Argus set a brisk pace as he led the clones in an orderly jog through the corridors. They seemed to enjoy it and it burned up their excess energy.
“Sir,” Oscar bobbed along beside him, both were breathing as if they were still walking and not running.
“What is it, Oscar?”
“I want to know about choice.”
Argus looked down at him; the boy’s dark brown hair was cut short just like his. At times it was unnerving seeing so many copies of himself. Maybe he should recommend they all get different haircuts? “What did you want to know?”
They reached a junction and angled left towards the gym.
“Everyone tells us that we should make our own choices, but there are some that are not up to us.”
The boy had an easy, efficient stride, just like his. Oscar looked down, contemplating the floor as his brow furrowed. “I’d like to stay with you, sir.”
Argus rested a hand lightly on the boy’s shoulder. “You don’t want to go to Kaarn?”
“I don’t know anything about it, sir, but...I’d...like to stay with you, if that’s alright.”
Glancing back briefly at the others, Argus asked, “Do the others feel the same way?”
The boy’s forehead crinkled further. “Not all of us do. Some...would like to go with the wolves. We’ve...” His words were strained, as if he were trying a new language. “Made friends with some of them.”
“You want to be separated from each other?” Argus asked in surprise.
“I...” Oscar looked up at him with eyes that were confused and contained a swirl of emotions. He was breathing harder now, but not because of the jog. “We don’t want to, sir.” His lips quavered and then stretched as he tried to make sense of what was happening inside him. “I...we...want to stay together, but...we all want different things too. It’s very confusing, sir. It’s not acceptable.”
Argus squeezed his shoulder and slowed to a stop. He turned back to the others. “We should talk about this.”
Oscar said, “If you gave us an order, we will follow it, sir.” There was a plea in his trusting eyes.
As a career military man, Argus might not know a great deal about personal relationships with women, but he did understand about leadership and when to give it. “This is something you have to decide for yourself, Oscar. All of you have to make this decision. You have to choose what’s most important to you. This may mean you will have to sacrifice something.”
“Sacrifice?” Oscar said reluctantly.
“You can’t stay with me, Oscar. It’s too dangerous. We’re fighting enemies on every side. I can’t have you with me.”
“But we can fight, sir. You’ve seen us.”
Argus sighed and shook his head. “I know you can, but that’s not what I meant.”
“Is it because we’re children?”
A tide of memory washed into Argus’s mind, his first kill as a soldier for the Federation; he was only slightly older than Oscar. Argus could feel the angled hardness of the gun in his hands, the butt square against his shoulder, and his finger resting lightly on the guard as he aimed the laser sight. He was a killer before he understood what living was.
“Yes.” Fingers curled unconsciously, tightening on the boy’s shoulder, digging into the firm muscle. His voice contained the fierceness of a dragon, and his eyes were hard, full of inflexible energy. “No one is going to rob you of your childhood. They’ll have to go through me first.”
The concern of the young voice made his throat tighten and dragged him back to the present. His grip loosened on Oscar’s shoulder, who hadn’t seemed bothered by the pressure.
Argus focused on the boy, the innocent young boy whose hands were still clean. There were many things he could tell him about the harsh world they lived in and what could have happened to them, and still could if the enemy got their hands on them. He could have told them in excruciating, soul-wrenching detail. The memories were still fuzzy in some areas but he remembered enough.
Should he burden them with nightmares or let them have the peace of an unburdened mind? “Childhood is a gift, Oscar, one that was taken from me. I won’t let anyone take it from you.”
“It’s important, sir?”
Oscar looked back at his clone brothers, his face serious. A few of them nodded. “Can we join you when we’re grown up?”
Cally swept her fingers across the bank of switches on her panel, hearing the soft cascade of clicks as they turned off. She pulled off the bulky, head-hugging headphones and dropped it on her panel, enjoying the rush of air brushing against her freed ears.
Why did the Justice have such antiquated-looking headsets? She shook her hair out and ruffled the flattened sides.
At least the comm diagnostics were finished. Her chores for this shift were finally done and she could relax a bit. A yawn caught her attention. She turned to see Reya putting her data pad down and stretching her arms far above her head.
Reya asked, "Are you done with the diagnostics?"
"For this shift."
Reya gave the barest of grins. "Not the most exciting of duties."
"I suppose it could be worse."
"You could be testing the new intake configuration for the waste management system."
Cally winced. "Who has that one?"
Her brows knitting in disbelief, Cally asked. "Didn't he do the last one?"
"Yes, and complaining bitterly the whole time."
"Don't tell me he volunteered."
"He lost a bet."
"Oh, Avon…" Cally sighed. "The two of them…"
Reya chuckled softly and stretched her legs under the table. "They need the challenge." There was a movement at the corner of her eyes. She turned to see Jenna standing at the top of the steps. Reya stiffened, her face assuming an unreadable mask of professionalism.
Seeing the change in her expression, Cally turned to see Jenna clearing her throat and saying, "Can I come in?"
Cally said coldly, "What do you want, Jenna?"
The unwelcome woman winced as the blast of icy manner hit and inclement weather descended on the flight deck. She pulled her shoulders back a bit, steeling herself for more unpleasantness. "I heard you contacted Athol?"
"We did." Reya's eyes followed her as she came down the steps.
"I'm glad the antidote works. I couldn’t live with myself if it didn't." Jenna paused, the chill in the air made each step a wintry trek into a frozen wasteland of unfriendliness.
Cally looked pointedly at Reya. "Do you accept that?"
"If Rane had died," Reya's voice was low, reaching ominous registers normally reserved for those who incurred her wrath, "You would be dead." Her eyes fixed Jenna's in a frosty stare.
It felt as if icy fingers had curled around Jenna's spine and was squeezing all the marrow out of it. Her head bowed, her manner was subdued. The pain of guilt was far worse than their anger. "I know…and I wouldn't stop you."
"Not that you could," said Cally in a snarl that almost rivalled Avon's.
Jenna shifted on restless feet and raised her head to look at Reya, forcing herself to meet her eyes. Coming back to the ship had been everything she had hoped it wouldn't be, but feared it would be. "I know it's too much to ask either one of you to forgive me." What she needed was a time machine to go back and fix everything before it all went wrong. "But I want to apologize."
Where would she go back to? To the day she captured him? The dark, mad hour when she decided to make Avon pay at all costs? Or further back? As far back as the bullet that had taken Blake from her before she could even say goodbye? "I wish…" It was pointless to think about all the ifs. She turned to her once and former crewmate. "Cally, I can't say I never intended to hurt Avon. It would be a lie. But I do regret it."
The last few weeks with the patient, level-headed Lt. Dain had started to heal places she thought would only feel pain. She never thought he was a substitute for Blake and she wasn't looking for one, but he was a non-threatening presence, a rock in a life that had lost any permanence. "I don't know if you would do the same to me if I ever killed Avon." Her head turned to face Reya. "Or Argus."
The two unfriendly women exchanged looks, each contemplating the idea.
"I would kill you," said Reya matter-of-factly.
Cally grimaced, remembering her anger when she saw Avon's broken body and his ruined eyes.
To destroy until I am destroyed. Words of the past haunted her, and a Cally she thought she was no longer. "You're right. I thought I was past the idea of vengeance."
More words replayed from the past. But pointless revenge, it doesn't achieve anything.
It would make her feel better. For a few brief moments, the act of anger would dull the pain, and the guilt of surviving would not be so crushing. The loneliness of silence would not be so terrifying.
Was that what drove Avon so many years ago? Was that what drove Jenna? And Blake?
In our selfishness, we deceive ourselves.
Each woman looked deep into their own hearts and the potential for darkness that lived in us all. Who could swear if the same madness could not take hold of them too?
Her eyes met Jenna's eyes, no longer icy and not quite friendly, but the door had been unlocked. "Maybe Avon was right, being human means being flawed. And I am no different." Her hand was at the door, but she wasn't opening it yet. Harsh anger coarsened her voice. "I need to kill Servalan. For what she did to Avon and my people."
Jenna walked forward slowly and reached out, putting her hand on Cally's shoulder. "I'll hold her down."
Reya came close too. "I will provide the knife."
"Make it a dull one."