Vila did a double take as he ran into Sester on his way to visit Avon. He stared hard at the man. Or rather, his eyes were focused on an area several feet below his neck and attached to the end of his arm.
Sester grinned with amusement as he looked down at the area of attention. He asked innocently, “Is something wrong?”
Vila looked around nervously. “Where's Avon?"
"I believe he's out on a field trip with Cally."
With a sigh of relief, but still an anxious look on his face Vila said, "Then we have time."
"Time? To do what?" There was a mischievous glint in Sester’s eyes. He sounded far too innocent, which was highly unusual for him. Vila was getting a feeling that something else was not right beyond the obvious.
Vila said, "To get you out of sight."
“Why? Is Argus on the rampage?”
“Well, if he’s not, he will be once he sees you,” warned Vila. He took Sester by the elbow and tried to propel him back towards the observation room. “And I don’t give much for your chances if Avon sees you.”
“They’re both on the rampage? Is there some get-Sester virus I’m not aware of? Are you in danger of catching it or is it confined to people who have a reason for seeing me gone? I would like to know what my risk exposure is.”
“This isn't a joke,” said Vila as he tried to push the reluctant Sester out of the way of prying eyes. He thought the highly amused look on the man's face was very out of place given the circumstances. “Why did you do it? What are you up to? To think I tried to make your case with Avon and Argus.”
Sester stood stock still, causing Vila to barrel into him. “You did what?”
“You heard me. I tried to convince Avon and Argus to give you more of a chance.”
Sester said lightly, “I can’t imagine that it went over very well.”
"Well...if they see you now, they'll never trust you. No matter what they promised. Whatever possessed you to take off the bracelet?”
Sester started chuckling.
There was a suspicious look on Vila's face. "What's going on?"
The chuckling turned to laughter and a barely managed, "I'm sorry, Vila but the look on your face…"
"If you don't tell me what's going on, I might feel like going on a rampage."
Sester controlled himself but there was still a wide grin on his face. "Alright. There's nothing to worry about."
"And why's that?"
"They're the ones who took the tracer off."
Vila was stunned. He couldn't believe he was hearing correctly. "They did…what?"
"Avon asked Argus to take the bracelet off and he agreed."
This was the last thing Vila was expecting. He knew that Avon had promised to give Sester a chance but Vila had never thought in his wildest imagination that he would do this.
Avon's experiences had changed him, but this much? Avon never trusted anyone. Well, not most people. But Sester? And what was going on with Argus? The man would banish Sester to the next galaxy if Reya would let him. Vila felt as if he had missed something important.
Vila asked cautiously, "Did they…give you something else?"
Sester chuckled good naturedly, "You mean a different tracking device? No. I am completely tracer-less. I won't even know where I am."
Vila finally relaxed but his forehead creased in puzzlement. "I can't believe it."
"I'm fairly stunned myself." Sester was his old pleasant self but there was a trace of melancholy in his eyes.
A fleeting but pained smile appeared on Sester's face. "Something." He sighed. "I can't talk about it. I wish I could but…" Sester looked sideways at Vila. "How are things going with Corinne? Have you asked the others if she can join the ship yet?"
"Not yet." Vila did another double take. "How'd you know that we…"
Sester chuckled. "Vila, how do I know most things?"
"You know it's very scary when you do that?"
"It makes you wonder if I can read your mind? Psychostrategists are often accused of that but I assure you that no psi abilities are involved in what I do. Well, have you?"
Vila's face turned a slightly rosy shade. "Not yet. I was going to do it soon."
He said warmly, "Well, you have my support." A melancholy shadow passed across his face. He forced a light grin. "Not that it means anything."
Vila was coming to recognize this look that came over Sester sometimes. It always lay beneath the surface, the depression and self-loathing. He was a man who needed a friend but despite his pleasant sociable manner, he was afraid to have one. Vila said, "It means a lot to me."
Sester had a proposal for Dr. Kendric. Not the kind that leads to festivities and celebrating.
Dr. Kendric shook her head. "This is not advisable. Your mind is still recovering from your original dose of the mind drugs."
Sester said, "The blocks were designed to be maintained by a healthy mind. That means that when my mind recovers, it will be harder to find a way to break them even with your therapy methods."
"Harder but not impossible. There are still ways."
Sester continued pursuing it. "There are no guarantees then and it will take time. Time that Avon can't afford; you know this as well as I do. There is no way to stop the deterioration and his mind is subconsciously trying to break through the blocks on its own. The cascading effect could be dangerous for him. If I take another dose, then my mind will continue to try to unravel the mind blocks. If it works the way it did the other day, we can use my memories to direct Avon’s. That will give it a measure of control that he does not have on his own. Combined with your therapies it will be the greatest chance that we have."
Dr. Kendric was troubled. "You are running a risk."
"The risk would be mine. I'm mentally and physically stronger than he is at the moment. I can take much more stress."
The doctor regarded him speculatively. "You're going to take the drugs even if I don't agree?"
"Then I don't have a choice except to help you."
Sester said apologetically, "I'm sorry to force your hand."
"You care about him. It's understandable. We will try our best to help you."
Sester inclined his head in appreciation.
Charles was tired and he was getting increasingly irritated looking at Jack’s broad back. They had a rare day off and he was spending it being dragged around by the larger boy.
Charles griped, “He’s hiding. We should leave him alone. He’ll come out when he wants to.”
Jack spun around. He was agitated and worried and Charles knew that this tended to come out in anger. “You know he’s going to get in trouble if he doesn’t come out soon. They’ll take him away and do something to him. The last time he didn’t speak to us for a week after he came back. He still won’t say what they did to him. We can’t let them hurt him. Stop being so selfish.”
Charles snapped back defensively, “I am not being selfish. I’m just pointing out that if Kerr doesn’t want to be found, no amount of running around will help us find him. We’re just wasting our time.”
Jack said with angry sarcasm, “How do we know if we don’t try? We definitely won’t find him if we just stand around telling ourselves that we won’t.”
[The medical specialists were listening intently to Sester’s conversation with the unseen Jack. Avon hadn’t participated yet.]
Sester could tell that young Charles didn’t want to argue with Jack. They were currently in a classroom corridor, devoid of all life except for the two of them. Their voices seemed to echo in the emptiness. For some reason, students don’t like going near any reminders of education when they didn’t have to.
“Look, Jack. We’re both worried about Kerr, but he needs time. It’s been hard for him since finding out about his parents. I would be too if I knew that my parents had abandoned me and weren’t going to rescue me. We all do different things to deal with it. You’d probably go find something to hit. I’d go find people to talk to. Kerr’s different, he needs to be alone.”
Jack had calmed down somewhat under this reasoning. His face was still worried and anxious. “But he’s going to get in trouble.”
“I know. I’m worried too.”
Jack took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He straightened his shoulders. “I’m going to keep looking. You can go back if you want.” He headed off down the corridor.
Jack seems so familiar, thought Sester. I don’t remember a Jack but I feel I should know him. His head was hurting again. He backed off and let the memory continue.
Charles looked after Jack’s retreating back and sighed. He ran after him. “Stop walking so fast. I’m coming with you.”
A small panel near the floor popped open in front of them. Jack and Charles stopped moving and looked at it nervously. A head stuck out and looked at them with dark eyes.
[In the observation room. Avon began speaking, “How am I supposed to think with the two of you making so much noise?”]
Charles and Jack blurted out with surprise, “Kerr!”
Kerr said, “Shhh! Do you want to bring everyone here?”
Jack had a relieved smile on his face. “We were worried.”
“So I heard. You don’t need to be.” Kerr climbed out slowly and stretched out cramped limbs.
They heard a scratching sound. Jack bent down warily to look inside the small tunnel. “There’s something in there.”
Kerr touched Jack on the shoulder to stop him. “Don’t worry about it.”
Jack kept leaning down, “But there’s something in there.”
Kerr tightened his grip on Jack’s shoulder. “You don’t need to worry about it, Jack.”
Jack turned his head up to look at his friend and then he straightened up. “Alright.”
Kerr closed up the panel. “We should go before they start looking for us.”
[There was silence in the examination room as soothing rays bathed Avon and Sester’s heads in soft green light.
Someone asked Dr. Kendric, “Should we guide them to the next memory?”
Kendric looked over the readings in front of her. “Not yet. Give Sester’s mind some time. He still has a measure of control, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. And Avon is responding as we had hoped.”
“It hasn’t been informative so far.”
“It’s early yet. There are many memories to be released.”]
When Charles entered the common room, Kerr was staring out of the window with his hands clasped behind his back. He seemed like such a solitary figure. There almost seemed to be a physical barrier separating him from the others.
Sester thought to himself, He looks older than the last memory. Maybe two or three years.
Charles stood at a distance studying him, his own arms crossed over his chest. Kerr wasn’t always like this. He did need solitude but he also needed people around him. Kerr was quite sociable at times and could be fun but he had become increasingly isolated and distant. He was still their friend but he wasn’t the same one anymore.
Charles knew that it had a great deal to do with Kerr’s parents and his brother but there was also something else. Sometimes the counsellors would take him away for days. No one would say where they took him and Kerr never said anything about it. All that his friends knew was that when he came back, he would avoid talking to them for days. It was when he had started hiding from them.
Since that day in the computer lab, Jack and Charles had tried to be Kerr’s family but sometimes it didn’t seem like it was enough. They couldn’t fight what the school was doing to him.
Kerr wasn’t the only one acting strangely. Jack had been odd too. Sometimes he would get angry for no reason. At others, he would also disappear for hours, they’d find him covered with sweat, and working out in the gym until his body was bruised and bleeding. Sometimes he would stare off in the distance for hours and not say anything.
Charles felt guilty. Everything was going well for him. He excelled at everything the instructors and counsellors gave him; as he knew he would.
The adults were impressed with all three of them. Between them, they topped all the classes they were placed in. The bully and his entourage had not been pleased and continually tried to give them a rough time. Charles grimaced. It usually meant that they would wait until he was alone. They didn’t dare touch Kerr or Jack. The two boys tried to protect him the best they could but they couldn’t be with him all the time.
However, Charles was starting to learn to take care of himself. Having a quick mind and clever tongue could confound even the densest of bullies. He was developing his natural gifts into a weapon; one of intelligence, words and an understanding of how people worked.
Charles looked sadly at his solitary friend by the window. He was worried for both his friends. Jack was in the gym. He refused all attempts to engage him in another activity.
He sighed and went over by the window, standing shoulder to shoulder with Kerr.
Kerr didn’t bother looking at him. “What do you want?”
“I’m worried about Jack.”
“He’s at it again?”
“Yes. I think he’s really going to hurt himself this time. I…think he wants to.”
That caused Kerr’s head to turn to look at him. “Why do you say that?”
“It’s just the way he acts. He almost attacks the equipment and himself.”
“You’re guessing.” Kerr looked out of the window again.
“Yes. But there’s something not right with him. You must have noticed. He didn’t used to be like this.”
Kerr pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “Let’s ask him.”
Jack’s muscles bunched and rippled as he attacked the punching robot with raw fury. In an adult, his physique would have been something to be envied and admired. But Jack was eight years old. Any normal person would have found it troubling.
Avon tried to concentrate. Jack’s identity was at the edge of his mind: the way he moved, his body, his deepening voice and the way he acted. The details all shouted out to him but it was being drowned out by the pain in Avon’s head.
Charles asked, “Jack, can we talk to you?”
The voice of the blond boy helped Avon to focus. Must relax. Let the memories happen.
Jack paused in mid-punch and then he hit the robot’s chest with a solid thud, causing it to rock back. “I don’t want to talk.” He hit the robot again even as it tried to duck the next punch.
Kerr said in a firm but concerned voice, “Jack. You’re hurting yourself.”
Jack brought his trembling fists up; the knuckles were raw and bleeding.
Kerr took one of Jack’s hands in his and looked at the abrasions. “Why aren’t you wearing gloves?
“I…don’t know.” Jack’s shoulders slumped, almost as if he was trying to make himself smaller.
Kerr led the unresisting boy to a nearby bench and they all sat down.
Charles said, “Jack, did something happen? Why are you acting like this?”
Jack’s bruised hands lay on his lap; he was looking at them with unseeing eyes. He held his body like a hard shell, trying to hold back something that threatened to explode.
Kerr’s firm and concerned voice asked. “Tell me what’s wrong?”
Jack silently looked up at him, like someone who had lost the ability to speak.
Avon was struck by the deep pain in the boy’s eyes and his fear.
Kerr was taken aback. Jack was always strong, someone they could all depend on to fight for them. Kerr had never seen this vulnerability before; there was helplessness in his eyes, like that of a trapped animal. Kerr reached out and put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. He said in a gentle voice, “Jack, tell us what’s wrong. We’ll try to help you.”
Jack breathed in and let out a trembling breath. “You can’t do anything.”
Charles said, “How do you know if you don’t let us try, Jack? You told me that, remember? Let us try to help you.”
Kerr stressed, “Let us try.”
Jack’s looked at his two friends. His voice was halting. “I never told you anything about myself. My father…” Jack’s voice seemed to tighten. “…is an admiral in Space Command. My grandfather is the Fleet Warden General of the Galactic Sixth Fleet. I come from a long line of military leaders.”
Kerr hissed with surprise. “People say that Space Command is the real power behind the Federation.”
Charles asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Jack’s eyes were troubled. “Because…I don’t want to be in the military. My father is mad at me. And my grandfather. They said I was born for it and they wouldn’t accept anything else for me. That’s why they sent me here.”
Charles said, “Well, I can see their point. Just look at you, Jack. If there was anyone born to…”
Kerr said, “Shut up, Charles.”
Kerr glared at him, “Charles, shut up. Jack doesn’t want to. They shouldn’t force him. They’re not giving him a choice, just like they’re not giving me one. You wouldn’t understand. You’re the only one of us who has what he wants.”
Charles said defensively, “I do understand.”
Jack suddenly grabbed Kerr’s arm in a hard grip. “Kerr, I don’t want to kill anyone. They can’t make me kill anyone, can they? I’ve heard that people can’t be made to do something that’s against their conscience. Do you think that’s true?” There was a painful, desperate hope in the boy’s eyes.
[In the examination room, there was an excited buzz.
“Avon is breaking through this mental barrier!”
“So is Sester!”]
Kerr was afraid to tell Jack. It may have been true in the ancient days but not anymore. The Federation could wipe a person’s personality and replace them with someone else’s. They could do anything to anyone now.
He said urgently, “We have to get you out of here and we’re going to need some help.”
Avon’s eyes widened, he knew who the boy was. Pain lanced through his head at the remembrance of the name. Avon started into wakefulness as he sat up. He held his pained head as he stared over at Sester who was also up.
Avon said one word, “Jack.”
A look passed between them. They were both thinking the same thing.
Sester was rubbing his own head as he struggled to retain the memory. He managed a weak smile. “Yes. It has to be him.”
Another name had been reclaimed. A victory had been ripped from the past.