Jenna woke up in a tangle of arms and legs. For a moment, she was confused. There were several too many.
Was it a nightmare? Had she been discarded as too old? In a pile of body parts?
A shudder of disgust overtook her and her queasy stomach threatened to lose its contents.
That wasn't her. It was then that she saw Kirsten's face nearby. From this proximity, she could personally appreciate the smooth beauty of young, unblemished skin and the complete lack of makeup.
It was hideous.
She pushed Kirsten away from her with an unhappy frown and a hard shove. The exhibitionist. Parading around with no beauty aids just to show off.
I'm not that old. She felt her face to reassure herself that there were only a few telltale lines. One. Two. Three. Four. What? Five. Six. S…she dropped her hands from a face that had betrayed her and shuffled back in horror.
Kirsten groaned again and stirred. Her eyes opened and she looked up in confusion when she registered where she was. She spotted Jenna.
The last thing she remembered…they had been about to enter Sester's cabin. Or rather, Jenna had been attempting to and she… "Did we have a fight?"
The words registered through the shock of Jenna's descent into a merciless world where beauty was a tyrant.
"Did we…" Jenna looked around in confusion. They were both on the ground, in front of Sester's cabin. They must have been fighting…and knocked each other out? It didn't seem possible and she didn't feel sore anywhere…but… The last thing she remembered was reaching for the door panel and Kirsten about to stop her.
The two women got up slowly, keeping their eyes warily on each other.
Kirsten glanced at the closed door. Beyond it was a man that she had great interest in. He was fun, exciting and she loved teasing him. Many feelings between them had not yet been explored but they were in no hurry.
There was always another emotion, a niggling voice, at the back of her mind, one which was loud and clear now. It was giving her troubling thoughts and filling her with fear.
She had a secret fear about her attraction to Sester. Was it because they were naturally drawn to each other? Or was there another, desperate reason?
What if my father was right? How could I possibly think that I can compete with a man? Sester must consider me a fool. I'm no match for him. I'm just fooling myself.
I'm not worth anything. I can't survive on my own. What if these people find out? Will they throw me off the ship? I don't have any use here. I don't have a role.
Father said that without a man, a woman is nothing.
The only thing Kirsten knew was that she needed Sester and no one was going to take him away from her.
Jenna stared hard at the door. Sester was an Alpha like her. Rich, powerful, respected, even feared, and he had shown clear interest in her.
She had fought most of her life to be an independent woman. With her own ship and her own crew.
Now, she was nothing and she had nothing. No more money. Every credit had been surrendered to repay the people of Athol.
No more friends. Rane had turned his back on her and she didn't blame him.
Those in the rebellion, Avalon and the others treated her as a pariah.
She was barely tolerated on the Justice and she doubted if she would survive long on her own. Servalan would not forgive her for damaging her precious asset.
Jenna felt old and obsolete on a ship of young upstarts. She could imagine the whispers behind her back.
The only one who seemed to appreciate her for herself was Sester. He was a psychostrategist. They were universally feared and respected. Very few could match their intelligence. To have someone like him interested in her would prove that she wasn't past her prime.
They were very much alike, outsiders on the ship, barely tolerated. He was what she needed. The two of them belonged together. She reached for the panel.
"No!" Kirsten grabbed at her hand. "He's mine!"
"No, he's mine!"
The two women began wrestling as the door opened.
"Kirsten, Jenna…" Sester backed away from the two advancing women. There was a ravenous look in their eyes that did not seem very healthy for him. They were wild-eyed and dishevelled and his room didn't look big enough for both of them.
Fear gripped his heart and constricted his throat.
His mind was not analyzing, not making any suggestions, could not see anything beyond what his eyes told him. His hands went to his head, as if to confirm that it was still attached to the rest of him.
It was there physically, but everything of importance was…gone.
All of it vanished. The knowledge and skills of the puppeteer, his superior mind, that which set him apart…he was ordinary. His master would not be pleased. The Guildmaster would throw him away as he did with others.
Two beautiful and determined women and here he was without his mind to handle them. He should be enjoying this but instead, Sester felt distressingly naked and vulnerable. Panic made him keep backing up even though there was nowhere to go.
Sester wanted to say something. He knew that he normally would have. Something witty to diffuse the situation or make them all glare at him with consternation or roll their eyes. Anything to break this awkwardness. But his word-starved lips had nothing to say. No droll thoughts to entertain himself or others. Thoughts were moving slower than molasses through a block of ice.
His mind could not think of any games.
Numbing fear and emptiness paralyzed him and his carefully crafted world collapsed around his ears.
The back of his legs hit the edge of the bunk and he fell unceremoniously backwards. His normal self would swear, with a twinkle in his eyes, that it was accidentally-on-purpose. But nothing came to him. His mind seemed frozen.
Jenna immediately fell on him, tearing at his clothes, her mouth devouring his. Sester desperately tried to keep his shirt on.
"Hey, I was here first!" Kirsten grabbed Jenna by the shoulders and yanked her back, sending her spiralling away. She sat down next to him and asked, "Are you alright?"
Holding his torn shirt together, Sester looked into her eyes…and couldn't tell anything. The panic increased. He had to get out of here. Kirsten was…important to him. He might say something wrong and that terrified him.
This situation demanded words from him but he couldn't think of any. All he had were overwhelming feelings that he normally parlayed into a game. With hesitant fingers, he reached up and gently traced Kirsten's lips. He leaned forward and kissed her, his lips touching hers softly as if she were a delicate flower that needed care. Her lips parted invitingly.
No. He couldn't do this without his mind. He might do something wrong. Sester couldn't believe it but he pushed her gently away. "I…can't do this, Kirsten. Not right now."
There was a hurt look in her eyes that made him want to kick himself. He had to get out of here before he could hurt her anymore. Before Kirsten or Jenna could stop him, he leaped off the bed and ran out.
Reya didn't know what she was doing going to Sester's cabin. When she regained consciousness in the gym, her legs had automatically led her in this direction.
No, that wasn't true. She did know why she was here. It was a reason that frightened her and warmed her insides, filling her with longing that should only be for one man. The moist desire of her body betrayed her. Her fevered flesh yearned for this man's skilful fingers to touch her, to make her moan with pleasure in spite of her will, as he once did.
There had been the pretext of circumstance then, a situation beyond her control. Now, need drove her. An insatiable desire. And fear. She didn't have time to identify if it was love or pure animal lust. It didn't matter. The need was overwhelming and her mind could contain no other thoughts.
Avon had stopped moving.
This junction should not be here. The hard straight edge beneath his fingers did not lie. He retraced the layout of the ship in his mind. His fist hit the metal surface. This can't be right.
Lesser minds might panic but Avon refused to. There had to be a reason. Had his drug-muddled mind confused the directions? Was there a miscalculation of distance? Had he miscounted the corridors?
That had to be it.
His mind refused to accept any crazy notions that this might not be the same ship. The reality was already disturbing enough. He was blind and alone and he had no idea where he was.
Avon had tried the comms but none of them worked. He thought he'd heard animal sounds earlier but concluded that his ears had been playing tricks on him. They must have been ambient sounds from the ship that a sighted man rarely noticed.
The corridors were a blur as Sester ran, like a man escaping from a nameless horror. Unfortunately, when that horror was you, no amount of running seemed enough.
Oomph! Sester ran headlong into Reya. His legs buckled in stunned shock as she held him up. He said, "Sorry…I didn't expect…"
"Didn't you?" asked Reya with a faint smile. "I seem to recall that you like arranging meetings in corridors."
Her warm manner and the supportive hands around his shoulders, that were wandering downwards, should have warned him.
"You were right."
"I…was?" he asked confused. "About what?"
"I can't stay away from you. I…" Reya knew she shouldn't be saying this. She should not be doing this but she couldn't help it. Desire was compelling her. "…need you." With a speed that always amazed Argus, she had his shirt off and her hands were roaming across his chest.
Sester's mouth dropped open as he looked down. He grabbed her hands. After kissing Kirsten, this didn't seem right. "Reya…" But he had wanted this woman for a long time. His body remembered his need for her. With his hands on her wrists, he spread her arms and pinioned them against the wall. His mouth crushed hers in a passionate kiss. Their bodies pressed tightly together, his need rising hard. He let go and began removing her shirt, sliding it slowly down her body. Her hands curled around his neck and she arched back as his lips found the hollow of her throat. "Uh…"
The engineering section? Avon thought in frustration and disgust at his own inability to find the flight deck. This is on the wrong side of the ship.
The large cavernous feel and the steady hum of the spatial distort engines could not be a mistake. He couldn't believe that he had been turned around so badly in his own mind-picture of the ship. The evidence of his ears could not lie. He had to accept that he was in the engine room.
Computers. There were auxiliary computers here that connected directly to the battle and navigation controllers on the flight deck. The comms might not be working but this was the next best alternative.
Avon felt his way along the walls. "Is anyone here?" he asked out of habit. Silence greeted him.
Fluidic distribution panel. He carefully identified each station, trying to avoid touching any buttons by mistake. That would not be wise in this room.
Antimatter stream monitor. A warning beep made him jerk his hand away.
Several more stations and he found what he was feeling for. Practiced fingers pressed several controls. "Computer, are you receiving information from the flight deck controllers?"
He asked, "Am I the only person onboard this ship?"
"Information not available."
His voice rose in frustration, "What do you mean, 'information not available'?"
"Current data is unavailable."
"That's not what I'm asking. I want to know why the information is unavailable."
"Internal scanners are inoperative."
After what had seemed, several frustrating hours trying to locate the flight deck, Avon was not in a good mood. "Why didn't you say that in the first place! Do you know why the scanners are out?"
"Information is not…"
Avon snapped, "I know, it's not available. Tell me something more useful."
"Internal communications have also been disabled."
He hit the panel. "I already know that."
The computer fell silent.
Avon pushed down exasperated emotions and tried to regain control. He was certain the computer had the information he needed; he just needed the right questions. "Alright, computer. How long have the internal comm and scanners been disabled?"
The computer replied, "Two hours forty-one minutes."
Avon didn't like the sounds of that. Anything could have happened in that time and most likely had. "Almost three hours."
"Has anyone tried to board the ship?"
"Are the external scanners working?"
"All external scanners are working within operational parameters."
"Good. Bring long-range scanners online. Full orbital scan."
"Confirmed." A few nervous seconds passed. "A flotilla of eight ships has surrounded the Justice."
Avon's heart began pounding loudly in his chest. He shouted, "Computer, battle and navigation computers online! Bring up the force wall!"
"Battle and navigation computers are currently online. Force wall is already activated."
He thought aloud, "Then there must be someone on the flight deck."
"Information is incorrect. The Zen controller activated the battle and navigation computers when there was no human intervention."
Avon froze for a moment. "There was no one on the flight deck?"
"The Zen computer reports that there were no humans on the flight deck when it took pre-emptive action."
His mind raced as he processed this information. The revelation that there was no one on the flight deck was the least of his current problems. There were more pressing dangers.
"What a minute. We're surrounded?"
"That is correct."
"And the battle and navigation computers are online?"
"Then why have there been no…the ships haven't fired on us?"
There were several reasons, most of which were not good. The Justice was a valuable prize. "Are the navigation computers able to plot an escape course?"
"Battle and navigation computers report that all possible flight paths fall within weapons range of enemy ships."
"Then we're stuck."
Why haven't the ships made a move against us? "Computer, can you identify the ships?"
"Available data classifies them as seven Mark II pursuit ships and one Sigma class heavy battle cruiser."
Avon exclaimed, "Federation?"
Even on the Liberator, they had never run across a heavy battle cruiser. He had witnessed them in action during the alien invasion. A single one was formidable. With the support of other ships, even with its superior speed, the Justice was in trouble. The situation was quickly deteriorating from bad to worse.
On the other hand, bad was a relative term.