Argus took a deep breath, trying to settle a queasy stomach as he stepped into the dining area for a late breakfast. The smells of eggs, waffles, and...ugh...meat made him ill. His tongue had a sickly metallic flavour...
“Good morning.” Sester’s cheerful smile and urbane, friendly greeting immediately grated on his frayed nerves.
“What are you doing here?” he grumbled, a snarl on his lips. This day was getting worse by the minute and he hadn’t had his coffee yet, or his regular exercise routine. He was not responsible for his actions without the first jolt of caffeine or adrenaline in the morning.
“Having breakfast.” A fork was lifted in his direction, a cubed piece of ham speared at the end like an offering. Sester regarded him curiously, the amusement never very far from his eyes. “You’re grumpy this morning.”
“Shut up.” He entered an order for the largest serving of coffee provided by the dispensers and shoved a large mug under the spout.
Sester bit off the cube of ham, chewing it slowly as he watched the irritated man. The body language was so glaring that it was blinding. Something was wrong, and – he grinned – it was his job, and his pleasure, to find out what it was.
Argus suppressed an urge to press against his stomach and the disturbingly full feeling there. He was not about to give any fuel to the nosy psychostrategist. His tongue curled in distaste, wishing he’d rinsed his mouth with something stronger. The strong roasted aroma was helping to settle his stomach a bit. A few mouthfuls would even be better as he watched the cup filling to the brim and...spilled over.
“Damn it!” He wrenched the mug out and shoved another one in.
“Here,” Sester had hurried over and was handing him another one. “You’re going to need more. And before you say that hell will freeze over before you accept my help...that is the setting for a pitcher of coffee.”
A low grumble rumbled in Argus’s chest as he grabbed the mug.
Sester smirked, his eyes twinkling. “You’re welcome. Now...for my next trick, why don’t I get you some food? You look as if you’ll be busy for awhile.”
Sparing him a glare, Argus switched another empty mug and soaked up the hot liquid with a cleaning cloth.
“Of course,” Sester reached to the side of the dispenser and thumbed a red button. “You could always cancel the order.” The stream of coffee thinned and stopped.
Argus stared at the half-full mug, his lips parting in a disconcerted growl, and wanting to kick himself because he should have thought of it. And wanting to do bodily damage to his smugly smiling nemesis.
Shifting over to the food dispenser, Sester asked, “How about a hearty steak? Would you like it rare? Or medium r...”
“Argus!” Reya’s sharp, commanding voice stayed the fist an inch from Sester’s smiling, self-assured face. “Leave him alone, Sester.”
“I was only trying to help,” said Sester, his hands spread open in harmless innocence, which might have worked if people weren’t already inclined to disbelieve everything he said. “I offered to get him breakfast.”
“You were going to get me steak!” Argus glared at him.
“Has that become a crime on this ship?” Sester asked, a gleam of amusement in his eyes.
“You asked if I wanted it raw!”
Sliding his finger along the edge of the counter, Sester smiled, a satisfied expression. “I believe I said, rare.”
“No, you didn’t!”
“Touchy, aren’t we?”
Reya stepped between them, her eyes hard, “You’ve had your fun, Sester. Now leave.”
“But I haven’t finished breakfast yet.” He looked wistfully at his ham and eggs.
“You. Are. Finished.”
Sester chuckled. “You’re right.” He nodded to Reya, their eyes holding for a moment, there was respect in his. Sweeping up his plate and cup, he depositing them on a tray. “The next time, I recommend a strong emetic afterwards.” For a brief moment, there was faint warmth in his voice. “He needs to talk about it with someone, preferably someone who’s not me.” With that, he left.
Argus downed the entire cup of coffee, black, as Reya watched, concern lining her brow. “He’s right.”
“He’s wrong,” he snapped instantly, slamming the mug on the table. Argus grimaced and exhaled heavily. “Sorry. I shouldn’t take it out on you but...he rubs me the wrong way.”
“I know.” Sester would always be a sore point between them. She touched her hand between her bond-mate’s shoulder blades, wishing for the thousandth time she had never met the troublesome psychostrategist, and she had not allowed him to worm his way...
Reya shook her head, closing her eyes to the memories and the guilt that accompanied them. If she had not experienced the pleasure, if it had only been pain, she might have been able to let it go.
“He knew about the Wolf...and...the meat...”
She rubbed his back, wishing he would open up and let her help him. “Yes, he would have guessed.”
Argus’s fists clenched. The metallic, salty taste was back, as if he had just bit into a juicy piece of flesh, dripping with blood.
* Tasty. * There was the impression of delicious, fresh, steaming meat...his mouth watered and tongue smacked wet lips...
“Stop it!” His stomach lurched. “You’ve had your turn...”
Reya stared into his unfocussed eyes but did not interfere.
* You are unhappy, * said Wolf.
* I promised we would work this out and...you could have raw meat. * He took a deep breath, determined to keep his promise, no matter what it took. Some might consider him a fool for being loyal to a virtual construct in his head, but Wolf was real to him and that was enough. * I just...need to get used to it. *
The Wolf turned his head towards the door. * He had a good idea. *
Argus groaned. The last thing he needed was for the Wolf to think Sester was a good man. * Not you too. *
The amber eyes glowed softly in his mind. * You do not wish to know it. *
He growled. * Sester cannot be trusted. *
The muzzle dipped in acknowledgement. * That may be true. But one does not understand why you would deny something you know. *
“No!” His nose flared and eyes flashed.
“Argus!” Reya pressed her hand on his chest. “It’s all right.”
He shook his head. “No, it’s not! The Wolf believes Sester!” A low growl formed in his chest and his fists clenched. “He said...”
“Sester cares about you.”
Argus glared at her. “He’s got you both fooled.”
* One does not like him, but it does not change the truth. *
The irritation exploded. “Shut up!” The amber eyes in his head faded, leaving the darkness of his own anger.
“Are we having a fight?” This was the Reya he remembered well, the hard as ice woman who had been her brother’s Chief of Security. The one who’s sarcastic tongue had cut through his armour and made him fall in love.
He looked at her sheepishly. “Am I being silly?”
He put strong arms around her. “Isn’t that why you love me?”
She sighed and leaned into his embrace. “You can’t avoid it forever.”
“I know, but...”
Two soldiers entered the room and Argus let go of her, stepped back quickly. “I have my shift now.”
Argus rested both hands on his flight panel, looking over at Avon sitting on the couch and the wolf by his feet, watching him intently. The defunct Sopron Projector was open, revealing complicated innards and its burnt out parts tossed on the table.
When they weren’t on missions, shifts were usually dull affairs that Argus relieved by running emergency scenarios and diagnostics. Unless he had company.
“Avon, what do you make of Gourimpest?”
Without looking up Avon said, “As little as possible.” His hand reached into the open casing, feeling along a green wire.
The reply made Argus curious. Avon’s lack of interest in their next mission, an important one for the rebel alliance, was fascinating. “Have you been to Gourimpest before?”
With an irritated tensing of his jaw, Avon straightened up, directing an expressionless face in his direction. “You’re bored.”
There was the quip of a smile on Argus’s lips. The interaction was familiar and comforting, a good distraction. “And you’re evading the question.”
“Find another source of amusement. I’m busy.” He bent down, his fingers following a red wire now. There was a small grimace of annoyance. “Sharp-Eyes, colour.”
* Red. *
“Good.” He traced along the thin lead. Gourimpest evoked an image he would prefer to forget. It was aggravating that the loss of his sight had no impact on his memories.
The smell of choking sand filled his nostrils, and the dry, baking heat at his back. His leather jacket had been supremely unsuited to a desert environment but his captors had wanted him to look...appealing.
Now I know he looks soft, and he talks soft, too, but you can tell the ladies he's strong enough to work all day and still have plenty of energy left over for any little chores you might have for him in the evenings.
Avon’s lips thinned at the remembered laughter, and his jaw tensed. The humiliation of...
I want him! You can name your price. The voice of his greatest enemy haunted him.
The wolf tilted his head. * You were working with a green wire before. *
“What?” Avon’s hand lifted from the case. “The green...” He bent over the case, visualizing the wires in his mind. “You’re right.”
* You were thinking of something else. *
Avon’s sightless eyes narrowed. * I thought you said you couldn’t read my mind. *
Sharp-Eyes gave a whining bark. * I cannot, Avon-Alpha. You seemed preoccupied or you would not have made the error. *
“Is something wrong?” Argus’s voice was close. He had obviously come over to see what was happening.
He felt the couch sink as Argus sat down at the far end. Why couldn’t people leave him alone when he was working? His resolution to increase his social skills was not an open invitation to inquire about his private life.
“Are you going to tell me why you’re so nervous about Gourimpest?” asked Argus.
“I am not nervous,” Avon bristled, a thousand prickly thorns aiming outwards.
“Well, I am.”
There was something in Argus’s voice that made Avon sit up, and his head unconsciously tilt to catch every tone in the voice. “Why?”
“I haven’t heard anything from Avalon since her original message about the alliance.”
The wheels were turning, calculating, and measuring. “There was voice print verification?”
“Yes. And all the security codes matched.”
“On the face of it, the message does appear to be genuine. But you’re still nervous.”
“I...can’t put my finger on it.” The frown lines deepened. “But I haven’t been able to contact her since.”
“That may not mean anything.”
“I know, I know...she has to keep a low profile.”
Avon rubbed his right wrist. He didn’t believe in acting purely on instinct, he needed facts. “On the other hand, there is no harm in investigating further.”
“Is there a point to this?” Jenna asked, as she crawled into a narrow pipe. Her grime-encrusted clothes clung to her in places that were extremely uncomfortable. It felt as if she hadn’t washed in ages. The first thing she was going to do when they finished this ‘exercise’ in humiliation was to take a long hot soak.
“Keep going!” said Kirsten, bumping into Jenna’s boot. She rubbed her dirt-covered face. “They’re going to beat us!”
“Who cares if they do?” grumbled Jenna. “Watch where you’re pushing!” she shouted as hands urged her forward.
“I don’t plan to do laps if we lose,” said Kirsten, “Now, keep moving!”
Jenna stared at the light at the end of the pipe. “She wouldn’t dare...”
“Then you don’t know the Commander.”
Corinne poked her head into the pipe, “What’s wrong?”
Unfortunately, Jenna did know Reya. In a contest between them...it was best not to find out who was better. “Nothing. All right, I’m moving.”
At the other end of the obstacle course, Sester looked up at a high wall. “You’re kidding.”
Vila gulped and glanced over at Reya, who was looking at her wrist chronometer, a blank, unreadable expression on her face. “I don’t think she is.”
“I’m here to be a liaison; not run obstacles courses.”
“Well, I’m a thief and you don’t see me complaining.” He looked around for something to scale the wall with.
“That’s because you’re trying to impress Corinne.”
Baxter ran up, glanced at them without breaking stride and jumped, catching the wall at the top and pulled himself over and kept running.
“Now, that’s just unfair,” said Vila, grimacing.
“They’re all inhuman,” said Sester backing up a few steps. He ran at the wall and jumped, thumping into it with an oomph.
Reya watched impassively, but he could almost swear he saw a satisfied gleam in her eyes.
Corry, Servalan’s handsome young assistant, his light brown hair slightly mussed, said, “The information you requested has come in from Central Security, Madame President.” He sat across from her desk, a large datapad crooked in his arm, tapping entries on the surface.
Servalan barely looked up, her eyes focused on the report in front of her. “Decode at once.” It was her early morning routine, going through the day’s activities with her assistant.
“Yes, ma’am. And Counsellor Joban is waiting outside.”
Busy fingers paused for a moment before she continued scrolling the report. “Does he have an appointment?”
The white-haired Counsellor Joban had been a ‘friend’ once. He had supported her appointment as Supreme Commander and they had found each other very useful, when he wasn’t making barely veiled threats.
Corry suppressed a smile, his light green eyes never looking up from the datapad. “You know he doesn’t.”
Joban had been trying to see the President for months and, under Servalan’s orders, Corry had been very creative in finding excuses to rebuff him.
“Then I have no interest in seeing him.”
“He’s sent a gift.” Corry reached inside his uniform jacket, pulled out a translucent green data crystal and handed it to her.
“What is this?” She held the crystal up to the light. It sparkled like a shiny jewel.
“He said you would find it interesting.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Her hand closed around the crystal. “You’re dismissed, but send me the report the moment it’s decoded.”
The friendly-faced young man nodded and got up. “Yes, ma’am.”
After he left, Servalan slipped the crystal into the reader on her desk and quickly scrolled through the information. Her eyes widened and then narrowed in calculation, a snake about to strike.
Someone was making designs on her property. That could not be tolerated. She thumbed the comm panel. “Corry, contact Central Security and ready my ship.”
It appeared Joban still had his uses after all, but even with his information, she would have to move quickly to save what belonged to her.
Allren crouched in the dirt, drawing designs on the ground with a pointed twig, and occasionally glancing through the bars at the guards. “If we survive this, that’s it!” he whispered vehemently. “I’m finished.”
“I said I’m sorry.” Ture’s shoulders slumped dejectedly, his manacled hands placed modestly in front of his barely covered groin.
“I should have dumped you when you ruined my chances with Serella.”
“I didn’t know it was her...”
The stick slashed viciously across the intricate geometric design, throwing up dirt that made him cough. “You always do that to me!”
“I didn’t mean to. I thought I was helping...I thought she was...”
“Next time...” He threw the curved twig at the bars, making the guards look sharply in their direction. Allren kept his eyes averted, looking innocent, just another almost naked prisoner. “Don’t think.”
“Next time?” the lanky man asked hopefully.
“Don’t push your luck. You got us into this mess. I told you to leave those prisoners alone.”
“But we couldn’t just leave them there.”
“Yeah, well...fat lot of good it did them. They still got shipped out and now we’re about to be...”
The door at the far end of the compound creaked open and the guards sat up straighter. Allren had a bad feeling.