Argus and Tain watched from the sidelines as Maxle took on all comers.
"You're a good teacher," remarked Tain.
"He's a quick study and he's young; has fewer bad habits to unlearn," said Argus.
"Unlike an old soldier like me," said Tain.
"You're at a disadvantage, you have a lifetime of bad habits to overcome," said Argus. He was never one to sugar-coat things. "But you have a lot more important things he can learn from."
"I don't want to make him a dinosaur like me," said Tain.
Argus refrained from making a comment. He understood Tain's sentiments; that was enough. Part of the rebel leader's attention was occupied with the irony that even though they may have to kill each other eventually, they understood each other.
That night he again had dreams of his old friend.
Argus burst into Travis' command tent on Zircaster.
"Why did you send us there?" Argus demanded angrily. "You had to have known they were just civilians!"
Travis looked up, his one good eye looking at his irate friend.
"Did you do it?" the Space Commander asked.
"You know I did!" said Argus.
Travis sighed, he knew his friend. "Then are you really angry at me, or yourself?"
"Don't play mind games with me Travis. Why did you send us in to kill defenseless civilians?"
"It had to be done," said Travis. "You know the rules. We don't question why, we're only here to get results."
"There was a time you would never have said that," said Argus.
"Things change. There is no honour in what we do anymore. There hasn't been in along time," Travis told him.
"For others maybe, but not for us." Argus did not want to face the truth about his friend.
"It's too late Argus. You always were a better man than I."
"I don't believe that."
"Then you don't know me very well. You should never have joined the military Argus, not if you wanted a conscience of your own."
After all the things he had been required to do the last few years, Argus realized that Travis was right. He had always been able to keep the detached objectivity required of the good soldier but after today, things would never be the same again.
"I refuse to do this anymore."
"You don't have a choice, my friend. They won't let you go."
"I'd like to see them try to stop me."
Travis fell silent, contemplating his old friend.
"We never had this conversation," he said finally, extending his hand in a civilian gesture. He was giving his friend a chance, if he chose to take it. "I don't think we'll be meeting again."
Argus gripped the extended hand in a firm shake. He understood what Travis was saying. Little did they both know how prophetic those words would turn out to be. The two friends never met again.
Shortly afterwards Argus quit his commission, just ahead of being arrested for disobeying another order to massacre civilians. He barely got out in time. His men helped him escape.
The rebel leader woke from his dream; again he remembered. He had been grateful that the last orders he received as a Federation military commander had not come from his old friend.
Why am I having these dreams?
"Jenna, perhaps I should stay guard outside while you met this Delik," said Cally. They were both standing in front of the same music shop they had visited several days ago.
"You're afraid of a repeat performance?" asked Jenna.
"I am developing a distinct dislike for cellars," the young woman replied.
Jenna laughed. "You and me both. Alright, you keep an eye on things out here. And you'd better keep these." Jenna handed three holovid crystals they had obtained from Myler Reve to Cally, keeping one herself.
When Jenna entered the shop, Delik was behind the counter and his back was to the door.
"Delik. Delik. Delik. I'm very disappointed in you," said Jenna.
Delik whirled around at the familiar and unexpected voice. He was a handsome man with dark brown eyes and a gravelly voice which sent shivers down the spines of the opposite sex. He also had an inability to say no to women; which was why he always seemed to be in trouble of some kind.
"Jenna!" he said startled. His hands reached under the counter.
Jenna immediately reacted and whacked him hard on the elbow with the rolling pin before he could reach whatever he was trying to access.
"Ow!" Being hit on the elbow at just the right spot was very painful.
When he reached forward again with his good arm, Jenna rapped him across the knuckles with her rolling pin.
Delik shook his bruised fingers and looked at Jenna's rolling pin in confusion. He was unfamiliar with this kind of weapon, but it had done an effective job on him.
"I think we need to have a little talk," said Jenna. "Keep your hands where I can see them."
"Look Jenna," the handsome man began to explain placatingly, "It was nothing personal, but I had no choice." His mind was thinking quickly, trying to figure out how angry Jenna was with him and how he could squirm his way out of this situation. He was very good at squirming into and out of things. It was one of his many useful talents.
"I know you didn't," said Jenna. She took the holovid crystal from her pocket and placed it on the counter. "It was very indiscreet of you," she remarked.
Delik would have picked up the crystal, if he wasn't in pain at the moment. "I knew it was going to get me in trouble some day," he said wryly. "I suppose you have the rest of them?"
"You guess correctly," Jenna told him.
"But I thought that Myler wanted you taken for a reason." Delik was still trying to understand what was happening.
"He did. I changed his mind for him," explained Jenna, the tone in her voice indicated that the changing of Myler's mind was not something Delik would want to experience himself.
"I see," said Delik. Visions of being hit with the strange weapon again were not appealing. His elbow was still numb. "I suppose you want something from me in exchange for the rest of the crystals?"
"Several somethings," said Jenna.
During the rest of the day, as Argus taught more tricks to the soldiers, a part of his mind was remembering. The dreams had brought up memories of things he had not thought about in a long time.
"You've spent most of your life in the military too haven't you," asked Tain. "It's written all over you."
"You're right," admitted Argus. They were watching several of the soldiers as they sparred with each other.
"And those knife tricks, you didn't learn them from a misspent youth." This was not a question.
Argus looked at the man, wondering where this conversation was going.
"There aren't many people who can do what you do," Tain continued, "but you don't look like a cold-blooded assassin."
"I'm not," Argus assured him. Part of him wondered if that was really true.
Maybe not a cold-blooded assassin; more a cold-blooded killer.
He was still haunted by the faces of the defenseless civilians he had killed.
"Why do you work for someone like Ellis?" Argus asked, trying to deflect the man's attention.
"You're an offworlder, you wouldn't understand."
"Try me." The soldier part of Argus realized that it was better not knowing. They were still on opposite sides and regardless of the quasi-friendliness which had been extended to him, he was still their prisoner. He had no illusions that they may be required to kill each other at some point.
"All families in Athol owe their allegiance to whichever lord holds their lands. They call it spheres of influence or some fancy name like that. If the lord decides he wants each family to volunteer a son into military service, we don't have a choice. It's either that or go landless and then you become a target for every opportunist out there. Landed, you are at least are protected by the lord holder. My family volunteered me into military service from the time I could hold a rifle."
"You really didn't have a choice then," said Argus.
"No. But it's not a bad life. Of course it's the only life I've ever known. I don't think I'd know what to do with myself if I became a civilian. What about you? I would guess you're not comfortable when you're not in uniform either."
"Is it that obvious?"
Until the past twenty-four hours with Ellis' soldiers, Argus had not realized how much he missed the excitement, the danger, the cameraderie and the discipline of military life.
"Only to someone who is also career."
"Unlike you, I had a choice." Well, that's not quite true. It was a choice, of sorts.
"But you're not one now?"
"No. That was also a choice." Of sorts.
As they continued talking, Argus's mind went back to those days on the run after his men had helped him escape. After months of danger in dark corners and the relentless tenacity of the military security trackers, he had ended up on a remote outpost along the border of Sector 4.
He was in a bar, watching a vidcast from the Federation Freedom News Network reporting great attrocities which had been committed by the military forces on Zircaster. Argus had felt ill. The Federation Senate was promising immediate investigations, full disclosure and justice. He had been able to obtain a roll of the dead from Zircaster a month ago; every single one of the men from his former command had been on it.
They had all supposedly died in the last big military operation on the planet. Argus knew better. The Federation had used them and then when things seemed to be lost, had gotten rid of them all. Argus didn't know if it had anything to do with his men helping him to escape but one thing he did know, the Federation had to go. That was when he had sought out the rebel alliance.
"Don't you miss being in uniform?" asked Tain.
When Argus had quit his commission, he had known that there was no going back. He had also known that Federation would not let him go so easily.
"And now you're working for Olean Rane?" the man asked casually.
"Not exactly," said Argus. He was instantly on the alert, wondering if the other man had an ulterior motive in asking. "Let's not talk politics," he suggested.
"You're right. We're soldiers, even though you pretend not to be one anymore; politics is not our concern."
Argus remembered the days when that was true. He really missed those simple days when his only concern was the mission; but unfortunately, he had a conscience.