Argus hung around just outside the door to the gym, trying to keep out of sight as he observed Corinne and her team take the women through some basic limbering exercises. The Chandaran women were hesitant at first. None of them had engaged in this type of activity before but Corinne’s enthusiasm was infectious and she made it fun, more like a dance.
“Why don’t you go inside?” Reya asked as she came up behind him and nearly caused him to jump. She was one of the few people who could sneak up on him undetected.
“I’d better not. Don’t want to distract them.”
“Then why are you here?” Reya asked as she stood beside him and watched the women becoming more comfortable with the movements.
“I was looking for you.”
“Well, you’ve found me.”
Reya eyed him curiously. “This is a social visit?”
Argus asked with dismay, “Am I that transparent?”
She smiled fondly at him. “If this were anything professional, you would be coherent.”
Argus sighed. “I should work on that.”
Reya put an arm around his waist and leaned against him. “No. Don’t. I think it’s…”
Argus grimaced as he put his arm around her shoulders. “Please don’t say it.”
Reya grinned and hugged him tighter.
Argus grumbled, “The others are never going to let me live this down.”
Reya asked, “Are you going to be this grumpy around the women?”
“I suppose it’s not a good idea?”
Argus turned to look at her. “Not yet?”
Reya said, “We don’t want to expose them to anything negative until they build some confidence. But eventually, they will have to learn to stand up to the attitudes of the Chandaran men. We don’t want them to fall apart the moment they enter the field of battle.”
“That’s a good idea. Why are they all in there now? Only two of the challenges are physical.”
“The physical exercises will help them build self-confidence and it will bind them together as a group.”
“It’s been along time since I was a recruit. I’d almost forgotten that.” He sighed wearily. “Sometimes, I feel very old. I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Reya touched his face with concern. “Are you tired?”
Argus remembered his conversation on the flight deck, “Do you have a farm handy?”
Reya asked with bewilderment, “I have a whole planet. There are some farming grids on it. Why?”
Argus wasn’t expecting this response. “Oh. I…never mind. I’ll be alright.”
She looked at him worriedly. “Are you sure?”
“Don’t worry about me, Reya.”
“Now I am worried. Does this have anything to do with what you found out about your childhood?”
“No. It has more to do with me nearly dying of embarrassment in front of thousands of women.”
Reya said with amusement, “If it makes you feel any better, I’m sure the cargo holds less than a thousand.”
Argus groaned. “Reya, please.”
Reya hugged him. “You were wonderful.”
“I didn’t feel like it,” said Argus. “I felt like something in an animal observatory. You didn’t see…how the women were looking at me.”
Reya said, “Which reminds me…I was meaning to ask how you managed to get half-undressed earlier.”
Argus winced. “I wasn’t…not fully…or even half …it was…” His shoulders slumped. “I honestly have no idea. It was all a blur. I was trying not to scare them but...”
Reya said, “They ended up scaring you instead?”
“They didn’t scare me. I wanted to be firm but…I didn’t want them to run screaming in terror. So…I didn’t.”
Reya’s brows rose, “Run screaming in terror?”
“It’s something that…” It was that damned Sester. Putting ideas into my head because he knew it would bother me. “…never mind.”
Reya said, “Well I don’t think you will have to worry about that. I don’t think screaming in terror is on the women’s minds when they think about you.”
Argus groaned again. “Now why does that scare me?”
Reya ran her hand through his hair affectionately. “The Chandaran women have never encountered a relationship like ours before.”
“You mean one where you’re wonderful and I can’t seem to put two words together without having it come out wrong?”
“Don’t be down on yourself. You try too hard. You think that you’re terrible at our relationship, but you’re not. I don’t need flowery words. What I love about you is your honesty and directness. You treated me as an equal from the very beginning. Even more than an equal.”
“That’s because you are.”
The warm smile on Reya’s face softened her sharp features. “I’m not but you are sweet to think it.”
Argus said, “Maybe you could use Vila next time you need a display.”
“Vila is already doing what he needs to do and he and Corinne will be a good example but…it had to be you and me this time. It wouldn’t have worked as well with the others. You’re a dominant Alpha and you are the physical ideal of a Chandaran male.”
“Maybe I should stop exercising.”
Reya chuckled at that impossibility of that idea. “I don’t think it will help. What they were drawn to is the idea that a man could be in an equal and loving relationship with a woman. You should come in with me. It will do the women good to see us together.”
Argus said with trepidation, “I…don’t know, Reya. What if they jump me?”
Reya said with amusement, “I’ll protect you.”
Argus still looked very reluctant.
Reya added, “Vila’s in there already.”
Argus asked with surprise, “Vila? What’s he doing?” He peered through the door surreptitiously.
“What do you think?”
Argus knew how hard it was to get Vila to go anywhere near the gym. “Not exercising.”
Reya said, “He’s exercising.”
“I don’t believe it.” Through the crowd of women, Argus spotted Vila at the far end. He was moving in rhythm with Corinne’s movements.
Rhythm? “There’s music in there,” Argus said in astonishment.
“Yes, there is.”
“I thought they were exercising?”
“Corinne thought it would help the women feel more comfortable. And it helps them with their timing.”
“Well, I suppose whatever works,” Argus said dubiously.
“Are you coming in with me?”
Argus looked inside again. Vila seemed to be having fun. In fact, he was helping some of the women who were having problems with the more difficult movements. Argus said, “If I end up with my shirt off…I’m not taking any responsibility.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be in there. Your shirt is not coming off, no matter how hot it gets.”
Reya said, “Shall we?”
Vila couldn’t believe it but he was enjoying exercising. Corinne had a way of making it seem fun. Not like exercising at all. It was hard and sweaty but he felt good. The only difficult part about it was the huffing and puffing. He needed to be in better shape if he was to keep up with Corinne.
Vila stopped for a moment to help the woman beside him.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” said Alara as she tried to repeat the movement.
Vila smiled encouragingly. “You’re doing fine. Try it this way.” Vila showed her the movement again slowly. He suddenly noticed that some of the women had stopped moving and were looking at something near the doorway. Curious, Vila turned his head to look. Argus and the Commander had just entered the room.
There was instant embarrassment on Argus’s face as he noticed the attention. He looked ready to bolt if Reya hadn’t touched his elbow and whispered something. Argus nodded reluctantly. He said hesitantly, “Hello…everyone. Don’t mind me. Please…keep doing what you were doing before.”
Corinne said, “Yes, let’s keep going everyone. Let’s show Argus and Reya what we’ve all learned.” She started the sequence of movements again. Everyone was trying very hard.
Argus whispered to Reya, “They’re making good progress.”
“Yes. Corinne has a knack of making it seem easy and enjoyable.”
“The music was a good idea.”
“We thought so.”
The women finished the sequence of movements. They all turned expectantly to the watchers. Argus cleared his throat and smiled nervously. “That was very good.”
Reya said, “You’ve all done very well. I imagine that you could do with a little break. Corinne would that be alright?"
Corinne said with a smile, "Are you going to show us something interesting?"
Reya said, "Argus and I will try to. Why don’t you all sit down?”
Argus tried not to look nervous at all the eyes turned in their direction.
Reya said, “I would like to give you a little demonstration. Argus would you like to volunteer?”
Argus wondered what she had in mind. “Alright.”
Reya said to the women, “We are training you so that you will reach a basic level of physical fitness. But fighting is not just about strength. It’s about speed, skill and intelligence."
Argus grinned. Fighting was something he felt very comfortable with. A little demonstration might not be too bad.
Reya said, "When you fight a larger and stronger opponent…"
Everyone's eyes looked intently at Argus, noting how large he was and imagining the strength of the muscles the clothing could not hide. Argus felt uncomfortably naked under the intense scrutiny.
Vila was sitting down near Sentha. He was trying not to laugh at the clear discomfort on Argus's face. It was a good thing that Sester and Avon were not around.
Reya continued, "…you do not use strength against them. As women, we have a disadvantage when facing men. They are generally biologically stronger and larger."
Kirsten asked, "Then how do we beat them?"
Alara was discouraged, "If they're always stronger than we might as well just give up."
Reya said, "But you saw me beat the Champions."
Sentha said, "Yeah, but we're not like you, are we? You're…"
Reya asked without antagonism, "Abnormal?"
Sentha paused and seemed to consider her words, "No, not that. You're different. Unique. And you've had a lifetime of training. You can't expect us to be like you."
"No. That's true. But I can show you how I beat them."
Kirsten's eyes were bright with interest. "You have a trick?"
"Not a trick. But I have a great deal of experience fighting men of all sizes, skills and strengths. I do not lose often. I know how to fight them. I studied the Chandaran men very carefully before I stepped onto the challenge field. I know their weakness and their habits. Cally, the Tellarans and I will show you the best ways to defeat them. How many of you think that Argus looks unbeatable?"
Vila looked around at the sea of instantly raised hands surrounding him. It was obvious that they were all very impressed with Argus. Vila looked down at himself and wondered what it would be like to have a body like that. He wondered if Corinne might like him a little more muscular.
Argus managed to look proud and bashful at the same time. He seemed to be standing taller and the muscles of his chest stretched his shirt.
Reya looked with amusement at her soldier. "Argus doesn't just look unbeatable; he is also the best at what he does. Argus, why don't you show them some moves?"
"Alright." The opportunity to do something physical always made him feel better but he wasn't sure about doing it in front of all these women.
Argus walked over to an open area, stretching his arms as he went. He began slowly, each movement crisp and fluid, following an ages old fighting pattern. Gradually, his speed increase and each strike acquired deadly force. They could hear the swish of air that his movements caused, each one controlled and precise. It was as if he was striking the vital points of multiple enemies. He was as graceful as a dancer and his body flipped and twisted through the air like an acrobat.
Everyone watched with rapt attention until he finished and then they all burst into applause. For a brief second, Argus looked mortified and then he assumed a neutral face and nodded his acknowledgement. He went back over to Reya and had to stop himself from hiding behind her.
Reya said to the women, "I imagine you think that it would be impossible to beat him after what we've just witnessed."
None of the women answered but their replies were on their faces. They didn't think it was possible.
Reya asked Argus, "What do you think?"
Argus grinned. "I know better."
She asked, "Should we show them?"
"I thought you would never ask."
They both assumed a guarded fighting position, their bodies angled to present less of a target.
Reya said to the women, "When fighting against a stronger opponent, we don't use power. That would be pitting their strength against our weakness. But what if we could use their own strength against them? A man may have the power to knock me out, but that same power would also do a great deal of damage to him. If we know how to use it."
The two circled each other as she talked, testing with light jabs, which were easily blocked. Suddenly Argus punched towards her with force and speed. Reya moved just a little, one hand grabbed his wrist as it went harmlessly past her head and she pulled slightly so that he couldn’t break his momentum and as he barrelled past her, she tripped his leg. The power of his movement and his off-balance weight sent Argus crashing loudly to the ground. Reya directed a quick but light punch to his kidney area and a knife hand chop to the back of his neck as he went down.
There was a collective gasp from the women. Several of them stood up and moved forward, asking with concern, “Is he alright?”
Argus held up a hand and got up. “Don’t worry. Reya was easy on me. I’m not hurt.”
The women breathed a sigh of relief and sat down again.
Reya asked, “Karita. You said that you had some fighting experience before you were captured?”
Karita stood up. “I could handle myself.”
Reya said, “How would you like to brush up on your skills?”
“You mean…against him?” Karita eyed Argus with interest.
Karita smiled and came forward. She said to Argus, “Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle too.”
That made Argus nervous as he put up his guard again. “Uh…thank you.” This time he was careful to slow his punch just in case.
Karita was a bit clumsy and she missed the strikes but she managed to send Argus falling down to the ground.
As Argus got up again and straightened his clothes, Reya said, “That’s very good, Karita.”
The woman gave Argus a big smile. “Thank you…large one.”
Argus cleared his throat in embarrassment. “You’re welcome.”
Reya addressed the women, “By the end of the training. All of you will be able to do that.”
The women looked at Argus and chattered excitedly to each other.
Reya continued, “For those who are going to specialize in fighting, you will be able to do even more.”
Cally, Reya, Marlena and Corinne were unwinding from an exhausting day by taking a late snack together in the quiet dining area. The Chandaran women were already settled and resting in makeshift quarters that had been arranged for them in the various cargo holds and any place that could hold a cot.
Reya nursed a steaming cup of cocoa. "What do you think?"
Cally preferred some hot milk with a dash of cinnamon. "They're still somewhat unsure and there is fear, but they are all willing to give it a try. The captured ones like Karita are regaining confidence now they know that they won't be required to go back to Chandar."
"That's good. Marlena, have you heard from your people?"
Marlena also had a mug of cocoa in her hands. "Not yet. They will come up with a solution, even if we have to buy the women away from the Chandarans."
Corinne was uneasy at this idea. "Buy them?"
Marlena gave her daughter a smile. "We would buy them so that we could give them their freedom. We will give them refuge in the Tellar Union if they wish, or for those like Karita, we can return them to their home worlds."
Reya said with caution, "The Chandarans might demand a steep price."
"We will meet whatever price they establish." Marlena raised her cup to her lips and took a sip of the hot liquid.
The warrior in Cally didn’t like conceding anything to the Chandaran men. She felt keenly the suffering and oppression of the women she had been interviewing. "We are not going to give in that easily, are we? We can't give them whatever they want."
Reya put her cup down. "Don’t worry; I have no intention of making it easy for them. We will negotiate."
Cally said severely, "Good. I don't like giving any ground to these men."
Reya said, "I know what you mean. After some of the things we heard from the women today, I'm very tempted to blow up a few things." She said apologetically to Marlena, "I'm sorry if that offends you."
Marlena said, "I'm not offended, I understand your anger and outrage. It is healthier to express it."
Reya asked with humour, "Just not that explosively?"
"Perhaps not.” Marlena gave her a friendly smile.
Corinne asked hopefully, “Do you think that the men will give up the women without a fight?”
Reya said cynically, “I believe they’ll live up to our assessments of them.”
Corinne sighed unhappily and drank some of her own hot cocoa.
Reya said, “I’m surprised you would ask that. You know Chandaran men better than I do.”
Corinne said, “I do know but…I wish things were different.”
Cally could sense the feeling of melancholy in the young woman. “You have the optimism and hope of the young.”
Corinne asked, “But don’t you have hope too? That’s why we’re doing this, aren’t we?”
A look passed between Cally and Reya. Cally said, “We do have hope. But sometimes…it is a fading one.”
Corinne asked curiously, “But it doesn’t stop you?”
Marlena said, “They go on because they refuse to give up hope, despite everything they’ve faced.”
Reya said wryly, “We’re stubborn that way.”
Cally grinned, “Or a bit of insanity?”
Reya chuckled, “Now you’re starting to sound like Avon.”
Cally said, “We can’t have that.”
They both laughed.
Reya said, “Whether the Chandaran men accept the women leaving or not will depend a great deal on your team, Cally.”
Cally studied the white liquid in her cup, wondering if more cinnamon would improve the taste. “It will have great impact on the women who choose to stay.”
Marlena said, “My hope is that more of them will decide to stay.”
Corinne asked with surprise, “Why, mother?”
Cally asked Marlena, “You’re hoping that they will do what you did?”
“Yes. For change to continue, some of the women we are training and exposing to new ideas need to stay.”
Reya said, “It will not be easy for them. Some of the men will not like that they’ve been exposed to foreign ideas.”
Marlena said, “Yes, many of the men won’t like it. Nevertheless, these women have lived in this culture all of their lives. They know how to cope and tell the men what they want to hear. But if they are serious about wanting change, which I believe they are, they will slowly try to influence their men to see things differently. In a way that will not make them feel threatened.”
Cally remarked, “It seems as if there are a few more things that we need to teach these women.”
Marlena said, “I will speak to them and I will arrange for the psychostrategists on my team to help.”
Corinne asked, “Mother, do you think that one day…Chandar might change enough that they will join the Union?”
Marlena said, “Anything is possible, Corinne. That is always the hope of Tellar. It is why we do what we do.”
Cally said, “It’s why you decided to stay on Chandar even though you had the opportunity to escape?”
Marlena smiled warmly, “It was one of the reasons.”
Reya drew her fingers along the edge of her cup. “We could do with some of that hope.”
Marlena touched her arm. “You are giving hope to others by your actions.”
Reya said, “We’re only doing what we have to. I'm not that different from anyone else.”
Marlena said, “You truly are the Champion that the women need.”
Reya said uncomfortably, “I’m not any kind of champion, I’m just human.”
“Just as they are. For the first time, these women are starting to think of themselves as people and not just property.”
Cally said, “Sentha doesn’t think you’re abnormal anymore, Reya. That’s a big step.”
Reya heaved a sigh. “I don’t think she’s decided what to make of me yet. I’m sure it won’t take much for her to think of me as abnormal again.”
Corinne said, “Did you know that they’re circulating those dolls of you? The ones that are…uh…” She looked at the surface of her cup in embarrassment.
Reya groaned. “Please don’t tell me...it’s the ones that make me look abnormal? I thought Vila said that he’d changed them?”
Corinne said, “He did. But…some of the original ones had already been distributed. Vila said that there might be…bootleg versions. I think he means that someone else is making them besides the official manufacturers.”
Reya groaned loudly this time and put her hand to her forehead. She could feel a headache coming on.
Corinne said apologetically, “Vila is very sorry. He feels very bad that this happened.”
Reya said, “He’d better be. Why didn’t he tell me this himself?”
Corinne said, “He was afraid.”
Cally chuckled and said to Reya, “I don’t think the men on this ship think that you’re normal either.”
Cally wondered aloud, “I wonder who has these figurines of you and why.”
They all stared at her.
Reya frowned. “It had better not be the men on this ship.”