“I don’t know what you mean,” said Jenna guardedly as she also took a sip of her own beer. For safety reasons, she had always avoided talking about herself. There was still a price on her head from the old days. Most people would find it too much of a temptation. Others would use it as leverage over her.
“I know that young people like to get ahead. You want to do things fast. Make your mark. But it’s different with you. You’re…driven. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
“It’s none of your business,” said Jenna. Her tone shut down any further questions.
“Yes, I know. I’m a nosy old smuggler. But, you see, even that’s odd. You’ve been with us for weeks, but I still don’t know anything about you. I know that you came without references. That means that you’re in trouble with someone and you don’t want anyone to know who you really are. I can appreciate that. Most of us are in trouble somewhere and none of us uses our real names; but you carry it to the extreme. You must have something very big to hide.”
Jenna said, “Then it’s a good thing that I’m leaving you. I’ll become someone else’s problem.”
“What I’m afraid of is that you’ll be your own biggest problem,” said Redden.
“You know nothing about me,” said Jenna defensively.
“Yes, I know.” Redden looked sadly at this closed woman. “And from the looks of it, I never will. One thing I do know is that I like you, and I don’t want to see you waste your life doing something that will get you caught or killed.”
Jenna could see that he meant her no harm. If things had been different, she may have been content staying with Redden’s group. She had been like him at one time but he was right, something more important was driving her. Her manner softened a bit. “Thanks for your concern but you don’t need to worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
Redden guessed that there was nothing he could say that would change her mind. “Yes, I know that too. You’re a capable and tough woman, Jen. I wish you well wherever you end up.”
Even though he didn’t say it, Jenna could imagine his unspoken words; I hope that doesn’t include being deported to a penal colony or dead. She said, “Maybe I’ll come back after I do what I need to do.”
“I’ll have a berth waiting for you,” said Redden.
They both knew that she wouldn’t be coming back.
Servalan scrolled unseeingly through the day’s action reports. Only the titles jumped out at her; she was too preoccupied to retain any details.
Sector Ten, Alien Incursion Report
Terra Nostra, Scope and Influence Report
Space Command, Fleet Rebuild Report
Servalan’s mind was thinking about Avon, which was nothing new. She was also thinking about Cally. Servalan stabbed the button in front of her viciously. Cally. I should have killed you when I had the chance. I should never have let Avon have you back. She controlled herself. No matter. I will fix this error. Once Avon finds out what I want him to know, he will no longer have any thoughts about you.
She needed to coordinate with Sester in order for this to work effectively. Servalan knew that stationing him aboard the Justice might hamper his efforts in making regular contact but he had his ship. Where are you, Sester? What are you doing? Why have you not contacted me yet?
Argus should be contacting her soon as well. She was going to push him a bit for being so inconsistent in his communications with her. She was also going to use him to position the ship closer to the planet where she was going to apply pressure on Avon. Servalan smiled in delicious anticipation; like a snake looking forward to its next morsel.
Servalan scrolled back the screen.
Terra Nostra, Scope and Influence Report
She had great interest in this one. Their influence had been growing but there were certain sectors of her government that seemed to be blocking her efforts to move against this criminal organization. She wanted to know why.
Ellis and his alien supporters were decidedly on the defensive now. After weeks of furious battles, the enemy had been pushed back to Ellis’s territory, which was shrinking by the hour. The Justice and her crew had helped in several of the major battles. Her firepower and speed was greater than anything that either side possessed.
Avon sat on a couch on the flight deck while conversing with Argus. There was a lull between offensives and the ship's crew was enjoying a few days of rest.
“What do you plan to do after the war in this Sector is over?” asked Avon.
Argus grimaced with distaste at what he knew they needed to do and replied from his flight station, “We’ll have to contact Servalan. I don’t like it but the Federation is the only one with the resources to identify potential alien threats.”
“A necessary evil,” said Avon.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell which one is worse,” said Argus.
“Both will be disposed of in time,” said Avon with cold grimness.
“Do you want to be the one to talk with her?” asked Argus. He knew that Avon needed to confront her, to prove to himself that he could still handle her.
“I will leave that particular pleasure, to you,” said Avon.
“Are you sure?” asked Argus with surprise.
Argus wanted to ask him more but Avon’s tone did not invite further explorations. This can’t be a good sign. This man was a constant challenge, not unlike Reya. Argus liked challenges.
Argus decided on the direct approach. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
Avon’s eyes narrowed and his face became hard.
Argus said, “Come on, Avon. You said that you don’t want me to keep things from you. Well, it only works if it’s done both ways. I need you to tell me what’s going on with you. If you feel it’s a strictly personal issue then tell me to mind my own business and I will accept that. But anything that impacts your ability to handle Servalan, concerns us all. You have to tell me if you can’t.”
Even though he didn’t want to, Avon recognized the truth of what Argus was saying. He said, “Alright.”
The level of vulnerability he had been exhibiting with Cally was disconcerting and still felt uncomfortable, but it was a choice he had made. To do this with someone else, was something he had neither considered nor intended to do. Avon was still an intensely private man but he knew that he had to tell Argus something. He had made a commitment to this man. They had agreed to work together and not keep things from each other, but most of all; Argus had been open with him when he admitted what he had done during the civilian massacre on Zirgon.
Avon said, “I don’t know if I can face Servalan right now. She knows too many of my weaknesses, she gave me some of them. If she tries to manipulate me using them, I’m not sure if I won’t fall into her traps.”
“You were able to handle her before,” said Argus. He came down from his flight station and sat down opposite Avon.
Avon’s jaw tightened in stress. He would have to reveal more than he wanted to. “I’ve been having nightmares.”
“Those nightmares?” asked Argus with immediate concern.
“Worse.” As Avon said this, his body became tense; the memories of the nightmares were never far away. They were starting to trigger an involuntary panic reaction. Avon used one of the breathing exercises Cally had taught him in order to release the stress. The last thing he wanted was for her to come running because she could sense his suddenly increased stress level.
Argus saw what was happening and decided to keep talking. He didn’t want to disturb Avon and he wanted to give him a calm atmosphere so that he could recover.
He thought, You should have told me, Avon. In many ways, he could understand why Avon had not wanted to. Argus was like that himself. He hated having people see his weaknesses too.
Argus said, "I'm going to start the crew on a training program to upgrade their skills and increase our team coordination. We have the Athol soldiers now. That gives us increased abilities. And with the special abilities of the rest of the crew, we can do things that most people can't. Not even one of my old commando units has the kind of abilities that this group has." Argus was excited about the possibilities of this team. Bright energy seemed to radiate from him as he talked and his voice was full of enthusiasm. "With you, Vila, Cally and Reya…"
Avon was controlled and relaxed now. He had been aware of the calm drone of Argus's voice during his breathing exercise; it had helped him. As Argus began talking about the crew, Avon could see his excitement and joy. There was a simplicity and directness to him that he envied.
Avon said, "You can stop your plans of galactic domination, I'm fine now."
There was an almost embarrassed grin on Argus's face. "I can be a little enthusiastic." He turned serious, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"About your plans to dominate the universe? Not particularly," said Avon.
Argus nodded, "You don't want to talk about it."
"Not particularly." Avon hesitated and then said, "It's true that I would prefer not to but the reality is that I can't. You saw what happened. I can't think about it without having difficulties."
"I didn't realize it was that bad. What happened to the drugs? Aren't they working?"
Avon's stress level rose sharply again, his breathing increased with the tension. Admitting his true condition was something he had wanted to avoid but Argus had asked a direct question.
Avon answered, "Their effectiveness has decreased. Servalan warned me that this would happen."
"That damned woman!" Argus felt angry and guilty. He hated keeping his agreement with Servalan a secret from Avon. The more he understood about this woman and what she was still able to do to Avon, it made him ill that he had agreed to work with her. He felt as if his hands were tied. "Is there something we can do? We have to find you some help. Maybe different drugs?" Argus had a disturbing thought. "Avon. You're not going to like this but…"
When Argus didn't continue, Avon asked, "You have an idea?"
Argus said, "You're really not going to like it but I have to say it. The only people who understand what was done to you or have the ability to…"
Avon saw where he was going and cut him off, "No. I won't go back to Servalan! I would die first."
"I don't want to lose you, Avon."
"Are you going to try to force me?" asked Avon.
Argus sighed. With Avon, trust was an ongoing process. He seemed to need constant reassurance. "No. I would never do that to you, Avon. I promise you that. But I do want to find you some help."
Avon's automatic reaction was to say that he didn't need help; his pride demanded it. He hated the feeling of helplessness; it was already difficult enough with Cally. With her, he had to fight his own natural instincts.
Before Avon could decided what he was going to say, Argus said, "And please don't say that you don't need my help because we both know that you do."
They both stared at each other in challenge and then Avon nodded. "Very well. I won't say it."
"Good. Has Cally said anything?" asked Argus.
“She’s exploring various possibilities,” said Avon.
“Hopefully she can find something.”
When Avon gave no response, Argus said, “You don’t think she will, do you?”
“No.” Avon’s jaw tightened in stress again as he fought the feeling of hopelessness that was starting to descended over him.
"How can you be so sure, Avon? You have to give Cally a chance. Maybe we should contact Healer Garett. He has more knowledge in this area."
"I have talked to Garett. That's why I know that there is no cure."
Argus sat up. This was something Avon had never mentioned. "What did he say?"
"I asked him about the drugs that were found in my system after you rescued me. Most of them have no pharmacological record in the Federation database. That means they were classified under the highest security levels. Officially they don't exist."
"Central Security?" asked Argus with disgust.
"It has to be," said Avon.
"But they're still just drugs. There must be a way to way to counter them." The more Argus heard, the angrier he got. It was the cold anger he had when he became dangerous.
Avon said, "From what Garett could discover, some of them were tailored to work to my specific body chemistry. The degree of sophistication was beyond anything he had ever seen before. He called it chemical surgery.”
“Surgery? That doesn’t sound good.”
Avon forced himself to remain detached and only focused on the facts. “They appear to have overridden some of my body's natural production of specific chemicals and hormones in order to substitute them with their modified versions. He suspects that my capacity to generate these chemicals naturally has been destroyed beyond my body's ability to heal itself. I can no longer function without the substitutes."
Argus said unhappily, “They tried to control everything.”
“Servalan did.” Avon’s voice was full of controlled anger and there was dark fire in his eyes.
Argus asked, “Even if your body can’t produce them anymore, can’t we replace them with normal ones?”
Avon said, “It’s not that simple. Garett suspects that my body has become dependent on the ones they gave me.”
Argus tried to understand. “You mean it’s like an addiction?”
“Addiction is too mild a word for what will happen if they are removed.”
Argus was horrified to hear this but he knew that the last thing Avon wanted was pity. Opening up was already hard enough for him. “Does Garett know that the drugs are becoming less effective?”
“We haven’t had an opportunity to tell him,” replied Avon.
“It sounds like we need to find the opportunity,” said Argus, glad that there was something he could do to help.
Vila came down the flight deck steps to join them. He sat down near Avon.
Avon remarked, “You look very pleased with yourself.”
Vila responded, “He took the bait.”
“Ah.” Avon turned to the visual display unit, “Zen, locate Sester.”
Zen responded, “Sester is located in his cabin.”
Avon directed, “Good. Tell me the moment he leaves it.”
Zen acknowledged the order, “Confirmed.”
Argus asked, “He didn’t suspect anything?”
Vila said with a grin, “He suspects all kinds of things. He just doesn’t know anything.”
Argus was confused. “I thought the idea was to get him to start trusting you?”
Avon explained, “We need him to suspect and to keep suspecting. It’s the only way to get him to trust.”
Argus was even more confused, the explanation didn’t make things any clearer for him. He looked between Avon and Vila. “Alright. I know I’m no genius with people but that doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“It will when it works,” said Avon. “A man like Sester has to find his own reasons to trust people. We cannot give them to him. Or rather, we cannot appear to give him any.”
“It sounds like a big gamble,” said Argus. “What if he doesn’t?”
“Oh, he will,” said Avon. A confident, almost smug smile touched his lips.
Vila said, “It’s a big game. Don’t you see? He loves things he can’t figure out right away. It’s going to drive him crazy.”
Argus still wasn’t sure he understood but he trusted Avon and Vila. “Alright. Just be careful.”
Vila said, “Careful is my middle name.”
Avon asked him, "Are you ready for the next phase?"
There was an unhappy look on Vila's face. "I'm ready. I don't like it, but I'm ready."
"It's necessary, Vila," stressed Avon.
"I know. I know. It's just that...it'll feel like we're going backwards," said Vila.
"Don't let sentiment interfere with what we need to do," said Avon.
"That's easy for you to say," said Vila.
Sester was sitting in his cabin, his fingers idly touching the chess pieces on the table. He was deep in thought. The game with Vila had been entertaining. Sester had won, of course but he had been surprised at the level of Vila’s game. It was higher than he had expected. Vila’s mind was clearly not a Delta-grade one. The lack of advanced formal education was evident in his undisciplined play but he also exhibited surprising intelligence and sharp instincts.
One of Vila’s greatest weaknesses was the inability to see deeper into the game. Not many could. For people like Avon and Sester, it was a gift they were born with. It was also an ability that could be taught. Sester wondered what kind of player Vila would be if he could see more than just a few moves ahead.
Sester was aware that Vila was most likely playing another more serious game, one that probably involved the other two, Avon and Argus. He smiled. It was not the easy and warm smile he normally wore. It was the expression of a man relishing the first moves in a battle.
His mind automatically turned to another pleasant thought. He wondered what Reya was doing. Sester couldn’t help himself. Even though he had resolved to stay away from her as much as possible, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Reya’s effect on him was too potent; he found himself thinking and feeling things that interfered with his ability to be dispassionate and objective.
He knew that Reya hated her ability to influence him. She had been troubled by the request she had made of him, to keep the secret of the children and the Auronar from Servalan and the Federation. She felt guilty even though he had done it willingly. The more he associated with her, the more Sester couldn’t let her go.
Sester sighed. He wished that she felt the same for him, even just a little. The greater likelihood was that she would breathe a sigh of relief when he was gone.
He smiled wryly. There was one woman whom he knew would like to know his every movement. He knew he should contact her soon. The Federation President would be getting very anxious to know what he had been up to and why he hadn’t contacted her in so long.