Without the convenience of an office, Sester had to make do with a quiet corner of the cafe that Vila had introduced him to. He didn’t want the atmosphere of the ship which reminded him too much of the fractious relationships he had with key members of the crew. Avon was in the medical facility talking to Cally. Sester felt more like an unwanted intruder there. Vila was taking his shift on the flight deck and Corinne was with him so the café was a safe enough place away from prying eyes.
Uncharacteristically, he was nervous about this next meeting. His fingers played restlessly with a stirring spoon as he nursed a coffee that had a strong, pleasant, almost-burnt aroma. It was quite addictive, for a non-drug-enhanced beverage. He was already on his second cup.
A murky cloud was moving in, darkening everything that its shadow touched; matching his gloomy mood. The other patrons of the patio didn’t seem concerned about the impending threat of rain.
He could almost feel all the pieces moving into place.
A smile touched Sester’s mouth as he thought about his earlier conversation with Vila. Of all the things Sester had said to him, Vila had picked the one thing that was most important on a personal level.
A female voice intruded into his reveries. “What is this about?”
Sester started and nearly spilled his mug. The gloominess lifted a tad as he looked up and saw Reya. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to come.”
Reya pulled up a chair and sat down opposite him. “I’m here now. Why did you ask to see me?”
The menu panel lit up as Sester touched it. “What would you like?”
Reya was all business. And from the looks of her, business that she wanted to get over with as quickly as possible so that she could leave. “I’m not staying here that long.”
At the rejection of his attempt at civility, Sester gave her a brief half-grin, “Of course. Does he know you’re here?”
Reya sat with back straight and her eyes left no room for humour. “I have no secrets from him.”
Unfortunately, Reya always brought out a light, fun mood for Sester. Even though he had never intended to play with her, he found it an irresistible temptation. He said teasingly, “I’m surprised that he didn’t come with you then.”
Reya’s voice invoked the image of high walls complete with parapets and defences that could be unleashed at any time. It was clear that she expected some mischief from him and had decided not to give him any opening. “I have no time for your games.”
“You never do anymore. We used to enjoy them.” He had a smooth, teasing voice, like rough silk.
Reya recognized it only too well. She was determined not to fall into the trap of playing with him. “You used to.”
Sester suppressed the urge to smile or to correct her. He knew that she had enjoyed them too, if only for a brief while. “I still do but that’s not why I asked you down here.”
There was little to separate sarcasm and outright scepticism. “That’s hard to believe.”
“You’re the second person who’s said that to me today.”
Reya’s icy exterior was still intact. “Did that person walk away disappointed?”
Sester had a self-mocking smile. “That still remains to be seen.”
Reya voice softened a bit. “Does this have to do with the breaking down of the memory blocks? Yours and Avon’s?”
“Argus told you about that? Of course he did. You have no secrets from each other.” There was a touch of envy in his voice. “He told you that he had Avon were friends when they were children?”
“Yes.” Reya gave him a glance and then she said, “I think I would like a coffee.”
Sester grinned. “One coffee coming right up.” He touched his mug. “This one is good if you want to try it. I warn you, it can be addictive.”
Sester’s warm charm caused a sliver of a grin to appear on Reya’s lips. Despite her resolve, it was hard not to engage in his games. “If I can resist you, a cup of coffee should present little difficulties.”
Sester asked with teasing insinuation, “Are you certain about that? The coffee…” A roguish smile spread across his face. “…is very irresistible.” He had almost forgotten how much he enjoyed interacting with her.
Reya tried to keep her voice flat. “It’s only coffee.”
“You can never say that after you’ve tried it.”
His charm was very seductive. Reya was starting to feel very uncomfortable; she knew that she shouldn’t be participating in this conversation with him. It wasn’t about coffee.
Her voice became professional and distant. “On second thought, I don’t want any coffee. Can we get back to the reason why you asked me down here?”
Sester kicked himself for allowing his attentions to wander. He had never intended to play with her but it was hard to behave himself with Reya. He had to remember the serious reason why they were here. With a mollified tone, he asked, “Why don’t I order you a plain tea?”.
“That would be fine.”
As Sester put in the order, he asked, “Did Argus also tell you that I was one of the friends?”
“No, he didn’t.”
Her manner made Sester feel as if he was traversing an icy landscape and he was woefully underdressed.
He tried to warm up the atmosphere. “Well, at least he’s consistent in wanting to deny my existence. I feel like the black sheep of the family that no one wants to acknowledge.”
She ignored his attempts. “What is it that you wanted to tell me?”
Sester sighed and leaned back in his chair. “He is going to need you.”
Reya became very still. All of her senses were alert and her eyes narrowed. “What are you going to do?”
“I am about to tell him something that…let’s just say that it’s the last thing he wants to hear.”
Reya’s tone contained a severe warning, “Leave him alone, Sester. If you attack him, he is very capable of taking you apart and don’t think that you can appeal to me to save you.”
“You’re mistaking my intentions.”
“You make it very easy to.”
Sester inclined his head in acquiescence. “I suppose it’s my own fault. Life is a game.”
Reya said, “It’s not.”
“You’re right, not this time. That is why I’m telling you first.”
“You still haven’t told me anything of note.”
“I wish I could but I’m thinking of you. And him. It would not be a good idea if I told you before I told him, but I want you to be outside the door when I do.”
The attendant arrived with the piping hot tea and set it down in front of Reya. Reya tested the temperature before taking a sip. “Alright.”
Vila hesitated before he entered the medical observation room. After the talk with Sester, he felt that another conversation was needed but it was even more difficult to approach Avon than the psychostrategist. It was hard to tell how Avon would respond in any given situation.
Vila steeled himself and went inside. To his relief, Avon was alone and working intently on a computer unit that swung over his bed. “Avon, can I talk to you?”
Avon looked up at him with irritation. He never liked being interrupted in the middle of something absorbing. “Is this going to take long?”
“That depends on you.”
Avon noted the intense look on Vila’s face and pushed the swivel arm of the computer away from him. “What is this about?”
“I’ve just had an interesting talk with Sester.”
Avon’s eyes narrowed, “Just interesting?”
“Avon, do you believe that we were all friends when we were children?”
“The evidence is suggestive.” Avon readjusted the pillow behind his back and leaned back against it.
“Sester said that the way that you, he and Argus are now, make you very useful in the fight against the aliens and the Federation.”
“He said that if we told Argus what the Federation did to him, that he might not want to do it anymore.”
Avon’s head tilted to the side in curiosity. “That’s not his concern. He’s not afraid that Argus won’t want to ‘do it anymore’, he’s afraid that he will.”
Vila was perplexed. “I don’t get it.”
Avon grimaced. “Argus is bound by his duty.”
“That’s what Sester said.”
“Its obvious you didn’t understand what he was saying. Argus knows he cannot stop, for the reasons that Sester identified. He knows we need his abilities.”
Avon had an unexpected flash of memory. Zircaster. That single word invoked an image of haunted eyes on a strong face, tightly clenched fists and a voice full of anguish and self-loathing; a man who was afraid of himself. Before he realized what he was doing, Avon said, "That was why he left the Federation. He couldn't kill for them anymore. It…made him ill."
It had been hard for Vila to envision Argus as someone who didn't want to kill, but he finally understood.
There was a sick feeling in the pit of Vila's stomach, just like the day he had gone on the Tellaran patrol. It was the same feeling he had when he stood on the command decks of the ruined husks of destroyed ships, surrounded by the bodies of the dead and dying, and realized for the first time that he had been responsible for doing this to others. It made him resolve not to kill like that again.
It was an easy decision for him. There were no expectations that he continue killing. At best, he was an amateur, barely competent to point a weapon and fire without squeezing his eyes closed first. But Argus felt he did not have the same choice. The Federation had made him into a dangerous killer and a leader of other killers. It was that aspect of him, the most terrible part of him, that the rebels needed the most.
Vila felt guilty. He had depended on that ability too. Vila could not imagine what it would be like to kill when you no longer wanted to. What was it like to be haunted by all the faces of the people whose lives you had snuffed out? A shiver ran up Vila's spine. He said in a quiet whisper, “Let sentiment get a hold of you and you are dead.”
At the familiar phrasing, Avon looked sharply at Vila. He had said something like it often enough, but under very different circumstances.
Vila said, "I never realized how he must have felt every time he had to kill."
"Sentiment breeds weakness. Let it get a hold of you and you are dead."
"I remembered what you said, Avon, but I don't agree with it. That's why I changed it."
"There is little difference between the two. Only a matter of semantics."
Vila fixed his eyes on Avon's. “You're wrong, it’s not a weakness. It takes a great deal of courage. Just like you had when you insisted on going to Terminal alone or when you went to rescue Cally. You may see it as weakness, but in my files, it makes you…”
Avon scoffed, "A hero?"
Vila knew how negatively Avon felt about that word. "A brave fool?"
Vila looked concerned again. “Avon…I challenged Sester to tell him. Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
Avon’s eyes contemplated the ceiling. “You didn’t push him to do anything that he wasn’t already prepared to do. You gave him an opportunity to convince himself.”
“Well, knowing what it means now, I’m not sure I could tell Argus if it were up to me.”
“I would have told him the truth, if he had asked. This takes it out of our hands.”
"Do you think…we should tell the Commander? Warn her what’s coming?”
“I imagine he already has.”
Sester sat back against the pillow, his arms crossed over his chest. His eyes were contemplating the smooth ceiling.
Avon’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “She’s prepared?”
Sester replied absently. “Yes.” He looked over in surprise. His mouth shaped into a wry smile. “Vila had a talk with you as well?”
Argus came striding into the room and demanded, "What did you say to Reya?"
Sester resisted making a joke of his automatic assumption. "I don't want to get into a fight."
"That's funny, I do." Argus backed up this sentiment by moving aggressively towards him. He stopped just past the edge of the bed. "Tell me what you said to her."
Sester straightened up and faced him. "I needed her to understand."
"No more games! Reya is not a game!"
Sester held a hand up, in a gesture reminiscent of surrender. "Argus, I have no intention of playing games. Not this time. There's something I need to tell you. Something I thought…I could keep from you."
Argus looked at him suspiciously. He was still certain that Sester was playing games but there was something in the other man's tone that made him uneasy. Sester was being sincere. He didn't just sound it.
Avon's calm voice came from behind him. "Listen to him, Jack. I promised that I would tell you everything that you would want to know."
Argus turned around in query. "Not what I needed to know? You were trying to keep something from me?"
Sester said, "It was my fault. I knew what this knowledge would do to you."
Avon said to Argus, "We used to trust each other once without reservation. That much, I do remember. If there had been a time when we could have given our lives to save the other, we would have done it."
Argus took a deep breath and let go of his aggression. He nodded. "I trust you."
Avon said, "Enough to listen to him?"
Argus looked over at Sester. "If you think it's necessary."
Argus challenged, "Do you trust him?"
Avon looked from one man to the other. The eyes of the two boys stared back at him. "In this I do."
Argus said, "Fair enough." He turned back to Sester again. "What did you want to tell me?"
Sester suggested, "You might want to sit down."
Looking down at the lack of pattern on the bed, Sester said, "Avon and I have been verbalizing some of our dream memories. Recordings were made of these episodes. What I have to tell you occurs during one of these. It was something that you said while you were Jack."
Argus was calm and in control but he was very interested. "Go on."
"I want you to hear the recording, that way it will be easier for you to believe. Of course, you will only hear Avon’s voice and mine. I will provide yours. Are you ready?"
Argus was apprehensive, but just for a moment. No matter what was to come, he was used to facing difficulties head on. He did not like running.
He said, "Argus, do you remember the Academy?"
"Yes. I don't remember you."
Sester grinned. "Do you remember the gym with the training dummies?"
Argus fists lightly clenched, as if his body was subconsciously preparing itself. "Yes."
"This memory starts there. Avon…I mean Kerr and I were worried about you so we went looking for you there."
Argus looked to Avon and asked, "Why?"
Avon shrugged. "The memories disappear from my conscious mind shortly after I wake."
"You mean I have to rely on him?"
Sester said, "Unfortunately you do. Can we go on?"
Sester continued, "Something had been bothering you. When you were bothered, you went to the gym."
Argus's mind returned to the past. "I used to do that when I needed to think or release stress."
"But this time was different. You had been hurting yourself. This is where the memory begins." Sester pressed the recorder unit by his bed.
Charles asked, “Jack, can we talk to you?”
Kerr said in a firm but concerned voice, “Jack. You’re hurting yourself.”
Sester said, "Your fists were bleeding."
Argus leaned back and sat on the edge of Avon's bed. The voices of Avon and Sester in the recorder were softer and higher in pitch. Argus listened intently, his face a mixture of wonder and bewilderment.
Kerr said, “Why aren’t you wearing gloves?
Sester said, "You said that you didn't know why. Then we sat down on the benches by the wall.”
Charles said, “Jack, did something happen? Why are you acting like this?”
Kerr’s firm and concerned voice asked. “Tell me what’s wrong?”
Sester said, "You looked terrible."
Kerr said in a gentle voice, “Jack, tell us what’s wrong. We’ll try to help you.”
Sester as Jack also reflected a younger voice, “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.”
Sester looked over at Avon. "We are getting to the important part. You told us about your family. You said…" Sester's closed his eyes as his voice became Jack again, “I never told you anything about myself. My father…” Sester tightened his voice as Jack had “…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.”
Argus reacted with shock. "I don't remember telling anyone that." His hand went to his head briefly as he tried to remember. He had the beginnings of a headache.
Kerr hissed with surprise. “People say that Space Command is the real power behind the Federation.”
Charles asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
Sester still had his eyes closed as he said in a Jack-like voice, "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.”
Argus looked down at his booted feet. "I never got along with my father or grandfather. That's why I didn't go into Space Command. They…" The recordings continued cutting off the rest of what he was about to say.
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 said, “Charles, shut up. Jack doesn’t want to. They shouldn’t force him. They’re not giving him a choice, just as 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.”
Sester as Jack said, “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?”
Sester opened his eyes and looked at Argus. The other man had become a motionless statue. A figure that could not lift its head.
Kerr said urgently, “We have to get you out of here and we’re going to need some help.” Sester turned the recording off.
Both Avon and Sester stared at the man who had lost all expression and whose face had become pale. Argus finally broke the silence. His words were stuttered. “I…that…was me?”
Sester said gently, “I’m sorry, Jack.”
Argus lifted his head; his eyes were filled with anguish, pain and incomprehension. He was the little boy again. Argus put a hand to his head; he had a terrible headache. His eyes sought the one person he had always listened to. “Avon? Did they…how could …”
Avon was at a loss. It was one thing to tell a man the truth. What did you say to a man who was being buried by it? “You didn’t have a choice.”
At that moment, Reya came in and went straight for him. Argus’s tortured eyes turned to her. Her arms surrounded him. At her touch, it was as if his legs had lost their ability to hold him up. Argus slowly fell to his knees. “Reya…they…I didn’t want to…I didn’t…want…to kill…I’m not…but I am…” His eyes were filled with anguish and confusion.
Reya said softly, “I know. We’re not going to let them get away with it.”
Argus groaned and his body stiffened as pain split his head. Sester was ready for this; he slid quickly off the bed and knelt down beside them. He applied an injector to Argus’s neck. There was a faint hiss as the drugs penetrated the skin. Argus slumped forward against Reya’s shoulder.
Sester said, “I was expecting this. The shock has disrupted the equilibrium of his mind.”
As Sester helped Reya lift Argus onto his bed, Avon said, “This is verification.”
Sester said, “Yes. His mind has become aware of the blocked memories and was trying to access them.”
As they settled Argus on the bed, Sester said to Reya, “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”
Reya’s eyes were filled with compassion as she placed her hand on Argus’s head, touching him gently. “You gave him the truth. He will respect you for that, even if he might be angry with you for awhile.”
“That would be nothing new. I’ll stay out of his way."