Avon was suspended by invisible forces in the medical examination chamber. It was an odd feeling, being firmly supported in midair but not feeling any force against his body. He could move if he wanted to but it felt comfortable lying still. Faintly warmed air blew gently across his nearly naked body. He was relaxed as he waited for the examinations to begin. Cally's mind was not touching his but she was allowing him to feel her as a comforting presence nearby.
It was silent. Peaceful. His restless mind wandered, finding things to think about. He randomly noted that being in this chamber could have triggered unpleasant memories. It could have reminded him of similar states at the Detention Centre, when he was immobilized and helpless, waiting for whatever horrors were about to be visited on his mind and body. But there was no hint of memories surfacing. Only a clinical detachment noting this fact.
* Avon. * Cally's presence brushed his mind gently.
* Cally. Are they ready? * Avon's response was cool and impassive, but with the faint touch of warmth he had adopted in their mental communications.
The ‘they’ referred to the half dozen medical specialists who were here for his benefit. They operated the various control panels just outside the chamber.
Cally projected to him, * Yes, they will begin shortly. I wanted you to know that I will be here if you need me. I will not leave you. *
Avon turned his head to look at her through the clear partition. This was something they already knew without saying. No further words were necessary between them.
Cally felt the need to verbalize it; a redundant act of sentiment but he understood that it was important for her.
A calm and competent female voice spoke and echoed within the chamber. “Avon, this is Dr. Kendric. We are about to begin. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them. You can also request us to stop at any time. Just give us an indication.”
Avon’s own voice sounded hollow within the chamber; a cool, scientific tone, as if he was also an observer rather than the subject. “I understand.”
“To begin with, we will use the genovariance scanners to build a genetic profile.”
A genetic profile of him? Avon was not about to let them do anything until he understood what it was they were doing. “For what purpose?”
Dr. Kendric had a professional and reassuring manner, which made this much easier for Avon. “From information provided by you and Sester, you have indicated that there were alterations done to your mind and body using conditioning, microsurgery and the use of drugs. We want to determine if any alterations were also made on a genetic level.”
Avon’s heart skipped a beat of fear, quickly quashed by his will. He had never considered this. For some reason this idea was even more of a violation than what had already been done to him. He was aware of his heart beating faster and his lungs expanding for more oxygen to meet the needs of this new stress.
He had not been aware of any genetic manipulation being done but of course, there were many times he had been unconscious. There was no knowing what they had really done to him.
He could not discount the possibility. The Federation had the knowledge. He had witnessed firsthand their work and experimentation in this area on many occasions.
Had they done this to him as well? A sickening feeling stirred in his stomach and the unwelcome rise of a panic reaction.
Must not think of it now. There was nothing he could do. Let the medical specialists determine the truth. It was not rational to fear something before there was any proof.
Unfortunately, his mind was no longer capable of convincing the rest of him to react rationally. It could not use logic to dig out the thin shards of fear that had already buried itself in his consciousness.
Dr. Kendric asked with concern, “Avon? Are you all right for us to continue? Do you require further explanations? I know it’s a disturbing idea but be assured that we are here to help you. We will do the best that we can for you.”
The reactions in Avon's body were betraying him to the cold, unfeeling machines that read every change in his physical condition. “Proceed.”
"The scanners will produce a slight sensation but it will not be painful. Do not be alarmed."
Avon stared at the curved surface of the chamber as he waited for the examination to begin. Green beams of light radiated from the surfaces all around him and touched his body. They generated a tingling sensation as they penetrated through him.
There was a momentary stab of alarm at this violation of his body. The idea of it would horrify him if he allowed it to. He had to maintain control.
Focus. What technology was this? Dr. Kendric called it a variance scanner. That indicated that it compared…
Cally eyes closed as the bright green rays bathed Avon's body. She opened up her awareness of him as far as she could.
Familiar Avon-impressions came to her. Control. Momentary panic. Fear. Focus. Thinking.
She read the gamut of emotions without trying to interfere. He was thinking now. She recognized the mental energy. Avon had reduced his experience to a mental exercise. Most likely analyzing the technology of the scanner he was unfamiliar with.
A rush of excited voices made her open her eyes. The Tellaran doctors were gathered around Dr. Kendric's monitor and peering into it intently. Their faces were full of amazement and many questions.
Cally asked, "Is there something wrong?"
They looked up at her as if they had almost forgotten she was there.
Dr. Kendric said, "These readings are…unexpected."
Cally asked, "In what way?" Did they already have evidence of genetic tampering? It had only been a few minutes since the examination had begun.
Kendric's eyes were bright with excitement. "I don't like to say before we've completed the readings. And that won't be for a couple of hours yet. But the indications so far, from the little we've seen, are...unexpected."
Cally was still none the wiser. She wondered if Dr. Kendric was going to make her wait until after the scan was completed before telling her. She wasn't sure she had the patience. "Can you tell me what you've found so far?"
Dr. Kendric asked, "Has Avon ever mentioned being part of a eugenics program?"
"He's never made any reference to one. But that does not mean that he wasn't. He's a very private man."
Dr. Kendric nodded. "I understand. We'll have to wait to ask him when the examination is over."
Cally was full of questions now. "You've found indications that he may have been?"
"At the moment it's merely speculation but early signs are that his cellular tissue and genetic material are of a high calibre."
A vague memory tickled Cally's mind but she couldn't grasp hold of it. She asked, "You don't think it's naturally occurring?"
Dr. Kendric pursed her lips. "It is possible but the likelihood is rare." She looked down at her monitor and the flowing streams of data being reflected on the screen. Her eyes were wide. "It's almost statistically impossible to have this consistent a calibre across so many areas. Unless it was artificially engineered."
Cally remembered. The Ultras!
She had been a disembodied consciousness adrift and wandering after the Ultras had liberated her mind from her body. It had been a strange experience. Her brain pattern had been transferred to a memory tube. All her thoughts, memories and emotions filed away like pieces of data. But that part that was her was still free. She wasn't sure if her psi abilities had made it possible or whether this was a normal occurrence. It had been such a disturbing experience that she had never thought to ask Avon what he had felt after his own transference.
She had existed as an unseen shadow, passing through the walls and corridors of Ultraworld in order to find answers and perhaps a way to return to her own body. Her explorations had brought her to Avon as he lay inclined and restrained, trying to fight the power of the Core as it tried to force him to sleep.
Anger had filled her as she saw him struggle. She had tried to project her thoughts to him but his pre-occupied mind had not heard her. Cally had stayed with him, trying with a vain hope that she could help him in some way by sending him strength and encouragement. He had lasted a long time, longer than most in the Ultras experience.
She could hear their conversations as they studied him, marvelling at his ability to resist. They said that he had a strong mind and body.
And something else. The relevant piece of information that had triggered this memory in her mind.
After his brain has been cleansed, it will be absorbed. The Core needs new cellular tissue of such high caliber.
That was it. As she listened further to the discussion between the two Ultras, they had been very interested in this specimen they had captured. He was unusual. They were excited that the Core would be able to absorb both him and a telepath.
They had captured Tarrant too. He was an Alpha like Avon, but they didn't seem to think him of any value except as a menial. They weren't interested in him as material for the Core. Something about Avon made him stand out even compared to another Alpha.
Dr. Kendric had said that Avon's cellular tissue and genetic material were of a high calibre. Was he the result of a Terran breeding program? Or was there something more sinister at work?
Cally remembered the times they had run into Federation attempts at genetic manipulation. She had no doubts that the Federation would not have any scruples about how it was used.
To create the perfect soldier? An intelligent drone that would follow any order? Using cybernetics, they already had the mutoids. They already used conditioning on their soldiers.
What would they do if they could create their own geniuses? Ones who would do anything they were ordered to do, without conscience?
Was Avon the result of one of their attempts? If so, they had not been entirely successful. They had created their genius but they couldn't control everything about him. He would not kill unless he had no choice.
Cally had found it strange that Avon had never worked to improve the weaponry systems on the Scorpio. Vila had told her how useless it was when they came across any Federation pursuit ships.
Nothing Avon created had a directly violent or destructive purpose; they were invariably defensive in nature. Even his plans reflected this. They were intelligent attempts at defiance with as little bloodshed as possible.
Avon was perfectly capable of creating things to destroy. He did have that knowledge and he could always have directed ORAC do it. But Avon had never chosen to do that, even though it would have increased his chances of surviving considerably; especially after the crew was stuck with a nearly defenceless salvage freighter after Terminal.
Had the Federation tried to force Avon to work on things that were not in his nature to do? Avon had said that he never wanted them to touch him again. What had they done to him? Was that why he turned against them and decided to work for himself?
As she speculated on these things, and Avon lay oblivious in the chamber, the Tellaran doctors were continuing their examinations. Their faces were creased in concentration and deep interest now as they tried to understand this anomaly before them.
Sester was leaning back in a chair, contemplating what Servalan could have in store for Argus when the buzzer in his cabin sounded informing him of a visitor. He sighed, uncrossed his arms and lowered his legs from the comfortable position he had them on the table.
"Arg…" He began the name of the person he was expecting as the door slid open but his eyebrows raised in surprise. Vila was framed in his doorway. Sester smiled. He had not been aware that Vila was back on the ship. He looked just outside the door to the left and right. No sign of Corinne.
It was ironic; the only people who came to visit him were the ones he did not expect. He could have been annoyed if he didn't enjoy the distractions. Now only if Reya would cooperate.
He said in warm greeting, "Vila, to what do I owe this pleasure? Or have they asked you to watch me again?"
Sester stood aside, hoping that either answer would at least mean that Vila would come in.
"No. Nothing like that," Vila said as he entered. The thief seemed to be full of nervous energy. There was a hesitant look on his face as if he wasn't sure if he had come to the right place. Or it was the right place but he was reconsidering whether he should have come. It was too early to tell without more information.
Sester said conversationally, "I thought you would be with Corinne."
Vila blinked. "Actually, that's why I'm here."
"Oh?" Sester was filled with curiosity. "You've misplaced her?" A light teasing smile lifted the corner of his lips.
"This is serious," said Vila as he began pacing the room.
The casualness slipped away and Sester leaned towards him. "What's the problem?"
If this had been Reya and Argus, he would automatically have guessed some kind of argument had occurred. But as he was the least favourite person with that couple, they would both have died before coming to him for relational assistance of any kind. Although he was certain that Argus could use a few pointers. The man was incredibly dense about some things.
Sester suppressed a self-mocking smile. Rather than being a feared and respected psychostrategist, he was reduced to thinking of himself as a therapist for troubled relationships. It was a big step down. More like a chasm. He really needed a hobby of some type. Something suitably challenging and more suited to his vaunted position. Perhaps he could see if…
Sester suppressed another smile. This time a mischievous one. It would not do to contemplate that sort of idea. He did have principles of a sort and he had promised.
He gave a half-sigh instead and asked the preoccupied Vila, "Is there something I can help you with?"
Vila stopped his pacing and looked at him. He didn't stare with the kind of intensity that Avon did; that half- or fully- challenging way he had that held deep thoughts or unreadable darkness.
Vila's look was harmless, which you really couldn't say for many people these days. Not that Vila's eyes couldn't be filled with suspicion, calculation or even cynicism. He had seen all three. Vila's personality was not one that could hold onto dark thoughts for any length of time. It was not in his nature. In some ways, Vila was a very simple man. He wanted to be liked, he wanted to get along with people and he wanted to survive.
Vila seemed suddenly shy. "It's…about Corinne."
Sester kept the amusement from showing on his face. "You've said that already."
"I did?" Vila seemed unsure.
"I do have a good memory for such things. Why don't you tell me what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. Did she say something was wrong?" Vila's voice ended on a higher note.
"I haven't spoken to her." Which was not surprising. Vila had been monopolizing most of her time. He wondered jokingly if Corinne was even aware there were other people on the ship.
"That's good. I mean…"
There was a slight hint of something Sester identified as protectiveness or possessiveness. At times, it was hard to tell with human beings. With males, it tended to blend into each other. This increased Sester's amusement factor but he didn't allow it to show on his face. It was a private thing, not meant for relational interactions. "Vila, why don't you sit down, relax and tell me what's going on between you and Corinne."
Vila plopped down into a chair.
Sester took to the chair he had been sitting in before. "But first, tell me why you've decided to come to me. This sounds like a personal matter and we're not exactly friends. Or have you decided that I could be something other than an enemy you can play chess with?"
Vila's eyes centred on him, seeing him for the first time as himself rather than someone he had come to for help. He answered without thinking, "I've never thought of you as an enemy. I think I wanted to. Because of what you did to Avon. But I couldn't for some reason. I believe that you're sorry for what you did and you want to help him."
Sester smiled wryly. More because he knew that Vila was being honest than anything else. "Don't believe in me, Vila. That's always a mistake. I have my own agenda for everything that I do."
"You see? That's just it. Why tell me something like that?"
"You think it's because I like you?" Sester's head tilted speculatively. "Perhaps I do." A sly grin appeared on his face. "But is it enough?"
Sester's words were like puzzles wrapped inside a bigger mystery, sometimes they threatened to give Vila a headache. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked in frustration.
"I suppose we'll both find out. But in the meantime, you still haven't told me what you wanted from me."
Vila seemed to turn awkward again. "You don't think…I'm trying to avoid the question, do you?"
Sester fixed him with a steady gaze. "You are now."
"Well, it's Corinne."
Sester tried not to sigh as he incremented the number of times Vila had already broached this topic but had gotten sidetracked.
Vila said again, "It's really Corinne and me."
Four. Sester wondered if he should step in with a little prodding.
Vila went on, "I would have asked Cally but she's busy with Avon. And Reya, well, I don't want to bother her."
Besides which you're still nervous around her. Sester thought with definite amusement.
"And well, Avon. I'm not sure what he would suggest. It might be snarky and logical but I'm looking for something…"
"A little more sensitive? Well, that rules out Argus too."
Vila looked him in the eyes and declared, "That's why I'm here. You're good with people. You know them. That's your job."
Vila still hadn't told Sester anything useful in terms of details but he was getting a very good feel for what this might be about. He was extremely good with people after all.
A therapist for troubled relationships. He should be outraged at such an abuse of his talents on something so trivial. What would his fellow elite psychostrategists be saying if they knew? Probably suggest quietly that he get back to something more important or hint at the possibility of being sent to the psych board for reassessment. There was a sudden icy chill along his spine. He had never overstepped the bounds before. He was too good at skirting the edges.
Sester smiled suddenly. He had once. For Avon. It had nearly cost him his life.
Vila looked at him strangely.
Sester said, "You don't have to worry, Vila. Just continue doing what you're currently doing with Corinne. Be gentle and let her take the lead. She'll let you know when she's ready."
Vila said, "You know, people might like to talk about things before you give them the answers."
Sester grinned. "I thought I might give you the reassurance you needed before you found a way to change the topic again. Now we can talk about it."
Vila said, "One of these days, being too smart might get you killed."
"That may be. But I'd rather die due to an excess of intelligence rather than the opposite."
"Well, I'd rather not die at all. If you don't mind."
Sester chuckled. "Now why don't you tell me about this wonderful woman that you seem to have become involved with."