With polite but firm use of elbows and other assorted body parts, Argus, Vila and the soldiers had made their way through the crowds and were now in position to take control of all of the access points to the Main Hall. Entrance into the Main Hall was by invitation only and only the most privileged received those.
Argus didn’t anticipate any difficulties getting inside. Most people’s eyes were glued to the huge monitor screens lining the walls just above everyone’s heads. The Athol soldiers were trained to act quickly and with as little disturbance as possible. The only thing they could do now was watch and wait and hope. The danger was still to come. It all depended on Reya and the Champions.
Vila was watching Argus surreptitiously as he observed the view screen. He knew that Argus must be worried sick but he didn’t show it. He was always the professional soldier, the leader with the cool head. Vila knew that Argus had not liked this plan and had been opposed to it from the start. It was far too risky. He had been angry that Sester had helped Reya analyze the situation and set up the scenario that was unfolding inside the Main Hall. But he respected Reya and knew that she felt it necessary to do this. He had given her his full backing even though Vila knew that it must have turned his stomach in knots. Vila turned his focus back to what was going on in the Hall.
Argus’s hand rested lightly on his holster as he watched Reya declare, “He is an alien from the Andromeda galaxy.”
All around them the crowds reacted in shock.
On the screen, that reaction was reflected on Thelis’s face and then he laughed. “She’s not only a woman, she’s insane!” The crowds around Argus began roaring with laughter and some not very flattering comments were made about Reya.
Argus pressed his teleport bracelet and whispered evenly, “Take the exits now.”
All of the teams did their jobs well. Amidst the preoccupation with what was going on inside the Main Hall, no one noticed there was a change in guards.
On the view screen, they saw that Reya was unaffected by the crowds’ reaction to what she just said. She put her hand in her pocket and brought out a small grey box. “I have a way to prove what I am saying. All I have to do is...” Reya brought the device up as if to point it.
Thelis immediately drew his gun. He shouted and fired at Reya. “Watch out! It’s a bomb!”
Dannon had his gun out and had fired at Thelis, bringing him down just as Reya dove and rolled to the side to avoid the shot. Unfortunately three of the Champions had also drawn their guns at the same time and fired at Reya as she desperately continued rolling to avoid being killed. Dannon fired in quick succession, bringing two of them down instantly. His title as the best shot in the Chandar Alliance was not an idle one. The third man’s shot hit Reya in the chest.
Dannon shouted, “Reya!” He brought down the final man with a single shot to the head. A smear of blood led to where Reya had stopped rolling. Her body was still. It had all happened so fast that everyone was frozen in shock.
Suddenly, the energy barrier deactivated. The audience inside hesitated for a moment and then they streamed forwards.
Just as Thelis fired his first shot, Argus’s face was grim. Then he saw Dannon lift up his gun to bring down Thelis. Sester had been right. A breath of relief was quickly stifled as he saw three other Champions raise their guns as well. They had not expected so many but they had planned for it. Argus immediately pressed his comm button. “Avon, bring her up now!” He saw Reya dive and roll and hoped that Avon could adjust his coordinates quickly enough.
Argus tried to open the door but the controls wouldn’t respond. “Damn!” The door should not have been locked.
He cursed himself for not allowing Avon to participate on this mission. Avon had been right. They needed someone on the security computers to make sure that something like this couldn’t happen. He could almost imagine Avon’s disapproving gaze and a look that read in bold letters, “I told you so.”
The time for self-recriminations could wait until later. They had to get inside now.
Argus looked up at the screen and could see the beginning of the teleport energies forming around Reya’s rolling body. In horror he shouted just as Dannon did, “Reya!” He saw Reya hit and his heart nearly sank. What was worse of all was that Reya was still in the Main Hall. What happened to the teleport?
Argus saw the privileged crowds seething forward as the energy barrier unexpectedly dropped. He hit the comm button frantically. “Damn it, Avon! Bring her up! They’re going to kill her!”
Avon’s voice responded, “I can’t get a lock on her bracelet. It stopped sending a signal in mid-teleport. It must be damaged.”
The situation was getting worse and worse. What else could go wrong?
Argus pressed his teleport bracelet again. “Avon, bring us up! Teleport us directly into the Hall! I don’t care who sees us use the teleport.”
Avon’s voice responded, “I can’t do that.”
Argus’s face and body were controlled but the tightness in his voice betrayed the feelings he was trying to keep under control. “Why the hell not?”
Avon’s voice responded calmly, “I can’t get a fix on a non-active spot inside the Hall. There are too many people moving around. There isn’t a free location to put you down.”
Argus swore again.
Vila had been paying attention to what was going on. When Avon announced that he couldn’t teleport the Commander up and he couldn’t teleport them into the Hall, Vila immediately opened up his equipment satchel and started working on the locked door. “I can get this open."
Argus saw what he was doing and pressed on his comm. “All teams get into the Main Hall the best way you can! Protect the Commander and control the exits!” He asked, “How long, Vila?”
“Just give me a minute. There’s a security lock on this.” Nervousness tended to make Vila work even faster. He was trying to avoid imagining what was happening to the Commander while they were trapped out here.
Dannon raced over to where Reya lay still. He knelt down even as blood seeped from the wound in her chest. Reya was gasping painfully for air. Dannon pointed his gun at his fellow Champions as they moved towards them. “Don’t move any closer!” With horror he saw the crowds streaming forward and surrounding them. He barely knew where to aim his lone gun. It looked like the end but he was going to go down fighting for both of them.
The crowds stopped almost within touching distance. There were shocked faces and they all seemed to be staring at something behind him.
Dannon followed their gazes and nearly dropped his gun. In the place where Thelis lay was not the body of a man. It was the well-known green residue trace left by the aliens who had invaded their galaxy.
Someone else shouted in shock, “This one too!” The crowds moved and Dannon could just catch a glimpse of more green globs. They were the other men he had shot.
Dannon said in a loud voice, “She was right! The Champion was right! The aliens are trying to take us over. Reya risked her life trying to warn us.”
There were loud mutterings as the crowd digested this information and the sight of the alien bodies. Reya’s pained breathing could barely be heard.
Dannon challenged, “What are we going to do? How do we treat those who risk their lives for the security of Chandar? She isn’t even one of us. She’s a stranger and a woman. But she considered saving the people of Chandar more important than her own life. She came down unarmed and was willing to face all of us alone. This is a noble and courageous act. Regardless of who or what she is. And now she’s dying. What are we going to do to honour such a noble act?”
Five of the Champions stepped towards them. Dannon tensed and brought his gun up. Without a word, the five Champions turned around and formed a human wall, placing themselves between Reya and everyone else. One of them was the Elder Champion. He said, “The woman, Reya has fulfilled all of the requirements of a Champion of Chandar. I will not see her hurt. You will have to go through us first.”
Outside the Hall, Vila straightened up in triumph. “Got it!”
Argus clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man!” The door slid open and the team rushed inside and began to force their way to Reya.
From his kneeling position, Dannon picked up the small grey device that Reya had dropped. He stood up and addressed the assembled audience and the broadcasting viz cameras. “I know that it is hard for most of us to accept but it doesn’t change the facts. This woman has done a noble thing and she has given us a way to identify and deal with the aliens in our midst.” He held the small device up over his head.
A low masculine voice spoke loudly above the noise of the crowd. “No, she didn’t.”
The crowd reacted in confusion to this.
Dannon saw Argus trying to make his way towards him. He pointed to Argus and ordered, “Let him through.”
The crowd obeyed and Argus made his way to the line of Champions who were standing up to protect Reya. They parted and let him through. Argus kept the reactions from his face as he drew closer and saw the wound in Reya’s chest and heard her struggling painfully to breath.
She looked up at him as he approached. He could barely hear Dannon asking, "What do you mean?"
All Argus wanted to do was to take Reya back to the ship, all thoughts of what they wanted to achieve here was temporarily lost. He bent down and knelt beside her. "Vila, give me your bracelet."
Vila immediately took his off and threw it to him.
Reya gasped out painfully, "No. Not yet. You know what you have to do."
"Reya, we have to get you back. You'll die if we don't." Argus picked up her arm but she tried to push him away saying, "No. Not yet. I promised them that I would stay until they decided what they wanted to do. My life is in their hands."
Argus pleaded with her, "No, Reya. You're not supposed to do this. We can't lose you. Please."
Reya looked at him sadly and putting her hand on his arm, said with difficult and gasping breaths, "You know why we did it this way."
Argus said angrily, "That damned Sester! I'm going to..."
"No, you're not going to. You're just angry because you know he's right. We have to give them a chance. It's the only way. I can't do it now, do it for me." Her eyes held his until he bowed his head and nodded.
Argus stood up and looked at Dannon and then he turned to the crowds. “There is no device that identifies the aliens.”
Dannon said, “But...we all saw it work.”
“All you saw was a light emitter hooked up to an activation switch.”
Dannon reflected the confusion of the audience when he said, “Then I don’t understand.”
Argus’s voice was grim as he explained. “We had no way to identify the aliens but we knew that some of them would have been at the Inauguration. We suspected Thelis from the beginning but we also guessed that some of the Champions would be as well. We...Reya took the chance that if she acted as if she had a device that would reveal them, they might be shocked and desperate enough to try to kill her.”
Dannon said in disbelief, “But that’s suicidal. She’s unarmed. How could you let her do that?”
“She trusted that you would do the right thing and protect her.” He turned to the Champions and said, “I am not here to pass judgment on your society or to demand that you change.”
Argus stopped and looked down at Reya. He desperately wanted to bring her back to the ship but he had made a promise. Reya had done as much as she could and now she was entrusting this responsibility to him. Her sacrifice could not be for nothing. Argus tried to recall what Sester had explained to them as they were planning this scenario.
When Argus looked up, there was hardness in his voice when he addressed the crowds again. “Damn it. I take that back. I do mean to say that. In the past you’ve needed the courage, honour and self-sacrifice of the Champions in order save your society. That’s why you hold them in such high esteem. You recognize that they represent the best things about your own people. But you’ve done yourself a great disservice. Reya has shown you great courage, honour and self-sacrifice today and she’s a woman. I challenge all of you. In keeping the women of Chandar enslaved, are you denying yourselves half of all that is good about Chandar? Have there been other Reya’s in your midst that you’ve thrown away? Reya chose to believe in your people because of your legend of Champions. She is entrusting her life into your hands. She is going to honour her promise to stay here and allow you to chose whether she lives or dies. Whatever you decide, she...” Argus's face reflected the pain of his next words. "She will accept. And I will stay as well. I will not leave her. Whatever fate you chose for her, applies to me as well."
Argus loosened his gun belt and let it drop to the ground. He knelt down beside Reya and took hold of her hand.
Dannon said, “Argus is right. Reya has shown all of the best qualities of a Champion today. As have all of the people with her.” He looked pointedly at Gravis. “Can anyone of us truly say that we would have this kind of courage, honour and self-sacrifice for people who hate us? This is what Reya has done despite all that we’ve tried to do to her.”
Vila didn't know what was happening. None of this had been planned. Reya was not supposed to be lying on the ground dying. She was not supposed to offer to sacrifice herself like this. Argus was not meant to do the same thing.
This was being done for a people Vila had very little liking for. He had seen some not very nice things on this planet. But Sester had pointed out something that showed some promise; it was in their legend of the Champions and in people like Dannon and President Brent and his people. There was hope and Reya was staking her life to call on this hope. Argus was sacrificing his life because he believed in her.
Vila wondered what it meant to him. He had no ties to these people and he still didn't think much of them, definitely not enough to sacrifice his life for them in a hope that they were right.
No. That was wrong. Corinne was half Chandaran. She was worth it. Her mother had given up half her life to stay to help these people. She must have seen something in them as well.
No one had asked Vila to risk his life or make any kind of sacrifice. He was his own man. Free to do whatever he wanted, including chose to live to fight another day.
But he couldn't. Because of Corinne and her mother. Because of Reya and Argus. Because of all the Chandarans he had gotten to know and who were worth it.
Vila slowly took off his gun belt as well and threw it down in front of him. He took a few steps forward, his legs seemed to be shaking so hard that he was sure that everyone could see how afraid he was. "I'm staying too. Whatever you do to them, you can do to me."
Around the room, several gun belts clattered to the ground as the Athol soldiers in the Hall all followed suit and stepped forward.
Up in the Justice's teleport room, Avon and Cally watched with fascination as Argus told the crowds that he was staying. When Vila stepped forward to do the same, Avon's eyes widened in shock and then he looked at Cally.
Cally asked, "What are you thinking?"
"Vila." Avon looked back at the vidscreen as the soldiers also made their stands. "He's chosen to believe in something."
Cally looked at him for a moment. "I'll go and get a med kit ready." She rushed out.
There was shock in the Main Hall as the impact of the actions of the strangers hit everyone. No matter what any of these men believed about women, none of them could close their eyes to what they were witnessing. No one could hear Reya's pained breathing and see the blood that was still seeping from her wound and not realize that she was truly placing her life into their hands.
One by one, the rest of Champions joined the line to protect Reya. The greatest surprise of all was her most violent opponent, Gravis. Gravis was subdued as he said to the crowd, “I’m like you. I can’t see much good in a woman but I’m also a Champion. I’ve never been able to protect Chandar the way this woman has. I cannot ignore such a display of courage or the debt that the entire Alliance owes her. The day we stop honouring this kind of self-sacrifice is the day I will step down as Champion because we would no longer be longer worthy of the concept of a Champion. I can’t say that I would be able to change my mind about women but I can change my mind about this woman and I am willing to listen. We have to let her go. We must allow them to save her.”
Dannon said, “Gravis is right. We owe Reya. The aliens are trying to destroy humanity again. This time they're trying to use everything against us including our own weaknesses. If Reya had not had the courage to defy our traditions and prejudices, the aliens would have won and who knows where Chandar would be in a year from now. Maybe destroyed or all enslaved to the aliens. I think that we must consider a change if we are to survive as a people. We cannot let the aliens win. If it means embracing women like Reya, then I say we should at least talk about it. But we have to save her first.”
The Champions in the line looked at each other. There were nods of consensus as the Elder Champion said, “Dannon is right. We can’t let the aliens win. There is much to be discussed but for now, the Champions will honour the new Champion, Reya with all of the privileges that she has earned many times over. Argus, go. Save her.”
Argus didn't need another invitation. He quickly snapped the bracelet on Reya's wrist and called for teleport. Cally was ready and waiting when she arrived.