When Cally arrived at the steps leading down to the flight deck, Vila was showing Corinne how to operate the force wall controls. Not wanting to intrude, she asked from the doorway, “Vila, do you know where Sester is? He’s not in his cabin.”
Vila looked up distractedly. “Try his observer craft. It’s in inner hold number five. He likes to go there when he wants to be alone.”
Cally’s eyes became hard. “Or when he’s contacting Servalan.” The timing seemed suspicious to her.
Vila hesitated. The tone in Cally’s voice was one of distrust. Despite what had happened at breakfast, it was clear that Sester was still not universally liked or accepted, least of all trusted. “Yes. I don’t think he’s doing that though, he’s working with us now.” He asked tentatively, “Cally, what are you going to do?”
“Yes, so he says. I have some questions for him. I don’t expect any satisfactory answers.” Cally turned on her heel and left without a word.
Vila looked after her unhappily.
Corinne asked curiously, “What was that about?”
Corinne said with mild frustration. “Why does everyone say that? It doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Sorry. It’s…well…it’s complicated.”
“Can you explain it to me? Please? Why does Cally not like Sester? Is it because of Avon?”
“It has a lot to do with Avon.” They both sat down on the couches. Vila felt a sense of melancholy as he recalled past events and old crewmates who were no longer with them.
“This was way back when we still had the Liberator. We were on a place called Terminal. Servalan had lured Avon there to rescue Blake. Except…Blake was never there. It was all a trap because Servalan wanted the Liberator. She left us stranded on Terminal with a broken ship. But that wasn’t good enough for her.” Vila’s voice became angry. “She rigged explosives on the ship and the underground complex. Avon is always careful so he checked first before entering the ship. Unfortunately, the rest of us weren’t as careful. Cally was in the complex when it blew. We thought she’d died. Avon went in after her but he found her dead. Her heart had stopped.”
Corinne said, “But, Cally’s alive now.”
“Yes. I’m not sure how it all works but it has something to do with Auron physiology. Cally’s body went into a coma to protect itself. It looked like she was dead unless you knew what to look for.”
“So all of you thought she was dead?”
“Yes.” Vila wished many things had happened differently. “When we escaped, we left Cally on Terminal. I don’t know much about what happened to her after but when she woke up, we were all gone."
"That must have been very scary for her."
"Yes, it must have been. Cally was stranded for a long time. Then the Federation sent people to Terminal and found her. They took her prisoner because she was on a secret base that no one was supposed to know about. Then they dumped her on a penal colony. I think Servalan must have known she was there because she sent Sester there. He pretended to be a prisoner and got Cally to trust him. Enough to tell him things about life on the Liberator and about Avon. She must have been very lonely. She'd lost her people and all her friends. And she was in a maximum-security penal colony. People don't get released from those. You stay there forever."
"How terrible." Corinne looked appalled. “Why did Servalan want information about Avon?”
Vila frowned. This was one thing about his tricky friend that was hard to forget. "She used the information…to torture Avon."
Corinne's voice rose in dismay. "Oh no!"
"Yes," Vila said unhappily. "She had Sester create dreams from the things he learned. The most terrible things. The ones that would hurt him the most. Nightmarish things. Then he would feed them into Avon's mind. Twisting them until they became tens, hundreds of times worse."
Corinne said with shock, "How could he do that to Avon? How could anyone? I thought…the Chandarans were bad. But that's…"
Vila shivered at the thought of what had been done to Avon. "Evil."
"I understand now why Avon and Cally don't like him."
"It’s hard to forgive your torturer. Or someone who tricked you."
“But Sester’s sorry now?”
“That’s what he says.”
“Don’t you believe him?”
Vila turned to look at her. “It’s hard to tell with him sometimes. He’s very good at making people believe him.”
“But do you?” Corinne asked him earnestly. Vila's opinion was important to her.
"I don't think Sester is that bad. I know he's done some horrible things. But torturing Avon was just a job for him. Servalan ordered him to do it and he did. But…I don't think he liked it much. He liked Avon and respected him. Maybe part of him recognized Avon but he didn't know it at the time. Whatever the reason, Sester couldn't hurt Avon anymore and he risked his life to rescue him. He contacted us and told us where Avon was and how to rescue him. Servalan nearly killed Sester when she found out what he did."
"Did she threaten him, do you think? Is that why he continued working for her?"
"I don't know. It would be like Servalan. But…it's hard to tell with Sester. He's always mysterious about why he does things."
"He didn't sound mysterious at breakfast."
"No he didn't, did he. Which is…mysterious in a way. For him that is. But he can be very straightforward and honest sometimes. That's how he gets people to trust him."
Corinne's brow creased again. "You mean he was trying to make us trust him before?"
"No…I mean, I don't think so. I mean, I think he was being sincere and that's how he sounds when he's being genuine. But…"
Corinne's eyes widened a bit, "Oh. He also sounds like that when he just wants to sound sincere but isn't being it?"
"Yes. That's it."
"Wow. That's…very complicated. How does anyone know if he is being sincere?"
"I don't think anyone's figured that out yet."
Sester leaned back in his flight chair, his eyes half-lidded in thought. A lot had happened. Childhoods revisited. Relationships revealed. The crew was coming to trust him more and more each day. Exactly as Servalan had ordered him to do. Get them to trust him and then he could more effectively betray them when the time was right.
His jaw tightened at the thought. The work of a psychostrategist was not supposed to be like this.
Unfortunately, for him, he was far more than just a psychostrategist. He didn’t just understand the mechanisms of human interaction; he was very good at using them. Only a few like him were allowed in the Guild. It was far too dangerous to give a deep understanding of human behaviour to someone who could so effectively use it. Not unless you could control him. Sester had been groomed from childhood; very carefully controlled and monitored. His mentor had been a hard taskmaster.
However, everything had been turned upside down. He had betrayed the trust of the Guild. He had disobeyed Servalan's orders. He was actively working against the interests of his employer.
Slowly but surely, ever since he made the decision to risk his life and his career to save Avon, his course had been set. He recognized it now. All the disparate threads coming together, and now culminating in the revelations of childhood dreams. Sester didn't believe in fate but what was happening had been inevitable.
They were all decisions based on feelings that he had not understood until now. Sester wasn’t like Avon; he did attach great important to sentiment. They were his stock and trade after all.
Without emotions, humanity was not as easily manipulated. Nevertheless, he was supposed to view them with detached consideration. To see them as important, but more as a tool, a weakness to be used or a strength to be exploited. His own emotions were supposed to be a minor luxury, something to be put aside when he was doing his job.
But what happens when it was no longer a luxury?
Sester was under no illusions that being accepted by the crew would solve anything for him. In fact, things were infinitely more complex now. He could not simply cut ties to Servalan. It would not be a wise move for any of them. Servalan was too useful and far too vindictive for that kind of step to be taken.
The thought of dealing with Servalan made him ill. The things he had done to Avon, the things he had forced him to do, had been on her behalf.
Did Servalan know? Had she been aware that she was setting one friend on another? Had she watched with delight at his cruelty? Did it make her feel good to see Avon mindlessly recoil in terror from him after the treatments had stripped his mind beyond all reason?
Sester’s fist clenched tightly, digging his nails into his palms at the memories. He would never be able to forget. The images were forever burned into his mind, making him ill every time he closed his eyes, condemning him.
There were other details that were calling out to him. Odd occurrences. Inconsistencies. Coincidences. His psychostrategist's instinct was telling him that this was not over. There were some things that…
“What did you tell Servalan?” a harsh female voice asked from behind him.
Sester eased the tight grip of his fist. A pleasant mask fell over his features again by the time he twisted around in his flight chair to say, “Cally, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Don’t waste your act on me.” Cally stood behind his chair, forcing him to continue to turn awkwardly in order to look up at her. She said, “I know your tricks. They won’t work on me, not anymore.”
Sester sighed. “I wasn’t trying to trick you, Cally. What would my purpose be?”
“I’m sure you have one,” said Cally sarcastically. “Just like you had a purpose with that little act in the dining hall.”
“It wasn’t an act.”
“With you everything is an act.”
Sester reflected that it was even harder to reach Cally at times than the two men were. “I admit that my actions were deliberate, but what I did wasn’t an act. It is how I feel.”
He could see the sceptical reaction in her eyes. His back was feeling the strain of having to twist around to talk to her.
Cally said, “I knew it. How deliberate?”
“I saw what the three of you were trying to do. You, Reya and Corinne. It wasn’t the best way to do it and it wasn't working, so I decided to help you. I gave you what you wanted.”
“At great benefit to yourself. Argus is open to trusting you. I know Vila already does. How can I not believe that you had an ulterior motive?”
“I can’t deny that my own position improved because of what happened, though obviously not with you. But just because my actions caused them to trust me, doesn't mean that I wasn't being sincere."
“That remains to be seen,” said Cally. She gave him a last warning before she left, "Don't make a mistake. I will be watching you."
Sester sent out his personal contact signal to Servalan's private channel and waited. His fingers idly traced the edge of the panel in front of him. The slightly bumpy texture beneath his fingers helped to focus his mind on the present. An old trick he used. There were far too many personal distractions these days. He needed something to centre his mind.
The others had not asked him to do anything about Servalan yet. They were most likely too preoccupied to think of the possibilities. None of them had his well-honed instincts.
It was just as well. He was used to acting independently.
The female computer voice reported, "Channel established."
Sester sat up. "Put it onscreen, computer."
From a dark nothingness, the screen changed to the superior face of Servalan. She asked impatiently, "You have something to report?"
Sester had many questions to ask of this woman but now was not the time. Too much would be revealed in those questions.
Sester assumed his normal pleasant manner. "Madame President. How do you know that this isn't a social call and I just missed the sound of your voice?"
Servalan said imperiously, "You wouldn't dare contact me unless you could make it worth my while. I do not like people who waste my time."
"Have I ever wasted your time, Madame President?"
Servalan said with a chill, "I do not recommend making this a first time."
Sester gave her a disarming grin. "I wouldn't dream of it. I thought you might want to know that the Tellarans are able to repair the damage that was done to Avon's heart."
"How?" Servalan could barely contain the excitement in her voice.
"I wasn't apprised of all the technical details but he should have a fully functional heart by the time they're finished."
"That's excellent news. Are they able to do anything else for him."
"They might but at the moment we're on our way back to Chandar."
"That distasteful place? Why? I thought they had already taken care of the alien threat there."
Sester said with deliberate casualness, "They're about to change Chandar society."
"What? Those were not my instructions. Explain."
Sester's fingers lightly traced the edge of the flight panel. "Apparently they seem to think that you're not the one giving the orders. Rather short-sighted of them."
Servalan did not look pleased.
Sester said quickly, "They are about to set about changes that will improve the status of women on Chandar."
Servalan's eyes indicated her interest. "In what way?"
Sester smiled inwardly. He was well aware of Servalan's experiences with the Fifth Legion on Sardos. She would not have forgotten easily. "I imagine any change would be considered an improvement."
"Yes…" Servalan said speculatively. "The right kind of changes. Perhaps I can provide some assistance."
"Madame President, the women of Chandar have lived in slavery for hundreds of years. Do you think that an application of force will change the situation on anything other than a superficial level? What Argus and the others are proposing to do is to change their society. To change how the men view the women. Even if you arm all the women on the planet, all that would do is make the men consider the women even more of a threat to their male-dominated culture. What the Justice crew is after is change on a more fundamental level."
Servalan's eyes narrowed. "You're helping them."
Sester was not about to let Servalan know that the Tellaran's had their own psychostrategists. He pointed out, "You did want them to trust me. I didn't think this would be against your personal interests. That is what you pay me for."
Servalan said, "Sometimes I wonder if you need a reminder. Very well. Continue what you're doing, but keep me informed."
Sester grinned. "Your wish is my command."
Servalan cut the comm link. As the screen went black, Sester continued thinking. That would take care of Servalan for a while. And he had ensured that she would leave Chandar alone. At least for now. He had kept her attentions away from the Tellar Union, except on a positive level. In her mind their function was to help Avon. She would not interfere with that. And…
A slow smile spread across Sester's face. One of accomplishment. He had introduced some ideas that might be useful and in a way that Servalan had a vested interested in. Only time would tell how useful it might be.
Sester got up from his flight chair and left his ship.
After his shift, Vila went to visit Avon in the medical unit. He knew that Avon couldn't stand having his movements restricted and not being part of the important activities on the ship. Cally steadfastly refused to have any stresses put on him until the Tellaran doctors had cleared him for active duty. The only thing she had allowed him to work on was fixing Spot.
When Vila arrived, it was to the sound of arguing voices, Avon and Cally having a disagreement.
Cally said, "Avon, you can wait two more days."
The ill-tempered look on Avon's face said that he didn't think it was necessary.
Vila didn't want to intrude. "I…should come back later. You look busy."
Cally waved him in. "You have perfect timing, Vila. You can look after Avon. I have something else to do."
After she left, Vila said, "She cares about you, you know. You should give her a break."
Avon was still staring at the doorway that Cally had exited from. "If I was looking for advice…it would not be from you."
Vila realized Avon was about to transfer his ill humour onto him. "Maybe you should. I bet Cally would be much happier."
"I doubt it." Avon swung the computer unit back over his bed. He asked brusquely, "What do you want?"
Watching Avon with the computer, Vila asked, "I thought you weren't supposed to be working yet?"
Avon gave him a steely glare. "I'm not. It's a complete waste of my time."
Vila grinned with understanding. "Oh, you're working on Spot."
"The cleaning appliance."
Vila leaned over to take a look at what Avon was doing. "Those are the schematics for the 'bot?"
Avon went back to working on the computer. "Don't you have something less annoying to do?"
Vila looked more carefully at the screen. "What are you doing?"
"I'm improving the design."
Vila asked suspiciously, "How?"
Avon gave him a mischievous, lop-sided grin. "It's a surprise."
Vila wondered if it had been a good idea to have Avon anywhere near Spot. "Uh…it's not going to suddenly blow up, is it? I don't think Corinne would like that."
Avon turned his head to give him a long stare before saying, "No." He went back to what he was doing.
That didn't give Vila any more confidence. "Avon…"
"Relax, Vila. I promise you that it will not harm Corinne in any way."
"Alright," Vila said waveringly. He watched Avon work for a few minutes, trying to understand what he was doing. Avon seemed to be working on the programming for the 'bot now. It was like an alien language of symbols for Vila. He gave up and asked, "Avon, what do you think of Sester now? I mean, after everything that's happened? Did you believe what he said?"
Avon's fingers paused for a moment and then he continued working. "You obviously do."
"Well…more than before. But I want to know what you think."
"He has always been a trouble-maker."
"So you do believe that he was our friend when we were children?"
"It's a fact that cannot be dismissed. As much as I would like to."
"But do you believe that he's working for us now?"
"For his own reasons."
"Does that mean that you still don't trust him?"
"I didn't say that."
Vila looked puzzled. "You mean, you do trust him?"
"I trust that he has personal reasons for cooperating. Within those reasons, I trust him. But don't be fooled, Vila, Sester has always had his own agenda for doing anything."
"So you trust him, but only as far as you can throw him? Which at the moment isn't very far."
"Crude but accurate."
"Avon, is that what you think of all of us? Even me?"
This time, Avon stopped what he was doing, pushed the computer away from him and turned to look at Vila. "Everyone has an agenda, Vila. It's part of being alive. None of us can avoid it. But I trust you much more than I trust him."
"I suppose that's something. What about Cally?"
The way Avon stared at him, Vila wondered if he had gone too far. Avon seemed a bit more open to sharing but Vila knew that the windows of opportunity were usually very small. Had he asked something too personal? Did Avon consider it too much of an invasion of his need for privacy?
Avon said, "We know each other." He looked at the empty doorway. "Perhaps you're right. I should…stop giving her a hard time."
"Well, anytime you need more brilliant advice, you know where to look."
Avon fixed him with a glare, but not too seriously. "Don't let it get to your head."