Vila clutched a case in his hands as he exited his cabin. Nestled inside the container were two important action figures, ones he hoped would make a certain female Commander happy and less inclined to having his head on a pole. He slinked along the ship's corridors, starting at every sound. It wasn't as if he was doing something illegal or wrong but it felt as if the occasion demanded some stealth. Though if you asked him why, he wouldn't be able to tell you. All he wanted to do was to sneak into the Commander's cabin while she and Argus were busy elsewhere (he'd already checked that they were), place the dolls in a prominent place and then get out without anyone noticing.
"It's not a good idea." Sester's voice said as Vila rounded the corner.
Vila's heart skipped several frantic beats and he nearly dropped the case. The psychostrategist was casually leaning against the wall, as if it were the most natural thing for him to be doing.
Vila looked around anxiously as he said, "Don't know what you're talking about."
Sester pushed away from the wall and came towards him. "What's in the case?"
Vila backed away from him, "Nothing."
Sester stopped approaching and gave him a friendly smile. "It really isn't a good idea. It's better if you explain to her in person."
Vila realized that Sester not only knew what he was doing, he had anticipated when he was going to do it and was deliberately waiting for him. He asked with resignation, "How did you know?"
"There aren't many options unless you plan to leave the ship. And even fewer options if you want to avoid a face-to-face meeting."
Vila said in consternation, "You know, having a psychostrategist as a friend…"
Sester grinned, "Yes, I know. But we can be infinitely useful."
"Well, how about coming up with an idea to get me out of this mess?"
"I already gave you one," said Sester.
"You call that an idea? If I wanted to lose a few body parts, I'll know where to come for ideas next time. If there is a next time."
Sester chuckled. "She's not going to do that to you."
"How can you say that? Did you see her face when she walked out? I'll be lucky if she stopped at a few body parts."
Sester shook his head in amusement. "I don't know why you're all so afraid of her. She's not that kind of woman."
"You've never seen what she can do with her thumbs. It's even scarier if you give her a weapon." Vila shivered just remembering a clinic she gave once on the creative uses of a gun, some of which he'd never seen before and never hoped to see again.
"I know what she can do."
"And when she looks at you sometimes and you know she isn't pleased…"
"Believe me; I know that look very well."
"Don't tell me that doesn't scare you."
Vila paused to look at him. "I forgot. You still have feelings for her, don't you?"
The amused look disappeared from Sester's face. "That has nothing to do with it. But the issue here is not my association with Reya; it's your relationship with her. Reya respects honesty and directness. If you want to apologize and to improve your relationship with her, go and talk to her. You won't regret it."
"I don't know…"
"It's up to you but that's my advice, as a psychostrategist and as a friend."
"Well…" Vila vacillated between trust, scepticism and the fear of the consequences. He said with a nervous smile, "What's a few body parts among friends?"
Sester gave him an encouraging smile. "She's on the flight deck."
Vila muttered, "That's easy for you to say." He headed towards his doom.
As Sester had said, Reya was on the flight deck, working out some details of the plan with Zen. Vila gingerly went down the steps, trying not to disturb her. Reya nodded to him.
She finished, "Alright, thank you, Zen."
Vila was standing near the steps, afraid to come closer. Reya looked at him curiously. "Was there something you wanted, Vila?"
It was now or…time to turn around and run the other way. Vila plucked up his courage and said, "I…have something for you." He lifted the case.
"For me? Why don't you come in?" There was an amused look on her face. "I don't bite."
With a dubious look on his face, Vila came towards her, holding the box up in front of him like a peace offering.
Reya took the case and opened it up. "Oh." There was a look of pleasant surprise on her face. Reya put the case down and took both figurines out. She said, "Thank you, Vila. These are wonderful."
She gave him a smile. "I love them."
Her pleasure made it all seem worthwhile and the smile on her face made her seem less intimidating. "I'm glad. I wasn't sure if it would be enough…after what happened…"
Reya had put her own figurine down and was taking a closer look at the Argus doll. "Vila, you don't have to be nervous around me. Unless you hurt him." She touched the doll's chest affectionately. "Then nothing can keep you from my wrath."
Vila was starting to feel nervous again, "I wouldn't dare."
Reya looked over at him. "I overreacted the other day. I'm sorry."
Vila couldn't believe his ears. "You're apologizing…to me?"
"Yes. Seeing myself like that and knowing that other people would…well, it made me feel very uncomfortable. Like an object. Not a person."
Vila felt terrible. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking of that."
"I know you meant well. It just…it doesn't matter." Reya picked up her namesake again and put it side by side with the Argus figurine, "I love these. Thank you, Vila. Though…the armour is a little too..."
Vila said quickly, "I can change that."
"That would be much appreciated. If you don't mind, I'd like to keep this one."
Vila grinned. "He's all yours."
Reya glanced at him for a moment. "Vila, the other action figure of me…I noticed that it's missing."
"I…well, about that…"
"Do you really see me that way?"
Vila wasn't expecting this question. Sester said that Reya respected honesty and so far things seemed to be going well. He decided to tell her the truth. "When I was young, we used to have these programs for kids. Delta kids shows. They had all kinds of heroes, usually going around fighting evil for the Federation." He stopped for a moment. "Come to think of it…it is sort of funny now after everything that's happened. But back then, we didn't know any better. And it was good fun. I had many favourites, men and women. But there was one…she was special. They called her, Wonder Woman."
"I don't think I need to hear anymore. So you see me as this female wonder?"
Vila was feeling self-conscious now. "You are sort of amazing. Some of the things you do…"
"I didn't say that."
Reya gave him a wry smile and then she sighed. "You didn't have to. I know that most of the men on this ship view me that way. I don't want you to. I’m just an ordinary person, trying to do a job. Not that different from any of you. That includes you, Vila."
"Now that's why you're intimidating. You do what you do, but you don't think it's anything."
Reya sighed again. "Thank you for these."
"You're welcome." Vila found that he felt a bit more relaxed around Reya. Just a bit. Now that he understood where some of his nervousness around her came from; it was almost like meeting a heroine from his childhood days.
Reya had never had a conversation with Vila before that didn't deal with ship's business or something to do with a mission or training. Now that she was developing a better relationship with the women on the ship, perhaps it was time to get to know some of the others too. At the very least, it would help Vila feel less nervous around her. "I enjoyed your magic show."
Vila smiled with delight. "You did?"
"You have a gift for entertaining and you and Corinne have a natural rapport."
This was a topic Vila could warm up to. "We have a lot of fun. She's wonderful."
Reya noted that Vila's face up lit up with enthusiasm at the mention of Corinne. "Another wonder woman, Vila?"
Vila grinned. "She's special too. This ship seems full of them: you, Cally and Corinne."
"As long as you don't make any more of those Wonder dolls."
"Oh, don't worry, I've learned my lesson."
Spot came rolling around the corner and gave a little beep of apology as it nearly ran into Sester's leg.
Sester looked down with amusement at the little robot cleaner. "What are you doing, Spot?"
It said enthusiastically, "I'm on a mission."
"A mission? What kind of mission?"
The little robot said in a hushed but happy voice, "It's a secret."
Sester wondered whom this clandestine task was for.
"If it's a secret, should you be telling me that?"
Spot gave a little whistle of unhappiness. "Uh. Oh."
There were three people he could identify who would give the little robot secret orders. The trick was finding out which one. "I won't tell anyone."
Spot whirled its ears in appreciation. "Thank you!"
Sester bent down and patted its electronic head, causing Spot's ears to whirl even faster. "Now, remember, when you go back to your master, don't tell him that you told me about your secret mission."
Spot beeped unhappily.
"You won't be lying to him. You haven't told me anything about the mission. Only that you have one."
"That's true." It said but with a tone of uncertainty.
"Avon told you not to tell anyone what the mission was, right?"
"And you haven't. You haven't told me anything other than there is a mission. Avon never said anything about that, did he?"
"Then it's alright. You've followed Avon's commands to the letter. Just remember in the future, if you're on a secret mission, don't tell anyone that you're on one."
"Good. Off you go before Avon wonders what's taking you so long."
Spot beeped a farewell and rolled off.
Sester looked after it. Avon, what are you up to? He doubted if anyone else knew that the little robot cleaner still answered to Avon.
The flight deck was crowded. A dozen chairs had been brought in to complement the seats already there. The main leaders were in attendance to discuss the revised plan.
A list of names was being displayed on main view screen. Reya had the floor. "Marlena has gathered a good group of names. A third of them are bond-mates or daughters of the former President's staff. A third are like Marlena, people who were abducted or were spoils of war. We've picked ones who were fairly recently taken. The remainder were chosen randomly from the households of men who hold positions of influence on Chandar. Ones who are most opposed to what we're doing."
Marlena said, "Of the three, the first two groups will be easiest to work with. The last two groups will have emotional and psychological issues that we will need to deal with."
Argus was watching from the side, "Do we have time? We only have a month. That's just barely enough time to give them the physical training required if we want them to last more than a few minutes in any contest."
Cally said, "We have to make time if they are to face anyone in an aggressive setting. Especially with the last group. From what Marlena has described to us, Chandaran women are unable to stand up to a man. They are indoctrinated from childhood that all authority belongs to the men."
Argus said, "Then work with the first two groups. Let's not waste time on the third one."
Reya said, "It will not be a waste. In fact, it is this third group that will be the most effective in shaking the Chandarans."
Avon, who was standing next to Argus asked, "How?"
Reya replied, "That lies in the nature of the three challenges that Sester has devised."
Both Avon and Argus turned suspicious faces towards the psychostrategist.
Jenna met Olean Rane again in his clandestine backroom retreat. The man looked tired and his eyes were blood-shot with strain and lack of sleep.
"You need rest," said Jenna with concern. "You should leave this work to the younger ones."
"You know me, Jenna. I can't rest. Not with this going on. Not when my people are suffering." Rane stood up and began pacing. "Just when we thought that the worst had past with the defeat of the aliens, this has to happen." Rane smashed his fist into the wall with an anguished and frustrated thud.
"I wish I could help." Even as she said this, Jenna felt like she was betraying their friendship. But there was no other choice. She could not pass up this opportunity. The stakes here were far greater than friendship.
Blake's warm and passionate voice came to her, soothing her doubts and guilt over what she was about to do. Don't you see, Jenna? We don't have a choice. Some have to be sacrificed so the majority can live. In the end, it will be worth it. You have to believe, Jenna. It was much easier to see the end goal when he was with her. His passion drove her on. He believed and that had been enough for her.
I do want to believe, Blake. I have always wanted to. But no matter what, we will do this one last thing together. You will have the great triumph you deserve and your murderer will pay.
Jenna and Captain Atton had contacted the criminals who were responsible for Shade. They had come to a beneficial arrangement that would help her plans greatly and would bring Atton much more money than he could possibly dream of.
Rane held his sore fist. "It's nothing to do with you, Jenna. Thanks for your concern. As for the abandoned base you were asking about…"
"Yes, the one I started on…it seems like ages ago now. I was hoping to complete it. The rebel alliance will need a base in this area."
Rane sighed. "It's too bad that you never had the chance to finish it before. I might be asking you for help."
Jenna grimaced. She had abandoned her efforts here because she'd received word that Blake had died on Gauda Prime. Things were coming full circle. She would complete this base using an idea that Blake originally had to work with the Terra Nostra. This time, she would make it work.