Avon, Argus and Vila were on the flight deck, discussing Sester's abrupt departure.
Argus was at his flight station. "What do you think he's up to?"
Avon was leaning against the ledge in front of Zen. His arms were folded across his chest as he half-listened to the conversation. There was something odd about what had happened in the Third Challenge. He said absently, "Nothing good."
Vila made himself more comfortable on the couch. "A place full of people who think we're puppets? It gives me the shivers just thinking about it."
Avon looked up briefly. "I agree with Vila."
Vila twisted around to face him. "You do?"
"It's too dangerous having a group of people whose sole purpose is to manipulate others."
Argus paused in the middle of checking a reading. "I hope you're not suggesting what I think you're suggesting."
Avon pushed himself away from the ledge. "Why not?" He approached the flight station with his hands clasped thoughtfully behind him. "They're obviously working for Servalan."
Argus said, "Servalan or the Federation?"
"Now that's an interesting question."
Vila asked, "Does it matter? Either way is dangerous for us."
Argus said, "I'm not going to blow them up. You may have been used to it with Blake, but I don't operate that way."
Argus fixed Avon with a glare. "And I believe that neither did you."
"But not out of some misplaced sense of altruism. Random acts of destruction with no coherent plan are pointless. The only thing that does is cause a lot of unnecessary suffering. Hardly in our interests if we want to convince people to fight the Federation. People rarely feel charitable once their families have become collateral damage."
"But you're proposing to destroy the Guild headquarters?"
Vila sat up. "Wait a minute; isn't Sester supposed to be there?"
Argus's eyes narrowed and he stared hard at Avon.
Avon's lips curled in a lop-sided grin. "Well?"
"Are you giving me a reason or an excuse?"
Avon asked, "Which do you need?"
"Neither. Because I'm not doing it."
"That's all I needed to know." Avon went over to join Vila at the couches.
"That's all you needed…wait a minute. You knew that I wouldn't do it."
Avon stared at the ceiling. "You're painfully predictable."
"Then why propose the idea if you knew I wouldn't?"
Vila's brows were knitted as he recalled their earlier words. "Avon never said that he wanted to destroy them."
Avon folded his arms across his chest.
Argus frowned slightly as he realized this. "I'm the only one who did. As you said, I assumed."
"You're bound by the rigidity of the military mind. Even though you won't do it, your thought processes still lean in that direction."
"Alright. Now that we've established that I'm rigid…"
Vila stifled a laugh by coughing. His naughty mind was conjuring up an interesting image. He must be more tired than he thought.
Argus threw him an annoyed glance. He asked Avon, "Why don't you tell me why you brought this up? You never do anything without a reason."
"In light of our success on Chandar, I think we need to rethink our strategy. Against the Andromedans and the Federation. We need a long-term plan."
"I agree with that."
Vila asked, "You mean like what you did with the Pylene-50 and the warlords? That didn't work very well."
Avon grimaced at the reminder of failure. "I misjudged Zukan's intelligence and greed. And Servalan's deviousness. If Zukan had not turned…" Avon's jaw tightened at a stab of pain in his stomach. If Zukan had not betrayed them, the last four years of his life would have been vastly different and a friend would not be dead.
Vila asked worriedly, "Avon?"
Another stab in his chest. Fists tightened. His eyes could no longer see the present. Did I hate him that much?
Cally's worried voice entered his mind. * Avon. Are you all right? *
Vila peered into the unseeing eyes. "Avon!"
Argus rushed over and knelt down beside the man who was frozen in pain and guilt. "Avon! Stop thinking about it!"
Another stab in his chest. Like the blast of a rifle hitting, pushing him backwards. Avon collapsed back against the couch. There was a tickle of thought at the back of his mind. Odd.
He heard Cally's voice again, this time more urgent. * Avon! *
Very odd. As his mind asserted itself, he became calmer.
"Avon!" Both men shouted, trying to reach him. Argus had his hands on Avon’s shoulders, preparing to shake him out of the nightmare he was trapped in.
Avon thought to her, * I'm fine, Cally. A twinge of memory. Nothing more. *
She asked, * Do you need one of the doctors? *
"Vila, go get…" Cally was still in the medical unit recovering. "…one of the doctors. Hurry!"
Avon grabbed Argus's arm. "No."
Avon thought to her, * No. I'm fine. The others are with me. *
Cally said reluctantly, * Alright. But you will let me know if something happens? *
* I promise. *
Avon's calmer eyes focused on Argus's face. "I'm fine." He let go of the other man's arm.
Argus asked worriedly, "It still affects you, doesn't it?"
"Only if we talk about it." Avon needed time to process the idea he had. Alone.
Argus could almost hear the additional walls going up between them. Avon wasn't ready to deal with it, at least not with any of them. "Let's go back to discussing this idea of a long-term plan."
Sester blinked as he came back to himself. He shivered violently as his sluggish mind connected with his body. C-c-cold. Parts of his body were so numb that he couldn't feel the pain anymore.
How long have I been here? Long enough for his stomach to be complaining bitterly at being neglected. More than twenty-four hours? It feels longer.
The voice boomed again. "Charles."
"Master." How many times had the master called out his name before he heard it?
“How do you feel?”
Sester knew that this question expected a different answer. It was a solicitation about his health, but not his physical one. As a child he had not known this when he was first sent to this dark chamber but he was a fast learner. “Whatever you want me to feel.”
The approval of his master warmed his frozen body.
He grimaced at the command. This is going to be interesting. Having his hands free would have been of enormous help but they were still bound behind him. He took a deep breath, feeling the sharp air enter his lungs, chilling him further. He shifted his weight to one side and cried out as thousands of hot pins seemed to stab into his knees at once. He collapsed to the ground, moaning in agony as feeling rushed back into previously numb areas.
Hooded black figures appeared at his side and removed his restraints, causing even more pain as blood rushed to deprived areas. They hauled him up unceremoniously, holding him until his knees no longer buckled under his weight. Once he was able to stand unaided, they disappeared as noiselessly as they came.
Sester stood on shaky legs as he waited for the next order. He had not expected the help, that had never happened before. It was more of the psychological game, to keep him guessing and disoriented.
Don’t expect anything and they will not be able to dash your hopes. He wondered if Avon had learned that lesson at the Detention Centre. He had to have. No man could stand the repeated destruction of hope, no matter how trivial that hope was. One had to give it up altogether or find one that his tormentors did not know about.
Sester’s hope was that his master wanted what was best for him. That was the test. No matter what was done to him, he had to believe. It had been a hard lesson to learn as a child, to trust the man who wielded the power of life and death over him; who would torment him for purposes only the master understood.
In the end, it had been worth it. He had breezed past all the trials until he stood alone as the best. He was able to achieve what no one else dared to attempt. He was the irresistible whirlwind that swept away all obstacles put in his path; single-handedly engineering the return of most of the Inner Worlds to the Federation after Star One had been destroyed. It was a masterpiece of devious politics and no one other than a select few in the Guild ever knew the instrumental role he had played behind the scenes. Not even Servalan knew even though she had briefly been the unwitting recipient of his efforts.
He didn't know what was coming next. In this room, any punishment depended on the whims of its controller. More hooded figures entered the chamber. Sester’s heart pounded in his chest when he saw the object that one of them carried. It was a silver rod the length of a man’s arm, its surface smooth to the touch, with no hint to its true purpose. Anyone could touch it without effect but when he touched it…Sester shivered. He could already feel a cold sweat. He wasn't sure he was ready for this.
All of this raced through his mind, as his face remained unmoved. The shrouded figure came to stand in front of him, the object held in both hands and extended towards him.
His master's voice boomed in command. “Take it. Do not let go until I tell you to.”
Sester took the rod firmly in both hands. It was cold and hard, its bright surface glinted in his eyes. He cried out as the rod glowed red and electrifying pulses coursed through his body; like the prods that were used on animals to tame them to their human masters. He groaned and collapsed to his knees but he did not let go of the rod.
Avon was back in his lab, staring at the parts of ORAC laid out neatly on a workbench, its clear case little more than an empty shell holding dead parts. There was a faint look of disgust on his face as his fingers played absently with a laser probe. Without the proper parts, it was impossible to fix the cantankerous machine. He didn't miss the computer's insolent behaviour but it had its uses.
He sat down in front of his computer. ORAC was nothing but a computer after all, a complex machine that could process millions of computations in a nanosecond. It did not have the creativity of the human machine. Avon smiled wryly. He was the one who had the breakthrough to synthesize the Pylene-50 antidote. ORAC had simply served as a sophisticated simulation tool.
Avon began building the template of the program that would be required to run simulations on Shade antidotes. At the back of his mind, he continued thinking about the oddity.
Sester moaned in agony as the pulses continued to race his body but he did not let go. He was past the point of caring that tears were flowing down his face and he was writhing in agony. It was his master's will verses the demands of his body. His fingers barely had the strength to hold the rod anymore but his master’s voice was silent as the hooded figures watched. His heart faltered.
Sester regained consciousness to a hand gently stroking his head. His body was cradled in strong arms and the thick, familiar material of the Guild cape covered his body. It still carried the heat of its owner. His breathing came in shuddering gasps and his arms and shoulders were painfully numb.
He forced protesting lids to open a sliver and saw his master's face looking down at him. A sob escaped his lips. He had failed, he must have passed out and let go of the rod. His voice was hoarse, barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry, master.”
His master's hand rubbed his back over the cape that covered his nakedness, bringing him warmth, comfort and what he needed most, forgiveness. “Shhh. It’s alright, Charles, you did well."
Tears coursed down the man's face. "No. I failed." The pain of disappointing his master was an ache that was making it hard to breathe. It was far worse than the physical pain he had endured. This was the true punishment. "I…let you down…" His body shook in silent sobs.
Venner had rushed down to the chamber when Charles fell to the ground unconscious, his hands still gripping the rod. They had to pry it from his stiff, unmoving fingers. The Guildmaster had ordered the others out and when they left, had lifted Sester's limp body into his arms. He rubbed the feeling back into unfeeling limbs before removing his own cape and laying it over him.
No one had held onto the rod this long before. Most controllers would allow a period of pain before letting the victim release the instrument of punishment. Venner had given Charles the ultimate test, pushing him to the point of collapse in order to make him fail. He should have let go, but this boy had always achieved the impossible for him. Even though Sester was an adult now, the Guildmaster still thought of him as the proud young boy who had stood defiantly before him the first time they met. There had been a flicker of fear in the boy's eyes but it had not tempered his cheeky manner.
Despite what Venner had told Deverell, or what he showed to others, he loved this boy. Charles had become the son he never had. But despite his affection for him, Venner served Guild interests first. He would never allow anything to compromise what must be done.
With his favourite, he was even more cold and ruthless, because he could not afford the weakness of human emotions to cloud his judgement. The brief glimpses of warmth were what the boy craved from him and he rarely gave it. It made the boy try his best, pushing himself beyond his limits, making him willing to do anything in order to gain the approval of his master.
Sester did not know that he had not failed and Venner was not going to tell him. It was more useful that way. The crushing feeling of being a disappointment would make Charles more tractable to his master's will. Venner continued stroking him gently; showing love at a time when the boy felt he least deserved it, binding him further. "Are you willing to take the final punishment?”
Sester felt faint, all strength had been stripped away from him. He had nothing left with which to fight but his master's presence infused his cold and numb body with a warmth that he knew he had not earned. His voice shook as he said, “Yes, master.”
“Rest now. It will begin again soon.”
Sester shuddered and closed his eyes as his master continued to give him warmth.
Deverell had snuck into the controller's booth after the hooded Regulators had been ordered out of the room. He watched with fascination as Venner tended to Sester.
Afterwards, Deverell met with Venner in the infirmary. The Guildmaster finished giving orders for the sleeping man's care and they both headed back to his office.
As they reached his door, Deverell said, more as an observation than a question, "You're not subjecting him to the third one?"
"He doesn't need it."
"I had always wondered how you managed to handle someone like him."
"Now you know."
Deverell snorted silently. "A human weakness."
"But a useful one. It served a dual purpose. It tied him to me and it made him more effective."
"I still don't like it."
"You don't have to." Venner chose the couch rather than the chair behind his desk and sat down tiredly. Even though it wasn't he who had to suffer the Chamber the last two days, it had been a draining experience for him as well. He glanced over at the chronometer on the wall. It was too early for a relaxing drink.
Deverell said, "It's still too dangerous to have someone like him." He studied Venner out of the corner of his eyes. What he had witnessed in the Chamber had been very revealing. The ties obviously ran both ways. He wondered if Venner realized it.
"As long as he is tied to me, he won't be."
"And when he is no longer?" Deverell wasn't worried about Venner's ability to make objective decisions. The man was far too cold-blooded and ruthless when it came to Guild business. Even if it meant sacrificing his favourite.
Venner asked coldly, "Do you think I will let that happen?"
"I suppose not. I don't envy him."
"No one should. If I were still as human as he is, I might have some regrets."
"But you're not. Do you miss it?"
"Don't be a fool."
Deverell smiled at the answer. "I think in some ways, he's far more ruthless than we are. At least we don't feel anything when we do what we have to do. He does but it doesn't stop him."
"One day, he might go mad because of what we require of him."
"Or he might turn against us."
"As long as he cannot turn against me, that will never happen. He might try to work around my orders, but he is not capable of direct defiance."
"Even with his strong bond to the others?"
"That is the only danger." There was another one but Venner considered it minor. Sester had always had this problem throughout his life. It had never amounted to anything serious.