Argus and a full team of Avon, Cally, Vila, Reya and a large number of the Athol soldiers went down to the planet. In a place like this, it was best to operate from a position of strength and the stronger the better. Having the advanced Justice orbiting above their heads didn't hurt either.
The buildings were impressive but functional. Militaristic decorations seemed to be the style of the day and numerous armed sentries were at every junction. As they were led along a long corridor to meet the President of the Chandar Alliance , Argus asked Avon, "What do you think?"
Avon had been studying the architecture and replied, "Ostentatious. Designed to intimidate and create the impression of strength. That appears to be the only theme visible."
"That's what I thought." Argus directed his voice behind him to the others following. "We can't show weakness here so be careful."
The official meeting chamber where the President received guests was designed more like an ancient throne room, with an ornate chair for the President on a raised dais. There were no other chairs.
The President himself was a tall, imposing man, bearded, like most of his people, though his was only a touch of one. He had a hard face and intelligent, calculating eyes that seemed to sparkle at times when he was amused.
An attendant introduced him as the Justice group entered. In a pompous, high-pitched voice - that would soon annoy if heard too often - the attendant announced, "I have the privilege to present President Brent of the Chandar Alliance, the First Minister of Alasus Prime, Great Knight of the Yellen Order, Grand Duke of Hular, the Prime Magnificent…"
President Brent waived at his attendant irritably, "Yes, yes, that's enough. I'm sure our guests are already suitably impressed." He had a warm but cynical smile as he said to Argus and the group. "Assuming that any of those titles mean anything to them."
As with most narrowly-minded officials the universe over, whose whole importance revolved around the performance of trivial tasks, the attendant said with a seriousness deference that came from centuries of unbending tradition, "It is customary Your Magnificence."
"Perhaps it's time to change the customs then and lose the Magnificence."
The President ignored the outraged look on his attendant's face and said, "What is the use of being President, if you can't bend the rules once in a while, or have them changed? Now, it's time to dispense with the other onerous tasks of introduction. I'll handle the rest of them." The look on his attendant's face was hovering on the verge of becoming more outraged at this usurping of his role but he took on a blank look instead. The attendant knew his place.
President Brent introduced the key officials around him, "This is Second President Thelis, my second in command." Thelis was a steely-faced man who wore his beard like part of his defensive equipment rather than a facial adornment. His eyes were sharp and penetrating. When he directed them at someone, he could make them feel very uncomfortable. He had a fierce manner, like a warrior always ready for battle.
"The man to his right is Minister Urkelit who is my advisor in many things, including a few he's not allowed to mention." Urkelit seemed vaguely annoyed at this introduction but kept his face carefully neutral. He was a tall, thin and stern man who moved with great deliberation.
"The last one of note is my head security officer, Thenard who has saved my life on many occasions." The burly, deep-chested man nodded at them. His eyes were also intelligent but full of natural caution and suspicion.
President Brent turned to Argus. "The others will introduce themselves in time. Now it's your turn."
Argus said, "We have no titles but this is Avon, my second in command and also my advisor in more things than I can list." At this Avon's brow raised. He was not pleased with the title of "Second." There was amusement in Argus's eyes. He guessed that Avon would be having words with him at some later date.
"Next to him is Cally, my medical officer. Then Vila, my structural access engineer. And Reya, my security officer." At this introduction, there was muttering among the President's officials; hard stares and whispers.
Unlike the men, both Cally and Reya had been noticing the odd stares that they had both been getting since arriving on this planet. It was not lost on them that they had seen no women since arriving. Cally was particularly sensitive to the not exactly friendly impressions she was getting all around her.
Brent asked with amusement, "A female security officer? It's a ceremonial title I imagine?"
Argus said, "No. Reya is a very competent security officer and also a sharp-shooter."
At this, incredulous looks joined the other ones. Urkelit said, "A sharp-shooter as well? That's hard to believe."
Argus had a dare in his manner when he said, "I wouldn't suggest testing it."
Brent seized on this, just as Argus had expected would happen. The Chandar President said with enthusiasm, "I think I've just heard a challenge. The best marksman of my Alliance versus your female security officer?"
Avon spoke up, "And what would be the benefit when we win?"
Brent laughed, it was an infectious, open sound. "He sounds like my advisor."
Argus said, "You have no idea."
Brent said, "Very well. You wish to investigate the murder of my son. I will make sure that there will be full cooperation with your endeavours. Assuming that your sharp-shooter can beat mine, that is. You haven't asked what we will require of you, when we win."
Reya's voice was as cold as the void of space when she said, "You won't."
Argus barely suppressed a smile.
Vila found that he wasn't worried at all. He had numerous opportunities to see Reya in action on the practice range. He was sorry for whoever was going to be matched against her.
President Brent seemed to be greatly amused by the attitude of dismay and disapproval amongst his gathered officials. He said, "She sounds competent."
Argus said, "Amongst other things. All of my people are the best."
"We shall see."
Reya was professional and highly unconcerned as she looked over the selection of weapons that had been presented to her. The Chandarans watched her with a mixture of incredulity and insolence. Women were not highly regarded in this society. She was determined to wipe those expressions from their faces personally.
There were to be three rounds in the challenge and the weapons used for each one would be different. She tested the weapons in her hands, weighing each one, testing their balance and checking the sights.
After making her selections, the other weapons were removed and the Chandarans left. She prepared to check the performance of the weapons on the practice range they had provided.
Argus entered. He asked, "How are they?"
"Nothing unusual. They're good weapons." She put the butt of the rifle against her shoulder and viewed along the sight. She squeezed off a shot. It hit dead center at the target at the other end.
Argus squinted at the distant mark. "Not bad."
"Let's see you do it," she dared him.
Argus held up both hands, "Noooo…that's your department."
Argus smiled. "I know my limits and besides I'm nowhere near as good as you are."
She said with mock sternness, "If I didn't know any better, I'd think that you were trying to get back on my good side."
"I'd settle for any side that didn't include sleeping in the gym at the moment," he said wryly.
"Are you still doing that?"
"Well, yes." Argus seemed to look embarrassed. "Until you take me back."
Reya shook her head with a sigh, "What am I going to do with you?"
Argus had a hopeful look on his face, "Can I make suggestions?"
"No. I think I know what they'd be."
Argus grinned. "I think you might be surprised. It's not what you think."
Reya looked at him thoughtfully. "Then surprise me."
"Maybe I'll show you when we finish here and go back to the ship."
"I'm looking forward to it."
Argus looked at the target she had just neatly hit with unerring accuracy. "What do you think about the last challenge?"
"I can handle it."
"I'm looking forward to seeing their faces."
"They might not like being shown up," she warned him.
"I’m sure some of them won't but there's something odd about President Brent. He's not like the others."
Reya said, "Yes, I noticed that too. But how different is he?"
"What do you mean?"
"Have you noticed that we haven't seen a single woman around since we arrived?"
Argus thought back. "Come to think of it, no. You're right. I hadn't noticed. It's not unusual though. Unfortunately, some societies are more male dominated. Even the Federation tends to be like that."
"Is that why you didn't notice?"
Argus almost winced. "Well…"
"Yes, I know, in the Federation military, it's almost exclusively males, isn't it? Except for some in the officer classes."
"Mainly. I mean, yes." He looked embarrassed again. "In the military it is. Not in the science and technical grades."
"It's like that on Athos too."
"I might have Vila snoop around a bit. He's good at getting into places unnoticed."
"That's a good idea." Reya reapplied her attention to the weapons and then she paused and turned to Argus again. "You might not like this suggestion but you could use Sester."
Argus frowned. "You're right, I don't."
Reya saw his reaction and said, "I'm sorry. Forget I mentioned it." She turned back to checking out the rifle.
Argus wished he didn't have that reaction whenever Sester's name was mentioned. It always made things more difficult with Reya. He knew that there was still a lot to be worked out between them. More sleeping in the gym.
"So Avon gets to play detective and I get to play spy?" Vila asked with an excited voice. He was relishing this idea. It didn't sound too dangerous and might prove to be fun.
"Don’t get carried away," warned Avon. "We want these people to cooperate with us, not put us in front of a firing squad."
"Oh don't be such a party pooper," said Vila. "It's not like I'm going after some big secret. I'm just going to find out where they keep their women."
"That's what I'm afraid of," said Avon dryly. "You and your reputation with women."
"You're just jealous that you didn't get to come down to Pleasure City with us. You got stuck in a lab…" Vila looked at Cally, who was developing an increasingly displeased look on her face, and said quickly, "What I mean to say is that…"
"My point exactly," said Avon.
Argus stepped into this exchange of banter and said, "Vila, I just need you to do what you do best. Make friends with people who have a tendency to talk. Ask a few harmless questions. I want to know what the real situation here is with the women."
Avon asked, "Is this a wise thing to be doing?"
Argus wondered what he was getting at. "What do you mean?"
"Is it our business to interfere in their politics? We are here to find out if the Andromedans are trying to spread their influence here and to neutralize them if they are. That should be our main objective."
Argus said, "It still is but it doesn't have to be our only one. I want to know what's going on."
Cally added her interest. "I would like to as well."
Vila said, "That makes three of us."
Avon said impassively, "Alright, but let's not lose sight of our objective."
Argus said, "I'm sure you'll remind us." He looked at their would-be spy and added, "Vila, if you want, you can get Sester to help you. The two of you get along." He found it hard to make the suggestion but Reya had been right. Sester's abilities might be useful in this situation.
"Well, I wouldn't say 'get along' exactly," said Vila. "But I'll ask him."
Avon asked Argus, "What do you plan to do once you find out?"
"Let's get to that point first, before we decide."
"Do I need to remind you that we should not lose sight of our primary objective?"
"Already?" Argus grinned, "Don't worry, I won't. I'm surprised that you haven't made a comment about my introduction."
Avon's face had absolutely no expression as he said, "You're referring to calling me your Second?"
Argus wondered whether he should start being nervous. "I was expecting something."
Avon still had no expression as he said, "As you indicated earlier, we need to work from a position of strength. Having a second in command adds to your standing. It was a reasonable step."
Argus asked jokingly, "And especially one like you?"
"Of course." There was just the barest hint of a smile on Avon's face.
Sound of coughing. "Ahem."
Writer (looks up in her mind to see Avon and Argus standing there, is somewhat suspicious because they are being unusually polite): Something you wanted?
Avon: Just tell her.
Argus: You know the story that you're telling? It's a nice story, by the way. Except for the part where you have Reya angry at me and throwing me out of my cabin but I guess that's part of the story.
Avon (with much sarcasm): Stop stalling.
Argus: Alright, alright. Well, it's like this. We want you to write a different story.
Argus: We've had three serious stories already. We want a lighter one.
Avon: We are aware of that.
Argus: We saw what you were doing with the other story.
Avon: The detective one.
Writer: But that's a crossover and a comedy. I can't do that here.
Argus: Do a detective-type story, but develop one that would fit into this universe. We would be very happy and much more cooperative.
Writer: Are you saying that you won't be if I don't? Did Avon put you up to this?
Avon: He is showing promise.
Writer: Argus, I'm surprised at you.
Argus (looks apologetic): It must be because you have Reya mad at me. And I have been sleeping in the gym. The floors aren't that comfortable. And it's cold. And it's embarrassing.
Avon: Stop whining. She's not interested.
Writer: Speak for yourself. Alright. Do you all want to do a detective story?
Avon: I am interested in exploring the possibilities.
Argus: You just want a story where you have an excuse to spend some quality time with Cally because you have no idea how to do it yourself.
Writer: You know, you have an idea there.
Argus: You see? He's getting defensive.
Writer: I think we both see.
Avon: This is ridiculous. I am not going to dignify this with my further participation in this conversation.
Avon walks off.
Argus: He's having a difficult time.
Writer: Yes, I know. I wish it wasn't necessary but that's one of the key themes in this entire series.
Argus: Well, are you going to do it? For Avon, I mean.
Argus: Don't let him know.
Writer: Don't worry. I won't.
Argus: Now, about Sester.
Writer: Don't push it. I am not going to hear any suggestions about throwing him off the ship.
Writer: I thought you liked doing exercise.
Argus: That's not funny.