Cally sat interviewing two of the Chandaran women. Sentha and the polka-dot tunic woman, named Alara. She said, “I want you to think very carefully about these next questions. Have you noticed any changes in the men of your household in the last few years?”
Sentha asked suspiciously, “Changes? What do you mean changes?”
Cally said, “Have you observed any unexplained alterations in behaviour? Habits? Preferences? Perhaps something different in the way they treat you?”
Sentha sniffed, “Of course not.”
Alara raised her hand timidly.
Cally asked gently, “Yes?”
Alara was still nervous, especially with anything concerning men. “I’ve noticed some things.”
Sentha turned to the woman sitting beside her. “What do you mean some things?”
Cally said encouragingly, “It’s alright. You can tell us.”
“I don’t know if I should. He’s a man. He can change if he wants.”
Cally said, “Alara, this is very important. You need to tell me what you’ve observed. The safety of your planet may depend on this.”
Sentha snorted in rejection of this idea. “Safety of this planet? Are you trying to scare us so we’ll do what you say?”
Cally was aware that Sentha still had a great deal of opposition to what they were doing. “We are not trying to scare you but this information is very important. Alara, tell me what you’ve observed.”
“Well…” Alara began nervously. “My man never used to read much. He was always more interested in working with his hands. But a few years ago,…he started reading everything. He spends hours in front of the computer now.”
“Can you tell what he’s doing on the computer?”
“I…can’t tell. I can only read a few words but I recognize the government seals on the screen.”
Sentha said, “He must be working for the government now.”
Alara had a troubled expression on her face, “But…it’s not just seals from one department. It’s dozens of them.”
Sentha still didn’t see anything wrong. “That still doesn’t mean anything. His job may need him to do that.”
Cally said thoughtfully. “Yes…he may have a task that requires that he gather as much information as he can.”
Sentha asked sharply, “What are you talking about?”
Cally ignored her and asked, “Alara, have you noticed anything else other than increased computer activity?” Sentha was right. All of the new activity could be explained by a change in job and new work pressures.
“Well…he doesn’t…touch me much anymore. He used to … be very demanding.”
Cally didn’t need any more details to understand what that meant. In lieu of any other test, she wondered if this would serve as a good indication of what they were looking for. If the Andromedans did not practice sexual reproduction, then they might find it an alien concept.
Sentha asked, “Did he get another woman?”
“No. I…don’t think so.”
Sentha said sarcastically, “Not like he would tell you.”
Alara’s eyes looked down at the floor. “No. I’m just a woman. He can do whatever he wants.”
Cally was outraged that the woman would accept that she was something that could be dismissed like an outworn piece of clothing. She could sense that this woman wanted to be loved. Alara had fooled herself that the man who kept her might have cared about her on some level, even if it was only as an object he could use.
Cally said, “That may be but it could be something else.”
Sentha asked with antagonism, “What else could it be?”
Cally was surprised at the bitterness that seemed to emanate from this hostile woman. Sentha was also one who needed someone to care about her but she had become very cynical about the whole idea. Cally was angry at Chandaran society. Not only did the men view the women as little more than property, by isolating them and minimizing their interaction with others, it denied them some basic connections. The warmth of human contact.
Cally finally realized something that Sester must have known all along. By risking her life to save people she didn’t know, Reya had showed a level of caring that was foreign to these women. In addition, the display of love between Argus and Reya would have been a revelation. It was something that the majority of them must have tried to fool themselves they had.
Cally said, “We don’t believe that the alien threat is over.”
Alara looked at her with alarm.
Sentha bordered between scepticism and uncertainty. “What is this?”
Cally said, “The aliens have obviously been able to take over some of your men. They have successfully been able to fool them and assumed positions of power. We believe that the women of Chandar can be of great help in identifying these aliens. You know your men better than anyone else. If an alien has taken over someone, you are the best ones to notice any changes.”
Alara asked nervously, “You think…my man…could be one of the aliens?” She shivered.
Cally said, “It’s a possibility but don’t worry. We’ll find out and if he is, we will take care of him.”
“If…he is an alien…then what happened…” Alara was too afraid to contemplate the idea.
Cally said empathically, “I’m sorry, Alara. It most likely means that your man is dead.”
“Oh, no.” Tears came to Alara’s eyes.
Sentha put her arms around the sobbing woman. “It’s alright. These people will take care of you. You won’t be alone.” Sentha looked at Cally.
Cally nodded. “Yes, we will take care of you, Alara. You don’t have to be afraid. We will take care of all of you.”
Cally, Reya and Marlena held a brief meeting in a quiet corner of the hold. Cally reported what Alara had told her.
Reya made a few notes on her datapad. “That makes…eight potentials with three of those highly probable.”
Cally said with concern, “That’s a higher percentage than we thought.”
Marlena didn’t like the numbers either but she understood them. “I chose women from households where men have power and influence in Chandaran society.”
Cally said, “It does make sense but it’s troubling. It means that they are still a great threat here.”
Reya said, “That’s what we were afraid of. Are your teams ready once we've gathered enough information?"
Cally said confidently, "They're just waiting for your word."
"Alright. We will need to give this information to Avon and let Argus know. We’ll have to start tracking the activities of these eight men. How many more interviews do we have left?”
Marlena replied, “We’ve complete eighty percent. The rest are undergoing physical examinations and tests from the other teams.”
“So we potentially have a few more to watch.”
Cally said, “Avon is going to need help.” She was already concerned at the workload that he was taking on. He still had a worrying tendency to continue working far longer than was healthy for his condition.
Reya pursed her lips in thought. Everyone was already working at maximum capacity. The soldiers were all down on the planet, conducting clandestine surveillance of key Chandarans that were trying to cause them trouble. They had to be very careful during this month before the Challenges were to begin.
The rest were busy with preparing the women. Now with additional pressures, they would all be even busier. “The engineers are not enough?”
Cally said, “Avon thought they would be, but he tends to forget that he can no longer handle the same workload.” The discovery that the stress and long hours were already causing him back pains was worrying her. She was too busy with her own tasks to monitor his health closely and the Tellaran doctors had all been drafted to help with the women.
Reya said, “Alright. Let Argus know that as well. Have him ask President Trist if he might have someone who can help Avon.”
Argus went down the flight deck steps, glanced at Avon and the engineers, went over to the couches, and sat down heavily. He touched the fastenings on his shirt, absently checking that they were still done all the way up. The women were far away in the cargo hold area but one couldn’t be too safe from their attentions. Especially the way some of them had been eyeing him since his embarrassing ‘display’.
Avon looked up briefly, noted his anxiety and returned to his urgent programming work.
Argus expelled an aggravated breath and stood up. He went over to his flight station.
Avon glanced at him again and asked, “Don’t you have something to do?”
“You mean, other than making a fool of myself?” Argus asked gruffly.
Avon lifted his fingers from the computer’s input interface and stood up. He stretched his increasingly stiff back. “What did you do?”
“I don’t know why everyone thought I should speak to the women.”
Avon noted, “Group insanity comes to mind. I never thought it was a good idea.”
“Yes, well, next time they should all listen to you.”
There was a brief curl of amusement at the corner of Avon’s lips. “Perhaps you could remind them.”
Argus said a disgruntled, “I should retire and…go farm somewhere.”
Avon’s eyebrows rose at this outlandish suggestion. “Farm?”
“Something completely not like me.”
Avon said with dry sarcasm, “Farming would fulfil that criteria, but then so would a singing lounge entertainer.”
Argus shuddered to imagine what the women might have done with him if Reya hadn't come and rescued him. “Not if you’d been in the cargo hold just now.” Though rescuing was a matter of interpretation considering what happened afterwards.
He could feel his face start to turn red again at the memory. Argus coughed and looked down at his flight panel, hoping that Avon didn’t notice. He didn’t regret what he had said to Reya. He didn't mind making the proposal of bonding. Argus just wished that his memories of it…wouldn’t be full of so many people.
“I take it you were a source of entertainment?” Avon asked with dry amusement.
Damn. He did see it.
Argus said with a growl of annoyance, “Can we get back to business?”
“I didn’t know you had any here.”
“Have any of the surveillance teams reported in?”
“They’re not due for another three hours. Something you might remember if you weren’t busy providing entertainment.” Avon sat back down at the terminal and looked at the code he had been working on.
Argus felt restless at the lack of activity. "Is there…something I can help you with?"
Avon was irritated at another interruption and asked, "Why are you here?"
"I…needed a place to hide. From the women."
Avon's voice was dripping with sarcasm. " And you thought that the first place they would look, would be the best place for that?"
"They're all busy. They won't be looking for me yet."
"Then why are you hiding?"
"I…don't know. Maybe…I needed to talk to someone."
For Avon, this conversation was taking Argus-ian proportions and he didn't have any headache medication handy. "You thought I was the appropriate person?"
"You're…not a woman."
Avon's brow knitted at the wisdom of this logic. "If that is your only criteria…"
Argus said in a rush of words, "I asked Reya to bond with me."
Avon had absolutely no idea how to respond to that. "Ah."
Argus asked, "Is that all you're going to say?"
"I seldom comment on other people's personal decisions."
"It's not as if I planned it. I mean, if I knew when I woke up this morning that I'd be tying myself down…" Argus stopped as he noticed Avon looking at something beyond him. He swallowed as he asked anxiously, "She's behind me, isn't she?"
"You have impeccable timing," said Avon as he suddenly became absorbed in his work.
Argus grimaced. He stood up and said as he turned around, "Reya let me ex…" Coming down the flight deck steps was not Reya. "Oh…Cally. It's you." Argus glared at Avon.
Cally projected to the smirking Avon, * Avon, that was not very nice. *
Avon thought to her, * How long have you known me? *
Argus said, "I suppose you're here to see Avon. I'll…leave the two of you alone."
Cally said, "I'm here to see you and Avon."
"Oh. About what I was saying when you came in…it wasn't the way it sounded."
Cally said, "I know. You don't have to explain it to me."
"Your psi abilities?"
Cally reassured him, "I can't read your mind but you're a very straight-forward…"
Avon thought to her, * Not to mention, painfully obvious. *
Cally sent him a feeling of irritation. "...man…unlike some people."
A faint impish smile curled Avon's lips.
Cally said to Argus, "I know it was difficult for you earlier."
Argus's face was turning red. He said, "Would you mind if…we don't talk about it."
"I understand," said Cally as she sensed his discomfort with this topic.
Avon's eyes narrowed. He had been certain that Argus had come to talk to him and now, when a much better suited person came along, he was refusing to? The man didn't make any sense. Avon remarked to Cally, * He's also irrational. He wanted to talk about it earlier. *
Cally said, * He wanted to talk to you. Because you're his friend. *
Avon responded, * I don't see a connection. If he needs help, he should ask someone who is qualified to give it. *
Cally asked, * Avon, are you his friend? *
Avon's frowned at the tone in her voice. He said grumpily, * Of course. *
* That is what he needed. That's why he came to you. He needed to talk to someone whom he considers a friend. * Cally's tone now contained light sarcasm, * Even you are qualified to be that. If you tried very hard. *
Cally said, "Avon, Reya had an idea. She thought we might ask President Trist to provide someone to help you."
Avon said immediately, "I don't need any help."
Cally gave him a stern look, "Avon, how is your back?"
He said dismissively, "It's a minor inconvenience."
Argus was instantly concerned. "Why didn't you tell me you were having problems? I would have found you some help."
Avon said, "It's inconsequential. There was no need to tell you. When it becomes a problem, I will let you know."
Argus shook his head, "Knowing you that will be too late. Reya had a good idea. I should have thought of it. I will contact Trist."
Avon asked coldly, "Do I have a choice?"
Argus grimaced. "Of course you do. I was only going to find out if he could provide someone. The choice is still yours. But Avon…you know that we need you healthy on this. There are some things only you can do. If you're out of action…"
Avon said with a faint scowl, "Very well. Go find your help. But I have the final approval on the person chosen. And he must not be allowed to leave the ship until this is over."
Argus asked, "Isn't that a little too paranoid?"
"Better to be too careful than not careful enough."
"We might not find someone who will agree to that."
Avon said, "That is my condition."
Argus sighed. "Alright."
Avon looked at Cally. "Is that satisfactory?"
Cally said, "I am only concerned about you."
Avon inclined his head in acknowledgment. * I know. *
Cally turned to Argus, "Reya is routing the information we've gathered from the interviews to Avon's station. We have eight possible so far.*
Argus and Avon went over to Avon's flight position. Avon began analyzing the data.
Argus was looking over his shoulder. "This is good. Tell the teams they've done well."
Cally said, "I will pass on the message."
Argus asked, "How many do we need to add to the list?"
Avon displayed the names on the screen, "These six."
Argus said wryly, "It's too bad Jernis isn't on it."
Avon continued looking at the information as he remarked, "Yes…it would have been a convenient way to remove an obstacle. Some of these are already under surveillance."
Cally said, "Jernis might not be on it but there has been a development that does concern him."
The two men looked at her with questioning eyes. She told them of Kirsten and the request from several of the women to be taken away from Chandar.
Afterwards Avon looked at Argus.
Argus said, "It's going to be tricky with Jernis. He's not going to like it."
Avon said flatly, "That would be an understatement."
Argus rubbed the side of his neck. "But Reya's right, we can't give them back if they ask for asylum."
Avon frowned. "I knew you were going to say that."
Argus asked, "You have a different idea?"
"Give them back."
Argus shook his head. "They're not property, Avon, even if they are to the Chandaran men. We have to help these women, that's what we're here for."
"Are we? I thought we came to Chandar to remove the alien threat? That should be our first priority."
"It still is."
Avon said, "I agreed to help because this does not interfere with our primary goal, but what you are proposing is madness. Antagonizing men like Jernis will only make our task more difficult."
Cally knew that if Avon had had a chance to see the women, despite his resistance, he would end up helping. It was something that he considered his weakness. She knew it was why he preferred to distance himself and tried to only rely on objective rationality. Involving himself with others, even total strangers, made him do things that his logical mind told him was irrational to his own survival and the meeting of his goals.
Avon had been isolated on the flight deck, away from the women. She knew that in order to convince him, she had to break his objectivity. * Avon. *
At her sober tone, Avon turned to look at her. Cally said to Argus, “I need to talk to Avon alone.” Argus nodded and moved away from Avon’s flight station to give them some space.
Cally said, * Avon, do you remember what it was like at the Detention Centre? *
Avon's jaw tightened. Thoughts of that place always brought phantom pains and a sense of being trapped. He conveyed an anguished, * I remember. *
* What Servalan had done to you there was inhuman. She treated you as a piece of property that she owned and you were helpless. That is what it is like for these women. You have been shut away here on the flight deck. You have not had the opportunity to see them. *
Avon said, * You think that it would make a difference if I did see them? * Against his control, emotions began to surface. Helplessness and anger. The feeling of being treated as an object. Avon's eyes closed, trying to fight the tide of emotions that threatened to overwhelm his protective walls.
Cally touched his arm as she felt him fighting for control. She had wanted him to connect to the women on an emotional level by drawing on his personal experiences. She had not wanted him to be overcome by them. Cally sent him a sense of calm and strength as she projected, * Avon, I'm sorry. But I needed you to understand. *
Avon didn't know if it was something Cally was doing or if it was something that had changed inside him but for a moment, it was as if he was one of the women. He had experiences in common with these women, not just at the Detention Centre, but most of his life. A person with brains and no power or wealth of his own, was little more than an expendable tool for the Federation. And now he knew that it had been like that since he was a child. He said, * You've made your point, Cally. But don't do that again. *
Cally's mental projection was apologetic. * I'm sorry, Avon. I never meant to manipulate you. *
* Yes, you did. * She had taken advantage of his weakened mental and emotional control and the power of his memories. Avon's eyes did not move from hers as he sought to understand their relationship and his own feelings.
Cally could sense Avon's internal struggle; old protective instincts that would not die. Would they lose a little trust because of this? Had she jeopardized the progress they had made?
Cally could sense no anger from his despite the accusing tone in his thoughts. What she felt from him was much worse, it was disappointment. It meant that he still trusted her even though her actions had hurt him. He loved her as he had once loved Anna, and he was fighting to leave himself open to her.
It was something that had surprised her about Avon during the whole episode with Anna. Avon’s love for Anna had survived her betrayal of him and even Anna’s attempt to murder him. Despite what Anna had done, Avon still held her tenderly and did not want to leave her, even in death. Cally doubted if he would have killed Anna if she hadn’t tried to shoot him in the back. She had never felt any anger from Avon towards Anna either, only disappointment, pain and the feeling that he had been a fool.
Cally knew that this was the kind of love he had for her now. It filled her with guilt at what she had just done. Manipulation was something Avon hated. It was one person’s attempt to control another. For him it was as bad as having a gun put to his head because he was vulnerable to it.
She said apologetically, * It was wrong of me, Avon. I should not have done that to you. If I wanted you to understand the women, I should have asked you to visit the cargo hold. I should have given you that choice.*
Avon finally thought to her, * Even if you think that I’m going to make a choice different from yours? *
* Yes, Avon. Love is about respecting someone enough that we accept their differences, even if we don’t agree with them. *
* Most people would agree with you in principle but not in practice. *
* Then their love is about domination and making others in their own image. Control is love of self, not love of the other. *
Avon’s thoughts were no longer as hard. * Is that an Auron saying? *
* No. *
Avon sent to her a light thought, * It should be. * The tension had passed and his hard eyes softened slightly. * The Chandaran men dominate and control their women. *
Cally started at the unexpectedness of this statement. * You think that selfishness overcoming sentiment might explain how Chandaran culture developed to where it is now? *
* Looking at it from a purely objective viewpoint of course. *
A smile touched Cally’s lips, * It may have been one factor. *
Avon changed to verbal mode and said to Argus who was talking to one of the engineers, "We should involve Sester if we’re going to do this."
Argus scowled, "Do we have to?"