Sester discreetly angled the chair to cover his lower regions as Reya came slowly into the cabin, her eyes ripe with suspicion. It was as much to save himself from embarrassment as to prevent Kirsten from seeing his interests plainly displayed. Of course, she might think that it was because of her and what they had just been about to do, but he didn’t want to take the chance.
Trying to sound his usual, amused self, he asked, "To what do I owe this pleasure, Reya?"
"I have a request."
"This must be serious if you're asking me for help."
A frown flitted briefly across Reya's face. "I want you to help Argus when he deals with the rebel leaders."
Sester's eyes widened slightly and then crinkled as an ironic smile curled his lips. "It is serious."
"He will need someone of your abilities."
He studied her face as a touch of envy wormed its way through his mind. Reya's caring and commitment were not for him. It would never be.
He glanced surreptitiously over at Kirsten, wondering if she would ever do the same for him. It was hard to tell. They enjoyed playing together and they were strongly attracted to one another but he did not make the mistake of thinking that it meant something more.
How could it? He never left enough of himself for anyone to form that kind of relationship with him. It wasn't possible - not to mention highly discouraged - for a psychostrategist to become involved with his puppets. Play with them, yes. Have a serious connection with…
Sester gave a mental sigh. He wasn't even sure he was capable of one even if he wanted it. At times, when he sat alone above it all, manipulating the playing pieces into the optimum configuration, he would hold one of the pieces in his mind, staring into its eyes and wishing that it would see him for himself.
In a joking tone, he said, "And how do you expect him to accept my assistance? I don't think tying him down would help."
Kirsten said helpfully, "I still have those restraints…if that would be of any use."
Sester, wondering what she was up to, tried to signal her with his eyes. Now was not the time for games and the last thing he wanted to do was get into trouble with Reya.
Reya eyed her cautiously, "What restraints?"
"The ones that Argus used for him."
"And why do you have them?" asked Reya as some troubling thoughts came to mind. She had tried to warn Kirsten about being involved with Sester. It was becoming obvious that she had not followed her advice.
Kirsten's face was turning a shade of red. "Oh…well…we…"
It was clear she was up to something. Sester said quickly, "She forgot to return them."
Reya said slowly, "I…see…." Her eyes indicated that she was not accepting this lame excuse. She looked him squarely in the eyes. "You're encouraging this?"
"I…I…" This time the sputtering was real. Why was it that he couldn't think of something brilliant to say? His brains seemed to be concentrated in a part of his anatomy not suited for thinking. This was a dangerous situation. "Of course not, Reya," he said with as much earnestness he could muster.
Reya's eyes narrowed and her brows knitted as her eyes spotted the expensive bottle of wine. "What are you trying to do?"
Kirsten said, "He was only trying to treat us to a bottle of nice wine."
Reya glanced sharply at her. "Whose we?"
"Well…Jenna was here earlier but she had to leave."
"Jenna and Kirsten?" Reya's eyes were like high-powered scanners trying to bore into Sester's mind.
"It isn't what you think," said Sester.
"Then what is it?" asked Reya without a trace of humour. She suddenly stared hard at his lips and then at Kirsten, who didn't seem to need any beauty aids. In a tone that was undoubtedly questioning his dubious taste, Reya asked, "You kissed Jenna?"
Sester belatedly rubbed the back of his hand across his lips. Unfortunately, it only smudged it further and made him look like a lopsided clown. "I didn’t! Reya, you've got to believe me."
"Why?" asked Reya, moving from complete lack of humour to some very unfriendly thoughts.
Sester put a hand to his cheek in self-defence. Although from the look on her face, Reya might skip slapping altogether in favour of something much more painful.
What was even worse, there was a disappointed look in her eyes. She said, "I knew that you played games. You've done it often enough with me but I didn't realize that you play with all women."
Sester's heart sank. He looked from Reya to Kirsten like a skittish animal caught in the spotlight. How could he save this situation and not hurt either Reya or Kirsten? His master had warned him to be careful with his games. So far, both women occupied different areas of his attentions. Having them together…
He tried to explain, "It's not the same with the others. You're…" How was he going to get out of this?
Reya asked dryly, "Are you talking to me, to Kirsten or both of us?"
"I want to know that too," said Kirsten.
Sester suppressed a smile as he realized what she was doing. She was deliberately trying to pin him down in an awkward situation of his own making.
And he still couldn't step away from the protective covering of the chair. With both women here in close proximity, pushing him, their eyes flashing with anger and intensity, it was exquisitely painful and wonderful at the same time and his body was responding in disturbingly primal ways.
This was a challenge worthy of his skills.
"You're both wonderful," he began with just the right touch of raw honesty, helped by the fact that it was how he felt.
As if on cue, Reya and Kirsten crossed their arms over their chests. "Yes?" Reya's manner oozed cynicism.
"Honestly." Normally, Sester would avoid beginning a sentence with that word. It usually gave the impression that the opposite was about to come out of someone's mouth.
"You both know how I feel. And you both know what I am. I can't help it. I…" His throat caught in the midst of emotion and calculation. "…never mean any harm. It's…"
His eyes lowered as thoughts and feelings churned inside him. He was skirting a fine line, the one that his master had drawn for him many years ago. The humanity he had been allowed to harbour, usually deeply hidden away from the others, and the role that defined who he was to the world.
"…all a game to me. But…" He lifted vulnerable and earnest eyes to face them. "…you're both important to me. In different ways. If my games hurt you…I'm sorry. It's the way I relate to people. I…don't know any other way. I would like to say that I could change but I would be lying. I couldn't do that to either one of you."
There was a moment of pregnant silence.
Kirsten half-turned in Reya's direction. "Do you believe him? You've known him longer than I have."
"I don't think anyone truly knows him."
"Then you don't believe what he said?"
"I would like to." Reya paused for a moment, her eyes seeking out the truth from a man to whom honesty was only part of the game. "I don't think we will ever know for certain. He's right, life is a game to him. But…" Her eyes were heavy with thought as she contemplated this complex and mercurial man and her feelings for him. "…I think that his truth is in how he plays the game. I know he would never knowingly try to hurt me or lie to me. Those are rules he has set for himself, for people who are important to him. They apply to you now as well."
Kirsten bowed her head in acknowledgement. "Now I know why he's drawn to you. I didn't think you understood, but you do."
Reya looked sharply at her, suddenly realizing what Kirsten had just done. This was no innocent girl. She was a formidable woman in her own right. Their assessment of her abilities for the Challenges was not in error. "You are well matched. To him."
"I'm glad you see that."
"You know that I'm not a threat to you?"
Kirsten nodded. "I've always known, but I was curious."
"My warning still stands. Be careful with him."
"Don't worry. He will have more than his hands full with me."
Sester had wisely stepped back from this conversation, allowing the seeds he had planted to work and blossom. Now, what he wanted to achieve had been accomplished. The atmosphere had changed.
A slight grin lifted the corner of his lips. "Now that neither one of you wants to kill me…or slap me…"
Kirsten said, "And how do you know that?"
The grin widened and Sester's eyes twinkled like the rogue he relished being. "Because you both love me?"
Reya rolled her eyes. "You're incorrigible and you've just managed to squirm out of trouble."
This statement was greeted with a chuckle. In a voice like rough silk, and with disarming warmth, he said, "I'm very good, aren't I?"
"Very good at being very bad," said Reya. "Are you going to help Argus?"
He flashed her a mischievous grin. "I would love to."
"Why do I have the feeling I'm going to regret this?"
Placing his hand to his chest in a gesture of sincerity, Sester said, "I'm going to try to help him. I promise."
As she moved to leave, Reya looked back at Kirsten. "Keep those restraints handy. You might need them."
Kirsten grinned. "Don’t worry. They're never far away."
Sester hid his smile in a discreet cough.
"This is completely unnecessary," growled Avon as Cally, with a firm grip on his arm, led him to the bio-bed and helped him to climb on. "I am not an invalid."
With great patience, Cally said, "Avon…"
Sullenly crossing his arms over his chest and sitting on the bed rather than lying down, he said, "Alright, I am an invalid. But I am not…"
"I could let you work yourself into a state of collapse. But then we'd have to send someone to look for you."
"I do not plan to collapse."
"Yes…and what happens when you do?"
"I have Jenna."
At that moment Jenna waltzed in, a none-too-pleased look on her face. "You rang?"
"It was me," said Cally.
Jenna said, "And what do you want?"
"Avon, I'm going to leave Jenna here. I have a shift on the flight deck and the doctors are currently busy."
Avon said indignantly, "I do not require watching."
Jenna grumbled, "What am I now? A babysitter?"
Sliding off the bed, Avon said, "I'm leaving."
Oomph. He promptly banged into a cabinet that had been moved while he was working in his lab. Cally led the moderately stunned man back onto the bed.
"Avon, please. I know you think you're too busy to rest, but you have to. The poison is still affecting you even though it's no longer fatal." She felt his damp forehead. "Your body temperature is elevated because your body is actively fighting the effects. And you insist on a lower dosage than your system can tolerate. I know you're feeling pain even if you won't admit it."
Suddenly feeling drained of energy, Avon leaned back, his face drawn and pale. "I cannot concentrate with a higher dosage."
She put her hand on his with gentle understanding. "I know. That's why I've haven't fought you on this. But you need to allow your body time to recover. And…" Cally looked over to Jenna. "This is the other reason why I called for you. You understand the effects of Shade. You saw what it did to Rane."
Jenna grimaced at the uncomfortable memory. For a moment, the two men were superimposed in her mind. She felt empathy as well as guilt. Her voice was subdued. "Yes. I know what you want."
She looked down at the obstinate man and for the first time saw the deep lines of stress that were etched on his face, the tightness to his jaw showing the pain he was in and the unhealthy pallor that indicated that this was not a well man. Jenna had never noticed before. Perhaps she didn't want to.
She may have felt guilty at what she had done to him, but it didn't mean that she liked or trusted him. His coldness, his arrogance, his independence and the way his manner pushed people away, had made it easy for her to be blind to him as a human being.
In a voice that was no longer tinged with irritation or antagonism, Jenna said, "Avon."
When he turned his head in her direction, she continued, "The effects will only get worse. That's how Shade works and…in the poison form, its accelerated. It may be slowed down because of your temporary antidote, but…"
Avon's strained voice said impassively, "It's only temporary."
"Yes. I'm…" She thought it would be a hard thing to keep saying, considering what he had been putting her through the last few days. But it seemed petty now. Maybe he had no ulterior motive in making those demands of her. She was the cause of many of his current problems. "I'm sorry. Rane…" A stab of pain always accompanied the mention of her old friend's name. "…was like you. He wouldn't take a full dose either. He wanted to be able to function. He got progressively worse and in the end…I had no choice."
Avon asked harshly, "You forced it on him?"
Jenna's voice was a whisper of guilt. "I had to. He was suffering. In pain."
Cally had very little sympathy for her feelings of remorse. "He almost died."
"I…know. It was my fault." Jenna's shoulders slumped in. "I never thanked you for saving his life, Avon. I…owe you."
"Don't worry, I'll remind you," said Avon.
"Look, I'm trying to…never mind. The antidote you found doesn't remove the effects of Shade. And if it works the same as before, taking a partial dose only makes it worse."
This gave Cally an idea. "Do you think that we can slow the speed of deterioration by using a full dose?"
Avon had an instant reaction "No."
Placing her hand on his arm again, she said, "Avon, it would only be the occasional dose."
"I need to think."
"Avon, you're not being rational. If Jenna is right, it will get to the point where we will no longer have a choice. This way, it will give you more time to find a permanent solution."
Avon said in a dead tone, "No choice."
Lifting his hand up gently, she held it in both hands. She could feel the anguish that gripped him. After all this time, the loss of choice and freedom, the feeling that he did not have control over his own life, was a crushing blow. "It is best if we start as soon as possible."
HIs head was faced in her direction and she could see that he wished he could see her face. Using the ability that they had both discovered, she formed the image he needed and projected it into his mind.
HIs breath caught momentarily as he 'saw' her. "Will you stay…here?"
"I wish I could…" Cally knew that his request was born out of a need that was still hard for him to express. Avon saw it as a weakness, and even more so now. Any reduction in his mental capacity would be a terrifying experience for a man to whom the mind was his most important asset. It defined who he was. She could not leave him to face it alone. There was a hard set on her face. "I will tell Argus that I need to change shifts."
Avon squeezed her hand slightly in silent thanks.
Jenna stood up. "I will tell Argus. You stay with Avon."
"Thank you," said Cally absently. They barely noticed when Jenna left.
Jenna hesitated on the top step leading down to the flight deck. She missed being here. Since being allowed back on the ship, she had only been required to be on the flight deck once. She wasn't even sure if she was welcome.
Argus was alone, at his station, his head bent over the panel and his fingers busy at the controls. He straightened up and turned to look at her. "Jenna."
"I have a message from Cally. An emergency came up with Avon and she can't take her shift."
His face was immediately concerned. "Is he alright?"
"He'll…" Jenna knew that saying that Avon would be fine would be far from the truth. "…The addiction has become worse. He needs to take a full dose of the drug."
Argus grimaced. "He's not going to like that."
"That's why Cally needs to stay with him."
"Thank you for telling me. I will take care of Cally's shift." He turned back to his panel.
Jenna stood watching his back. They used to be friends once, working together for a common goal. He used to trust her. She even used to have an interest in him until Reya came along. Now she doubted he would give her the time of day if she asked.
Sensing that she hadn't left, Argus turned around and asked, "Was there anything else?"
"I…uh…" Jenna wanted to say more but after what happened in the medical unit, she wasn't prepared for another load of guilt. "…nothing. I'll go." She turned and left.
Argus sighed as she disappeared from view. It would take a long time for Jenna to feel comfortable on this ship again. And longer for the others to feel they could trust her. Checking that the corridor was clear of people, he said, "Zen, inform me if you detect anyone approaching the flight deck until further notice."
"Use my personal contact protocol. D18."
Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly, trying to prepare himself for a meeting he had been avoiding.
After a few minutes, Zen said, "Communication channel established."
"Put it on the main viewscreen."
The Federation President was in full form. Splendid in a blood red dress with a high collar, lips darker as if she were a vampire who not wiped her last victim from her lips. She assumed the tone of a superior officer. "Commander, I do not find it amusing to have my orders ignored."
Argus snarled sarcastically, "I didn't know you were giving orders."
"You agreed to contact me once a week."
"I've been busy."
The screen flared. Argus put his hand up to shield his eyes. He always forgot to ask Avon to take a look at this. Not that he could now. Maybe one of the engineers?
Servalan said with cool displeasure, "That is not a suitable excuse."
"I don't care if you find it suitable or not, Servalan. I told you that I would contact you in my own time. Now do you have an assignment for me?"
The screen flared again and this time there was pain in his head.
Servalan was looking at him curiously. "I do." She reached forward to the control panel in front of her. "I am sending you the details now under the security protocol."
Argus looked down at this own panel. "I have it." He scrolled through the information quickly, trying not to frown. If Servalan's information was correct, the target was a particularly nasty individual, one he wouldn't mind removing from the land of the living. "When do you want this done?"
"I'm not in a hurry. Anytime in the next two months is fine."
"I will tell you when it's done."
"I have given you the code name, Ares, when you make contact with my agent."
"I am not one of your lackeys, Servalan. I don't need a code name."
"Would you prefer that I give them your real name?"
This woman always set him on edge. He scowled at her with annoyance. "Use the code name."
"I thought you might say that," Servalan said with a condescending smile.
"Is there anything else?" he asked, impatient to end this conversation as soon as possible.
"Not quite." She watched him intently. The screen flared again.
Argus put his hand to his head as another stab of pain pierced his brain.
Servalan asked circumspectly, "Is there something the matter?"
When the pain cleared, a fog he didn't realize had been clouding his mind, lifted and he remembered. His voice was a choked, "Servalan."
"Welcome back, Commander."
"Stop playing with my mind!" His fists clenched in anguish.
"You make it necessary."
"Leave me alone!" he roared. "I am not…"
"But you are, Commander. You belong to us. Or rather, to me now."
After finding out how they had used Blake, Argus had a sick feeling. "Have I…always been…"
"You are afraid that you've been used against the alliance in the same way Blake was?"
He wasn't confident that she would tell him the truth but he had to ask the question. "Was I?"
A slim smile appeared on her lips but her eyes continued to be cold and superior. "You can rest assured that we do not have that kind of control. Your conditioning was specialized in a different area. Besides, you know when we regained control of your mind."
Argus wanted to reach through the screen and do something very nasty to this woman. He remembered the days on the ship alone while they were over Papos. The long sessions of aggravating conversations with this woman and her underlings. He had not known the true purpose of the meetings until it was too late. They were reactivating the latent conditioning from his former days as a Federation officer. A low, angry growl formed in his throat. "What do you want from me, Servalan?"
"I want what I have always wanted from you. Your purpose is to protect my most valuable asset, Avon."
"Avon?" his eyes narrowed. "We agreed that you would leave him alone as long as I perform certain tasks for you."
"That was our agreement and it still is. But you have been lax in your duties. You let Avon be hurt. I can't allow that."
Argus hated this woman. She was touching on an area that had made him angry with himself. He had failed Avon. What happened to him was as much his fault as it was Jenna's. "It was my responsibility."
"Yes, it was. If you were still a Federation officer, I would be sending you to the retraining facilities." She smiled, an expression that sent chills down Argus's spine. "But I have a much better option."
The screen flared again and she said, "Have fun, Commander."
"No!" Argus reached for her as the mind blocks fell back into place.
Servalan waited as the emotions of anguish on his face were replaced by the cold, professional soldier again. "Contact me again in three days."
"You said I have two months to complete this assignment."
"You do but I guarantee that you will want to contact me in three days."
"What are you playing at, Servalan?"
"Contact me in three days."
The screen went black and returned to the star field.
Argus stared at it, wondering what she was up to and knowing it couldn't be anything good.
Servalan switched off her monitor screen, a pleased smile on her lips. One of her black-hooded guards put down a tray in front of her. The heady aroma of the piping hot coffee filled her senses with warm memories. She picked up the cup and leaned back as she regarded her faceless minion. "Do you know the man who was on the screen?"
T-3 straightened up and answered obediently, "No, Madame President."
"No recollection at all?"
"I have no memories of the man."
"Would you like anything else?"
"You may go," she waved him away dismissively. As she watched his retreating back, Servalan made a mental note.