"Argus, what happened?" There was no accusation in Reya's voice, just a request for information. However, her eyes told him that she needed to understand. There was colour in her cheeks now but Argus wasn’t sure that it was all from her increased health.
Avon, Cally and Vila were in the room too. They were all waiting. In the next room, the Tellarans were trying to stabilize the effect of the drugs on Sester’s brain.
Argus and Reya barely registered they were there. They were focused solely on each other.
Argus could hardly meet her eyes as he said in a voice heavy with guilt, “It was my fault. I pushed him into it. I’m...” He could not hold her eyes anymore. His head bowed. “I’m sorry.”
Reya’s face seemed to be frozen, as if she was afraid that if she did react, it would not be something that either of them would want.
Her voice came out harsher than she had intended, "I'm not the one you have to apologize to."
She hoped it was not too late to prevent any permanent damage. Reya could not understand why Sester would do this dangerous thing. If they had wanted to test if the drugs were safe, all they had to do was give it to the Tellarans for analysis.
Sester would have known this. Argus definitely did. There was only one reason she could think of that would make Sester do this. There had been a power struggle between the two men; two Alpha males seeking dominance over the other. However, Sester had one weakness; he had proven repeatedly that he would risk a great deal to repay his debt to Avon. Argus must have made it a condition of trust and Sester had relented because he wanted them to believe he was sincere in his help. He wanted Argus to believe him and placed his life in his hands.
Vila couldn’t keep silent even though this was a private scene. He had been a witness to what happened on the ship too and wanted to help.
“It wasn’t all Argus’s fault. I suppose some of it was but not all of it. He didn’t know Sester was going to inject himself again. He tried to stop him.”
Reya turned to him. “Again?” Under that interrogating gaze, Vila swallowed hard. It was always daunting facing the Commander when she was like this.
Argus held up his hand to stop him answering, “No, Vila. It was my fault. Both times.”
Reya’s voice was professional and detached. It was like ice-cold water that chilled him to the very bone. Argus wished she would get angry with him. Or at least hit him with something. Anything would be better than this cold disappointment. She asked, “Tell me what happened.”
Argus could barely express himself under her cold gaze. “I…”
Seeing that he couldn’t answer, Vila said, “They got the synthesis machines but they were afraid that Servalan might have done something to them. So…Sester decided to test them on himself.”
Cally said, “That’s completely unnecessary. The Tellarans could have analyzed them.”
There was a flash of anger in Reya’s eyes but when she spoke, it was in the cold professional tone that made Argus blanch. “It wasn’t about the drugs or Servalan, was it?”
Argus faced her. “No. I never meant for him to take the drugs. It was a test.”
Reya’s voice was becoming heated, “It was a game!”
“I needed to know how serious he was,” said Argus defensively.
Reya was becoming flushed. “You wanted to make sure he knew who was in control. You forced him to accept it because you knew he would do it for Avon.”
Reya was angry and hurt. Argus had promised not to hurt Sester. After Sester had saved their lives on Chandar, she thought that Argus might learn to be less hostile towards him. For a while, it seemed to have worked. But now…
“It wasn’t…” Argus wanted to say that it wasn’t like that. But he knew that he would have been lying. “You’re right. He wanted me to trust him. It was the only way I could.”
Avon stepped in. “It was about control.”
Argus nodded at his understanding. “Yes.”
Avon understood very well the games that Alphas played, especially Alpha males. “He would have known this of course.”
Argus said, “We both knew. It was a condition of trust. He accepted it.”
Avon said dryly, “You do realize he was playing you?”
Argus asked questioningly, “What do you mean?”
“The first test was yours to win. The second one, when he took the drugs, was his. It was designed to put you in a weaker position.” He looked pointedly at Reya. "It appears to have worked."
Vila wasn’t sure why but he felt a need to defend Sester. “Or he could have just wanted you to know that he was serious. He was willing to accept your conditions.”
Avon’s eyes were hard. “Don’t be a fool, Vila! He’s extremely good at manipulating people to his advantage.” A wry smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “It looks as if he’s succeeded with you as well.”
It had been along time since Avon had called him a fool, or at least come close to it. Vila said in denial, “He hasn’t.”
“He already has your sympathy.”
Vila said, “You told me to watch him and I did. I know what he is but I don’t think you’re seeing clearly because of what he did to you. He’s not as bad as you think he is.”
Avon said, “Then you are a fool. A human one.”
Vila found it was much easier standing up to people now. He didn't know if it was because he had changed or because the others were different. It was probably a mixture of both. He stood his ground, “And you’re blind! Both of you! You want him to pay for what he did to you. And fair enough. He owes you both. But you don’t care if it destroys him.”
Avon and Argus looked at each other. Avon said, “You’re right, we don’t.”
Reya said angrily, “Men!”
Vila said, “Hang on a minute. I’m one too.”
Reya revised. “I mean Alpha males. You two want to crush him because you think it’ll make you feel better. You both want to punish him and continue punishing him.”
Avon said, “That’s the general idea.”
There was a dangerous tone in her voice when Reya asked Argus, "Is it?"
Argus coughed. He really wished she would ask someone else these questions. He knew that he wasn't going to be sleeping on a nice bed tonight. "I…well…"
Cally said, "I don't see a problem with it."
They all looked at her in astonishment.
Vila wondered if he had wandered onto a set of the latest vid-drama. "Not you too, Cally."
"You forget, Vila. Sester used information he obtained from me in order to torture Avon. I cannot forgive him for that."
Vila said, "But he's changed. Don't you see? He's not the same person he was before."
Cally asked, "How would you know?"
At that, Vila fell silent. It was true; he had only known Sester on the ship.
Reya said, "Avon, Sester risked his life to save you from Servalan. Doesn't it count for anything? He had nothing to gain and everything to lose and he almost did."
Argus asked, "What are you talking about, Reya? Sester didn't lose anything."
"That's where you're wrong. Servalan found out what he did. He tried to run but she caught him."
Avon never hid his scepticism. "He told you that?"
"Yes, he did."
Avon's sarcasm couldn't have been clearer if he wore a sign on his forehead. "If Servalan had found out, he would be dead. He was obviously lying to you."
Reya knew that it was hard convincing Avon without any physical evidence. "But you can't deny that he risked everything to rescue you."
Avon said, "Perhaps."
At that moment, one of the technicians came in and said, “He’s stabilized now.”
The room was large, like a huge empty cave whose walls were lost in the shadows. To a child, it seemed impossibly large and seemed to stretch forever. But he was no ordinary boy. He knew the purpose of this room the moment they brought him here and left him alone to wait in near darkness.
This room was meant to scare him and to make him feel small. He could almost feel them watching him and waiting. Until the appropriate time. When they thought he was ready. He guessed there would be a blinding light and a voice that would echo off the walls. They wanted to inspire awe.
He wasn't impressed so quickly or manipulated so easily. The boy stood straighter and told himself to relax. His eyes were already alive with curiosity and alertness. When they came, whoever they were, they would find him hard to influence or control.
The Counsellors had said he was being sent to a unique place. It was time for his next phase of education. A specialization beyond what the Academy could offer.
Most of the others had already been placed. Not that he felt much for them. Bonds were never encouraged at the Academy, only competition. It was meant to make them stronger and encourage even greater achievement.
All that mattered was that they were highly valued, the best of the best. The Federation had spent a great deal training them and protecting their investment.
The Counsellors hadn’t told him what this place was. He could make a few guesses but he liked having more information first.
He put his hand to his temple and rubbed it. He was used to the dull pain in his head but sometimes it could be annoying. The doctors said that it was nothing. It was just a minor reaction to the learning machines. It would go away eventually when his mind was adjusted to them or when he got older. It never had. It made it difficult to concentrate sometimes, especially when he wanted to remember something. At times, it felt like someone had plunged a hot knife inside his head.
He couldn't let it bother him. His hand fell back to his sides and his eyes roamed the room. He couldn’t see the entrance they had brought him through. It seemed to have disappeared. A brief smiled appeared on his face. It was another way to instil fear. He could not come in or leave without their permission. It was a method that would have worked on most people but not on someone who knew what they were trying to do.
A bright blinding light hit the spot where he stood, transfixing him.
Just like I thought. The boy noted with satisfaction. He stood his ground, ready and unafraid.
A calm, superior female voice said, "Excellent." There was a tone of pronouncement in her voice. The sound didn't just vibrate along the walls as he had expected, it enveloped him and surrounded him, almost as if it was trying to take him over; echoing inside of him right to his very bones. The female voice asked him, "You are not afraid?"
The boy's voice was measured and sounded older and more assured than his years would indicate. "Is there a reason why I should be?"
The voice seemed to be delighted. "You are either too clever or not clever enough."
The light was still blinding him.
The boy asked in challenge, "Which one are you?"
Laughter erupted all around him, male and female voices, like waves of liquid sound.
A low rumbling male voice said, "This one is mine." The sound was as smooth as fine gravel and for the first time since entering the room, the boy was afraid. The room had been calculated to separate out people like him.
Sester's body shivered and he opened his eyes. He immediately closed them tight as the light aggravated the pain in his head. "Ahh." His hand went to his temple and he rubbed it.
"He's awake." It was a male voice he didn’t recognize.
“Good, his vitals are stabilizing.” This was Dr. Kendric. “Turn the lights down.”
“There’s still a lot of activity in the brain waves,” said the male voice.
“It might not be unusual for him.”
“It would be for anyone else. Except…” The male voice paused. “Do you know what these look like?”
“I know.” Dr. Kendric’s voice sounded concerned. She asked, “Sester, how are you feeling?”
Sester risked opening his eyes a sliver. The lights had been turned down to a gentle glow. He opened his eyes the rest of the way. His head still hurt but at least it didn’t feel like someone was boring into his brain.
He said lightly, “You mean apart from the sensation of having a hot knife in my head?” Behind Dr. Kendric, he could see Reya coming towards him. His spirits lifted instantly. Behind her, with a shuffling gait and a look of dejection on his face, followed Argus.
Yes, he was feeling much better. A smile almost touched the corners of Sester’s lips but he controlled himself. It would not do to have Reya see his amusement. The others were there too. Avon, Cally and Vila.
Dr. Kendric applied an applicator to his neck. "This will help with the pain." There was a slight hiss as she depressed the button.
The pain immediately began to fade. Sester took in a deep breath and let it out. "Thank you, Doctor."
Kendric said, "Your mind has received a great shock. There may be lingering effects that will last from a few days to several weeks but there should be no permanent damage. We have given you several stabilizing drugs but your mind is capable of doing the rest."
"Can I get up?"
"You can but I recommend that you take it easy for a few days."
Kendric helped him sit up and gave him some water.
Sester addressed Argus, "Did you get what you wanted?"
Avon snarled, "It's not going to work."
Sester sighed. "I don't want to fight with you, Avon. I only want to know if you found out what you needed to know about the drugs."
Avon's eyes narrowed. "What are you playing at?"
It was difficult but Sester avoided using all of the tools at his disposal. The things that would make him sound sincere, just because he wanted to sound sincere. There was a raw honesty in his voice that he didn't know he was capable of. He filed this information away. "For once, Avon. I am not playing any games. Not with you. I only want to know if what I did worked. Were you able to determine if Servalan tampered with the drugs?"
Avon said, "There were no tests done."
"What? You mean I did it for nothing?" There was surprise on Sester's face but it quickly turned to ironic laughter. He asked Argus, "Was it because you didn't trust me? Or you didn't trust yourself?"
When Argus didn't answer, Sester asked, "It was both?"
Argus said suddenly, "Tell me what happened with Servalan after you gave us the information to rescue Avon."
Sester looked sharply at him. "Why do you want to know?"
"Answer the question."
Sester glanced over at Reya, wondering what she had told the others. He'd never used the information before. It was too obvious a sympathy card. Sester did not do obvious. "You're not going to believe me."
Reya said softly, "Tell them what you told me."
Sester hesitated and then he nodded. "Alright. After…"
Avon said, "I want to know everything."
"Very well. After they rescued you. I knew the game was up. Servalan would know it was me. I tried to escape but they shut down the Central Spaceport. I didn't have a chance. I was taken to a cell. Your cell."
Avon said dispassionately, "Poetic."
"Yes, Servalan seemed to think so when she came to visit. For a moment, I thought she was going to do to me, what she had done to you. But…" Sester smiled ironically and touched his hand to his chest. "She had me shot instead."
Avon's brows lifted, "Shot?"
Sester absently rubbed his chest. He could almost feel a dull pain where the shots had hit. "Yes. Several times. I do seem to manage quite well for a dead man, don't I?"
Avon guessed, "They were stun shots? Designed to produce fear?"
Sester chuckled. "They were very effective. I thought I had died. I never expected to wake up again."
"Imagine my surprise when I woke up. My chest felt like someone had kicked it in. Stun shots might not kill but they do hurt. Especially if you receive more than one or two."
Despite how the others felt about Sester, Vila couldn't keep the sympathy out of his face. "What did Servalan do to you?"
As Sester spoke, his voice became tight with memory and his eyes saw the past; and the cell. "The standard disorientation treatments. Isolation. Bright lights and sounds so that I couldn't sleep. Not much food or water. Questions over and over again until I could hear them even when they weren't there. Drugs that…well, you know some of them. I used them enough on you, Avon. After awhile I thought I was going mad."
Avon asked, "They didn't hurt you in any other way?"
Sester's eyes focused on Avon, as if he just remembered that he was not alone. "No. I was never removed from the cell. Sometimes, the torture of the mind is much more effective than that of the body."
Avon's lips pulled back, baring his teeth. "Poetic justice?"
For Sester, the guilt was only as far as the next accusation. "One day the door opened and Servalan came in. She made it very clear that she was in control and that she could kill me at any time. Or worse."
Avon pressed for more. "And?"
"I agreed with her. Then she let me out."
Vila asked, "That's it?"
"She kept me on a short leash for awhile. I was watched carefully but she didn't need to. The lesson had been very effective."
Vila was perplexed. "So she kept you a prisoner and threatened you. But you're not a prisoner now. Why didn't you change sides when you had the chance? You're not being watched now. What hold does she have over you?"
Sester said, "You wouldn't understand."
Reya said, "I want to understand."
Sester grimaced. "Don't ask me, Reya. There are some things about being a psychostrategist none of you would ever understand."