The short, olive-skinned customs officer thumbed through his data pad, pulled out the verification marker and handed it back to Atton. "It looks alright but I still have to search the ship." Without asking for permission, the officer gestured to his men to spread out and begin.
The ship's official cargo holds were filled to the brim with medical supplies, destined for one of the hard hit planets at the outer edge of the Athol Territories. There were many such ships that were needed during this crisis. Unknown to Argus and his crew, Jenna had managed to obtain a pass from Rane so that she could work without interference while trying to set up the rebel base.
As for the rest,…the special equipment and the equally important passengers, along with Jenna herself, were hidden in the 'unofficial' cargo hold that had stood up to scores of inspections by any number of efficient customs officials. The Red Raven was not the best smuggler ship this side of the trade lanes for nothing.
Atton nodded sagely, his face serious and attentive. "I understand. Can't be too careful these days with those criminals on the loose. A couple of my friends got hooked up with Shade. Nasty stuff. That's why I'm helping."
The officer said conversationally, "I know what you mean." There was a worried look on his face. "My son…" The man stopped and composed himself. Personal issues had no place during the conduct of a search. "Well, anyway, you're to be commended for helping during this crisis."
"It's the only thing I can do."
"If there were more people like you…"
"Then you'd be out of a job."
The officer laughed. "I hadn't thought of it that way."
The search teams came back and reported that there was nothing but medical supplies and the normal ship board equipment. The officer sent Atton on his way with his wishes for a speedy journey.
Jenna turned on the monitor screen in her cabin and sat back, she had been looking forward to this for a long time. She had almost thought that this day would never come. They were far enough from Athol Prime now and headed for Earth Sector. It was time to wake up their special guest, her greatest enemy. She would have preferred being in the room when his eyes opened; she wanted him to know that she had triumphed over him and that he was in her power.
But not yet. There was time enough for that. Right now, it was more useful to keep him guessing.
Avon groaned as consciousness returned. His head felt as if someone had placed it in a crusher and his arms were pulled painfully apart. Cold steel on his wrists, the cold air against his body told him that he had been stripped, except for his shorts. His heart was racing. What was the last thing he remembered?
He shook his head, trying to clear the fog that was hiding the memories he needed.
"Oh, good, you're awake." The cheerless voice was like icy water poured over his already cold body.
It can't be. Avon lifted his head as he opened his eyes. Breen.
The man in a familiar black uniform grinned; it had the effect of skull opening its mouth. "You remember me?"
How could he forget one of the most ruthless parainvestigators at the Detention Centre? Behind Breen were three other men he recognized. These ones had worked on him during his first months of capture. They had killed him many times and refused to allow him to die.
His confused and uncooperative mind struggled to understand what was happening. A raspy whisper was all he could manage. "How?"
Breen laughed like a man who was anticipating great things ahead. "You should know."
Avon's forehead creased as he fought to concentrate. "I…don't."
Breen put his face up to Avon's. "She wants you dead this time. But not too quickly."
Jenna. But… What Breen was saying didn't make sense. This time? "Who?"
"Who else? You never escaped her control; she only let you think that you had."
There was only one other…but…it couldn't be. Because it would mean… Avon pulled against the chains that held him fast. He needed to think but his mind was sluggish, unable to concentrate.
Breen sneered. "Like I said, you've never escaped the President's control."
Servalan? "Can't…be…" His throat was painfully dry and he was becoming increasingly confused.
It had to be Jenna. That was what he expected. Not…Servalan.
They were trying to trick him.
Avon fought to focus blurry eyes, trying to place his surroundings. Grey, non-descript walls. Just like the Detention Centre. Himself hanging by chains from the ceiling. The black, intimidating uniforms. Breen. The physical pain specialists. The one medtech.
No! Avon shook his head in anguished denial. His mind was telling him one thing but his eyes, the facts, told him something different.
It can't be the Detention Centre. It's not possible. Not now!
The veil that seemed to cover his mind was starting to clear. Snippets of thought and ideas. The most important one.
She always kept herself open in case he needed her. Avon tried to focus, externalizing his thoughts.
Cal… Pain ripped through his mind, paralyzing him. Like someone plunging slivers of ice into the base of his skull and pushing upwards into his brain.
When it was finally over and he could think again, he was panting for breath, trickles of sweat dripped down his forehead, obscuring his vision and making him blink.
"I forgot to tell you about that," said Breen. "Your little friend must be trying to contact you again."
He must mean Cally.
Avon demanded coldly, "What did you do to me?"
"A device implanted in your head. If your little Auron friend tries to use her psi abilities to reach you," he smiled cruelly, "She won't be able to."
He thinks that Cally was trying to contact me. He doesn't know that I was trying to contact her. It was a minor point, and with the implant, it was a useless one. He filed the information away, hoping that he might be able to use it somehow, perhaps find a way to circumvent the device in his head. Avon could feel it now, at the base of his skull, something hard and cold. Irritating.
Avon suddenly realized something about what Breen said. Again? Cally has already tried to contact me. They must know I'm missing. They're looking for me. How long have I been unconscious?
Breen was looking intently at him. "It's like old times, isn't it? You're still trying to think your way out. I think it's time for you to relearn a few lessons."
Avon directed a contemptuous gaze at him. These people had never broken him at the Detention Centre. The most effective persuasion on someone like him had never been physical. "You obviously haven't learned yours."
"We'll see who does the learning this time." There was a table of instruments beside Breen. He ran his fingers lovingly over them, picking out a studded glove and slowly slipped it on. There was a nasty smile on his face.
The other three men approached, one was rubbing his hands in anticipation as he looked over the objects on the table.
A cool calm came over Avon. He knew that by the time they used all of the instruments, he would most likely be dead. In rooms such as these, there had been one lesson he had relearned, it was one that had been taught to him by the Federation, how to reduce himself to a machine.
Avon's lips pulled back, baring his teeth in a disdain. "You don't have help this time." Sester was the only one who had been able to bring him to the breaking point. These 'specialists' were good, but not for someone of his calibre.
Servalan would know that.
Breen demanded, "Say your name."
It was starting. Avon knew what the man wanted. His eyes were steady and defiant as he answered; they were not about take his name away from him again. "Kerr Avon."
The heavy-gloved hand smashed into his mid-section.
A strategy session was occurring on the flight deck. Without Cally's psi abilities to give them a general direction, they needed another way to find Avon.
Argus said, "Assuming that Jenna planned this ahead of time, she must have had a ship prepared. That means she wouldn't have left anything to chance."
Vila asked, "How does that help? We already knew she had to get Avon away. That's why you had the spaceports closed and the blockades put up, isn't it?"
"She would have expected that," said Argus. "That means she must have a way to circumvent them. Closing the spaceports and using blockades won't work. It's too conventional a tactic to use for someone like Jenna."
Cally said, "Jenna used to be a smuggler."
Vila's eyes widened. "She'd have all sorts of tricks then. What we need is our own smuggler."
Cally said appreciatively, "Using a thief to catch a thief?"
"Well, why not?" asked Vila.
Argus said, "That's a good idea. Do you know any?"
Vila's mouth opened and then closed.
Cally said, "There is another concern."
They all turned to her as she continued, "Avon needs a regular dosage of drugs to maintain the proper function of his mind and body. Without them…"
Argus grimaced. "How long does he have?"
"Without them, his body systems will begin to breakdown. It will become increasingly more difficult for him to handle any stresses."
"How long, Cally?"
"His heart is strong now...three days, maybe four for mild symptoms, then it will become progressively worse. But if Jenna…" Cally was finding it hard to breathe as she fought against the panic.
A low growl was forming at the back of Argus's throat. He planned to find Avon long before that. "If she tortures him, it will be quicker?"
Cally's eyes closed in anguish, the only thing she could do was nod.
Argus's fists were held tightly together. "We have to get to him."
Vila said, "Why don't we send out a message? Tell Jenna that…" His shoulders slumped as he realized whom he was talking about. "Never mind. She'd probably love to hear it."
There was a quiver in Cally's voice as she thought about Avon. Even though his presence was faint, she could feel that he was experiencing stress. "She wants him to suffer."
Vila suddenly sat up. "I've got an idea."
Argus asked, "What idea?"
"Jenna doesn't care about Avon. I mean, she does, but she doesn't really."
Argus stared at him, not understanding. "What are you talking about?"
"There is someone she does care about."
"Well, yes…but I was thinking about someone who's still alive."
Argus eyes widened. "You mean Rane?"
Vila said, "Avon saved his life. He's the one who had the idea."
Argus turned to Cally. "Do you think it'll work?"
Cally pondered this. "I don't know. She and Rane have known each other for a long time. She was affected when she knew he was going to die."
Vila said suddenly, "It'll never work."
Argus looked at him in surprise. "It was your idea."
"Yes…but...if Jenna was behind the Shade idea, then wouldn't she have been responsible for poisoning Rane?"
Cally said thoughtfully, "Not necessarily. It was hard to read her but she seemed genuinely outraged and sad at what was happening to him."
Argus asked, "Could she have been tricking you?"
"I don't think so. Jenna doesn't have that ability. It requires mental discipline that she does not have."
Vila said apprehensively, "But she was behind the Shade organization."
Even with the evidence, Argus still didn't want to believe the worst of Jenna. "We know she was involved but she might have not been in control."
Cally said sadly, "I hope not, for her sake."
Vila said, "Blake wanted to use the Terra Nostra to fight against the Federation. Do you think that Jenna had the same idea?"
Argus said, "I wouldn’t be surprised."
Vila caught Cally's eyes. "Now I know why Avon thought it was a bad idea."
Cally didn't answer. She was feeling increasing stress from Avon.
Argus stood up. "We can try reaching Jenna on the public broadcasts. We can tell her that Rane is alive and that Avon saved him. Ask her to give him a chance."
Cally gasped and doubled over in pain.
There was a smile on Jenna's face as she listened to long anticipated music, the sound of Avon screaming and moaning. On the monitor screen, she could see his red-soaked body writhing in agony as the specialists worked on him.
A buzz from the comm panel interrupted her pleasure. She reached over, muted the volume from the live feed and depressed the communicator button. "This is Jen. What is it?"
Captain Atton's voice said, "We've received a message for you."
Putting her feet down, she sat up in alarm. How did they find her so quickly? "Who is it from?"
"It came over the public broadcast networks but it's addressed to you."
Jenna breathed a sigh of relief. "Patch it through here."
Her comm screen activated and showed a familiar face.
Argus. There was no expression on his face, only the hard, professional soldier relaying a message. She knew to look at his eyes, the ever-present sadness there, now tinged with anger. He was tired but resolute.
"Jenna, I know you have Avon, but what you don't know is that Rane is still alive. Avon saved his life before you took him. I know…what you want from him. But isn't saving Rane's life worth something? At least enough for you to stop and think? I don't ask you to give him up. I just ask that you contact me. Maybe we can come to a solution that will satisfy both of us without having to kill him. Please, Jenna. Don't let revenge destroy both of you."
The screen faded to black as the message ended.
Rane is alive. Jenna put her head in her hands. Tears threatened to form, but she held them back. What Rane suffered had been her fault and she had not cared enough to see his last hours before her need for revenge had driven her to act.
Argus was right. This obsession was destroying her. She couldn't even be a friend anymore; Rane deserved a better friend than she was.
Jenna was glad that he had survived; she wished him all the best that this mixed up universe could provide. She wished him a life that was free of friends like her. Tears escaped her control and dripped into her hands. She sat up and wiped them from her cheek.
On the monitor screen, Avon was hanging limply from the chains, his chest heaving as he struggled to breathe in the few moments he was being given to rest.
Avon saved Rane. She had taken him too early. She had promised that she would not touch him while he worked to save Rane. But it didn't matter, she had always intended take Avon after he was done, regardless of whether he saved Rane or not.
Avon had kept his promise to her. Argus thought that it would make a difference to her.
Does it? Jenna watched as Breen picked up a long instrument with sharp prongs at the end. She winced as he plunged it into Avon's side and Avon desperately tried to move away, but the chains held him fast. His body arched like a bow pulled back as Breen flicked on the instrument. Avon's mouth opened.
Jenna's fingers hovered over the mute button as its surface blinked for her attention, reminding her that she was denying herself the gift of sound.
It did make a difference. For some reason, she didn't want to hear Avon screaming anymore, couldn't see him being destroyed. She would not stop it, but she could no longer watch it being done.
Sester sat in his observer craft as he listened to Argus's message over the public networks.
The well-meaning fool. He cannot understand what Jenna is capable of. He refuses to.
He shook his head as his fingers traced the edge of the flight panel. Despite his capacity for violence and death, there was an innocence about Argus that some people found hard to understand. Sester understood it only too well. It was why Argus needed someone like Avon. It was why the two of them had always been drawn together. One was the cynic, the other the believer. Together they were capable of great things.
His fingers stopped moving. Avon could have had that with Blake too. If they had been able to trust each other. If their wills had not tried to override the other. There had been too many factors…flaws that prevented them from being what they could have been to each other. Too much had happened to them, had been done to them, to ever allow them to have a true partnership.
He wondered. It was odd that Avon could have found two people who had similar strengths. Sester began tracing the edge of the panel again. He had a feeling that this was important, but there was no time for idle speculations.
Argus's message will never work. At least not in the way he intended it to.
It would do something.
Sester smiled, it opened up some possibilities for him. He had been studying Jenna very carefully.
He didn't have any more time to wait for slow customs people, more direct action was needed.