Cally, Reya, Corinne and Marlena were meeting for an early morning breakfast. It was a good chance for some personal time together.
Cally’s newest choice of beverage was plain hot milk. She made a face of distaste as she took the first sip.
Reya eyed her with a grin, “You should have tried it with the chocolate.”
Cally took another sip and gave up. “I think you’re right.” She put the mug down.
Corinne lifted a spoon of chocolate ice cream spotted with wafer bits. “Ice cream is good too.”
Marlena asked her daughter, “Corinne, should you be eating so much ice cream?”
Corinne said, “It’s alright, mother. It has no calories or fat content. It’s very healthy.”
Marlena regarded the bowl curiously. “Is it?”
Cally asked dubiously, “Who told you this?”
Corinne said, “Vila.”
“And you believed him?”
Corinne was mystified. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“Vila is a joker.”
“I know that.”
Cally said, “In future, you should consult me for accurate nutritional information.”
“Alright.” Corinne put her spoon down and pushed the bowl away.
Cally said, “You don’t have to worry about eating the ice cream.”
“But didn’t you just say…” Corinne looked confused.
“You’re young and you’re physically active. A certain amount of ice cream should not be detrimental to your health.”
Reya leaned over to look at Corinne more closely. “Have you…gained weight recently?”
Corinne looked down at herself in concern. “I don’t think so. Do I look like I have?”
Cally leaned over too. “It could be increased muscle mass.”
Reya straightened up. “I suppose it could be.”
Cally said, “A certain amount of fat is good, as long as it doesn’t cause health issues. But you’re a long way from that. I wouldn’t worry. Continue with the ice cream.”
Corinne pulled the melting ice cream towards her and eyed it warily. “I don’t know now.”
Reya chuckled. “It’s alright, Corinne. We’re just putting you on.”
Cally was also grinning. “But do consult me for nutritional information in future.”
Corinne said wryly as she picked up the spoon again, “I think I’m going to have a talk with Vila. Once he sobers up.”
Cally asked with concern, “He’s been drinking?”
“Not really. Just last night. He said Sester was very depressed and so they got drunk together.”
Reya frowned and said in a not too pleased voice, “Sester.”
Corinne said, “He always seems so cheerful. Something must have happened.”
Reya said cynically, “Something is always happening with him.”
Cally said, “It may be my fault.”
Reya asked, “Did you have a run-in with him?”
Cally nodded. “You could say that. He and Argus were bickering, as they always seem to do. I’m afraid I lost my temper.”
“Did you knock their heads together? I’ve been wanting to do that,” Reya said in jest.
“I told them what I thought about their conflict with each other.”
“That’s…interesting.” Reya looked thoughtful. “It seems to have had some effect.”
Cally said, “Maybe not the best one if he’s drinking to avoid the issues. It might be a good idea for you to talk to him.”
Reya didn’t seem too thrilled with this suggestion. “I think that would be a very bad idea. I’m his problem.”
Corinne said, “Isn’t it always best to face the truth?”
“Not if that truth is me.”
Cally sensed something odd from Reya. “Is it a bad idea for him or you?”
Reya said defensively, “For him, of course. Unless you think I have a personal reason.”
Cally looked at her curiously, “Do you have a personal reason?”
“Not any more than you do,” said Reya.
Cally sat back from the table. “My personal reason is Avon.”
“And how about the planet?”
Cally asked confused, “Which planet?”
“The prison planet where you were held. Where Sester persuaded you to tell him about Avon.”
Cally’s back stiffened. “Are you trying to insinuate something?”
Reya examined her defensive posture. “I’m sorry, but…I know how Sester persuades people. Especially women. He’s…very seductive.”
“Are you admitting something?” asked Cally.
“Only if you are,” said Reya guardedly.
“And if I don’t?”
Marlena excused herself from the table since this seemed to be a very private conversation between the crew mates.
Corinne was watching this interaction with fascination. It was the first time there was any tension between the three of them. She remarked, “Now I know why you call Sester a troublemaker.”
The older women stared at her.
Reya grimaced, “I’m sorry, Cally. You were touching an area that is very sensitive for me. What you said does have some merit.”
Cally became aware of the tightness of her back and shoulder muscles. She deliberately relaxed them. “I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have pursued something so personal. And you're right about Sester. He is…very seductive.”
Reya asked cautiously, “Did you and he…ever…”
Cally was suddenly filled with confused thoughts about a time that made her angry and ashamed. She had never discussed this with Avon. It was something too painful to talk about and filled her with guilt. In some ways, she felt partially responsible for what happened to Avon. If it hadn’t been for her weakness and gullibility, Sester would never have been able to obtain information from her. “No. We never did. But…” Cally’s voice trailed off as she remembered her own reaction to Sester’s kind and silky voice. The warm depth of his eyes. His gentle ready humour that would lift her from the depression of her situation. She had been tempted and once they had…
“You were attracted to him?” asked Reya.
“He was charming and knew everything I needed. I should have known then that no one is that perfect. We…kissed once.” Cally’s jaw tightened at the memory of a moment of weakness, one that was purely primal. “But we stopped before it could go further.” Cally closed her eyes in anguish guilt. “He stopped.”
Reya asked dubiously, “He was the one who stopped?”
“It was part of the manipulation. He was very polite after that. Very proper. It made me trust him even more.”
Reya inclined her head in agreement. “He’s very good at that. He can get to anyone if he really wants. You don’t have to feel guilty.”
Cally was angry with herself. “At least you had an excuse. You thought Argus was dead and it was a situation that was forced on you. Avon was not dead.”
“But I thought you and Avon never…at least not until this past year.”
“We have always been joined, from the very beginning. But Anna was always in the way for him. I like to think that I would have stopped with Sester on my own…but I’m not certain.”
Reya said with regret, “I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“No. It’s time I dealt with it.”
“You’re going to speak to Avon?”
“After all of this is over.”
Reya’s eyes rested on the off-white surface of the table. She was the one who brought this issue up as self-defence against facing something that made her uncomfortable. Cally was confronting her own truth. Perhaps it was time to face her own. “You were right. I do have a personal reason to avoid him. I…” This was very difficult to admit. Even now she could feel the remnants of some old sensations. “…am physically attracted to him.”
Cally remarked, “And he knows it?”
Reya nodded reluctantly.
“Of course he would know it. Has he…used it against you?”
Reya knew that if she told anyone about the encounters in the corridor with Sester, things would become very difficult for him. All of the progress he had made in the last few weeks would be in jeopardy. Reya believed that he was changing, she wanted to give him a chance. She didn’t want to lie to Cally but this was something that was personal between her and Sester. “We are both aware that he could make it very difficult for me if he wanted to. And I prefer avoiding any potentially awkward situations.”
“That’s probably for the best. He will have to sort out his own mess. It’s not as if he doesn’t deserve it.”
Reya was troubled. No matter what else was between them, she was Sester’s friend. He needed help now before he destroyed himself. “Let’s talk about the Chandarans.”
Cally said, “I was worried about them the first week but they are progressing very quickly now.”
Corinne said enthusiastically, “Some of them are very good. They’re consistently throwing Vila now.”
Reya said with amusement, “You’ve drafted Vila as a training dummy?”
Cally said, “Don’t let Avon hear that. Or the other two for that matter.”
Reya rolled her eyes, “Men.”
Corinne said, “He’s very good with the women. They don’t mind throwing him at all.”
Cally asked, “And how is Vila taking that?”
Corinne said, “Well, he has me giving him a massage every night…among other things.”
Cally remarked, “So he doesn’t mind at all.”
“Not really.” Corinne blushed.
Reya said, “I have Argus helping in that capacity.”
Cally teased, “You mean with massage and other things?”
Reya said firmly, “Only with me. But I meant as a training…assistant.”
Cally grinned. “I imagine that is working well with the women. They do seem to like him.”
Reya said a disgruntled, “A bit too much. They’re all afraid to hurt him.”
Cally started laughing. “Oh dear.”
Reya said dryly, “Very dear. I’ve had to ask Dannon to help out as well. How is your group?”
Cally said, “Karita is very good. She already had prior fight experience. She should be our best fighter.”
Reya felt the sides of her mug. It was cold. “We should arrange for a test at the mid-way point. It will give us a feel for how far they’ve progressed and will give them a formal sense of accomplishment.”
Cally agreed, “That’s a good idea.”
Corinne asked, “How is the games team?”
Reya said, “It’s somewhat difficult since the field details are being kept confidential until the day of the Challenge. But Cally and I are training them on a range of skills. Argus has set up different courses on the planet for them to practice on.”
Cally asked, “What about the final team?”
Reya said, “Argus and Avon are very pleased with their progress. Kirsten has proved to be very good.”
Cally said, “I’m glad we included her on the third team.”
“Yes, the other women listen to her naturally and she has the boldness we need for the third group.”
Cally remarked, “She is a little too bold at times.”
Reya said, “Yes, she is unpredictable. She will need more discipline. But in a way, that will work to our advantage. They will not expect her.”
Corinne said, “Her father will be very surprised.”
Cally said, “Surprised would be an understatement.”
Reya added, “It’s a good thing that she’s asked for asylum with us.”
Reya hesitated outside of Sester’s cabin. Part of her knew this was a mistake but she couldn’t stay away. Sester needed help and she felt partially responsible. She steeled herself and pressed the control panel button.
Sester opened the door. His eyes were blood-shot and there was several day’s growth on his face. He said in a voice hoarse with too much alcohol and too little sleep. “Reya.”
Reya could smell that he had been drinking again. “Vila was right.”
Sester said with bitter cynicism, “You mean about me being pathetic?”
Reya said disapprovingly, “Are psychostrategists supposed to feel sorry for themselves?”
Sester laughed. “We’re not supposed to feel at all.” He suddenly leaned towards her until his face was very close. “We’re supposed to be detached. Cold. Unfeeling. Inhuman.”
Sester stepped back. “No. I’m not. I’m a failure.”
Reya entered his cabin as he took another step back. “You’re not a failure. You’re human.”
Sester enunciated each word distinctly, “I am a puppet master. I am not supposed to be human.”
Reya said unhappily, “I know this is because of me.”
Sester stared at her. Having Reya here made his feelings more defined and less confused. She provoked strong emotions but she was also a calm, compassionate presence. He could see clearly how impossible his situation was.
Since Cally and Kirsten had forced him to see the truth, he had been doing a lot of thinking. But he didn’t come to a decision until just now. Reya was here because she loved him, as a friend only. What she was and how she felt was very evident in the way she looked at him.
If he truly loved her, then he had to let her go. It didn’t matter if he was miserable. He was making her feel guilty and responsible for something that wasn’t her fault. It was his own foolishness that allowed this to happen.
“No. Reya. It was never your fault. It was a twist of fate. A mistake. You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
Reya’s eyes swept the room and spied all the empty bottles. “Do you expect me to believe that?”
Sester followed her eyes. “It’s hard to refute the evidence but…I will be fine. I can’t say that I will ever stop loving you, Reya. But…I’m facing the truth. I won’t say it will be easy and I suspect that a few more bottles are in my future but I as you pointed out, I am a psychostrategist. We pride ourselves in our mental and emotional discipline. And difficult as it is to believe, I am one of the best. So don’t worry about me, Reya. Go back to him. He deserves you.” He grinned wryly, “Even if he is an idiot who doesn’t realize it.”
Sester sat in his observer craft as the computer made the necessary comm connections. His hand traced the curved edge of the console with deliberateness. He had allowed the situation to deteriorate out of control. Losing himself in alcohol was a destructive and temporary solution. It made him more vulnerable and dulled his mind, caused him to be more susceptible to the swings of emotions. It was an intolerable situation.
Cally's anger, Kirsten's perceptiveness and Reya's visit had finally woke him up. If he didn't know any better, he might have suspected a fellow psychostrategist's hand. Anything less would not have broken through his self-willed blindness.
He was a fool to have let it get this far. He had to regain his discipline, for Reya's sake and the others who needed his skills. All of these people cared and worried about him, even his rival. He was finding that these people mattered to him, even if he didn't entirely agree with their goals or perspectives. They did not see things the way he saw them.
He knew that he was far too dangerous to continue out of control. It was why the discipline for people like him was very strict, almost merciless. He had always been extremely talented and as a result very difficult to manage. There was only one way he knew, one force strong enough to stop the self-destructive spiral of someone like him.
The computer reported, "Connections establish. Communications protocol, Alpha Alpha 261-454. Priority channel."
Sester composed himself. He needed his impassive, superior professional face and his normal irreverent but pleasant manner. A sliver of cold touched his spine. This was a step that he didn't want to take, but he had no choice. He was calling on the one person who could help him regain control. The only person he feared.
"Put it on the view screen, computer."
A serious man with deeply searching eyes and a shock of grey hair greeted him. He wore all black and had the traditional black cloak. Sester felt his heart beat faster and he became very still.
The man's voice was a low smooth rumble that carried a gravity that inspired instant reverence. "Charles."
Sester bowed his head. "Master."