When the footage of the main hall was shown and the aliens dissolved into indeterminate greenish blobs, the women fell into hushed and shocked silence. Even for those who had seen this before, it was still a jolt. Then, as the Reya in the vid lay dying on the ground and the crew and the Champions gathered around to protect her, the women continued watching quietly. For many, this was the first time they had seen this part of what happened. The original video feed had been cut when the aliens were killed.
As the vid recording ended, the women continued staring at the blank screen. They didn’t seem to know what to make of it. As Chandarans, they were raised to respect courage and honour above all else. And those characteristics were the exclusive province of men. To see clear of evidence this in a woman was hard to believe, but what made even the most resistant of them hesitate, was Reya’s act of self-sacrifice.
Reya stood forward again. “Before we continue and I explain what the plan is and what is going to happen, let’s have a rest break.”
The antagonistic woman asked, “Why did you do it?”
Reya said, “I told you the truth. I am here to help your people. It is my mission to rid this galaxy of the alien threat and save humanity. If that makes me abnormal, then so be it. I am proud to be abnormal.”
Kirsten said in a quiet voice, “You are abnormal, aren’t you?”
They all turned with shock to stare at her.
Kirsten faced them. She was still unsure of herself and expressing these radical ideas but Cally could sense a growing confidence. “Courage and self-sacrifice like that are rare. That’s why we admire people who show these qualities. They’re abnormal because normal people are not like that, not even most of the men, or they would all be Champions. It’s so rare and abnormal that it must be honoured no matter who shows them.”
Cally was aware of something else in this surprising Chandaran woman, not just hidden strength but a quick and thoughtful mind. Cally was aware of it as controlled but busy mental activity, somewhat like Avon’s. It was an innate intelligence that Kirsten had learned to keep to herself.
If her father was the Chandaran Senator, it was no wonder that she would try to hide that she was far smarter than she pretended to be. Cally shuddered at the horror of a woman of intelligence who was forced to conceal it and who would never have the opportunity to develop or use it.
Kirsten turned to Reya, “That’s why they made you a Champion, even though you’re a woman.”
There were stirrings among the women at this reasoning.
Kirsten looked down. Her next words were less assured. “But…you are a woman. That…means something.” She looked at the antagonistic woman and asked nervously, “Doesn’t it? It should mean something."
The dark, curly haired woman didn’t say anything. There was still antagonism in her eyes but there was also uncertainty.
Kirsten's anguished face added a desperate hope to her tone that was hard to ignore. "She is a woman and what she did was very good, wasn’t it?”
Cally remarked to Reya, * This is interesting. *
Reya moved her fingers to indicate her agreement. Reya said to the women, “Please feel free to enjoy the refreshments. We will begin again in half an hour.”
She signalled someone at the door. The large double doors slid open.
The women reacted with astonishment as they saw Argus, Vila and Sester rolling in trolleys laden with steaming cups of tea and small delicious pastries and cakes. They all took steps back as the men came forward.
In Chandaran society, women were not allowed to associate with men who were not of their household. To talk to one was a punishable offence. Even for those who were prisoners and not of Chandar, it was an automatic reflex that they had been conditioned to exhibit. Sester held out his hand and all three men stopped.
Reya explained to the women, “These are men from my ship. They want to show our hospitality and have volunteered to serve the cakes and tea. Do not be alarmed."
The dark, curly haired woman said, “This is wrong. Men should not serve women.”
Reya asked, “You are not on Chandar anymore. As I said before, different customs apply outside of Chandar. Here both men and women can serve, according to their wishes. This is the wish of these men. They would like to welcome you by doing this. Are you going to refuse their hospitality?”
Cally sent Reya a mental chuckle. * You’ve confused her. *
Reya said, “The large one is Argus. The one waving his hand is Vila. And the other one is Sester.”
As the doors slid open and Argus saw the room full of women, for a moment, it was like the eve of battle and waiting inside for him was something formidable. But even against the most dangerous of enemies, he never felt this nervous before.
The three men rolled their trolleys forward. Argus was careful to match the speed of the others. It seemed like an unnecessarily slow pace to him. He would prefer getting this over with as soon as possible.
He noted the immediate looks of apprehension and fear as the women spied them. Automatic instincts of his mind already told him the exact distance between the line of trolleys and the first of the women, the speed he was moving and the time it would take to reach the women. The women backed away from them slowly. Sester held up his hand and signalled a halt. Argus didn’t know why but he followed his instructions and both he and Vila stopped. He felt awkward as the women glanced fearfully at them without meeting their eyes.
Argus remembered that Marlena had told them the women of Chandar did not look directly into a man’s eyes, they always directed their eyes downwards except with other women.
What were they supposed to do now? They were supposed to serve tea and…some other things. How were they supposed to if the women ran away from them? Argus wished the annoying psychostrategist would hurry up and think of something. The man was irritating but Argus had to admit that he did have his uses.
Reya calmed the women and made the introductions. Argus watched her with open admiration and affection. She knew how to handle these women and just what to say. He wished she would tell him what to do now. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have any ideas, but he doubted if any of them would be appropriate except on the battlefield or on a covert op.
You mean that so you won't send them screaming in terror? The annoying phrase inserted itself into his mind.
Damn that Sester. Why did he let the man get to him? The last thing he wanted to do was to scare these timid women. They were like skittish animals in the crosshairs of a laser sight, ready to bolt at the first sign that they would become someone else’s lunch.
No. Hunting analogies are not a good idea right now. They aren’t…lunch.
Argus took in a deep breath and let out the tension slowly. It didn’t help.
Reya introduced the three men. The large one?
Sester bent his head and said in a barely audible whisper. “Let’s go, large one.” He pushed his trolley forward before Argus had the opportunity to snarl at him. The three men moved towards the women again. Argus noticed that Vila and the annoying one were veering off to tend to the women on different sides while he continued ahead.
Argus was aware that he was moving faster than the others were and immediately slowed down. The women seemed skittish as he came closer but none of them moved away this time. That was good. Argus stopped several meters away so that they could take a good look at him before he did the next part.
He would have to speak now. Argus cleared his throat. Directness always worked. It shouldn’t be that different in this situation. He looked down at the trays, his mind taking mental stock of the inventory. Steaming hot tea and tiny little cakes. He could polish one off in a bite.
He hesitated. Reya had said something too. She said to remember the voice he used with her sometimes in their cabin. It had made him feel uncomfortable that she wanted him to remember the gentle voice. But not too soft, she had said, or they would get the wrong impression. It shouldn't sound…intimate. How was he supposed to manage that? The instructions seemed daunting.
Argus pitched his voice as soft as he could but not too…he had no idea how to do that. “I have tea and some tiny little cakes.” He almost sounded apologetic that they were so small. “Who would like some?”
None of the women made a move. There were strange looks on their faces when they heard his voice. Several of them whispered to each other. Others dared a look up at his face, but just a brief one. They saw his awkward uncertainty.
The reaction was not lost on Argus but he had no idea what it meant or what he should do next if the women didn’t want what he was offering.
Am I doing something wrong? Argus looked down nervously at the tray, wondering if he should try one in case they thought it was poisoned. He glanced over at Vila and Sester’s sides of the room. Both men seemed to be speaking. Damn. I’m supposed to be saying something else? Why didn’t someone tell me? What am I supposed to say? I have to say something. I can't just stand here. Maybe they need more encouragement. I'm bigger than the other two. Reya introduced me as the large one. That may have made them nervous about me.
Trying to maintain the same gentle tone, he said haltingly, as he felt for the right things to say, “I’m…not very good with words. But…I don’t mean you any harm. I’m big but…I won’t hurt you. I have these…small cakes and some tea. I thought you might like them.”
Argus’s gentle, almost timid-sounding voice and his faltering speech were causing more of the women to hazard bolder and longer looks at his face. There was growing curiosity. None of them had seen a man act like this before. Nervous, awkward, almost…afraid.
Their brief glances were accompanied by odd but intent looks on their faces. It made Argus feel very self-conscious. It was his turn to feel like he was in their crosshairs.
The female trader, Karita was among this group. Her initial apprehension at being in the presence of a strange man was fast fading in the presence of the anxious Argus. She recognized the tone in his stumbling voice. It brought back memories of the day the Chandaran's had thought they had finally 'tamed' her. After months at a 'training facility', and the pain, fear and anger, she had decided that pretending to give in was the only choice she had to survive. Her faltering words as she had been delivered to her 'master' had sounded a little like this.
She could tell that he was magnificently built even though every inch of his body was covered by clothing and his collar was fastened all the way up. The pale blue shirt and his shy manner softened the strong masculine energy he radiated. After the arrogant and violent Chandaran males she had been inflicted with, it made him beautiful in her eyes.
This nervous, beautiful man was like the ideal Chandaran male in physique but there was a vulnerability to him that made her want to reach out and gather him in her arms and tell him that he was doing fine. There was a mothering instinct at work and something decidedly not maternal.
Strong but gentle and soft-spoken; almost afraid of his own strength. Even outside of Chandar, a man like this was rare. She wondered if he was attached to anyone already. It was hard to believe that he wouldn’t be.
Karita stepped forward and said, "I'd like some." Several of the other women followed her boldness but kept behind her.
The soft smile of joy lit up Argus's face.
Vila pushed his own cart forward slowly. In his head, he was going over the advice Corinne had given to him. As he veered off to the left, he saw that Argus was starting to pick up speed with his trolley and was barrelling forward. Vila was about to say something but Argus slowed down and stopped before he hit someone.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he concentrated on his own trolley. The women were nervous and none of them looked him in the eyes.
I’m harmless, Vila thought to them as he came to a stop. He said with his least threatening and most ingenuous smile, “Hello, ladies. I have all kinds of delicious cakes and biscuits. Some wonderful hot tea. Don’t be afraid.”
Several of the women whispered nervously to each other but none of them dared look at him. It wasn’t working; maybe he should try something else? The women weren’t used to having men serve them. “If you want, I could turn around and you can take it yourself. I won’t look. But…I’d really like to serve you.”
The dark, curly haired woman was in this group that he was addressed. She said to the woman beside her, “This is wrong. These men shouldn’t be serving us. It’s unnatural.”
Vila remembered something that the Commander had said. “It’s natural where I come from. I’m a Delta. I don’t know if you know what that is but…on Earth, we have grades. Everyone belongs to a grade and…a Delta like me, is one of the lowest ones there is. It’s our job to serve everyone else and have everyone tell us what to do. Everyone treats us like dirt.” Vila remembered up old feelings from the past, inadequacy and anger at the injustice of being a Delta. They weren’t such old feelings. The insecurities and lack of confidence in himself still plagued him sometimes.
Vila’s harmless, friendly manner and his identification with them made the curly haired woman forget that she wasn’t supposed to speak to a strange male. “That’s not right. You’re a man.”
Vila said, “That’s how I feel about you. It’s not right to treat you the way they do because you’re a woman."
“I’m a Delta and you’re a woman. Why does that make us less than anyone else?”
“But you’re a man.”
Vila could see this deteriorating into a…you’re a man…but you’re a woman… This wasn’t going to get them anywhere.
He said, “When I see you…” He looked at all of the women around him, “I see people who could be…” He almost said, like the Commander, but that would have only confused things. “…like Reya. I think you could all be like her.”
The antagonistic woman said dismissively, “She’s abnormal.”
A dark brown haired woman said, “But Sentha, she saved us from the aliens.”
A woman in a polka-dot tunic said, “She…was very brave. She risked her life even though…” The woman looked around nervously and her voice lowered to almost a whisper. “…the men were trying to kill her. She kept her word and let them decide what they wanted to do with her. She didn’t have to do that. She could have left and saved herself.”
Vila said, “If that’s abnormal, then maybe abnormal isn’t that bad. I mean wouldn’t you want to be abnormal and be able to save your world from the aliens instead of being normal and let people die?”
The dark brown haired woman looked nervously at Sentha. “Maybe…abnormal isn’t that bad?”
Vila said, “You know all this talking is making me thirsty. Let’s have some tea and we can keep talking about it. There’s some delicious cakes too. We shouldn’t let them go to waste. I’ll show you my favourites.”
Sester pushed his trolley forward slowly. He wasn’t a psi like Cally, but he had his own psychostrategist-developed sensitivities. The women were nervous and apprehensive. Not much of a surprise. He noted the conditioned and socialized responses, the lowering of the eyes in the presence of a male and the desire to move away from him because they were not allowed to associate with a man they did not know.
This would have to be done carefully. Which persona should he assume? Not his normal one. The charming rogue would not find a receptive audience here. Something more like the one he had been with Cally on the penal colony would do nicely. With some slight adjustments.
Sometimes, Sester wondered what his real self would be like, if he ever took the time to find out. Would it be someone that he would like? Sester didn't know. He had been assuming personalities all of his life, long before he met the others at the Academy. Maybe that was all he was. But it wasn't time to think about such things.
He needed to become a person who would allay the women's fears and encourage them to open up. Someone harmless, shy, caring, attentive, and who would automatically appeal to their natural nurturing instincts. The man that Cally had needed those years ago.
Sester’s face and his posture reflected this new persona by the time he stopped several meters from the nearest woman, a far enough distance that they would not feel that they were having their space invaded.
He said with a friendly shy voice, “Hello. My name is Sester.”
Cally had opened up her psi senses to encompass the entire hold. She could feel the apprehensiveness of the women as the three men approached with their laden trolleys. There had been some nervous moments, especially with Argus, but now she was sensing amazement as the men began serving the women. A flood of different emotions now filled the room as the Chandarans interacted with the three men. There was still opposition but in general, things were going well. She and Reya were now mingling with the women, answering questions and getting to know them.
There was a strong feeling of embarrassment and nervousness still from Argus. She glanced over. The top of his head was the only part of him visible in the sea of women that seemed to surround him. There were occasional flashes of panic.
She caught Reya’s eyes from across the room and nodded in Argus’s direction. * He might need some rescuing. * She sent a tone of amusement along with her message.
Reya got Cally’s message and headed towards the mass of women that seemed to be swamping her soldier. As she neared, and she caught glimpses of him through the crowd of bodies, her eyes widened in astonishment. For some reason, his shirt was unbuttoned halfway down and opened enough that his muscular chest was clearly visible.
Argus spied her approaching. There was a panicked plea in his eyes as he said an embarrassed, “Hello, Reya.” He hastily refastened his shirt.
Reya remained professional and greeted them with a friendly tone, “Hello, Argus. Ladies. What do we have here?”
The female free trader, Karita, stepped protectively in front of Argus. Several of the women followed suit. Karita said, “Argus wasn’t feeling well. He was hot.”
Argus repeated, “Yes, hot.”
Karita said, “So we decided to help him.”
Argus tried to explain, “Yes, they helped.”
“I see.” It was very clear what was going on. She had come just in time. Her shy soldier had developed a few admirers. Reya sighed. She knew that he must have tried very hard in his own inept way with women. Somehow, it had made them want to protect him. There were also some other attentions being directed towards him, very notably from the female free trader, Karita.
Argus, what am I going to do with you?
Reya had a calm, professional look on her face but Argus knew that she wasn’t pleased at the situation he found himself in. He had no idea how it had happened but all of a sudden, the women were all over him, wanting to assist him. They had all helped themselves to the items on his trolley even though he had protested that it was his job. Argus wondered if Reya would let him go back to their cabin and hide for the rest of this mission.
Sester was doing very well with his group of women. They were becoming much more relaxed talking to him. Several were looking into his eyes now rather than with just brief, fearful glances. He allowed a bit of the charming rogue to come through again, but without any sexual overtones.
They were responding well. He occasionally slipped in the ideas that Reya had introduced in her earlier talk, seeding additional questions in their minds and moving them a little further along in their self-identity. It was not that easy to keep their attentions focused because they seemed fascinated by the idea of a man serving them. Sester wasn’t surprised. So much of their lives had been forcibly centred on the men that it was natural that they continue this behaviour. He subtly tried to encourage them to think about themselves.
A woman came up to his nearly empty trolley. Sester noticed that this one had hung back and had been watching him serve the others and talking to them. It was good that she finally felt confident enough to approach him. She was the last one.
Sester handed her a cup of tea. She took it hesitantly. Her eyes met his for a brief second and she said quickly, “You’re very good.” Sester stared at her as Kirsten moved off before he could say anything in response. He had the distinct impression that she had meant something much deeper. She knew what he had been doing.
But that couldn’t be. Sester shook his head wryly and smiled. No one could have noticed the calculating deliberateness of his actions. He was far too good and subtle. No one ever knew what he was doing. She was an uneducated Chandaran woman. He had to be imagining a meaning that wasn’t there.
He looked up at the podium. Reya and Cally were almost ready to begin again. For some reason, Argus was standing to the side, near the podium. Sester wondered with amusement what trouble the man had managed to get himself into with the women. Argus had seemed to be doing alright the last time Sester had glanced over. The women no longer seemed intimidated. In fact they had seemed...Sester grinned. They had seemed far too friendly towards him.
Reya called for attention. Teatime was over.
Avon looked up from his programming work on the flight deck and asked, “What is it, Zen?”
The computer responded, “Incoming communications request from General Borel Reve’s headquarters in Sector Ten.”
Avon stretched his tired back. “Put it on the main view screen.”
The screen immediately showed the young general. He looked tired and harried. “Avon. It’s good to see you.”
“General. How may I assist you?”
“I was hoping to speak to my sister, Reya.”
“She is currently engaged on a mission.”
Borel looked disappointed. “I don’t suppose…of course not. Can’t disturb her while she’s on a mission. I understand.”
From the look on the young general’s face, Avon could tell that something was going on. “This is urgent?”
“It is but…can you tell her to contact me when she’s free? After her mission?”
Borel paused as if he wanted to say something else but instead he said, “You look like you’re busy.”
“Yes, we are currently engaged on a difficult operation.”
“Then I won’t bother you. Thank you, Avon. Borel, out.”
Avon’s eyes were thoughtful as he wondered what Borel had not said. With another stretch of his tired and sore back, he bent down to his work again. Even with the clandestine access that the Chandaran President had given to him, it was still a difficult and complex task. It was taking all of his limited energy to be able to do what was being asked of him. Even with a strong heart, he did not have the physical resources he once had.
One of the Athol engineers called his attention, “Sir, do you want to take a look at this? I’ve completed it."
Reya stood in front of the women again with the watchful Cally just a little behind her. Even without Cally's assessment, the faces of the crowd told her that the rest period had introduced some new ideas into the minds of these women.
She took another step forward. The women watched her intently. "I hope you had an opportunity to enjoy the refreshments."
The dark, curly haired woman who had heckled the proceedings earlier shouted, "You're a fraud."
This caused a stir. Reya managed to keep a neutral and controlled face. There were discontented and confused murmurs as everyone seemed to want to speak at once.
Reya put a hand behind her and made some signals, "Do you sense anything?"
Cally tried to reach out and pinpoint the woman who had spoken. * Nothing specific but…there is something different. I feel…" Her face tightened with efforts to concentrate and bring more detail to the vague impressions she was getting. "…her objections are not the same as before."
Reya coughed and covered her mouth briefly. "That's not very helpful."
* Sorry, that's all I can get. I'll keep trying. *
Reya remained reasonable and unconcerned. She asked the woman, "What is your name?"
The woman eyed her with suspicious hostility, "Sentha."
"All right, Sentha. Can you explain why you think I'm a fraud? I would like to understand."
Sentha turned around and seemed to be searching for someone. She found Vila standing by the cargo hold doors. "Vila told us that you keep your own slaves."
This time Reya could not keep herself from reacting in surprise. She asked incredulously, "Vila?"
Vila's mouth had dropped open in shock.
Another woman who had been around Argus, spoke loudly, "Not just Vila. She keeps poor Argus too. He told us that he belongs to her."
There were shouts of anger. "She owns men???"