Avon's team began exploring the lab and setting up their own equipment while he worked on the computer system. He pulled on the uncomfortable armour as he worked, irritated that he had to wear it and feeling as if he was sporting a large sign indicating to everyone that he needed to be protected. It was as bad as being treated as an invalid. At least the labs were kept at a cool temperature or he would be sweating in the protective gear.
There was a commotion at the door high above on the upper deck. He could barely hear what was being said but it sounded as if one of the Athol soldiers was questioning someone who wanted to enter the lab. Avon recognized the outraged intruder. Jenna. "I'm the one who gave you the information about these labs."
Her voice was rising in indignant anger, as if she was an ordinary visitor who didn't want to kill him,
"I know ma'am." The soldiers were always polite but firm. "But I have my orders. No one enters without Avon's permission. Please wait here."
The soldier came over to the railing while the other two at the door kept their rifles discreetly ready. He called out loudly, "Sir, Jenna Stannis is here to see you. Should I let her in?"
Avon preferred his enemies close. It meant he could keep an eye on them and it might be useful to speak to her. At the moment, she was an unknown quantity. Other than a general desire to see him dead, they had no idea what her state of mind was. "Let her in."
The soldier said to Jenna, "I'll have to take your weapon, ma'am. It will be returned when you leave."
Jenna was about to protest but thought better of it and handed her weapon over to him. Her argument was not with the soldier. She would save her venom for someone more worthy of it.
The soldier said, "Come with me, please." He led her down the stairs.
As she followed him, Jenna remembered speaking to the lead chemist, Finn, before providing the information to take the labs. She had arranged for the majority of them to be offsite during the take down. Mainly the ones who had close contact with her. The rest only knew her as a shadowy presence watching them from the upper deck.
No one would know that she was involved in this Shade operation at all. Of course, she had been the one to sabotage the failsafe to destroy the labs. She knew it would look suspicious, but it couldn't be helped. It was the only part of her plan that might give her away, so she was here to see that nothing was pointing to her involvement, or at the very least she might 'help' them look elsewhere.
Jenna didn't fail to notice that her attentive escort stayed at a discreet distance while she approached Avon. They were being very careful about her access to the traitor. It surprised her when Avon asked the man to stand far enough away that they couldn't be overheard.
She knew that it was useless pretending to be nice to him, the untrusting Avon would expect her to be hostile. Jenna had no problems with that. Hiding how she felt would have been much harder and at least this way she could fool Cally too. Being upfront about her intentions to kill Avon, wouldn't help them to find out that her plans were not as far off as they thought. Jenna said acidly, "Still afraid of me, I see."
Avon was working on the computer but he looked up at her with cool eyes. "If you think that, then you would be wrong."
Jenna bristled. She remembered this tone of voice only too well. It was the well-oiled arrogance that he often directed at Blake. "Brave words for someone who has other people to do your fighting for you. Too much blood on your hands? Or do you reserve them for stabbing people in the back?"
Avon snarled. "If you thought that, then you would be an even bigger fool to underestimate me."
Jenna's eyes swept him from top to bottom in an insulting manner, resting pointedly on the protective vest. "What is that? The latest fashion?"
An icy smile curled Avon's lips. "What angers you more, that you can't touch me in here or that you're alone and I'm not?"
Fire flashed in Jenna's eyes. "How dare you…"
"There are very few things that I wouldn't dare, Jenna. That's what you've been trying to warn the others against, isn't it?"
She said angrily, "One day, Avon…I promise you."
Avon smiled again. "It has been tried. But as you need me more than I need you, let's skip the empty threats, shall we?" It was time for Jenna to learn how precarious her position was and what was in his power to do to her. WIth a few words, he could end her as a threat forever. His voice was icy and his eyes were dark with barely concealed menace. "We both know that you're hiding information from the others. Shall I guess what it is?"
Jenna just managed to stop herself from reacting in guilt. Avon couldn't know of her involvement. It was either his supreme paranoia or he must be bluffing. "You mean that I plan to give you a slow painful death?"
Avon ignored her threats. "I don't believe in coincidence." The signs had been obvious the moment he saw the sabotaged component. It hadn't take him long to deduce that it was Jenna who was responsible. No one on the Justice and certainly not General Reve. None of them would have a reason to both tip the criminals off and to sabotage their efforts to destroy the lab so that it would not be taken intact.
That left Jenna. And it also left the unavoidable conclusion that she had been working with the criminal organization. He also knew how she had come up with this idea. It had all the earmarks of someone they both knew, someone who had not listened to his advice the first time. There had been a reason why Avon did not want this conversation heard.
Jenna obviously thought that she could hide her involvement by making sure those who recognized her would escape. She was wrong. It was typical of those who could not think beyond the obvious.
Jenna was still trying to be aggressive, either refusing to accept that the tables had turned or she didn't realize that there was no point in pretending innocence any longer. She said, "Believe me. It won't be a coincidence when I kill you."
"I find it highly unlikely that the Shade organization would know when we were planning to raid the lab. The only people who had that information were the people on the Justice, General Reve and you."
"What are you trying to insinuate?"
"That you're a fool." Avon had an insulting sneer to his lips. "Are you another one who can't afford to think? I thought you were smarter than that. Our past experience with the Terra Nostra should have shown you the hazards of working with criminals."
Jenna sneered, "You mean blood-thirsty, conscienceless killers like you?"
Avon gave a soft humph of disdain. He might have a weakness where the issue of Blake was concerned but he did not intend to let Jenna gain the upper hand. "I warned Blake that going to the Terra Nostra was a stupid idea. You were a fool to try to do the same thing with this organization. Blake's plans rarely had the benefit of logic. You can't control people like these, they will only turn against you."
Jenna was so angry that it was Avon saying this to her, that she forgot about her own guilt. She said with sharp cynicism, "Unfortunately, Blake learned that too late, didn't he, Avon?"
There was a stab of guilt in Avon's stomach, his jaw tightened as he fought to maintain an impassive face. His throat was dry and tight. "He…"
Avon was at a disadvantage when fighting with Jenna. All she had to do was bring up the name that haunted him. By sheer strength of will, he composed himself and said in a quiet but steely voice, "What I owe to Blake, I will pay. But not to you."
Jenna was taken aback by the tone in his voice. He almost sounded…no, she couldn’t think that. She had to be imagining it. Avon was a monster and had to be destroyed. She would never think of him as human.
Avon straightened. "But it's none of your business." His eyes fixed hers. "You will try to kill me and I will stop you." His eyes dropped to the keyboard and he positioned his fingers on it. "But I will not kill you." Avon continued working. "I will help you clean up this mess without informing the others."
Jenna stared at the back of his head. Somehow, Avon had guessed what she had been doing and he wasn't accepting her denials. "Why are you doing this?"
Avon's fingers paused. "Does it matter?"
"I suppose not but don’t think this makes any difference."
"I didn't think it would." Avon continued working again.
Jenna asked, "Is that why you suggested to Argus that it might be the aliens at work?"
"It will not divert him for long. He has Reya looking into the inconsistencies."
Jenna grimaced. She knew that Reya was hard to fool. "You have something in mind?"
"I am going to suggest that Olean Rane be moved here."
"You can't do that."
"I'm assuming that you've been giving him Shade injections?"
Jenna hesitated but there was no point in denying it. "Yes."
"Then he should survive for the time being. I will suggest that the Commander arrange for his safe transport and his protection here. That will divert her attentions. For a while at least. Emotional ties are powerful forces."
"What would you know of that?" Her voice was dripping with sarcasm.
Avon tilted his head to look up at her and smiled. "Only what I've read."
The guilt finally found its way to Jenna's conscious mind. What do I know of emotional ties? I'm the one who's responsible for what happened to Rane.
She hated the thought but she knew that Avon was right. It had been an insane idea to think that she could use these criminals. Her conscience was finally catching up to her. How many Ranes had she been responsible for?
Jenna asked in a quiet voice, "Can he be saved? Can they all be saved?"
"You can trust my intelligence."
Jenna asked again, "Why are you doing this? You know the easiest way of getting rid of me is to tell the Atholians what I've done. They might kill me or throw me in prison for the rest of my life. Then you would never have to watch your back again."
"I've already told you why."
"You won't kill me?" Despite what she thought of Avon, this was one thing she reluctantly admitted about him, he kept his promises. "But it wouldn't be you killing me."
Avon said, "Are you offering me a technicality? Or yourself an excuse?"
"I don't need an excuse to hate you."
"True. Shall we say that I'm doing it for selfish reasons?"
"None that you would believe."
One of the Tellaran doctors had move towards them and was hovering tactfully out of earshot. He seemed to be bursting to tell them something. Avon asked, "Dr. Pike, did you have something for me?"
"I didn't want to disturb you."
Avon looked at Jenna. "We're finished."
Jenna said, "For now."
Dr. Pike said, "I think you might like to see this, Professor Avon. I found some research notes. It appears that the Shade poison was engineered to adapt to the physiology of the host."
Avon and Jenna stared at the man in astonishment. Avon said, "How did you know?"
"It's in the notes."
"No. That's not what I meant."
"Oh, you mean calling you, professor? I thought it was about time. That is what you are, isn't it? You were the top computer specialist in the Federation."
"I still am." The idea of being the best was something Avon had always accepted as his due. He was usually smarter than most people he ran across. It wasn't arrogance. To him, it was merely a statement of fact. In his spheres of study, it was accepted by others too. Though he had always chafed at the use of artificial titles and never liked people using his. To him, you were either intelligent or not. A title before one's name should have little relevance.
Pike inclined his head in apology. "Of course. As you already know, our people have been following your activities. We know quite a bit about you."
Avon's eyes narrowed. This was something that had always made him uncomfortable. The Tellarans had an inordinate interest in him that he did not like.
Jenna also didn't like the sounds of this, but for different reasons. "Who is this? And why would they be interested in you?" She was very sceptical. "This is the first I've heard of you being a professor. And I thought you were the second best?"
Pike looked at her curiously. "This is one of your former crew members?"
Avon said, "Yes, but I doubt if she would admit to it."
Jenna glowered at him.
The doctor said, "I don’t know who told you Avon was the second best but I can assure you that he wasn't. I'm surprised you didn't know after all the time you spent together on the Liberator. One doesn't reach Avon's position without acquiring a few titles along the way."
Avon said, "Jenna has quite a few titles for me. None…" He suppressed a smile. "…pronounceable."
Dr. Pike said, "I believe that you have…"
Avon cleared his throat and said, "Yes, we don't need to go into that."
"I understand that you were quite the p…"
Pike seemed to have the single-mindedness of the academic. Avon cut him off again, "What have you found, doctor?"
"Oh, yes. Of course. Important things first. Come this way."
Avon and Jenna followed him to a part of the lab that was separated by an energy screen. The screen flared green as they passed through. There was another computer terminal here that Avon had not noticed before. He immediately sat down and quickly began familiarizing himself with it. The screen scrolled quickly as he absorbed the information faster than the other two could read it.
Pike said, "The computer was recessed into the desk, that's why we couldn't see it before."
Avon did not like what he was seeing. "It appears you were right. The poison adapts to the genetic template of the host. That's why there is no cure. It's impossible to produce a general one. It would have to be tailored to the specific host."
Jenna said with a shiver, "Host? You make it sound like a virus."
Avon said, "It is." The files were very revealing, if not helpful. "Do you remember Shadow?"
"How could I forget?" said Jenna.
"It was derived from the moon disc found on Zondar."
Jenna's memory went back to the scorching planet. "Yes, I remember that."
"Shade is also derived from a living organism. But this one is a virus. Shade is a by-product of the virus. That was how it was first discovered. The poison that Rane was infected with is the virus itself but it has undergone extensive bioengineering to be used as a coercive weapon."
Dr. Pike said, "That's monstrous."
Avon said dryly, "That's human. It would be best if Rane were transferred here. We will have to study what the virus has done to him. The antidote will have to be tailored to his genetic makeup."
Jenna realized that Avon had just smoothly arranged to do what he had planned. He intended to keep his promise to her. She still hated him and her own plans had not changed, but for now, there would be a temporary truce between them while they worked to save Rane.
Another two days. The meteor storm seemed to go on forever. Diversions with the chess computer, the best the market had to offer, had been highly unsatisfying. There wasn't much of a challenge if he could always beat it.
Sester sighed and put the useless thing away, shoving it back into a compartment along the back wall. He slumped back into the fitted flight chair and tapped his fingers on the control panel. What to do next?
Sleeping was out of the question. There were two beautiful women who waited for him there. That would never do. His master would not be pleased and he'd had enough of punishment for a while. What he needed was thoughts of someone else. Or some coffee might help. He reached behind him to the beverage dispenser. A metal cuff snapped onto his wrist. "Ow!" Sester looked up in alarm. "Argus!" His muscled nemesis (why was he only wearing a pair of trousers?) swung him around and pulled his other arm behind him before he could protest further. The hard snap of the other cuff. "That hurts!"
Argus said in a low rumble, "Good."
The chair swung around again so that they faced each other. Sester was getting dizzy. Argus's smooth sculptured chest heaved with anger and his muscles rippled. He demanded, "I want to know what you've been doing with Reya." A short whip had suddenly appeared in his hand and he was slapping it warningly on Sester's thigh. Slowly he drew it upwards...along the path that dream-Reya's hands had touched him before?
"No!" He could not be having this dream. He had wanted to think about someone else, but NOT like this. Argus lifted the whip.
Sester woke with a start, beads of sweat had formed on his brow and he was hot. The dream had been so real that he instantly checked his wrists. Both were reassuringly free of restraints. He shouted, "Computer, how much longer to Athol Prime?"
"Flight time remaining, fifty hours, twenty-nine minutes."
"What do you mean two days? We were at two days yesterday!"
"The perimeter of the meteoroid storm has expanded. There is a status report waiting for your review."
Sester looked down at the panel, sure enough, there was a red indicator blinking for his attention. The computer would only give an aural alarm if there was danger while he slept, not normal deviations to avoid astral phenomenon. He should have asked it to inform him of any changes to his destination orders. "Show me."
The information screen changed to show a much larger storm front. Sester groaned, this was almost as bad as being in the punishment chamber. "Can't we go any faster?"