Captain Atton and Jenna looked down over the railing at the newly set up drug lab. Atton said, "It's taking shape nicely. You've done well, Jen."
Jenna said indifferently, "Yes." She didn't care what he thought, as long as he continued to play along. Soon, she wouldn't need Atton.
Atton regarded her out of the corner of his eyes. He said in a low tone, "One day, you're going to tell me why."
Jenna turned her head slowly to face him. She asked coldly, "Tell you what?"
Their eyes were locked on each other's like two opponents across a chessboard, trying to determine the other's strategy. Atton continued to keep his voice low so that no one could accidentally overhear. "Don't think that I don't know that you've been using me…" The corner's of his lips curled in the kind of smile that one hunter gave to another. "…Jenna. We're two old hands, remember?"
Jenna's eyes were hard but there was no fear in them. "What of it?"
Atton's eyes moved down to her lips and then back to her eyes. "We would make a formidable team, you and I."
Jenna's lips twisted in a bare sneer as she turned away from him and watched the laboratory preparations below. "Don't flatter yourself."
Atton stared at her cold profile for a moment before he turned to watch the people below. "You never had intentions of staying with me, did you? You've always had an agenda and once you got what you wanted out of me…"
"Let's not pretend, Captain. We are both using each other. That's what we're good at." Jenna's tone sent a shiver up Atton's spine. There weren't many people who had that affect on him. This was a ruthless woman. Atton began to think that it was for the best that she didn't plan to stay with him.
That night, as Jenna prepared to sleep in her new quarters on the rebel base, she stared up at the dark sky. Splashes of rain hit the window as if they were trying to get in. She was alone. Nothing could get in, not the rain, not Atton, no one to bring in a little heat into a heart that felt numb.
Atton kept pressing her but what he offered was not warmth, it was a working partnership at most and a little recreation. It was nothing that she needed. This morning's feeler from him had been a reminder that he was fast becoming a liability with his own goals.
You weren't always so cold. Jenna started at the familiar voice from the past. Tarvin. May he rot in hell, if there is one.
The memory continued to play itself in her mind. She and Tarvin on the flight deck of the Liberator.
She'd said to him, "You weren't always a bounty hunter."
The Amagon asked, "Have you forgotten Zolaf Four?"
"Is it worth remembering?" With Blake's life and freedom on the line, it had been a relationship that Jenna had wanted to deny. She had been attracted to Tarvin once. They were two of a kind. Just as Atton thought they were now.
"Just the two of us in the mountains."
"And three hundred customs guards." She had been something in those days. Jenna thought fiercely, I still am.
"You saved my life."
She had said, in the cold a voice that seemed to be the only one she had left now, "We all make mistakes."
Tarvin obviously remembered the same events with fondness. "I thought you liked me." It was more than like as she remembered the exciting days of danger in the hills and the nights spend in each other's arms.
"Oh, I did. Then." She had. Then.
"Have I changed so much?" Tarvin had sounded regretful.
The woman with the voice of ice said, "One of us has."
That coldness had always been part of her. Reserved for those who crossed her or those who got in her way. Or those who hurt the ones she loved. There were many people like that these days. The chief one being Avon.
Jenna twisted the material of the curtain, wanting instead to feel Avon’s neck between her hands. She needed to feel the life leave his body. And then revive him and do it again.
You weren't always so cold, Jenna.
Jenna started. It wasn't Tarvin's voice this time. It was a ghost from a past that she had almost forgotten. A female voice.
"She owns men???" There were shouts of anger and outrage echoed in the cavernous cargo hold.
Argus was horrified. He was afraid to look at Reya. The last thing he wanted to do was to ruin her plans. He had no idea how he had managed it, but it looked as if he had done just that. He wanted to crawl away somewhere before he could cause her any more problems, but he couldn’t just leave her like this. He had to fix this somehow. But what could he do?
Argus hazarded a glance up at Reya. She didn’t seem angry, or even disappointed, she was staring at him with a strange look on her face. She’s not mad at me? Argus was confused.
Reya said gently, as if she were handling a nervous and wild-eyed horse, “Argus, can you come up here please? Vila. Sester. You two as well.”
Vila didn’t know if he should go up. The only scenarios his wild imagination could come up with ended with his head served on a platter as an example to others. Somehow, these women didn’t just think that Reya was abnormal, but now, because of him, they thought that she kept men as slaves.
He was close to the door. Running and locking it behind him came to mind. But if he did that, he’d be letting everyone down. He could see Corinne staring with puzzlement at him from the far side of the cargo hold.
How did these things happen to him? He had meant well and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. He had wanted the women to know that they weren’t the only ones who had been treated unfairly and that he was just like them.
Vila saw Argus step onto the platform slowly and hesitantly. The man looked as guilty and terrible as he felt. Should he do the same thing? The Commander looked formidable and she was staring expectantly in his direction.
Vila plucked up his courage and his feet began moving before he could find more reasons why he should be running the other way. He couldn’t let his crewmates down.
Vila stood nervously next to Argus at the edge of the platform. They looked like naughty boys who had just broken something. Even though mentally they knew it was a silly idea, neither man wanted to move within striking distance of Reya.
What made it even worse was that Sester strolled casually and confidently up and past them. He stood beside Cally, with a far too amused look on his smug face. For once, Vila felt as irritated as Argus normally felt towards the man.
Reya sighed. The two men were obviously feeling guilty and nervous. Unfortunately, it was not helping to dispel the image of her as someone who would own men as slaves.
“Argus. Vila. Can you come closer?” They hesitated but came forward with dragging feet and stood on either side of her. She whispered to them under her breath, “Don’t worry. We’ll fix this. I know you both meant well.”
They nodded silently.
“And please stop acting like you’re afraid of me. It’s not helping.”
Reya addressed the gathering, “I do not own either one of these men. We are all equals on this ship.”
The hostile Sentha said, “You’re lying. Vila said he was a Delta and that you treat him like dirt. Now you’re going to force him to lie to us. Just look at him. They’re both afraid of you.”
Vila blurted out, “No. The Com…I mean, Reya…the Champion isn’t like that.”
For some reason, Sentha seemed to view Vila like one of the women. An oppressed Delta. A woman. Somehow, she had connected the two in her mind. “You don’t have to pretend, Vila. Don’t let her push you around. You don’t have to be afraid of her.”
Vila heard Sester’s bare whisper behind him, “Because you’re a man?”
Vila found himself repeating the question, “Because I’m a man?”
“Yes…” Sentha seemed about to say something but stopped.
Sester whispered again, “And?”
Vila repeated, “And?”
Sentha seemed confused. “I…don’t know. I was…going to say…It doesn’t matter what other people say you are. You’re…not dirt, Vila.”
Cally sensed that this was a crucial moment for this woman. She projected to him, * Vila, go on. *
Vila stepped towards Sentha, stopping just at the edge of the platform. He said, “You aren't either. I was a Delta. But I wasn’t really, not inside. It’s something the Federation tried to push on me but I escaped and I’ve joined the people on this ship. They're not Federation here. Reya isn't Federation. For the first time in my life, I’m free and people here treat me with respect. They listen to what I say. They don’t see me as dirt.”
Sentha said, “You’re just saying that.”
A female voice rose above the others, “He’s telling the truth.” Corinne stepped forward. “My name is Corinne Brent. I was born on Chandar but I was rescued by Vila when people tried to attack my home. I’ve been on this ship for almost a month now. What Vila is saying is true. The people on this ship treat each other as equals. They work together as a team.”
Another woman with a thin face asked, “Then what about Argus? He said that the Champion owned him.”
This time it was Argus who interjected, “No.”
Vila stepped back and everyone looked at Argus expectantly.
Argus was feeling very self-conscious but he stood forward. Physical courage he had plenty of. He could face several armies alone and not flinch in the face of death but for some reason, standing here with all of these women staring at him scared him. “I…didn’t say that Reya owned me. I said…that I belong to her.”
The thin-faced woman said, “That’s the same thing.”
Sester knew there was one thing that would touch these women, something that would serve as a powerful image for them. A dream.
As Sester the man, it would be too hard for him to do. He needed the ruthlessness of the psychostrategist. The man who would do anything to complete his task; regardless of the consequences, to himself or others. He was this man once. It was never far from the surface. It was time to call on him again.
Sester whispered to Cally, “Tell Argus to explain why he said he belongs to her. He needs to tell Reya how he feels about her. Tell him to pretend that he's back in their cabin if he must, but this is important.”
Cally tilted her head slightly towards him and asked in a quiet voice, “What are you up to?”
Cold and ruthless. Ripping past someone else's discomfort. Tearing into his own. “I’m serious. It will have a powerful impact on these women. It is something they have never seen before.”
Cally turned her head to look at him. There was a disturbing intensity in his eyes but her psi perceptions of him told her that he believed what he was saying. “Something they’ve never seen?”
“A dream, Cally. One they have never had a reason to hope for. It would have been more effective with Marlena and Brent but…”
Cally realized what he was getting at and nodded her understanding. “Alright.” She closed her eyes and concentrated on both Argus and Reya. She had never tried projecting to two people at once. She decided not to tell them that Sester was the source of this request. * Argus, tell Reya how you feel about her. Tell her why you said that you belong to her. *
Argus and Reya heard her and turned a little to look at her in surprise.
* It’s important. Don’t think about anything else. Pretend that the two of you are alone. *
Reya moved her fingers slightly in query.
* Yes, please trust me. This is very important. The women need to see the kind of relationship that you have. *
Argus asked softly, “Reya?”
"But…" Argus wasn't sure he could do this in front of so many people. He was already dying of embarrassment at the idea.
Reya said in a low, barely heard voice, "I know why Cally is suggesting this. She's right."
Argus finally nodded. He really wished someone would let him go back to his cabin right now and hide, but he trusted Reya and Cally’s judgement. Cally had suggested that he pretend that they were alone. He doubted that would help. How could he ignore all of those eyes staring at them? He could almost ‘feel’ their attention. This was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life.
Taking a deep, shaky breath, Argus nervously held out his hand to Reya. She took it and gave him a smile of encouragement.
Argus studied her face for a moment, drawing on her strength and calm. He had no idea what to say. All he had was the truth and his own ineptness at expressing it to her.
Argus said to Reya, but in a voice loud enough that everyone could hear, “I’m…not very good at these kinds of words. I…you know I always say the wrong thing.” He took another deep breath before he turned his head to the say to the women, “The reason I said that I belong to Reya…is because…” He paused in trepidation. He could feel his face turning red in embarrassment and it was far too hot.
Reya said, “You don’t have to say it.”
“I want to. I just…want to say that…” His heart was beating wildly but didn’t have the mercy to stop and spare him from this moment. He felt as if he was in a marathon and had just reached the wall that all runners had to face if they were to go on. “…I…” He nervously looked into Reya’s eyes. What he found there gave him the flash of courage that he needed. “I…love you, Reya.”
There was a collective sigh in the cargo hold as everyone let out a breath that they didn’t realize they had been holding.
At Argus's declaration, Sester felt as if something sharp had sliced through his soul, leaving it bare and bleeding. Out of habit, he quickly hid it behind a mask of casual amusement.
He no longer wanted to be in this room. The psychostrategist had succeeded in his task and the man had failed. Sester knew that he had never stood a chance; his mind had always known it. Even as he could see the rise of hope in the faces of the women, he could feel the dying of his own.
Cally looked at him out of the corner of her eyes as Sester's anguish radiated from him like a wave of misery. She still had a great deal of antagonism and suspicion towards this man but it was hard to not have some sympathy when she could feel his pain.
Cally had always been aware that Sester's feelings for Reya were genuine. They were tied up in his own selfish desires. This made what he had just done, something remarkable. She would never have believed it of him. Despite herself, she was beginning to see him in a slightly different light. He was capable of acting outside of his own interests. This would require further investigation. Cally returned her attentions back to Reya and Argus.
In the audience, the woman who had known his pretence before did not miss the fleeting look of pain in Sester's eyes. That expression told her something she had not expected from someone like him. It told her that he had allowed himself to become a fool. And that he had no room for anyone else.
Neither Argus and Reya were aware of anyone else now as Argus continued saying, “That’s…why I said I belong to you. It’s how I feel. You…are the best thing that has ever happened to me. There will never be another woman for me. I belong to you. If…you’ll have me.”
A pin could have dropped on the deck and been heard outside.
Reya’s could scarcely believe what was happening. “Are you…asking me to bond with you?”
They were no longer aware of anyone except each other.
Argus was full of uncertainties. His words came out in a jumbled rush, “You…don’t have to if you don’t want to. I’ll…understand. I know you deserve someone better…someone who won’t say the wrong things and who can make you happy. I…”
Reya reached up and touched his lips. Argus fell silent.
She said, “I’m the one who doesn’t deserve you. There will never be anyone else for me either. I accept your offer. If you’ll have me.”
Argus still didn't understand what she saw in him. He was too aware of his own faults and the darkness inside, to ever believe that any woman would want to make this commitment to him. Reya constantly amazed and mystified him. He leaned forward and kissed the woman who meant more to him than his own life. She responded by putting her arms around him.
The women were in shock. On Chandar, this was the dream of a fool. A man and a woman who loved each other as equals.
No one wanted to break the spell in case reality intruded and they had to return to a life without dreams.
Vila found his eyes automatically searching for Corinne. She was still at the far end of the cargo hold but it did not take long to find her. They exchanged soft and meaningful glances as Argus and Reya kissed each other.
Sester felt devoid of emotion. He had become the cold, calculating psychostrategist again. The feared professional puppeteer who felt no pain because he had no personal interest in what was happening. He whispered to Cally, “Tell them it’s enough.”
Cally was aware of the strange shift in his emotional landscape. She could no longer sense anything from him except a sheet of blankness. The psychostrategist was in full control again. She projected to the couple, * Reya. Argus. *
The two broke their kissed and took a step back from each other. They looked at each other shyly as they remembered where they were.
All of a sudden, everyone burst into prolonged applause.
Argus felt like hiding behind Reya until it was all over. Or he died…whichever came first. He said sheepishly, “I have the worse timing.”
Reya was a little flush with embarrassment herself but she saw the looks on the faces of the women. For the first time, there was hope. She said, "No. It was the perfect timing.”
Argus said, “I was serious. I meant what I said.”
“I know," she said with affection. "Now let me do what I need to do.”
Reya turned to the women and asked, “You all understand now?”
The woman in the polka-dot tunic asked, “Are there other men out there like this?”
Reya said, “I don’t want you to make your decision because you think you’ll find a relationship like this. What we wanted to show you was what is possible between a man and a woman. A relationship between equals. What’s important is that you are women and that should mean something other than being a servant or being viewed as dirt." Reya looked directly at the hostile Sentha. "People told Vila that he was a Delta and that meant he was less than anyone else. But he’s not. You know he's not, Sentha. People told you that you are women and that means you’re lesser. But Vila knows you are not. Are you willing to listen?”
Sentha was guarded as she said, “I’m willing to listen.”
Kirsten said, “I am as well.”
The other women voiced their consent.
For the next few minutes, Reya outlined the Challenges that had been agreed to by both sides and the training that was planned for the women.”
When she was finished, Reya said, "I am giving you an opportunity to prove to yourselves what you're capable of. In the end, you're the ones that must believe in yourselves, it doesn't matter what anyone else believes of you. No one can make you feel inferior if you don't let them."
Kirsten said, "That's easy for you to say. You didn't spend your life on Chandar and you are asking us to beat men who have spent their lives having all the advantages."
Reya's head nodded slowly and there was grim seriousness on her face. "I know what we’re asking you to do seems impossible. It's not fair to ask this of you. If I could do it for you, I would. However, this is about your future, not mine. If you want to be viewed as equals on Chandar, you have to prove yourselves in the eyes of the men."
Kirsten said, "What you say sounds good. But as you said, we’re the ones who are going to have to do it. What chance do we have? I want this…more than anything…but I don’t know if this will work. Even with your training programs, I can’t see how we can beat the men.”
The other women expressed the same worries. They didn't see how it was possible.
Sester had been watching this exchange carefully and dispassionately. Filing the information for inclusion in his analysis. The woman, Kirsten, the one who had been the last one to take the tea from him, was asking some very good questions. He noticed that the nervous and hesitant air she had before was fast fading away.
Kirsten was obviously a woman who was not easily convinced by inspiring words. She had dreams that she was afraid to dream and she needed tangible assurances before she would commit herself. This was an intelligent woman. In some ways, she reminded him of Avon.
Reya was not fazed by the questions. Her mind was in battle mode, as sharp as a laser knife. She said, “I understand your concerns, Kirsten. The people on this crew are specialists, among the best at what we do. We have examined the Chandaran men; the way they fight, the way they think, their strategy patterns,…that was how I was able to beat their best during my Challenges. The men of Chandar have arrogance about their own strength and abilities and they think very little about women. That is their greatest weakness and it will be their downfall. I believe that you can beat them, or at the very least, give them a Challenge that will open their eyes to what Chandaran women can do.”
Kirsten asked cautiously, “Can we go through the training and then decide?”
Reya was developing a great deal of respect for this woman. She had been planning to propose this idea herself but Kirsten had beaten her to it. “Yes, it is only fair. You will all have that choice. If you are willing to undergo this training, I think you will surprise yourselves with what you can do.”
Kirsten looked down at the deck in thought, a comforting and familiar habit. She seemed to be weighing a continued life under oppression with the chance that Reya was offering her. Did she trust these strangers with her life and her future? Did she have any future without them? Was it worth the chance? It might be the only chance she would ever get to leave a life she hated. “I…agree.”
The other women looked at each other and then slowly, one after the other; they also decided to undergo the training, as long as they had a choice at the end.
Sentha, the woman who had been most opposed to them, was the final one. Everyone looked at her, expecting her to be the one to say no. She said tentatively, “No one has given me a choice before. And…I never realized that people could look down at a man the same way they do women. I still…feel that you’re abnormal, but Vila is right, it may not be a bad thing.”
As the women were sorted out in groups to be processed, Sester slipped out. He needed a few minutes alone. The psychostrategist had achieved what he set to achieve. The man now had to pick up the pieces of what he had done.
“Sester,” Cally called his name from the door of the cargo hold he had just escaped.
Sester composed himself and turned to face Cally with his best friendly and casual manner. “Yes, Cally?”
“You did a good thing.”
“I was just doing my job.”
“I know it was hard for you.”
Sester laughed sarcastically. “Why would it be? I have no heart, remember?”
“I was wrong.”
He said coldly, needing it to be true, “You were right. I don't have one. Now if you don’t need anything else…”
Cally came towards him. “You’re in pain.”
He asked scornfully, “Is that what your psi perceptions are telling you? Haven’t you learned that you can’t trust yours around me?”
"You tricked me but I don't believe it was all a lie. The only way that you could have fooled me was if it was not entirely pretence. Part of your act was real.”
Sester said derisively, “I understand that you don’t want to believe that you can be fooled that badly. Make no mistake, Cally, it was all an act.”
“You don’t want me to trust what I can sense from you now…because that would mean that you’re vulnerable.”
There was faint menace in Sester’s voice as he asked, “Do you really want to play this game with me, Cally?”
“I’m not the one who is destroying himself.”
“You’re also one who shouldn’t care.”
Cally could sense nothing from him now except a high, thick offensive wall. “You’re right. I shouldn’t.”
Sester said dismissively, “Go back to the others. They need you.”
Cally said with a frigid tone, "You don't give me orders."
"Then stop trying to act as if what I did means something. It doesn't."
Cally stared silently at him for a few moments. "You're right, I shouldn’t care." She turned and went back inside.