The best place to find information when you're not that familiar with a place was a bar of some sort. It didn't matter where you were in the galaxy, people with a little liquor in them tended to be easier to talk to. Of course, those with too much could be almost impossible to talk to with any degree of reasonableness.
Vila found a popular bar with a steady stream of happy-looking clients. The Fighting Ancra had a picture of a huge, furred dark brown animal with sharp looking horns and claws. Not a big draw for him but on this planet, Vila imagined it might possibly be a family pet.
He stepped into the bar and was instantly assaulted by loud, boisterous sounds of men singing and shouting to each other. Singing?
Vila hoped it was not part of their custom and was more a result of too much alcohol. The last singing he did was for the Auron-Human children but those were lullabies. Vila doubted if those would be well received here. He'd probably be thrown out or at the very least jeered at and told to shut up. His repertoire did include Delta drinking songs. Not great on words or tune, but for someone drunk, musical criticism tended to be very forgiving.
He squeezed himself a place at the crowded bar. A sharp-eyed bartender asked him, "What'll you have?"
"Anything on tap," replied Vila. It was always good to have a mug of something with you in a bar. It helped you blend in and seem part of the crowd. Not to mention, talking to people was thirsty work.
The bartender stared at him strangely, making him feel as if he had a big "Outworlder" sign painted on his forehead. The man went to get his drink and Vila looked around, taking in the atmosphere.
He needed someone a little less boisterous and busy. The bartender slid a mug towards him. "Fifteen credits." Vila paid him with a credit marker and took, what he hoped, was a manly enough swig out of the mug. He nearly choked. It was just a bit too aggressive and some of it had gone down the wrong way. Vila tried to cough himself back to full breathing mode and pressed a hand to his chest, spilling half of his mug in the process.
A gruff amused voice laughed and said, "You drink like that and you'll drown before you get to the bottom."
Vila glanced up at his impromptu audience and choked out, "And me not knowing how to swim."
The gruff voice laughed again and slapped him on the back. He was a short, angular-faced man wearing a dark shirt with a striped grey design that cascaded from his right shoulder down to his waist. The man slapped him on the back again, presumably as a gesture of help or friendship. Vila really wished the man would stop before he suffered severe bruising.
The gruff man introduced himself, "The name's Viser."
"Where're you from Vila?"
Vila took a more manageable swig from his mug and said, "Oh here and there. I travel a lot."
"Sounds exciting and tiring." Viser took a drink from his own.
Vila eyed the man speculatively. Viser seemed the friendly type. "What do you do?"
"Gunnery specialist on one of the new destroyers. Was injured in the last offensive against the bloody Cerellans." Viser tapped his leg that was resting on the bar step. "On medical leave until this heals." His voice got louder as he said, "Can't wait to get back into it."
Vila looked at him curiously. It almost sounded as if Viser wanted to make sure someone heard he was eager to get back into battle. Why? Vila would have thought that in a society like this, it could be assumed.
Don't assume anything. That had been Avon's advice to him before he had come down. It sounded like good rational advice. Well, from Avon, he wouldn't be getting any other kind. But Vila was also looking for something else. Logic was all fine and good but people were rarely that. At least in Vila's experience.
These people loved war and fighting, thought shooting first and asking no questions was a good thing, had a low opinion of women and their sensibilities and they were willing to do anything to win. Vila didn't like them. It would serve them right when Reya beat their best fighter and gave them the shock of their lives. He was looking forward to it.
For some reason, Vila thought of Sester.
How did people get like this? Were they always this way? What were the determining factors in this society? What were the human dynamics?
He was sure the psychostrategist would have all kinds of analysis techniques to try to understand these people. Vila didn't, but he did have his own instincts and intelligence.
What he needed was a combination of Avon and Sester, with a good dash of himself.
The best way to reach anyone was to show interest in what they were interested in. It didn’t hurt that you had some skill and knowledge in that area yourself. Vila asked Viser, “What’s the firepower on those new destroyers like?”
Viser’s eyes lit up.
Reya was leaning against Argus and his arms surrounded her as they sat resting against the bulkhead while on the bunk in their cabin. She was somewhat drowsy but she didn't want to sleep yet. They had done nothing but talk and hold each other tonight. It felt good to be together. She had missed this.
Argus said, "I thought you'd never let me back into your cabin."
A light smile crossed Reya's face. "I would never do that to you. Besides this is really your cabin. Mine was one of the guest cabins."
He hugged her closer. "It's ours."
"Yes, it is."
Argus’s mind went to the final contest that was to be held in two days. The Chandaran President had offered the extra days in order to give Reya time to recuperate. He was doing all the things required to maintain the image of being honourable. It was appreciated, but Argus was keeping a wait-and-see attitude.
They had avoided talking about the contest until now. Argus said, "President Brent agreed to let you take a look at their fighter this afternoon."
“Are you alright with it? The fight, I mean. I didn’t have time to ask you first.”
“You did what you thought was best. I trust you.”
The cabin was quiet except for their conversation. There was peace here and contentment.
Argus traced his hand down her arm. “I can’t wait to see their faces.”
“Any special requests?”
Argus chuckled. “They have no idea what they’re going up against. They have a very low opinion of women. If I told you what Brent said to me, you’d probably want to beat them all to a pulp.”
“I can do that.”
Argus chuckled again. “Did anyone tell you that you can be a very bloodthirsty woman?”
“Not recently.” Reya smiled in amusement.
“But seriously. They don’t think that women have the strength or the brains to beat a man or to contribute meaningfully to society. Other than biologically.”
Reya said fiercely, “Alright, I will beat him to a pulp.”
“Brent or the fighter.”
She turned around and said, “I can do both.”
She grinned. “Don’t worry. I know what to do. They don’t think we have the brains or the ability to beat them at their own game? I will show them both. Are you up to a bit of sparring later?”
Argus grinned too. “You know I’m always ready for that.”
Cally entered Avon’s lab. He had spent all of the previous day here and had come back to their cabin looking as if he hadn’t slept in days.
The stimulant Sester had suggested was working though. Cally had added a cardiac stabilization mixture as well in order to decrease the stress to Avon’s heart or it would have been too dangerous.
Avon was working at his workbench, his head bent over a device that he was applying a metal fuser to. He was absorbed in what he was doing.
Cally said, “I was wondering if you wanted to have lunch with me before I go on my shift.”
Avon was startled by her voice and looked up. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You were preoccupied. Are you hungry?”
Avon thought for a moment, assessing his own physical condition. His stomach did seem to be registering hunger. He glanced at the time indicator on the terminal screen. It appeared that he had missed the period that most people on the ship associated with lunch time.
Avon tended not to follow the regular ship schedule. When he was busy, as he invariably was, Avon ate when he had time to notice the need to eat. He knew that it frustrated Cally to no end that she couldn’t get him to keep regular meal times. It also didn’t help that at the Detention Centre, he had learned to ignore physical discomforts such as hunger. He said, “I do appear to be hungry.”
Avon looked down at the device he was working on. He didn’t have much time to complete it. The contest was tomorrow and it had to be finished. He couldn’t afford to step away from his work.
But Cally wanted him to eat and she wanted to spend time with him.
Avon thought for a moment. “Would you mind if we brought the food back here?”
It was a compromise he hoped she would accept.
“Alright, Avon. But can you spend some time, just eating? ”
He told her, “I can manage a brief period.”
Cally held out her hand to him. He stared at it and then back at the device, as if trying to decide what to do. Avon took her hand and got up from the workbench.
Their guide on the planet, when Reya and Argus went down to look at the Chandaran fighter, was Dannon, who had a pronounced limp. He appeared to be concerned the moment he saw them.
Dannon said, “Are you sure this is a good idea? I know it was your idea but I don’t think you know what you’re getting into.”
Reya replied, “Don’t worry about me. I can handle myself. How's your leg?”
"I'm fine. You look a lot better though. Look, Reya, I know you can handle yourself with weapons and very well. I hate to admit it but if our last contest hadn’t ended when it did, I know I would’ve lost. You had my mark by the end.”
“You’re being modest. You hit me more times than I did you.”
Dannon shook his head. “You were still standing. I could barely walk. When you started hitting me, your shots were better placed than mine. Most people don’t know that but someone must have else they wouldn’t have stopped it when they did.”
Argus asked warily, “You mean that there was no one hour time limit?”
Dannon said, “No. There never was. It was supposed to be until the first one drops and doesn’t get up. If they had let it go on, it would have been me.” There was an anxious expression on his face, as if he was afraid of something.
Argus asked, “What else aren’t you telling us?”
Dannon looked at Reya with great concern. “You already won the first contest. We tied on the second. Even if we win the third one, it’s still a tie.”
Reya said with understanding, “Even if it’s a draw, we still win and have made our point.”
Dannon said, “Yes. No one expected you to get past the first contest or show this kind of skill and ability. Even if you tie, we lose.”
Argus was also understanding something else, “You’re afraid that they will do something drastic in the final contest?”
“Yes! They can’t let Reya win and they will have to make sure that it’s a very decisive win.”
Reya asked, “Do you think they’ll try to kill me?”
Dannon had a very troubled expression on his face. “I’m afraid they might. In my society…winning is everything. We don’t accept failure. For that, most of us are willing to do anything.”
Reya challenged, “Then why are you telling us this? Don’t you want your people to win?”
The look in Dannon’s eyes was one of a man in great conflict. He said to Reya, “I don’t want my people to lose but I don’t want you to get hurt either. And definitely not killed.”
Reya asked, “Why?”
“As a shooter, I’m the best in the Alliance. No one has ever come close to beating me before and you not only did that, you have made me believe that you can beat me. I respect that, even if other people won’t. I would never have believed that I would say that of a woman.”
Reya asked, “Has your opinion of women changed then?”
“Of you, yes.”
She pressed, “Are you at least willing to consider that more women can surprise you? Even your own?”
Dannon didn’t seem that thrilled at the prospect but he was telling the truth when he said he had come to respect her. “I might be willing to talk about it some more.”
Reya knew that overcoming centuries of tradition and ingrained prejudices could not be expected to be achieved overnight. She welcomed Dannon’s honesty though. “That would be appreciated.”
They had arrived at their destination. A large training facility. Dannon led them to the fighter’s training area on the third floor.
There was a large, tall, muscular man giving a demonstration of sorts. He was much larger than Argus. Reya and Argus looked at each other, they were not surprised.
Dannon told them, “This is Gravis. He’s been our free-range fight champion for the last five years. He destroys opponents.”
Reya watched Gravis carefully as Dannon and Argus continued talking.
Argus asked, “Free-range?”
“Yes. A free-range fighter can use any technique. Punching, kicking, holds, anything really.”
“And destroying of opponents?”
Dannon had not lost his worried look. “He has a reputation of being vicious. Most people won’t even fight him. He has a tough time finding sparring partners. Well, willing ones at least.”
They all watched Gravis for awhile. Reya remarked, “He’s good. He doesn’t have the speed or flexibility restrictions that some men of his size are hampered with.”
Dannon replied sadly, “I’m afraid not. He is our best.”
She asked, “You said that he’s proficient at both punching, kicking and holding techniques?”
“Yes, all of them.”
Reya said, “Alright, I’ve seen enough.”
Dannon said, “I’m sorry.”
Reya gave him a light smile. “You don’t need to worry about me but it is appreciated.”
After they went back to the ship, Argus asked, “What do you think?”
“It will be close, but I can beat him. Do you think you can ask Avon to break into their computer systems? I want to know as much about their free-range fighting techniques as he can find. I’ll need it if we’re to make our win decisive.”