Avon and Sester were both strapped into chairs, facing each other. The blue uniformed leader was present.
"As both of you have stopped cooperating, I thought we would try something different," he told them.
Neither of the men had spoken since being brought to the lab. Avon and Sester looked at each other; an unspoken agreement seemed to pass between them.
"Do you really think you can defeat both of us? When you couldn't even beat one of us?" asked Avon.
"We shall see," said the leader.
"If you are thinking of using us to beat each other, you are wasting your time," said Sester. "The only thing you can do is inflict pain or kill us. The first has not worked. The second you are not prepared to do."
"I can always find other psychostrategists to experiment on."
"Do you really have the time?" asked Avon.
The blue leader looked startled. He had not expected this question; he did not like this question.
Avon glanced at Sester. You were right. The psychostrategist nodded imperceptibly.
"I do not know what you're talking about," said the blue uniformed leader.
"We think you do," said Sester.
"What will you do when you cannot find out what you need to know?" asked Avon. "What happens when you cannot find out before your technological advantage disappears?"
"Have you already calculated when that will be?" asked Sester.
The blue uniformed leader was looking very uncomfortable. The two men kept up the pressure.
"You already know I can hold off an entire invasion fleet with a single ship," said Avon.
"You had the minefield to help you," said the leader defensively.
The blue uniformed leader did not understand how a commanding situation had become a defensive one so quickly. The advantage was his. All of the advantages. He could inflict pain at will. Logic dictated that it was the two men strapped in the chairs who should be in the weaker position, not him.
Avon laughed sardonically. "If that was the reason for my success then why do your people consider me a legend?"
"Or is it they fear Avon because, even with the minefield, the odds still did not make sense?" said Sester.
"What have you calculated your current odds to be?" asked Avon.
"I doubt if he will tell us," Sester addressed Avon. "He cannot afford to."
"He is afraid to," said Avon.
"You want the secrets of psychostrategy because you have seen its success when applied to humanity," Sester said to the blue leader.
"What do you think will happen when the same is applied to you?" asked Avon.
"As we are doing now?" said Sester.
"Or against your own people?" said Avon.
There was shock on the man's face. His hand reached towards the panel in front of him; he had a need to regain control. The only way he had left was the application of pain.
"You have lost," Avon said as he saw the leader's movements.
"He won't accept it though," said Sester.
"What odds are your people prepared to accept?" Avon asked the leader.
"What odds are you prepared to accept?" Sester added.
"Take them back to their cell," said the blue leader angrily. He felt as if he had just been exposed; he did not like that feeling.
Avon looked at Sester. Sester nodded very clearly now. His psych-strategy had been correct. The key was the decision of the blue leader.
Argus was facing four of the challengers. These ones were quick and coordinated. Two of them would strike at once, from different sides. A slip in concentration on his part would result in one of them getting through his guard. With the amount of bruising he had sustained and the half-healed injuries, each blow hurt even more.
As each pair finished, the other pair would instantly take their place; never allowing Argus time for even a brief rest. They remained fresh while he was systematically worn down. More of the blows were landing now.
When he could, he would cause one of them to miss and barrel into the other one. As they untangled themselves, it gave him time to catch his breath. But now they had increased the challengers from four to six. It was three and three who came at him. It was much harder to keep all three of them within his vision at the same time. He relied on his instincts and his ability to anticipate possible strike patterns.
As another strike managed to penetrate his guard, Argus realized with dismay that the remaining challengers, who were watching from the circle, had deliberately decreased the radius of the circle. In a tighter arena, he had fewer options and his advantage of speed was reduced considerably.
Avon and Sester were observing from the sidelines. As usual, both men had been shunted off to the side to watch.
"This is not good," said Sester.
"Agreed," said Avon. "Their leader is trying to prove he is still in control."
Sester nodded. "He thinks he still has one avenue left."
The two men could only watch as the challengers began hitting Argus until he finally collapsed to his knees. Normally at this point they would immobilize him by grabbing his arms, while the others administered a beating. But not this time.
As he knelt, one of them directed a kick to his body, which he blocked. Another, a kick to his side, which he again blocked. Again another one to his back, which he barely blocked. Then three coordinated kicks, at the same time; two of which he managed to block and one which knocked him to the ground. At that point they all began kicking him. He tried to protect himself as best as he could, but he was already too tired.
"They're going to kill him," said Avon angrily. He moved towards Argus but the guards had been anticipating their reactions and held him back.
"I think that's the point," said Sester as his guard restrained him as well.
They watched helplessly as the challengers continued kicking Argus until he was no longer physically able to block the blows. He lay silent and unresisting now, except for the occasional cries of pain as something else was broken.
"Stop it!" shouted Avon. "Do you really think you have defeated him by doing this? That you have defeated us? You're only proving that you can't!"
Surprisingly, the challengers stopped. They looked at Avon, and then at the man who was now faced down on the ground. The room was silent except for the sounds of rasping coughs and pained efforts to breathe. Each cough brought up blood. The challengers all backed up and stood in a circle surrounding Argus.
The booming voice which commanded them said, "Leave now."
There was no movement. They all stood frozen, staring down at the man whom they had almost kicked to death.
"Leave the room," the voice commanded again.
No one was paying attention to the voice.
"What are they waiting for?" asked Avon. They needed the soldiers to leave so that the bio-tech would come and tend to Argus's injuries.
"Watch," said Sester.
Normally at the end of each session, after a beating had been administered, Argus would stand in defiance; regardless of how much pain he was in or how injured. It was his declaration that they had not beaten him.
"You think they're waiting for him to get up?" asked Avon.
Both men did not voice their fears that Argus was no longer able to get up. That was what everyone in the room feared, even the challengers.
For one long minute, it seemed that all their fears were going to be proven right.
The challengers still stood waiting.
Argus cried out; it was a sound filled with pain and anguish. Slowly and painfully, he began to move; he was positioning his hands in order to push himself up. They all held their breaths. After the third try, he was finally in a sitting position. The look on his face was one of pure determination. The challengers backed up, even though there was more than enough room. When he finally stood, swaying on his feet, they stared at each other; challengers and their single opponent.
Avon whispered to Sester, "They…"
There was something which wasn't there before.
"This is an interesting development. In trying to make a point, their leader has started losing control over his own men," said Avon.
"Yes. I do not think he will enjoy the irony though," said Sester.
As Argus continued standing, the challengers filed out, followed by the guards who had been watching over Avon and Sester. When the last one left and the door slid closed, Argus collapsed.
Avon and Sester rushed over but they were not fast enough before he hit the ground.
"He's barely breathing," Avon said with concern as he examined Argus. "I think some of the broken ribs punctured his lungs."
Argus moaned and coughed painfully. More blood came up. He tried to speak but only ended up coughing more.
"Don't say anything," Avon told him.
"Reya," Argus rasped. He was gasping in short laboured breaths. "Tell…" The rest of what he had to say was lost as he coughed again. By the time he stopped, he had slipped into unconsciousness.
The door slid open again. The bio-tech entered with the regular two guards who stayed by the door.
As the bio-tech bent down to examine Argus, Avon grabbed his hand.
"You will not touch him today," Avon warned the bio-tech.
"I can not treat him if I can't touch him," the bio-teach said as he waved off the two guards who had approached at the sign of danger.
"You know what I mean," said Avon in a cold tone.
"You never had a problem with it before," said the bio-tech.
"Do you think the guards will be able to stop me before I kill you?" asked Avon. There was more than just a threat in his cold voice.
"If you don't let me tend to him, he's going to die. Do you want that?" asked the bio-tech. He said placatingly. "I will not require anything of him today. I saw what was done. I do not want to add to his pain."
Avon looked at him coldly but he let go of the bio-tech's hand.
The bio-tech kept his word. He tended to Argus's injuries and nothing else. There were many devices he used which Avon did not recognize. The blood was cleared from the lungs. It took a long time to fuse all the broken bones.
When he was finally finished, the bio-tech said, "That's all I can do for him. Without being able to bring him to the healing facility. I have given him a sedative. Give him this when he wakes up." He handed Avon a small clear caplet.
"What's this?" Avon said suspiciously.
"It's a pain blocker," the bio-tech explained.
"I thought you weren't allowed to give him these."
"No. But he will need it. You may not believe it. But despite what our leaders want, and what we've been doing, many have come to respect him. We respect all of you. And we do not like doing this."
"Are you saying that what you've been doing to him has been on orders?" asked Avon.
"No," the bio-tech said. There was a look of embarrassment on his face. "I…like him."
Avon thought that "like" was not quite the word for what the bio-tech had been doing to Argus, but he refrained from saying so.
Before he left, the bio-tech dropped his voice to a low tone, "If you have a plan to escape, you should do it now. I do not think our leaders will allow him to live much longer after what happened today."
After the bio-tech left, Sester and Avon spoke in low tones to avoid the monitors.
Sester whispered, "Their leaders can't afford to allow Argus to live. Not after seeing how their own men reacted. The next challenge will be the last. It will be an ugly and decisive death."
"The bio-tech was right then. We have to escape soon," said Avon. "Is your psych-strategy complete?"
"Yes. We just need to make the opportunity now."
"Unfortunately any escape plans we have requires his tactical ability," said Avon indicating his head towards Argus.
"Tactical ability. Is that what they call brawn these days?" asked Sester.
"I do not find that funny," said Avon.
"You're right. It isn't," said Sester apologetically. He noted, "You're very protective of him."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Would you be surprised to know that he is also very protective of you? He actually threatened me."
"That's hardly surprising. He is protective of everyone. He's very undiscriminating."
"Is that why you are protective of him?" asked Sester.
"I am not undiscriminating," said Avon coldly. He did not understand why people insisted on attributing altruistic motivations to his actions.
Sester suppressed a smile. "Of course not."