The impeccably dressed woman on Sester’s screen was always a source of challenge. She could also be a useful tool if handled correctly. Of course, it was somewhat like trying to handle a dangerous snake without protective gear but he was fully confident in his own abilities. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t manipulate if he set his mind to it. Not even his master was entirely immune. His fingers lightly ran along the edge of the curved flight panel. A casual, amused smile played on his lips. It was his normal persona; it was also his most dangerous one. “Madame President.”
If you found a person’s personal interests and could convince them that they would be serving those interests, they could be easily influenced. Successful people usually had very powerful personal concerns.
Servalan was as composed as an ice statue. “Psychostrategist.”
A broad smile spread across his face. “To what do I owe this latest attempt at intimidation, Madame President?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
Sester chuckled. “Madame President, I’m surprised at you. If I was that easily manipulated, I would be worthless to you.”
“You haven’t proven that useful yet.”
“Not officially, but personally? That is why you have me on this ship, isn’t it?” Truth could set some people free. For others, it was an invisible prison.
Servalan’s cultured voice betrayed nothing except cool menace. “Why have you called me?”
“How serious were you at providing assistance to the women of Chandar?”
After two days of enforced rest, Cally couldn't wait to get out of bed but her unofficial nurse wouldn't let her anywhere near the floor until the doctors had cleared her to move. He was very stubborn about it and no amount of persuasion would move him or elicit any emotional response other than a calm but firm, no. To be fair, Avon did have a point and he was following the orders of the doctors. Any movement brought pain and might risk opening up her wound. As the resident medic, she knew this and had given the same orders to her patients, but it was different being on the other side of the bed.
Avon came into the medical unit carrying a tray that he set carefully on the table next to her. "It's time for lunch."
Cally grumbled, "How could I tell? It's always the same thing. Let me guess; is it beef broth this time? Or jelly. Or are you going to surprise me with a combination of the two?"
He stared at her. "You would prefer something else?"
The steam rising from the bowl didn't smell particularly appealing to Avon either but she needed to eat. "The doctors didn't authorize anything else."
"What they don't know won't hurt them."
"But it might hurt you." He dipped the spoon into the broth and stirred it around.
"I'm the resident medic, I should know."
Avon scooped up a spoonful, blew onto its hot surface, and brought it up to her lips.
With her mouth staunchly closed, Cally looked rebelliously at the broth.
Avon said reasonably, "You're a patient now."
As she opened her mouth to respond, "But I'm…" Avon pressed the spoon to her open mouth and poured the broth in.
Cally glowered at him with consternation as she swallowed the offending liquid. Avon dipped the spoon into the bowl. "I will ask the doctors for a different diet recommendation but you'll have to endure this for now." He brought the spoon up to her lips again but this time, there was hard determination on her face. She was not about to fall for the same trick.
Avon said, "Would it make it easier if I share the same foods until the doctors authorize more palatable items?"
Cally looked surprised. "You would do that for me?"
"I would. Although…it is not as much of a sacrifice for me. I'm used to foods that are less than appetizing."
This was the first time she had heard this. "You are?"
Avon's jaw tightened in memory. "At the Detention Centre."
Cally nodded in understanding. "Prisoner food."
It wasn't something Avon would have preferred to remember or to share with anyone, not even Cally. "It was deliberate."
"I don't understand. You mean they purposefully made it taste bad?"
The memory alone made Avon's stomach turn and his tongue taste the foulness of what he had been forced to eat. But the man who barely allowed any emotion to cross his face was back. His voice was emotionless, as if it were a clinical observation, "Yes. It was a form of control."
There was empathy on Cally's face as she tried to imagine what it must have been like for him. "I can see it as a form of torture but how was it control?"
The look on Cally's face was the reason why Avon had never wanted to share this kind of detail. Other people's sympathy and pity were burdens he didn't want to bear. "If I reacted to the food as you are now, I would be punished. Then they would make it taste even worse. In the end, I learned to block out certain senses. It was not worth the fight. I needed my energy in other areas."
Avon still had the spoon held out for her. Cally looked at the offending liquid and opened her mouth to accept it. It didn’t taste any better than the last spoonful but it must have been infinitely better than what Avon had to endure. As Avon filled another spoonful, Cally asked, "I suppose you would consider this a gourmet treat?"
A sliver of a smile tugged at the corner of Avon's lips. "No."
It was one of the burdens of a psychostrategist to endure fools and people who did not have the same intelligence or perspective, which covered just about everyone.
Sester was the detached, professional strategist. "I did warn you that there would be more traffic than you might expect and that the aliens in this facility are too highly placed for comfort."
Argus said, "How are we supposed to interpret something that's so cryptic?"
"I don’t expect you to interpret anything...” Sester allowed a faint smirk to show on his lips. “…correctly. You only had to ask me."
Irritation seemed to be Argus’s constant companion when speaking with this man. "You would’ve only given me more riddles."
"They're only riddles if you don't understand the answer."
Argus prevented a growl from escaping. "That's what I said. If I didn't know better, I might think that you didn't know what you were talking about and that's why you talk so that no one can understand you."
"Sometimes you show distinct signs of intelligence and then I wake up."
Grinding his teeth in frustration was Argus’s only recourse as he refused to rise to the bait. “I want to know the impact of disturbing this group of aliens. You obviously had some thoughts before Cally went down.”
“You want my assessment as a psychostrategist? Didn’t you just complain that I only spoke in riddles that you didn’t understand?”
Argus exhaled forcefully. He knew what Sester was trying to do but he didn’t have a choice. He said evenly, “You said that you would provide an explanation.”
Sester watched him closely. He knew Argus’s character; it had not changed in all these years. “That wasn’t quite what I said.”
Argus’s glare threatened to drill holes in the man who wasn’t supposed to be his opponent anymore. “I‘m asking you to explain it to me in a way that I can understand.”
Sester smiled. “Alright.”
In a low, hard voice, Argus said, “Now that I’ve stroked your ego, it’s time to see how good you are.”
Shadows played across the Guildmaster’s face as he spoke. “The pieces are all in place.”
The people in the room were all master psychostrategists of the highest order. Older men and women who controlled the fate of worlds without a second’s thought. Sester might be the most gifted puppeteer in several generations, but he was not yet privy to the inner sanctum. The Guildmaster was grooming him to be his successor, but for now, he was one of their most precious and dangerous instruments.
Saraid was a woman with sharp eyes and an even sharper sense of danger. “We were right. They remembered each other even without the cognitive knowledge.”
Zeveron, a precise man who specialized in risk calculation, said, “Their bond was always strong.”
Saraid said, “Fortunately for us.”
Guildmaster Venner said, “And for them. They might be able to recover part of what was taken away from them.”
Deverell was considered ruthless, even by his fellow psychostrategists. “Not too much or they would no longer be as useful. Regardless of what you say Guildmaster, what our enemies did, has worked to our advantage. We were lucky that Sester was sent to us or we would never have known what they were trying to do.”
Zeveron had a clipped voice. “Hopefully we will have better success with them than the other one. Trying to turn him was a great failure.”
There were murmurs of agreement.
Venner frowned. “The pressure was too great. Going insane in the way that he did was an outside possibility. His basic character should have been strong enough to overcome what was done to his mind.”
Deverell said with a cold sneer, “The man was an arrogant menace.”
Venner nodded. “That was the flaw that made him useless in the end.”
Sester picked up his knight and peered into its dark eyes. He was playing alone but his subconscious kept giving him annoying images of Kirsten touching the white pieces and countering his every strategy.
Where are you, Kirsten?
There were details he needed to tell her about the final contest but she had made no indication that she was interested in speaking to him. Sester reached out with his black knight and made his next move against himself. If she wanted to play games, he could wait. He had all the time in the world; he was not the one who had a personal stake in the outcome.