Avon wondered why perverse logic was the only kind that seemed to rule his life. It wasn't the usual reaction to the unexpected appearance of a woman who wanted him dead, but in Avon's life, normal would be the exception.
"You don't seem surprised to see me." She stood in the middle of Borel Reve's office as if this were the most natural place for her to be.
"You're the last person I would expect to be meeting. Therefore, it was inevitable that you would be here. Surprise would seem anticlimactic somehow. Are you here to kill me?"
"Don't tempt me." Jenna had many purposes for being here; seeing Avon die a slow painful death being the main one. Of course, she wasn't about to tell the people in this room, most of whom were or had once been her friends.
Argus was watching her warily, not wanting to intrude but prepared to step in at any time. His hand lightly touched his holster. Reya was an alert presence next to him. They were coiled springs ready to be released at the first sign of danger and Jenna had no doubts that they would be on her before her gun had cleared her holster.
The young General Reve - who no longer looked that young - sat quietly behind his desk. He seemed like an intruder even though this was his office.
Avon said, "I wouldn't expect anything less but don't expect it to be easy. I'm not as disabled as the last time we met."
Jenna's eyes flashed with momentary anger as she remembered how Avon had tricked her. She had misjudged how dangerous he was even with an injury. "You weren't that disabled the last time."
Avon's lips stretched in a thin, chilling smile.
Argus's hand inched closer to the grip of his pistol as Jenna continued, "I'm not here to kill you." She said dismissively, "You're not that important."
Avon said, "That wasn't the impression you gave during our last encounter."
"Don't get me wrong. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than killing you myself."
Avon said, "Honesty is refreshing." A brief sarcastic smile touched his lips. "Of course, you knew I wouldn't believe you if you said anything less."
Everyone seemed to be holding their breaths.
Bastard. "I've had a lot of time to think."
Avon said cynically, "You've decided to have someone else kill me while you have the pleasure of watching?"
Jenna's eyes were like flint. "What an interesting idea." You will find out soon enough what I have planned for you. But for now, she had to be conciliatory and be convincing about it. "One day, I will. I promise you that. But for now, I have more important things to do. Blake deserves more than just your death."
The name was like an accusation and Avon's stomach gave a warning twist of pain. His jaw tightened but his face revealed nothing. His voice was harsh. "What are you doing here, Jenna?"
"What Blake wanted was to build an army. That's what I'm doing here, fulfilling his dream."
Borel had stayed on the sidelines until now. "It's true. Jenna has been building a rebel base but now she's helping us with the Shade problem."
Jenna's chest was still tight with the guilt that seemed to have settled there permanently since her last visit to Olean Rane. He was still in a coma, his breathing so faint she had to put a reflective surface to his pale lips to reassure herself that he was still alive. “Not that it did much good. They’re even more powerful now.”
"Through no fault of yours. They seem to know our every move before we make it."
Avon eyed Jenna suspiciously. There had been a flicker of guilt in her eyes that had not escaped him. Ghosts haunted them both. "And when you're finished?"
She said with icy promise. "Then I'll kill you."
Unexpectedly Avon smiled. It was a cold thing that sent shivers down Jenna's spine. "It's good to know where we all stand."
Argus eyes contained a query. "Avon?"
"It's obvious we need to work together, since you insist on committing our efforts here."
"Are you saying that you trust Jenna enough to work with her?"
"Did I say I trusted her? Or that I would be the one to work with her?"
Argus said to Jenna, "It looks like I'll be working with you."
Jenna had a pang of regret. She still considered Argus a friend and she wished that she didn’t have to use him in order to get to Avon. "I look forward to that."
Argus said, "I had hoped things would be different by now."
"So did I."
"There are many things you don't understand, Jenna."
"Save your breath, Argus. I understand all that I need to understand."
Argus sighed. "Alright. General, why don't you tell us the situation. Your details were sketchy."
The young general seemed much older, his faced lined with worry and shoulders tense with the weight of too many burdens. "About six months ago, we noticed a rapid rise of addiction to Shade among our young people. By the time it came to my attention, it had already reached epidemic proportions."
Avon's lack of trust in the human race in general suggested some unpleasant possibilities. "The speed is suspicious."
"That's what we thought. We tried to find out who was behind it, but every time we thought we were getting close, they disappeared and reappeared somewhere else."
Avon folded his arms behind him as he absorbed this information. "As you said, they seem to know your every move." He said significantly," Before you make it. That's why you contacted us?"
Argus asked Borel, "You think you have a spy in your midst?"
"Or a traitor," said Avon.
Borel nodded. "Yes. That's what we're afraid of."
Avon said, "Then no one can be trusted. Not even the two of you."
Jenna said defensively, "Wait just a minute…if this is an opportunity to get back at me…"
Avon said with the detached rationality of a machine, "There is nothing personal in being objective."
Jenna thought cynically, Is that what you told yourself when you killed Blake? That it was nothing personal? She reminded herself that now was not the time. My time will come, and so will yours, Avon. "These people are my friends but I wouldn't expect you to know what that means," she said with a sneer.
"Jenna." Reya stepped forward, her tone calm and reasonable. "Avon's right, if we're to help find the infiltrator or the traitor, we have to be objective. As a security expert, I would never rule out any possibilities, no matter how improbable they may be. That includes investigating friends or family members. You may not be involved, but it's clear that someone inside is. Can you certain of everyone in your organization?"
Jenna didn't like that they might be investigating her, considering she was the culprit, but she had no choice. If she didn't cooperate, they would cut her out and that would mean that she would never have access to Avon. "You have a point." She hesitated. "There's something else…" Guilt ate at her. "…it's about Olean Rane."
On their way, Jenna told them about Rane and Borel answered questions about the spread of Shade to the general population.
Argus said, "It doesn't sound good. Hopefully we can help. What is this Shade poison? Is it different from the normal drug?"
Jenna felt ill at being the 'expert' on Shade. "It's a deadly form of it."
Avon said, "The normal version is deadly enough."
"Well, this is even more. The effects are intensified and there is no cure."
Avon cocked his head as comprehension dawned. "They're using it as a weapon?"
Jenna said, "Yes. That's why they infected Rane. To force him to cooperate and to stop him from fighting them."
They arrived at Olean Rane's residence and went inside. It was heavy with the stench of impending death. In the dimly lit room, dark shadows watched over his still form, like spectres ready to whisk him away at his last breath. It was quiet except for the soft tearless sobs from a woman who had cried herself dry.
The small group entered on soft feet, not wishing to disturb a man who was already beyond being disturbed. Reya and Borel approached respectfully. This man had been their father's right hand. Even his enemies respected him. His death would mean the passing of an era.
Borel asked gently, "How is he, Lelea?"
The innkeeper raised hopeless eyes and seemed to notice them all for the first time. "Have you brought help?"
Borel said, "Yes, we've brought help."
Jenna said, "Yes, these are…people who might be able to help. They have a computer called, ORAC that might be able to find a cure for the poison."
Avon and Argus looked sharply at each other.
Argus whispered, "General, perhaps we should have a talk. In private."
Lelea was about to ask them what the problem was when Argus said, "Reya, why don't you stay with Lelea while we discuss some things with the General?"
Reya nodded and placed a comforting hand on Lelea's shoulder. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Outside the room, Borel asked, "Is there a problem?"
Avon and Argus looked at each other again. Avon said, "I'm afraid there is."
Argus grimaced. "ORAC was damaged. We haven't been able to fix it yet."
Jenna's heart sank. She turned to Avon and said angrily, "I thought you could fix anything?"
Avon did not react to her accusation. "Not without the required parts."
All of her hopes had been dashed as Jenna realized that she had killed her friend. "I…" Grief and guilt overwhelmed her. She swayed on her feet. Argus grabbed her, put his arms around her shoulders and guided her into the chair that Borel had quickly brought over.
For the first time since finding out Rane had been poisoned, tears welled up in Jenna's eyes. "I…isn't there anything you can do for him?"
Avon said, "There might be something."
Jenna looked hopefully up at him, all thoughts of revenge forgotten. "If you can help him…"
"Nothing will change."
Jenna stared hard at him. "What can you do? You don't have ORAC anymore."
"ORAC is a tool. Even on Fosforon, it only followed directions and compared test samples in order to find the anomalies. It was Dr. Bellfriar who found the cure."
"Unless you have a Bellfriar up your sleeve…"
"I have some knowledge in this area."
Jenna said sceptically, "I thought medicine wasn't your specialty?"
"It's not but I had reason to familiarize myself with the field of antidote research when I was searching for a cure for Pylene-50."
Jenna thought quickly. If Avon could save Rane, then she had to hold off on her plans for revenge. She couldn't let go of her need to kill Avon, but she might be willing to make it less painful. If he could do this. She said, "I might be able to help. I have leads that are close to giving me the location of their lab on Athol. "
"If I could gain access to their computers and synthesis equipment…"
Jenna thought, Then you will be here on my ground. "Leave it to me."
"You want me to trust you?" Avon asked cynically.
Jenna stared at him. "I want you to believe that I would do anything to save a friend."
Later that day, Argus and Avon sat on the flight deck, discussing the encounter with Jenna.
Avon held a cup of water in both hands, studying Argus's reflection on its surface. "What do you think?"
Argus had gulped down his thirstily and was pouring himself another one. "You don't trust her, do you?"
"Trust is only dangerous if you have to rely on it."
"So you trust her, but only as far as you can throw her. Which isn't very far right now."
Avon scowled. "Thank you for reminding me of that."
Argus grinned lightly and then he sighed. "I want to believe her."
"But you don't?"
"I can't. Not after everything she said."
A glimmer of a smile crossed Avon's face. "There might be hope for you after all."
"I'm serious, Avon. I don't feel comfortable having you work with her. Unless you have protection."
"Which you will provide." Avon drank from his cup, relishing the liquid as it rushed down his throat, quenching his thirst. It was a simple joy that he had never appreciated until it had been taken away from him.
"I'll arrange for around the clock protection while you're on the planet."
Sester stretched cramped limbs and asked, "Computer, how much longer to Athol Prime?" There was no point in asking, the ship wouldn't move faster on the 'fuel' of impatient questions, but it was the kind of useless act that made helpless inactivity slightly more bearable. At least that was his assessment of why other people did it.
"Far too long," replied a teasing female voice that brushed along his spine like a soft caress. It came from behind his flight seat.
Sester swung around in surprise. "Kirsten! How did you get onboard?"
There was a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. "Aren't you happy to see me?" She bent down and kissed him, swallowing up his answer in hungry desire. He pulled her down onto his lap.
"What are you doing?", another female voice said disapprovingly.
With effort, Sester pulled himself away from Kirsten's embrace and looked up in shock. "Reya?" Why is she wearing a nightgown? It was a revealing number that showed off her lithe body. He remembered this form very well. Reya put a strong hand on Kirsten's shoulder. "Get off. It's my turn."
Sester's eyes widened. This has to be a dream. He wasn't ready to wake up yet.
Kirsten turned to face Reya and deliberately slid her hands slowly and sensually down his body. Sester suddenly realized that he was naked and he didn't remember how it had happened. Without the concealing cover of clothes, his rising interest was becoming embarrassingly obvious. "Ladies, why don't we discuss this?"
Reya said dryly, "I don't think talking is what your body has in mind." She ran teasing fingers lightly up his inner thigh, he arched back against the seat and bit back a groaning sigh. There was no question this was a dream but...
The computer chirped for his attention.
Sester woke up with a start and looked around in momentary confusion. His pulse was still racing from the touch of the phantom fingers and other parts of his anatomy were poised for something more enjoyable than answering to computer demands.
He said with irritation, "What is it computer?"
"Pilot intervention is required. The ship is approaching a meteor storm. Scale five. Intensity nineteen."
Sester bolted upright and checked various readouts. "This ship can't stand more than scale three?"
Sester groaned. "How much longer will it take if we go around it and increase to maximum speed?"
"Recalculating." There was a pause. "An additional 47 hours but maximum speed is not recommended. Energy banks will be reduced to emergency levels."
That meant he wouldn't arrive at Athol for three more days. Going through the storm was out of the question. There was too much of a danger that the ship would break up. Then he wouldn't be able to help anyone.
His fingers ran along the edge of the panel. From his master's warning, he had to get to Athol as soon as possible.
"Computer, plot a new course around the storm. Maximum speed."
"It is not recommended…"
"I know but do it anyway. Sester override command authorization, Delta Epsilon Delta Three Nine Two."
The hull shivered as the engines strained to obey his command. The stars became a blur. Sester hoped he would be in time to help.
But who would help him with Kirsten and Reya? The master had warned him to behave himself and he intended to. Though from the state of his dreams, that might be easier promised than achieved. It was a good thing he had this storm to worry about; he didn't trust himself going back to sleep again. Or rather, he didn't trust the Kirsten and Reya of his dreams.