There was one person the Federation President always made time for, apart from Avon of course. This was the head of the Psychostrategists' Guild.
The man appearing on her screen demanded instant attention and respect. Like the other psychostrategists she had met, he carried an air of intellectual superiority and detachment and when his eyes turned in your direction, she always had the uncomfortable impression that he already knew what she was going to do or say before she was even aware of it herself. The Guildmaster was a true master puppeteer.
Servalan avoided speaking to him if possible. There were far too many secrets that she would prefer not to expose to his perceptive mind. It was very dangerous speaking to this man if you had too many things to hide. She would rather deal with his underlings but when Venner called, refusal was not an option. He was far too valuable and dangerous to be ignored.
Venner's eyes were deep and there was an air of dark mystery about him. He wore the traditional Guild colours of black with accents of white.
Servalan greeted him formally, "Guildmaster Venner."
Venner was just as formal, "Madame President."
"Is that enough of the formalities?"
"I think we've met all the requirements."
Servalan asked with deceptive charm, "To what do I owe this pleasure, Guildmaster?"
Venner's lips curled in an approximation of a smile. Servalan recognized this smile, it was very much like her errant psychostrategist's expression, except that where his was casual and friendly, Venner's was like a friendly predator. His voice was cold with warning. "When I gave you Sester, it was with the express instructions that I am the only one who plays with his life. You can use him for your goals but nothing else."
Servalan was never one to back down even to a dangerous opponent/ally. "Don't you mean for your goals?"
"We both had something to gain, Servalan or I would not have agreed to lend him to you."
"You never told me why you sent your best psychostrategist to do something that would normally be beneath your attentions. Unless of course, there was something or someone who was not beneath your attentions."
There was no change of expression on Venner's cold face. "Don't try to obtain information from me, Madame President. You don't have the ability."
"I was only curious."
"Or you think you can press an advantage that you don't have because I am asking you for information?"
"Would I do that, Guildmaster?" Servalan asked with feigned innocence.
Venner said with a barely amused smile. "Don't play pointless games, Servalan. It will only waste both our time. If I wanted to give you information, you would have it already."
"I thought that games are what psychostrategists are about?"
Venner nodded once. "Of course." His eyes were as hard as flint. "Our games."
Servalan was not a person to bow to anyone. She was dangerous in her own right and was not to be taken lightly. "If the Empire didn't need the skills of your Guild…"
"We would all be dead?" Venner leaned with intent towards her through the blackness of space. "Like the Clone Masters?"
Servalan's heart nearly skipped a beat. Venner seemed to know far more than was healthy for her survival. She matched his cool menace. "Then we both understand each other."
"I have always understood you, Servalan. As long as we are useful to each other, we will both survive."
"That sounds like a threat."
The Guildmaster smiled smoothly. "Madame President, I'm going to be very disappointed if I misjudged you."
This man didn't seem to fear her at all. From anyone else, Servalan would have thought the man a fool and would teach him a lesson he would not soon forget, assuming he survived. But the Guildmaster was different. When he spoke, Servalan knew she had no choice but to believe him. His threats were never empty. With a word, he could easily arrange to remove her from power.
She knew that using the Guild had been risky. But they were the ones who had managed the impossible and returned a supposedly dead former President back to power. It had cost the entire amount she had obtained in the black gold transaction (Servalan suppressed a smile at how Avon had inadvertently helped her), 17 billion, but it had been worth every credit.
The Guildmaster was right, together the possibilities were infinite. Servalan asked, "You wish a closer alliance?"
She just wished she knew what this formidable man's final agenda was.
In an effort to keep Avon up-to-date, the four men were on the flight deck discussing the results of the pre-Challenges conducted that day. Avon and the engineers were working on several projects at worktables set up along the far wall and only added the occasional comment. The trials had been very successful. The women were exceeding all of their expectations.
Argus had been glancing over at Avon occasionally and noticed Avon absently stretching a sore back. He was doing it with greater frequency. Argus said, "Avon, why don't you get away from the machines for awhile."
Avon, who had his hands inside one of the machines, straightened up and said, "I'm busy."
"You're always busy."
"You noticed." Avon bent his head over the machine and examined the circuits he had been adjusting. He picked up a long instrument, a wave shift tester.
Argus sighed. With Cally busy, she had asked him to help her keep a closer eye on Avon. But how could he do it without making his prickly genius feel that he was being managed?
Argus picked up a data pad from the table and scrolled through the mission data. "Avon, I need you to take a look at this."
Avon lifted irritated eyes and stared at him a moment, trying to determine if this was a genuine request.
Argus said, "We're almost ready to send Cally's team down."
With the tool still in his hand, Avon came over. Argus held out the data pad to him. Avon took it, sat down beside him and quickly read over the material.
Argus asked, "Well?"
Avon finished reading and handed the pad back to him. "You have enough information. I'm assuming you're going to start with Alara's residence?"
"Yes, that's what we were planning. Hers is the most suspicious and the computer activity points to wider implications. Is the uplink ready?"
Avon reached into his trousers pocket, took out an oval device half the size of his palm and put it in Argus's waiting hand. "Stick this inside the computer. Preferably somewhere not easily visible. I will take care of the rest."
Argus studied the uplink with interest. "It's small."
Vila slid over to look at the device too. "Yeah, but will it work? You're going to have to pull an ORAC without ORAC, Avon."
Argus handed the uplink to Vila. "I'm sure Avon can do it. The question is will you be able to find the right computer?"
Vila asked, "Are we sure there's going to be two of them? I wouldn't want to waste my time finding something that isn't there."
Sester was unusually quiet these days, only speaking when he needed to. He seemed to have stopped drinking and was friendly and helpful. No one knew what to make of it. Reya and Cally had even gone by his cabin to ask if he was ill. "I'm sure there will be two. The hidden one is the one we are most interested in."
Avon stood up. "If you're done, I have other things to do."
Argus said, "Uh…why don't you sit awhile…"
Avon stared down at him. "For what reason?"
Sester had a look of faint amusement on his face. "Can't you tell? He's almost wearing a sign on his forehead."
Both Argus and Avon glared at him, causing Sester to grin. This was an expression that had been missing from his face the last few days. The three men almost breathed a silent sigh of relief. A Sester who was acting strangely was a complication none of them needed.
Sester said, "He…" His head indicated Argus. "…is concerned about your health. He wants you to rest but he knows he can't say it because he knows you will only deny it. Not to mention he's being extremely careful so that you won't get any impression that he's manipulating or forcing you in any way. Caring about you seems to require a tremendous effort. Not to mention, he has no idea what would be restful for you."
Avon sat down. He continued staring at Sester but his head turned slightly to Argus, "He's behaving very suspiciously."
Argus said, "But he always acts suspiciously."
Avon said, "You have a point, but our suspicions are generally correct."
Sester smiled, "You would find me eating a bowl of ice cream suspicious."
Argus asked, "What flavour?"
Sester tilted his head in amusement at this question, "That's not funny."
Argus said, "But it is."
Sester said, "I'm not laughing."
Argus said dryly, "It wasn't meant to be funny...for you."
Avon looked at Argus with perplexity, "Wait. Something is...abnormal here."
Argus asked, "In what way abnormal?"
"There has been a change of cast. Or roles."
Vila looked between Argus and Sester. "You're right, Avon. Argus sounds like Sester. And vice versa."
Avon mused, "Yes, abnormal. Alien possession, do you think?" He was studying Argus as if he was something under a microscanner.
Vila became thoughtful, "It doesn't always have to be alien possession."
Avon said, "With our experience? How could we not suspect it?"
Argus said, "I think it's because I am facing the truth and…I don't know what his problem is."
Avon said with certainty, "It's definitely alien possession. I will go and get Cally." He made a move to get up.
Vila remarked, "Or maybe hit him over the head?"
Avon had a question in his eyes. "That works?"
Vila said, "We've never tried it. How do we know it won't?"
Avon said, "You have a point."
Argus was annoyed. "WHAT POINT??? You are not hitting me over the head because of an alien possession I don't have!"
Avon said to Vila, "You do it."
Vila's eyes swept over Argus's large, muscular frame. It was suddenly too close to him. He hedged, "Well…maybe not."
Argus was looking at Vila. "You want to hit me?"
Avon said flatly, "Vila does. Turn around."
Argus said, "But I'm not possessed."
Vila pointed out, "Well, you would say that if you were possessed, wouldn't you?"
Argus said an annoyed, "But I would say that if I wasn't."
Vila turned to his partner in crime. "Avon, he does have a point."
Sester was highly amused that this had turned into one of their favourite activities. "It's one of THOSE arguments."
Avon handed the long wave shift tester to Vila. "Here, take this."
Vila eyed it suspiciously but received the object. "What's this?"
Avon said flatly, "I believe they call it a stick."
Vila said, "You mean you really want ME to...couldn't we, think about this? Or maybe not do it?"
Avon remarked dryly, "Are you chickening out?"
Sester added helpfully, "It was your suggestion."
Vila held the dubious weapon by its end. "Avon, can I have a bigger stick?"
Avon said, "We're not trying to kill him."
Argus had a sarcastic tone, "That makes me feel much better."
Vila said to Avon. "Anything smaller, might kill me. I have a severe allergy to being killed."
Argus said with irritation, "Can we get back to...I AM NOT POSSESSED?"
Sester was enjoying this absurd exchange. He said to Vila, "I'm sure Argus won't kill you, maybe maim a little."
Vila said, "Oh that's very funny."
Avon asked, "Are you going to use that stick or wear it?"
Argus denied the obvious, "I really am not possessed."
Avon turned to look at him. "Yes, we know."
Vila's eyes widened, "What? What do you mean, 'WE know'? When were you planning to tell me this? Before I hit him on the head or after he kills me?"
Avon said reasonably, "There would be no point in telling you after he kills you."
Argus said, "Vila give me that stick."
Vila said nervously, "Why? Do you want to hit Avon with it?"
Avon said with certainty, "Argus would never do that to me. He would hate himself."
Argus sighed and said, "You're right, but I might report to Cally, and ask her to check if I have signs of alien possession."
Vila grinned, "Oh...then she'd ask why you think that and you'd have to tell her why."
Argus said, "Yes, with detailed explanations."
Avon's eyes narrowed, "You wouldn't."
Sester grinned, "Oh yes he would."
Argus's eyes lost its irritation. He took the "stick" from Vila and handed it to Avon. "Now, how about some rest? Before Cally takes one to me for being a slave driver?"
Vila was trying not to smile.
Avon took the wave tester and said dryly, "Being beaten by a woman should be nothing new to you." He sat back on the couch. "Does this 'rest' come with refreshments?"
Argus tried not to sigh, "When was the last time you ate?"
"I had breakfast and several nutri-bars."
Vila said with distaste, "Those aren't food."
Avon turned impassive eyes to him, "The label disagrees with you."
Vila got up and headed for the dining hall, "I'm going to get us some real food...uh have the engineers eaten?" After confirming that they had and that they were the ones to provide the nutri-bars after Avon's steadfast denial that he was hungry, Vila went off to get some refreshments.
After Vila left, Sester said, "That was nicely done."
Avon smirked but didn't say anything.
Sester said, "Vila knew, of course."
"Of course." Avon leaned back and made himself comfortable by putting his feet up on the table.
Argus asked nervously, "What do you think he's planning?"
Avon smiled, "Are you relaxed now?"
Argus sighed. "As long as you are.