On the deck of her own fast ship, out in the darkness of space, Jenna felt she could do anything, go anywhere, and escape any Federation customs blockade. On the ground, as she was now on the planet Callisto, she was as vulnerable as any ordinary mortal was.
Jenna sat watching the entrance of a busy and crowded café as she enjoyed a cup of 'gourmet' coffee. Just an ordinary citizen resting after a day of drudgery in one of the numerous office buildings. Her contact would be arriving soon.
Jenna was gaining quite a reputation for herself these days. Almost celebrity status amongst those she would never have associated herself with in her rich Alpha days. And now she was a smuggler, but she was no common one. No, Jenna Stannis would never be common.
She had transported all sorts of cargo, from the greatest treasures - usually 'liberated' ones - to the most ridiculous. Jenna had to shake her head sometimes at the things people considered valuable. But as long as it was lucrative, she would transport it.
The only thing she would not touch was Shadow. She did have some scruples. Too many of her rich Alpha friends had succumbed to the insidious and deadly drug. At first, she had thought that her mother had. It might have been better if she had, then Jenna might have had an excuse for her behaviour.
Shadow users were desperate individuals who would do anything for the next fix. Eventually it would kill them, but they didn't care. All they lived for was the next high. They would pay anything for it, exhaust their entire life savings.
Jenna hated Shadow and anyone involved in its business, namely the Terra Nostra.
A man holding a green case came into the café. Jenna ran her fingers around the rim of her cup. First clockwise and then counter. The man waved in her direction and came over. "Jen. You wouldn't believe the traffic."
Jenna countered with the final prearranged code, "I would."
The man sat down and put his case on the ground between them.
Jenna asked in a whisper, "You're Largo?"
The alarm buzzer woke Jenna up from another dream of the past. Why was her mind doing this to her? These were the last memories she needed.
Every morning the Chandarans donned muscle stimulators as they followed exercises with Corinne. With the limited time they had, it was one way to speed up their physical development. It was still no substitute for practical experience but it did help.
Marlena and her team of psychostrategists followed the women's progress and encouraged them to express themselves. Active discussions were promoted about their status as women, the training they were receiving, the challenges they were about to face, about Chandaran society and customs and about other societies and customs. The women were highly inquisitive once they realized that their curiosity and concerns were being treated as valuable.
Sester was teaching an advanced class on games strategy. His specialty. He had picked a handful who showed promise and was given them some intense training. Kirsten was part of this group. He was finding her perceptive and highly intelligent. She caught him off-guard at times and said some surprising things. He realized that he had underestimated her in the beginning.
After the class, she would stay behind to ask additional questions and run through different scenarios with him. He was coming to enjoy the extracurricular time and looked forward to her challenging questions. She was a keen student and he suspected, not a stranger to game playing. His kind of game playing.
Sester was anticipating more questions from Kirsten as he sat at the edge of his desk. His students filed out to go to their next session. It felt odd being a teacher. Far too tame for someone like him.
Sester was ready with a friendly smile as Kirsten neared his desk. She nodded to him as she passed but continued on, following the rest of the women out. Sester's eyes widened in surprise and then he smiled.
Avon proved to be a good teacher, once he asked Argus to leave the flight deck. The man tended to be a distraction and his presence did not create an atmosphere conducive to learning. He went to help Reya and her combat team in the gym.
Avon was patient and strict but very clear in his lessons. The women all respected him and tried very hard. He found them all intelligent and appreciative. Their ignorance was solely due to the lack of access to education, not deficiencies in brainpower. He had always respected people with inquiring and thinking minds. And people who respected him.
His training plan was designed to build up to the level of knowledge they all required. The linked simulators he had built and had connected to Zen’s battle computers were proving invaluable as a short cut. The controls were simplified to only the ones they required.
Vila found a lot of his time was spent helping the games team, playing chess games with the Chandaran women. Once they learned the rules of the game, they were fine being pitted against each other but they were far too nervous when facing any of the men. There was little confidence in their own intelligence, but for some reason, the women seemed to accept Vila as one of them.
Vila set up the chess pieces as another woman sat down opposite him. He looked up with a friendly smile. It was Sentha. The woman was still antagonistic, but they suspected that it was her normal personality rather than an indication that she was seriously opposed to what they were doing. “Sit right down,” he said cheerfully. There was nothing threatening in his manner. “You’re my second customer of the day.”
Sentha asked warily, “Customer?”
Vila grinned impishly, “Don’t mind me; I’m still trying to work on my humour. Doesn’t seem to be working today. Must have put on the wrong hat.”
Sentha looked at the top of his bare head. She said without humour, “Well, it might if I knew what you were talking about.”
Vila chuckled. “I knew I was missing something. What do you want to be? Black or white?” Sentha took the white queen. They finished setting up the pieces and began playing. Vila kept up a friendly chatter and the grim woman began to loosen up.
She glanced at him a moment before picking up her queen. “What was it like being a Delta?”
This was the first time that she had asked him a personal question. “Not that different from being a Delta on your planet.”
Sentha corrected him, “We don’t have a grading system on Chandar. There aren’t any Deltas.” She was still holding the playing piece and was rolling it between her fingers.
Vila said, “There is. But they have a different name on Chandar, they’re called women. That’s how I see you. You’re just like me. We were born Deltas and people look down on us because they think we’re not as smart as the Alphas. But they’re wrong. I showed them and you can too.”
Sentha said, “Being a woman is not the same as being a Delta. You may be a Delta but you’re a man.”
Vila said, “They lied to us, Sentha. There isn’t any difference. It doesn’t matter if I’m a Delta or an Alpha, or if you’re a man or a woman. We’re all human. I’ve known many Alphas who’ve done stupid things. And I know a lot of women who are very smart, like you.”
Sentha shook her head in denial, “I’m not smart.”
Vila said, “You’re just not educated. That’s not the same thing. Do you know what I think? I think they’re afraid of giving you the same education, because if they do, then you’ll know that it’s all a lie. You are not inferior because you’re a woman. You just seem like it because they made it look that way. It keeps them in control and that’s what they’re all about. They like being superior and in control. And what’s better than convincing half the population that they are automatically inferior?”
Sentha looked troubled, “Do you really think they’re doing it deliberately?”
Vila thought for a moment, remembering one of the briefings that the Tellaran psychostrategists had given them about Chandaran culture. “I…don’t think it’s deliberate. I mean, not for most of them. It’s something they were taught since they were born. Just like you were. It makes them feel superior. People like feeling they’re better than someone else. So the Chandaran men want to believe what your culture has taught them and they don’t want to change.”
“But not all of them. I’ve been talking to some of the others. Some of them…are bonded with their men. They’re like Champion Reya and Argus. And you and Corinne.”
Vila said awkwardly, “Corinne and I aren’t bonded yet.”
“But you plan to be, don’t you?”
Vila knew he was starting to turn red. “Eventually…if she’ll have me. We haven’t known each other long and there’s a lot she doesn’t know about me yet.”
Sentha asked, “You care what she thinks about you?”
“It’s not that way on Chandar.”
Vila said, “It should be.”
Sentha said, “I’d…like it to be. Do you…really think I can do this?” She studied the crown of the queen that she was still holding.
Vila said with conviction, “I know you can.”
The four women were sharing a late night snack again as they had an informal discussion of the day’s developments.
Cally was trying chocolate milk this time. “Avon reports that his group is progressing well in terms of technical ability. Argus is satisfied with their tactical progress. The psychostrategists believe they will stand up to stress but report that there isn’t a natural leader in this group.”
Reya said, “That’s not good. This is the one group that requires a strong leader.””
Cally said, “They have a suggestion.”
“What’s the suggestion?”
Cally said, “They want to move Kirsten over to the third group.”
Reya said, “But Sester says that she’s the best one in the games group.”
Corinne was twirling her spoon in a bowl of strawberry ice cream. “Vila says that Sentha is quite good. She has more confidence in herself now. Self-confidence has made a big difference for many of the women.”
Marlena said, “They’re all becoming more comfortable interacting with the men as well. Having your crew doing some of the teaching has helped a great deal to acclimatize the women. How about Karita? She used to be a free trader with her own ship.”
Reya shook her head. “We need her in the combat group. She’s the best fighter we have.”
Cally said, “Well, unless we can clone them…”
Reya angled her head in thought, “Maybe not clone. The psychostrategists suggested Kirsten?”
Cally replied, “Yes.”
Reya said, “From everyone’s reports, she is the most intelligent of the women and she has a strong character and presence.”
Cally said, “That makes her suited for both the second and third groups.”
“Yes…both groups,” mused Reya.
Cally asked, “You’re not thinking of having her take both Challenges?”
“Why not? She’s specializing in chess and games strategy and the leader for the third challenge needs tactical ability and knowledge.”
Marlena said, “Tactical ability is a different aspect of games strategy.”
“That’s what I’m thinking. As a Commander, I sharpen my tactical skills by engaging in military-type strategy games and simulations”
Cally said, “Then let’s ask her.”
Sester leaned back in his chair and crossed his feet up on the table. He reached out, picked up the black knight from his chess set and rubbed it absently between his fingers. His eyes were deep in thought.
He had been asked to change the strategy so that the Chandaran men would be more accepting of the women, even if some of them asked to leave. The others had no appreciation of how difficult it would be to achieve it. They had a general idea, but none of them saw the threads of possibilities that he did as a psychostrategist. There were no threads. It was virtually impossible.
Sester brought the knight to his face and stared into its dark eyes. He smiled. He was no ordinary psychostrategist. If there were no threads, then you make them. Even if it means introducing more danger into the game. Of course, the others would never agree but he had a solution for that.
The buzzer of his cabin sounded. Sester had long given up guessing who it was on the other side. The door slid open revealing Kirsten.
Kirsten looked shyly at him and said, “I hope you don’t mind me visiting you here.”
Sester looked outside the door and saw that she was alone. “I don’t mind.”
“May I come in?”
“Tell me why you’re here first.”
“I…wanted to challenge you.”
Sester tilted his head to study her. “You wanted to challenge me?”
Kirsten said tentatively, “I…know I can’t beat you, but…I wanted the experience of playing the best.”
“And you think that’s me?”
“You’re the best at playing games.” For a moment, her eyes were steady on his and then she looked away. Again he had the impression there was a deeper meaning in what she was saying.
He said to her, “Life is a game.”
Kirsten asked curiously, “Why do you say that?”
“I’m a psychostrategist. Life is always a game for us.”
“But it’s not like that for the Tellaran psychostrategists.”
“They’re…abnormal.” Sester grinned.
“Or you are.”
At that, Sester laughed. “Are you sure you want to come in then?”
“Do you think I should?”
“If it were up to me, I would. But then…I’m abnormal.” There was a mischievous gleam in his eyes.
“I think I’ll risk it.”
Sester stepped aside to let her in.
Once they were inside, they set up the chess pieces and began playing.
After a few moves and counter moves and positioning of pieces, Sester asked, “Why did you come here tonight?” He used his rook to remove one of her pawns.
“I told you why.”
“Yes…you wanted to play the best. We could have done that tomorrow instead of this late at night.”
Kirsten stared at the board. Part of her mind was running through all the possible moves and moving them forward one stage at a time, trying to determine which strategy was the best. She moved another pawn. “I’m…impatient?”
This woman piqued Sester’s interest. Her moves were bold but showed a great deal of depth. He countered with his own move, one designed to frustrate her efforts, but she wouldn’t see it until later. “You’re many things but that is not one of them.”
Kirsten looked up at him. “What do you think I am then?”
This woman was playing games on many levels. The last time he felt this kind of challenge was when playing with Avon. This woman was more than just interesting; she could be dangerous if she had been given the same chances.
“I think…you’re abnormal.” There was a sly, nearly suggestive grin on his lips.
“They’ve asked me to take part in both challenges.”
“I know. I was one of the ones who suggested the idea.” Kirsten would be one of the keys in his new psych-strategy. The pieces were being carefully manoeuvred into place. He had to guide her very carefully.
Kirsten asked, “You have that much confidence in me?”
His voice was seductive in its sincerity. He leaned forward and said, “I do.”
“I almost believe you.”
“What can I do to convince you that I’m sincere?”
“Tell me that you’re capable of stopping the games.”
Sester’s eyes narrowed. “Is that a condition?”
“I need to know that you’re capable of being sincere and that this isn’t just a game to you.”
He could have very easily lied to her. The words were already on his lips but the way she was looking at him made him stop. This woman had been forced to live a lie all of her life. She was an intelligent woman who had to hide what she was. It had been a pleasure to see her blossom into her true self the last week. Her confidence was still a fragile thing though, full of fears and a lifetime of being pushed down. She would be affected more by the truth, than the comforting lies.
Sester said, “I could tell you that this isn’t a game for me, but…we would both know that I was lying. But I'm sincere when I say that I believe you can do this.”
Kirsten said, “Thank you for telling me the truth.” She stood up.
Sester got up from his seat. “The game isn’t over yet.”
“No. You’re right. It’s just beginning.”
Even though he already knew the answer, Sester had to hear her say it. “Have you decided to take up both Challenges?”
Sester realized that Kirsten had known he was the one behind the suggestion for her to take up the Challenges. It was why she had come tonight. She had needed something from him and she seemed to be satisfied with what she got.
Kirsten said, “I’d better leave now. Thank you for the game.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
"Is that all?" she asked before leaving, the question unanswered.