Avon was concentrating on the next project dealing with the final Challenge when he felt a strong stab of anger from Cally. It struck the protective walls of his mind and pierced through, causing him to gasp and grip the side of the desk. He could tell that she wasn’t trying to reach him. She was focused on something or someone else and for some reason, that anger was being projected to him. * Cally! What’s wrong? * She didn’t seem to hear him.
Avon’s eyes shut tightly against the continued mental onslaught. It had changed now. Not just anger, but something even deeper. He felt as if she was reaching past his barriers to the hidden places. His walls went up higher in defence. He was panting with the effort. * Cally! Tell me what’s wrong! *
“Avon? Are you alright?” Avon felt a hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes to see his technical team crowded around him with worried faces. Dannon, the resource from Chandar who had agreed to help out, was the one who had his hand on Avon’s shoulder.
Avon said through clenched teeth, “I’m fine. It’s Cally. Something’s wrong. I have to go to her.” He struggled to stand up and nearly fell back into his seat if Dannon hadn’t put his arms around his shoulders to help.
Dannon said, “You can’t go anywhere like this.”
“I have to go.” Avon roughly pushed away the man’s hand but staggered when he tried to take a step. Dannon and one of the engineers supported him. They sat him back down on the chair.
Avon tried to reach Cally with his mind again. Even though the strong anger was no longer present, she was still not hearing him. This was troubling. She normally kept a close eye on him and would notice whenever he sent his thoughts out for her. He tried again several more times but there was no response, no indication that she heard him. “She’s not answering. Something must be wrong.” He got up from his seat and stood on unsteady feet. “I have to find her.”
Dannon said, “Tell me where she is and I’ll go help her.” The engineers all volunteered to help.
Avon said, “I don’t know where she is but she must be in a training session with the women.”
Dannon and most of the engineers headed for the steps. “Don’t worry, Avon, I’ll find her.”
Avon suddenly felt a wave of calm and peace flowing from Cally. It wasn’t to him, but it was also affecting him. He held up a hand. “Wait.” Dannon paused on his way up the steps.
Avon tried again, * Cally, are you all right? *
Her comforting voice said in his head, * Yes, Avon. *
Avon breathed a sigh of relief and looked around at the others, “She’s fine now. We are talking.”
Dannon asked, “Should we still go find her? Make sure she’s fine?”
Avon said, “Give me a minute.” He thought to Cally, * Did something happen just now? *
Cally’s was puzzled, * Yes. How did you know something had happened? *
* I felt it. You were angry and you were trying to…do something. I was caught up in it. *
Cally’s mental voice was shocked, * Avon, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was doing that. I normally keep a mental thread open between us in case you have difficulties. I must be more careful of our connection in future. I’m very sorry, Avon. *
* It’s fine, Cally. * He added an amused tone in his thoughts. * For once, I’m the one worried about you. It makes for a nice change. *
Cally projected her own amusement, * I wouldn’t want you to be bored. *
Avon thought to her, * You will never be boring. Is the situation resolved on your end? Do you need assistance? *
* Yes, everything is fine now. You don’t have to worry. The problem wasn’t with me. *
He asked, * You would tell me if you need help? *
* I promise. *
* All right, I will leave you alone. *
Argus's mind was still heavy with thoughts about the conversation in the corridor when he took a deep breath, steeled himself and stepped into the room of Chandaran women. Cally and Vila were on either side of him.
Escorts making sure he wouldn’t bolt or support in case he fainted from embarrassment? Argus shook himself mentally. He had to stop thinking like this.
The women all stopped talking and turned curious and far too interested eyes in his direction. Cally and Vila went to the front and he reluctantly followed.
Cally said, “Argus is here to answer your questions. Feel free to ask him anything.”
Argus muttered, “Maybe not everything.”
Karita immediately stuck up an eager hand. Argus nearly groaned when he realized who his first inquirer was. It was the woman who had ‘helped’ him with his shirt in the cargo hold. He was anticipating that it was going to be a long session.
Vila acknowledged her. “Karita has a question."
Before the woman could say anything Argus blurted out, “I’m not feeling hot.” He could already feel his face turning an embarrassing shade.
All of the women giggled.
Karita said, “You’re cute.”
Argus’s eyes took on a panicked look. “I’m…not cute. I’m…just me.”
Karita had a very amused look on her face. “We’re not going to hurt you, you know. The others just wanted to ask you a few questions.”
Argus said quickly, “I know that. Can we…get on with the questions?” He thought for a moment and said, “I really would like to keep my shirt on.”
Karita had a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Just the shirt?”
“No! I mean…” Argus placed his hands protectively in front of his body in mortification. “…everything!”
"Oh you want me to help you with…"
Cally said warningly, “Karita…don’t embarrass Argus.”
Karita grinned. “But he’s so easy to tease.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that you should do it.”
Karita sighed and said to Argus, “I don’t know about the others, but one of the reasons why I like you, is because you are so easy to tease. After the arrogant bastards that I’ve had to bow to the last three years, you’re…wonderfully refreshing. You’re fun and gentle, even when you don’t have to be. You have strength to do anything you want, but you would rather let us push you because you don’t want to hurt us. Teasing you…has been therapeutic for me. I’m sorry if it’s made you feel embarrassed.”
Argus said, “You mean that it has nothing to do with my…” His voiced trailed off and he looked embarrassed again.
“I cannot tell a lie. You’re a very well built man and as a woman, I wouldn’t mind…giving you a try.” Karita found it difficult to stop teasing him.
Argus coughed uncomfortably, “But I’m…”
“Yes, I know, you’re about to be bonded. But are you saying that if you weren’t…”
Argus choked on his next cough. “No! I would never…”
Cally said an annoyed, “Karita, I think your turn is over.”
Karita said to Argus, “I’m sorry, I really couldn’t resist. I know that you’re devoted to the Champion. It makes me…very envious.” There was warm friendliness in her eyes. “It’s been along time since I've felt confident enough with a man to joke with him. Or to tease him unmercifully. Thank you.”
Argus felt a little relieved. “You’re welcome. I think...”
Cally asked, “Does anyone else have a question? Or something they’d like to say?”
The bantering between the Karita and Argus, made him less unapproachable in the eyes of the women. Argus had made no attempts at domination or force. Moreover, the idea that a woman could make a man embarrassed and feel harassed, was a novel one.
Alara raised her hand timidly, “I have something.”
Vila said with an encouraging smile, “Go on. Tell him your name.”
Alara put her hand down. “I’m Alara.”
“Hello, Alara. I’m Argus…but…I suppose you know that. I’m…what was your question?”
Alara asked shyly, “What do you think about women?”
Argus was glad that the first question was one he could answer easily. He said confidently, “I like women.”
The women continued looking at him expectantly but Argus didn’t know what else to tell them. Vila moved a little closer behind him and whispered, “I think they want more of an answer.”
Argus whispered back, “I know but I can’t think what else to say. I mean…I like women.”
Vila asked the woman, “Alara, can you explain your question? What did you want to know?”
Alara’s brow knitted in thought. “Everyone has been telling us that men and women are equal. We are all people and none of us are inferior. I…want to believe it. But…it’s hard sometimes. I don’t feel it yet. When I see you, I see someone who is like a Champion. I want to know what you think. Do you think men and women can be equal?”
That made Argus feel uncomfortable. Alara seemed to be saying that his opinion was important because he was bigger, stronger and could fight. These were things that had never made him feel superior, in fact the opposite. He wished he had never been born like this. The old melancholy resurfaced again, like a monster rearing its ugly head from the murky depths. It had been very close to the surface since the dreams about his childhood. With all of the activity recently, he had been able to keep it submerged. Until now.
Argus said, “My opinion shouldn’t matter that much. I’m a human being. Just like you are.”
Cally had never been close to Argus when he was in this kind of mood. What she felt from him was surprising and revealing. There was a core of guilt and dark depression that she had never noticed before; he was a man touched by too many deaths. His pain echoed in his consciousness, in the same way that hers did. It was as deep as her own was but it was different. This was a man who hated what he was because of what was inside him and what he had done. Her pain and anguish was because she still lived while most of her people had been killed.
She touched his elbow in sympathy. “Your opinion does matter, Argus. Everyone’s does.”
“I…don’t feel it.” Argus’s jaw tightened. He didn’t understand why he was feeling what he was feeling now. His face was troubled.
Maybe it was because he was particularly vulnerable in a situation that made him highly uncomfortable. It could have been Cally’s ability to strike past his emotional barriers and strip him bare. Or perhaps it was because of Sester’s outburst earlier and the naked pain that was in the other man’s eyes.
Argus didn't know what he was feeling. Everything was jumbled and confused, the different parts of him warring against each other.
There was that part of himself that was the strong, forceful leader. The man of action. A brilliant tactician. A man who was secure in his ability to defeat any enemy.
Then there was the boy who had never wanted to kill anyone. The one who was afraid of his own strength and the darkness that was buried deep within his soul.
And the man that Cally had identified. The one who was unsure about himself. The one who felt threatened by a man who had the ability to comfort Reya in her grief. The man who could make others smile without effort, or to irritate with the turn of a word.
Cally sensed Argus's turmoil and pain; and the loss of control over his emotions. She asked with concern, "Are you alright?" Unconsciously, in the same way that she normally did with Avon in this kind of circumstance, Cally projected to him a sense of calm and control as she spoke.
Argus breathed in sharply at the waves of peace that helped slow his troubled thoughts. He asked with shock, "That was you?"
Cally was surprised herself. She hadn't realized what she had done until Argus asked her. "I normally do this with Avon. I didn't know it would work with anyone else."
Argus was about to say more on the matter, when he realized with horror that the women were all crowded around him with anxious looks on their faces.
At that moment, Cally heard Avon’s voice asking suddenly, * Cally, are you all right? * She answered him as she kept part of her attention on what was going on. * Yes. How did you know something had happened? *
Avon’s replied, * I felt it. You were angry and you were trying to…do something. I was caught up in it. *
This shocked Cally. She realized that he was talking about what had happened in the corridor earlier. Her mind focused on him. * Avon, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was doing that. I normally keep a mental thread open between us in case you have difficulties. I must be more careful of our connection in future. I’m very sorry, Avon. *
Cally could hear Avon say. * It’s fine, Cally. * She could sense his amusement, * For once, I’m the one worried about you. It makes for a nice change. *
She could tell that it made him feel good that he was finally giving something to her. Cally said with amusement, * I wouldn’t want you to be bored. *
She refocused part of her attention back to the conversation in the room in time to hear Karita asking the mortified Argus, "Are you alright?"
Argus cleared his throat awkwardly. "Yes I’m…fine. Please…don't worry about me."
Avon’s thought came to her again, * You will never be boring. Is the situation resolved on your end? Do you need assistance? *
* Yes, everything is fine now. You don’t have to worry. The problem wasn’t with me. *
He asked, * You would tell me if you need help? *
* I promise, * she reassured him.
* All right, I will leave you alone. *
Their mental communication broke off and Cally heard Alara ask timidly, "Did someone hurt you, Argus?"
Argus looked like an animal that had been chased down by hunters.
Vila remembered how Sentha had been affected by his experiences as a Delta. What happened to Argus might help these women too. But would Argus do it?
Cally projected to Argus, * It would help the women to hear what happened to you. *
Argus turned to her with tortured eyes. He had avoided talking about this to anyone since the dreams. Not even Reya had been able to convince him to deal with what had happened.
Cally was very aware of his strong emotions and his internal turmoil. * I know this is difficult for you. You don’t have to do this if you don’t feel up to it. *
Argus asked, “Will it really help them?”
* Yes. I think it will. *
Turning slowly to face Alara, Argus said in a quiet voice, "When I was young, the Federation…forced me to become someone I didn't want to be."
There is a special stillness that sometimes happens when a painful truth is being spoken. A respect that silences all other voices.
Sentha’s normally harsh voice asked softly, "But I thought that Vila said you were an Alpha? How could they do that to you?"
"I was just a tool to them. They wanted certain things from me. They didn’t care what I wanted.”
Argus had a flash of memory that caused his hands to clench in anger and pain. A vision of a brightly lit room. A feeling of metal bands holding him fast to a cold table while his muscles strained to break free of his bonds. The pain and pounding in his head as sounds and images battered his mind. Jack was being destroyed. He was being replaced by someone else. Something dark…Jack cried out in anger and agony.
“No!” The boy’s pain came out in the man’s anguish. Argus opened vision-blinded eyes to the feeling of Cally arms around his shoulders and several of the women with their hands protectively on his arms and chest. With shock, he realized that he was on his knees and they were kneeling down to help him.
He could feel more waves of calm and peace flowing towards him from Cally. Around him, there was fear on the women’s faces, but not for themselves, it was for him.
Argus was feeling very embarrassed now. He said, “I’m sorry.” He tried to get up, but it was hard when everyone’s hands seemed to be on him.
Karita said worriedly, “You had an attack of some kind.”
“I don’t…” Argus struggled to recall the memories.
Cally asked softly, “You had a memory of the past?”
“Yes…it was…” He could remember brief flashes, like faded pictures of memories. “Talking about it must have triggered it. I’m fine now.”
Cally asked, “Do you want to get up?”
“Yes.” The women reluctantly let go of him as Cally helped him up.
Vila raced in with a container from the medical unit and saw Argus getting up. “Are you…alright?”
Argus said, “If you call dying of embarrassment all right, then yes, I am.”
Vila handed the container to Cally. “Do you still need these?”
Cally was observing Argus carefully as she took the container. “Perhaps not.”
Argus said, “I’m fine. Really. Just another embarrassing episode, of which I seem to be having a lot of these days.”
Sentha said, “It’s not embarrassing. It’s an outrage what they did to you. Someone should do something about it.”
Argus turned to her, “I am. I escaped them and now I’m fighting anyone who would impose their will on someone else against their will. That is why I am here. That’s why we are all here helping you. It’s not right for anyone to do this to any of us. Not you, not me, not Vila. Will you help us fight?”
Sentha was absorbed in thought. “I went along with this, not because I believed in what you were doing, but because Vila believed it. And all of my life, it was my role to follow what the men told me. It was easy to go along because you wanted us to, even though you said that we could leave if we wanted to. But we are not used to making that kind of decision ourselves.”
Argus asked, “Have you made a decision now?”
For the first time, Sentha exerted a will she never knew she had, “I don’t know about the others but…yes I have. If it’s like this everywhere, with people oppressing others…whether they’re women or Deltas or just because someone wants something, it’s wrong…and I don’t accept it anymore. I am going to do this now, because I want to fight.”
Argus held out his hand to her. “Welcome to the war.”
Sentha looked down at his offer. It was a gesture of one equal to another. She looked up into the man’s eyes. There was strength, honesty, and still a trace of the vulnerability that he had shown earlier. Sentha shook Argus’s hand solemnly and then before the poor man could pull away, she hugged him. “Thank you.”
After finishing with the women, Vila went to see how Sester was doing. He was worried about him. The look of cold fury on Sester’s face had been disturbing. It was something Vila had never thought he was capable of.
Just as he reached the door, he heard a loud thud, as if someone had thrown something against the wall. It sounded as if it had come from Sester’s cabin. He’s throwing things?
Vila had never known the psychostrategist to lose control like this before. Maybe something fell.
He pressed the announcing button on the door panel. There was an instant chime in the cabin.
There was a loud, “Go away! I don’t want to see anyone!”
“Sester, it’s Vila.”
“That means you too, Vila.”
Vila was prepared for some opposition. “I’m not leaving until you open the door.”
There was an angry reply from inside. “Then you can stand outside because I’m not opening the door!”
Vila said, “I know you’ve been hurt.”
“You don’t know anything. Go away!”
Vila was becoming very worried now because Sester didn’t sound like himself. He sounded more like an angry child. Vila was sorely tempted to open the door. He always carried at least one or two door-opening tools on him, but he decided not to.
Sester was a friend. After what had happened in the room with the women just now, he couldn’t force the man. He had to try to reach him some other way. “You know that I could open this door if I wanted to, but I won’t. I’m here as a friend.”
There was a pause. Vila imagined Sester trying to decide whether to open the door. Sester finally asked, “Do you have a bottle with you?”
“No. But if you wait, I could go get one.”
There was no response. Vila hoped that was a good sign as he rushed off to the dispensers.
The door slid open. Sester stood in the doorway as Vila disappeared down the corridor. He headed to Reya’s cabin. Whether Reya was there, or Argus or both of them, he was determined to do something.
Sester crashed into Kirsten as she rounded the corner. They simultaneously held various sore body parts as they apologized to each other.
Sester asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I was coming to see you.”
Sester asked sardonically, “Another game? Now’s not a good time.”
“I think it’s the perfect time.”
Sester eyed her guardedly. “For you maybe.”
“Don’t do something you’re going to regret.”
Sester’s manner became frigidly cold. “You have no idea what I’m going to do.”
“You’re going to her, aren’t you?”
Sester’s face paled and then a snarl curled his lips as he suddenly stepped forward, causing her to back up against the wall. He felt as if he was sliding along a very thin edge, the edge of losing control. Sester wondered if his nemesis felt like this when the animal part of him tried to dominate his actions.
Their faces were so close that Sester could feel Kirsten’s steady breath on his face. The heat of his barely-coiled anger reach out towards her and seemed to reflect back on himself. Her eyes were steady on his. For some reason, she was not afraid of him.
I can’t do this. Sester stepped back. “I’m sorry. Don’t involve yourself in something you don’t understand.”
Kirsten said, “I’ve been watching you.”
Sester said scornfully, “And you think that qualifies you to understand me?”
“I know that you’re making a fool of yourself. You saw them in the cargo hold. She’s never going to love you.”
“She does!” He took a step towards her again but didn’t go closer.
Kirsten shook her head sadly. “I thought that a Federation psychostrategist makes fools of others, not himself. She may love you as a friend. She probably feels sorry for you.”
“Stop it!” He took another aggressive step towards her. One more and he would have her pressed against the wall again.
Kirsten was relentless. “But she will never love you the way that she loves him. You’re just lying to yourself if you think she will. Even if you kill him, it won’t matter. She will never be yours.”
Sester took the last step. His body pressed up against hers as she was pushed against the wall. The adrenaline of anger flooded his system, making his pulse race and filling him with an energy that needed to be released. There was a chill in his voice, “What if I kill you instead?”
Kirsten was not afraid. She had judged her words very carefully. “Do you want to kill me? Or do you want this?” Without warning, she kissed him.
Anger. Lust. Blazing energy. Frustrated hunger for someone he could never have. Sester crushed Kirsten in his arms and sought release in what she was offering him. His mouth seemed to devour hers. His body was overheating. Hands reached for constricting clothes.
Kirsten gasped and she caught his hands. “Not here. Back in your cabin.”
Sester abruptly let her go as if her hands burnt him. There was shock in his face. “I’m sorry. I never meant to…”
“No. Don’t be.” Kirsten reached out to touch his face but he backed away from her.
Sester regained control of himself and his face became calculating. “You’re very good.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
He asked sarcastically, “Don’t you? You said that to me once, do you remember? I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. We are both manipulators. You just manipulated me because you wanted this. I don’t know how you knew it, but you knew I was vulnerable now and you used it against me.”
“It wasn’t like that. I…did manipulate you just now. I can’t lie about that. You do interest me. You have from the first time I saw you in the cargo hold.”
Sester said dryly, “Interest? Is that what you call it?”
“That was not why I did it. You’re going to destroy yourself if you don’t face the truth. It’s only going to get worse and you know it. But it’s become a madness for you and you can’t let go. I thought…if you could release some of that madness, that pent-up energy with someone else, and if you were confronted with the truth, then you might be able to see it.”
He asked scathingly, “And you thought you could use yourself? Is that what all the games have been about?”
“No. Not the games. It doesn’t matter what they were now. I did this today because…I wanted to help you.”
“By manipulating the manipulator? By beating the best?”
“No. Because it is what I know how to do. Manipulation is what kept me alive on Chandar. With a man like my father and the other strong males that he associated himself with, it was the only way for me to have some measure of control over my own life, even if it was limited. I became very good at it. I’m sorry if I used it on you.”
Sester could see that she was being sincere. His anger began to dissipate. Some of the tension that had been bottled up inside him was also gone. He leaned forward and kissed her gently this time. There was desire there but not the urgency. Sester released her. “You won this time. Don’t expect it the next time.”
Kirsten asked, “What’s going to happen now?”
“I’m going back to my cabin and get drunk. With Vila if he’s still there. And you are going to go…somewhere else. You are right. You are all right. But it’s my decision.”
Sester headed back to his cabin. He stopped and without turning around said, “You’re very good. You might make a decent psychostrategist one of these days….but don’t be like me.”