The women for the Second Challenge were huddled together in the dark, surrounded by towering trees and wild grasses rustling in the wind. They had each been processed before coming down. That meant being passed through matter scanners to make sure they didn't bring anything 'illegal' onto the Challenge field. Their wine-red jumpsuits and matching darker jackets had been provided by the Chandarans, giving them a military sameness. The only equipment they were allowed were a stun gun, a bottle of water, a direction finder and a long knife each. Nearby on a wooden pole was the flag that they were to protect at all costs. The enemy, or rather their opponents, would have a similar setup on their side, except in blue.
They spoke in hushed whispers even though no one could hear them. The men would have been dropped several miles away. Even at a dash, they wouldn't be here yet, assuming they would risk travelling in the dark through the forest and over a hill, on unfamiliar ground.
Kirsten said, "One of these days someone is going to explain to me why women always have to be red." She looked at the cuff edge that stuck beyond her jacket sleeve and then at the flag. No one had told them that the two would be the same colour. It wasn’t as if they needed different colours to be able to tell who the opposition was.
Sentha rubbed her arms to bring some warmth into her limbs while some of the others wrapped their arms around themselves. Even with jackets zipped all the way up, the night air chilled their bones. "It's always been that way. There's no why. It just is."
Kirsten said, "You mean, the way we've always been told that we can’t do the things we have been doing the past month, just because we’re women?” There was a thoughtful look in her eyes as she said absently, “There has to be a why."
Sentha blew warm air into her cupped hands. "Is this important? I'm cold."
Kirsten passed her eyes over the shivering group. In the dim moonlight, some of ones on the far side of the circle were little more than human shaped shadows in jackets. "You're right. We should get moving."
A lonely howl filled the night air and seemed to echo around them.
The women gasped in alarm. They looked around nervously at the suddenly threatening shadows that seemed to encircle them. Tamara, a woman with a shock of red hair asked with trepidation, "W..w…what was that?"
Kirsten said, "It must be an animal."
All thoughts of how cold they were, was forgotten as several of them asked with voices rising in panic, "An animal?"
Zurrie, the tallest one in their group asked in a voice that was perpetually scratchy, "D'you think there's more than one?"
That idea made them all even more nervous as they tried to pierce the gloomy darkness with anxious eyes.
Kirsten said, "I imagine so. We are in the forest. Some of the men like to hunt. My father does."
Tamara said, "They put us in a place with dangerous, wild animals? It wasn't like this when we were training."
Most of the women nodded their agreements. This was a rude awakening for them. They had all been confident in what they had been taught and sure that they could face anything. Part of their education had been on the planet in similar situations but they had never been on their own before, without the support of experienced trainers. They felt abandoned, alone and surrounded by dangers on every side.
Kirsten had to admit that she was unnerved too but she wasn't about to show it. All the training had taught her one important thing. Her most dangerous weapon was her mind, as long as she didn't let external factors such as fear control her. Sester had been an invaluable teacher. Just observing him had been a revelation. He was unlike the Tellaran psychostrategists, he was not only brilliant, but also a ruthless strategist.
He was also a gifted manipulator. She had recognized a kindred spirit the first time she had seen him doing his tea duties in the cargo hold.
Most of her life, Kirsten had been able to influence the people around her. Mainly men like her father. It was something natural that she had needed to do in order to survive and maintain some semblance of a life that would not entirely crush her spirit. Kirsten had never understood what she was doing until she saw the psychostrategists and they had taught the women to understand their own situation and society. There was a name for the gifts and abilities that she had always used. Of course, she wasn't as good as a trained psychostrategist. She didn't have the education or a full understanding of what was possible. Kirsten wanted to learn, even if only to increase her ability to protect herself.
She shook herself mentally. It was time to act and to win, not think about life in general. Kirsten wanted to succeed. Sester said that it was possible and had shown her what she needed to do. However, as he had said, they wouldn't know all the details until they got to the playing field. She had to be observant and flexible, be able to identify additional possibilities. There were several new ones already. Ones that might prove even more effective in winning this contest.
Kirsten composed herself, her face conveying confidence and determination. She was the leader, the others looked to her for direction and support. They could win this, as long as they didn't let fear of the unknown get to them.
Sentha eyed their unconcerned-looking leader. "You're a cool one. Why aren't you nervous like the rest of us? You were city bred too."
"I'm nervous too but this contest is supposed to be safe. That’s why they gave us these." Kirsten slipped her pistol out of its holster. "If these can stun a man, I imagine they shouldn't have many problems with an animal. We should be safe as long as we keep our heads."
The ever sceptical Sentha said, "Won't that make a lot of noise?"
Kirsten said, "That alone should scare any animals away even if we don’t hit them. Just don’t hit each other."
Some of the women had their pistols out and pointed outwards at the unknown dangers. Tamara gripped hers tightly. "But the men will hear it too, won't they? Even from far away?"
Kirsten said, "It doesn't matter. They know we're here already and approximately where we are. It might do them good to think that we're scared and panicking."
Tamara said, "But we are scared."
"But we are not panicking." With smooth, confident movements, Kirsten secured her gun and looked slowly around the circle of women, meeting their eyes intently. " Are we? We've come too far and we have too much to lose to beat ourselves before we even begin. Courage is about being scared but still deciding to go on. That's true courage. We all have it. That's why we're here. Not one of us dropped out during the training even though we could have gone back to our own homes and our old lives. The other group didn't give up. They fought and they did well. Let's show everyone that we can do it too. I don't want to be the one to let everyone down."
Sentha said, "Who said we’re going to let anyone down? But you’re right. We’re all here because we decided to stay. I never thought I would…I'm more surprised than any of you that I did, but the people on the ship showed me something…that our society is wrong about women. I like being able to do the things I've learned. It makes me feel good about myself. I…don't want to lose it. And if it means that I have to fight the men or animals, then I’m going to."
Zurrie said, "I’m scared but I don’t want to go back to my old life either."
There were murmurings of agreement from the others.
Kirsten said, "Good. We'll set guards to watch for animals…and the men."
There was still fear on the faces of the women but there was also determination. Zurrie asked, "Do you think the men will come at night?"
Kirsten was working on information that Sester had told her, she trusted his abilities. "They won't but it's always good to be prepared for anything. I know what we planned originally but I have a few new ideas that might help.”
Sentha asked, "What ideas?"
After Kirsten told them what she was thinking, she said, "I'm afraid we're not going to get much sleep tonight. We have a lot to do. We'll try to work in shifts so we can get some rest. Sentha, I was going to…"
Sentha said, "I'll lead the other group. You're needed here to set things up."
Kirsten put her hand on the woman's shoulder in appreciation. "I know it's going to be rough going but they won't be expecting it."
Sentha said, "Then they won't be guarding against it, will they?"
"That's what I'm hoping for. And they won't be expecting what we're going to do on this end either."
Zurrie asked, "Are you sure it won't break the rules?"
"I've studied them carefully. There isn't anything that specifically says that we can't do this." Kirsten had the rules memorized. She ran over them quickly. " We can use any non-lethal method to obtain the flag of the opposing team before the allotted time has expired. And we are not allowed to move the flag or to cover it in any way."
Zurrie said, "It sounds alright."
Sentha said, "Well, let's hope it sounds alright to the judges once we're finished."
Cally reached over and checked the chronometer next to the bed. She sighed and reached out with her mind. * Avon, are you going to be much longer? *
The response was immediate. * I need you to come to the flight deck, Cally. * His mental voice seemed weaker, an indication of the what she already knew, he was tired and his body and mind were suffering the effects.
* Avon, is this an attempt to stall so that you can continue working for a few more minutes? *
There was a long pause. * I do need you here. I have also contacted the others. *
Cally bolted upright. * Avon, is something wrong? *
* There is nothing wrong but I need you to come to the flight deck. I will explain it then. *
* Alright, Avon. *
Cally pulled on a dressing gown and rushed out.
When she arrived, Argus, Reya and Sester had joined Avon and Vila around the computer terminal.
She asked, “What’s the urgency?”
Argus also seemed to have come in a hurry. He was bare-chested and only wore a pair of loose-fitting trousers. “Avon’s found something. There appears to be a meeting planned during the main part of the Challenge tomorrow. They’re using it as a distraction.”
Avon had looked up when Cally arrived and his eyes followed her as she came towards them. “We need to know what is said in the meeting. It may reveal more about their plans.”
“You want my team to go down tomorrow?”
Argus said, “Yes. The location they’ve chosen is a shielded building so we can’t rely on the relay devices and we can’t teleport you directly to the location.”
Avon pressed several keys in front of him. “With our mental connection, we will still be able to maintain contact. This is a schematic of the building.”
Cally came around to take a look at the location. It was a secure industrial office complex. “Is there anything I should watch out for?”
Argus said, “There shouldn’t be much people traffic during the Challenge, most of them should be busy watching. Vila, how are the locks and security system?”
Vila had been looking at the schematics since Avon discovered that there would be a meeting. “They’re paranoid about security but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ll have to take down some special equipment.”
Avon said, “I will handle the security monitors and the identity sensors.”
Sester was sitting at the edge of a nearby table. “What kind of industrial complex is this?”
Avon turned in his direction. “It’s a research facility for land-based military vehicles.”
Sester tapped the edge of the table. “They’re too highly placed for comfort. I would suspect that there will more people traffic than you expect.”
Argus asked dubiously, “How do you know that?”
“Do you want the technical explanation?”
“The short version,” Argus said curtly.
Sester grinned. “I’ll try to put it in simple words.”
Argus tried not to glare too hard at the man.
Sester remained seated and traced the edge of the table, “They picked a location that is protected by high-level security and an energy screen. That means they’re highly placed and there are enough of them in this facility that they do not consider it a risk meeting here.”
Avon mused thoughtfully, “They picked a location that is shielded from communication access and our teleport. Is that a coincidence or do you think they know we’re actively searching for them?”
Sester asked, “You’re afraid they know that you’ve gained access to their computer network?”
This would be disturbing. It would mean that Avon couldn’t rely on the information that he’d obtained from their computer activity. “Have they?”
“It’s a possibility.”
Argus said instantly, “Then it might be a trap.”
Sester nodded. “Also another possibility.”
Argus’s mind was sharp and in overdrive as he took this new information into account. “You’ll need more support, Cally. I’ll divert one of the Athol units and I’ll bring down the reserve unit. Reya, you’re on your own with the Challenge.”
Reya said, “That should be fine.”
Cally was working with Avon to find the best way through the building and to identify escape routes. “I’ll bring down a vid unit to record the meeting. Assuming that it’s just a meeting.”
Argus said, “Good idea, Cally. Since the relays won’t work through the barrier, we still need to identify the participants.”
Sester wasn’t finished. “Even if it is just a meeting and there’s no trap, you should still expect increased traffic.”
Cally asked, “Why is that?”
“If there are as many aliens in this facility as I suspect, they won’t be as interested in watching the Challenge as the native Chandarans.”
Argus said with dismay, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Sester suppressed a smile. “That’s why I’m here.”
Argus had a faint look of irritation. “Avon, can I assume comm equipment will work within the facility?”
“That’s hard to tell. There’s nothing on the building plans to indicate jamming equipment and our sensors cannot penetrate the facility.”
“Then it’s a good thing we have you and Cally. You can provide the link if the comms don’t work. My team will provide support inside the building but we will stay hidden unless you contact us, Cally. Avon, you coordinate things up here.”
Avon said, “I’m coming down with you.”
Argus looked at him in surprise. “What?”
“You need me to handle the security monitors and the identity sensors.”
Argus said carefully, “We can bring down one of the engineers.”
“They will not be able to handle this level of security. Only I can do that.”
“You cannot get in undetected without me. Do you want the information from this meeting?”
Argus grimaced. “Alright. But I’ll be coming with you.”
“If you can keep up.”
Argus sighed in resignation. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
General Borel Reve was deep in thought and looking outside his window. Beyond was a bright sunny day but in his mood, everything seemed overcast and grim. He looked at least ten years older than he was and he felt even older these days.
A chime on his desk called for his attention. He reached back and hit the comm button. “What is it?”
“The Chamberlain is here, General.”
“Send him in.”
The young general straightened his already straight back and turned to face the door. His father’s old Chamberlain always demanded a great deal of respect.
Borel tried to contain his shock as Olean Rane came in. The man looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Age and stress lined his face and his eyes were blood-shot. There was a sheen of sweat on his brow.
Rane saluted. “General.”
Borel said, “Don’t do that. I always feel like I should be saluting you. Please sit down.”
The Chamberlain sat down like a man suffering from severe joint pain. “I only outrank you in age, General. And no comments about my appearance. I know I look terrible.”
Borel smiled wryly. “I wouldn’t dream of it. How are your investigations going? I’m assuming that’s why you’re here?”
“It’s not going well. Whoever is behind the Shade, knows how we work and has been able to stay one-step ahead of us. The spread among the population is growing to epidemic proportions. Every time we shut down one channel, two more spring up.” Rane hit the arm of his chair in anger and frustration. “We need more units.”
“You’ll have them. Just let me know what you need. I’ve also contacted Reya. I thought her people might be able to help.”
Rane nodded his approval. “That might be what we need. If the opposition can guess what we’re going to do, we need fresh eyes and new strategies.”
“Unfortunately, they’re in the middle of their own crisis. But Reya’s promised they’ll come the moment they’re finished.”
“They might need to come sooner.” Rane clenched his fists. “I…don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to help.”
At his anguished voice, Borel looked at him in alarm. Rane was not only older and tired, he looked pale and ill. His fingers tremored when he wasn’t resting them on the sides of the chair. Borel asked with concern, “What’s wrong?”