There was a polite rap-rap on Sester's door. He turned and pulled the pillow over his head. The silken sheets caressed the exposed parts of his flesh as he moved, encouraging him to go back to sleep.
Why did interruptions always have to happen when he was asleep? Someone who was paranoid, might think this was a conspiracy.
His mind registered that he was back at his luxurious flat on Earth. He loved it here though he barely spent time in it. Just the odd few days in a busy schedule that had him racing all over the Empire. It was a civilized place full of creature comforts and the rich trappings of the priviledged Alpha. Furnishings of real wood, shaped by human hands rather than the artless machine-moulded furniture of those to whom room décor was to be used rather than enjoyed.
Rap! Rap! Rap! More insistent this time. Why didn't the person use the announcement panel? Was it broken?
Sester opened reluctant eyes and emerged from beneath the pillow. Looking over to the wall, to an ancient timepiece that told the time in moving hands rather than relentlessly incrementing numbers, he saw that it was 4:32AM. He groaned and burrowed under the pillow again, hoping the person would go away and come back at a less rude hour.
Rap! Rap! Pound! Pound!
Persistent bugger. Sester threw the pillow at the door before getting up and grabbing a robe. He growled, "Lights low." The automated environment controls ignored his displeasure and brought the illumination level up so that he could see his way to the door. He padded over on bare feet.
Pound! Pound! Pound! A loud female voice, "Sester, are you in there?"
Sester's hand hesitated. "Kirsten?"
Pound! Pound! Thump! Thump! Another voice. "Open this door, right now!" Reya?
More pounding. More female voices demanding to be let in. Seila? Traci? An-li? Tamara? Ravelle? Other voices from the distant past. This was a nightmare! He turned around, propping his back up against the door, afraid that the army of women outside would break it down. Each bang jarred his teeth. How many of them were out there? There was a panicked look on his face. Why were they after him? Hadn't he left most of them happy?
His master's voice came to him, One of these days, they're all going to come knocking at your door.
The door began to give way…
Sester jerked awake, his eyes opening and his hands held out to ward off the wave of women. The reassuring view of stars greeting him through the main vidscreen. He breathed a sigh of relief, it was all a dream.
Jenna was trying to visit the labs again. After three days, she needed to know if Avon was any closer to an antidote. He had better be. Jenna knew that Rane would not last much longer. In her eyes, Avon's life hung on a balance, with her wielding the power of life or death.
Rather than the normal contingent of soldiers who went through the formalities of allowing her entrance, Argus took her aside. "I'm sorry, Jenna but I don't think it’s a good idea."
"I just want to talk to him. I want to see how he's doing."
"He's not going to get very far if you keep interrupting him."
"I can speak to the doctors instead."
Argus shook his head. "You know that won't work. Your presence stresses Avon. I can't have that."
Jenna laughed. "So you've become his protector now?"
"I'm his friend."
Jenna sneered. "Avon has no friends. Only people he uses."
Argus refused to be baited. "You're wrong."
"He's tricked you, Argus. He's a conniving, manipulative bastard and he'll stab you in the back when you least expect it. He did it to Blake."
Argus had been anticipating this talk with Jenna. Though dreading would be more like it. He knew it would be a sticky situation. "I know what he did to Blake, Jenna. There's no one who regrets it more than Avon does."
Jenna said with scorn, "He really has you fooled doesn't he? Avon doesn't know anything about guilt or regret. No one matters to him except himself."
"Then you don't know him very well, Jenna."
"I've known him longer than you."
"That's where you're wrong. There are many things you don't know about Avon, Jenna. Or me. A lot has happened since you left us."
Jenna's voice rose in anger. "Enough to erase the fact that Avon murdered Blake?"
"Then why are you protecting a murderer? There's only one way to deal with Avon and that's to make him pay for what he did. A life for a life."
Argus needed her to understand. "Jenna. Avon never meant to kill Blake. It was all a horrible mistake."
"One that killed Blake. Very convenient. Avon always wanted to get rid of Blake so he could get the Liberator. But even after he forced Blake to give it to him, he wasn't satisfied. He had to take everything away from him."
Argus looked at her with astonishment. "That's not the way I was told."
Jenna snarled. "Of course he wouldn't tell you. He's a liar as well as a murderer."
Argus shook his head again. "That's where you're wrong. Vila was the one who told me about your days on the Liberator. I think…Avon prefers to forget that it happened. It was not the happiest time for him."
"Because Blake wouldn't give him what he wanted."
"No. Vila told me what Blake did when he led you."
"Blake was a wonderful leader. He took care of us. He gave us purpose."
""Blake took enormous risks attacking high security Federation installations. He would go to places that ORAC and Zen told you were far too dangerous. He tried to tackle Control. No one in centuries had been able to get into that installation, not armies, not infiltration groups. Everyone who tried, died. But Blake took you there. And from what Vila said, he lied to all of you in order to force you to go there. Even when he complained that Blake was going to get him killed, Blake didn't care. He refused to listen. Nothing was going to stop him. Kasabi was the only one crazy enough to help Blake. But even she refused to risk her own people inside the security zone."
"That's not true!"
"That's not the way Vila tells it. Vila liked Blake. You all did. He was fighting for a noble purpose and he gave you his vision. His cause. It made all of you feel as if you were part of something special, something good. It felt wrong to oppose someone who had such noble goals but none of you liked the risks he took with your lives."
"Avon hated Blake!"
Argus sighed. "I don't know about that but Vila mentioned their relationship was not that simple. No matter what Avon thought of or felt about Blake, he also supported him when Blake was in trouble. After all of you lost faith in Blake and wouldn’t help him when his uncle and niece were in trouble, even though you knew Blake was walking into a trap, Avon was the only one who risked his life to help him. It makes me wonder what kind of leader Blake was that even you, Jenna, who loved him, would abandon Blake like that and refuse to help his family. Vila also told me how angry Avon was by the time you found Star One. He wanted to be free of Blake. It sounds as if Blake did something to Avon, not the other way around. Is that why Avon believed Blake had betrayed him on Gauda Prime? Was their relationship so flawed that Avon would so readily think that of him? Can you tell me that Blake never betrayed your trust, Jenna? Even if it would mean getting you killed?"
"Blake cared about us!"
"Yes, but he cared about his cause more, didn't he? He would think it was worth it. I have seen too many rebel leaders like that, Jenna. They are driven to extreme measures. And after what the Federation did to him, Blake had more reason to be driven than most people did. I'm not trying to criticize him but I am trying to point out that following leaders like Blake incurs a cost for the people around them. And sometimes, it comes back to haunt them."
Jenna said angrily, "Your information comes from Vila. The snivelling coward! Always whining and getting drunk. He's a selfish coward just like Avon. Always thinking about saving his own neck. Did Vila tell you that when we saw the alien fleet, he wanted to run and leave the others? I wouldn't believe a word he said."
There was no reaching her; she was starting to attack everyone. "I don't believe that. Vila might have said he wanted to leave but that's his fear talking. Talking makes Vila feel better. I don't think he meant it. And it doesn't make what he said about Avon and Blake any less true."
"It doesn't make it true either."
Argus shook his head sadly. "Nothing I say is going to change your mind, is it?"
Jenna grimaced. "I had been hoping to change your mind."
"I suppose we’re at an impasse?"
"I wish we didn't have to be. I respect you, Argus. I don't want to lose you as a friend."
"We can still be friends, Jenna."
"Not if you insist on protecting a murderer. Don't stand in my way, Argus."
"I am not going to let you harm him, Jenna. You'll have to go through me first."
"Then we have nothing else to say."
"I suppose not. I’m not going to let you see Avon again."
A voice came from the doorway. "Let her in."
Argus and Jenna turned to see Avon standing there. He had heard the commotion and had come up to intervene.
Argus said, "I don't think it's a good idea, Avon."
"I heard but that's my decision."
Argus could see that Avon had made up his mind. "Alright, but I'm staying close."
"You're going to stand on the other side of the room." Avon looked straight at Jenna. "After you disarm our guest, of course."
Avon turned to stare at him.
Argus sighed. "You're going to call me, Jack again aren't you."
Jenna wondered what he was talking about.
Avon said to Argus, "You can have your sidearm ready if you feel it necessary."
"That's not going to make me feel any better."
Avon said, "It will make me feel better."
Avon unconsciously rubbed his back as he sat down at the computer again. He looked haggard, with several days growth, but his eyes were unusually bright. He moved with jerky energy. Jenna hadn't seen the arrogant Alpha look this dishevelled and worn since the day he came back on the ship and when they were on the run on Papos.
Not that she cared. It was just an observation. But it was a way to put him off his guard. She could feel Argus's eyes boring into her from across the room. She was careful to make her movements slow and unthreatening. "When was the last time you slept?"
Avon directed impassive eyes up to her face. "Let's not pretend concern that neither one of us feels."
Jenna said, "If you keel over, you won't be able to help Rane."
"Of course. To answer your question, I had several hours yesterday."
"You mean, since you arrived here?"
"An adrenaline mixture has been useful."
Jenna studied his face. That explained the abnormal look in his eyes and the tiredness. She said snidely, "Trying to be a hero?"
Avon did not react, he only stared at her. "I keep my promises."
"Then are you closer to the antidote?"
Avon looked at the screen of data and the latest test results from his simulation program. A frown appeared on his face. "We have tried all the known antidotes and I've accessed the Federation Medical databases, including a few classified ones, but this appears to be new technology. We are cross-referencing all known viral…"
Jenna did not want a lecture. "So the answer is no?"
"Not yet. We are exploring other avenues."
"But you said that this is new technology. What do you expect to find? It sounds like you're wasting your time."
"All knowledge is useful."
"Well, not useful enough for Rane if he dies."
"True, but there are others who will benefit from this research."
Jenna didn't like this news. It sounded as if the cold-blooded Avon had written Rane off already. "I think I've seen enough."
"There wasn't much to see."
"Unfortunately." For you.
As Jenna left, she decided to give Avon one more day. Rane would not live much longer than that. He was almost beyond hope.
Vila rummaged through his drawers, throwing items left and right, dropping most of them on the floor. Spot tried to catch them and put them back after he moved onto another drawer.
He mumbled to himself, "Socks, where are my blue ones with the dark blue band? Wait a minute…where are all my socks?"
"They're in your sock drawer," the little cleaner said brightly.
Vila turned around in surprise. He had become so used to Spot doing its daily cleaning tasks that he didn't even notice it. "What sock drawer? When did I get a sock drawer?"
Spot was trying to remove a pair of underwear that had landed unceremoniously on his head. It indicated the lowest drawer that Vila had not opened yet. "This one, sir," it said politely.
Vila bent down and slid it open. Sure enough, all of his socks were folded, sorted by colour and neatly placed. "It looks so…neat!" he said in shock.
Spot beep-beeped with happy agreement.
Vila grumbled, "I didn't say that was a good thing."
Spot whistled a puzzled query. "It's not?"
"How am I supposed to find anything?"
This time it gave a low, unhappy whistle. "I don't understand."
"I could find things before."
"Mistress said it was messy. She couldn't find anything. She…" The little cleaner's voice seemed to change a bit, as if it was trying to sound like Corinne. "…said that it took her two days to find your purple shirt."
Vila winced. "Well, maybe because I was trying to lose it."
"I don't understand," Spot said in a small confused voice.
"Maybe when you grow up, you will." Vila spotted his blue socks along with all the other blue socks and fished them out.
There was another whistle of query.
Pulling them on, Vila said, "Don't ever let a woman rearrange your sock drawer, Spot. It'll be the end of civilization as we know it." He put on his brown loafers.
Spot's little ears whirled around in confusion as Vila left the cabin without explaining further. Looking at all of the clothing strewn haphazardly on the ground, it wasn't sure what to do. It beeped unhappily and decided that it didn't understand people at all. Maybe it could ask Avon to increase its programming so it would understand.