Sester left his cabin and was headed for the gym. Not to exercise. He was looking for some amusement and wanted to see if Argus was working out there.
Reya, Cally and Corinne appeared at the end of the corridor, headed in his direction. They looked very determined. After his delightful conversation with Cally in his ship the other day, he wondered if he should be running the other way. Of course, Sester was not the kind of man to run away from three beautiful women. It was a weakness.
He was looking for a diversion though. Two women who could flatten him if he misbehaved and one who was innocent and inexperienced might prove entertaining.
He slowed and waited for them to reach him. "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, ladies?"
Corinne said to the other two women, "He seems very nice. Are you sure he isn't?"
Sester had a friendly expression on his face. “Cally, what have you been telling impressionable young minds about me?”
Cally was not amused. “The truth. You should try it sometime.”
A roguish grin appeared on his face. “What can I do for you?”
Reya said, “We’d like you to do something for us.”
Sester cocked his head and eyed them mischievously. “Are you sure you can trust me?”
Cally said icily, “You keep saying that we can.”
“And you want me to prove that they are more than just words? Would you believe me then, Cally?” He ended with a clear tone of challenge.
Cally said, “I might consider it.”
A cynical grin appeared on Sester’s face. “Now who should try the truth?”
Cally glared at him.
Corinne was confused. She thought that they were here to obtain Sester’s help. It was hard for her to see how that could be possible if they continued treating Sester like this.
Reya was wondering if it would have been a better idea to ask Cally to bow out of this endeavour. This was turning out to be more of a confrontation than a solicitation of help. She said, “At least she won’t think any less of you. Isn’t that right, Cally?”
Cally stared Sester with steely eyes as she said, “That much is true.”
Sester suppressed a smile and refrained from saying what he knew that they were both thinking. Instead, he said pleasantly, as if they had come to an agreement, “Then what would you like me to do for you?”
Reya said, “Argus has not included you in the planning for Chandar.”
“You must think that’s not a good idea.”
Cally muttered, “Some of us do.”
Sester glanced briefly at her with amusement and then said, “Reya, the Tellarans have their own psychostrategists on the team.”
Reya said, “I know, but you’re the one who achieved the success on Chandar before. It was your plan that worked.”
Sester said, “I’m sure that the Tellaran psychostrategists would’ve been able do just as well if they had been there.”
Cally’s eyes narrowed at this untypical display of humility. She said with great sarcasm, “How could they? None of them are top psychostrategist as you are.”
Reya cut off any further snide remarks from either one of them and said, “The Tellarans don’t think they could have. Their head psychostrategist, Cambrin, was very impressed with what you did. Will you help us?”
“Are you sure that Argus would agree? He might see it as a threat. He might think that I’m undermining his authority.”
Corinne spoke up, “We don’t want to do that. We just want you to help.”
Reya said, “We thought it best to let you know first.”
Sester chuckled. “I see.”
Cally said with aggravation, “I fail to see the humour in that.”
“That’s because you don’t see as a psychostrategist.”
The look on Cally’s face said that she would rather die first.
Sester said, “Given Argus’s communication skills where I’m concerned, you were afraid that he wouldn’t be able to obtain my help. You wanted to make sure that he did, no matter what he said. Am I correct?”
Reya nodded. “You’re right. But whether he agrees to work with you or not, rests with him and Avon.”
Sester said, “You know that you have my cooperation. Are you sure you’ll get his?”
Cally asked with suspicion, “You’re not concerned about Avon? Only Argus?”
“Avon recognizes my value as a psychostrategist. He does not let emotions affect his judgement in that respect. You should know that.”
Cally did not look pleased at this criticism.
Reya said with warning, “I do not want you to manipulate Argus.”
“But it would be very easy. He would never know.”
“I mean it, Sester.”
Sester looked into her determined face. There were no doubts as to her seriousness. “Very well. Now, what sort of plans did you have in mind?”
Corinne was mystified by Sester. She couldn't understand how he could know some things without being told them. “How did you know that we already had some ideas?”
“If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be coming to me. My guess is that the current plans are good but you think that they could be much better. And that is where I come in.”
Cally said harshly, “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“I believe it was you who came to me,” Sester pointed out.
Reya said, “We did have some ideas.”
Sester said, “Then why don’t we go somewhere a little more comfortable to discuss this? I seem to have trouble with conducting business in corridors.”
He glanced suggestively at Reya, causing her to say hastily, “Yes, of course.”
Olean Rane read the chemical name on the piece of paper Jenna had handed to him. He seemed to have received a jolt the moment he recognized it. “Where did you get this from?”
Jenna asked warily, “Is something wrong?”
Rane waved the paper with tight anger, “This is what’s wrong! This…drug! We’ve been trying to stem an epidemic!”
Jenna sat up in alarm. “An epidemic?!” She remembered Fosforon and Casarus only too well.
Rane said reassuringly, “Not that kind of epidemic. As long as you don’t take this.” He waved the piece of paper again.
Jenna’s eyes followed the paper. “What is this?”
Rane was not to be denied. “You haven’t answered my question yet. Where did you get this name from? Most people only know it by its street name, not its chemical formula.”
Jenna hesitated. Rane was a good friend, but how would he react if he knew that she had been involved in smuggling this obviously dangerous substance in. He seemed very angry already about this drug.
She said smoothly, “I still have sources.”
Rane’s eyes became less hard. “Of course. From the days when you were trying to set up a rebel base here. Sorry for suspecting you, Jenna. But this…” He waved the paper angrily again. “…has become a real danger to our people.” Rane said with frustration, “I…haven’t been able to get much sleep lately. It seems like…not matter what we do, we can’t stop people from taking it. And once they do…” He shook his head sadly.
Jenna’s deception made her feel hypocritical even as she said sympathetically, “Tell me what’s happening.”
Rane’s voice was taut with tension and anger. “We thought that when we won against Ellis and the alien plot, we would be able to go back to normal.” He gave a cynical bark of laughter. “We were wrong. Are you familiar with Shadow?”
Jenna wasn’t sure she was going to like what Rane was going to say. “Are you saying that this is Shadow?”
“No. But something very similar to it. People call it Shade. Several years ago, there was a severe drop in the Shadow supply.”
Jenna started but Rane was too involved in his explanation to notice.
He said, “Supply became scarce. Whatever was left was being sold at exorbitant prices. Ordinary people couldn’t afford it. They became desperate. Violent. People died because of withdrawal. Once you take it, there is no cure from Shadow. You have to keep taking it and eventually even that kills you. This…” Rane held up the paper. “…is very similar to Shadow but it uses a different base compound. It can serve as a Shadow-substitute. The criminals who developed this drug had been hoping to wrestle control from the Terra Nostra. But of course, they weren’t powerful enough to defeat them. That was when Shade made its first appearance.”
Jenna said, “They obviously didn’t give up.”
Rane scowled. “They did for a long time. No one dared buy from them as long as the Terra Nostra was in power. However, that all changed with the alien invasion and the destruction of Star One. The Outer Colonies are where the Terra Nostra has the most power. Without the communications channels controlled by Star One, they became vulnerable. There were territorial battles with other criminal organizations. The people who created Shade, being one of them. An increasing number of people have been taking Shade in the Outer Worlds. And now it has spread to this Sector.”
Jenna was very interested in this. She remembered that Blake had tried to ally with the Terra Nostra so that he could use their men, material and information in the rebellion. He had been willing to become a dealer in Shadow in order to force them to work with him.
A memory of Blake’s voice came to her. That will make us winners...That's the only excuse for fighting.
His voice bolstered her resolve, as it always did.
There was a time when Shadow was the one thing she had refused to deal in. But she had learned. There are some things worth fighting for. You taught me that, Blake. We can’t let anything stand in the way of doing something that is right…like killing your murderer.
What Rane was saying was very important. He just didn’t know the implications; he didn’t know that the Terra Nostra was run by the Federation.
She asked, “So the Terra Nostra is on the run?”
“Not on the run. They're still too powerful for that. But they are being pushed and challenged by other criminal organizations. That kind smells weakness. With more people taking Shade, the Terra Nostra's power base is weakening.”
This was good news. Blake had wanted to use the Terra Nostra against the Federation until he found out that Federation ran it. If the Terra Nostra were neutralized now, then the Federation’s power would lessen in the Outer Colonies. For that to happen, the criminals with Shade would have to continue and gain control.
Jenna felt a glimmer of conscience as she looked into the face of her tired friend. She couldn't afford to feel any more, not if they were to win against the Federation. Rane would never understand if she explained it to him. She hoped that one day, when people were finally freed from the control of the Federation, he would understand that her actions were justified and that she had no choice. The Federation gave them none.
I'm sorry, old friend but this is about destroying the Federation. For that...I would do anything. She thought fiercely, This will make us winners, Blake. That’s what you wanted. Your dream will be one step closer. There was obsession in her eyes.
She had to make sure that the Raven crew was not found out.
Buzz. Sester opened bleary eyes. Who would be calling on him at this hour?
The buzzer sounded again several times. He sighed and sat up, rubbing tired eyes.
The buzzer again. It has to be him. Sester had been expecting Argus to talk to him today but there had been no sight of the man. Did he have to pick now? he thought irritably as he got up and pulled on a robe. Maybe it had taken Reya this long to persuade him?
He pressed the door control and prepared himself to give the man a hard time. It was only fair for waking him up.
As he had expected, it was Argus. For some reason, the man seemed bigger. He was also only partially dressed in a pair of trousers and nothing else. His muscular frame was very obvious in this lighting. Sester said, “What…”
Argus said in a quick, commanding clip, “Meeting. Tomorrow morning. 0900. Be there.” He turned around and walked off without giving Sester a chance to say anything in response.
As the door slid closed, Sester thought with amusement, The delivery could use improvement but at least you didn’t mess it up. He went back to bed.
Vila looked around nervously. Everything was going well. The largest cargo hold was decorated with festive banners and brightly coloured strips of light. The place was packed with well-wishers for Corinne’s birthday party. There was a satisfying murmur of friendly conversation interspersed with lots of laughter. A huge, delicious spread of savouries and desserts were laid out on a long side table.
The soldiers had given their gift of an energetic acrobatics display. The Tellarans had produced a special set of memory crystals containing some of the most beautiful places in the Union. They would work together with the virtual imaging unit that Vila had obtained from the Pleasure City people.
Argus presented Corinne with a thin blade in a slim holster that could easily be concealed. Reya gave her a beautiful drawing of the three women singing together in the harmonics room. Cally had a box of personally handcrafted chocolates as a delectable gift. Everything was going very well. The look on Corinne’s delighted face told him that she was having a wonderful time. She was doing lots of hugging and kissing of people so she must have been very happy.
Then why was he so nervous?
Everyone turned to Avon. It was his turn to give his gift.
Vila knew why he was nervous. He should never have allowed Avon near Spot. The man had promised that Corinne would not be harmed in anyway. But it was the way he had stressed, Corinne that made Vila nervous. Of course, he hadn’t realized that until now, when then were well into the party and the gift giving. It was too late to stop it.
Avon came forward, his hands clasped behind his back. He brought around a grey box…with a pink ribbon tied around it and on top, a beautiful pink bow.
There were sniggers of laughter, quickly suppressed. Avon glared around him, daring anyone else to say anything. No one did. The grey box was his. The pink bow and ribbon had been Cally’s added touch. She said that it would look…pretty. Avon scowled at everyone before he handed the box to Corinne. Almost as an afterthought, he said seriously, “Happy Birthday, Corinne.”
“Oh, this is wonderful, Avon!” Corinne put her arms around him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
Avon didn’t seem to know how to respond. When Corinne let go of him, Avon said, “You don’t know what the gift is.”
Corinne said sincerely, “I don’t need to know. I just know that you gave it to me. That means a lot. I would be just as happy if you only gave me a piece of blank paper.”
Avon stared at her and then with a deadpan face said, “I will remember that next time.”
Corinne grinned. She undid the bow and slid the ribbon off the box. Everyone seemed to be holding his or her breaths in anticipation. No one had any idea what Avon would give someone for a birthday present.
Corinne removed the lid and reached in. It was a personal data pad. She looked up and smiled at Avon with pleasure. “It is a blank piece of paper! I can store all kinds of information. Maybe start a journal! Thank you!”
The corner of Avon’s lips curled upwards slightly. “You’re welcome.”
Now was the time that made Vila the most nervous. It was his turn. He was determined to make the best of it. Vila picked up a glass and wet his throat first. “It’s my turn.”
Everyone turned towards him. There was a smile on Corinne’s face and a great deal of affection in her eyes.
Vila said, “Corinne. You’re a very special person. You’ve brightened the lives of everyone here. I know you’ve brightened mine. I want to wish you the very best of everything…but…I suppose you’ll have to settle for me.” He gave her a teasing grin. Vila raised his glass and everyone lifted theirs in response. “Happy Birthday, Corinne!
After the toasts had been drunk, Corinne suddenly put her arms around him. “You’re the best!” She kissed him soundly. Not the peck on the cheek that she had been giving the others. A real kiss.
Vila was stunned. He was feeling very warm and he was sure that his face was turning red by the time Corinne let him go. “Ahem…you still have one more gift. It was…too big to wrap up. But if you clap twice, it will come to you.”
Corinne’s eyes were puzzled but she lifted her hands up and clapped. The crowd parted.
She exclaimed with surprise, “Spot!”
Beep. Beep. The little robot cleaner rolled towards her. Someone had put a light blue bow on his head and tied a ribbon around his neck.
It said in a bright, cheery little voice, / Happy Birthday! /
Corinne knelt down and patted it on the head. Spot’s ears whirled in delight. Corinne said, “This is wonderful! I’ve always wanted a pet!”
Avon was outraged. It was bad enough that he had been reduced to working on a cleaning appliance. He had mollified himself by making some considerable improvements. It was now a very sophisticated device capable of many more functions than the narrow ones it had before. However, having his work thought of as a pet was too much. He opened his mouth to correct Corinne. Cally nudged him gently in the side.
Avon gave her a light scowl. Cally obviously thought this was not the time to communicate this information.
Corinne stood up and looped her arm around Vila’s. “Thank you everyone for the birthday party. And all of the wonderful gifts. This has been the best birthday. Thank you!”