Alara's male opponent was extremely frustrated. He tried punching, kicking, even a head butt but nothing landed where it was supposed. Trying to free himself from her grip was next to impossible. Every movement was redirected by the barest touch of her hand on various parts of his body. He felt like a helpless puppet, his face was red with rage at the humiliation of being controlled by a woman. The soldier fought desperately to regain control, to establish the dominance that was his right. This woman did not have the right to do this to him.
Despite his training and physical conditioning, he was tiring. He was expending most while the woman barely exerted any. She seemed to know how to position him so that he would be fighting his own considerable weight just to keep upright. He had always been proud of how fit and muscular he was. It was an ideal for a Chandaran male but the woman had somehow made it a disadvantage.
If she had been a man, he might have admired her skill but all he felt was anger and disgrace at being beaten by a woman. His life in the military would be over. He had let his people down. Few options were open for a Chandaran who had committed such a great failure; a loss of respect. There would be no respect for him.
Reya had been watching Alara's opponent carefully, noting the expression on his face, the emotions in his eyes, and the way he fought. She could read each layer and change of emotion as if they were a computer file. In a way, it was the right description.
Sester had told her what to look for and so far, he had proven right. These Chandaran males were very predictable in their reactions. But he had also told her to watch for something else. A possibility. The man that Alara was fighting showed some promise.
With Alara's current progress, there were two possible outcomes. Success and optimal success. The second one carried a risk. It was time to test the possibility.
The Chandaran soldier was tiring. He was angry and humiliated and his frustration level was high. When Alara looked over to her for direction, Reya made a signal.
Cally, Vila and Corinne were keeping sharp eyes out for activity but they hadn’t spotted anything yet. Argus’s two groups had also spent a frustrating time searching without any results.
Cally projected to Avon on the Justice, * Avon, have you found anything? *
There was a brief lag and then Avon replied abstractedly, * Nothing as yet. I’m still looking. *
Alara was behind her male opponent and had him twisted in an elbow lock. Every attempt to move caused the man to stretch his muscles painfully. Stronger pressure would result in damage. Alara eased her pressure a bit and leaned closer to him. She whispered, "I'm sorry it had to be like this. I don't mean to hurt you but the way you feel now, that is how I feel most of the time."
She released her lock but kept her hand lightly on his wrist. For the first time, the man was able to turn around to face her.
There was anger on his face but also confusion at her words. He tried to pull his hand from her grip but she twisted slightly on his wrist to show that she was still in control.
As she had been all along, her words were soft. Just loud enough for him to hear her but not to be picked up by the microphones. Alara said, "The way you feel, the helplessness, the feeling that your life is over…that is how I have always felt."
For the first time, the man responded to what she was saying. He whispered warily, "What is this?"
Alara said, "I'm a Chandaran too. I know what will happen to you if you lose this match."
The man snarled, "I don't need your pity."
Alara was suddenly afraid. She knew what Reya wanted her to do. The Champion had explained to them all that she might ask one of them to do this. The reason had been given to them and the risk.
She might get hurt and lose. Losing was what she was afraid of most of all. After the training and the efforts to overcome her fears, she was now on the brink of a great victory. For the first time, she could win against a man. But Reya said that it was important and that for Chandar to change, it had to be about more than just herself.
Alara took in a breath of courage to still her own fears. She said, "It's not pity. I know what the other men will do to you if you lose. Chandaran culture does not accept failure."
The man said, “What is that to you?” He tried grabbing at her wrists but Alara bent her arm and grabbed both of his instead.
Alara said apologetically, “I know that I’ve made you look bad. It’s not your fault. My fighting style is one that has never been seen on Chandar before and for which you have no defence. That is why we used it.”
The man said angrily, “I am not going to lose to you.” He suddenly lunged towards her and tried to push her back. Alara quickly moved back, pulling him further in the direction he was moving and causing him to stumble and fall. He tried to get up but Alara was now behind him, holding one of his wrists in a lock.
Alara shook her head. “You know you will. If I wanted to, you would not be able to get up from the floor.”
“We’ll see about that!” The soldier struggled to get up but with a twist of the wrist, Alara kept him down. Further struggles caused pain as Alara angled his wrist further. The man was breathing hard with the efforts to free himself. He finally stopped thrashing about before he broke his own wrist. He whispered heatedly, “Finish this!”
Alara suddenly let go of his wrist and stepped back to let him get up. The man stood up and eyed her warily. They circled each other. He asked under his breath, “Why did you do that? You could have won.”
Alara said, “I know but not like this. I want to give you a chance. Not because of pity but because we are both victims of circumstances we have no control over.”
They continued circling each other, looking for an opening while they carried on a conversation. With the shouts from the audience, no one could hear them.
The soldier said, “You’re not a victim here. You are getting what you want. You’re winning.”
Alara said, “But only in this fight. I’ve been a victim all of my life. That is how I feel as a woman on Chandar. Helpless and hopeless, just as you are feeling now. But imagine feeling that everyday of your life.”
“I…never thought of it that way.” The fight was no longer just on the challenge field, there was a struggle in the man’s eyes. “I mean, you’re a woman. You’re not supposed to…” The man fell silent as he realized what he was about to say.
“We’re not supposed to think for ourselves? Or have feelings? Or want more out of life than the limited place that is available for women here? I’m a human being. What you feel, I feel too.”
The soldier said, “I…didn’t realize.” He continued circling but it was more out of habit than trying to find an opening to attack.
Alara said, “It’s not your fault.”
The man said reluctantly, “You’re the better fighter here. You…should win. Don’t worry about me.”
Alara said, “What if neither one of us wins or loses?”
“You mean a draw?”
“Yes. I want it to look more like an even match.”
The soldier’s brow furrowed as he considered this. “I don’t know…”
Alara said, “We can do it together. Most of my training is in locks and holds. If I don’t use those all the time, you will have a chance.”
“You would do that?”
The man hesitated as he looked at her for the first time as a human being. “Thank you.”
Alara asked, “What’s your name?”
For the next hour, Alara and Brady continued their fight. This time it was a more even contest. Brady was connecting with some of his strikes and Alara blocked and controlled his movements at other times. They put on an entertaining and close performance. The crowd cheered and encouraged him. Some of the Champions in the audience, Brent’s former staff and a few brave strangers were supporting Alara.
Brady was pulling his punches so that he wouldn’t hurt Alara too much but it wasn’t apparent to anyone watching. In return, Alara allowed him to escape from some of her holds. They were both getting very tired, Brady was almost exhausted.
Reya held up her hand for attention. The judges acknowledged her and both she and Captain Kegan approached their booth as the contest continued in the circle.
Kegan asked when he came within earshot, “Are you giving up?”
Reya’s smile did not touch her eyes. “You know the outcome of this contest as well as I do, Captain. If you don’t, I am perfectly willing to wait another hour until there is no question.”
Kegan pointed at her heatedly, “You tricked us!”
Reya gave him an icy smile. “It was no trick. Your arrogance defeated you. You thought you couldn’t lose and so you dismissed our intelligence and our abilities.”
The lead judge, Hallam, a bulky former fighter who was now a respected fight adjudicator said, “It appears that we have.”
Kegan was nearly spitting in his anger, “Tricks!”
Reya said, “Fighting is not just about pounding each other until someone falls over. It is about speed, intelligence, technique and understanding of motion and the human body.”
Kegan said, “Don’t try to teach me about fighting.”
Reya said with a flat smile, “Someone should.”
Kegan moved aggressively towards her.
Hallam, put a firm hand on the man’s arm. “Captain, don’t embarrass yourself.” His eyes became hard. “Or us.”
Kegan faltered and stepped back. “Sorry, sir.”
The lead judge turned to Reya. “We’ve misjudged all of you.”
Reya’s voice was respectful when speaking to the judge. “Your preconceptions have not served you well.”
Hallam was a calm, intelligent man who had barely missed being instituted as a Champion himself. He was a personal friend of President Trist, which was why he had been chosen. “This is the true purpose of these contests, the challenging of preconceptions.”
Reya inclined her head in acknowledgement.
Hallam said, “You called for this meeting.”
Reya said to the Captain, “Your fighter cannot win against a style he has no defence against. Mine cannot win in a contest of straight punching ability. That is what our two fighters are showing us. You know that if my fighter had not let yours go and allowed him to use his strikes, he would be helpless and your defeat would be a particularly humiliating one. We want to avoid this. It was not our intention to embarrass you or to prove that we are superior.”
Hallam asked, “You have a proposal?”
“I do. But only if the Captain is agreed.”
Hallam asked Kegan, “Do you have confidence that your man will win if this contest continues? Answer me honestly.”
Kegan looked over to where Alara and Brady were still trying to fight. An expression, half between a snarl of anger and a grimace of frustration, tightened his face. He said reluctantly, “In a few weeks…but not right now.”
Reya smiled. “In a few weeks, do you think we would be using the same style?”
Hallam said, “Then you are both agreed that this contest will be a draw?”
Reya nodded, “I agree.”
Kegan growled out, “Yes.”
As the team leaders returned to their respective sides, Hallam spoke to his fellow judges. A decision was made and Hallam stopped the fight. Alara and Brady stepped back from each other with relief.
There was much stirring in the crowd.
Hallam came forward and stood between them. In a loud official voice, he said, “It is the determination of the judges’ panel that this match is over. We have decided that the outcome will be the same even if the fight continues. We declare that this contest is a draw.” He lifted up both Alara and Brady’s hands.
The noise level rose as more people tried to speak at once.
Hallam said, “This was a fair contest and each side showed considerable skill. I want you to remember that. As each of the teams has won one match, this means that the result of the First Challenge is a tie.”
There was stunned silence and then the hall erupted in loud voices, some angry and outraged and some hesitant cheers.
On the ship, Avon watched impassively as the contest ended and the results were announced. He mused, The object is not the contest. Then it must be the President.
Avon asked, “What would they gain by assassinating the President?”
Sester had been doing his own thinking and replied, “Not as much as by not assassinating him.”
Avon demanded, “Explain.”
Sester sat up. “They know that we know there are aliens at work on Chandar. We’ve already exposed several of them.”
“And killed them.”
“Yes. They would want to draw as little attention to themselves as possible but still advance their goals.”
Avon looked at the diagram again, “Assassinating the President would be very noticeable.”
“Yes. It would centre everyone’s attention on hunting them down as the threat that they are.”
The hall took up the majority of the building with several corridors leading away to smaller rooms. Avon mused, “Whereas, the public Challenges turns everyone’s focus to one place.”
“Very convenient if your goal is not the Challenges.”
Avon was deep in thought. “The President could still be the focus but no one would be paying attention to him.”
The corner of Avon’s eyes crinkled as he concentrated. “But it would not be something as overtly offensive as an assassination.”
“Not if they wanted to keep low and continue their work of taking over the Chandar Alliance,” said Sester. He had already come to the same conclusion but he let Avon work it out for himself.
Avon’s eyes widened. “Their method was infiltration. It still is!” He quickly zoomed the diagram to the adjacent corridors. “There are four possible routes the Presidential party could take to leave the building. They’ll intercept them and…they’ll need a room.”
Avon hit the comm button. “Argus. I know what they’re doing.”
Argus’s voice responded over the speakers. “What are they doing?”
“They’re going to take over the President and replace him with an alien duplicate.”
Argus’s voice was all business, “I can’t see him from here. His party must have left already. We’ll have to do a search.”
Avon said, “I don’t have an exact location but I have the possible routes he could be taking.”
“Send them to the teams' datapads. We’ll split up and search.”
Avon marked the routes and sent them down. “Done.”
Argus and two of the Athol soldiers raced along the corridors with weapons drawn. No President. He could not have left yet or Avon would tell him that the President’s transport had left.
“Spread out and check the rooms!” The soldiers moved off.
None of the other teams had reported in. This was not good. That most likely meant the Andromedans had taken the President’s party already and was in the process of duplicating him.
He listened at one door after the other. There was angry, muffled voice. Trist. He signalled the two soldiers and they raced towards him. There was an angry shout, abruptly cut off with a sound that Argus recognized. A solid object hitting a skull. There was no time to get more help. These aliens didn’t need the President alive to duplicate him.
Argus signalled with his hand, coordinating their entrance. One of the soldiers positioned his pistol to shoot the door panel. Argus and the other one readied themselves for a quick entrance. He counted off with fingers raised. Five. Four. Three. Two.
The soldier shot out the door and it slid open. One.
Argus and the soldier rushed in, guns blazing. Argus brought down four and the soldier two in the space of a few seconds before the Andromedans had a chance to react and bring their weapons up. There were too many people in the room. The President was tied to a chair. He looked dazed and blood flowed from a head wound.
One of the aliens pointed a gun to the President’s head. “Put your guns down or I will shoot him now.”
Argus’s voice rumbled dangerously. “I don’t think so. This is a no-win scenario. You will kill him and us regardless of what we do. You can’t let us live. The only real choice is how many of you are willing to die with us.” As he was speaking, Argus deliberately moved his pistol to cover the man threatening the President. He steadied his gun hand by wrapping his free one awkwardly around the wrist wearing the teleport bracelet. He barely moved his lips as he whispered to the two soldiers who were back-to-back with him. “Get ready.” His men gripped their pistols tighter and readied themselves to fire.
Argus asked the aliens, “What do you say? We have nothing to lose if we’re going to die anyway. I am giving you a chance to survive. Give up now and we will spare your lives. Don’t and take the chance that you will be the one to die and I guarantee you that over half of you will be dead before we hit the ground. You have seen how fast we are.”
The alien with his gun to the President said, “You’re not in a position to bargain.”
Argus laughed. “You are though. For your own lives.” His eyes swept the room slowly, resting on each alien in turn, trying to stretch out the time. He knew Avon would have understood the message but would he be quick enough? They were about to find out. Time was running out. “I’m prepared to die. I am always prepared to die. But are you?”
The alien said, “You….must be stalling for some reason. Kill them all now!”
Before the alien had finished saying the word, kill, a familiar energy could be heard and a distortion of the air. The Andromedans all turned to look at the disturbance while Argus and the soldiers fired. In panic, the aliens pointed their guns back at Argus and the soldiers again but by then the teleport energies had solidified, revealing Lt. Dain and his team. For the next few moments, the room was a deadly net of phase and laser tracers as men and aliens on both sides fell.
When the energies cleared, all of the aliens were down. Argus stood protectively in front of Trist. His arm was bleeding from a deep laser slice to his right forearm.
The remaining soldiers checked the wounded and dead as Argus and Dain released Trist. Argus checked the President’s eyes. “He’s going to be out for awhile.”
Most of the aliens were dead. One of the soldiers had also died. Three others were wounded, including Argus.
Argus contacted the ship, “Quick work, Avon. We have the President, he's alive.”
When Argus had covered his teleport bracelet earlier, he had pressed the comm button. Avon had heard Argus’s voice and immediately guessed what was going on. As Argus stalled, Avon had quickly arranged for Dain’s team to be transferred to Argus’s location. Just in time.
Argus said, “You’d better bring Cally back up. We’ll need the Tellaran doctors too. We have wounded.”