The Chandaran women were lined up nervously along one side of the Challenge field. Their large, muscular male opponents were facing them on the other side. They seemed to dwarf the women in size.
From the atmosphere and the comments being made around them by the audience and the vid-broadcasters, there seemed to be little doubt of the outcome. Except for a few people who dared to support them, there was not much respect being directed towards the women.
Two of the announcers were close enough for them to hear. A red-haired man with a wide moustache and a balding man with bitten down finger nails.
"What do you think, Chester? Do you think these women have a chance?"
"I don't think anyone has any doubts, Traz. Just look at them. They look like they'll fall over if you breathe on them too hard. (there was much laughing at this comment) No woman can beat a man. It's a fact of life."
"But what about that…Champion female."
Chester's voice dropped in a conspiratorial whisper, for show only of course, since their images and voices were being sent out on the Chandaran public networks. "I hear that she's not really a she. Someone got hold of some records that prove that he had an operation to look like that, though why anyone would want to be a woman is beyond me."
"Makes a lot of sense."
Chester said, "Once they have enough evidence, they'll uncover the deception."
"I can't wait for that."
Their voices returned to normal volume. "Speaking of waiting, I wish they'd hurry it up. A lot of people took their lunch hour to watch this." Chester smirked, "That's how long they think this thing will last."
The women were increasingly nervous and upset at what they were hearing from the offensive broadcasters. Karita took an angry step towards the two men. Reya touched her arm and shook her head.
Karita said, "They're doing it deliberately."
Reya said calmly, "Yes. They are trying to shake your confidence and make you lose your composure."
“How can you be so calm? Doesn’t it make you angry? Doesn't it bother you? You could flatten them if you wanted to.”
Reya glanced over at the two broadcasters. Her eyes were as cold as ice. "Very easily, but I won't."
Karita saw the look and almost shivered. “You’re a cool one. I wouldn’t want to meet you in a dark alley.”
“Harness your anger to become more dangerous. Do not play into their hands and lose control.”
Karita looked askance at her fellow fighters. She lowered her voice, "Aren't you afraid they’ll be affected by what's being said?"
"I know they are."
There was steel in Reya’s voice. “That is why I want you to destroy your opponent.”
Karita grinned, “Oh, I plan to.”
Reya said, "Don't kill him or break any bones but I want a decisive victory."
"Don't worry about that. Those extra moves you taught me are going to be very useful."
"As I said, don't kill him but I want the confidence of the men shaken. I want them to be the ones angry. Not you. You must keep a cool head."
On the flight deck, Argus, Avon and Sester were watching the broadcast on the main viewscreen. Avon was sitting at a computer that had been arranged to face the screen. He had just finished checking that his equipment and the engineers nearby were ready.
Argus sat like a rock of calm. He was a completely different man than the one who was unsure of himself with women. This was the leader that others looked to when they needed the impossible achieved. Of course, at the moment, he wasn't doing anything other than observing and waiting in case he was needed.
It was an active waiting, like a coiled spring ready to be released at any moment. He asked, "Why are they taking so long to begin?"
Sester answered, "It's psychological. You notice that each of the male opponents was picked for size?"
Avon glanced up at the screen. "Intimidation. They want to make sure they win."
"They're taking no chances. Whoever wins this first Challenge sets the tone. If the women win it, then they will have proven that they have the right to be in this contest. If the men win, then they prove that the women have no right to be on the same field as the men. It is why this physical Challenge was picked to be the first one."
Argus asked, “You made sure it was?”
Sester replied, “Yes.”
Avon said, “This is a physical Challenge. It’s where the women are most vulnerable.”
Sester smiled. “Yes, on the surface, it makes no sense that the women will win; if taken from the perspective of muscle and strength. It will be our psychological victory when the women win.”
Avon said, “Assuming they win. The outcome is not certain.”
Argus was confident. “They will.”
Sester noticed movement on the screen, “They’re about to begin.”
They turned their attentions to the field again.
Avon peered intently at the faces in the crowd. “I don’t see Alara’s man.”
Argus was half watching the audience and half watching the unfolding events. “I don’t either.”
Avon thumbed the comm button. “Cally.”
Cally’s voice responded over the speaker. “Yes, Avon?”
“Don’t go down yet. We haven’t been able to identify Alara’s man.”
“We haven’t been able to either. We’ll wait for your signal.”
Everyone continued watching as President Trist and his officials came onto the field.
The boisterous crowd fell silent as President Trist held up his hands for attention. His voice was projected to a dozen worlds that made up the Chandar Alliance.
Trist said solemnly, “Welcome. This is the first of three important Challenges. This isn’t just a normal contest. It’s a trial for the women of this planet.”
At his words, there was stirring in the audience.
“As Chandarans, we have always viewed women in a certain light. We have always believed that women were lesser creatures. Not as intelligent or strong. Incapable of taking care of themselves. Dependent on us for everything.”
There was many shouts of agreement. These men believed these things of women.
“But our views are being challenged.”
There was a buzz of anger in the crowd. Shouts of ‘How dare they?” or “That’s wrong!”
Trist continued. “We have been taught that it is wrong. It’s part of our culture. Our beliefs. But as a Chandaran and a Champion, I cannot deny what Champion Reya achieved and what she was willing to do for us.”
The noise level was increasing.
“We are Chandarans. We recognize accomplishment. If someone proves himself on the field of battle or in a contest, we respect them. If someone acts with great honour and self-sacrifice, we do not ignore it. But the question here is what happens when that person is a female? Does it not count if it's a female who accomplishes these things? Does a female’s willingness to sacrifice herself to save someone else mean less than if it were a man? Are we so ungrateful? So unfeeling?”
Trist nodded to an assistant. A large holographic image of Reya’s bleeding body was projected for all to see. It was a scene from the day that she had risk her life to reveal the alien conspiracy.
Trist’s voice rose, “Do we repay such honour with dishonour? What kind of men are we?”
[Back on the ship, Argus asked Sester, “You’re responsible for this?”
“Some of it. I gave him guidance on what to say. And the suggestion for the visual reference.”
Avon remarked, “It appears to be having an effect. The faces in the crowd have changed.”]
Trist said, “Our women wish to be tested. They want to win a chance. They are willing to undergo an uneven contest in order to prove to us that they are more than what we have always believed.”
[Argus asked, “That was you too?”
Sester grinned. “Not very subtle but with the Chandaran men, you can’t be.”]
Trist said, “Are we going to deny their achievement if they win? Can we continue seeing them the same way?”
There were whispered conversations. Several people said, “They haven’t done it yet.” “They can’t win.”
Trist said, “True. They haven’t yet. But what happens when they win? How are we going to respond?” He turned and said formally, “Champion Reya.”
Reya bowed in formal custom, “President Trist.”
“Is your team ready?”
“Yes, they are, Mr. President.”
Trist made the introductions. The leader of the men’s team was a burly man in military fatigues. “This is Captain Kegan.”
Kegan gave a bare nod of acknowledgement. “I plan to win.”
Reya said, “I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
They regarded each other warily as they shook hands. Their eyes gave no quarter and their grip was firm.
President Trist said, “There will be three matches for this contest. You will each pick your best fighter for the first one. For the other two, you will choose a fighter from the opponent’s team.”
Karita stood in the fight circle facing her opponent. Up close, the soldier looked even larger. His muscles bulged beneath a sleeveless shirt and shorts. He was larger than Argus but he was not as well proportioned, he looked top-heavy.
They bowed to each other and put their hands up in a guard position and began circling one another. The man growled under his breath, “Don’t make it hard for yourself. Stay down when I hit you or I’m going to hit you again.”
Karita said, “That’s assuming that you can hit me.”
The man said, “Woman, I’m trying to do you a favour.”
“You think you are but it’s a favour I can’t afford. Not if I’m going to win.”
The man snarled, “You asked for it.” He lunged towards her and punched towards her head.
Karita was expecting this. She did a move similar to the one that Reya had performed on Argus in the cargo hold. This time, she was smooth and fast. A quick shift of her head and rotation of her body caused the man to swing harmlessly past her ear. She encouraged his forward momentum with a well-placed push while she tripped him with an extended foot. The soldier went crashing loudly to the ground. The man was stunned for a moment before he got up and faced her again.
Karita remarked, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” She smiled.
Back on the ship, the men watched the broadcast in fascination.
Avon suddenly exclaimed, “There he is.”
At the bottom corner of the screen, vid-cameras were panning the audience and was concentrating on a group of rich VIPs.
He hit the comm button. “Cally, we’ve identified Alara's man. Send your team down. Good luck.”
The fight was being carried on in earnest. The soldier was determined to win. His punches and kicks were meant to disable. That is, if they managed to land, which so far, they hadn’t been able to.
The soldier punched again, this time Karita was just a bit slow and his fist hit her a glancing blow on the cheek. That was all it took. Karita staggered back as a red mark appeared on her face. She seemed to trip on her own feet and fell, rotating as she went so that she was facing the ground.
The soldier smelled victory and immediately pressed his advantage by going after her, intending on pinning her to the ground. Karita heard the soldier approaching from behind her. Without trying to turn or to get up from the ground, she suddenly kicked out hard behind her, catching the soldier in the mid-section and then quickly rolling away while the soldier collapsed to his knees, gasping for breath.
Karita popped up and stood waiting for the man to recover.
The soldier was angry as he got up. He did not like being humiliated.
Karita was paying attention to the beats and the rhythm of the fight. Everyone has a fight rhythm. You can see it in their combinations and the way they move as they circle their opponent. To win, you had to break the rhythm. Strike them between their strikes. Strike them before they prepare for the next combination of strikes. That was what she had been taught in the cargo hold.
Karita saw the soldier’s leg rise. She immediately stepped forward inside the kick, placed both hands against the man’s chest and pushed hard as he lost his balance. The soldier went flying backwards and hit the ground half a circle away with a grunt of pain and shock.
Again, she waited for the man to get up. So far, she had not hit her opponent. All of her moves were defensive reactions. Karita glanced at Reya. Reya nodded her head.
It was time to go on the offensive. A big smile spread across Karita’s face.
Cally and Corinne, both in male disguises, kept watch as Vila worked on the security lock at the side entrance to Alara’s residence. The streets were almost empty. People were watching the Challenge on a large public screen or in their homes.
It was a tricky lock with two security measures. A motion sensor that Vila had already disabled and one that would give a nasty shock. He was working carefully on this one using a non-conductive tool. A smile of accomplishment brightened his face as the last energy connection was bypassed. “There you are.”
Cally asked, “Is the lock open?”
“Not yet but that’s easy compared to the security. Give me thirty seconds.” In twenty-five seconds, the lock released with an audible click. “Now for my next trick…” Vila presented with a flourish.
Cally said, “Quick, inside.”
They turned their hand torches on low and entered quietly.
In the arena, the soldier was still falling but Karita was now adding strikes to specific points of his body. They didn’t seem effective as the soldier barely reacted to each hit. But for some reason, the soldier was starting to make mistakes, or his arms and legs were having problems coordinating.
Karita looked over to Reya. Reya nodded her head again. It was time to finish it.
Karita gathered her strength and for the first time aimed a straight punch, past the slow guard of the startled soldier. Her fist him in the abdomen. The man doubled over as the wind was knocked out of him. Karita pivoted and struck him at the base of the skull. The soldier went down like an inanimate object.
Karita put her knee on the soldier’s back and grabbed one of his arms, applying an arm lock. There was no need, the man was unconscious.
There was stunned silence.
Karita turned her head to the referees at the edges of the circle. There were whispered discussions but the soldier didn’t look like he was about to wake up. One of them reluctantly entered the circle and raised his arm. He said in a loud, reluctant voice, “The winner of the first match is, Karita of the women’s team.”
With that announcement, everyone began talking at once.
Cally, Vila and Corinne were searching through the residence, looking for the hidden computer that Sester was certain would be there. They had to be careful. Some of the household staff was still in the building but they were all gathered around the large vid screen in the living room.
Vila disabled the catch on a desk drawer as he said, “If I was a hidden computer, where would I be?”
Corinne examined a cupboard and asked curiously, “What are you doing?”
“Trying to imagine myself as the villain. They do it in all the detective vid-dramas.”
“Is it helping?”
“Not yet. Cally there isn’t anything here.” Vila shut the drawer.
Cally was watching the door and keeping her senses open to the people in the building. She said, “We’ll have to try the next floor.”
Sester smiled to himself as Captain Kegan, the leader of the men’s team picked the woman for the next match.
Argus asked, “What’s so funny?”
Sester said, “They’re like you. Very predictable.” He grinned as Argus scowled at him.
“Do you have to be so annoying?” asked Argus.
Avon said dryly, “Yes, he does. In that he is very predictable.”
Sester chuckled. “We split the first team of women into three groupings. Each one was taught a different technique so that the men would not be able to adjust their styles. Each style taught was one that the Chandarans have no experience with. They follow very different fight philosophies. Right now, the men expect another woman to use a technique that redirects strength and are planning against it.”
Avon said, “There is a flaw in that reasoning.”
Argus thought for a bit. “That only works if we can control who gets picked by the other team. But we can’t, not with the last two. It’ll just be random, depending on the whims of their team leader.”
Sester had the air of a supremely confident psychostrategist. “That’s where I come in.”
Avon was keeping a close eye on the progress of Cally’s team. “You don’t believe in the randomness of human actions.”
“It only seems random if you don’t understand how human beings work.”
Avon said, “And you understand them.”
“It’s what I do.”
Avon stared at Sester. The ability to understand irrational human beings was one he envied. “That remains to be seen.”
Sester grinned. “You have a predictable lack of faith in others, Avon.”
Avon stressed, “Some others.”
“Regardless of the person, there will always be some points of predictability. Part of what I do is identify the sources of predictability and determine how they will impact a person’s decisions and behaviour.”
The second woman walked out onto the field to face the next man.
Avon asked, “Are you saying that you knew who they would pick?”
Sester replied, “I knew before we split the women up into the style groupings.”
Argus said with astonishment, “But that was three weeks ago.”
“As I said, this is what I do.”
Avon eyed him speculatively. “How?”
“You wouldn’t understand the technical details but it involved studying the women. How they carried themselves, their physical impact, the look in their eyes, a host of different factors. Then projecting the changes after three weeks of training and putting that information together with my understanding of the Chandaran men. It’s a fairly pedestrian task for someone of my level of expertise.”
Avon asked, “There is a degree of error.”
“Of course. With human beings, there is always a degree of error, depending on the completeness of my information. But it’s minimal in this case.”
Argus asked, “How do you know that?”
“The degree of error increases with the level of intelligence, flexibility and creativity.”
Argus looked straight at him. “You’re telling us that you are unpredictable?”
Avon and Sester stared at him.
Avon finally said, “You’re not so obvious after all.”
The next woman had a style that confounded her opponent and caused laughter among the audience. She seemed to be dancing, more than fighting. Moving in graceful arcs and spins around her opponent. Darting into and out of range with dizzying speed. The laughter stopped when she began hitting with greater frequency, landing blows on sensitive areas.
Vila ran his fingers along the wall in the bedroom of the Alara’s residence. “Cally, we’re running out of rooms.”
Cally was watching by the door and trying to search areas near the door, “I know.”
“Do you think Sester might have been wrong about the second computer? We’ve already put one of Avon's gadgets on the other one.”
Corinne said, “We haven’t found anything suspicious.”
Cally pursed her lips. “Avon says there’s nothing irregular on the other computer. Keep looking.”
Vila checked another wall. “Hold on. What’s this?”
Corinne came over, “What did you find?”
Vila knelt down and touched the floor. “There’s more wear and tear here. I think…this wall comes out. That means…” Vila drew his sensitive fingers along the wall, searching for minute indentations. “Corinne, see if there’s something on that desk. A switch of some kind.”
The dancing/fighting woman made a mistake and her opponent rained a powerful combination on her head and body. Even though she rolled with the punches as she had been taught, she was stunned for a few moments. The man hit her again and she went down.
The matches were tied at one apiece.
Vila grinned as a hidden compartment slid away from the wall, revealing the elusive computer. “That’s genius.”
Corinne rewarded him with a hug. “You’re wonderful.”
Cally whispered from the doorway. “Plant the device. You can do that later.”
Corrine let go of Vila with embarrassment. “Sorry.”
Vila removed a side panel from the computer and studied the inner workings. He said absently, “Tuna.”
Corinne thought she had heard wrong. “You see tuna?”
Vila glanced up at her and then back down to what he was doing. “I just realized. Why tuna ice cream?”
Cally asked, “Are you done yet?”
Vila said, “Almost. Just finding a good place for Avon’s gadget.”
“Well, hurry up.”
Vila lifted a group of wires and looked underneath. “I am. I am. I just…wanted to know why someone would ask for tuna and pickle ice cream.”
Cally crinkled her nose in disgust. “Tuna and pickle Ice cream? Who would want that?”
Vila slipped the oval device under the wires and covered it up.
Corinne said with embarrassment, “I said that. This morning.”
Cally’s eyes widened and she stared at her. Her eyes slid down to Corinne’s abdomen. “Corinne, when we asked you about gaining weight…we were kidding.”
Corinne said, “I know.”
Vila slid the covering back in place and said, “It’s done. Tell Avon.”
Cally pressed her teleport bracelet. “Avon, the device has been planted.”
There was a pause before the reply came. “Message received, Cally. Good work. The signal is strong. Stand by for further instructions.”
Cally continued their discussion. “Corinne, is there a reason why you’re having cravings?”
Vila asked, “Cravings? What cravings?”
Cally said, “Women in a…certain condition are known to have odd food preferences.”
“Oh.” Vila said and then his eyes became very wide. “Ohhhh! Corinne! That’s…not…possible.”
Cally said dryly, “I assume that the two of you have been…”
Vila cut in before she could elaborate further, “No! I mean…yes we have but…I have to sit down.” He was feeling faint. Corinne helpfully pulled up a chair and Vila almost collapsed into it. “I went to your medicine cabinet and found some pills. I thought they were the right ones.”
Cally asked, “And which ones did you think they were?”
“Well, you know…pills that…”
Corinne said, “You should have seen him run. I didn’t know he could move so fast.”
Vila was pale. “They must have been the wrong ones.”
Corinne asked, “Would it be so bad having children?”
Vila looked up at her and took her hand. “It’s not that. I would love having kids with you. It’s just that…it’s so sudden. I wasn’t prepared. We haven’t even had time to talk about it.”
Corinne kissed him on the head. “It’s alright. They were the right pills.”
“Huh?” Vila was mystified. “But…you have cravings…and…”
Corinne said reassuringly, “I don’t really.”
“I…what? You don’t have…cravings? Then what about the tuna ice cream?”
Corinne sighed. “I was just kidding you but it didn’t work. You didn’t know what I was talking about this morning. And then when you asked me just now…I was surprised. I'm sorry. I suppose I'm not very good at these kinds of jokes yet."
Cally said with understanding. “The ice cream.”
Vila laughed quietly. “You did fine, Corinne. No one’s been able to play that kind of practical joke on me in a long time. I’m going to have to be careful around you.”
Corinne said, “You weren’t expecting it.”
“That’s the best kind.”
Cally’s teleport bracelet chimed softly. “Yes, Avon?”
Avon’s voice was urgent. “I’m going to send you directly to the Challenge hall.”
Cally asked with immediate concern, “What’s wrong?”