Cally held Avon in her arms as he recovered from another nightmare. She could still feel the continued stress of his body as his mind tried to banish the images and the sensations that seemed so real moments ago. It was happening with greater frequency now. This was the second time this week.
She was afraid for him and she felt helpless. He was fighting a battle that they were both afraid he would eventually lose. It was only a matter of time before the drugs failed completely.
The only thing Cally could do was to try to give him comfort and reassurance, to be there for him when he needed her. She wished that she could at least share the nightmares with him so that he wouldn't have to face them alone.
Through her connection to Avon, she was able to experience a small taste of what he had to endure. The feelings she picked up from him were the strongest when he was in the grip of the nightmares. It was as if he had no defense against them. She suspected it was another thing Servalan had done to him in order to prevent him from fighting her. Her hatred of this woman grew.
Sometimes, after Avon’s nightmares, for a brief moment, there would be a naked vulnerability in his eyes before he regained control again; then he would see her and the pain and dark despair would slowly fade and be replaced by a fearful, hesitant hope. Sometimes he would almost be suicidal when he emerged from the dreams and she would have to talk to him until he calmed down and his normal character reasserted itself.
Though he never showed it, Cally knew that the fear of the nightmares still haunted him when he was awake. They were never far below the surface. Some days he was barely holding on; trying to be the Avon they all expected. He had asked her not to tell the others about his deteriorating condition and she had respected his need to act as if everything was fine. She knew that the burden of the others’ pity would be too much for him to handle on top of everything else.
Avon’s hoarse voice interrupted her thoughts. “Cally.” His eyes were open now and he was looking at her. She could see the hope there as well as a soft affection and gratitude. It filled her with joy to see the love reflected in his eyes; she just wished it had been under better circumstances.
Cally hugged him tighter. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
Avon looked away from Cally’s eyes but he tightened his arms around her. The warmth and softness of her body against his own helped to ease the tensions. “I wish I didn’t feel anything.” He realized how it sounded and said, “Except for what I feel for you.”
Cally smiled softly at his sentiment but she was also full of concern. “It might be better if you don’t, at least until we can do something about the nightmares. There are some drugs…”
Avon’s serious eyes sought out hers. “No, Cally.”
Avon he touched his fingers to her lips and said, “I will not lose how I feel for you. I will not deny you that. No matter what happens.”
Cally said, “I don’t want you to suffer. Not for me.”
The gravity in Avon’s eyes reminded her of someone who had counted the remainder of his days and was determined not to miss any of them. With dismay, she realized that he had resigned himself to losing the fight. She said fervently, “You can’t give up, Avon.”
He said, “I’m not giving up, but I will not give you up. I used to push people away because I didn’t want to feel. Allowing myself to experience the positive feelings meant leaving myself open to the negative ones. I was willing to deny one in order to avoid the others but I will not do that any longer, even if it means facing the nightmares with all of my feelings intact. You’re too important to me, Cally.”
“No, Avon. The important thing is that I know how you feel about me. This will just be temporary and you can feel them again after we find you help.”
“What if we don’t? We have to face the realities, Cally. And the reality is that there is no way to reverse what was done to me. My condition will continue to worsen. There is no reprieve. There is no cure. I do not want to waste this time we have together.”
“I can’t believe that there is nothing that will help you.” She refused to believe it.
“The sentiment does not replace the reality.” His words were the voice of reason even though his heart wanted to join her in the irrational belief.
“I don’t care about the reality! The reality is wrong,” she said emphatically and unreasonably.
Avon caressed her cheek gently and sought the more intimate communication of their minds. * Let me do this for you, Cally. I don’t want your last memory of me to be of someone who succumbed to the madness but of someone who loved you enough to endure it. *
* That’s your pride talking. How do you think it will make me feel to know that you were suffering because of me? *
* This was Servalan’s doing, Cally. Not yours. She thought she gave me no choices except her own. Servalan wants me to suffer for her; to be in pain or to become the machine she tried to make me into. Either one would serve her purposes. She thinks she can continue to control my life, but she’s wrong. I will make my own choice. I choose to suffer for you; not for her amusement. *
* No, Avon. Not for me. I'm not worth it. * She hugged him tighter, trying not to cry.
* You are to me. *
Cally reverted to spoken communication. "Avon, this isn't logical. It makes no sense for you to do this. Acting on sentiment when it hurts you is not rational."
A soft amused smile appeared on Avon's face. "You're using reason to convince me not to act on sentiment?"
Cally tried to grasp onto anything she could to convince him to help himself. “What happened to the man who said that sentiment is a weakness? It’s against your own survival instinct. I want you to survive, Avon. You won’t if you keep making decisions like this.”
“I cannot survive without you.” Avon recognized that she was acting on sentiment too. Cally was thinking of him, just as he was thinking of her.
“But you wouldn’t be without me, Avon. This is just the temporary suspension of your body's physical reaction to having emotions. We do this in medicine for physical pain. We numb the area so you won't feel anything but it's not permanent.”
“Life without feeling is an empty thing, Cally. You know this. It becomes little more than an intellectual exercise. Despite all of the things Servalan did to me, there is one thing I am grateful to her for, I learned that simply surviving is not enough. When I was alone in my cell at the detention centre, it wasn’t my instinct for survival that gave me a reason to continue fighting; it was the knowledge that you were still alive. It meant a great deal to me. You mean a great deal to me.”
When Cally looked into Avon’s eyes, she was stunned by the raw honesty reflected there. More than anything else, it increased her desire for him to get better. She knew that she was acting irrationally but all she could think of was his cries of agony and the look of despair in his eyes.
“Avon. Would you do this if I asked you to? Would you take the drugs?”
He replied, “You are asking me to do this because of sentiment?”
“You mean a great deal to me too, Avon. I refuse to see you suffer because of me.”
Avon knew that Cally was not thinking clearly, that her own sentiment was clouding her judgement. It was one of the weaknesses of allowing emotions to get a hold of you. Avon wondered if it was possible to be emotionally logical; to have feelings but to not lose perspective. He hadn't witnessed anyone able to do it yet but he wondered if he could find a way to do both.
Avon could see the resolve of the warrior on her face. She didn't want him to feel the horror of the nightmares. It was the only thing that was important to her now.
Avon said, “I will do it for you.”
“Don’t open your eyes yet,” said Reya as she led a closed-eyed Argus to the cargo bay that had once served as a makeshift nursery.
“Where are you bringing me?” asked Argus as he held onto her arm. His sense of direction and position already told him that they were most likely headed towards one of the cargo bays.
“We’re almost there.” She activated the door panel and led him inside. “You can open your eyes now.”
Argus opened his eyes and looked around him. As he suspected, it was the cargo bay. The baby paraphernalia had been cleared and there were various storage boxes and assorted items piled in different configurations. “Reya, this is not really a surprise. I’ve seen this cargo bay before.” He teased her. “Did you clean it up? Now that would be a surprise.”
Reya gave him a mock punch to the arm.
“Ow. That hurts.”
“Good.” On a crate next to her lay half a dozen pistols. She picked one up and brought it up towards him.
Argus held up his hand, “Now, now, Reya. I know that was a bad attempt at humour, but it wasn’t that bad.”
“You are very bad. You should take lessons from Vila,” said Reya. She flipped the gun in her hand and extended it grip first to him.
Argus grinned and took it from her. He turned it over in his hands and saw that it was not a standard pistol. It wasn’t one he was familiar with. “What’s this for?”
Reya didn’t answer him. Instead she went to a side control console and entered several commands. The lights in the cargo bay dimmed.
“Is this meant to be romantic?” asked Argus, hoping he hadn’t missed any clues. The gun was puzzling.
Without warning a Federation trooper appeared from the menacing shadows behind one of the storage crates. “Reya! Watch out!” Argus shouted and simultaneously fired two bursts at the black-clad figure. The soldier fell from direct hits to the chest.
Reya said with approval, “Very good.” She calmly entered another command into the panel in front of her and the soldier disappeared.
Argus asked with amazement, “It was a hologram?”
“It’s not as sophisticated as the ones on Pleasure City but it will do for our purposes,” said Reya. She had been working with Avon to set up this practice range as a surprise.
Argus looked at the pistol in his hand again and said with understanding. “This must be a modified laser pistol. Used for training purposes.”
“Yes.” She walked over to him. “I thought you might like it.”
A big smile appeared on Argus’s face. “I love it.” He put his free arm around her. “This is romantic.”
Reya rolled her eyes in mock disapproval. “The range will be useful to keep the crew sharp and to increase marksmanship. It can also be used for running training scenarios.”
Argus said suggestively, “Of course. It’s romantic and functional.”
“You’re hopeless.” She smiled and picked up another training pistol. “How about a little romance?”
Argus grinned and lifted his. “I thought you would never ask.”
Jenna was getting impatient at the slow pace of her plans. Being stuck with Redden was proving to be a liability. The man was too adverse to risk; he refused to take on more lucrative cargo. Often Redden had them acting more as a couriering service for safer goods, ones that only resulted in a fine at best. Jenna wouldn’t have called him a smuggler at all.
They were currently in the midst of another argument. One of many she had had with him since he’d taken her onboard.
Redden said tiredly, “Jen, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. If you want to get rich quicker then maybe you’re be better off with another crew. I’ve been doing this a long time and I know what works for me. I know what I want and what you’re proposing isn’t it.” Jenna had been using Jen Blade as an alias for the past few months.
“Maybe I should,” said Jenna. She knew that Redden was a good man but he was not proving to be a useful enough one.
“You’re very talented Jen. A natural. You have good instincts. You would be more successful with someone else.” In a crew of old-timers, Jenna was out of place. She was driven and intelligent. At times Redden felt as if they were holding her back. “I’ll speak to some of my contacts. See if there’s another crew that’s looking for people.”
“Thank you. You’re a good man, Redden. I am grateful that you took me on without any references,” said Jenna. “Are any of your contacts willing to take on more lucrative cargo?”
Jenna had something in mind; it was something she wished she didn’t. In the past, she would never have traded in Shadow but times were different now and Blake had taught her that some principles were worth sacrificing as long as your goals were just.
Killing Avon would be a great justice. Making him suffer first would be a personal justice. Jenna smiled in eager anticipation.
The predatory smile sent a shiver down Redden's spine. He was afraid to ask what she was smiling about; he hoped it wasn't anything to do with him.
Servalan was frustrated that her plans were not working out for Avon. She had her assistant contact Senior Controller Tarvin again.
When Central Security Controller appeared on her vidscreen, Servalan immediately asked, “What is he doing? Why hasn’t he tried to contact Avon again?”
Tarvin reported, “Our people did hit them fairly hard. Their communications equipment may have been damaged.”
“I want him to contact Avon,” said Servalan.
“I understand that, Madame President. But I don’t know what you think what we can do about it if their equipment prevents them from doing what you want. It’s not as if we can march up to them and give them replacement equipment.”
“You are a Senior Controller, are you not? I expect a little more initiative from someone who works for Central Security.” There was a veiled threat covered by a thin veneer of polite professionalism.
“Very well, Madame President,” said Tarvin.
Servalan cut the communications channel abruptly. If Sester had been there, she was certain that he would have thought of a way. Sometimes she regretted tasking him to join the Justice. What she really needed was two of him. She wondered if she could get a temporary replacement while he was away.
Sester sat alone in the dining area reading a news file and enjoying a quiet cup of tea and a light snack. It was one of the few times the room was empty.
Vila walked in, saw him and without saying anything went over to the dispensers. He ordered a cup of tea and a few light sandwiches and then went to a table nearby.
The two of them sat in silence, each absorbed in what they were doing. Vila appeared to be studying diagrams of some type on a data pad but Sester couldn’t make out what they were.
Both of them were naturally social and the quiet didn’t last long. Sester remarked, “You’re unusually quiet.” His face was open and friendly.
Vila looked up from the diagrams and said guardedly, “So are you.”
“Normally you’re attempting to strike up a conversation or trying to see what I’m up to. Is it your day off today?” asked Sester with a light note of cynicism which contrasted with his genial manner.
“I have better things to do,” said Vila dismissively as he returned his attentions to the diagrams.
“Well, I don’t,” said Sester. “There isn’t much scope for someone of my talents on this ship.”
“I don’t know about that. I understand that you’ve been very busy with your talents,” remarked Vila without looking up.
Sester gave him an unconcerned and pleasant smile. “You must be talking to Avon. Or Argus. Or both of them. They always think I’m up to something.”
Vila looked up and said, “Maybe it’s because you are.”
Sester laughed. He was enjoying this exchange. “Did they send you to find out?”
Vila said, “They don’t include me in their plans unless they need me to open a lock or break into something. And they never tell me anything unless they think I need to know it.” There was just a hint of bitterness in his voice. Vila was very good at this kind of act, he had lived the reality of it most of his life.
Sester was very familiar with this attitude from the lower grades. They wore their resentment like a second skin. “Alpha snobbery making you feel left out?” asked Sester.
“You’re no better than them. You’re an Alpha too,” said Vila.
“I’m even worse than that. Psychostrategists are a special kind of Alpha; we have equal disdain for everyone. No Grades are spared; not even the highest ones. We’re very fair-minded.”
“Then why are you talking to me?” asked Vila.
“There is one type of person we do have a regard for, people who can provide a challenge.”
“I’m a challenge?” asked Vila in a perplexed tone.
“Not in the way that Avon is but yes, you’re definitely a puzzle, Vila.”
Avon was right, you can't resist someone you can't figure out. “Not sure I like the sound of that,” said Vila uneasily.
“You should understand the desire to solve puzzles. Isn’t that why you study those?” Sester pointed to the diagram of an intricate lock on Vila’s data pad. “My puzzles are people and their interactions together. I like to understand them.”
“You mean, you like to manipulate them,” said Vila.
Sester grinned at the directness. “As a means to an end, yes. Similar to what you do with a lock. Only the venue is different.”
“Well, when you put it like that, I suppose we do have something in common,” said Vila.
Sester asked, “Do you play chess?”
It was the opening gambit to something that could prove to be more interesting.
Trying to keep the nervousness out of his voice, Vila replied, "I've been known to."