The Red Raven crew had on their meanest and roughest clothing and were buckling on some heavy firepower. It made them seem far more like nasty, cutthroat pirates than the slightly-crooked-but-very-successful-traders look that they were all used to sporting.
Jenna's hair was cut short these days. Very different from the loose, feminine-appearance she used to have. Her cheekbones seemed even more angular and there was a cold barely-hidden darkness in her eyes that sometimes burned with ruthless fire when she thought about Avon and what she was going to do to him.
Prex, the dark-complexioned pilot was trying to tighten his belt another notch. "Damn. I couldn't have gained this much weight."
Edina, the red-haired navigator smirked as she checked her own svelte reflection on a reflective surface along the bulkhead. "You're just lucky you could put those trousers on. Did you have to use a crowbar?"
Prex snarled at her. "I can still take you any day, Edina."
Edina taunted him, "Yeah, yeah, if you don't split your trousers first reaching for your gun."
Suddenly in one smooth motion, they both drew pistols on each other. The air was so tense that no one dared breathe as the pilot and the navigator faced each other across drawn weapons. Then Prex and Edina started laughing. They both sheathed their pistols.
Jenna eyed them dispassionately as she continued buckling on her own holster. These two loved egging each other on but it never amounted to anything other than posturing. Jenna wondered with irritation if every ship had to have a pair like this. She didn't remember her own trading days being like this.
Edina said with a chuckle, "You've still got it, you old goat."
"Still a touch faster than you."
"Oh yeah? Would you like to try that again?" Edina reached for her gun.
Prex held up a hand. "Any time but I think the Captain has other ideas."
They all stood up straighter as Captain Atton came in with the engineer RC and two heavily armed crewmembers. "Are we ready?"
Jenna noticed that he was dressed in an unfamiliar but functional earthy brown jacket and dark trousers. He looked like he meant business, the rougher business they were about to engage in. It seemed to be a look that fit him as much as the rich trader she was used to. Jenna knew that Atton was far tougher than he pretended to be. The respectful attitude of his crew told her that and the hard look he had in his eyes when there was something he didn't like.
Prex said, "As we'll ever be, Captain."
Atton said, "Stay sharp. These people play for keeps."
Edina said without concern, "So do we."
Prex said, "We've dealt with their type before."
Atton warned them, "Yes…but it's been awhile for all of us."
Prex scoffed as he took a pulse rifle from the weapons rack. "It's like riding your first energy-cycle. You never forget how." He primed the rifle. "We may be older, but none of us have lost our edge."
Atton's eyes were hard as he checked his own weapon. "I know. Or you wouldn't be on this ship. If we make this work, we will have more money than any of us could make in ten years of smuggling."
Edina said with a wistful look in her eyes, "I can finally buy that planet I've always wanted."
Prex said with disbelief, "You want to retire?"
Edina, "Did I say I was going to retire?"
R.C., the bald-headed engineer, picked up a rifle from the rack and primed it like a man who was ready for anything. "Or we could all be dead."
Edina said, "You're always such a bolt of optimism."
R.C. snarled, "These organizations that deal in drugs, they don't care about people, just profit."
Atton slid his gun back into his holster decisively. "Are we any different?" Atton released the hatch controls and said, "Alright, let's go. Jen, you're with me."
Captain Atton and Jenna stood side-by-side at the rendezvous point as the others spread out behind them and found places with cover.
Atton remarked, "I would never have thought it of you, Jen." Except when they were alone, he was always careful to keep her cover.
Jenna continued staring ahead. "There are many things you don't know about me."
Atton said, "I get the idea that the fewer things I know the better for my health?"
"You're a smart man."
"That almost sounds like a warning."
She replied indifferently, "It's anything you want it to be."
As they bantered, Jenna was thinking ahead to her own plans. She would use the rebel base here as a cover up. They would set up the first Shade production lab in the Outer Colonies. With it, she would grow her own criminal organization. Answerable to her.
Then she would be able to use them for her own purposes. And if those actions were increasingly against Federation forces, there was nothing they could do about it. She would have her own source of Shade; she could make anyone do anything she wanted to.
She didn't have Blake's persuasive abilities or his masterful manner that overrode even someone as strong and devious as Avon. Jenna's lips nearly curled into a snarl at the thought of the traitor. Something must have been wrong with Blake that day when he met Avon on Gauda Prime. Avon must have come prepared to kill him and he had not let anything stop him, not even memories of a friendship that had obviously been a sham in that cold heart. Jenna shook herself out of these thoughts. She couldn't afford to have them distract her.
She didn't have Blake's talents but with Shade, she wouldn't need them. With it, she would be able to make her own terms and persuade people to do what they should be doing in the first place, fighting the Federation.
A band of criminals fighting the Federation. Again. Jenna nearly laughed at the irony of that idea.
An army for your purposes, Blake. You were right. If these people only understand the use of force, then we would use force against them. All of them. They will all do what you want. And if they won't, we will make them. Shade is a powerful weapon, just as Shadow should have been one for you once. I will make your ideas work. And I will destroy Avon. Then maybe the guilt would stop eating away at her. Jenna's eyes burned with fevered resolve.
The Chandaran Senate Chamber was filling with angry voices. A full meeting was underway, though if it weren't for the presence of security personnel at key and very visible locations, it would probably have descended into a brawl.
Reya, with Cally and Marlena standing behind her, was a bulwark of professional calm against the strong emotions being directed towards them. They watched the proceedings carefully.
Cally's senses were directed outwards, picking up the atmosphere of the room. The Chandaran Senators were a buzz of angry and outraged thoughts. There were a few who were not, these ones she remembered carefully for later reference and passed their locations to Reya using mental communications. Though it was a wasted effort, she also tried to identify any differences that would indicate that there was an alien presence. So far, there was none, but she knew that didn't mean anything.
"This is outrageous! I will not submit my property to these…these…" an angry Chandaran official sputtered, making his moustache twitch uncontrollably. He was unable to find a suitably vile word that would not result in his being taken away by one of the security people.
Interim President Trist said with warning, "Be careful, Senator Jernis. Or I will have you removed."
The man fell into angry silence and sat down in a huff. He did not want to be the one of many who had already been taken away from the Chamber for a mandatory cooling-down period.
Trist said, "I remind everyone that we all agreed to these conditions."
A shifty-eyed Senator named Patro, stood up, "Which they dictated!"
Trist seemed to have infinite patience as he explained, once again, but not in a voice that sounded tired or impatient, "No. These were conditions which my government and the new Champion worked out together as fair and reasonable for the upcoming challenges."
Cally projected to Reya, * They feel that the inclusion of their women to be an attack on them personally. They will not stand for it. *
Reya nodded her head imperceptibly. She turned her head slightly and whispered behind her, "What do you think?"
Marlena, being the most familiar with Chandaran attitudes, had been watching carefully. "I think that Sester was right. You have no choice."
There was a slight grimace on Reya's face as she remembered what Sester had said to her afterwards.
You have to do your hero act again, Sester had said jokingly.
She remembered her own annoyed response, That's not funny.
Sester's customary light manner was suddenly concerned. I wish that was all it was. I wish I could find a different way for you to do this, Reya. I wish…I hadn't told you about any of this in the first place. If I hadn't, you would never have been hurt the last time. And this…
Reya was always uncomfortable when Sester was like this. The look in his eyes contained something that they both wished had never been, but she had said, I appreciate what you did and what you're doing. I know you're doing it for me but the decision is mine.
Be careful, Reya.
Another one, a man with a stiff back said, "We never agreed to include our property as part of the hundred."
There were shouts of agreement.
Reya composed herself. Normally the attitude of these men and the words they were deliberately using offensively would cause her to seethe with anger but she was prepared. Nothing was going to shake her composure or her goals. She stood forward, the consummate and cold professional. "President Trist, may I speak?"
Trist nodded in her direction, "Of course, Champion Reya."
Reya tried not to react to the title that seemed to be permanently attached to her name on this planet. "I understand the fears of…"
There was an instant response to the use of that word. Senator Jernis burst out angrily, "Who says we're afraid?"
Reya's voice was placating and reasonable. "My apologies, perhaps fear was the wrong choice of word." Despite her tone, Reya's eyes contained a strong challenge. "Then what is your concern?"
Jernis recognized the look in her eyes; his own contained hatred. "I did not agree that my property would be part of this test."
Reya was very reasonable, "But Senator, you did not specify that your woman was to be excluded in the conditions that you agreed to. But of course, as leaders of Chandar, you have the power to not have your own..." Reya eyes swept the room slowly and deliberately. "…women included in this agreement. That is a difference in philosophies, I suppose. We had thought that since you are the ones who made the agreement on behalf of your people, that you would also gladly volunteer your resources for this test. We were obviously mistaken. If you wish to back out of this contest…"
Jernis growled angrily, "I know what you're trying to do."
Cally projected to Reya, * You have him. *
Reya continued to maintain an air of calm professionalism. "And what is that?"
Even as the Senator spoke, his eyes held a very different message. "Chandaran men are leaders by right. We do not back down and we are not afraid of…upstarts like you. Take my property, if you dare. Try to make something of it. In a month." There was a sneer on his face. "If you can."
Reya did not show any reaction on her face at Jernis words or to the ones Cally projected to her. * Jernis has murderous intent towards you. We will have to watch him carefully. And…it will not be good for his woman when she is returned to him. *
They had expected this.
President Trist said, "Then it is agreed."
There was a murmuring of reluctance but no one else spoke up.
One of the other Senators asked, "Where do you want us to bring them?"
Trist said, "You do not need to concern yourselves. To save time, I have already asked the Champions to arrange transport for the women listed. They only needed my orders." He turned to Dannon, who was standing by the exit. "Which you have, Champion Dannon." Dannon bowed and exited the chamber.
Senator Jernis half-stood in anger but a cold look from Trist made him sit down again.
Back on the flight deck of the Justice, the four men were watching a video feed of the Senate chambers while Avon was also working with the military engineers and some of the Tellaran technical people.
As they saw Dannon leave the chambers to enact the next part of their plans, Vila said, "Well, she's done it."
Argus was leaning back against his flight seat. He knew what Reya was thinking and how she must be seething inside at the attitude of the Chandaran men. Argus looked down at his right fist, it was clenched tightly, like a hammer ready to pound some sense into whoever needed it. He was a professional but that didn't mean he didn't have feelings. "Was there ever any doubt?"
"Not from me," said Vila. "But…they're all going to be after her now. I mean, even more after her."
Argus asked Sester, "What do you think of Jernis?"
Sester was sitting near Vila on the couches. "He's going to challenge her…and then he might try to kill her."
Argus grimaced and turned to Lieutenant Dain, who was standing by his shoulder. "You know what to do? I want all of them."
"Yes, sir." Dain went off to give orders to his men to start shadowing Jernis and the others who had voiced their anger.
Argus asked Avon, who was bent over a piece of equipment, "Avon…"
Avon straightened up and stared at him, "Do you want me to check it again?"
Argus hesitated. They both knew that Avon was referring to the tracer that Argus had insisted that Reya had implanted in her neck, in case her teleport bracelet failed and they lost contact with her. Argus had been thinking about that but the tracer had already been checked several times. It was only his concern over Reya and his inability to help her in a more direct way that was making him act this way. Avon was already overworked, he didn't need to be hounded by useless requests just to make someone else feel less helpless. "No, it's not about that. How are you getting on?"
Avon looked down at machine he was building. "It will be finished in time, if you stop interrupting me."
Argus nodded with an apologetic look in his eyes. He was about to say something else but there was a beep on his control panel. The women were starting to be gathered up. "Vila, Sester, we're up." The two men followed him as they went to get ready.