"What's wrong?" the young general asked with concern.
Rane wasn't just ill; there was something seriously wrong with him. "That's the real reason why I came today. To warn you. I have Shade poisoning."
Borel's eyes shot wide open and he leaned forward in shock. "How is that possible?" Shade poisoning was a severe form of Shade addiction. It took a long time for users to get to this stage and only if you took large quantities of it. Once you had Shade poisoning, without regular concentrated doses, the sufferer would die a painful death. "I thought…it took years of abuse to get Shade poisoning?"
"I collapsed several days ago and was rushed to Healer Garrett. He discovered that it was Shade poisoning. Somehow they've developed a form of Shade that acts like a poison." Rane's breathing was shallow and raspy, as if inhaling was painful.
This was the last thing Borel wanted to hear. "This is very disturbing.” The Chamberlain had always seemed indestructible. To see him human and vulnerable was a shock. "Is there a cure?"
"There is no antidote, except Shade itself. Garrett has a team working on it but he’s not optimistic. He says the poison changes the body’s metabolism on a genetic level. It’s technology that he’s never seen before."
Borel's military mind struggled for a solution. "They have to have an antidote or some way to counteract it. There has to be another way. I'll bring in the troops. We'll force them to give us the antidote."
"If I knew where their base of operations was, I would have already done that."
"Of course…sorry, Chamberlain."
"Rane. Your father always called me Rane."
"That's why I can't."
Rane inclined his head in remembrance. "I miss your father. Those were simpler days. The enemy was ruthless, but at least they were honourable. Not like these…criminals."
Borel still had mixed feelings about the hard man who had been his father but he had always loved him. "I miss him too. I'll call you Rane if you stop calling me General, at least when we're alone."
Rane looked at him speculatively. Of the three Reve sons, Borel was the least like his father in appearance. He was not as big and imposing as the others were and the strong Reve jaw was not as prominent. One thing he did share in common with his father was his skill as a military strategist. "Your father would have been proud of you."
"He had a funny way of not showing it." There was a light, joking bitterness in his voice.
"He thought he knew what was best for you but when you defied him…and your sister stood with you…"
"It didn't endear me to him. I know. I will not have anything bad said about Reya. Without her, I wouldn't be what I am today. She risked a great deal for me."
"You won't hear anything negative from me. I respect your sister. She's a strong, intelligent woman. If she had been a man…"
"Don't let her hear you say that."
Rane’s lips curled in a smile but he started coughing. He put his hand to his chest and tried to relax as his breathing came in gasps.
Borel made a move to get up. "Are you alright?"
Rane waved him off. "It's getting worse. I haven't been taking the full dose."
"You have to. If you don't…" It explained why Rane looked this bad.
"I know what is happening, but with a full dose, I can't think clearly. I won't be able to continue leading the fight."
"We can get someone else to do that. You have to take care of yourself until we find the antidote."
"There isn't one, Borel. You have to face it. And as long as I have breath, I will use it to fight for our people. I will not let these criminals beat me. And you can't stop me."
"You were always a stubborn old soldier. My father's best. I don't want to lose you but as you pointed out, I can't stop you. Is there anything I can do?"
"Promise me that you won't bring in military force. It will only make matters worse. They might stop Shade distribution as retaliation."
Borel grimaced. "How much of our population would be affected?"
"Too many." There was a look of tight anger and disgust on Rane's face. "Shade addiction is permanent but its effects are tempting."
Borel’s voice rose in anger, “And now they’re using it as a weapon against you.”
“They haven’t contacted me yet but I expect it won’t be long. You have to warn the others to be careful.”
At first light, the men sent most of their team to the women’s encampment to take their flag. They arrived at a steady, relaxed jog and stopped within a stone’s throw of the clearing. They couldn’t see the clearing yet and no women were in sight. Confidence made them cocky and they were sure they'd be able to get the flag. Most had visions of a nice hot breakfast with all the trimmings after the contest ended. With twenty men at the peak of their physical conditions, they didn’t expect much in terms of serious opposition. Not to mention there had been sporadic and frantic bursts of weapons fire from the women during the night. They were obviously spooked and afraid at being out in the scary forest. The men had laughed and settled in for a good night’s rest with the music of the women’s panic in their ears.
As they prepared themselves and sent a scout out, Brady, the soldier who had fought with Alara, remarked worriedly, “We haven’t seen any of them yet.”
A soldier with a wide-nose snorted with derision, “They didn’t post a guard.”
A green-eyed soldier said, “They’re probably still asleep. This’ll be easy.”
Brady said, “I don’t know…”
The first soldier said, “Yeah, you wouldn’t, would you. If you did, you wouldn’t have lost against that woman.”
Brady stepped forward and stood toe-to-toe against wide-nose. His voice was an angry snarl, “How about I pound you right now?” Since tying in the fight with Alara, the others on the team had not been treating him very well. He had to defend himself constantly.
The corporal of the group said, “Do this after the contest, or I’ll pound both of you.”
The men sneered at each other and took a step back.
Wide-nose said, “This isn’t over.”
Brady said, “Not until I teach you a lesson.”
The corporal put his brawny arm out to stop wide-nose from lunging forward. “Do I have to tie both of you up?”
The scout came back. “They’re gone.”
Everyone turned to stare at him.
The corporal asked, “What do you mean gone?”
The scout said, “There’s something else. You’re not going to like this.”
The men spread out and approached the clearing warily. How could all the women be gone?
Green-eye said, “They must’ve panicked and ran. There was all that gun fire last night.”
The corporal said, “All of them?”
Brady said, “Something must have happened. I can’t believe they all ran.”
At the clearing, the men stood stunned. There was a sea of red flags on poles.
The scout said, “Like I said, it might not be that easy.”
Wide-nose said, “They’ve lost then. They can’t do that.”
Brady scanned the field thoughtfully. He felt admiration for the women but he dared not show it on his face. “There isn’t anything in the rules to say they can’t do this. As long as they didn’t move the flag or try to hide it.”
Wide-nose waved his hands towards the flags. “What do you call this?”
The corporal rubbed the side of his nose. “They’re hiding it in plain sight. We see the flag, we just don’t know it.” He said reluctantly, “It’s…clever.”
Green-eye said, “They’re devious.”
Brady said, “They used their brains because they know they can’t fight all of us.” He looked around nervously and crouched, “That means they didn’t panic and run. They’re still…”
The forest around them erupted in stun gun fire. Ten men fell immediately. The corporal was one of the first to be hit as frantic men dove behind trees and began firing back. More men fell as women, hidden in the trees above them began raining more tracers on those who were trying to hide. Less then half the men were still standing as they ran in the only direction where there wasn’t any gunfire, the clearing.
Wide-nose shouted, “Grab all the flags! It has to be one of them! Then they’ll lose!”
The remnant of soldiers raced for the flags. Muzzles suddenly popped out from the ground and fired at them. The shocked men fell as the first ones ripped the flags from the poles. Brady was the only one left standing as the women broke cover and surrounded him with their guns ready.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Brady spotted the real flag. Its edges were not torn roughly like the other ones.
Kirsten levelled her gun at him and said, “Don’t do it. You won’t make it.”
Brady said, “I know.” Even though he admired these women, he was not about to give up without trying his best. He suddenly raced towards the flag, hoping the surprise at such a crazy move would freeze them just long enough. Streams of stun tracers raced towards him and he fell within a meter of his goal.
Avon and Argus teleported down with Cally, Vila and Corinne. As before, the two women were in male disguise. A row of hedges covered their presence as they lay flat on the ground. Avon poked his head briefly over the edge. His voice was whispered. “There are four security cameras in view.” He slipped his portable computer out of the case slung across his chest and plugged in the disruptor array. “This will take a few minutes.”
Argus and the others kept their eyes covering all directions.
Vila said softly, “What about the cameras we can’t see?”
Argus said, “Then we run.”
Avon said absently as his fingers danced over the keys, “There are only four at this location unless they’ve changed the configuration of their security system.” He said dryly, “Of course, you could always run. For the exercise.”
Argus grinned slightly but retained the hardness and calm of the experienced soldier. “Once we get inside, remember to stick to the plan. Don’t let anything divert your attention.”
Vila said, “Get in, record the meeting and get out. It’s easy.”
As they conversed and watched, Cally had her eyes closed and her psi senses stretched to the limit, trying to get the mood and location of the people in the vicinity. She whispered, “There are a lot of people in this building but the majority seem to be gathered in two areas.”
Argus said, “Then the meeting’s started. We have to get in there. Avon, how are you getting on with the cameras?”
“Another thirty seconds.”
Corinne said, “Some of them might be watching the Challenge. I wish I knew how it was going.”
Vila said, “Don’t worry, I asked Zen to record it for us.”
Argus frowned. “You used the ship’s computer for personal reasons?”
Vila blanched at the disapproval in Argus’s voice. There was no question he was the leader and he would not brook any nonsense. “Well…I thought it’d be alright. Since it’s not…entertainment. It’s…for training purposes. Yes, that’s it. To help the women. Debriefing….and all that.”
Argus said in a severe tone and with a straight face, “Don’t forget to include me when you watch it. I will bring...the popcorn.”
His face was so serious that Vila had to blink for a moment as he registered what the Argus had just said. “Popcorn?”
“I could provide other snacks if you don’t like popcorn.”
Vila chuckled quietly, “You nearly had me going there. I didn’t know you had a sense of humour.”
Avon said dryly, “Usually because he is the source of humour. The cameras have been disabled if anyone is interested.”
Argus rarely broke his professional demeanour on a mission. He realized he was feeling far too comfortable with this group of people. “Sorry. Let’s get going. Side door. Vila the lock is yours.”
They jumped the hedge and kept low as they raced to the door. Vila made quick work of the lock and they were able to find the room Avon needed. There were only a few anxious moments as they hid from the people moving inside the building.
Avon cut out a section of the wall using a laser cutter and accessed the optical cables. He began connecting his computer to the building’s security system.
Vila said, “I don’t like this. There are too many of them out there. Cally, I thought you said that most of them are gathered in two areas?”
Cally still had part of her attention taken by her psi senses. She said distractedly. “The majority. Not all. There will be some activity.”
Argus said, “Most of them are wearing white lab uniforms. We need to blend in.”
Vila said, “I hope you’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting.”
“Well, if you think that I want to steal some lab uniforms then you would be right.”
“Let me get this right. You want to steal some lab uniforms because it’s safer to blend in. But in order to steal the uniforms, we have to go out there, not wearing uniforms?”
Argus said, “You could go out naked.”
Avon remarked dryly, “Please don’t. The connections are made. I should be ready in twenty minutes.”
Argus said, “Perfect. I’ll go get the uniforms.”
Vila said, “You’re going alone?”
“Are you volunteering?”
“Well…it’s not that I don’t want to…”
Vila saw Avon lift his head slightly to look at him. Was he waiting with a ready barb? That would be just like him. Vila knew it would be a faint hope that Avon was expecting something different. His views of humanity did not contain that kind of optimism.
Vila had to admit that he did have a funny excuse ready at the tip of his tongue. It was just like him. He gathered his shaky courage and said, “I’ll go with you.”
It was hard to tell but Vila could almost swear that there was a sliver of a smile on Avon’s lips before he bent down over the computer again.
Corinne said eagerly, “Me too. I’ll go with you.”
Vila opened his mouth to say something but Argus said, “Thank you, Corinne but it’ll be easier to work with just two of us. You stay here and keep watch.”
Corinne sighed with disappointment. Sometimes Vila worried about her. She was far too young and inexperienced to understand the dangers; she needed to be protected.
Before Corinne found a reason why she should go with them, Vila said, “We should go. I mean…if you think so.”
Argus said with light amusement, “Yes, sir.”