The challenge between the Chandar Alliance’s best marksman and the female upstart had drawn quite a crowd. Vid news teams from around the Alliance were covering the proceedings with great interest and much comic amusement. The presence of a woman who had the temerity to defy tradition was causing a great stir and quite a bit of hostility along with patronizing and often insulting humour.
Vila said, “Do you know what the odds are?”
Argus asked, “Odds? They’re betting on the outcome of this contest?”
Vila said, “Of course. Where there’s a contest, there’s bound to be wagers. Even if it’s under the table, if you know why I mean. It’s human nature.”
Avon said dryly, “Its nature of some kind.”
Vila retorted, “Well, I didn’t see you objecting on Freedom City. The Big Wheel was your idea.”
Avon said, “So it was.” The barest grin lifted the corner of his lips; it was one that touched his eyes in amusement.
Vila stared at the change in expression and then he said slyly, “You know, the odds are even better this time. They’re a hundred to one.”
Avon’s eyes widened and then he smiled. “Those are impressive odds.”
Vila said with a grin, “I thought you’d like them.”
Avon asked, “You wouldn’t have happened to place a wager?”
Vila asked innocently, “Who me?”
Argus said warningly, “Vila. Please tell me that you didn’t.”
Vila said, “Alright, I won’t.”
Avon said, “Vila.”
Vila sighed with great regret at the once-in-a-lifetime possibility, “Alright, I didn’t. You did say not to do anything that would get us put in front of a firing squad. Bookies don’t take too kindly to sure fire bets that go cross-eyed on them.”
Cally asked, “With their confidence in the outcome, I’m surprised the bookies are accepting wagers at all.”
Vila explained, “Well, there are always things to bet on.”
Reya, who had been listening silently, asked, “Such as?”
Vila gulped nervously at the tone in her voice. He said, “Well…”
Reya said, “I want to know, Vila.”
Argus said, “Yes, she wants to know how much to humiliate her opponent.” He glanced at her and added, “I almost feel sorry for the man.”
Reya glared at him, causing him to grin impishly.
Vila said, “They’re betting on how many shots will actually make it to the target.”
Argus asked, “You mean they doubt that she has any ability at all?”
Avon said, “The level of insult is considerable.”
Argus looked at the increasingly hard expression developing in Reya’s face, “That’s a mistake.”
Reya said, “They will regret it.” The way she said it, made it sound like an undisputable fact.
Argus said nervously, “Reya, try not to humiliate them too much. We really don’t want to be put in front of a firing squad.”
Sester, who had been unobtrusively watching this dynamic from the sidelines, said nothing. He only observed and waited.
Reya’s rifle was held loosely in her hands. Her manner was relaxed, as it always was on the eve of battle. Most opponents who knew her, found it intimidating, almost scary that she should show so little anxiety. People, who didn’t know her, were either disconcerted or, like the Chandarans, thought she must be ignorant to show so little concern. They were all enjoying themselves anticipating the humiliation of someone who had no right to challenge the established order of things.
Her opponent was a dark-haired, square-faced man who walked like the champion he was considered to be. His chest held numerous commendation marks indicating his prowess. Meant to intimidate her further no doubt. The way the Chandarans deferred to him, he appeared to be a celebrity of sorts and highly respected.
The crowd chanted his name as he neared the field, “Dannon! Dannon! Dannon!”
Reya looked on without any reaction at the spectacle, though she definitely felt something. She was here to do a job. These people seemed to think it was some kind of entertainment. The fanfare disgusted her. Being a marksman was not sport for her. Despite her skill, Reya did not like the killing that was the final objective of any ability with a weapon. It was just a necessary and unpleasant part of her job that she was very good at. It was something to be done well and quickly, and with as little attention as possible.
The referee spelled out the rules of the first contest. It was a simple accuracy test on increasingly further targets. Each challenger was to fire ten shots. Only those that hit the center would count.
As she was the guest, Reya was allowed to go first.
As she stepped up to the firing line, Dannon asked, “You do realize that only centre hits count?”
She replied, “I heard.”
“I hope you don’t have a problem with that.”
She said with a nearly flat voice that only the perceptive would notice the cynicism in, “I am touched by your concern. I would save it for yourself.” You’ll need it.
Reya put her rifle up and fired off a shot. There was a collective gasp and it suddenly became very quiet. Her shot had hit dead centre on the target.
Dannon muttered behind her with reluctant regard, “Not bad.”
Reya methodically squeezed off the remainder of her nine shots in rapid succession and then stepped back.
The previously silent field erupted into laughing and jeering.
“The first one was just luck!”
“She’s just a woman after all!”
Argus and the team studied the target. Except for the original centre shot, there were no other marks.
Cally asked, “Are we in trouble?”
Argus smiled but didn’t say anything.
Vila’s face was a mixture of uncertainty and disbelief. He refused to believe that Reya could make such a serious mistake.
Avon watched Argus’s quiet confidence and said nothing.
Sester observed the crew’s dynamic with fascination. He wasn’t concerned either.
The announcer called for quiet in order to announce the results. “The score for the challenger, Reya Reeve of the Justice is…” The man paused a moment as if he was afraid to say the rest. “Ten points.”
The noisy field fell into shocked silence and then it erupted again as people asked in confusion.
“How can that be? There’s just the one mark!”
“Is he blind?”
The announcer roared, “Silence! There will be order or people will start being removed.”
The field fell silent again.
The announcer said, “The challenger, Reya, has displayed remarkable skill, or extraordinary luck. Each of her shots hit in precisely the same place on the target. The result was a single mark.”
Argus’s face broke into a proud smile. He had not been concerned in the least. He knew Reya.
Dannon’s mouth had dropped open in shock. He stared with incomprehension at Reya, who looked back at him with an impassively steady gaze. There was no superiority or pleasure in what she had just achieved. There was just a woman with a mission.
He swallowed. “You’re good.” The look on his face said that he still found it hard to believe. Reya gave him a barely perceptible nod of acknowledgement.
As Dannon stepped up to the firing line for his turn, the crowd seemed to be holding their breaths. He composed himself, brought his rifle up and slowly put ten shots into the target.
He stepped back and looked at her, “You see, you’re not the only one who can do it. I do have some skill.” Dannon had also, like her, placed ten shots in exactly the same place on the target, causing a single mark.
The announcer announced a perfect score and the crowd erupted in cheering and more chanting of his name.
This time, Dannon appeared to look embarrassed. He said, “Don’t mind them. I recognize skill, even if you are a woman.”
Reya said with mild cynicism, “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It was meant to be. Tell me, Reya of the Justice, are there many women like you?”
She replied, “Why do you want to know?”
Dannon said, “No reason.”
The next target was prepared and Reya took her turn. The result was the same. There were many looks of consternation among the Chandarans. They all seemed to have hoped that the first time was a wild, improbable accident. Dannon followed and had the same outcome.
Reya looked on as the next further target was being prepared. She said, “This is a waste of time. When is the real challenge going to begin?”
Dannon said, “It does seem like a waste.” He looked discomfited as he admitted, “They didn’t expect you to get past the first one.”
She said, “It was an insult to try me on something that easy.”
He said seriously, “I agree. They didn’t know.” He shifted on his feet. “I didn’t know. What do you propose?”
Reya asked, “What is the farthest target you can hit with the same accuracy?”
Dannon directed that she be shown. It was a much farther target. The centre seemed to be just a large dot. He was almost apologetic as he said, “It’s a long distance.”
Reya smiled. It was a friendly, challenging one. “I propose that we put it ten feet further than that one and start from there. Unless, you don’t think you can hit it.”
Dannon was apprehensive and then he returned her smile. “A true challenge. I haven’t had one of those in a very long time.”
There was much excited chatter in the crowd as this was done. The vid camera crews were frantically repositioning themselves to cover this unprecedented move.
From this distance, neither one could maintain the tight grouping on their targets. In the end, Dannon, though as good as his people had expected him to be, was no match for Reya. She was the far superior marksman.
The announcer declared the final results. “Reya Reeve of the Justice, 92. Dannon of the Chandar Alliance, 80.”
Dannon said to her afterwards, “Thank you, Reya. I enjoyed that.”
She asked, “Even though you lost?”
“If I had won, it would have been like all the other times. Nothing new. Expect to be challenged tomorrow, Reya Reeve. Tomorrow’s contest is no simple test of accuracy. I do not lose lightly and there is a reason why they call me the best.”
“I also look forward to it,” replied Reya.
The crew was excitedly gathered around Reya. Everyone was trying to speak at once to extend their congratulations and admiration.
Reya looked embarrassed and uncomfortable at all the attention.
Cally hugged her.
Vila said with a big smile on his face, “I always said you were an artist.”
Avon gave a muted, “Impressive performance.”
The soldiers all gave her excited claps on the back and congratulations.
Argus was bursting with pride. “I knew you could do it.” He would have given her more personal congratulations if the circumstances had permitted it.
Nearly overwhelmed by the outpouring, Reya said in a subdued voice, “Thank you. I was just doing my job.”
Vila said, “Don’t be modest. If I could do a job like that, well…” He remembered the adulation that Dannon had received from his own people and thought it would be nice to be that appreciated.
Avon said, “The Chandarans don’t seem to be as enthusiastic as you are.”
Cally asked, “You noticed that?”
Avon said, “It was hard not to.”
Sester’s silence ended, “Reya did just crush one of the basic foundations of their society. No one takes kindly to having their illusions shattered.”
Reya asked, “Did I just make a mistake?” She remembered that Argus had asked her not to humiliate them too much.
Sester said, “It depends on what you’re trying to achieve.” He turned to Argus and tried to ask with as little challenge in his voice as possible, “What is your goal, by the way?”
Argus tried not to bristle at Sester’s question, “We want to show them that women are far more capable than they give them credit for.”
Avon asked, “Equality?”
Argus faced him, “Why not?”
Vila said, “Avon doesn’t think anyone is equal with him.”
Avon’s glare could have melted ice.
Cally asked Avon, “Don’t you think that there should be gender equality?”
Avon tried to keep the irritation out of his tone at all the assumptions. In the old days, he would have responded with a nasty snark that would have increased their negative opinions of him. He knew it was an illogical reaction and did him no favours but when he was on the defensive, his temper tended to get the best of him, despite his rationality.
It was Cally who was asking though. For her, he wanted to give a real answer. She was one person he did not want to disappoint.
Avon thought it ironic that he was replacing one irrationality with another.
He said, “I do not think that gender equality in this society is possible. Their beliefs were formed through centuries of prejudice. Prejudice is the kind of irrational behaviour that human beings excel at. It would be a waste of time to try to change it. Not to mention which, you are losing sight of our primary objective.”
Cally said, "I think you're wrong. I think people can change."
Avon said, "I never said that they couldn't. I am only saying that we do not have the time to change every society we come across. If your mission is to free slaves everywhere then by all means, free away. Then the time it takes would be well spent. If you divide your time and energies, in the end, both goals suffer. It is only logical. You have to decide. Is it more important to deal with the aliens? Or to free slaves?"
Argus said, "You make it sound so clinical, Avon. It's not. These are people we’re talking about here. We're human. If we see suffering and oppression, it's hard to sit idly by and do nothing.”
Avon said derisively, “Sentiment. That’s always a good excuse for any irrational behaviour. Is that the reason you’ll give when the Andromedans regain control in this galaxy and destroy us all, including these slaves you were so moved by sentiment to help? My emotions wouldn’t let me think logically because I’m human?”
As Avon spoke, Argus studied him. Even though there was little change on Avon’s face, he spoke with urgent energy and his eyes contained a dark passion. He believed what he was saying.
Argus said, “Avon, I see your point and I recognize that logically, you're right. But I also believe that we can try to do both without sacrificing either goal. You're a pessimist and a pragmatist. That is your perspective and I respect that. Neither one of us is right or wrong. We're just different in the way we see what is possible and what should or should not be done. I also believe that despite what you say about being motivated by logic, you cannot sit idly by and do nothing either. You never have, no matter how much you try to fight it. In the end, you're no less human than we are.”
Avon’s voice tightened with anger, “Don’t try to manipulate me, Argus.”
For some reason, Avon’s mind began filling with anger. Suppressed rage bubbled up to the surface. There was hate.
No one will manipulate me again. No one will use me again. No one will force me. No one.
There was a flash of memory. A familiar masculine voice but he couldn’t identify who it was.
You’re a fool, Kerr. Do you really think that having intelligence should make any difference in the Federation? I will tell you what reality is.
Avon’s mind exploded in pain. He groaned and gripped his head. The memory began to fade. No! He couldn’t lose this memory, his mind desperately tried to grab onto it, refusing to let it go.
The others reacted in shock. Argus and Cally grabbed him as he crumpled to the ground. Avon didn’t notice. His mind wasn’t with them anymore.
There was another flash of recollection.
His own voice. Logic has to make a difference.
He wanted it to make a difference. He needed it to. Too many things did not make sense. People did not make sense. They say one thing and do another. They were hypocrites. He was better off without any of them. The only thing he could trust was machines.
The memories crowded Avon’s mind, each demanding his attention.
Avon’s angry voice. I will not adjust my research to match your political agenda.
Another voice said. That’s where you’re wrong. You will and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Another explosion of pain in his head. Avon cried out. He was gasping for breath. Cally held him and tried to reach his mind while the others looked on worriedly; wanting to do something but there was nothing they could do.
No one will touch me again.
Cally’s voice finally broke through. * Avon! *
Avon’s confused mind reached for her. * Cally? *
* Yes, Avon! Come out of it! It’s the memories again. You’re caught in them. * There was great relief in her projected voice.
The pain in Avon’s head subsided, along with the memories. He opened his eyes and saw Cally looking down at him. There was fear and panic in her eyes. He had worried her again, even more than normal. Avon hated himself for doing that.
He reached up and touched her cheek. * Don’t worry. *
* I can’t help it. *
Argus asked, “Avon, are you alright?”
Avon turned his head to look at the others. He did not like having them see him like this. “I’m fine.” He struggled to get up. Cally and Argus helped him, which was not what he had in mind, but he couldn’t stand without them. He repeated, “I’m fine. What were we talking about?”
Argus could see that Avon wanted to act as if he had not just collapsed. His pride would not allow him to appear weak. Argus didn’t want to stress him further. They needed to end this confrontation so that Avon could rest.
He said, “Avon. You’ve made your position very clear and so have I. I still want to try but I won’t without you. No force. No manipulation. No emotional blackmail. If you still think that we would compromise our primary mission by doing this, then I will abide by your decision.”
Avon’s lips tightened in anger and his voice was icy. “I will not be pitied.”
Argus said, “This is not pity.”
“Do you expect me to believe that?”
“No.” Argus didn’t know what else to say.
Sester spoke up. “He is trying.”
Avon’s anger directed itself at his nemesis. “No one asked for your opinion.”
“Then you’re a fool and so is he.”
Argus also directed anger towards his rival. “This is none of your business.”
“That may be but neither of you seem to be able to handle this on your own.”
Argus said scathingly, “And you can?”
Avon asked with sharp cynicism, “What is your game this time?”
“No games but I don’t expect you to believe me.”
Argus said, “We don’t.”
“Very well. I’ll go back to the ship.”
Argus said, “Vila, get him back to the ship.” None of the teleport operators would recognize any requests by Sester. Vila and Sester went off to the side to do that.
Argus turned to look at Avon. “What do you think?”
Avon replied, “We’ll try it your way. For now.”
“But if I determine that our primary mission is being compromised?”
“Then we’ll stop.”
Avon asked sarcastically, “Can you?”
Avon said accusingly, "You're an optimist."
Argus replied, "And you're a pessimist. The ship needs both of us."