Few people could irritate Sester as effectively as the woman standing in his cabin. The room was electric with tension as he asked in a heated voice, “Are you are trying to give me conditions even though I’m trying to help?”
Sester had no idea why he was raising his voice but Kirsten seemed to bring out the worst in him.
Kirsten shrugged her shoulders. “I suppose that means no?”
Sester’s tight nerves were being stretched to the snapping point. "Stop doing that!"
A faint, quizzical smile curved Kirsten’s mouth at his outburst and her voice remained calm and reasonable. “Stop doing what?”
“You tell me.”
“That’s interesting.” Kirsten tilted her head to study him and her face became intent.
“You don’t know.” She seemed to be making the remark to herself and was ignoring his outburst.
Sester couldn’t understand why he had no idea what she was talking about. This was very aggravating. “What’s so interesting about you annoying me to death?”
“To death? Isn’t that a bit extreme for what I’m doing?”
“Ha! So you admit you are doing something.” Ha? Why was he acting like this? It was all Kirsten’s fault.
“Of course. That’s one of the key foundations of our relationship.” She spoke as if it was an accepted fact between them. This was too much.
“Relationship? What relationship?! We do not have any relationship other than teacher and student.”
“And don’t forget annoyer and annoyee.”
“Annoyee? That’s not even a word!” I have to stop shouting. Sometime in the next few minutes would be good. Of course that meant he had to regain control of himself, which was not easy with her in the room.
“It should be.”
She was creating her own words now? Soon she would be kicking him out of his cabin. He liked his cabin. "Can you leave…please?" Sester had no idea why it came out in a plea. This was embarrassing.
“Have you decided that you're going to meet my condition?”
Until she mentioned it, Sester had almost forgotten what had started the argument in the first place. “Never!”
"You don't know what it is yet."
"I do not operate under threats."
“Denying it won’t change the inevitable. As a game player you should know that.”
"Denying what? What are you talking about?"
Kirsten said, “Can you stop shouting? We are in the same room.”
“I wouldn’t have to shout if you were being reasonable.”
“Well, if the reason is yours, you should be able to see why.”
Sester’s voice threatened to rise to shouting level again. “Are you saying that I’m being unreasonable because I'm not meeting your demands?”
"If I meant that, I would have said it."
Sester was thoroughly confused. "What…are we talking about?"
Suddenly he was aware of Kirsten standing close to him and he had no idea how it had happened. Heat radiated from her body and warmed his exposed flesh, penetrating to the place of frustration. The vague hint of flowers tickled his nostrils, producing a pleasant sensation that his mind didn’t want to associate with her. Unconsciously, he moved closer and breathed in deeply, allowing her scent to flood his senses.
Kirsten was a dangerous woman who got under his skin and made him lose control. Reya had this effect on him too but not intentionally. Kirsten was doing this deliberately, he was almost certain of it. He needed to possess this threat, to surround it and to feel the vibrant energy that threatened to burn him. She was aggravating and exciting and he was teetering on the knife edge of desire and antagonism. He couldn’t help himself. His voice was low and husky. “It’s all your fault.”
The soft smile on her face touched her eyes. It had the effect of moonlight reflecting on water. “It was a joint effort.”
Joint effort? It was an odd statement that set his brain working. For the first time in their confrontations, Sester knew what was in her mind. He bent forward slowly, pausing as their lips almost touched. He needed to kiss her, to feel the heat of her flesh on his, but his mind had regained some control and his pride made him refuse to make the next move. It was a joint effort. You were very clever. And I…have been a fool. He said with reluctant admiration, “You’re very good.”
“Is that your professional opinion?”
The curve of her lips was almost irresistible, like the soft petals of a rose opening invitingly. “Don’t spoil this.”
“Do you think I’m going to?”
“You don’t know.” Again this was an interested statement, not a question.
“You like that, don’t you? You like to keep me guessing.”
Kirsten said softly into his ear, “You’ve stopped shouting.”
There was a light grin on Sester’s lips. “It’s not because you’re being reasonable.”
“It’s because you’re being predictable.”
He needed to remain in control of the situation. Sester began a count in his head. “I’m not going to let you do this to me.”
“Do you want me to go?”
This was a blatant challenge but she was not the only one who could play games. “You’re getting impatient?”
“I can wait if you can.”
Sester’s body tensed, he was not about to let her gain the upper hand. “It appears we both can.” He took a step back and nearly shivered. It seemed much colder without the energy of her body warming his.
Kirsten smiled and turned to go but he held her back with a hand on her arm. “Wait.”
“I will follow your directions.”
“But…what about your condition?”
“You already knew I would even without the condition, didn’t you?”
Sester had the sinking feeling that she had outmanoeuvred him again. He wanted to kick himself. “I did.”
“Is there anything else you wanted to know before I go?”
He grumbled with ill humour, “Why don’t you tell me?”
She flashed him a quick grin. “I had better go.”
This time she made it to the door before he said, “Kirsten.”
“Be careful down there. There are rules, but rules…”
She completed his thought, "…are made to be broken?"
Their eyes were locked on each other as Kirsten came back towards him. “You’re not going to wish me luck?”
“You don’t need luck.”
Kirsten’s eyes softened and she kissed him lightly on the lips. “Thank you. You’re very good too.”
He wanted more than this teasing gesture but he remembered his boast that he could wait. “This isn’t going to change anything.”
“I know.” She kissed him one more time before leaving. “Good night, Charles.”
It wasn’t until the door closed that Sester realized what she had called him.
The women were down on the planet, setting up for the next Challenge and Vila was looking forward to it. The rules made it sound like a childhood game he played in the Delta grids. Capture the Flag complete with stun guns and picturesque landscape of forests and hills, not the cramped and dirty industrial sites that he and his mates used to play in.
Why did the contest have to start at night anyway? It wasn’t as if they could do anything in the dark, unless they wanted to break a few limbs and thin out the competition. He wouldn't put it past some of the Chandaran men. It would be something they might do.
Intimidation. That's what it was. Bunch of bullies. He'd run afoul of more than his share, especially as a Delta. He hoped the women wiped the field with them. It'd serve them right.
The broadcasts wouldn’t even start until daybreak. All he had to look forward to tonight was lots of nothing, with a side of boredom to chase it down. He yawned loudly and randomly pushed a few buttons on his flight panel. Night shifts were designed by masochists.
Avon glanced over and said, without raising his head from his analysis, “Don’t shoot anything.”
“Don’t you have anything better to do? If possible, something that will not plunge us into a Sector-wide war?”
What Vila really wanted to do was anything with Corinne. Not stuck on a dull shift with someone who found staring at inanimate objects, more fun that talking with real people. “I have lots of things to do but I’m stuck here. With you. It must be my lucky day."
At his grumpy, sarcastic tone, Avon turned to look at him. “Have you had a fight with Corinne?”
“Why’d you think that?”
Avon realized he had misjudged the source of Vila’s mood. Vila wasn’t as insecure in his relationship with Corinne as Argus was with the Commander. “No reason.” He turned back to what he was doing.
Vila watched him with curiosity. Avon had made a brief attempt to understand what was bothering him. It couldn't have been Cally's suggestion, she was nowhere in sight. That meant that he might be open to a little social interaction. Probably very little, but it was better than nothing. This might prove interesting.
Of course, Vila's only problem at the moment was a bout of terminal boredom. Hardly something that would interest Avon. He didn't relish another impromptu lecture on anything remotely related to science or technology either. It was better to stay away from those topics altogether. Avon might find it fascinating, but to him it was duller than a Dentrigarian snail race.
"Why do you think they started the contest at night?" That should be fairly safe. He crossed over to the couches and sat down.
Avon's jaw tightened in irritation at the constant and pointless interruptions. He was in the middle of an important piece of analysis. If he stopped now, the complexity would mean he would have to start over again.
Avon knew that Vila was not the kind of man who would accept work as a reason not to be sociable. He also appeared to be in a bad mood. It wasn’t a personally important detail to Avon, he never considered his own emotional state relevant, but it would be the kind of factor that would reduce Vila’s efficiency. He pushed his chair back from the desk. "There are any number of reasons."
"Well, let's hear a few." He wriggled himself into a more comfortable position and stretched out his legs.
Avon's eyes narrowed, "Is this a serious discussion or are you bored?"
Vila asked in his most innocent voice, "Now Avon, would I waste your time?"
"Alright, why don't we try a different topic? One that we both like."
Avon's brows rose, "Such as?"
There was a subject that Vila had been meaning to talk to Avon about but hadn't found time to. “Avon, do you remember much about the Academy?”
Avon tensed. "I thought this would be a topic we would 'both like'?"
"I know what I said." Vila wondered if this was such a good idea but he’d already said it. "It's important. For both of us."
"It's the past."
"Don't you wish we had a time machine and could go back and change things? Then I wouldn't have lost my mum and they wouldn't have done what they did to you? And Argus would never have had to kill anyone?"
"Wishes belong to the realm of fantasy, not reality."
"Reality’s not all it’s cracked up to be."
"It never is, but it's all we have. I prefer to concentrate my energies on doing something useful."
Vila sighed. “I’m not like you.”
“Most of the time, as a Delta, dreams and fantasy were all we had to look forward to. I suppose you never knew what that was like. I mean, I know what they did to you but you were still an Alpha. You had all the privileges.” Bitterness and resentment welled up and reminded Vila why he had tried to rise above his station in life. He hated that others assumed that they had the right to boss him around just because he was a Delta.
Vila had never expressed such strong feelings about being a Delta before with Avon. Avon had always known the fact of the grading system and its level of privileges. He had observed the attitudes of the lower grades before but he had never been so close to the bitterness and resentment that he could almost feel it himself. “Don’t be a fool.”
“I’m a fool to think that you’d understand. You’re an Alpha. You don’t have to understand, do you? You’re all alike.”
“You are a fool,” said Avon.
Vila snapped at him, “And you’re a snob.”
“Is this going to descend to a shouting match? I don’t have the time to waste on such a pointless activity just because you’re bored.”
“Fine! I don’t have time for you either.” Vila stood up angrily and went back to his station. He was fuming and started jabbing away at his panel.
Avon wasn’t sure what had just happened. How did an attempt at conversation become a pitched verbal battle? Vila had been in a bad mood before and now it was even worse. It appeared that they both had past issues to deal with. Their attempt to talk had dredged up some old and deeply ingrained negative feelings for Vila. Avon hated these relational complexities. It was much easier to understand computers that were not motivated by irrational feelings.
He knew what Cally would say in this instance. It was invariably her advice when he came into conflict with someone else. Deal with it now. That was easier said than done, at least for someone for whom this wasn’t instinctive. He had made a commitment to their relationship, he had to try. A little hope might be in order.
“Perhaps ‘fool’ was the wrong choice of word for what I was trying to convey.”
Vila was in a very foul mood. Wild horses would have to drag him out of it. He said with sarcastic anger, “Why? We’re all fools to you.”
“I’m trying to explain.”
“Apology not accepted. Go back to staring at your computers. They’re more important to you.”
Avon got up from his seat and went over to stand by Vila. Vila glared at him. “Functionally, the computers are more important, but not in a personal sense.”
“I knew it. They are more important to you." He was about to take his anger out on a button on his panel when he paused and asked, "Wait a minute…what was that last bit?”
“Friends are not functionally significant but they are necessary.”
Vila straightened up and leaned towards him. “Did you just say that I’m important to you? Or did I miss something?”
“For once, you haven’t.”
Vila grinned. “You’re not functionally significant to me either.”
Avon eyebrows rose in incredulous disbelief, “No?”
“Well…not most of the time. I have to admit, you’re handy…with a broken food dispenser. And not to mention, cleaning appliances.” Vila smirked.
“I suppose I should feel flattered,” Avon said flatly.
“There’s nothing more important than food. And friends.”
They stared at each other; deep, mysterious eyes and encouraging eyes that contained laughter.
“Avon, you said that you were trying to explain something before?”
“Deltas were not the only ones to be oppressed by the Federation.”
“You’re talking about the Alphas? How could that be? You have everything. Power. Wealth. All of it.”
Avon’s throat tightened. “Everything except our lives. Without that, everything else is an illusion.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Not all Alphas are created equal. Some are more equal than others.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“You should understand. You have more memories of the Academy than I do.”
Vila’s eyes widened in shocked comprehension. “I…never thought of it that way. You mean, it was always like that for you?”
“My mind was valuable and they needed it to perform to specifications. Having a will beyond theirs was not within acceptable parameters.”
Vila shivered. “That sounds like a machine.”
“I was a machine to them.”
Vila remembered something, he had accused Avon of being that once. There seemed to be a flicker of pain in Avon’s eyes that day, but Vila had dismissed it as Avon lashed out at him with words. How could a machine have any feelings? “I don’t know if you remember but I called you a machine once. I didn’t mean it.”
“Yes, you did.”
Vila nodded. “I don’t anymore.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Avon, when I got caught for stealing, they sent me to penal colonies. Juvenile and low grade ones at first. They tried to condition us. I thought it was to stop me from stealing but you said that it was to make me more afraid and more easily led.”
“That was their goal with the Deltas, to keep them subservient. It only succeeded partially with you. That would explain your inconsistent behaviour.”
“Is that what they did to you?”
Avon’s eyes took on a faraway look. “They couldn’t afford the same type of conditioning. The tendency to rebel against accepted thinking was connected to my ability to overcome problems that no one else could. They could not afford to tamper with that. There were…special rehabilitation clinics, similar to the ones they have for Federation officers. They suppressed areas of my mind that weren’t considered useful and accentuated others. All of my creative and reasoning abilities were focused on specific areas. However, as with you, they were only partially successful. The tendency to rebel worked against them in the end.”
“You could never stand fools.”
“Avon, do you think you could build a time machine?”
“Well, a clever man like you…who can fix problems no one else can…”
“Theoretically, it might be possible. The Federation’s time distort technology is a crude attempt at multidimensional manipulation, but we are far from time travel.”
“Wow. I was just kidding but if you think it’s possible…”
“Not within our lifetimes.”
“That puts a damper on things.”
“But if we can go back and change the past...”
“Then so can the Federation. What do you think the Federation would do with time travel technology?”
“Oh.” Then Vila’s eyes opened wide. “Ooooh. That wouldn’t be good. Now you have me worried.”
“That’s surprising,” said Avon with light sarcasm.
“Doesn’t it worry you?”
“Worrying about things you can’t do anything about, accomplishes nothing.”
Vila was about to say something snarky about Avon’s attitude but then Avon’s tone made him suspicious. “Avon, what about things you can do something about?”
Avon’s lips curled in a lopsided smile and his eyes brightened. “I acted.”
“You said, acted? Avon, what did you do?”
“When Servalan…” He had a brief flash of anger at the mention of his enemy’s name. “…had me working for her. I was involved on numerous projects. I…” Avon rubbed his wrist with nervous tension. “…did what she demanded, but not what she wanted. I made advances in technology but not to the extent that I could have. Some of those areas dealt with time distort technology.”
“You sabotaged them?”
“I pointed their advances to directions that would not increase their understanding of dimensional manipulation.”
“You did sabotage them! That's brilliant!”
“Indirectly. Assuming, of course, that other scientists do not make these advances on their own.”
“How long will it take for them to achieve time travel.”
Avon grinned. “Long enough. I’m keeping a close eye on any advances in this area.”
“Good.” Vila hadn’t felt this comfortable talking with Avon in a long time, not since they shared those bottles of wine. “Avon, how much do you remember about the Academy?”
Avon started at the abrupt change in topic. “I have vague recollections.” There was an ache in his head, it happened whenever he tried to push past the memory blocks, but he ignored it.
“I remember you, at least some of you. We got on well. We used to talk and joke.”
“I don’t remember.”
Avon could see the disappointment on Vila’s face. “I remember you as a child.”
“You do? But I thought you said you didn’t remember anything?”
“I don’t remember specific details but…” This was something that Avon didn’t fully understand but it was something he was sure of. “…I remember…I have an impression of our relationship.”
“D’you want me to tell you what I remember?”
The ache was threatening to become a full-fledged headache but Avon refused to let it take control. “Tell me.”