The Shade lab was antiseptic and cold but Jenna was boiling with anger. "Why didn't you tell me what you were doing?"
Morten, the head of the enforcers, was a career criminal that the Shade organization charged with protecting its interests and expanding their power base. He would do whatever was necessary, no questions asked.
The enforcer was a deceptively formal and polite man who spoke with the chill of death on his lips. His hair was jet black and slicked back. He had long slender, sensitive fingers like an artist, but his talent was for death and mayhem.
He spoke in a low, raspy voice. "Your role here is to establish Shade production and distribution. Mine is to make sure that you succeed. You seem to be under the mistaken impression that I answer to you."
The dripping of water from a nearby pipe grated on Jenna's stretched nerves. "I certainly don't answer to you."
The enforcer's lips pulled back in a death's head smile. "That's true, you don't. We both answer to a higher power."
The frosty air of the lab seemed to pass right through Jenna's clothes, sending a shiver up her spine. "I answer to no one. This is just a temporary arrangement for profit."
"Why do you think I'm here?"
Jenna had the sick feeling that the situation had spiralled out of control when she wasn't looking. "I did not agree to this."
"You did when you agreed to work with us." Morten leaned on the railing with his elbows as he surveyed the lab techs below. His words were courteous, but there was an undercurrent of menace to everything he said. "You may have supplied this place and the information we needed to operate more effectively here but don't forget that you're the one who needs us. We could do the same thing without you. Only a little slower. You have no influence on how we operate. If you keep your part of the agreement, you receive a percentage of the profits. That is how it works. The rest is none of your concern and I strongly suggest that you keep it that way, for your sake and the sake of the people on your ship."
Jenna was never one to appear weak before anyone. "I don't respond very well to threats."
Morten was the kind of man whose smiles never touched his eyes. "Did I say it was a threat? Remember that we have this base now."
His meaning was very clear. They no longer need me. Jenna wished she were wearing something warmer. It was far too cold in the lab. Morten must have orders to kill us if we interfere. It's a warning, not a threat. We were only valuable as long as they needed us. I was a fool to think that I would be controlling them.
The image of Rane plagued her. His gaunt, pale face. His laboured breathing. Curled up in a ball, his body wracked by pain that made her wince. She had tried to force him to take the Shade but his anger had stopped her. Friends don't force each other, Jenna. If you have ever considered me as your friend, then respect my wishes. Each word had been a stab of accusation. She could still feel the blades of guilt as they churned in her stomach.
I betrayed our friendship for nothing. I thought I was doing the right thing.
The weeks of lies and manipulation. Pretending that she was helping when in fact she was leading his men nowhere. It had all worked out perfectly. She was amassing a small personal fortune, far greater than the one she had lost many years ago. Soon she would have enough to resources to become a real threat.
She already had enough for her revenge. All the people were in place. The rebel leaders had all been contacted.
Then why couldn't she sleep at night? Why did all food taste like dust to her? Why was her mind burning up with opposing thoughts and conflicted feelings?
It was all justified, wasn't it? The Cause will be advanced. We're one step closer to winning. That's all that matters. Isn't it?
Blake I need you! I need you to tell me what I did was right. Everything had been so clear when Blake was around. He had been her Rock at times when all seemed lost and a whirlwind that threatened to knock down everything in his path. When he said it was right, it washed away all her doubts, the voices of guilt faded away under his belief. He had believed. He thought he had no choice but to believe.
Rane's emaciated image mouthed silent words to her. His image was becoming a skull in her mind. What about me, Jenna? Are you going to forget me? Just like you've done with all the others? How many, Jenna? How many friends have you betrayed like this? The knives churned in her stomach. Jenna grimaced and tightened her grip on the railing. Would these be the words Rane would say to her if he knew?
Do you even feel guilty anymore? Or can you sweep it all away because it's it all justified? You have your money now. You can accomplish your goals. Take it and go.
This was why she had left Blake in the first place. The blood had become too much. She was drowning in it, all for the sake of doing what was right. Ever since she joined Blake. All of those innocent people. The ones they blew up. The ones they sacrificed. She hadn't wanted to make friends any more, only to betray them with lies when they didn't want to be led to their deaths.
They're our friends, Blake.
It will be worth it in the end, Jenna. You'll see. Once we win, they'll all see that I was right.
However, she had loved Blake and she had not wanted to stop loving him. She had not wanted to stop believing in him. That was why she had left, because loving Blake meant doing what he wanted, and she couldn't do it anymore.
From a distance, she could still love the legend, the man of passion and compassion that she had admired. But Blake had felt that the only way to fight the Federation, to fight fire, was with fire. It was an old adage that had survived the millennia but she had never understood the human cost.
In her blind vengeance and guilt, she had almost forgotten how it had ended between them.
I can't be like you, Blake. Not anymore. I'm not strong enough. I can't look past…my friend. No more Ranes, not because of me.
Morten was looking at her strangely. Jenna relaxed the stranglehold she had on the rail and said, "You're right. I should mind my own business."
I will take the money and run. Do what I set out to. Destroy Avon and fund the Resistance.
"I like you, Jen, you're a smart woman but don't try to cross the organization. I'd hate to have to be the one to kill you."
"But you'd do it."
"I'm glad we understand each other.”
She had to fix the damage she had already done.
"One of the people you poisoned is a friend of mine."
Morten sighed like a man with too many burdens. "Then I understand. It's an ugly business we're in. Sometimes friends have to be sacrificed. We don't have a choice."
"I know it would be a big favour to ask but…"
"You want me to spare his life?"
"How did you know it was a he?" she asked guardedly.
The enforcer made a small gesture with his hand, "I assumed."
He must think that I'm doing this for a lover or someone very close to me.
"I'll make sure he will no longer be a threat to the organization. Just name your price. As you said, I have the credits now."
Morten smiled but sadness touched his eyes. "No money would be enough."
"You don't understand, Jen. There is no cure."
There is only slavery. "He's going to die."
"I'm sorry. There's nothing anyone can do for him. I suggest that you go to him while he still has time left."
Jenna bowed her head, her throat was tight with an anguish that robbed her of further words. She turned to leave but Morten stopped her.
"Take my advice, Jen. Take your money and get out while you can. You're not ruthless, like most of the people I work with. You can't stomach what we need to do. You're still a decent human being."
"What about you?"
Morten had a strange barking laugh. "I've never been a decent human being. I will do whatever it takes to get the job done."
"It's never too late."
"It's my choice but it doesn't have to be yours. I don't know what your agenda was when you sought us out, Jen. I know you had one. It's written all over you. But nothing is worth the price of not being able to sleep at night."
Jenna nodded and left the labs. The price was already being paid.
Rane said that the Justice was coming. She could try to help them destroy the Shade organization on Athol. All they needed was her information. Maybe with ORAC's help, they could find the antidote. It was the only hope. Perhaps they'd be able to save Shade users everywhere. It might be able to ease her conscience somewhat. She hoped that Rane would be able to hold out.
As she stepped into the night air, the coldness of the lab fell away. There was one goal she would not give up on though, Avon had to die. She was certain that she would lose no sleepless nights over what she was planning to do to him.
Long blue crest banners lined the walls of the Presidential Hall. The air was filled with hushed and excited conversations. Almost everyone wore formal military dress uniforms. Even the women had on the wine red that had become their signature colour. Reya had the Champions emblem over her left breast, the Chandaran crest cradled in strong, protective hands. The President and various functionaries stood on a large raised podium.
Reya maintained polite interest throughout the proceedings as Senators and other officials had their moments in the spotlight. This was a Sector-wide broadcast after all.
In reality, Reya was meditating on the universal need of all politicians to give long, boring, and self-gratifying speeches. She never understood the necessity herself and from the rigid expression on President Trist's face, neither did he.
When the last painful verbal sacrifice to ceremony had been performed, President Trist stood up and with formal gravity, held his hands out for attention. "Champion Reya, will you and your team approach?"
Reya led her group up to stand proud before the Chandaran President.
Trist said, "Champion Reya, when you first had the audacity to challenge us, there was a great deal of hostility and scepticism. Despite what we witnessed you doing, no one believed that women could compete with men. Many didn't think they deserved to stand on the same field. But you have proven us all wrong. In the space of a month, you've trained women who could not only stand with a man but beat him."
The crowd began to whisper amongst themselves.
Trist passed his eyes over the assembly. "I know that no one wants to admit it, but no one can deny what we all saw. Do you have anything to say before I declare the winner of this contest?"
Reya stepped forward and bowed her head formally. "President Trist. It is the women of your planet who deserve all of the credit. If they had not been capable of this in the first place, no amount of training would have helped. You have incredible women here."
"We are beginning to see that," he said gravely. "There are several matters to be taken care of today. First, the Three Challenges. The First Challenge was a draw. The women won the Second one and as for the Third,…I think we can all agree that there were, shall we say, unique circumstances. For the results of that one, I will leave to a special presenter, Senator Jernis."
Kirsten started and there were oohs of surprise as her father was rolled in on a wheelchair. His right side was immobilized in a sling and bandages were wrapped around his head. A hush descended as he was brought up to the platform.
Jernis was pale but his eyes were bright with determination. "For those who were wondering, I am not dead. Just a few minor scratches but I'll be around making trouble for many years to come."
Good-natured laughter filled the Hall. Everyone was well versed in the Senator's trouble-making capacity.
"But we are not here to talk about me. I would be the last one to admit that a woman could be the equal of a man. And I still will not." The audience seemed to be holding their breaths, wondering how much mischief he was about to perpetrate now. "But, as the President has noted, we cannot deny what we all witnessed with our own eyes. Even an old codger like me, since I was there. I will not say that women are equal to men but…I will say that it is extremely gratifying to know that our women are better than the Thyssen men."
The Hall burst into uproarious laughter. When it began to die down, he said to the women, "You acquitted yourselves with skill and distinction in all three Challenges. And for better or worse, and over the protests and antagonism of many, including myself, you've given us all a different perspective of the women of this planet."
There were reactions of surprise.
"I don't thank you but it would be small-minded of me to dismiss it." He seemed to brace himself as he turned back to the audience. "On behalf of the men's team and the adjudicators, I declare that the women are the winners of the Three Challenges."
There was stunned silence. Not because they didn't expect the results, but it was Jernis who was saying this. Scatterings of applause broken the silence but became louder as President Trist and all of the Champions added their congratulations.
Jernis held up his hand. "I'm not finished." His eyes sought out his daughter. "Kirsten, stand forward."
Kirsten took a few steps forward. Father and daughter stared at each other for a few moments. They seemed like two people who had become strangers but were trying to find a connection again.
"I made an agreement with you and I am a man of my word. I declare before this assembly and all of the Chandar Alliance that you and the women with you have won your freedom."
"Thank you…father." She waited apprehensively, wondering if he would berate her for calling him father again.
Jernis stared at her for what seemed a long time; until there were restless rustlings in the audience. President Trist cleared his throat and was about to say something but Jernis finally said, "I still do not understand what happened in the Third Challenge, but I am grateful to you for staying. If it weren't for you, we would all be dead."
"It wasn't just me. It was all of us."
The next words came from reluctant lips. "All of you showed a great deal of courage by staying when you had no weapons to face the enemy."
There were excited murmurings in the crowd.
"Had the situation been reversed, I'm not sure if I would have done the same. You showed a nobility of character and degree of loyalty that I would not have thought possible for a woman. These are traits that we hold up as ideals in our society." Jernis turned to Trist. "President Trist, I would like to put forth a submission."
"Make your submission, Senator."
Jernis paused. "I would like to submit that the women who were on the ship be considered as candidates to be made Champions of Chandar."
There was a roar of surprise as everyone reacted at once.
One person was not surprised. He was the one preparing to return to the man who had been more of a father to him than his real father had been. There was no happiness; only a faint, wry satisfaction that everything had worked out exactly as he had planned.
Sester had a pang of regret at having endangered Kirsten's life but it had been a small, calculated risk. The things she had dreamed of but never considered possible were now within her grasp. The rest had been child's play for him. He knew that Argus would move the constellations to make sure that no one died. The man was reassuringly predictable that way. He was also certain of Kirsten. No matter how she felt, she would never let her father die.
Manipulating the Chandarans had been relatively simple. They had certain weaknesses that were easily exploited using their own media broadcasts. He had been like the director of a dramatic performance, moving the players, influencing the timing and controlling the scenes in order to produce the right emotional and psychological responses. His greatest triumph had been the manoeuvring of Senator Jernis.
He had arranged it all the day the he had contacted Servalan. The Federation President had many valuable resources in interestingly low places.
No one could ever know his role in what had happened. That was the lot of the puppet master. He lurked in the shadows, pulling the strings.
Besides, he doubted if anyone would understand or appreciate what he had done. Argus and Avon would most likely draw and quarter him. With a very dull knife. The Chandarans would be outraged and shoot him on sight. But as long as they didn’t know, they could rejoice in the accidents of fate that would eventually change an entire society.
Sester wished he weren't leaving now. There were many things he wanted to say to Kirsten, but he had other priorities. With regret, he left his cabin and headed for the hangar bay.
Sester paused outside of his sleek craft, ident-key in hand.
"Were you going to leave without telling me?"
How does she do that? Sester turned nonchalantly to see Kirsten coming out of the shadows. The flush of excitement and triumph were still on her cheeks. His heart beat faster.
"Yes." This was her time and he was glad for her. She didn't need to know the complexities of his life.
"Is something wrong?"
Sester suddenly wanted to gather her in his arms and go back to his cabin but he knew that he couldn't. "Nothing's wrong, I have something to attend to."
"Will you be back?"
She was standing too close for comfort. Her barely suppressed hope was a radiating warmth that threatened to melt his firm resolve. It was not enough to stop him from leaving but it filled him with regret and unfulfilled desires. "Yes."
"I'll wait for you then."
Sester nodded. They both knew that she would still be on the ship when he came back. He leaned forward and gave her a peck on the cheek. "You did very well out there. I'm proud of you."
Kirsten's face turned red. "I only did what I had to do."
"We all did."
"This victory belongs as much to you as to anyone. You're the one who suggested that I challenge my father."
"Yes, but you and the others were the ones who had to face him." He suddenly realized that they were standing even closer than before. The soft curves of her anatomy brushed lightly against his own body, sending pulses of desire through him. His voice was husky as he said, "I have to go." He deliberately took a step back. "I will be back. I promise."
The Regulators were ready for Sester when he entered between the tall majestic columns of the Guild headquarters. Unlike other psychostrategists, they wore long flowing capes that seemed to swallow the light. There were no words. They gestured and he followed. He wished that he'd had a drink of water before leaving his ship. His mouth was dry.
The arch to Chamber Five came into view. He shivered involuntarily.
The escorts left him at the door while another gestured him forward. Attempts at humour wouldn't be appropriate at this time but Sester liked flying in the face of convention, especially in the Guild. He thought in jest, Abandon hope all ye who enter. As he passed the threshold into the murky darkness of the chamber, it became a crashing reality. The very air of the chamber seemed to reach inside him and tear out his strength.
A low booming voice ordered, “Stand in the circle.” It was his master's voice. Lights lit the edges of a circular platform. His legs obeyed automatically.
As he stood in the circle, his eyes straining into the darkness, he felt like a young child again.
“You know what to do.”
Sester began to take his clothes off, dropping each piece on the ground, wondering when he would be told to stop. Was his master angry enough with him that he would require him to be stripped bare?
The cold of the chamber was sharp against his flesh as each layer of clothing was removed. His hands went to the final one.
Sester stood shivering in nothing but his shorts as silent eyes watched him. Each exhale sent a puff of warm air into the room.
“The last one.”
Sester hesitated and then he obeyed.
He stood naked now, devoid of any protection. He had become an object under someone else’s control.
He lowered himself to the ground. Sounds of feet approached and knelt behind him. Hands grabbed his arms and pulled them back, fastening his wrists with restraints, pulled tight. The unseen figures disappeared from whence they came as he knelt naked and bound in the centre of the circle. His clothes had disappeared from the platform.
“You will not move until you are told. You will not speak until you are given permission to. You may nod once.”
Sester nodded in acceptance of the treatment.
The room fell silent except for the faint sound of his own breathing. The circulation vents blew cold air across his naked body. Soon he was shivering constantly. The restraints that bit into his wrists barely allowed enough blood to pass through to his hands. It became a numbing pain but he forced himself to stay still. He was not allowed to move, not even the little bit to adjust the cuffs so that his hands would not feel like they were about to fall off.
He breathed in hissed breaths as he fought against the pain and cold. His knees soon joined the chorus of pain as the hard floor seemed to press up against them causing agonizing pressure. He applied his mind to block out everything except the mechanical act of breathing. In and out. Nothing else.
A memory flashed through his mind. Avon lying naked on the hard, cold floor of the isolation room. Moaning in agony as Sester applied more pain until he passed out or became so exhausted that he could only whimper weakly.
Sester shut his eyes against the memories. What he was enduring now was nothing compared to what he had done to Avon. He had learned his torturing skills here in the place of discipline. Soon it would not only be this psychological game to strip his identity and force his mind to work against itself. He shuddered in anticipation, unable to stop himself from visualizing what would happen next.
In the midst of it, there was one warm memory, Kirsten's hopeful face and the warm concern in her eyes. Will you be back?
I hope so.