Vila was getting a strong feeling that something was wrong as he and Avon talked. He had been about to go find Corinne when Avon made an unexpected appearance at his door. Avon had wanted to talk about the past. His voice was not quite impassive as it normally was nor was it emotional, in an Avon-since-the-Detention-Centre sort of way, it wasn`t even in between. It was subdued and there seemed to be a measure of urgency in everything he said. He paced Vila's cabin restlessly like someone who couldn't sit still.
They had covered many things tonight, some trivial and some important. There were still many they hadn't gone into and to be honest, Vila really wished he would stop. He could tell that Avon was skirting close to the edge. So far they had avoided anything that would trigger a loss of control and the inevitable collapse that would followed.
Vila was about to say that maybe the rest could wait for another time when Avon remarked, "We've always had an adversarial relationship. I've never…been nice to you."
"I wouldn't say never," said Vila. It was very strange to have Avon in this kind of mood. "A lot of the time. But it's not as if I didn't do the same thing. You're an Alpha, I'm a Delta. We're practically enemies."
"You're not a Delta."
"Well, a pretend-Delta's the same thing to everyone else." Vila's observant eyes had noticed that Avon was incessantly rubbing the heel of his palms together as they talked; an old habit when he was nervous and stressed. Vila watched the anxious activity worriedly, wondering again if he should stop this conversation.
Avon was opening himself up to sharing with someone who wasn't Cally. It must have been something that was making him feel very uncomfortable. They were friends but they hadn't come far enough for chats like this. Vila had almost accepted that there would never be any. Avon just wasn’t that kind of person. Vila had resigned himself to taking whatever he could get.
Not that he was much into close relationships himself. He'd never really shared much about his life with any of the others either. For some reason, none of them ever talked about themselves much. They were colleagues and occasional friends and that was about it.
It was odd. In some ways, after Gan died, Avon was the closest he had to a friend. Avon may have belittled him and was cruel but he was the only one who took him seriously sometimes. To everyone else, he was just a pair of useful hands. The rest of the time, he was just an irritant that everyone told to shut up. No one ever listened to him. Except Avon. No one ever gave him a choice. Avon had sometimes, not often but at least he had. To Vila, it meant something. No one had ever treated him like that before. None of the other Alphas had made the effort to break through the grade-barrier and listen to him like a real person.
Avon stopped his pacing and waited for him to continue.
"When we were on the London, I just saw a chance to bring down an Alpha. Rub your nose in it. It's a favourite game among the Delta-grades. We don't get the chance to do it much. When I saw you, you had nothing, just like the rest of us. Your grade didn't mean anything anymore or your brain or skills. They'd thrown you away like trash just the same as us. But you didn't act like it. You were still the arrogant Alpha. You acted like it still made a difference. I wanted to bring you down a peg, make you feel like the rest of us.That's why I said what I said about you being second-best."
Avon's eyes were like lasers, boring into him, trying to find the truth. "I was aware of it."
To Vila, it was odd going back to the past. It felt like along time ago and a much younger and more innocent Vila he was remembering. One who hadn't killed anyone yet. "To be honest, I'd always wanted to meet you. I can't disable computer security systems but I always wished I could. It would've been really useful. I've studied it a bit on my own so I'd heard about you. Can't avoid it, you're a big name in computers and you'd almost pulled off the greatest bank fraud in Federation history."
Avon said stiffly, "The operative word being, almost. I achieved nothing as you pointed out."
Vila grimaced as a stab of guilt hit him. Even after all this time, it was a failure that seemed to bother Avon. Avon had always been a man who took his own failures very personally. Vila regretted that he had harped on it at a time when Avon had been the most vulnerable and had lost everything. Including Anna.
Avon said, "If I had been good enough, it would never have happened." His words trailed off and his eyes no longer seemed focused.
Vila looked at him in disbelief. Avon always had a strong sense of superiority about his own intelligence and abilities. It was one of his defining characteristics. And like ORAC, at times it was annoying that he had every reason to be. An Avon who had lost confidence even in his own abilities was a frightening thing. It was like finding out that the sun had suddenly lost its ability to warm the Earth. An immutable fact of life had unexpectedly been turned upside down. This was the last thing Vila expected or wanted to happen.
There was definitely something wrong. Vila wondered if Cally was racing through the corridors towards them right now. He had to get Avon off this topic; he had to reassure him. "No. It wasn't your fault. You said it. You had to rely on other people. It wasn't your computer skills that got you caught."
Avon repeated tonelessly. "I had to rely on other people. I needed other people." He suddenly leaned towards Vila's and said, "If I had been good enough, I wouldn't have needed anyone."
Vila asked in shock, "Avon, what's happening to you?"
Avon said with chilling blankess, "Nothing."
Vila was almost taken aback at the darkness that was in Avon's eyes. It wasn't the kind of darkness that frightened with its black heart, it was the night before the coming end, the deep melancholy of a man who wanted hope but was afraid that it was gone forever.
A shiver went through Vila. Avon had been many people since being rescued from the Detention Centre. Of all of them, this Avon frightened him the most. This Avon had tried to kill himself when he came back.
Vila had to snap him out of it. "Avon, you are the best. You always have been. Everyone knows that. People in your field called you the second Ensor. They said you could do anything. I didn't mean what I said on the London. I'm really sorry, Avon. I guess we got off on the wrong foot and I started it."
Avon stared at him and the hard, defensive look in his eyes faded. The darkness was wrestled back to where he could control it again. "As you said, we were the product of our classes, practically enemies. We're not now."
Vila said vehemently, "No, we're not. Avon, let's not talk about these things anymore. I just want to look to the future. We have a good thing now. It doesn't matter what happened before."
The buried melancholy still tinged Avon's voice. "The future?" His eyes stared into the distance, as if he was trying to see where his lay. Or how much of it he had left.
Vila said fervently, as if with the force in his words, he could work a different magic, one that would give Avon the hope that his mind refused him. "Yes! The future." Unfortunately, magic only worked on children. There was a dull ache in his stomach.
Avon focused his eyes on him again. This time, there was a brief flash of something Vila had never seen before. A gentleness that was shaded with sadness and regret. It was only there for a moment. Avon said, "I've…" Each word seemed to be a struggle, as if each one was wrestled from some place that gave him pain. "…never said that I cared…about you."
Vila's mouth opened in shock and then he closed it. "Well, it's…"
Avon's eyes were steady on his. "I, do."
After Avon left his cabin, Vila did some thinking. Instead of going to see Corinne, he headed to the medical unit. He hoped that Avon hadn't gone there ahead of him.
Cally had her back to the door and was reading from a datapad.
"Cally, can I talk to you?"
Cally asked with immediate concern, "What happened, Vila? What just happened to Avon now? I couldn't reach him with my mind. He was too focused. The things I felt…I almost went to find him." There was great worry on her face. She still couldn't reach Avon and she doubted if he was aware of her. His mind was still preoccupied though he seemed to have calmed down.
"I swear, Cally. I didn’t mean to upset him. He just wanted to talk. He wants to do that a lot these days. I thought it'd be more stressful if he didn't. He's sort of…you know the way he gets when he gets it in his head he has to do something?"
"Tell me what happened?" At the same time, she reached out with her psi abilities to locate Avon's consciousness again. He appeared to be tired and stressed but there was none of the deep depression she had sensed earlier.
Vila told her and then he asked, "Why would he do that? It's almost like he thinks he has to get everything off his chest in one go. But it's not as if he doesn't…" Vila stopped and the sickening feeling came over him again as a new understanding joined the other one he had gotten in his cabin.
"Have much time?" Cally's face paled.
"Cally! Why would he think that? I mean, Sester's drugs helped and Marlena said her people could too." Vila felt as if the floor was sinking. "I can't believe he's giving up."
Cally said fiercely, "He hasn't given up."
"But, Cally! He's…"
"He hasn't! He's just a realist and he's preparing for all eventualities." She told herself it had to be that. Avon was the ultimate pragmatist, he would fight to the very end, but he also faced what the facts told him was reality. That explained the intensity of their interactions lately. The talks and the increased intimacy. She realized that she had known but had not wanted to face the truth. She had wanted this Avon for along time, but it was coming at a terrible price. "In the past he's been able to control and suppress emotions. When he couldn't control them, they tended to explode. But now, he can barely keep anything in check. Even the smallest thing can set off an emotional response that spirals out of control. Right now, he's facing the possibility that he won't live much longer. Can you imagine what that's doing to him inside?"
Vila could scarcely swallow the knot that seemed to be choking his throat. "Cally, I saw something in his eyes. Just for a moment. It was the look he had when he came back from the Detention Centre. When he tried to kill himself."
Cally's jaw tightened and something seemed to pierce her heart. "He won't."
Vila nodded. "Because of you."
"Because of all of us, Vila. We have to be strong for him. It costs him great pain to live now but he's doing it for us. He needs hope and love. He's never had much of either one."
"I'll stay close to him."
"Thank you, Vila. You're a good friend. I'll go and find him and we can all take turns watching him."
Vila pointed out worriedly, "He won't like it."
"We don't have a choice, Vila."
Vila mumbled, "He's going to be so embarassed when he comes out of this. Assuming it isn't one of the things he chooses to suppress when he gets his mind back. I mean, I would. Maybe."
"What are you talking about?"
For the next few days, the Champions took over the vacuum of leadership. They already commanded great respect in Chandaran society so it wasn't that difficult. The shock of the aliens had shaken everyone throughout the Chandar Alliance. The majority of them had been watching the Inauguration. With a little nudging, the shock had become full-fledged fear and outrage. It wasn't difficult considering the paranoid tendencies already in their society. And Chandaran pride could not ignore the insult of being manipulated by the aliens. It was amazing how collective fear and impending disaster could make people reassess what was really important.
Somewhere between fear and paranoia, some of the sympathetic Champions and with the help of Brent's friends on the planet, were able to slip in a few suggestions and thoughts about improving the conditions of the women in their society. There was still great opposition but also much confusion and conflicting views because the image of Reya's courage and sacrifice was forever burned into their collective consciousnesses.
As Reya recovered in the medical unit, Chandaran society began to slowly, hesitantly and very reluctantly claw its way to a better society for all of its people.
Playing solitaire chess can be relaxing and challenging. There are no inferior opponents that you have to humour and you know you're playing someone who is at least as intelligent as yourself. Well, that was why Sester preferred it. He didn't often find challenging opponents. When there was at least one worthy rival within playing distance, solitaire chess became an isolating and lonely exercise. Sester sighed and made another move against himself. With his other hand, he was nursing a stiff drink of some kind. It was green and resembled whisky in taste. Other than that he had no idea what it was except that it carried a sufficient enough kick to it.
The four walls of his cabin were starting to feel like a prison. But at least here there was no hostility or people trying to avoid him. Well, not most of the time.
Sester unconsciously played with the tracer bracelet on his left wrist. It was amazing how your body remembers pain even when it was no longer present.
Even Vila didn't seem to have time for him anymore. Regardless of what Vila's motivations had been, he had enjoyed interacting with him. But Vila had other more pleasant priorities now. Sester had noticed his interest in Corinne the first time she appeared on the ship. There was no mistaking the constant, surreptitious glances. He was happy for Vila. Everyone needed someone.
Sester sighed again and this time made a vicious attack against his white king. "Check and mate." He pushed the piece over, letting it hit the board and roll away from him. Sester drained the rest of the green liquid.
The buzzer to his door announced a visitor. At last someone to interact with. Sester smiled and went to open it.
"Vi…" He stared at the man who was not Vila. The friendly smile turned into a guarded one. "To what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked Argus as he stepped aside to let him in.
It must have been something important if Argus used the buzzer this time rather than barging right in. The two men stared at each other as they stood in the middle of the room.
Argus seemed to scowl slightly but quickly replaced it with a neutral look, as if he was trying very hard to not be antagonistic. "I came to thank you."
Sester cocked his head speculatively. "You're welcome."
"You…" Each word seemed to be produced with great effort. "…would do anything for her?"
Sester kept his tone neutral but a faint amusement brightened his eyes. "Do you really want me to answer that?"
Argus's chest expanded and collapsed with conscious effort. "Does that extend to Avon?"
Sester's eyes widened slightly and then narrowed. "Why all the questions?"
Argus tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. Psychostrategists seemed to have problems with answering questions before they knew why they were being asked. He said tightly, "Just answer the question."
Sester nodded as he realized what was behind the request. "You don't think that the Tellarans can help Avon?"
Sester always seemed to answer the real questions, not the asked ones. Argus frowned with annoyance but made an effort to be civil. "They're an unknown. We don't know anything about them other than they're a matriarchy and they fall into traps. I'd rather not trust Marlena's claim that they have more advanced science and technology until we see proof."
"And even then, there is no guarantee they can help Avon? That's why you're coming to me? Your enemy?"
Argus's voice was tight. "You're not Avon's enemy."
Argus chose not to dignify that declaration with a response. The two men stared at each other across a distance that seemed like a void that threatened to swallow them both up; a place where they could never be anything other than enemies and rivals.
Sester said, "I've asked you before what price you're willing to pay to have me help Avon."
"You have my answer."
"It's not enough."
Argus tried to keep down a rising anger. Of course Sester would try to squeeze as much out of this as he could get. If the man demanded Reya in return, he wasn't sure if he wouldn't decide to kill him now.
Sester smiled with amusement. The play of thoughts across the other man's face, although slight, were like red flags for a psychostrategist. "Don’t worry, I won't ask that. I do have a very strong instinct for self-preservation."
Argus scowled. "Then what do you want?"
"To help Avon, I have to go to Servalan. Neither one of us have a choice about that. We need her cooperation and she needs incentive for that cooperation. And we know Avon would die before asking her for help."
Argus didn't like where this was going. It was something that his subconscious mind had already realized but his conscious mind had not wanted to face; not after what he had already given to her. "So that leaves me?" Argus knew he should have asked Servalan himself but it was too late now.
"Yes, what price are you willing to pay to Servalan?"
Argus's fists clenched instinctively and there was struggle in his eyes as he thought about this. Every day with that woman hanging over them like a threat was a neverending battle. He was feeling increasingly trapped.
Sester looked at him curiously. "Well?"
Argus's words came out, almost angrily. "Ask her. Then I will decide."
Argus continued to look at Sester without moving.
Sester asked, "Was there something else?"
"Reya…" Argus's jaw tightened. "…wants you to come to a gathering. In cargo bay one. In two hours."
"What's the occasion?"
With reluctance Argus admitted, "Your strategy worked."
"Ahhh, the Chandarans. I’m glad that it did. It's important to her."
Argus just looked at him. He didn't want to discuss Reya with his rival.
Sester grinned. "Very well, I'll be there."
The celebration in the main cargo hold was festive. Chandaran-themed decorations with a military look which wasn't for everyone, but seemed to make the Chandarans feel right at home. The majority of the Champions were there along with President Brent and his people. Most of the crew, including the soldiers, were in attendance.
Reya and Argus paused at the doorway just before going inside. She had her hand on Argus's for support but removed it before anyone could see them.
Argus was trying to stop himself from acting overprotective but he had to ask, "Reya, are you sure you're up to this?"
Reya stood up straighter and squared her shoulders. "I'll be fine."
The paleness of her face and the faint tremoring of her hands told him otherwise. But the stubborn set of her told him that it was no use arguing with her. Trying to stop a determined Reya was almost impossible unless he bodily picked her up and carried her back to the medical unit. And doing that would definitely not be a good idea.
Argus grinned wryly and said, "Next time I'm injured, I think I'll remind you of this."
Reya looked as if she was about to say something but changed her mind and said something else. She put her hand back on his arm again. "You're right. I shouldn't be doing this. But...I have to be here. I promise you that I won't stay long. Just long enough."
Argus nodded reluctantly. They both understood about duty and having to finish what they set out to do. "Alright. As long as you don't mind if I stay close to you the whole time."
Reya smiled. "I would like that."
The excited and happy atmosphere in the main cargo hold suddenly faded to stillness as they all turned towards the doorway. Reya entered with Argus at her side. There was a hushed silence as they walked towards the assorted gathering.
Every pair of eyes was intent on staring at Reya, taking in every detail. They all saw how pale she was and though she walked tall and strongly they couldn't help noticing that she was moving slowly. As she neared, those who had sharper eyes noticed the slight tremoring of her fingers. She looked self-conscious at all the eyes trained on her.
Cally caught her eyes and then she nodded imperceptibly. She also understood why Reya was doing this. Reya knew that she would be keeping a careful eye on her physical condition.
Suddenly, everyone began to clap and there was cheering for the new Champion. Reya's face took on a slightly reddish tinge.
The Elder Champion, Trist, stepped forward with a respectful look on his face. It was a big step for him to have this kind of regard for a woman but he was one who recognized honour and courage above all else. In his mind, she wasn't just a woman anymore, at least not a woman as he had always defined them. His voice took on a formal tone as he addressed her, "Reya, this is a celebration of hope for the Chandar Alliance. You are the primary reason why we have this hope. You risked your life for us and though not all of Chandar may recognize you because of your gender, we the Champions do."
If Reya could prevent her face from getting redder, she would have. She was not used to all this praise and attention. She was used to getting the job done with as little fuss and noise as possible and then fade into the background. This was making her distinctly uncomfortable but she recognized that what she had done was a very public act. It had to be one. She had to carry this role on to its conclusion.
Reya said, "You're very kind to say that. But we all had a hand in achieving this, from the members of this crew to President Brent and his people, to all of you. If you had not supported my actions, what I did would never have worked. We all achieved this."
Trist asked, "Both men and women?"
All eyes were focused on Reya and Trist.
Reya said carefully, "We each had our roles to play."
Trist seemed to think on this for a moment. "Yes, we did. I've never thought of women as having an important role in our society before. But if you had not stood up the way you did, Chandar would have been lost." He paused again. This time everyone seemed to think on this. "I'm an old hand. It's hard for me to change. I don't know if I can but Chandar cannot afford not to. It was not one of us who saved the Alliance, it was you. No matter what you say, without your part in this, Thelis...the aliens would be in control now. They may even have manipulated us into helping them destroy the rest of humanity. I see you differently now. In my mind you are a Champion. One of us. Perhaps even more. For the sake of Chandar, and because of you, I am willing to try."
With each word, Reya felt new strength infusing her limbs. It was the energy that came from having hope. She bowed her head in acknowledgement of what he was doing and said to Trist, "Thank you."
Having the most elder of the Champions, their de facto leader, express these thoughts was more than they could have hoped for. Where he led, the others would be more inclined to follow. His opinion carried great weight.
Dannon said, "I know it's not much yet but people are willing to talk. Not about change exactly but a different way of seeing things."
Reya said encouragingly, "It's an important first step."
Brent said, "I never thought we would get even that. Not unless we forced them to. And not for a few more decades at least."
Vila said, "I suppose we did force them, in a way. Well, the aliens did."
There was no hint of melancholy on Avon's face as he stood beside Cally. "They did us a favour. Their exposure and the Commander's actions have achieved something that would never have been possible otherwise."
Argus, who was trying very hard not to put his arm around Reya in order to provide support, said, "And we have another ally who will actively fight any further incursions into this Sector."
Dannon already spoke like a man who carried a great burden. "Yes, we will start to contact the other planets and Alliances."
Gravis said, "That's going to be hard. We're at war with most of them. Where do we even start?"
Brent said, "We have to try. Unfortunately, I doubt if my people will accept me back as their President. They need people who are impartial. They know I'm not."
Marlena said, "The Champions have been providing leadership. They are seen as Guardians of Chandar."
Brent mused, "You mean, let them continue?"
Trist said, "That's not our role." He still felt uncomfortable with the women there but he was trying to adapt. Reya, he could accept, she was already one of the Champions in his eyes. He knew very little about Marlena. The sight of this self-confident and intelligent woman seemed very unnatural. He had resolved to try change but it was still too soon.
Marlena directed a warm and encouraging smile towards him, "No. It's not. But Champions are entrusted with the safety of Chandar. Chandar will not be safe without a leader in these troubled times. The last thing you need is a power vacuum."
Sester spoke up, "Marlena's right. I doubt if the aliens we saw are the only ones."
That produced a flurry of reactions.
Vila wondered how many more shocks his poor stomach could stand today. It wasn't even lunch time yet. A trip to the medical unit and Cally's magical elixirs was in order soon. "You mean there are more?"
Avon said, "It's a logical assumption. You can't take over an entire planet with only a handful of people."
Argus said, "That's true. It doesn't make tactical sense if they only relied on the few we saw."
Sester nodded. "Thelis and the Champions were the keys. Without them, their plans wouldn't work. But that won't stop them. The ones left will think of something else."
Dannon said, "We'll have to watch out for them."
Gravis said, "But how can we if we don't even know who they are? They can be anyone."
Sester said, "You do have one advantage."
They all turned to him.
Sester was in full psychostrategist mode. "In some ways, the position that the women in your Alliance hold..."
Argus said, "You mean the lack of one."
Sester aimed a friendly look towards his rival. "Yes. It will help you identify who the aliens are."
They all looked confused. Brent asked, "How?"
Sester had that look that Avon got when he thought that something should be obvious. "You ignore your women. You speak in front of them as if they don't matter. It doesn't occur to you that they would have any way to damage you because they have no power in your society. No woman would defy a man in your society unless they're off-worlders like Marlena. Do I need to go on?""
Marlena said, "You're saying that all we have to do is ask the women?"
Avon's eyes widened. "The aliens would treat the women the same way? Without regard to discretion?"
Sester smiled. "Yes. And the women would be able to tell if there were any changes in anyone in their households."
The others finally caught up.
Argus admitted reluctantly, "That's clever."
Marlena's brow was furrowed in thought. "The Chandaran women may be too timid and afraid to say anything against their men. It would be something against their natures."
Cally, who had been busy trying to keep her awareness on Avon, said, "It might be easier if a woman approached them. Either myself, Marlena or Corinne. And Reya when she's recovered."
Sester remarked, "That's a good idea but you'll need more than the four of you. You'll have to check everyone who might be a potential target to be used by the Andromedans."
Reya asked him, "You can identify those potential targets as well?"
Sester inclined his head at her understanding of what he could do. "I can give possible profiles of what to look for but you still need more women."
Reya asked Marlena, "Can your people help?"
Trist was resistant. "That's out of the question. We cannot bring more off-worlder women here."
Avon said, "It will have to be done discreetly, of course. Once the Andromedans realize what we're doing, they will kill their women."
Sester said, "Which would be another good indication of alien presence but not our prefered way to identify them."
Vila remarked, "That'd be like taking your shoes off by shooting yourself in the foot."
Argus said, "We'll have to sneak them in and use the same disguises you had before. The teleport will be very useful."
Reya asked, "Marlena?"
Marlena replied, "I know my people will be very be glad to help."
Argus said, "Very well. President Brent, if you would stay here with your people and help the Champions restore order, we'll go to the Tellar Union to recruit some help and bring them back."
Brent said, "My first act would be to officially step down as President and support the Champions fully. Hopefully by the time you come back, order will be reestablished and we can start routing out the aliens in our midst."
Reya said, "And start on changing the status of women on this planet?"
Brent nodded. "We will try. If the women are able to help identify the aliens, it will also help their standing."
Brent turned to his mate and a look passed between them.
Marlena said to Argus, "Corinne and I will go with you to Tellar. I will provide the introductions and I will let my people know what you need. And I'd like Corinne to see my home world."
Vila looked across the room at Corinne. She had been very quiet while everything had been going on. She was looking at him too. They both shared a brief smile.
Argus said to Brent, "We'll provide a secured frequency so we can keep in touch and you can tell us how things are progressing."
Brent nodded in agreement.
Argus picked up a glass from the table and raised it in a toast. Everyone else did the same.
"This is a celebration. Much has been achieved and much is left to be done. But there is something now that wasn't there before. There is new hope for the Chandar Alliance. Both the men and the women. May this be the start of many new and good things for everyone. Cheers!"
Next story: Mysteries and Discoveries