The doctors worked quickly, stemming the blood loss and repairing the damage to Cally's abdomen. Her face was pale and faint breaths barely lifted her chest. Avon had to strain his eyes to reassure himself that she was still breathing.
Avon was intimately familiar with the kinds of wounds that a body could endure. He knew Cally would survive hers. She was in good hands and the medical facilities were more than adequate but knowledge was cold comfort when Cally was the one hurting.
Without her comforting voice in his head or the light touch of her presence, the space between them seemed a lifeless void. Irrational fear gripped him. He had never realized until now how much she had become a part of him. Even when she wasn't actively projecting to him, he was always aware of her. And now when that awareness was gone, there was a large empty hole inside him.
What had Cally called it? They were connected. Mental threads that joined them together through time and space. He had always considered her words fanciful concepts born of nonsensical romantic notions or Auron mysticism. But the emptiness he felt now told him that he was wrong. His external mask was still in place, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the face of the woman who had become more important to him than his own life. He needed her more than he had ever needed anyone. It wasn't love channelled into logical thought as it had been with Anna. With Cally, he was learning something else. He was breaking the mental chains that bound him to a life of loneliness and empty logic.
A strong male voice reminded him that Argus was standing by his elbow. “Avon, I have to go back down. There were other people in that facility that might need to be saved and I have to inform President Trist.”
Avon was half-listening but he felt a strong, supportive hand squeezing his shoulder. The warmth of that touch and the compassion in the voice made Avon turn to stare at him.
"You stay here and take care of her, Avon. Don't worry about anything else. I’ll look in on you when I get back.” Argus headed for the door.
Rare warmth escaped from the depths that few people were allowed to see and touched Avon’s voice as he said sincerely, “Thank you.”
Argus turned back to look at him. “You never have to thank me, Avon.”
“You called me Kerr earlier.”
Argus grimaced as he remembered that Avon had told him not to."Sorry, I wasn't thinking. I know you told me not to."
"It's not that." Avon studied the strong, masculine face before him and recognized the spirit of the boy he had known as Jack. A boy of honour, who would fight to the death for his friends. A gentle giant who could destroy with little effort but who was afraid to hurt anyone. "I call you Jack now.”
Argus cocked his head slightly as he wondered where Avon was going with this. “You do sometimes.”
“You’ve never asked why.” In a moment of need and shared concern, the two boys had found each other again in the teleport room. Avon had made an unconscious realization about their relationship. He was only beginning to understand it now. It wasn’t just Cally that he was connected to.
“No. I never did.”
“But you accepted it.” Avon could feel it clearly now, the threads that joined them together. They had been friends from the first time they had met at the Academy. No memory blocks could erase what they had been to each other. What had Sester said? Jack had always listened to him.
There was sadness in those eyes now; a man haunted by his own demons. In many ways, their lives had run the same course and one day someone would pay for what had been done to them.
“For me, sentiment has always been a weakness that others have exploited.”
Argus sighed sadly. He knew that Avon’s scars must run deep. “I’m sorry, Avon.”
It was always hard for Avon to admit the human connection that made him vulnerable. "I haven't been easy on you."
Argus grinned lightly. "You wouldn't be Avon if you were."
“You should go. People need saving.” There was no sarcasm in his tone. “Don’t get yourself shot again.”
Argus looked with wonder at this strange man. Avon seemed like several people at once. The cold, calculating man who was barely more than a human machine and the boy to whom caring had not once been something alien and threatening. “I can only try.”
Since the others were all busy saving people, Sester had accompanied Reya down to the planet for the Second Challenge. Since he had played a big role in developing the strategies that were to be used, she couldn’t find a good reason to deny him the opportunity. Plus he’d said that he wanted to provide support since she would be alone. Of course, he’d made very clear that he knew that she didn’t need any help.
Reya knew that he was manipulating her but she also knew that he was genuinely trying to help. It was hard to refuse him and she wanted to encourage his better impulses so she had relented. As long as he stayed out of trouble and followed her directions. He’d agreed to this instantly, which made her wary. Of course, she was always cautious around him. Even when he was doing something good, there was an element of calculation and deviousness that had to be watched out for. He never did anything with only one purpose in mind.
The official booth to watch the Second Challenge was spacious and well appointed. Two large screens followed each of the groups’ activities.
There was outrage when daylight broke and they could see the numerous flags that dotted the women’s clearing.
Captain Kegan stood up angrily. “That’s illegal! You can’t do that.”
Reya and Sester had been shocked to see the flags too but they were far too good and controlled to have it show on their faces. Sester’s eyes were light with amusement.
Reya said reasonably, “There is nothing in the rules that says that this is illegal.”
“But there’s only supposed to be one flag! You can’t have more than one! How are we supposed to know which one to get?”
Reya said, “That’s the point. You don’t know. The women have not hidden the flag or moved it. It’s still there. Your team can find it if they look.”
The judges were having their own discussions as they reviewed the rules.
“We’ll see about that!” Kegan stomped over to the judge’s panel. “I request a judgement. The women have defaulted the contest by breaking the rules.”
The lead judge, Hallam, stood up and faced the assembled audience. “The rules state that challengers are not allowed to cover up the flag or to move it. It has traditionally been interpreted as using a covering in order to conceal the flag or hiding it by moving it. It has never been interpreted as hiding in plain sight because no one has thought of doing this until now. We judge that the women have not broken the rules of the Challenge. But in future, the definition of ‘hide’ will include this provision. This is our official judgement.”
Kegan dared not defy the judges but he snarled at Reya. “They still won’t win. The flag is still out there. My men will find it.”
Reya kept a smile from appearing on her face. “Assuming that they have the time to.”
Kegan was about to say something but he stared hard at the screen. “Where are the women?”
It was Sester’s turn to suppress a smile. The women had done very well in setting up the trap. There was no sign of them anywhere. Kirsten still surprised him though. He was certain the idea of the flags had been hers.
They all watched in fascination as the men’s group approached the clearing and were just as stunned to find the sea of flags. Then all hell broke loose as the women began firing from their concealed positions. The men dove for cover as they fired back but tracers began raining on them from other women who were hiding in the trees above.
The look on Kegan’s face was that of shock and anger.
The men ran towards the clearing, away from the women’s trap. They began tearing the flags off the poles when the final trap was sprung and they all went down. The solitary Brady stood alone as women moved to surround him. When he raced towards the real flag, the audience held their breaths. Regardless of whose team they wanted to win, such an act of desperation and courage could not be ignored. There was a sigh of acceptance as he was cut down by the stun guns.
Sester didn’t find this very interesting. It was only a confirmation of what he already knew. The Chandarans were transfixed by acts of courage and nobility.
Everyone was on their feet, their faces in shock at what they had just witnessed.
Kegan was not pleased.
Reya said, “Do you find anything in the rules to say they can’t do that?”
Kegan snarled, “If it weren’t for the surprise with the flags, you couldn’t have stopped us.”
“This is the second time that you’ve misjudged us. You only have one more chance.”
Kegan stepped towards her. “Are you trying to say something?”
She stood relaxed and looked unconcerned at Kegan’s posturing. “Are you trying to do something?”
Sester said from behind her, “I wouldn’t recommend it. She hasn’t had her coffee this morning.”
Judge Hallam said in a steely voice, “Stand down, Captain. I will have order.”
Kegan backed off and bowed to the judge. “My apologies.”
Hallam asked, “Do you have further objections?”
Kegan was grinding his teeth. He obviously had all kinds of objections, but none that would not result in his being removed from the room. “No, sir. But I want it on record that I object to the interpretation of the rules about the flag.”
“Duly noted. Now everyone sit down. The contest has not finished.”
After the contest had ended and Sentha triumphantly raised the blue standard over her head, Kegan was subdued as he accepted the results from the judges but he directed a dark glare at Reya before he stalked out of the booth.
Judge Hallam approached afterwards. “Congratulations, Champion Reya. Your women acquitted themselves well. They showed good strategy and execution.”
“Thank you, Judge Hallam. I wouldn’t have thought that you would approve of women participating in the Challenges.”
Hallam towered over her but his manner was not aggressive. “You’re right. As a man, I do not approve of this contest. But as a past challenger myself, I cannot ignore skill and ability. You’re very fortunate.”
“I’m aware of that.” Her manner was respectful. “You could have judged against us in the flag issue. We did not break the letter of the rules but we did break the spirit of it.”
“President Trist chose well then.”
There was no change in expression on Hallam’s face but Reya realized that he was subtly trying to convey something. “I suppose he did.”
“Now, I have a more serious question.”
“What is this coffee?”
Sester and Reya waited at a medical facility for the triumphant women to be transported back from the Challenge field. Basic medical examinations would be provided while others needed to recover from stun shots.
Sester said with light humour, “Kegan doesn’t seem to like you.”
“The feeling’s mutual.”
Sester chuckled. “You know…you’re very attractive when you’re like that. The cold, implacable Champion. A hero and…”
She cut off his attempt at humour, “And someone who can and will knock you senseless if you don’t behave.”
“Why do you have to do that? It makes you even more…”
Reya snapped, “Stop it.”
Sester grinned impishly. “I know you enjoy our interactions. Why deny it?” He had such a fun, teasing tone that Reya almost smiled despite her irritation at his games.
“You like playing with fire, don’t you?”
He leaned towards her and his voice became serious. “You know me, Reya.”
“I know you like to play dangerous games. You think they’re fun because you’ve never had to pay the price personally.”
Sester started. This was one of the reasons why he loved this woman. Unlike him, she was serious, she did not take any nonsense from anyone, especially not from him, and she had a sharp perception that came from truth and not from a lifetime of deviousness and calculation. “I have seen the price.”
Reya said, “But not enough of it.”
“You think that one day the price will be too much for me? And then I might change?”
“I hope you reach that point long before you find a price that's too steep to be paid.”
“You have a great deal of faith in me, Reya.” This woman gave him a warm feeling.
“I think you’re capable of more than you want people to believe.”
“Don’t believe the lie, Reya. That’s all that I am outside of being a psychostrategist.”
At that moment, the shuttle with the women arrived and everyone rushed to meet the incoming champions.