Cally had her head propped up on one hand as she watched Avon sleeping. His chest rose and fell in a gentle regular rhythm. Just this simple action was a curiously comforting sight. It meant that no nightmares were disturbing his sleep. The lines on his face were smoothed in restful slumber, giving him a much younger look. There was no tension or guardedness that normally hardened his features, though these days it was a little less hard.
She was hesitating giving him the drugs that would wake him up. He had been exhausted the previous night, almost dropping onto the bed and was fast asleep without the aid of the sedatives. There was a great deal of responsibility on his shoulders and he tended to drive himself hard. As long as she had known him, he had been like this. It seemed to be his passion to engage in the work he loved to the exclusion of everything else. Or maybe it was because of what had been done to him since he was a child; the only way he could define himself was in his work and how useful he could be.
Cally reached out and touched his face, brushing back the hair that had fallen over his eyes. She caressed his cheek and delicately ran her thumb along the line of his jaw.
There was also another disturbing reason. It could be a residual effect of Servalan’s conditioning that constrained him to continue working until someone told him to stop.
Cally had a flash of anger. She rested her hand on Avon’s head protectively, as if to shield the mind that had caused so many people to treat him as a tool rather than as a human being. * You’re not a tool anymore, Avon. You never were. Even if other people tried to treat you as one. You don’t have to protect yourself from us. *
She could sense his sleeping mind rouse slightly at her projected thoughts. Cally reached behind her to the table beside the bed and took the bio-injector from the drawer. She applied it to Avon’s neck, hearing the quiet hissing sound as the drugs entered his system.
Avon stirred and his eyes opened. For a brief moment, there was softness in his eyes when he saw her and then the impassive mask of the day slipped over his face. Affection was still reflected in the warmth of his voice. “Good morning.”
Cally leaned forward and kissed him. Instinctively, Avon put his arms around her and returned her avid attentions.
Today was an important day. The Chandaran women were facing their first Challenge and her teams were being sent down to the planet to conduct searches while everyone was preoccupied watching the contests. This would be the only personal time she and Avon would have together today.
Vila sat up on the bunk, yawned and stretched as he watched Corinne decide on her clothes for the day. She picked a light purple dress with a multi-geometric pattern and held it up to her body. Turning around, she asked, “What do you think about this one?”
Vila’s eyes took on - what he hoped was - a properly fashion-conscious assessing look. He said expertly, “It matches your eyes.”
Corinne turned around and looked dubiously at the reflecting surface, “It does?”
Vila got up and came around behind her and hugged her. “Everything does.”
“Oh, Vila. It’s hopeless asking you. You would find me beautiful if I was wearing…”
Vila smirked. “Absolutely nothing.” Her body was warm against his, she felt good.
“Then should I do without the clothes?” she asked teasingly as she turned around in his arms and faced him.
“You’d better put some on. I wouldn’t want anyone to get jealous.” Vila grinned.
Corinne chuckled and pulled away. “Alright. Besides I wouldn’t want to catch a cold.” She began taking her clothes off while Vila watched appreciatively. Before she put on the dress, Corinne paused and studied her reflection in the mirror. “Vila, do you think I’ve gained weight?”
Vila knew this was a loaded question. “No. Why do you ask?”
“It was something Reya said.” Her forehead crinkled as she continued studying her reflection.
Vila put his arms around her in support. “I don’t think you have.” He lightly caressed her.
Corinne took in a slow deep breath as she enjoyed the sensual motions. She leaned back against him. “Do you know what I feel like this morning?”
Vila kissed her neck lightly, causing her to draw in a light anticipatory breath. He grinned. “I can guess.”
“No?” he asked disappointed.
“Do you think there’s there any tuna flavoured ice cream?”
Vila asked in puzzled distraction, “Hmm?”
“Or maybe pickles? Is there any pickle and tuna flavoured ice cream?””
“I don’t think so.” Vila stopped his amorous attentions as the strange request finally filtered into his brain. “What?” His tongue was rebelling at the thought of such a strange flavour combination, not to mention his stomach.
“Oh, never mind. It’s just that…I’m having strange cravings this morning. I must just be nervous about today. We should get dressed. I’d like to get some breakfast before the final briefing.” She began putting on the dress.
Vila sighed with frustration. “I suppose so.” He stifled a yawned and looked at her a moment longer before getting ready himself.
Sester’s eyes were closed as he intoned to himself. “One pain replaces another pain.” He slowly drew the sharp edge of a knife along his forearm, tightening his fist as he relished the sensation. The initial sting as the metal sliced into his flesh and then throbbing pain expanding, sending impulses to his brain.
“You’re a fool for hurting yourself. It makes as little sense as what you are doing to yourself now.”
One more. In his head, Sester could hear his master’s cold, detached voice reaching out through space, applying the discipline he needed. Sester opened his eyes, carefully positioned the blade along the three other parallel cuts that were dripping blood onto the cloth that he had laid on the table. He clenched his teeth as he made another slow, deliberate incision. When he was finished, he put the knife down and watched as the blood seeped from the fresh wounds and joined the spreading stain on the cloth.
You need something to remind you, Charles. Something strong enough to break through the emotions that you’ve foolishly allowed to twist your mind and destroy your objectivity. One primal pain triggering another one.
Sester remembered his own response as he understood his master’s intent. Punishment and salvation.
You haven’t forgotten.
How could I forget, sir? He had replied as his blood dripped onto the flight panel.
The Guildmaster had smiled on him with affection. It has always been for your own good, Charles. You are our best. The most gifted one in several generations. That makes you dangerous and precious.
For the good of the Guild and for humanity. Sester had replied with the mantra that had been drilled into him since childhood.
It’s the same thing. We are here to serve the greater good. And for that to happen, we cannot become involved with them or it would prevent us from making the hard decisions that must be made.
Thank you for the reminder, sir, Sester had replied.
I shouldn’t have to remind you. To one who has been given great gifts, much more will be demanded. You may be mine, but I will not spare you if you violate the Guild rules. I will be even harder because I must. The work we do is essential to the survival of humanity. You know this. We must not compromise the Guild’s responsibility.
Yes, sir. As the Guildmaster spoke, Sester felt like a young child again. Defiant and proud, the boy had stood before the man who had claimed him. The rules that would change his life were spelled out to him.
Your heart has always been your weakness, Charles.
I’m sorry, sir.
The way that the Guildmaster was able to change from cold to warmth in the blink of an eye, always unnerved Sester. There was love and compassion in his master’s eyes. Don’t be, Charles. It is because of that heart that you are my favourite. It is why I trust you. It is what binds you to me. But you must control it; you cannot let it control you. The heart does not understand what is needed even though it is why we do what we do.
The heart must be acknowledged but it must not control. Another lesson of his childhood came to Sester’s mind. He had believed this as long as he could remember; ever since he entered the Guild.
There was a question he wanted to ask but fear held the words back. He could only ask them in his mind. Is that why you took away my friends?
The Guildmaster sighed and said, We have never been able to prevent you from…playing with women. We’ve tolerated it as a necessary minor defiance, an acceptable outlet. But I warned you never to allow yourself to be emotionally attached to one. Do you remember?
Sester forced his fist open and spread his fingers on the table, feeling its cold surface as the memory continued. The bleeding had slowed.
I have no excuses, sir.
His master nodded approvingly. You have always taken responsibility for your own mistakes. You know now why I gave you that warning?
Yes, sir. It…has been difficult. I’ve allowed myself to become compromised.
Good. You recognize the problem. I trust that you will never let it happen again?
You have never had to tell me twice, sir.
Don’t disappoint me, Charles.
We have some other things to discuss.
Sester nodded. The orders you gave me before you sent me to the Federation President?
The Guildmaster replied, Yes.
As they spoke, Sester was very careful to keep hidden all the things he could not afford to let his master know. He still believed in the Guild’s mission but in his mind, the rules had become slightly bent.
The Guildmaster knew him better than anyone else but as his master said, he was the most talented psychostrategist in several generations. It was no idle boast. Sester knew that his master would seek his own information and would likely contact Servalan.
He also knew that Servalan would never tell Venner what he had done for Avon. This knowledge was power for her; she would never give it up. She thought it gave her a measure of control over him. At least, that was what she thought. What she didn’t know was that she hadn’t asked him to do anything that he wasn’t already prepared to do.
Playing with the Federation President was a very dangerous and exciting game, like walking on a tightrope suspended over a consuming fire. He could feel the lick of the flames every time he made a move in their games.
Sester had no concern that she would tell the Guildmaster about Reya. There was no danger in information he had already given to Venner; no hazard in revealing something that Venner already knew was his constant weakness.
The Guildmaster had an agenda in sending him to Servalan. His master had knowingly sent him, knowing what she would ask him to do to Avon.
Sester needed what his master could do for him but he also had to find out what else the Guildmaster had known. He had to find out what Venner’s deeper objective was. Bringing the Guildmaster onto the game board was the only way he could do this while he was this far from the seat of the Guild’s power. The man was his mentor and master but he had always been an opponent as well.
Before the Guildmaster signed off he said, Find a woman to play with but remember not to get involved. You need to cure yourself of this obsession. You need a physical outlet.
The chime sounded in his cabin as the memory faded. Sester hastily slapped a healing pad on his forearm, grimacing at the pain. He cleared the table, making sure to wipe up all the blood. The chime sounded again. “Wait a moment.” He shoved the bloody evidence into a drawer and pulled his sleeve down over the pad.
Sester went to open the door.
“Kirsten.” He greeted the woman in his doorway before she could use the chime again.
She looked at him curiously. “Are you alright?”
“What are you doing here?” Sester asked suspiciously. Why was it that she always appeared when he least expected it and when he was most in need of diversion? He didn’t know if this was irritating or interesting.
“That’s a nice greeting.”
Sester decided that he was going to be irritated. After the master had ordered him to find a woman to divert himself with, here was one at his door. It felt as if he was being manipulated. He did not like this feeling.
“Yes, sorry. What are you doing here?”
Kirsten ignored his annoyed attitude. “The first Challenge is today.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Kirsten still had a puzzled expression on her face but she did not back down. “I was going to ask if you would come down with me to watch it. But…I think I’ll just do this instead.” Using the techniques she had been taught in fight training, she moved forward suddenly, grabbed him by the collar and pulled him into an unexpected kiss.
She was like fire to his ice. Sester didn’t know if it was pure lust or something else. Or if he was just startled into reacting but he found himself kissing her in return and reached around to pull her in tighter. Sester hissed through clenched teeth as his covered forearm brushed up against her.
Kirsten backed away in shock. “What’s wrong?”
Sester took a step backwards. “It’s nothing. This is a bad idea. You’d better go.”
“I guess that means you’re not going down with me to watch the Challenge?”
“Your guess would be correct.”
Kirsten’s eyes were full of speculation. “Something is different about you.”
“Don’t try to second-guess me, Kirsten.”
“I don’t need a second guess to know something has changed.”
Sester frowned in annoyance.
Kirsten gave him a warm, friendly smile. “Don’t worry, I’m going. I won’t bother you with my presence any longer.”
Sester watched as she turned and left. He wondered if her parting shot had been a promise or a threat. Or something else.
Vid-broadcasters were set up everywhere, covering every angle of the first Challenge. There was eager anticipation. The air was charged with excited energy.
Cally, Vila, Corinne and the rest of their team were in the teleport room, watching on a vid screen that had been set up to monitor the Challenge. They checked their Tellaran weapons and waited for the signal that they could go down.