Reya was immediately brought back up to the Justice to be tended by Cally. Her injuries were not serious, especially given the advanced medical facilities of the ship, but they were painful. After expressions of support and concern, the others had cleared the room so that Cally could attend to her.
Reya now lay resting, her eyes closed, hovering in a state between tiredness and alert wakefulness, both of which were the result of the contest she had undergone.
Argus came in quietly in order not to disturb her rest. He stood by her bed, staring down at the person he loved more than his own life. He had always been proud of her and full of admiration; he was even more so now. She was a partner and a soul-mate; someone who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him and could also go toe-to-toe with him.
Every pain and injury she had suffered was personal for him. The battles were hers to fight but the burden of them was theirs to share.
He was angry for her because he knew that until the final test ended, she would not allow herself the luxury of emotions that would hinder her performance. She was first and foremost a professional and someone who keenly felt her responsibilities to others.
Reya opened tired eyes and saw him staring down at her. He almost looked startled at her sudden consciousness. Reya said jokingly, "You look terrible."
He responded, "Well, I'm glad you're not with me because of my looks then."
Reya said with a light, teasing smile, "Maybe, just a little."
Argus managed to look embarrassed for some reason. He coughed and asked, “Uh…how are you feeling?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
Argus smiled wryly, “You sound like me.”
Cally came back into the room and Reya asked her, “Can I rest back in my cabin?”
Cally responded to Reya but look pointedly at Argus, “Only if you do get some rest.”
Argus coughed and seemed to look embarrassed again.
Reya said with an amused twinkle in her eyes, “Maybe you should have Cally look at that cough.”
Argus’s face was taking on a distinctly reddish shade. “I feel fine. It’s nothing. I just…well…”
Reya said to Cally, “Yes, I will be getting some rest.”
Argus said earnestly, “Yes, she will.” He was just glad that Reya was letting him back into her cabin. He didn't want to do anything that would make her change her mind.
“That’s alright then.”
Avon was in his lab, staring intently at a vidscreen and making numerous entries. He was still working on breaking the encoding of the files from the planet where they had found the hybrid Auron-human children.
The lab was a neatly arranged place despite the clutter of various technical equipment spread around the room in various states of being dismantled. It was also a quiet place, far from the constant daily activities of the ship. Avon often came here to either be alone or to spend time with Cally while they worked on various projects together. Cally would have called it his refuge. Avon did not think of it that way. It was just a place where he could do his work, undisturbed by unwelcome distractions.
Vila came in carrying his compact equipment satchel and something else in his hands. “Can I work in here?”
Avon looked up from the monitor. “Only if you don’t disturb me.”
“I can do that.”
The look on Avon’s face was somewhat sceptical but he didn’t object when Vila found a clear space at the table and sat down. Vila put the device that he had in his hands down on the table and began studying it. He opened his satchel up and laid some tools out.
Avon didn’t recognize the device. He turned back to his own work but after awhile, his curiosity got the better of him and he asked, “What is that?”
Vila muttered absently but didn’t look up, “What?” He touched a sonic probe against a switch and looked at the readings with interest and a crinkling of his forehead.
“What’s that device you’re looking at?”
Vila finally lifted his head from what he was studying. “It’s a Cambrian lock. I’m trying to figure out a faster way to open it.”
“What’s the difficulty?” Avon got up and came over to look at the lock.
“It’s the slider.” Vila used the probe to point at the moving part. “See, it moves this way whenever the power line is cut and activates a secondary power unit plus it sets off the security alarms.”
“Then disable the secondary before cutting the primary line.”
“It won’t work that way. You see this?” Vila pointed to another component.
“A trigger switch.” Avon was getting into this problem. “It ties both systems together. Any deviation in one will set off the other?”
“You got it.”
“That’s a difficult problem but not insurmountable. You said that you’ve solved it but were looking for a faster solution?”
“I’m hoping to.”
“What was your original solution?”
Vila looked over at the terminal Avon had been working on, “I thought you were busy?”
“I am but, as Cally would say, I need a break occasionally.”
“Somehow, I don’t think Cally would call this a break.”
“It’s my version of one,” said Avon as he brought over his chair and sat down beside Vila.
They both started working on the tricky lock, each one throwing in ideas and testing them. Avon picked things up quickly and was able to make some good suggestions from his own technical expertise and analysis skills. Vila surprised Avon with his understanding and ability to problem-solve quickly. When it came to the understanding of locks and how to break them, he was the best.
When they had found a solution that they were both satisfied with, Avon asked suddenly, “Why do you hide your intelligence?”
Vila was startled by this question. Avon had never asked him something personal before. “Well, I think it’s for the same reason that you don’t hide yours. We’re both trying to survive. You get all kinds of unfriendly attention in the lower grades if people know you have brains. People want you to do things, usually things you don’t want to do, if you know what I mean.”
Avon understood that only too well. It did not pay to have intelligence in the Federation, not unless you had power or wealth enough to prevent others from using you. He looked at Vila with new eyes. “Perhaps you were smarter than I was.”
Vila was shocked. He had never expected Avon to say anything like that. “How’s that?”
“You hid yourself as a Delta and you acted the fool so that no one would suspect. You avoided being drafted into the military. You avoided…many things.” His throat became tight and Avon’s eyes focussed on something in the distance as his mind went back to his own past.
Vila noticed Avon’s eyes starting to glaze over, he knew that this was not a good sign. “Avon!”
Avon’s eyes refocused abruptly on Vila’s face. He seemed confused, as if, for a moment, he couldn’t remember what Vila was doing there.
An instinct made Vila ask, “Avon, could you avoid it?”
“What?” Avon still seemed confused.
“Avoid attention you didn’t want?”
“I…” No matter how much Avon concentrated, when he tried to consciously recall the memories, they never came. “It was too late.”
It was Vila’s turn to be confused. “Too late for what?”
Avon eyes reflected uncertainty as he struggled to understand the impressions he was experiencing, “I don’t know.”
Vila was finding this a confusing conversation himself but he was beginning to realize some things. He asked, “You don’t remember?”
There was no longer just a confused look in Avon’s eyes, there was a troubled one. Vila could see the rise of panic. This was definitely not good.
Vila said, “Avon, maybe we should stop talking about this?”
Avon’s mind had been trying to concentrate; trying to regain control before he lost control. “That’s a good idea.”
Vila reset the lock in order to test their new solution. Avon watched his fingers move deftly and skilfully. Avon's mind focused on the action and the intricate detail.
By the time Vila was ready, Avon was back to normal again.
Argus met with President Brent in his private and much smaller office. This one was considerably less ostentatious than the main meeting chamber for receiving guests. It was designed for functionality and personal comfort and had little to do with intimidation factor. Brent was also without his officials and assorted attendants. Only a single, unobtrusive guard stood inside the door.
“I’m outraged that this would happen,” said Brent after being told that the contest rules had not been explained fully to them.
He sounded sincere but Argus retained a guarded attitude. It wasn’t smart to take anyone at face value these days, especially not leaders of oppressive societies, even if they didn’t see themselves as such.
Under different circumstances, Brent could have been an entertaining man to be around. He had a dry sense of humour and an honest and open manner about him. At least, he seemed so on the outside.
Argus said warily, “Yes, we were quite surprised ourselves.”
Brent asked, “Why didn’t you say something?”
“We didn’t know until after the lights went out. By then it was too late.”
Brent nodded thoughtfully and regarded him carefully. “You thought it was a deliberate trap?”
Argus admitted warily, “It’s hard not to think that way.”
“Your woman must have known something was wrong when she was given the transmitter.”
Argus bristled at the way Brent referred to Reya. “She’s not, ‘my woman’. And yes, she knew right away but like us she thought it was better to continue."
Brent smiled indulgently, “Of course. Your attitudes towards women are amusing but hardly practical. Even if your wo...I mean even if Reya is the exception to the rule, she still needs guidance. She could hardly manage on her own. Women are not as intelligent as men are. They're ruled by their emotions and trivial things. They don't understand the important issues. They don’t have the strength of character that men do. They fall apart at every sign of stress. In the kind of universe we live in, can you imagine them running things. We’d lose our empire in a matter of days, if not weeks.”
Argus was glad that Reya was not here to listen to this. She’d be trying not to wring this arrogant man’s neck. Argus did not want to get into an argument about this yet. They needed Brent’s cooperation. Even though he felt like joining Reya in whatever damage she would feel like doing to Brent, they could not afford to antagonize him.
The aliens were trying to do something in this region. Argus's group hadn’t discovered what it was yet. The last thing they needed was for the Chandarans or any of the other Alliances in this area to come under alien influence or control.
They had already tried to take over Sector 10 by subverting Reya’s brother, Ellis. It had been close and they had nearly won. The aliens could not be allowed to do the same here.
Though he felt far from it, Argus said diplomatically, “We have a difference of opinion then. I don’t agree. I think that women are just as intelligent and have the same strength of character, if not more, than men. But I am not here to debate gender politics.”
Brent asked dubiously, “Surely you don’t think that they could be as strong as men?”
Argus said, “Muscular strength-wise, perhaps not. Though I think some would surprise you. Reya definitely would. But I fail to see how that has any significance.”
Brent responded as if Argus needed to have his blinders removed, “It makes all the difference. From the beginning, it has always been men who provided the protection and men who did the important things like going to war. Those things require strength, both physical and mental.”
“I wouldn’t call making war something to be proud of or the capacity for brute strength as making men more superior. If anything it encourages us to look for lesser solutions.”
Brent argued, “You can't really believe that. War and strength are essential instruments of any state. Without them we would be wiped out by our neighbours very quickly. Don’t tell me that you propose to fight the aliens by using something other than the use of military force and the capacity for war? Isn’t that the ability that you want to use from us? Women aren’t naturally inclined for such things.”
“I don’t disagree with the last point. Women aren’t as naturally aggressive as men are and perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe if more of them were leading or had influence, this universe wouldn’t be such an ugly and violent place. Perhaps we would find more solutions that don’t require killing and destroying.”
Brent scoffed, “I wouldn’t have identified you as that naïve, Argus. I thought you used to be a soldier. One of the Federation’s best?”
“I was. And I am still one of the best. Just not the Federation’s.”
“It must be the result of having women onboard your ship and allowing them influence. You’ve gotten soft. We do not allow that in our society.”
Argus was still controlled as he said, “I wouldn’t recommend testing whether I’ve grown soft or not. Reya and Cally are valuable members of my crew and add considerably to our capabilities. The ship wouldn’t be the same without them.”
Brent said sceptically, “It's hard to believe that any woman could be that important. I agree that women do have their uses but other than for the obvious ones, what else are they good for?”
“You’ve already seen what Reya can do. She is more than capable with military skills, but beyond that, she is also a military commander in her own right in the Athol Territories. A very capable, intelligent and successful one. I believe that if you give your females even half a chance, they would surprise you.” Argus decided that mere words were not enough. “You said that you didn’t know that the last contest had not been conducted fairly.”
“Yes. I have no knowledge of what you described. I will have it investigated thoroughly and the guilty parties will be brought to justice. I’m an honourable man, Argus. I may disagree with your politics but I would not sabotage you just to prove you wrong.”
Argus said, “Alright. Say that I believe you, for now. It may be one of your own people, someone less honourable than you are.”
Brent said reluctantly, “That is possible. It’s one of the things I’ve been trying to weed out since I came to power. I will not tolerate people who think that good intentions justify any kind of dishonourable action. You have my personal assurance that the last contest will be a fair one. I will check everything myself. Unless you don’t trust me?”
“I would like to trust you.” Argus thought for a moment; he had an idea. “You said that one of the reasons why women are not given higher consideration here is because they don’t have the strength, either physical or character-wise, that is required for a successful society?”
Brent still held fast to his opinions, “Yes, of course. If they had the ability to at least defend themselves that would make things different; they would be less of a burden. But even that we have to do for them."
Argus gave Brent his suggestion. “Then I propose a change in the final challenge. No weapons. Purely hand-to-hand combat. That way there are fewer opportunities for sabotage. You’ve given your word but can you guarantee that you will have full control of everything and at all times?”
Brent conceded, “You’re right. I can’t. If someone was determined to sabotage the contest, it would be hard to stop them.”
“So let’s give them fewer opportunities by removing the complications. Weapons can be sabotaged and any props required for the contest can be altered.”
Brent asked, “You have confidence in your security officer?”
“I would pit her against your best.”
“Very well. Hand-to-hand it will be. We will use the same chamber as the last contest. It’s a sealed room. No play there for a saboteur. We can agree upon the rules here, between the two of us.”
“That sounds fair.” Argus asked, “What happens when my security officer shows that a woman can beat a man in physical combat? Would that change your mind?”
Brent didn’t seem hostile or closed to Argus’s proposal but neither was he in favour. “Change my mind? Probably not. But I might be inclined to listen to more of what you have to say and perhaps talk to this Reya of yours.”
“That’s all I ask,” said Argus.
After talking to President Brent, Argus went back to the ship to look for Vila and found him in Avon’s lab.
Argus said, “Vila, I need you to go make some friends among the Chandarans. Try to talk to some of the women, if you can find them. The men might be a bit touchy about them from the looks of things so be discreet. Don't take any risks you don't have to.”
Vila asked, “Did something happen?”
“I’ve been talking to President Brent. He’s agreed to change the final contest to a hand-to-hand fight.”
Vila looked mystified, “Is that supposed to be better?”
Argus explained, “Yes, it gives less scope for sabotage and I think it may open up Brent's eyes further when he sees a woman beating a man in physical combat.”
Vila was very unsure of this idea. “It sounds like a good idea. And I'm sure the Commander is good. Not that I've seen her fighting. I mean, I’m sure she can beat me any day of the week, but I’m sure the Chandarans will pick someone a lot more…you know.”
“I’ve asked for their best.”
Vila’s mouth dropped open.
Avon asked, “Are you out of your mind?”
“I don’t think so. I want to try something other than violent revolution to change this society. Brent said that they respect strength and that women aren’t even able to defend themselves. I want to show them all that they’re wrong.”
Avon said, “You're not just out of your mind, you're insane. Is one insurmountable obstacle not enough for you? Do you have to add another one?”
Argus said with confidence, “Reya can do it.”
Avon replied, “That’s not what I’m referring to. As much as I hate to admit it, Sester was right. You're trying to change their illusions. Is it a wise thing to be doing?”
Argus, "You know, there's one thing I didn't understand about the whole conversation."
Avon wished Argus had included him in the discussions with the Chandaran President. There were some things he would have preferred to see and hear in person. "What was it?"
"Brent never once told me to mind my own business or that I was interfering in the internal affairs of another Sector."
Avon contemplated this. "That is odd but it might just mean he's keeping his true intentions from you."
Vila asked, "What do you think he's up to?"
Argus agreed with the caution. "We need to find out then."
Avon said, "Preferably before it's too late."
Argus asked, "You're presuming the worse?"
Avon said, "I think it would be stupid not to, under the circumstances."
Vila added, "Just look at what they did to the Commander. It's hard to believe the President didn't know. Wouldn't make him much of a leader, would it?"
Argus said, "Vila, it's up to you. I will keep talking to Brent."
Avon said, "And I will create some insurance."
"Buy some insurance? Why?" asked a perplexed Argus.