After the discussions had finished for the day, Alyce said to the crew, "I have other duties to attend to now but I would like to invite all of you to dinner tonight."
Two Tellarans entered the chamber and Alyce introduced them, "This is Lentar and Sillay. I've asked them to show you around, to answer any questions you may have and to see to your needs." The two, a man and a woman nodded a friendly greeting towards the visitors.
Lentar was a darkly tanned man who seemed to radiate the joy of being alive. He was a person who lived very much in the moment. The silver buttons on his multi-green jacket accentuated the twinkle in his eyes when he laughed.
His partner, Sillay was a serious young woman in a light grey top and a red skirt that on closer inspection was more like a split dress-pants combination. She always seemed distracted and deep in thought when her attentions weren't required. Sillay spoke with more deliberateness than her partner, giving the impression of a person who wanted to make sure that her words would convey what she wanted before she said them.
Avon asked, "Do I understand that we're not free to wander around on our own?"
Alyce turned to him with a reassuring smile in her eyes, "You are free, Avon. You may go anywhere you wish on Tellar. Alone if you wish. I have instructed that all facilities be open to you and your crew. Lentar and Sillay are only here for your convenience."
She touched a nearby panel on the wall and the monitor lit up. "This is a public information panel. You will see them throughout Tellar. It will tell you any basic information you need and provide directions. I understand from Captain Varro that you have an interest in our military technology?"
The speed at which their needs and questions were being anticipated made Avon even more wary. These people were much too prepared to be caught out this easily. He said guardedly, "Yes. I'd like to start with your shield technology."
Alyce smiled and turned to touch the panel. "I require the location of the research facility specializing in the energy-absorbing shield technology."
The panel now showed a map with the location and address on the screen.
She told them. "The location is on the Klexxen continent. We have moving public walkways that will get you to any near location. You can ask Lentar or Sillay to provide you with a transport vehicle for farther locations. They do not need to accompany you. Will that satisfy you, Avon?"
"You're very good at satisfying needs that you can anticipate ahead of time." There was hardness to Avon's voice that conveyed more than just suspicion.
Alyce said, "You only wish to understand us. The trust does not exist yet for you. I understand."
"Do you?" asked Avon.
Argus stepped in and directed the conversation elsewhere. The group moved off while Cally held Avon back a bit.
Cally projected, * Avon? Why are you treating the Tellarans like this? You're not normally rude to people who haven't attacked you first. *
Avon sent her, * I'm rude to everyone. Isn't that what you all believe of me? * There was no light teasing manner that characterized their interactions the last few months, only an edge of bitterness.
For a split second Cally was hurt that he would say that to her, but it was quickly replaced with concern. Something was increasingly wrong with Avon.
He had always been strong, independent, aloof, not caring what others thought of him. Wanting them to think the worst. Encouraging them even.
This bitterness seemed to indicate something else.
Even in the past, he rarely applied the knife-edge of his words on her unless there was a good reason. There was no cause now. Just as there was no reason for him to be rude to the Tellarans.
You rarely needed to fear Avon’s sharp tongue if you didn’t make the mistake of verbally attacking him first. It was his primary defense mechanism. But if you did, you had better watch out from then on.
* Avon. * Cally brushed the hard prickly edges of Avon's mind with her own, trying to understand what was behind his attitude. She wanted to reach further inside but it was not the time of intimacy and his walls were firmly up.
Avon's jaw tightened in a grimace as he saw the brief look of hurt in Cally's eyes. He saw the flash of pain quickly change to compassion and a desire to understand. It made him angry with himself. She was important to him. That meant he should not hurt her.
Avon could feel his control slipping away slowly and he was helpless against it. * That was unfair of me. *
Cally's eyes were soft with concern. * Avon. Your mind. You’re starting to lose control again. Let’s ask Alyce if we can do the examinations sooner. *
* The shields are important. We could use them. *
* Avon. * Her voice was firm. * You are more important than the shields. *
The thoughts of his mind were also firm. * The shields can protect you. I can't. *
* Avon, don't do this. * Her eyes pleaded with him.
A voice interrupted them. "Are you alright?" It was Alyce. She had noticed that they hadn't followed the others.
Avon stared at her. How much of his attitude towards the Tellarans was attributable to his normal suspicious nature and how much was due to the loss of control over his own mind? Had he lost the ability to look at things rationally and objectively? Was the deterioration of his mind enhancing his normal paranoia to the point he could no longer make any kind of useful assessments? Like this, he was of no use to anyone. Cally was right. He needed medical help sooner. Avon still considered the shields more important but if he were to get help, it had to be now.
He felt Cally touch his arm. * Avon, please. *
Avon said to Alyce, "I have a suspicious nature. There was no intent to offend earlier."
Alyce said, "I understand. It has kept you alive all these years. No offence was taken."
Her gentleness was like a soothing breeze against Avon’s fevered mind. It whispered of healing, kindness and acceptance. She had a natural compassion that made no demands on him. It was there for him if he was willing to take it.
Avon shook himself mentally. He didn't realize he had been staring into her eyes.
Cally said, "We were wondering if you could arrange for the meeting with your medical specialists earlier?"
Alyce looked at the silent man beside Cally and said at once, "Of course. I will arrange it right away. Most of them have to come in from other planets but they can all be here by tomorrow morning. In the meantime it may be beneficial for you to enjoy what Tellar has to offer."
Lentar, one of the assistants Alyce had provided for them suggested that they go for a walk outside. He seemed very enthusiastic and was animated in his movements.
The crew had teleported directly onto the grounds of the Council building and had not left the government complex yet but taking a walk outside didn’t sound all that exciting. Vila asked, “What’s interesting about a walk outside?”
Sillay said to Lentar, “They probably have other interests.”
Lentar was amiable. “It’s very beautiful. I thought you might like it since you’re cooped up in confined spaces most of the time.”
Cally said, "I would like to see something beautiful."
Avon’s preference would have been the ‘other interests’ option but a brief glance at Cally told him that she wanted him to join her. He knew that she would not consider going to a research facility as very relaxing. "We both would."
Vila and Corinne looked at each other. "Actually, we were thinking of going shopping. Corinne wanted some new clothes."
Corinne self-consciously tugged at the ends of her functional brown shirt as everyone turned their attentions to her clothing.
Cally wondered why Vila had never introduced Corinne to the clothing storage rooms on the Justice. She smiled and said, “That’s an excellent idea.” Either Vila had been too blinded by his interest in Corinne to notice what she was wearing or he hadn’t wanted to run the risk of hurting her. She had been too preoccupied with Avon herself.
Lentar said with a big smile, "I know just the place. It's an open-air market not far from here. We can take the scenic route. That way we can do both."
Argus stared at him and then the pleased faces of Corinne, Cally and Vila. Like Avon, he would have preferred the ‘other interests’ option. He was a soldier. His taste in clothes was limited by anything that he could wear into a battle and looked uniform-like.
He had deliberately gotten away from the all black outfits of his Federation days; though a dark grey shirt was his only deviation. Reya had been getting him to branch out into at least one more colour, dark greens but at least she still picked something vaguely military. She knew that anything else made him feel inappropriately dressed.
He was curious about Tellar society and the concept of a matriarchy though. Reya had expressed an interest in it. She wanted to introduce some of the ideas into the planet she had been given by her brother. Argus said, “It might be interesting.”
Sester didn’t mind the suggestion at all. He thrived in situations where he could study people. An open-air market sounded like a good place to get a better feel for ordinary Tellar society.
Vila remarked, "I feel naked."
They had been walking and taking the moving public walkways for half an hour, traversing through beautiful avenues lined with flowers and green plants. Low-rise residences were naturally blended into the landscape.
Vila felt like he had snuck into one of the elite Alpha grids.
Open spaces with greenery and flowing water; where you could only see the living stacks of human beings squashed together like the layers of a nutri-wafer from a far distance, as if it were on a different continent. Places where you could look up and see the artificial skies reflected on the inner surface of the dome above.
Usually the lower grades only heard of such things as stories told by labourers assigned to serve those grids. Alphas didn't like getting their own hands dirty.
Vila kept looking around nervously, expecting the security people to swoop down on him any minute and deliver him to one of the Rehab Centres for the geographically challenged. Lower grades weren’t allowed to walk on the hallowed streets reserved for the elites.
Avon glanced over at him. "You're fully clothed."
"I'm not talking about that. It's just that…well, I'm not sure why."
Sester's mind had been very active since arriving on Tellar. He remarked absently, "It's because of the buildings."
Vila turned his head to look at him, "Eh? What buildings?" His eyes swept their surroundings in vain for buildings he couldn't see.
Sester said, "Exactly."
Avon also looked around him curiously. His mind was also very busy. "Of course."
Vila looked at one of them and then the other. His eyes narrowed. If he didn't know these two were mortal enemies, he'd swear that they were both pulling one over on him in their dry, superior-Alpha way. "What do you mean, of course?"
Avon turned expressionless eyes towards him; either that or he was doing a very good imitation of a straight man in a comedy act, which would be exceedingly strange and make Vila wonder if they were about to go through another spate of alien possessions. He remembered a time when there seemed to be one every other week. But usually the victim had been Cally. Maybe Avon's mind thing with Cally was making him more vulnerable. Vila stopped these ideas before his mouth began running away with his random thoughts. It would not do to suggest that to Avon. The man had promised not to call him a fool anymore, but there had to be exceptions.
Avon said in an almost bored tone, "You said, 'what buildings?' and I agreed with you."
"I still don't…wait a minute." Vila eyes swept the landscape again but this time he looked upwards. Shafts of sunlight touched his face with gentle warmth and the rays extended through wisps of clouds like a work of art. The sun! It was beautiful, just like the pictures in old obscure archives on Earth. He took a deep breath and then his face broke out into a huge smile that extended from ear-to-ear. Fresh, clean air! Not the recycled air of the domes or ships. Not the pollution-rich atmosphere of most of the Federated worlds that were lucky enough not to live under domes. Not the harsh climates of the numerous human-unfriendly worlds. There was a crisp, sweet quality to this air.
Vila sounded almost as enthusiastic as Lentar. "This is amazing. I can see why you love it."
Avon and Sester stared at each other. For a moment, they almost shared the look of two amused Alphas but Avon's eyes hardened and he looked away.
Sester didn't say anything but there was a resigned look on his face.
Lentar said, “I hate being cooped up inside. I like any job that takes me out here.”
Sillay had noticed Avon's enquiring look. She asked, "Is there something wrong?"
Avon asked, "Where are the populated areas?"
She seemed perplexed by his question. "This is a populated area."
Vila asked, "Where are the tall buildings? Your megaplexes? Where everyone else lives?"
There was an uncomprehending look on Sillay’s face. “I don’t understand.”
Vila could almost feel the cramped air of home as he remembered the Earth domes and the grids where the Delta grades lived.
Sester clarified, “Vila is wondering about your class structure.”
Vila turned to him with a question in his eyes. “I am?”
Avon said with amusement, “In your own simple way, you have asked the relevant question.”
Argus said, “Yes, one we’re all very interested in.”
Sillay’s eyes brightened with comprehension. “There is no class structure in the Tellar Union. Every person is treated equally and with respect.”
Sester said, “But not equal respect.”
Sillay regarded Sester carefully, her intelligent eyes measuring him. “That is true but not in the way you’re thinking.”
Avon asked sceptically, “What other way is there?”
Sillay said, “It is human nature to respect certain things more than others. We appreciate achievement and extraordinary displays of courage and honour. Because of their role, we regard those in authority differently.”
Sester said, “That’s normal behaviour for any culture, not just human.”
Sillay said, “True. In many cultures it forms into a formal or informal privilege structure of some kind with certain groups having more advantages than others do. Usually based on wealth, power, position, the strength of dominating characteristics or where you are born in the social structure. Even luck at times. Some groups are devalued and hold little respect because they lack one or all of these aspects.”
Avon was absently rubbing his left wrist. He said, “That is also normal behaviour.”
Cally looked at him curiously. She was aware of a shift in Avon’s awareness during this conversation.
Sillay turned to Avon, “Only if we allow it to be. We value everyone equally in our society. Everyone’s contribution is respected. We do not practice different levels of service. If you need medical attention, you will receive the best care that we are capable of giving.”
Vila liked what he was hearing. If it was true. Like Avon, he maintained a healthy scepticism. “You mean you get what you need and you don’t have to pay for it?”
Lentar had been quiet so far during this conversation because this was not his area of expertise but now he spoke up. “Yes. It doesn’t matter who you are.”
“I like that,” said Vila. His eyes took on a thoughtful, faraway look. The medical facilities for Deltas were overcrowded and barely adequate. He remembered friends who had suffered or died because they couldn’t get the help they needed. Getting sick or injured could be very expensive if you didn’t work for someone who took care of you.
Sester asked, “You say that there are no differences in privilege in your society but you also acknowledged that human beings have a tendency to respect some people more than others.”
Sillay said, “That’s true. But that is on an individual basis, not on a societal one.”
The conversation was interrupted as they arrived at the bustling open-air market.
Colourful and busy stalls lined several avenues. It was hard to know where to begin.
Lentar led the way as he said, “The clothing ones are on the next street.” Crowds of people made the atmosphere festive and vibrant. Decorative banners stretched high above their heads. Holographic images modelled the wares of each stall.
As they followed Lentar, Corinne leaned towards Vila and with a small anxious voice asked, "Vila, I never thought to ask before. Do you…have any money? I don't have anything."
Vila smiled and took a personal credit marker from his inner vest pocket. It was the one that the Pleasure City people had given to him. With Avon's help, he was even richer now than when he started. Avon had used all kinds of complex algorithms to predict stock market trends. It was amazing what a few credits, a little bit of creativity and a lot of brainpower could achieve.
Vila showed the small rectangular marker to Corinne. The sunlight glinted off the shiny surface and revealed the embedded identification crystals in it. He said expansively, "You’ve come to the right man. With this I could buy everything on this street." Corinne's eyes crinkled with interest as she looked at it.
Vila said, “They should take Federation Standard Credits. If not, there’s probably a place where we could exchange them for local currency."
The next street was a clothes and accessories shopper’s paradise. Every type of garment you could think of and a few you couldn’t imagine. Corinne was wide-eyed and so was Vila at times. These Tellarans were much more colourful and freer in their expressions of clothing than Federation society and definitely more than Chandaran.
People only dressed stiffly here if that was their current mood. It was not a reflection of their society.
Vila thought it was time to introduce Corinne to another Earth custom. “You can shop until you drop and then we can come back again tomorrow for some more.”
Corinne looked puzzled. “That doesn’t sound very healthy.”
“I mean, you don’t literally drop. You just shop until you’re too tired to shop anymore.”
The puzzled look still had not left Corinne’s face. “Why? Is this like exercising?”
“Exercising?” Now Vila looked confused. The idea didn’t seem to be getting through.
Cally clarified, “What Vila means is that you can shop as much as you want.”
They went into a shop that specialized in blouses that had a slight sheen to the material. Corinne searched through the various displays and found several designs she liked.
The shopkeeper was an elderly woman with a long fingers and expressive hands. She asked with a friendly smile, “Would you like to see what they would look like on you?”
“Yes, I’d love that,” said Corinne.
The lady picked up a small oval device, pointed it towards her and directed, “Don’t move. I’ll make a holographic image of you.” She turned it on and soft beams reached out towards Corinne and bathed her in blue light.
They all watched with interest as the woman made a slow circuit around Corinne. When she was done, the woman inserted the oval into a unit on her table. She switched it on and a second Corinne appeared in front of them.
“That’s me!” exclaimed Corinne.
“It’s like the ones at Pleasure City,” said Vila.
They all walked around the second Corinne, looking at the image. All except Avon who was examining the projection unit. “It’s similar technology but a more advanced version.”
The elderly shopkeeper inserted the first of Corinne’s choices into the imager. The holographic Corinne’s brown shirt was replaced with a shimmering cream blouse with a faint design of an orange and white feathered bird embossed into the material.
Corinne looked at it critically. “What do you think, Vila?”
After the fifth blouse and similar descriptions of “That’s wonderful” Corinne realized that Vila might not be the best person to be asking for fashion advice. Cally lent a hand.
Corinne finally settled on two beautiful blouses, one a simple white hatch-patterned blouse with a rounded collar and another one with understated white and blue flowers. She said to the shopkeeper, “I’ll take these two.”
The woman went to get her choices while Vila asked, “Are you sure you don’t want more?”
“No. Two’s enough.”
“That’s right. There are more shops,” said Vila.
The shopkeeper came back with a flat box and handed it to Corinne.
Vila extended the credit marker towards her. “Do you take Federation Standard?”
The woman did not take it from him. “We don’t take those.”
Vila was prepared. “Is there a place I can exchange some for local currency?”
The woman replied, “No.”
“What?” asked a confused Vila. “Then how do I buy something?”
Sillay, who had been talking to Avon, looked up and said, “You don’t need to buy it.”
Vila was flabbergasted. “You mean its free? But…that’s unnatural…”
Avon seemed very interested in this. He remarked to Vila, “It puts you out of business.”
Vila looked lost. “But…what would people steal?”
Sester asked Sillay, “I imagine this applies to food as well and any essential item required for a basic standard of life?”
Sillay nodded, “Yes, you’re correct.”
As they continued shopping, Cally was becoming increasingly worried. Avon was restlessly rubbing his palms together and the tension level in his mind had increased. There was something strange going on in his head. She was careful about intruding on his thoughts but she had to make sure. He had started exhibiting signs of mental breakdown earlier and would have to be monitored carefully before the examinations tomorrow. She asked tentatively, * Avon, are you all right? *
When he looked at her, Avon’s eyes contained an expression she never expected to see here. He said almost in a mental whisper, * Wealth is not the only reality for these people. * She recognized the look now as well as the tone in his mental voice. It was wonder and discovery. She had only seen this look in their bedroom and when he was making some kind of scientific or technological breakthrough.
Argus was irritated when he left the others to go back to the ship. It had nothing to do with the Tellarans. Well, in a way it did, but only indirectly. Sester had come with him. As he left the teleport room, he turned on Sester and trying not to sound as annoyed as he was, “Stop following me around.”
Sester said amiably, “I’m not.”
Argus snapped, “Then why are you here? Following me?” The other man’s pleasant attitude always set him on edge.
“I’m going to see how Reya is. I imagine you’re doing the same thing. It’s just a juxtaposition of purposes. Nothing more.”
A low grumble formed deep in Argus’s throat but he quashed it down before it turned into an audible growl of displeasure. “See her some other time.” He turned his back on his rival and continued walking towards the medical unit. Reya had been put in one of the smaller observation rooms so she could continue the rest of her recovery.
Sester smiled and watched the other man walk away for a moment and then he followed. “You’d like it if I never saw her again, wouldn’t you?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.” Argus was trying very hard to avoid a snarl from forming or picking Sester up and locking him up somewhere for a while. Just for his own peace of mind. Unfortunately, he wasn’t that kind of man. At least, not when he was himself. All he could do was keep walking forward and grind his teeth in frustration.
Sester said with calculation, “I’ve arranged the meeting with Servalan.”
Argus jerked to a stop and stood stock-still. Controlled energy radiated from him as he turned around slowly. “When?”
“Anytime. She was very interested.”
Argus’s jaw tightened. “Did she say what she wanted?”
“She said that the price could be negotiated. It would depend on you.”
Argus had an uneasy feeling that Servalan already had a price in mind and he doubted he would like it one bit. “I’ll talk to her if the Tellaran’s can’t help Avon. Not a moment before.”
Sester said with approval, “That’s a smart thing to do. It’s never wise to give Servalan an advantage over you unless you don’t have a choice. And even then, make sure you can escape it.”
Argus scowled as he remembered that it was already too late to avoid that.