this an Alpha thing?” asked Vila.
Sester turned to him with a bemused look on his face. A fellow player. Is this a good act or a very bad one? “Why would you assume that Alphas would be any different? We all need to eat regardless of the grade.”
“You never know with you Alphas. I heard once…uh never mind. You’re probably not interested.”
“I am always interested in adding to my knowledge of what human beings believe,” said Sester.
“So that you can use it?” There was no fool behind this question.
Sester hesitated at the unexpected question and then he smiled. “All knowledge is useful. But only if you know how to use it.”
“Is that what psychostrategists do?” asked Vila.
“Knowledge is one of our tools,” acknowledged Sester.
More like one of your weapons, thought Vila. “Then I don’t think I’ll tell you.”
Sester laughed. “Suit yourself. But to answer your question. I haven’t eaten because Argus hasn’t yet.”
“He won’t let you eat until he does?”
“He never said that. But he doesn’t trust me to be out of his sight yet. And I don’t want to cause any conflict.”
“Even with that on?” Vila asked, looking down at the very conspicuous trace bracelet around the other man’s wrist.
“Even with this on,” said Sester.
“Well, that’s not fair. What if he doesn’t eat all day?” asked Vila with a sympathetic look on his face.
“Then I imagine I will be a few pounds lighter by tomorrow,” said Sester pleasantly.
Vila stood up and pulled on Sester’s arm, “I’m going to talk to him. Just because he doesn’t feel like eating, doesn’t mean you should suffer.”
There was an amused expression on his face as Sester stood up and followed him. Who is playing whom here?