Argus looked out at the star field and sighed heavily. They were speeding towards a place that held many memories for him, none of them pleasant.
“What's the matter now?” Avon sat on the couch, his body angled in his direction.
“Tingash. Reminds me of the old days." A lump caught at his throat and his voice tightened. "And Tess.”
“Ah.” Avon remembered the young woman who had been Argus’s computer tech before she died. She had been bright and they worked well together.
“I promised to make you pay for her death one day. Do you remember?”
“I don’t often forget death threats. Taking them seriously is a different matter.”
The stars twinkled against the darkness, just as Tess once did. A cheerful presence who reached past grade barriers and fought for the oppressed. Argus missed the woman who had become a younger sister he never had. Against the advice of the others, he had returned her battered body to her parents, to a torrent of anger and verbal abuse. He twisted his body around to look at Avon. "You never thought I would?"
"You have an irrational sense of honour. Quaint and impractical."
Argus sighed. "That's me, a dinosaur." He turned back to the star field, his heart still heavy. If it weren't for him, Tess wouldn't have died.
A period of silence fell between them as Argus continued to flog himself mentally for the death of Tess. Avon knew what he was doing. The man's guilt was very predictable. Avon wasn't a man who knew what to say to comfort someone else. He wasn't the kind of man who normally felt the need, but there were times, with certain people, when even he was moved to say something. Tess was not an unknown quantity; he remembered the young tech and her sharp intelligence vividly. Her death had been regrettable, a waste of an excellent mind. But what could he say?
"Your guilt is irrational. There was nothing you could have done."
"Yes, there was. I could have stopped her. Told her not to come. She was young."
"It was her choice."
"Damn it, Avon! Why do they have to die?" It wasn't just Tess. There were many young faces, the men who had been under his command and had given their lives to help him escape. He knew Avon was right; it didn't do any good to let guilt have this kind of hold over him. He had to put it in perspective. Move on. But it was always with him, lurking beneath the surface.
"I'm assuming this is a rhetorical question?"
A strong fist clenched, trying to squeeze some reason out of a universe that refused to make sense. "I wish it could be."
"Regret is part of being alive." Avon's voice was still flat but it was quieter, giving it a barely noticeable softer quality. "But keep it a small part."
"What?" He turned to look at Avon.
"Guilt achieves nothing. Let it get a hold of you and you cannot function. It will achieve nothing for Tess."
Argus grunted and turned back to the screen. "Is that what you did with Anna? Or Blake? Or Cally, when you thought she was dead?"
"Ah." A cloud of shadows cast its pall over them.
Later that day, back in his lab, Avon straightened up from the computer and flexed his stiff neck, rotating it from side to side. It cracked in complaint at his neglect, making him feel like a rusty engine fit only for the recycler. Though on this side of the Calendar, metal that rusted could only be found in museums.
He wrinkled his nose as an out-of-place smell drifted towards him in the sterile lab. The scent of sweet strawberries. A woman. For some inexplicable reason, the female members of the crew had adopted this odour recently. On Cally, it served to enhance...certain activities.
It wasn't Cally, he would have known her instantly. Not Jenna. The last few weeks of enforced proximity assured him of that. That left Reya or Corinne.
The young woman blew out a disgruntled sigh several feet from him. Her voice was melodic and as bright as her personality. "Oh! I thought I could sneak up on you! How did you know it was me?"
"It wasn't difficult." The Commander was more straightforward and less frivolous. She would have announced her attentions.
It was time to increase the autorepair priority for the lab's door, which was stuck open. An open-door policy might work for the trusting and naïve, but he was certainly neither of those. "Is there something you wanted or is this a social visit?" The way he said it made it sound like a disease he didn't want to catch.
"I…" Corinne twirled the ends of her shoulder-length black hair. The implications of 'bearding the lion in his den' (in Vila's words) finally hit her and was stifling her normally exuberant courage. "I know you don't like being disturbed, A…Avon. You're busy and…you have lots of important things to do."
She always felt awkward when addressing him. Calling him Avon seemed wrong somehow, he felt more like an uncle. Corinne suppressed a giggle at the thought of seeing the look on his face if she called him that. She might one of these days, just to see his reaction.
Avon's eyes narrowed in thought. Corinne was unusually subdued and she appeared to understand the need to avoid bothering him with trivial matters. He might be able to spare a few moments to pursue this, and he could truthfully tell Cally that he had taken a break. "What is the nature of your concern?"
Corinne's eyes brightened. "You're interested in helping us?"
"Us?" Suspicion darkened his brow as he remembered the hallucinogenics Vila had placed in his 'water' during the party. He had yet to find time to work on the molecular analyzer in case there were future incidents. "As in you and Vila?"
"Yes!" Her voice was like the light of a thousand suns in its enthusiasm. Even though Avon did not intend to help her in anything he did not deem important, even a cold, factual heart could not fail to be warmed a little by this burst of sunshine into the dark place that was his life.
"We're doing another magic show! This time on the ship!"
Avon's eyes tightened and the wrinkles at the corners deepened. "An entertainment."
"You enjoyed that one on Tellar didn't you?"
Even though he couldn't see, he could imagine the anxious and open expression her face. There was something about naiveté or innocence that always touched an unexpected chord in him.
In his mind's eye, he remembered the simple faith of Meegat. She believed in him and he had made her people's survival his concern. At times, Blake had that naiveté, when he wasn't touched by the darkness of what the Federation had done to him.
"It was interesting."
"Oh." There was a pause. "Vila told me about this. In your language…that means you really liked it!"
Arms wrapped around him without warning. Avon flinched and was about to push her away when he realized she was giving him a hug. He was still trying to decide the appropriate response when she released him.
"I'm glad you liked it! It meant a lot to Vila. He said you're an expert at magic and knew all the tricks. We were so nervous you wouldn't like it."
Why would it matter to the thief (or Corinne) whether he liked it or not? He had thought it was simply because of the bet and the winning of the unconditional favour. Corinne seemed to be suggesting it had a different significance for them.
"What is this matter you wanted to see me about?"
"Well…" She described the illusion they wanted to produce. "Vila said it's impossible unless you help us with some of the numbers. We don't want to blow anything up."
"That would not be advisable."
The idea was a sophisticated one. Surprising for a Delta grade thief with a low-rate education. Avon had to admit it challenged his creativity. It might have peripheral value if he could adapt this idea for later use.
A quiver of a smile lifted the corners of his lips briefly. It wouldn't take long with the proper computer simulation. Fortunately, he was an expert. "Come back tomorrow."
"You're not going to help us?" Her disappointment was palpable.
"I will have the schedule of numbers for you tomorrow. I cannot have you and Vila blowing up vital parts of the ship."
"Oh, Avon! Thank you!" She moved to hug him again.
Even without functional eyes, Avon could 'see' another assault coming. He held up his hand. "One is more than enough."
Corinne bubbled over with laughter.
Vila waited impatiently for Corinne's return, pacing their cabin, his face lined with worry, and wondering if he should have gone with her.
The door slid open with a soft whoosh. "Well? How did it go?" His words came out in a jumble of concern, "What did he say?"
Corinne's smile lit up the room and she gave him a peck on the cheek. "I hugged him!"
Vila did a double take. "You did…what?" His eyes searched her thoroughly for injuries.
"Avon was wonderful."
She looked fine. More than fine. She was spilling over with happiness. "Are you…sure you talked to Avon?"
"He's the one who's blind and works in the lab?" Her face took on an anxious, slightly vacuous, but adorable look.
"You're getting to be very bad." His arms went around her waist in a hug.
"It must be from hanging around you too much." There was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
"What did he say?"
"He said to come back tomorrow. He'll have the numbers for us."
"He probably didn't want us blowing up the ship."
"He did say that."
The scent from her hair tickled his senses with hints of berries. Corinne and fresh, sweet berries, it was making his stomach growl and giving him a growing warm feeling in certain places. "Did I ever tell you what number eight is on my list of favourite things to do?"