Selection Library Help

Expeditionary Force

By Alice C. Aldridge
This story is respectfully dedicated to that special breed of men and women who go in harm's way to save the lives and promote the well-being of people suffering from the effects of disasters, natural and manmade, no matter their nationality, religion, or political persuasion.


EXPEDITIONARY FORCE

The rock had been tumbling through the void for several million years.  Not a particularly impressive geological specimen, it was an aggregation of sub-planetary debris and ice that was relatively small as asteroid wannabes went, hardly big enough to register as even a minor blip on most planetary defenses.  It was also the survivor of numerous close encounters with comets, dying stars, and rogue moons of various sizes and shapes, which had shaped its orbit over the millennia.  A trajectory that put it on a collision course with the planet Chiron . . . where its long, dark journey ended.

Chiron was a quiet, pastoral planet, lacking valuable resources in the way of metals, crystals, heavy elements or anything else that would make it a desirable location for people wishing to exploit a new world and make their fortunes.  Its soil was mostly sandy loam, with barely enough elements in it to nourish basic grasslands.  Even the scenery was bland and uninteresting, lacking the soaring mountains, tumbling waterfalls, and exotic plant and animal life that typically attracted tourists and developers.  It was simply a modest planet with shallow semi-tropical seas, mildly rolling hills and dales, and a somewhat retarded ecology that hadn't advanced much past the clams and mussels stage.  In other words, the ideal location for settlers and their families who didn't want to wrestle with a raw, untamed wilderness before building a peaceful home for themselves.  Or at least that's the way things were for the first ten years or so of the colony's history.

The Chiron impactor was determined by scientists who studied the aftermath of the disaster to have been approximately ten kilometers in diameter.  Screaming into Chiron's atmosphere at forty times the speed of sound, it gouged out a crater almost 240 kilometers in diameter as it smashed into the planet with the force of a billion tons of TNT.

Fortunately, it did not directly impact any of the colony's sparsely inhabited townships.

Unfortunately, the planetary devastation was so horrendous that it hardly mattered.

As the tumbling ball of rock and ice blazed through Chiron's atmosphere, there was an enormous fan of light streaming behind it.  It slammed into the sea, blasted water outward in a mile-high tsunami that emptied the shallow ocean basin where the impactor hit, then fragmented the planet's crust, causing magma from the center of the planet to surge upwards.  A vast fireball of atomized rock and sand funneled into the atmosphere and began to spread worldwide, driven by hurricane force winds.

Even though Chiron lacked vast woodlands and large tracts of wild vegetation to feed planet wide forest fires, the blast wave of the impact along with the molten debris raining from the sky in the aftermath the meteor strike caused most of the early deaths.  The impactor hit the dayside of the planet, right at planet dawn while large numbers of colonists were still sound asleep in their beds.  Every living thing within five thousand kilometers of that impact zone was atomized by liquefied rock on a ballistic trajectory that was carried by the initial blast wave or else suffocated in the cloud of toxic sulfur and carbonized material flung through the atmosphere on hurricane winds.

However, many of the settlers who chose to live on Chiron came from the upper echelons of the Federation political, scientific and military elite.  Galactic events of the past decade, along with wide-spread corruption in high places had been the chief reason that many of them had chosen this unimportant, off-the-beaten-path world to retreat to, determined to live out their lives and raise their families in peace.  Though they hoped that their voluntary withdrawal from Federation power games would allow them to live peacefully and undisturbed, they did not trust the ruthless and ambitious superiors that they had fled from would leave them alone.

Besides the usual orbiting weather and communications systems, the colonists had invested in a state-of-the-art satellite defense to scramble the guidance controls of any missile launched at them.  However, it proved absolutely useless against the brute force of the meteor's impact.  That same caution also led many of them to build homes that were virtual fortresses, with secret rooms, hidden tunnels, and other types of shelters to protect their families from blast effects, gas, or other types of planet-wide destruction.  Thus, several hundred men, women and children took heed of their early warning systems and fled to their safe havens in the aftermath of the meteor's impact.  However, thousands more, who did not share their neighbors' paranoia, died in their sleep.

Even those colonists who thought that they had prepared for the worst found themselves taken by surprise by the devastation wrought by that single meteor strike, as their flyers and shuttlecraft hurtled through the air in the grip of hypercane winds of over 300 kph.  Though the settlers were not dependent on Chiron's weather for their food supply, the damage to the planetary ecosystem, with acid rain, year round subfreezing temperatures, and severe atmospheric pollution, would have resulted in a mass exodus as soon as it was safe for ships to lift off.  However, geologic sensors planted by a preliminary exploration team revealed that the meteor had actually broken through the crust of the planet, resulting in a tectonic instability would shake their world apart in a matter of days.  They had no choice but to evacuate as soon as possible . . . if they could.

The EMP burst caused by that initial impact fried the electronics of most of their sensor and communications equipment, causing brief confusion about the cause of the disaster.  Some believed they were under attack by hostile aliens . . . or their onetime political allies.  Even the signaling devices with shielded circuitry suffered malfunctions, operating in erratic fashion, leaving the survivors to wonder if anyone was aware of their plight and if so, what would they . . . what could they do about this world and its survivors' dire situation?

* * *

Liberator was just returning from another one of Blake's numerous "fact-finding" missions as Ambassador-at-Large, or Ambassador Extra Large as Vila sometimes referred to him, when they received the distorted and erratic disaster signal from a group of Chiron's survivors.  The message was very weak, making it very difficult for Blake and his crew to decipher it.

". . . FALL repeat SKY FALL . . . planetary disaster . . . explosions . . . tidal waves . . . hurricanes . . . volcanic activity.  Cause . . . unknown . . . alien attack . . . mass drivers . . . thousands dead . . . send help . . . ships destroyed initial impact . . . SEND HELP."

+Message repeats+ Zen intoned, its computer voder almost seeming to take on the note of dire distress from the message they just received. +Shall I replay the signal and attempt to clarify the missing portions?+

"Don't bother, Zen," Avon answered snidely, "I'm sure that our Fearless Leader has heard more than enough to send us charging right into the middle of that catastrophe."

Blake's expression held a combination of irritation and disbelief, "And what do you think we should do, Avon? Ignore the distress call completely? Pretend we never heard it? Go on our merry way ignoring these people's trouble . . . and don't get involved?"

Avon gave what in a more emotional man might have been called a 'rueful sigh.'  In his case, it simply indicated that he was submitting to the will of the majority - under protest.  He could already tell by Tarrant and Dayna's concerned expressions that those two young hotheads were champing at the bit to follow Blake into whatever planetary hell might await them.  He was only too aware of Cally's compassionate nature, which left only Vila and his new friend Soolin to join their voices with his in a plea for some small degree of restraint, before charging headlong into space only knew what kind of disaster.

"I was merely clinging to the faint hope that you might actually demonstrate a modicum of common sense in this situation, or at the very least, exercise some degree of caution in approaching the planet.  After all, they admitted themselves that their planet might be under alien attack, with mass drivers, no less.  A technology that advanced could smash though Liberator's shields without a second thought."

At the piloting station, Tarrant's hands danced their elegant pattern across the controls as he laid in a stealth course that would take them into Chiron's system without drawing the attention of possible attackers.  "He's right, Blake.  We should take the necessary precautions to avoid enemy ships, but I've already programmed an evasive approach into Zen's flight computer.  We can make a quick pass through the system without being detected and then orbit the planet if there's no sign of hostile activity."

"That's presuming that the space around Chiron itself is safe," Soolin spoke up from where she had been seated on one of the flight deck couches, maintaining her usual low-key watchful presence.

Dayna glanced up from where she'd been kneeling under the plasma bolt station, adjusting its controls to augment their power.  "What do you mean by that? How could the space around Chiron not be safe?"

"A planet wide disaster could be caused by any number of things, solar flares, rogue comets, maybe even a miniature black hole passing through.  Any one of which could cause this ship - and us - serious problems."

Avon muttered to himself, "At last, a woman after my own heart," while Blake tugged thoughtfully at his lower lip before speaking in a determined voice, "Zen, can your long range sensors scan the area around Chiron for possible anomalies that would endanger this ship?"

He caught the intensely suspicious look from Avon's piercing dark eyes and amended his question, "Or its crew?  If so, please commence scan and report your findings."

+Working.+ the voice intoned.

As the lights on Zen's fascia plate flickered and danced, Tarrant joined Dayna at the plasma bolt station while Avon turned his attention to his ongoing efforts to upgrade their sensors and shielding, and thus improve his chances of survival, despite Blake's foolhardy attempts to drop in on every trouble spot in the galaxy.

During Zen's scan, Vila, having escaped the onerous task of helping Cally to resupply the Med Center, came sauntering onto the flight deck and plopped down beside Soolin.

"What's happening?" he chirped, then listened with growing dismay as the blonde gunslinger described the distress call that they had received earlier.

Hoping to preserve his skin as always, he spoke up in a querulous tone, "If anyone was asking me, which of course no one is, I'd say that the smartest thing we could do would be steer Zen as far away from that planet as was possible . . . and still remain in the same galaxy."

"No one's asking you," Blake and Avon echoed simultaneously, exchanging bemused and suspicious glances, then Blake spoke up sharply, "Well, Zen? What's your report?"

+There is a large amount of cometary debris in close approach to the system's primary, though it does not have sufficient mass or energy levels to present difficulties to our shielding.  However, the second planet from the sun is currently showing major disturbances in its atmosphere and geosphere due to cometary debris impact.  That should present no problems to this ship or crew unless we should choose to orbit the planet.+

There was a brief silence in the aftermath of Zen's report before Avon's acid drawl manifested, "Well, even Zen advises caution, Blake, before we charge headlong into another one of your reckless ventures."

Ignoring Avon's protests, Blake ordered Zen to plot the quickest route to Chiron and implement the course change, broadcasting a signal that help was on the way.  Then he turned to Tarrant and Dayna.

"We'll need your skills if we want to improve our own chances of survival while saving as many of the colonists as we can.  Zen can handle the simple route to Chiron, Tarrant, but once we're in orbit around the planet, I want you at the helm.  There's no telling what sort of floating garbage you'll have to deal with while we're trying to rescue the survivors.  Our lives may depend on your skill at evasive maneuvers.  Dayna, I want you to standing by the plasma bolt station so anything Tarrant can't evade, you'll be able to destroy."

The two young people nodded and began to work on linking their controls together to optimize their ability to dodge or destroy orbiting debris.  At Blake's strong suggestion, Vila returned to the Med Center to help with the likely influx of refugees and casualties.  Vila started to take Soolin with him, but Blake addressed the blonde gunslinger thoughtfully.

"If you don't mind, Soolin, there's another job I think you'd be much better at."

Leading her to the teleport pad, he pointed out the various controls and coordinate system, reviewing how they worked.  "This duty requires a quick steady hand and a sharp eye for detail, both of which you have in abundance.  Do you mind helping evacuate survivors from the planet's surface?"

Soolin shrugged and gave a rueful smile, "It beats being surrounded by squalling babies and their hysterical mothers.  Wouldn't take Cally's job on a bet."

Blake nodded in agreement.  "We just try to do what we can in a situation like this."

However, by the time that Liberator arrived in Chiron's system and they had a chance to study Zen's data readouts and viewscreen images from the planetary surface itself, it was obvious that Liberator and its crew lacked the equipment and the expertise to conduct rescue operations in the inferno that Chiron had become.

Avon was the first to speak after scanning Zen's initial atmospheric readings and the electromagnetic flux that was playing havoc with his computers, "No chance of using the teleport, Blake.  Not unless you want your body as scrambled as totally as your brains are.  The meteorite's initial impact created so much electromagnetic garbage in the atmosphere, I wouldn't even recommend attempting to send down food or medical supplies.  Its cellular structure would arrive in such a deranged state as to be toxic . . . or at the very least, useless."

"We can't just abandon these people, Avon," Blake protested.  "Surely there's something that we can do to get them off their world?"

A snide expression came over Avon's face, as he pulled up the planet's colonization records at his computer station.  "Do you know anything about the history of this world, Blake? The brave pioneers that you want us to endanger our lives to make some reckless, foolhardy attempt to rescue?  They're Federation bureaucrats, Blake.  Government appointees, retired Space Command officers and their families, bloody politicians.  Can't we just assume the universe has finally developed a sense of justice . . . and let them die in the secure little nests that they feathered for themselves, with the sweat of other people's brows?"

There was a long silence as Blake stared down into the swirling hell that had once been a pastoral planet, before he turned to Avon, "They're still human beings, Avon.  They laugh, cry, love their families, feel pain and sorrow, just like you and I.  I won't abandon them, not if there's some way . . . any way . . . that we can come to their rescue."

Savagely Avon stabbed at the controls of his station, triggering the eruption of several pages filled with maps, equations and predictions.

"Look, I know you were a systems engineer and not a planetary or environmental ecologist, but take a good long look at those readouts.  That meteor was a Category IV impactor . . . or what in less erudite circles is known as a 'planet-buster.'  The people of Chiron don't just have to worry about firestorms, acid rain, nuclear winter or other environmental catastrophes.  Their world won't survive that long.  The collision set off a chain of events that will result in world-wide volcanic eruptions, tectonic upheaval and crustal shifts that will eventually tear this world apart."

Avon's voice never rose above a muted growl, but everyone on the flight deck heard the frustration in his tone.  Despite his earlier denunciation of Chiron's colonists as "Federation scum", he was as disturbed about abandoning them to the planet's dissolution as Blake was.

"Is there any way at all that we can save these people?"  Blake's voice was even and pragmatic, as he turned to Tarrant who had pulled off several miraculous rescues and salvage operations in the past.

"Well . . ." the pilot muttered thoughtfully.  "We could evacuate them by shuttle or other atmospheric craft . . ." 

Avon covered his eyes with a weary hand, "You did notice the readouts about wind velocity and other atmospheric vicissitudes didn't you, Del?"

"Hypercanes of 300 kph, along with tornadic downbursts, and a skyful of cometary debris.  Yes, Avon, I'm well aware of the dangers of attempting to pilot an atmospheric craft down to the planet's surface.  However, I think that we can find the right kind of craft to do the job . . . and the pilots to fly them . . . on Sanctuary."

"And Mikhail Stannis will likely demand his usual 'pound of flesh' before offering any assistance."

But Avon's sarcasm did not dampen Tarrant's altruistic impulses, "You never know, Avon.  The Enclave may already be organizing a rescue wing of pilots and craft."

"I'll believe it when I see it."

Blake turned his attention to getting Liberator under way, "Zen, plot a course to Sanctuary and implement.  Standard by twelve."

* * *

In the crowded building where the Stannis/Travis Trading Fleet maintained its planetside office, half of the partnership was slumped at his desk peering red-eyed at the pages of financial hardcopy that was the product of just one data crystal recording of last year's trade runs.  There were at least a dozen more crystals that he had to print out and review before making their annual report to the head of their Enclave, Jenna's uncle, Mikhail Stannis.  Even though they were a supposedly independent sept within the clan, they still had far too many links - financial and otherwise - with Jenna's uncle for Travis's peace of mind.

Though he had to admit that the old man had mellowed over the last couple of years, especially after their joint mission to La Terre de Nuit San Fin, to rescue his and Jenna's son Jason from the clutches of a Terra Nostra capo.  The man had been ruthlessly amoral, with ambitions that had threatened the entire Stannis Fleet, but working as a team, along with Blake's timid lockpick, Vila Restal, and his newfound fast gun girlfriend, Soolin, they'd managed to retrieve the boy without having to yield control of the clan's holdings.

"Now, if I could just whip these damned figures into some reasonably intelligible format as easily as we dealt with Lucan and his flunkies," he muttered, running the fingers of his flesh and blood hand through his unruly dark hair.  Though dealing with their fleet's balance sheets was not his favorite past time, Travis had grudgingly learned to accept the responsibility for keeping them current, knowing that keeping proper records was as important to managing their three ships as it had been when he'd commanded a brigade of the Federation's best troopers.

Of course, his junior officer didn't dare complain when he would foist off minor resupply and replacement nitwork on the poor sod.  Jenna, on the other hand, protested vigorously and often whenever he tried to inflict his data keeping chores on her . . . or anyone else in the crew that he could bully, bribe or persuade to feel sorry for him.

With a rueful sigh, he bent over the pages of figures again.  With his attention focused on inventories and tariff tables, he did not realize that Jenna had entered the office with some kind of formal printed document in her hand, until she actually spoke, "We've just received an official summons from the Enclave Council."

There was a very odd look on her face.  A strange mixture of guilt, bemusement, and if he could believe his remaining eye - jealousy.

"What's wrong?" he demanded.  "Don't tell me Jason's gotten into trouble again?"

"No, it's not Jason.  The petition is in your name."

"My name?" he exclaimed.  "Wotinhell for?  I've been stuck in this damn office for the past two weeks trying to get the annual report finished.  What do they want now?"

"A sample of your DNA . . . suitable for inseminating a fertile egg."

Travis's face blanched and then flushed with anger, "Bloody shite!  I thought that your uncle had gotten over that nonsense, especially after it turned out that Jason was not the prize package that he was hoping for?"

"It's not Mikhail who wants the specimen, Travis, but Dani . . . Dani McRae."

The room was deadly silent while Travis tried to take in the implications of the strontium grenade Jenna had just dropped at his feet.

"Dani's an independent," he finally rasped.  "Why the hell would she want a link to the Stannis Clan?"

"It's not family ties or political favors that Dani is looking for, Travis," Jenna said in a quietly sarcastic voice.  "As basis for her request she included a copy of your piloting test scores, from when you were trying to win my clan's approval.  They're very impressive . . . as is her written evaluation of your behavior during the test.  'The candidate demonstrates superlative piloting skills, despite the handicap of a limited field of vision.  He also exhibits above average strength, razor sharp reflexes, and utter fearlessness.  However, his volatile temperament could make him a danger to ship and crew.' "

Travis was momentarily dumbstruck.  He'd only seen Dani McRae a couple of times since his pilot testing.  She'd been part of the team who'd infiltrated Servalan's base to rescue him and also been present at Jason's formal naming ceremony, when all hell had broken loose due to an aftereffect of Carnell's mental programming.  He didn't know for certain, but he thought that it had been Dani McRae who helped Jenna create the identity of Captain Chandra who was nearly the ruin (purely by accident, of course) of his and Mikhail's carefully laid plans to rescue Jason.

He massaged his forehead which had begun throbbing violently in reaction to this unwelcome request.  "She's got to be crazy to want any part of my genetic background."

Jenna shrugged as she replied, "Any woman who wants to grow a parasitic organism inside her own body, rather than take advantage of the Enclave's placental tanks is certifiable anyway, in my opinion."

"She wants to have the child naturally?"  His throat suddenly went dry.  "Don't tell me she wants a natural conception, as well?"

Jenna studied him for a long moment, before answering in a totally flat tone.  "Are you volunteering for stud duty?"

There was a long tense silence before he exploded in a stream of particularly vile profanity which vented enough of his anger so he could make a barely civil reply.

"Your uncle was the one who started this nonsense about my genetic 'gifts'.  I wanted no part of it then . . . or now.  If Dani's been bitten by the motherhood bug, tell her to find another donor.  The sperm bank's closed . . . permanently."

Too outraged to continue the meticulous calculations that their end-of-the-year records required, he hurled the facsimile sheets onto the desk.  "Here, you fry your brain with this for a while.  I'm going out to get blind, blotto, smashed."

As he paused momentarily, his hand on the door, Jenna said in a low, almost contrite voice, "We owe her, Travis.  I owe her
. . . more than you know."

He bit back the savage retort that was on the tip of his tongue and answered as calmly as his seething emotions permitted, "Find another way to pay her back, Jenna.  One that doesn't threaten our bonding."

* * *

Pausing in his private office to check for some records he'd requested from the Port Master, Travis was surprised to see the red flash of an urgent message on the comm center.  Wondering who could be so desperate to contact him, he triggered the recall and was startled to see the stern and haggard features of former Fleet Warden and onetime Federation President Samore.  Almost instinctively he came to attention and barely caught himself before saluting.

There was momentary awkward silence as Travis wracked his brain wondering how to address the old man, but before he could speak, Samore's raspy whisper addressed him, "I'm vastly relieved to find you in port, Captain, rather than out on a trading run.  I need your help . . . urgently."

Travis rubbed a hand across his face trying to hide his unease, "I'm sorry, Fleet Warden, but all our ships are in drydock for refit, while we update our records.  You'll have to find someone else."

"There is no one else, Space Commander.  Besides, it's not your ships that I need, but your audacity and command skills . . . for a rescue mission."

"What sort of rescue mission?" Travis asked reluctantly.

"My granddaughter and her family are settlers in a little backwater community on the planet Chiron."  The old man hesitated for a long moment and then blurted, "Sixteen hours ago Chiron experienced a level IV cometary impact."

Travis stared at him for a long moment.  He'd always believed that Samore had no family, nothing except his duty to the Fleet and his loyalty to the Federation.  Finding out that the old man wasn't just a father . . . but a grandfather was almost more than he could take in.

Trying to soften the harsh note in his voice, Travis spoke bluntly, "The sheer force of a level IV hit would have eradicated almost all life immediately, with whatever wasn't obliterated in the initial impact being consumed in planet-wide wildfires or dying from poisonous gases released in the atmosphere.  I'm sorry for your loss . . . sir, but I don't see why you're calling."

"They're alive," Samore erupted, his haggard face reddening with the intensity of his emotion.  "In a doomsday bunker, a mile below the planet's surface.  She managed to get the children into the lift just after the impact and reach the airlock before secondary tremors caused the shaft to collapse.  The bunker has its own climate control and air recycling system, with a virtually indestructible power core and enough food and water supplies to last six months."

"Then why do you need my skills so urgently?" Travis demanded, irked at Samore's attitude.  "Just let them cool their heels for a couple of weeks until the blast effects subside and the winds die down. They should be snug enough in their hidey-hole."

A younger man pushed next to Samore so he appeared onscreen.  His face was bland and unremarkable except for the fierce resolve in his storm-gray eyes.

"You don't understand," he said in strained voice.  "I'm a communications specialist and I helped design our planet's satellite monitoring systems.  When my wife alerted us about the impact, I was able to download the most recent atmospheric and seismic scans.  It's not just hurricanes, tidal waves and wildfires that are the danger.  The comet's impact was so great it cracked the mantle of the planet, causing continents and oceans to shift.  Volcanos are erupting where there weren't even mountain ranges before.  That bunker may have been built to survive a major planetary attack, but even duranium can't withstand this kind of seismic disruption.  Maddie isn't sure how much longer the power core will last or if the bunker walls will hold up under current conditions."

"Maddie?" Travis raised his brow in curiosity.

"Madelaine, my granddaughter," Samore admitted.  "And this is her husband, Mark Carlyle.  He was on Sanctuary to recruit a new physician/surgeon for the colony, when he got her distress call."

Carlyle's expression was strained as he pleaded, " Maddie's grandfather says that you're the only one with 'balls enough' to rescue my family from this holocaust."

"Otherwise defined as being too stupid to recognize trouble when it bites you on the ass," Travis said in a sour tone.  "Besides it'll take more than 'balls' to reach that bunker, unless the Fleet Warden thinks I can burrow through rock and molten lava with my bare hands."

"There are specialized craft designed for work in an underground environment . . . along with people who are experts in that field."

"Who are likely located half a galaxy away, doing metallurgy scans for some megacorp.  It would take you weeks to get access to that kind of vehicle and its crew . . . if you could even persuade them to take the risk.  I'm sorry, sir . . ." 

Travis started to end the message, unwilling to waste any more time, but Samore leaned forward, his face suffused with an inhuman resolve, "Meet us at docking bay 13," he rasped.  "In half an hour, Space Commander" and cut off the connection before Travis could make any more protests about the impossibility of his request.

 * * *

After a hurried scan of the data feeds and against his better judgment, Travis found himself hurrying to Docking Bay 13, but when he arrived, he thought that Samore must have made a mistake.  The area held the industrial section of the docks, where all the tankers, terraformers, long-range recon ships, and construction carriers were docked, repaired and refitted.  While there was heavy-duty mining equipment located there, most of it was on long-term lease.  Besides he didn't see anything that looked remotely suitable for the kind of operation that Samore was proposing.

Then as he approached the end of the docks, he spotted an odd looking craft undergoing a final inspection by the maintenance crew.  It had the sleek lines and hydrodynamic qualities of an undersea vessel but it was resting on the combination of sturdy wheels and heavy duty treads that looked like they could navigate over rough terrain, up unstable rock slides, and even across small crevices.  Even more intriguing were the twin barrels that jutted from the front of the craft, one of which appeared to be the advanced Xenon 21 laser cannon which, according to recent scuttlebutt, had just been purchased by the Federation for their elite troops.  The other device was totally unfamiliar to him .

Surprisingly, the front of the vessel had a name rather than just an identification code painted in gold and red fiery letters.  The name was . . . Loge.  Travis's brow drew down in curiosity at that unfamiliar word.  Ever since he'd become an Enclave captain, he'd seen ships bearing the names of various historic and mythologic beings rather than the ID codes used by the Federation Fleet but that wasn't one he recognized.  He gazed around, trying to locate Samore, wondering if he might be in the wrong part of the docks, then abruptly spotted the Fleet Warden's once robust figure slumped in an anti-grav mobility chair, with Carlyle beside him, fidgeting as he watched the final inspection.

With growing unease, he approached the seemingly invincible one-time Commander of the Galactic Eighth Fleet who met his awkward gaze with his usual implacable expression.

"Good to see you face to face, Space Commander, rather than by vidscreen.  You're looking well."

"I wish I could say the same, sir," Travis answered bluntly.  "What happened?'

"Age and gravity catching up with me, I'm afraid."

"He has Colson's syndrome," Carlyle answered equally bluntly.  "A degenerative nerve and muscle disease.  That's why we contacted you, otherwise the two of us would have been the ones to accompany Dr. Hertzog's team." 

"Who the hell is Dr. Hertzog?"

As if in answer to his question, a stern-faced woman wearing an engineer's coverall strode over.  Her flashing green eyes were framed by a mass of dark brown hair that curled sweatily across her flushed features and there was an impatient expression on her face.

"Citizen Samore, we got the final okay from the inspection crew that our Subterranean Exploration Vehicle arrived in serviceable condition.  We need to get the power cells in place and the geologic soundings updated, then we'll be ready for loading once the transport vessel arrives.  You can notify your people that we should arrive on Chiron within the week and begin our underground mapping survey shortly afterwards."

"Then you haven't spoken with Dr. Sinclair yet?"

"Derek? No, he left about a half hour ago.  There was a call from the Port Master's office, something about our destination status . . . or some other minor annoyance."

"I'm afraid that it's more than just a minor annoyance, Dr. Hertzog.  Approximately sixteen hours ago, Chiron suffered a cometary impact of catastrophic proportions.  I'm afraid that the planetary committee that hired you to do the geologic survey no longer exists."

The woman's intense expression was horrified, "Oh no, you can't mean that.  Derek and I went into hock up to our eyebrows to bring the Loge to this backwater section of the galaxy . . . and now you're telling me that the mission's been cancelled?"

"Weren't you listening, woman?" Travis snarled.  Forget the freakin' mission! Chiron was hit by a level IV cometary impact.  Hundreds maybe even thousands of people have lost their lives . . . and all you can think about is your expenses?"

She turned on him in a savage fury, "Designing and building this ship has been our life for the past fifteen years.  We mortgaged our futures to the hilt in order to create an advanced craft for subterranean exploration and now because of some unforeseen disaster, we'll likely lose it to our creditors.  Forgive me if I shed a few tears for myself . . . as well as the people of Chiron."

"That's what I came to discuss, Dr. Hertzog."  Despite his pale, slack features, former Fleet Warden Samore managed to convey an air of stern resolve.  "A chance . . . for both of us.  I will arrange for transport of your craft, and pay your docking fees and other expenses so you can retain control of the STEV . . . if you will continue with the mission as planned.  But instead of a mapping expedition, you will attempt to rescue my granddaughter and her children from the doomsday bunker where Chiron's seismic instability has trapped them.  Do we have a deal?"

Dr. Hertzog's ruddy face blanched, "You're saying that you want me to take a crew of scientists and technicians into the seismic holocaust of a planet that has just been struck by a Class IV impactor . . . just to rescue three people?"

"They're my family," Samore answered solemnly.

"And mine," Carlyle echoed.  "Besides, you wouldn't need a scientific team for this mission.  Just a minimal operating crew . . . and someone who knows the location of the bunker, like myself.  If Captain Travis agrees to head up the rescue operation, all you have to do is teach the two of us how to operate your STEV."

Dr. Hertzog looked at the trio in front of her for a long breathless moment before giving a laugh that verged on the hysterical, "Teach you how to operate the Loge?  Have you got the next five years free?  And just how much in the way of air and supplies do those survivors have in that bunker?"

But before Travis could react to the scorn in Dr. Hertzog's voice, Dr. Derek Sinclair, her partner and designer of the Loge arrived.  Tall and lanky, with dark gold hair that spilled over his forehead, Sinclair's brown eyes radiated his anguish and concern.

"Lynn, have you heard yet? I was with the Port Master, getting our final clearance when the news came in bout the catastrophe on Chiron.  The long-range scans are unbelievable . . . all those people that we met and talked with . . . dead.  Not just dead
 . . . obliterated."

A surprisingly gentle expression came over Hertzog's stern features as she patted her partner on the shoulder.  "I know, Derek.  It's a terrible tragedy . . . just terrible."  She took a deep breath before exhaling long and slow, "Citizen Samore has asked for our help in rescuing some of the survivors."

"You mean there are survivors?  How many . . . and where are they located?  According to the vid scans practically the whole planet was flattened by the initial impact and subsequent hyperstorm velocity winds.  It seems impossible . . ." 

"They've taken shelter in a doomsday bunker," Mark Carlyle interrupted impatiently.  "But the lift shaft collapsed and they have no way of getting out, unless someone goes down there and brings them out."

Lynn Hertzog balked, "Now just a minute, Citizen Carlyle.  We still haven't agreed that Loge will take part in this . . . this . . . extremely risky mission.  And even if we do agree, there are still details to be worked out.  I don't intend to take our totally unique subterranean exploration craft on some half-assed rescue mission that just might leave us with nothing to show for our years of hard work."

"Lynn," her partner said in desperate appeal.  "There are lives at stake.  How can you even think of negotiating at a time like this?"

"Derek, you are a gifted design engineer, but you have no grasp of how things are done in the real world.  Let me deal with these people."

He gripped her shoulders, forcing her to meet his gaze, "Not if it means sacrificing my self-respect."

The engineer turned to Travis and held out his hand, "I'm Derek Sinclair, designer and pilot of the Loge.  And you are . . . ?"

"Colin Travis, former Federation officer, current Free Trader Captain.  Fleet Warden Samore has asked me to rescue his granddaughter and her children from a subterranean bunker, using that vessel."  He nodded at the STEV.

"Totally out of the question, Captain Travis," Dr. Hertzog interrupted.  "There's no way that we can prepare this ship for this kind of operation and teach you or Carlyle how to handle and navigate the Loge in less than a month.  It's simply not possible."

Travis's hard-eyed gaze flicked between Samore and Hertzog, feeling like he was caught between a rock and a hard place.  Common sense told him to bid Samore and this scientific harridan a swift and courteous farewell.  But the old loyalties kept tugging at his conscience, reminding him of what he owed the old man and seeing the losses he had suffered already, wanted to spare him any more pain.  There was also that stubborn, defiant streak in him that did not appreciate being told what he could or could not do.

"We don't have a month, Doctor.  Judging by what I've seen from the long-range data streams we'll be lucky to have two weeks max before Chiron breaks up completely.  As for teaching me how to handle the craft, I've piloted almost every kind of vehicle that the Federation used to keep the peace over the last fifteen years, from light-weight scouts to heavy-duty tanks.  So I think I have some grasp of the mechanics involved."

He turned his attention to Dr. Sinclair, "You do have design specs and information about this craft's power source and those weapon systems readily available?"

"Given your background, Captain, I'm sure you're already familiar with the Xenon laser.  The secondary device is a sonic cannon designed to liquefy almost any type of compacted soil.  I have the data cubes in my office . . . or I can have them statted to your comp center, if you'll give me your ID code."  Dr. Sinclair's expression was earnestly intense.

Travis gave Samore a sour frown, realizing that he'd just volunteered to lead the mission, despite his misgivings.  Then he shrugged in resignation knowing he would move heaven and earth to save Jenna and Jason if they had been in a similar situation.  He held up a restraining hand at Sinclair's offer to brief him.

"I've no time for that right now.  There are still loose ends to deal with; like locating a suitable transport that will get your STEV where it needs to be within the necessary time frame.  Just give me the basics of what Carlyle and I need to know before liftoff, so I can study it on our way to Chiron."

"I'll bring the data cubes for you to study," Derek Sinclair agreed.  "But I'm afraid that Lynn is right.  There's no way that either of you can learn how to maneuver this craft in that short a time.  One of us will have to come with you . . . and I'm volunteering."

"Derek, no!"  The anguish in Dr. Hertzog's voice was undeniable.

"Lynn, I have to do this.  Not just because of what we owe the people of Chiron, but because we've never truly tested the Loge's limits.  All we've done since it was built has been tentative little mapping runs in well-known cave systems, with hardly even a rock slide, much less an erupting volcano.  I designed this vessel to explore the once unreachable depths of planets and moons and to increase our understanding of the forces that shaped them.  So far, we've hardly dipped our toes in that ocean of knowledge."

Dr. Hertzog sighed, "You're mixing your metaphors again, Derek, but I do understand you.  I was somehow hoping that you'd settle for bench testing a little longer, before we stick our heads in the mouth of the dragon.  But I should have known better."

"Well . . . Loge was the ancient god of fire . . . and earthquakes, so what better place to put him to the test."  Sinclair smiled indulgently, his brown eyes gleaming with anticipation.

"There's no arguing with you in this mood.  So, count me in.  At least the two of us have a better chance of keeping Loge in one piece on this mad scheme."

She glanced over at Travis and Carlyle, "All right, we'll give the two of you instructions on how to navigate this vessel, but we'll be in charge of the controls.  Derek and I are going along to make sure that the Loge isn't irreversibly damaged on this mission.  Is that understood?"

 Samore nodded in agreement, while Travis stared impassively at the two scientists.  He had a bad feeling about this, but there was no more time to discuss it.

"All right," he answered tersely before turning his attention to Samore.  "How are you planning to get this vessel to Chiron in time to rescue your family?"

The old man stared at Travis with an enigmatic expression, "The Atlas transport that we originally intended to use has been delayed.  However, I've chartered a CRX Hercules transport docked at this facility that can be loaded and readied for take-off in less than twelve hours."

Travis stared at Samore, feeling a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, "The CRX model is at least twenty years old . . . and although I don't know the mass specs on the Loge, I'm not sure the Hercules has enough power to transport the craft to Chiron . . . and back."

Samore gripped Travis's flesh and blood arm with surprising strength, considering his condition,

"It's their only chance, Space Commander.  Will you at least give it a try?"

"I'll need a top-notch pilot," he said hesitantly.

"Already done," Samore assured him.  "The best in the fleet."

"All right," Travis said with finality, though he felt a cold apprehension deep in his gut. "Tell the docking crew to start the loading procedure.  I have some urgent personal and business matters that need to be dealt with, but I'll be back in time to make sure the lockdown is secure before the final countdown.  I'll also need to make sure the pilot knows what to expect at the landing site."

"Carlyle,  get the latest satellite readings of the planet's surface, along with the most recent soundings of underground faults, as near your family's bunker as possible.  We'll also need wind velocity and tectonic activity readouts of the area where we intend to offload this beast.  Don't want to haul this engineering marvel half way cross the galaxy and then foul up at the drop zone."

He gave Samore a crisp salute and then strode quickly away.

CHAPTER II

To Travis's surprise, when he returned to their office, he found it empty, with printouts and data crystals scattered at random across the desk.  It didn't appear that Jenna had thrown a temper tantrum after his abrupt departure.  Instead, it looked like she'd received some kind of urgent message and gone to deal with it.

He hoped it wasn't a problem with their ships or crew because there was no time for him to reach her and see if he could do anything to help with the situation.  He fumbled through the papers looking for their message center, intending to let her know where he would be for the next two weeks.  When he located it, it was already flashing red, indicating that she had left an urgent message for him.  Hitting the playback, he listened with a growing sense of dismay.

"Travis, I don't know if you'll get this before liftoff, but Liberator just relayed an urgent request for help from the inhabitants of the planet Chiron.  There's been a cometary impact that has caused enormous planetwide damage and will likely result in the break-up of the planet in a couple of weeks . . . or less.

"The Enclave Council has commandeered all heavy duty planet hoppers and other shielded craft to use in the rescue operations, including Alamo.  They've also asked for volunteers to pilot the craft on their search and rescue missions.  I volunteered mainly to keep an eye on your ship, but also because I wanted to help."

"However the Council's banned pilots over thirty from making descent flights.  Some blather about needing hairtrigger reflexes to compensate for extreme atmospheric fluctuations.  However, I will be manning one of the orbiting retrieval ships where the smaller craft will deliver any survivors.

"I don't know if you will find this I have to leave, or if you'll even be sober enough to do anything about it.  But I'll be at docking bay 1611 until 1500 if you want to join us . . . or just wish me luck."

Travis pounded his fist on the desk in frustration.  He'd heard her mention Liberator as the origin of the rescue operation, though he wasn't sure whether to blame Black--or himself--for Jenna's foolhardy involvement in this potentially deadly mission.

Well, there was no help for it now.  All he could do was leave her a brief message explaining his own involvement in the Chiron rescue mission.  Hopefully, at least one of them would survive to reclaim their fleet and resume their trade missions.  Or if not, then the First Captain would have to deal with the aftermath.

Hastily he composed his own message and recorded it after Jenna's, so Jason and the First Captain would have some indication of where they were, in the event of a worst case scenario.

Quickly sorting through the documents and data crystals, Travis realized that there was little he could do to put things in better order before leaving.  Still he was reluctant to leave the office without seeing Jenna one last time and stood there, sifting aimlessly through the documents and reports.

Abruptly he looked up as Jason entered the office cursing and slammed Jenna's chair across the room in frustration.

Catching sight of Travis, the younger pilot snarled, "What are you doing here - sober? Jenna told me that you were down on the docks getting blasted."

Resisting the temptation to snarl back at their son, Travis said in flat tone, "I found an urgent message waiting on my comm before I could leave.  I've been dealing with that.  Fleet Warden Samore's . . ." 

" 'Old Starkiller'?" Jason's voice echoed his own initial mistrust and he glanced at the boy uncertainly.

"I thought Cally had purged those memories from your mind."

"She did, but we studied Galactic History at the Starliner School.  And Samore lived up to his reputation."

"Don't believe everything you see in the history vids," Travis advised in a determinedly neutral tone of voice, "particularly if one of Great-Uncle Mikhail's flunkies wrote it.  Anyway, as I was saying, Samore's granddaughter and her children are trapped in an underground bunker on a world called Chiron.  He asked if I'd lead the rescue operation . . . and I agreed.  We're taking off as soon as our transport is loaded and ready and I stopped by to let Jenna know where I'd be gone for the next two weeks and to pick up a few things."

"Are the two of you certifiable?  Haven't you seen the data feeds from the surface of what used to be that planet? There's virtually nothing left . . . between blast effects, firestorms and hypervelocity winds, Chiron has been scoured down to bedrock.  I just spent the last twenty minutes listening to Jenna's rationale for participating in this lunatic rescue effort. . .and came back here, hoping that you'd be here and talk some sense into her.  Only to find you're taking off for an operation that's even more deranged."

Travis's teeth ground together with the effort to control his temper.  "Hold your tongue, boy.  I don't like being treated like an 'idiot child', just because you think you've developed a grain of common sense.  Especially after what you put us through on La Terre."  He took in the flushed stricken look on Jason's face, "Or because Jenna made sure that Mikhail stopped you from volunteering to take part in the rescue efforts."

Jason's outraged expression collapsed into one of frustrated misery, "They must have altered the readouts from my last physical, so my reflexes didn't come within optimum range.  The Council picked almost a third of the pilots in my class, but downchecked me.  Damn Mikhail's interference."

"Did you ever consider it might have been your fault, not Mikhail's, that you didn't get optimum scores? I seem to recall that you were pulling a lot of extra vidscan time, trying to make up the reports and tests that you missed during that little 'excursion' of yours. 'Flying a desk' can foul up a pilot's readiness faster than anything."

"It's not fair," he muttered in a husky whisper.

"Life isn't fair, boy," Travis replied sternly.  "I thought you'd learned that hard fact . . ."

Before he could finish, Jenna opened the door, staring at the two of them in surprise.

"Travis, what are you doing here? I thought you'd be down at the far end of the docks, still blowing off steam."

"Emergency comm message came in before I got away.  From former Fleet Warden Samore.  Seems like his granddaughter and her sons are trapped in a bunker . . . on Chiron.  He wants me to lead the rescue mission."

Although Jenna's face paled, she didn't raise the outraged protests that he expected.  Instead, she asked in a low intense voice, "And you're going to do it?  Have you seen the data feeds from the planet yet?"

"I gather you have.  So Liberator sounded the alarm?  I'll wager Avon wasn't best pleased about that.  Is Blake leading the rescue efforts . . . or has someone from the Enclave Council taken charge?"

"Liberator's the command center for the fleet of orbiting hospital and aid ships, while one of the Enclave captains will coordinate the shuttles attempting to landing on the planet and retrieve survivors."

"I'm surprised that Tarrant didn't demand to be in charge of that operation."

"Tarrant's not piloting Liberator on this mission.  It seems that someone made him a better offer."

Travis tried to conceal his shock at that revelation, wondering who could have a stronger call on Tarrant's loyalties than Blake?  Judging by Jenna's guilty look, he already knew who Blake had chosen as a replacement.  "Blake's asked me to pilot Liberator . . . just for this rescue operation.  I was going to refuse, since Alamo had been requisitioned for the planetary shuttles and I wanted to be at the helm, but I didn't meet their pilot criteria."

He frowned, trying not to show his relief that she wouldn't be pushing the odds making shuttle runs into Chiron's suicidally dangerous atmosphere.  Even Alamo's extra shielding couldn't protect her from those conditions.  "I take it that the rescue mission was Blake's idea."

"Not really.  He just relayed the data from Chiron's damaged communication satellites and the Enclave Council made their own decision.  After all, Chiron was a very profitable trading stop once.  The planet may be on the verge of self-destructing, but the Council didn't want to lose all those valuable customers."

"Stop trying to be cynical, Jenna," he gave her a mocking grin.  "In a situation like this everyone does whatever they can to help . . . whether they profit from it or not."  He took a deep breath, "Besides, I'm glad you'll be aboard Liberator.  It's a solid, well-designed ship, with probably the best shielding in the sector, thanks to Avon's paranoid attitude and skillful hands.  And I doubt that Blake will endanger his crew during this operation, especially since you'll have all those extra civilian medical and support personnel aboard."

"What about your rescue mission . . . to that bunker?  What's involved with that and how dangerous is it going to be?" Jenna's expression was tense.

"We'll talk about later," he said in a flat tone.  "Right now I think we need to discuss keeping Jason busy while the two of us are involved in this rescue operation.  Especially since we've got those fiscal year reports to finish."

"Now, just a minute here," Jason started to protest.  "I've got final evaluations and a half dozen trade documentation records to upgrade, not to mention . . ." 

"Good, you need more experience in time management.  Besides, this will prepare you to take over our fleet eventually, and even give you a bit of exposure to Jenna's eccentric mission data records."

"My eccentric data records?  You're the one who can't keep an ongoing tally of the import duty updates."

Travis noted with grim satisfaction that he'd managed to distract both Jenna and Jason from further questions about Samore's expedition with that ploy and left it to Jenna to make whatever assignment regarding their paperwork that she thought Jason might actually follow through on.  He sifted through the records speedily, trying to find anything urgent that needed his signature to make sure things operated smoothly in his absence . . . and in case he did not return.

To his surprise, he saw that she'd grabbed a random handful of data crystals and fax sheets, dumping them in Jason's arms as she shoved him out the door.

"Try to put that in some sort of order by the time I get back.  Travis and I have important matters to discuss . . . in private.  If you have any questions, Liberator will be in orbit over Sanctuary until 1500 today."

In the strained silence that ensued after Jason's departure, Travis stared at Jenna wondering what was so urgent that she virtually kicked their son out with no explanation.

For a brief moment she stared at him and then rushed into his arms, clinging to him with a desperate intensity.  "I was afraid I wouldn't get a chance to see you again before we left . . . and I was terrified that you'd find some way to bypass the shuttle pilot restrictions."  Her nails bit into his flesh and blood arm as she peered almost frantically into his eye.  "Instead, I discover you've volunteered to go burrowing through cave-ins, lava flows, and tectonic havoc to rescue the family of the former officer who presided at your court-martial?"

Jenna shuddered as she pulled away, "I won't question your sanity.  We've bandied that old accusation around so many times that it's ceased to have any meaning.  But why are you taking this great a risk for a man that you despise?"

"To prove him wrong?"  The old sardonic grin was back, though the look in his eye was gentle.  "All those insults he spewed out just before the court sentenced me.  They hurt him as much as they hurt me, though they were the result of Servalan's manipulations.  Sometimes, you need to go back and clean out old wounds, even if they've scarred over."

She clutched him tightly and he could feel her hot scalding tears against his chest, though when she pushed back to look at him again, her face was composed.  "You're sure about this? There are other things we can do to help that don't require orbiting over a version of hell . . . or descending into its pit.  There's nothing more either of us have to prove to ourselves . . . or anyone else."

"Jenna, the old man has Colson's syndrome and probably less than three months to live.  Otherwise, he never would have sent for me.  His granddaughter's bondmate swears he's coming along as navigator/comm specialist, but we'll have to evaluate that situation that once I see how he reacts during liftoff.  Besides, after our little excursion to rescue Jason from the Terra Nostra renegade's version of hell, this should be a cakewalk."

Jenna pulled tightly against him again, with no tears or trembling, then stepped back and gave him an appraising look, "So, why did you come back here? I hardly believe you intended to finish up these reports and if it was just to leave me a message, you could have left it with the Port Master before you took off."

"I was hoping to see you again . . . and apologize for my earlier blow-up.  Then when I saw Jason and all the scattered records, I felt like an ice comet had shot down my spine.  We've never made permanent arrangements about who would inherit our fleet of ships, have we? Jason is our genetic son, but there are so many irregularities about his background and origins.  If the First Captain wanted, he could make it very difficult for Jason in clan and enclave."

"If Mikhail tried anything like that, the Matriarch would peel off his hide in strips, before hanging him up by his ears to feed the crows."

"Maybe so, but she's not going to live forever, no matter how much you or I might wish it.  And it seemed foolish for both of us to leave on a dangerous mission and not try to make some provisions for Jason's future . . ."  He shook his head ruefully.  "I can't believe I'm having this discussion.  After so many years of going off on virtual suicide missions, hopeless planetary campaigns, and other life-and-death excursions, now I actually have someone to make arrangements for."

Jenna had stepped away from him, turning her back and staring for long moments out their office suite's small windows to the soaring clan towers, trade building complexes, and the spaceport beyond with its fleet of rescue ships being fueled and provisioned.

"I'll leave a message for a barrister friend of mine and see if we can't sign some sort of emergency documentation that would make Jason's life somewhat simpler if neither of us makes it back.  But before I do, I have a request for you.  It won't take that much of your time, I promise."

She paused and swallowed hard, folding her arms across her chest defensively, as she spoke in a hesitant whisper.  "Will you make a brief stop by the Bio-Replication Center and let them take a sperm cell specimen?"

There was long strained silence between them and when Travis finally replied, his voice was low and hoarse, "To pay your debt to Dani?"

"Yes," she nodded reluctantly.  "But for myself as well . . . in case you don't come back."

* * *

An hour later, Travis was at the docking bays for their two remaining ships.  He wasn't sure why he was here, unless it was to bid tentative farewells to any members of their crew that might be present.  Much to his disappointment, the area was virtually deserted.  He should have realized that top-notch crews like his and Jenna's would have been among the first drafted by the Enclave Council for their rescue operation.  Besides if Alamo had been dragooned as one of the rescue craft, he knew that Akema and his engine gang would have gone with it in an effort to keep the ship intact even in the middle of planetary upheaval.

Even the normal bustle and flurry of repairs, refittings, and cargo lading was virtually non-existent.  Most engineers and docking specialists were helping to prepare the rescue fleet for today's take-off.  Travis recognized a couple of stragglers wandering around the deserted Balkis and Valkyrie.  Climbing up to Valkyrie's bridge, he spotted the comm expert that he'd requested to upgrade their deep space monitoring systems.  The man gave him a half-hearted wave of acknowledgment and returned to his work.

Travis also spied another figure slumped glumly at the navigation station.  It was Brita Rocklin, normally Alamo's first shift navigator.  She had data charts and crystals spread across the control surface, but it was obvious to Travis there were other things on her mind than doing a system upgrade.

He cleared his throat so she'd know he was there and then asked, "I thought you'd be aboard Alamo with Akema and his crew?"

"They don't need deep space navigation for the point to point hops they'll be doing on Chiron.  Most of the time they'll be homing in on comm beacons and distress signals.  Besides, you know my stomach can't tolerate rough rides . . . and this mission is going to make our landing on Auron look like a picnic.  Or so Akema said."  She propped her chin on her fist, with a grim expression.

"Worse likely," he agreed.  "You're better off here doing the upgrades . . . and keeping an eye on things for Jenna and me."

She gave him a jaundiced look, "I know Jenna's piloting Liberator for Blake.  Just what kind of noose have you stuck your neck into, Captain?"

"Underground rescue operation of family members trapped in a mile-deep bunker.  We've got a special transport that should get us there, designed for subsurface travel."

"Not really the best means of travel for a high flyer like yourself, Captain," Brita commiserated.

"I'll manage," he shrugged before heading for Valkyrie's weapons locker.

Entering the coded signal into the system, Travis also used his voice activated keyword to access the weapons and explosive materials currently in his and Jenna's secret inventory.  Most of them were legitimately purchased defensive weapons needed by any vessel traveling through certain sectors of the Spiral Rim.  Others were acquired by the First Captain in somewhat shady deals during their rescue mission to retrieve Jason from the clutches of the so-called governor of La Terre de la Nuit San Fin.  There were one or two black ops devices that Travis had obtained from people who owed him favors and preferred to pay in hardware rather than hard cash.

Those he held on to more out of a resolve to keep them out of the wrong hands, rather than any particular need or desire to use them on a trade mission.  Despite his once ruthless reputation, Travis found himself more and more looking for ways to avoid a fight, rather than charging right into the middle of one.

Still, he had to wonder about his state of mind, getting involved in this high risk rescue operation.  Was such an extreme lapse in judgment really justified by loyalty to an old commander?  Or was it something more?  A sense of responsibility to his fellow man, or heavens forbid . . . that accursed sense of altruism that Avon was always accusing Blake of having.  Had he become so much like his one-time enemy?

"No," he muttered to himself.  "It's just the loyalty I owe to a former superior officer.  Carlyle and his family would mean nothing to me if not for Fleet Warden Samore's request."

He turned his attention to the inventory of their weapons and ordnance, not really noticing what he was doing until his finger stopped on the stockpile of explosives and other incendiary materials.  Snapping out of the brood that he'd been in, he stared at the list for a long moment, wondering to himself, "Now why in the world did I go over that list . . . and what would I want with explosives on this mission anyway?"

Instinct the voice in his head whispered snidely.  Trust your instincts like you have in the past.  They're what kept you alive when everybody else was going down in flames.

Travis shook his head in denial, trying to banish the voice which sounded too much like his brother Dar--his deceased brother Dar--for his peace of mind.  Besides, what would he need explosives for anyway? The Loge's hi-powered laser, along with the sonic weapon that Sinclair had described for him should have more than enough power to cut a tunnel through solid rock to get them to Samore's bunker.  Why the hell would he even want to risk packing explosives into an unstable situation like this?

Power.  That's the key word.  What if they had more difficulty getting to the bunker than expected? What if the conditions were even worse than described? What if they didn't have enough power to cut through to the bunker and still get back to the surface?

"What if," Travis muttered to himself, "the only way to get through to the bunker or back to the surface is to blow our way through, with explosives? Explosives that don't depend on a fading or damaged power source."

See, I told you to listen to your instincts.

Travis shook his head again trying to banish that nagging voice, hurriedly surveying their lists of explosives and trying to determine which would be the most resistant to heat and concussion, yet still produce an effective localized blast without too much flashover.  He keyed up the list and printed out the locker number containing what he wanted.  Much to his chagrin, when he arrived there, he found company waiting for him.

"Phrath," he snarled in irritation at Alamo's gray-furred, dagger-clawed Kyrenian gunner.  "What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were aboard Alamo with Akema and his crew."

"No use for sharp-eyed, fast-pawed gunner they say on rescue mission.  So watch keeps this one over weapons and other nasty explosives.  Why sneaking around Travis One-Eye Captain comes explosives to hijack, huh?"

It was all Travis could do to keep from exploding himself at Phrath's deliberately provocative tone.

"Listen, you fuzz-brained troublemaker.  I own these explosives, along with Jenna and I can take them whenever and wherever I want, you got that? So if I decide to walk out of here with half this armory in tow, there's nothing you could do about it."

"Jenna Captain, she agrees to this . . . this explosive ordnance using?  Mining Captain First's office you aren't, are you?"  Despite the disapproving note in his voice there was a mischievous gleam in the gunner's bright green eyes that Travis could not remain angry at, no matter how much he tried.

"No, you lop-whiskered troublemaker, I'm not planning to mine Mikhail's office.  Like Jenna and Alamo's crew, I'll be taking part in a rescue mission to Chiron.  Someone else is arranging for transport and supplies, but I had a hunch we might need something extra in the way of ordnance to blast our way out of trouble, if necessary."

"Enclosed space you will be working in, overheard this one . . . volatile atmosphere maybe?" Phrath patted the brick-sized block of KZX 223.  "This you do not want, my word on it.  These you should take instead."  He gestured to a small bag holding eight small containers about the size of seasoning jars.  Travis hesitated, somewhat doubtful that they would be powerful enough to do the job

Phrath snickered, "Believe you not that big bangs in small packages sometimes come? My reputation enough for you is not?"

Travis gave his gunner a dubious glare, only too aware of Phrath's reputation all over the docks as a fierce and canny fighter, even against larger, tougher opponents who had him outweighed or outgunned.  It didn't matter to Phrath, he fought to win, no matter who his opponent was, big or small, armed or not.  He didn't know the meaning of "quit."

"All right," he nodded reluctantly.  "Just remember that you'll have to answer to Jenna if this gets me killed."

Phrath grinned even wider, showing all his gleaming fangs, "Beg to differ, Travis One-Eye Captain, sir.  To Jenna Captain will not have to explain . . . because sharing same cloud of random atoms this one will be.  Coming with you this one is, fuses and detonators to set for sure."

Travis gusted out a deep breath, "No, Gunner.  You can't go with us.  I may be in command of the rescue operation, but it's being run by civilians.  They own the vessel and special equipment, and they call the shots about crew and other extras.  Besides they're Federation and not extremely tolerant of non-human crew, especially non-humans handling explosives."

"Tell'em you must, Travis One-Eye Captain.  Best gunner, best ordnance, best fighter in a hundred parsecs this one is."

"The decision's out of my hands, Phrath.  I 'm not taking you on this mission.  Besides . . . you have to look after Jason, if Jenna or I don't make it back.  He'll need your help to survive Mikhail's schemes and plotting."

"Milk teeth that one has shed.  No advice he needs but to keep a cool head . . . and last one giving him that advice should this one be.  Besides . . . there is honor debt between us, Travis One-Eye Captain."

"What do you mean?"  Travis stared at his gunner with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, although he'd already had a hint of what was going on from Jenna earlier that week.

"Redeemed the name of Cort Deadlyclaw, you did.  Blood of his enemies you placed onto the Goddess's altar.  Debt is owed you by Nightsinger clan . . . and his lastborn son."

"You don't owe me a thing," Travis shook his head numbly, recalling the tattered, bloody pieces of Cub-Killer's body after Lucan's thugs were through with it.  "The debt was on my side of the books, Phrath; and I merely tried to pay it off the best I could."

"Otherwise says M'Reeth Goldeneye and argue I do not, preferring to keep my ears where they are and not decorating her trophy necklet."

Travis glanced at his chrono, startled at how quickly time had passed while he'd been trying to put his affairs in order.  "Look, I need to be back at our launch area to supervise the final loading.  We'll settle this argument over a couple of ales when I get back.  Till then keep a close watch over Jason and Valkyrie and Balkis."

Tucking the canisters inside his jacket, Travis turned on his heel and hurried away, praying that Phrath would not attempt to follow him.

* * *

By the time that he arrived back at Docking Bay 113, it was well past the time that Jenna would be aboard Liberator, making preparations for the rescue fleet's departure, so there was no opportunity to speak to Jenna one last time. Still, they had made their farewells before she left.  Putting their last quarrel aside and coming to as much of an agreement as they ever did regarding Jason's future.

He shook his head, still numb with disbelief at Jenna's final request . . . and its implications.  Did she really intend to bear his child if he did not return . . . or was it just a ploy to make him think twice before taking his usual reckless chances? Well, it hardly mattered now.  He'd left the requested specimen with the technicians at the Center, whatever Jenna's, or even Dani's, decision was, it no longer concerned him.

Much to his surprise, the subterranean vehicle had already been loaded aboard the CRX Hercules transport and most of the heavier equipment gone back to its usual storage facilities.  There were smaller bins and tanks still being loaded in the main hold, but Travis saw no reason to oversee the dockworkers who knew their job better than he did.  Instead, he boarded the transport, intending to find its bridge and go over departure checklists and discuss any likely landing and offloading problems with its pilot.

Much to his surprise, he encountered Del Tarrant in the main companionway, headed hastily back to the loading area he'd just left.

"You glory-grabbing hotshot!"  Travis punched the younger man affably in the shoulder.  "Jenna told me that you weren't piloting Liberator on this rescue operation and I wondered who had made you a better offer?"

"Well, it wasn't exactly a 'better' offer," the dashing young pilot shrugged off-handedly.  "The former Fleet Warden said that he desperately needed some one with the superb reflexes and reckless bravery that I'd demonstrated fighting off those four Federation ships over Byzantia.  Even though this is not my usual type of flying, I've done enough low velocity cargo drops and troop retrievals that I shouldn't have too much difficulty carrying out the operation."

"And just how many of those atmospheric drops and pick-ups have you done in hypercane wind velocity, Captain Tarrant?" Travis demanded, giving the supremely self-confident pilot a somewhat dubious look.

"Well . . . considering the one-in-ten-million planetary situation, Space Commander, this will be my first drop under these conditions" Tarrant gave his one-time superior a cheeky grin.  "But I shall do my verrry best to make sure you have a smooth-as-cream descent and rendezvous.  Right back to Midgard 's massive main hold."

Travis muttered a sarcastic thanks, before reacting to the pilot's other statement, "Midgard? What the hell kind of name is that? I thought this was just a CRX Hercules heavy transport?"

"Given the name of the STEV, I thought it wouldn't hurt to give our cozy transport vessel a compatible name.  Give them a bit of incentive to work well together?"

Travis clutched younger pilot's arms as he shook his head ruefully at the younger man's sometimes starry-eyed nature. However, given the high regard for the former Fleet Warden that even young former Federation officers felt, he was not surprised to see Tarrant here and genuinely relieved that someone with Tarrant's hair trigger reflexes, supreme self-confidence, and superlative piloting skills would be handling the drop and pick-up that his life depended on.

His expression sobered, "What did Dayna have to say about your participation in this potentially suicidal operation?"

Tarrant shrugged, "Well, she was busy helping Avon with shielding upgrades when the message came in, so I really didn't see any reason to worry her.  Besides, if anything serious comes up, I can let her know, with Liberator in orbit around Chiron too."

"You better start worrying, you young idiot.  When Dayna gets word you're risking your life so recklessly, without telling her, she'll tear your hide off in strips and make a belt out of it."

Tarrant tried to hide his wince before turning an equally suspicious gaze on Travis.

"I presume that you and Jenna shared similar revelations about your whereabouts over the next few days."

"I know she's piloting Liberator, if that's what you're beating around the bush about . . . and she knows that I'm attempting to save Samore's granddaughter and her sons.  So, no secrets between us, boy."

Momentarily abashed, Tarrant stared at Travis, thinking how much the man had changed over the past few years.  Becoming more open and confident in his relationship with Jenna Stannis, Blake's onetime pilot.  Once Travis would have been rabid with jealousy, hearing that Jenna was back aboard Liberator, now he just seemed relieved.

There was a jangling signal just over their heads, and Tarrant reacted guiltily, "Oh hell, I almost forgot, there's some kind of row at the loading area.  They buzzed me just before I ran into you and I was headed down there."

"Well, stop wasting time, Tarrant and let's make sure that someone isn't hijacking our fuel or oxygen supplies."

Oddly enough Travis was not surprised to find who was causing the disturbance at the loading area.  It was Phrath . . . with his fur fluffed and his claws unsheathed, in full battlecry.  As if it wasn't trouble enough, having his gunner here throwing a temper tantrum, Dr. Sinclair stood off to one side, his sandy hair falling over his forehead as he watched in bemusement.

"Thief and hijacker this one is not, baldfaced teamster scum.  Urgent supplies delivers this one, along with much needed skills for success of this mission.  To team leader show me now . . . or timewasters' throats will this one slit . . . and then survivors can show me."

Before Travis could interpose his presence, Dr. Sinclair stepped forward with an amused smile on his face and much to Travis's astonishment made a very good attempt at the growling snarl that was the standard greeting between non-feuding clans.  The one time Travis had attempted the salute, his throat had been raw for weeks, but Sinclair seemed to have a knack for the hissing, growling Kyrenian tongue.

However, when Phrath seemed about to launch into the long recitation of ancestors and the battles they fought that typically followed the formal greeting, Sinclair waved his hands to forestall any further dialogue, "I'm sorry, Enemy-Killer, but that greeting was the full extent of my knowledge of Kyrenian.  Now how can we help you, Fanged Child of the Goddess?"

Phrath arched his neck with pleasure at Sinclair's words.  Obviously the man was a skilled diplomat in addition to being a competent design engineer.  Of course, given the abrasive nature of his partner, Dr. Hertzog, that diplomacy must have been essential for their survival.

"Mission leader this one's Captain is and ordnance for mission's accomplishing he brought with him.  But detonators and fuses forgotten were, so bring them this one has; along with skills of best gunner and ordnance expert in this section of Spiral Rim.  Honor debt is owed to Travis Captain as well and forever shamed would this one be if left behind."

Sinclair's deep gaze met Travis's impatient one, "Is this true, Captain?"

Travis took a deep ragged breath, biting the inside of his cheek as he struggled to keep from going over and shaking some sense into his gunner.  "Yes, he is my gunner and ordnance specialist.  I wouldn't say he's the best, but he's good enough.  I didn't forget the fuses and detonators, they were removed from the explosives pack that I picked for this mission so he'd have an excuse to try and finagle himself aboard.  Regarding the honor debt, that's a matter of opinion and not fact."

"I see," Sinclair said thoughtfully, tugging at his lower lip as he studied the tautly alert Kyrenian.  "I've read that Kyrenian ordnance experts have the quickest, most delicate touch in the galaxy.  Is this true, Enemy-Killer?"

"No boasts this one makes, but a baby bushrat can I snatch from its mother's pouch so smoothly she does not know it's gone until she finds the empty teat."

Sinclair turned his enigmatic smile to Travis and Tarrant, "He sounds like a valuable addition to our crew, if neither of you have any objections?"

Tarrant glanced sidelong at Travis, willing to take his cue from the other man.  He was well aware of the Kyrenian's superb skills as a gunner, but had little knowledge of his other abilities.  Besides his life was Travis's responsibility and Tarrant knew how seriously the onetime Space Commander felt the obligation to protect his troops . . . and crew.

Travis took a deep ragged breath and let it slowly out, "If you're that determined to come along, Phrath, I guess there's nothing more I can do to stop you.  But don't blame me if you get your fur scorched . . . or your whiskers singed right off."

Phrath stroked those whiskers thoughtfully, before giving his Captain a reckless grin.  "Taking me for granted, Glynis has been lately.  New scars fresh sparks may make between us. Gladly does this one take these risks."

CHAPTER III

At 0301, Travis was strapped into the co-pilot's seat next to Tarrant on the flight deck of the transport, feeling the gut-slamming rumble as the pilot brought the engines online.  He glanced at the controls while Del checked the engineering readouts and advanced the thrusters another notch.  They were already pushing past the 75 percent mark, which left a cold sinking feeling Travis's chest.  He never used more than 50 percent of his ship's thrusters even with a full load in his holds and he was beginning to wonder if the CRX transport that Samore had substituted for the heavy-duty Atlas actually had enough power to lift the STEV and safely land it on Chiron's increasingly turbulent surface.

If Sinclair or Hertzog had been on the flight deck, he might have been asking the two of them some very hard questions about the weight and mass specifications they had given Samore when he hired their vessel.  But the two scientists had chosen to remain aboard the STEV during liftoff to monitor it for possible damage during liftoff.  Travis couldn't argue with their priorities.  His life as much as theirs depended on the Loge functioning as it was designed to . . . and a little better if at all possible.  Phrath and Mark Carlyle, their communication specialist, were the only other crew on the Midgard's flight deck.  Phrath was strapped in at the Engineering controls, having picked up enough general knowledge from working beside Akema that he could alert them of any serious malfunctions showing on the board telltales.

If it had been his choice, Carlyle would have been treated as supercargo, sedated and strapped down in storage as far away from the critical situation on the flight deck as Travis could get him.  But even though he wasn't a blood relation, he had a healthy dose of Fleet Warden Samore's stubbornness.

"I need to make sure the comm system is functioning properly," he said with deliberate patience.  "So I can stay in touch with Maddie. . . and hear what's happening inside the bunker. And reassure her that help is coming."

Travis wasn't sure that he trusted Carlyle to tell them the truth if life support in the bunker failed . . . and there was no chance of his family surviving.  But then he doubted he would be willing to abandon the search either, if it was Jenna and Jason trapped in that bunker.  Besides, Carlyle had to be included in the Loge's crew, because he had failsafe access if the regular entry hatch was jammed.

The transport was beginning to shake with the force of its engines and Travis glanced over at Tarrant, not sure whether the utterly confident expression on the younger man's face reassured or worried him.  The STEV was carrying the bare minimum of rations and water and very little in the way of medical equipment, other than stimulants and resuscitation rebreathers.  That virtual absence of survival gear worried Travis, particularly if they became stranded below the surface.  Better plan how to avoid that situation, as he glanced over at Phrath, hoping that the explosives they brought would only be needed as a last resort.

Sweat was beading around Tarrant's dark curls as his blue eyes burned with almost incandescent brightness.  "Come on, old girl," he muttered under his breath.  "You can do it.  Just lift your skirts and push off."  He nudged the throttles up another notch, not even glancing over to take in Travis's reaction.  The rumble shifted into a high-pitched howl and slowly at first, then quicker as gravity reluctantly relinquished its hold, the Midgard soared toward the heavens on a pillar of fire.

Letting out the breath that he hadn't realized he'd been holding, Travis glanced across at the former FSA cadet who looked more relieved than Travis thought he should for a supposedly routine liftoff.  As they accelerated out of Sanctuary's atmosphere, Tarrant cut back their power consumption and acceleration to normal levels and plotted a catenary path that would take them on the fastest course to intercept Chiron's orbit.  But before he could activate the hyperdrive engines, Travis ordered him to steer a course to the outer limits of the Sanctuary system.

"What the blazes for? That will only delay our arrival at Chiron."

"Maybe so," Travis answered tightly.  "But judging by that take-off, this ship is severely overloaded, which makes our odds of surviving a landing on Chiron's surface much smaller than I like. There was no time to go over the cargo manifest of the STEV before we took off, but I'm betting its hold is full of monitoring and data recording devices that are dead weight on this rescue mission.  You and I and Phrath . . . get your lazy carcass out of that seat, gunner . . . are going to toss out everything but the bare essentials necessary to operate the Loge and locate that underground bunker."

"Dr. Hertzog is likely to throw a tantrum that will make Chiron's blowup look tame if you start messing with her scientific equipment," Tarrant warned.

"That can't be helped.  Given the time constraints, Samore wasn't able to wait for the heavy duty Atlas transport they were expecting.  The Hercules barely managed to lift this craft in Sanctuary's stable atmosphere.  Making a controlled landing anywhere near the proper coordinates in Chiron's turbulence will be virtually impossible . . . unless we cut our weight by half, maybe even two-thirds.

"As to Dr. Hertzog's objections," Travis continued in a pragmatic tone.  "That's why we haven't jumped to hyperspace.  We can leave most, if not all, of their scientific equipment at the edge of Sanctuary's system with a sub-space beacon and radar reflector to warn off any would-be salvage ships.  I'll even notify the Port Master to have his shuttle pilots check on it.  It's the only chance we have of grounding the craft in one piece."

Tarrant winced, glad that it was going to be Travis facing the geologist's outraged reaction.  His confrontation with Dayna about leaving Liberator with no explanation had left a bitter taste in his mouth, but he knew only too well what her response would have been to his answering a summons from a former Federation admiral and one-time Acting President.  She still blamed Federation troops for the death of her father Hal Mellanby.  Whether she would forgive him for his desertion during the Chiron rescue operation remained to be seen.

Setting the auto-pilot to alert him of orbiting debris or other anomalies, the pilot pushed out of his seat and gave Travis a rueful grin, "Well, we might as well face the dragon now and get it over with."

They found the Dr. Hertzog at the main controls, doing a meticulous collation of earlier baseline readings from Chiron's surface.  Judging by the totally absorbed look on her face, Travis knew he was in for a knock-down-drag-out battle.  He gave a sidelong look at Tarrant, who seemed to be anticipating the geologist's impending outraged reaction with entirely too much glee.  Rubbing his forehead in frustration, he decided to make a flanking move instead.

"Where's Sinclair?"

"He's gone to do an internal stress check," Dr. Hertzog answered absently.

Travis strode over to where Sinclair was running a scanner down the inner hull and squatted beside the man momentarily before coming straight to the point, "You realize the Hercules is severely overloaded, don't you?"

Sinclair nodded, seemingly in agreement although his eyes never left his current task.

"And that the odds of Tarrant being able to drop the STEV . . . and us . . . in one piece at the proper coordinates are practically zero.  Even if we survive the landing, he's still got to make pick-up with the same transport and engines that have been stressed beyond acceptable tolerances."

Sinclair nodded slowly and turned his dark brown eyes to Travis and asked, "I'll admit that the problem has been troubling me ever since the Midgard's liftoff.  But it seems a little late to be questioning the drop and lift capacity of this transport since we're already en route to Chiron . . . or are we?"

"We're still in the Free Trader system.  Which makes it possible for us to do a cargo dump at the edge of the system, without worrying about illegal salvagers.  Sanctuary Space Control keeps a close watch over this section of space and we won't be the first spacers to leave freight in orbit with a beacon for later pick-up."

"What sort of freight?" the geologist asked in a flat tone, although Travis could tell that he had a good idea of just how much would have to be jettisoned for survival's sake.

"All the scientific monitoring and recording equipment currently aboard the STEV.  We can't afford the weight.  It limits our maneuverability and cuts down the odds for a safe drop . . . and retrieval from the planet's surface."

"Lynn's not going to be happy about that.  She's been very keen to get seismic readings during this rescue operation.  Mainly because this is such a one-in-a-billion occurrence.  A geologically stable world, shaking itself to pieces in the aftermath of a Class IV impactor.  Not something that we're likely to see again in our lifetimes."

Scientists! Travis shook his head in disbelief.  He'd never understand their mindset if he lived to be a thousand.

"Let's hope not, at any rate.  I've heard all the arguments about how such data can better mankind and save people's lives, but in this case, it's like trying to swim across a river with a millstone around our necks.  We're going to have to strip this ship to its bare essentials, if we're to have any chance of grounding safely.  So, are you with me . . . or do Tarrant, Phrath and I have to rip everything out by ourselves?"

As Sinclair nodded his head in reluctant agreement, Travis pushed even further.

"You realize there's no guarantee how much of it will be salvageable after letting a Kyrenian at it with a spanner."

Sinclair gave a deep sigh, "I'll help . . . and we might as well get started.  Arguing with Lynn will only slow us down, and time is of the essence, is it not?"

Travis nodded and followed Dr. Sinclair into the rear of the STEV, where the four of them began hastily unplugging, dismantling and stacking various monitors and recording equipment.

Several minutes later, Dr. Hertzog appeared in that section with an aggrieved look on her face, "Just what the hell are you doing back here? I just lost half an hour of baseline recordings because someone pulled the plug on one of my screens."

She glared at Travis who had just dismantled some kind of oscillator, "Captain Travis, I'll thank you to remove your hands from that seismic wave monitor.  That's a delicate piece of equipment and if you keep tossing it around like that, it will be useless for taking the necessary subterranean readings."

"It's useless anyway," Travis answered bluntly.  "We're making a cargo dump of all non-essential equipment before we head for Chiron.  Which includes all scientific data collection and recording devices.  This transport doesn't have enough power to assure a soft landing of the STEV at its current weight . . . and still guarantee a safe retrieval after the operation is complete."

"Are you insane?" Dr. Hertzog's voice was definitely shrill.  "This is the chance of a lifetime to get readings from a geologic doomsday event, Captain.  We may never have an opportunity like this again."

Dr. Sinclair inserted himself between the quarreling pair, "He's telling the truth, Lynn.  We should have realized it after that rough take-off.  There's no way the pilot can land the Loge safely under current conditions . . . and still be able to retrieve us afterwards."

"Don't tell me you're taking his side, Derek? This military hard-ass has no idea of the importance of the data that we'll collect during this mission.  It could be invaluable to our understanding of the forces that shape and destroy worlds."

"Is the knowledge worth your life, Dr. Hertzog?" Travis demanded.

There was a brief silence and then she answered, "Yes . . . yes, it is."

"Well, it's not worth mine . . . and I don't think that Samore would agree that it's worth the lives of his granddaughter and great-grandsons either.  And since he's the one who financed this expedition, I intend to obey his orders, as I interpret them . . . and not your scientific impulses."  Travis paused in his roughshod dismantling and stacking of scientific monitoring devices.

"If you want to assure careful disassembly and storage of your equipment, you're welcome to help.  Since the course that Tarrant's plotted requires us to accelerate out of this system in less than six hours, this ship will have to be stripped of all excess weight at least thirty minutes before then, so we can get it safely stored and dropped into orbit.  I've already notified the Port Master of our cargo's orbital path and beacon frequency, so he can warn off any potential salvage ships.  Don't worry, he'll keep a close eye on it."

Dr. Hertzog did not reply but turned away, her expression bleak and betrayed.  Hurriedly the four of them succeeded in dismantling most of Loge's scientific equipment and stored it in the airtight and radiation-shielded freight containers that Tarrant ejected into orbit at the outer edges of the Sanctuary system, its radar beacon warning off thieves, smugglers, and potential hijackers.

* * *

Following the liftoff of the Chiron Relief Task Force, Jenna expected the unsettled atmosphere aboard Liberator to resolve once they were underway.  But if anything the overall tension of her friends had seemed to increase.  She glanced over to where Dayna was working grimly, re-calibrating the weapon controls for the fifth time in the past day and a half.  She understood the younger woman's dark mood only too well, given her prior experiences with Travis taking off on some wildass scheme or another without consulting her.

At least this time she knew where he was going and what he would be doing, feeling somewhat relieved that the two of them shared a similar sense of obligation in this situation.  However, knowing it was Federation Fleet Warden Samore's kin whom Travis was attempting rescue, she'd bet a year's docking fees that Tarrant was somehow involved in the operation as well.  She only wished the young idiot had had the common sense to at least leave a note telling Dayna where he was going.  Nothing harrowed the heart worse than suspicion and doubt, especially when it involved someone you loved . . . and thought could be trusted.

Although Liberator could have made the return journey to Chiron in less than a day, the presence of the rescue fleet added another twelve hours to their travel time.  Still, even with worst case projections, they had at least a week to ten days to evacuate the remainder of the survivors from the devastated planet.  After checking over the controls to assure that Liberator had the best chance of surviving the unstable conditions while they orbited Chiron, Jenna decided to talk to Dayna about what she knew or suspected.

Normally Cally would have been the one to deal with the crew's physical and emotional distress, but the Auron had her hands full preparing their limited medical facilities for the influx of large numbers of injured and emotionally traumatized refugees.  At least there were large numbers of well-trained Enclave medical support personnel on board who were also working tirelessly to help her prepare for the onslaught.

Though Vila's inamorata Soolin disavowed any skills . . . or inclination . . . in dealing with "screaming women and squalling babies", she showed surprising skill and insight about the necessary preparations for the situation.  Whether helping to make sure that there was an adequate supply of physical and chemical restraints for use on hysterical men and women, or carrying loads of blankets from the storage room into the hallways, she worked in a quietly efficient manner.

Soolin's calm, stoic manner soothed the worst of Vila's jitters, but the sense of nervous dread that permeated the ship's atmosphere could not help but affect him.  Especially since Avon and Blake were at each other's throats constantly whenever they were on the flight deck and Jenna was on the verge of committing double homicide, unless one of them actually did the job for her first.

Like Travis, she was initially relieved at the work that Avon had done on Liberator's shields once Blake agreed that they would serve as flag ship for the rescue fleet.  However, the work he was currently engaged in had gone from cautionary to paranoid and was actually beginning to interfere with her piloting and the ferrying of supplies and personnel among the various rescue vehicles.

The situation reached an explosive level when Avon's precautions left the officer in charge of the Enclave Shuttle Fleet cooling his heels for over an hour.  Despite Blake's assurances, Avon refused to lower shields for Captain Reid to manually pilot his shuttle into the cargo area that had been converted into an emergency docking bay.

"All it would take is a single misfire from those high-powered rockets of his and Liberator would crack open like a rotten egg," he hissed.

"Reid's an expert pilot," Blake said in exasperation.  "Besides, you might as well get used to shuttles steering manually in and out of the bay to drop off refugees."

"I'm working on a tractor beam that will perform the docking maneuvers in that area.  That way we won't be at the mercy of under-age apprentices and their overinflated opinion of their piloting skills."

Blake heaved a sigh of exasperation, "It won't work, Avon. A tractor beam takes too long . . . and speed is of the essence on this mission."

"And so is survival, Blake," Avon's strained expression showed the fatigue and frustration he felt.  "I don't appreciate you putting this ship . . . and my life at risk by trusting the skill and judgment of a bunch of ego-driven young maniacs."

Enclave Captain Jonathon Reid strode onto the flight deck just in time to overhear Avon's vitriolic remarks.  Though normally a cool-headed and pragmatic individual, he was as sleep deprived and driven as Avon from the strain of readying this cobbled together fleet of shuttlecraft for the high-risk rescue mission ahead of them.

He had also been made privy to the Council's worst case scenario of a probable fifty per cent casualty rate among the young pilots that he would be leading down into that inferno.  To preserve the unit's morale, he'd been sworn to secrecy by his own clan's First Captain.  An oath that he was beginning to bitterly regret, even more so when he overheard Avon's snide criticism of these volunteers who were wholeheartedly risking their lives on this virtual suicide mission.

"I resent your accusations, Ser Avon. These pilots are among the best-trained and most cool-headed trainees in the Enclave Fleet."

"That's what bothers me, Captain," Avon retorted, turning to confront the slender, curly-haired young officer.  "Trainees . . . green, inexperienced, eager to prove themselves at risk to life and limb.  Not exactly someone that I would choose for the delicate job of docking in Liberator's main hold.  I prefer to maintain control of their approach with a tractor beam."

"So you're sitting here, cozy and warm in this shielded battle cruiser and my pilots are freezing their asses off, running low on oxygen and fuel, while you engage in your 'delicate' docking procedures," Reid erupted, his dark eyes blazing.  "We don't need this kind of play-it-safe attitude."

Suddenly Blake found himself defending Avon to the Enclave Captain, "I understand your concerns, Captain Reid, but you have to see our point of view as well.  There has to be some way of regulating shuttle access to Liberator's docking area or we're going to have a major catastrophe on our hands.  We can't let ships just barrel in here without means of traffic control.  Surely you realize that?"

Reid stared at Blake's stern but sympathetic expression for a long moment, then took a deep shaky breath, wiping his sleeve across his sweat-beaded forehead.

"You're . . . correct, Ser Blake.  Please forgive my outburst.  I haven't slept in the last 36 hours and it's affecting my judgment.  There will have to be some kind of control program to get the shuttles in and offloaded as quickly as possible, while preventing an orbital backlog."

"You're exhausted, Captain," Blake said in a soothing tone as he glanced around the flight deck, his gaze falling on Dayna and Jenna at the piloting controls.  "I'd offer you one of our cabins so you could catch 40 winks but with all the strangers aboard and their preparations for the refugee influx, I'm not sure where you would be able to find any peace and quiet."

Dayna looked up from her hushed conversation with Jenna,  "I can show him to one of the smaller auxiliary cabins.  Cally's keeping them available in case someone needs to be isolated for health or safety reasons.  It's fairly quiet down there and you shouldn't be disturbed."

She held out her hand and smiled engagingly at the young pilot.  "I know you don't remember me, Captain, but we met briefly at the Byzantian Trade and Treaty Conference."

Captain Reid returned her smile, his teeth showing very white against his caramel colored skin.

"How could I forget the sylvan goddess who managed to smuggle a crossbow and arrows into the closing ceremonies and skewered a dozen renegade Federation troopers?"

"It was only a half-dozen, though I did get a shot at Servalan."  Dayna's dark eyes were glowing with pleasure as she took the young Captain's arm, though he held up a hand to forestall her.  "I can't leave until we decide what to do about the shuttle docking operations."

"Let me see what I can come up with while you get a few hours sleep, Captain," Blake offered in a mellow and soothing tone of voice.  "You know it's not safe to be piloting in your current state of exhaustion.  Avon and I should have an acceptable priority docking system figured out in the next four to six hours.  That will give you plenty of time to pass it on to the rest of the shuttle pilots before we reach Chiron."

As Reid departed with Dayna, Blake turned back to Avon; whose exasperating smug look rubbed his already jagged nerves raw, "You handled that young hothead very well, Blake.  Your diplomatic skills are improving.  So how do you intend to put him off when he comes back looking for that 'priority docking system'?"

"I don't intend to 'put him off'," Blake answered in a grim tone of voice.  "You and I are going to have that priority system hammered out and ready to go in the next two hours."

"I don't think so, Blake.  I'm still working on this tractor beam."

"No," Blake's voice was glacial but no colder than the look in his normally gentle brown eyes.  "You're not.  That tractor beam will be used only as a last resort.  Reid's pilots will do their own docking, according to the priority codes that you and I are going to set up over the next hour.  Do you understand me, Avon?"

Avon recognized an irresistible force when he saw one, and chose not to persist in his efforts at being an immovable object.  There were other battles he could win, if they managed to survive this little excursion.  He'd just have to work out a control system that assured the odds were in Liberator's . . . and his . . . favor.

* * *

As the Midgard entered Chiron's system, they found that Sanctuary's Relief Task Force which had arrived six hours before them was occupying the optimum orbital slots.  Tarrant muttered under his breath in exasperation, but Travis was just pleased to see Liberator in a safe and stable configuration.

"Do you want to talk to Jenna? I can put in a call, even though their frequencies are pretty busy coordinating rescue operations."

"Jenna and I said all we needed to say on Sanctuary," he answered grimly.  "But you'd be advised to call and make your peace with Dayna before we head into that conflagration."

Turning his back on the pilot's uneasy expression, Travis stared grimly at the smoke and dust roiling across the surface of Chiron.  He'd taken ships down into planetary atmospheres and landed them safely in the middle of monsoons, blizzards, tornados and even under missile attack, but for once he was glad that someone else would be at the helm of this overloaded transport.  Someone with superlative reflexes and superior piloting ability of that young hothead, Tarrant.

Yet even as he was appreciating Tarrant's skills, that irritating voice in his head spoke up again, "You're putting all your eggs in one basket, Colin.  Relying on someone else to keep your hide in one piece.  That's not a good idea, you know.  To trust your life so completely to another man's expertise."

Travis ran his hand through his hair in exasperation as he muttered to himself, hoping that no one was listening or they'd slap a tranquilizer patch on his neck, lock him in a storage compartment and carry out the mission without him.

"And what else can I do, dammit? Sprout wings and transport the damned STEV to the planet's surface myself?"

The voice inside his head faded away to a whisper that he could barely comprehend.

"Be prepared for a hard landing."

Infuriated by that enigmatic response, it took every bit of Travis's hard won forbearance not to smash his cybernetic hand against the bulkhead.  Pacing angrily back to the transport's main hold, he saw that Drs. Hertzog and Sinclair were still fine-tuning the guidance system aboard their subterranean craft.  With most of the scientific instrumentation gone, the only monitors that remained were those that gave readouts of their location coordinates and the external temperature and pressure sensors.  But the bulkheads were still lined with heavy-duty internal shielding that Travis considered absolutely useless, despite Sinclair's warnings.

"The planet is geologically unstable, Captain.  Even if there weren't any 'hot zones' originally mapped in the area where we're touching down, there's no telling what's happened since those readings were made."

"You designed this craft to function in the middle of an erupting volcano, Sinclair.  I doubt that much shielding is necessary for a simple rescue mission."

"You're taking a big risk, Captain.  There are no readings of the current conditions where we'll be traveling.  We may need that shielding."

"I'm willing take that chance, Doctor," Travis replied as he and Phrath began stripping the STEV to the bulkheads.  To further minimize weight and reduce the energy drain, they also removed the power core for the sonic disruptor.  It had been a toss-up which of the two systems would be the most effective at removing any obstacles in their path and Travis still wasn't sure he'd made the right decision.

He'd been leery of the disruptor because of its likelihood of causing dangerous counter-vibrations in certain types of strata, but the xenon laser was an energy glutton.  But if they ran low on power, then the laser was just so much dead weight, useless for burning a path to the bunker or an opening into the bunker itself.  Even the explosives that Phrath had brought might not be enough to get them out of a difficult situation.

Still, with the STEV stripped down as much as it was, there was no guarantee that Tarrant would be able to land the Midgard safely at the proper coordinates, offload the Loge, survive ongoing atmospheric bombardment while they retrieved Samore's kin and then make orbit again in the hypervelocity winds.  There had to be some way to optimize the transport's chances of survival, because it was the only guarantee that the rest of them had of getting home.

For long moments Travis stared at the outer surface of the Loge, noting its thermo-reflective coating and exterior auxiliary power linkages.  As the location of those linkages slowly sank into his brain, Travis quickly explored the loading bay, noting with relief that the Loge had been positioned for independent rollout rather than having to be towed.  He also found a large number of heavy-duty JATOS had been stored in one of the tool lockers in the main hold of the Midgard.

Could that be what the voice in his head meant when it said, "Be prepared for a hard landing?"

He entered the Loge and hurried to the control room, where he found Dr. Sinclair trying to plot a course for reaching the bunker in the shortest time with the least expenditure of energy.

"Show me our touchdown point," he demanded harshly.

Unperturbed, Dr. Sinclair gestured to the three-dimensional map at his controls, "We're going to try for this extinct caldera volcano here.  It's not the actual closest landing point, but according to our sensor readings, there's a very extensive cavern system beneath it with several miles of subsurface tunnels.  They should provide us with an easier path, so we don't have to do as much actual drilling.  It improves the odds of us reaching the bunker with enough power to return to the surface."

"Why the hell do we have to take the scenic route? Why can't Tarrant put us down at Carlyle's compound and then let the STEV drill directly down to the bunker?"

Sinclair gazed at him in mild amusement, "Well, there's the angle of deflection for one thing.  That laser wasn't designed to drill downwards, since the STEV is an exploration vehicle and not a mining craft.  It was created to map and explore caves, tunnels, underground rivers and for short periods of time, the magma chambers of dormant volcanos.  The laser can burn a path through rock strata and compacted earth, but isn't powerful enough to tunnel a whole mile down to that bunker."

Travis shrugged in resignation, "Well, it didn't hurt to ask if there was any chance of taking a more direct route.  All right, what kind of surface will we be dealing with in the caldera . . . dirt, gravel, rock?"

"Volcanic ash mostly, with some granular magma.  Some of the ash may be stirred up by the landing rockets, but I don't think there will be any visibility problems."

"What's the impact resistance of that kind of surface?"

Dr. Sinclair's blonde shaggy brows drew down, "I don't know off the top of my head.  I probably have a data crystal with the exact figures packed away somewhere.  Why do you ask?"

"Suppose we decided not to actually have the Midgard touch down on the planet's surface, but do a controlled descent cargo drop of your STEV.  How much cushioning would that surface provide?"

"About like dropping onto a mattress of broken glass, Captain," Sinclair's voice was flat and harsh, his strained congeniality replaced by an angry sense of betrayal.  "There's no way that the Loge could survive that."

"Then help me find a way," Travis appealed.  "Because if you're expecting this transport to land for a vehicle rollout, then remain planetside long enough to retrieve your vessel afterwards, you haven't been studying the atmospheric read-outs."

With some reluctance, Sinclair turned his attention to the satellite reports of wind velocity and shear, particulate and debris counts, and geologic instability.  After ten long minutes of mental calculations and reviewing their options for dropping and retrieving the Loge, Sinclair nodded his head reluctantly.

"You're right, the Midgard's hull integrity won't last more than an hour under those conditions.  While the transport's best option is to make a fast swing through the upper atmosphere and do a cargo paradrop with the Loge, I don't see how our STEV can survive the impact of a drop from that height.  It's not equipped with deterrent rockets and we didn't bring any anti-gravs or shock pallets."

"Maybe not," Travis gave him a grim smile, "But someone thought to stock something almost as good."

"What?" Sinclair was genuinely curious.

"JATOS - jet assisted take-off rockets.  Normally they're used for transporting heavy equipment for short point-to-point hops, but these can also be rigged as deterrent rockets.  Especially since Loge has the auxiliary power linkages that can be used to trigger the firing sequences to give us a degree of control about our actual touchdown."

Sinclair gave him a hard look, "Just how many times have you made paradrops with a vessel as heavy as the Loge . . . and had it land intact, in operational condition?"

Travis stared at him and answered in utter honesty, "Never . . . but there's always a first time.  Besides what choice do we have?"

Sinclair nodded his head wearily.  "All right, when do we start wiring those JATOS into place?"

"Soonest started, quickest done," Travis said bluntly, as he headed back to the loading bay where the rockets were stored.  "What about Dr. Hertzog? Aren't you going to consult her about this newest modification to her beloved Loge?"

Sinclair shrugged wearily, "Would it matter if I did? We're backed in a corner, with little or no choice in the matter of how our life's work will be altered and used over the next forty-eight hours.  Arguing is only a waste of time and energy.  Better to present her with a fait accompli, than waste time and energy trying to avoid an unpleasant truth."

While Travis and Sinclair were working to get the rockets wired and ready to fire when triggered from the controls of the Midgard.  Tarrant was at the helm controls, fine-tuning his calculations for the descent and ejection trajectory of the Loge from the transport's hold.  Their survival depended on his piloting skills, because one wrong move on his part could set the Loge spinning arse over teakettle before it crashed into the planet.  His usual supremely self-confident attitude was tense as he recalculated his descent path, not just guessing about Chiron's atmospheric conditions this time, but studying the computer readouts in unforgiving black and white.  The figures were not reassuring.

Earlier that morning, he had tried to reach Dayna aboard Liberator.  With the operation becoming a lot more complicated and dangerous than he had originally expected, he'd wondered if he should have told Dayna where he was going . . . and just whose call for help that he was really answering.

She had no love for the Federation and Space Command, but over the years her militant hatred had cooled, for the most part.  Of course, being present at Servalan's death and the fiery destruction of large numbers of renegade Space Command officers and troops had slaked some of her thirst for vengeance for her father's murder.  However, she had no great admiration for former Fleet Admiral Samore either, despite the fact that his cooperation with the Enclave Fleet had made those prior two occurrences possible.

Raking his fingers through his dark sweaty curls as he activated the comm set for the proper broadcasting frequency, he called, "Liberator, Del Tarrant here, piloting the Midgard.  Blake? Jenna? Who's manning the helm right now?"

There was a brief burst of static and Avon's nasal drawl came over the comm, "Bored with your Space Command heroics already, Tarrant?"

"Not really, Avon," he answered in a falsely hearty tone.  "Just wondering how things were coming along there? How you are managing with so many would-be heroes and helpful volunteers underfoot? Has all that benevolence and good intentions sweetened your disposition any?"

"Mainly, I'm trying to develop a plan so this ship survives the reckless rescue efforts of several dozen underage shuttle pilots, Tarrant, and I don't have time to waste on chit-chat.  Did you have anything important to report . . . or were you just calling to ease your boredom, piloting that oversized freighter?"

"Where's Dayna, Avon?" he'd tried to maintain an air of nonchalance, but could not hide the urgency in his voice.

"Going over the priority shuttle docking protocols with Enclave Captain Reid and his hotshot fleet of shuttle pilots, in an attempt to keep Liberator in one piece during the stampede of refugees from this planet."

"Captain Jonathon Reid?" Tarrant asked, dry-mouthed, remembering the dashing young Enclave captain that they had met on Byzantia, with his smartly tailored uniform and courtly manners.  Del had been overjoyed to find Dayna at his side when he'd emerged from his coma in the aftermath of Liberator's battle with four federation cruisers.  He'd been afraid that she might have chosen to stay with the Enclave pilot, not just because of his handsome features, but because he didn't have Tarrant's past history and ties with her worst enemy . . . Space Command.

But she'd stayed by his side and seemingly put her hatred and resentment behind her as the two of them grew closer and even talked about filing a formal bonding agreement.  Until he'd gotten the summons from former Fleet Warden Samore.  Considering everything the old man had done for him, he couldn't refuse to come.  But then he couldn't admit to Dayna either, just how strong those ties with Space Command still were.

"Do you want me to try and put you through to the docking area?" Avon asked sharply.  "The intercom shouldn't interfere with Reid's ship-to-ship communications."

"No, no, I don't want to risk distracting either of them during something that critical," he swallowed, trying to moisten his dry throat so he didn't sound so hoarse.  "Just let her know I called . . . if she asks.  Tell her I'm aboard the transport Midgard . . . as part of the rescue operation ."

As he severed the connection with Liberator and sat at the pilot station for a long moment, his bright blue eyes dark and hooded, Travis loomed over him, having overheard the last part of the conversation.

"You should have spoken with her, Tarrant," he said sharply.  "Told her yourself where you are and what you're doing.  At least made an effort to clear up why you left without even leaving a note about where you were going.  It's not too late, call Avon back."

"I can't," Tarrant said in a hoarse whisper.  "I don't think I could bear it if she refused to listen.  Leave it alone, Travis.  I'll explain once this mission is over . . ." 

"If we survive," Travis's voice grated.  "If you want to risk alienating Dayna forever, then keep on lying to her."

"It's my business, Space Commander," Tarrant's voice was harsh, "and I'd appreciate you staying out of it.  Was there something that you wanted to tell me . . . otherwise, I need to get back to these descent calculations to optimize your survival chances."

"We drop in thirty minutes . . . and I want to see your azimuth and degree readings before we button up the STEV, just to make sure that you've got the proper landing zone targeted."  Travis's voice was crisply military, his attention focused on the mission.

Then he paused and asked in a distant voice, "How long would it take to rig a "dead-man switch" to activate the STEV's drive system so it can board the transport even if there's no one at the controls?"

"There's a magnetic auto-load already included in the Midgard's control system," Tarrant said somewhat baffled as his fingers sought out the proper circuit and activated the lock-in.  "I just need to enter the Loge's codes into the system.  That's a bit pessimistic, don't you think?  Assuming all your pilots will be incapacitated . . . and the civilians survive?"

"Just being a realist, Tarrant," Travis's expression was as bleak as Tarrant had ever seen it.

CHAPTER IV

Inside the STEV, the five of them were strapped tightly down in anticipation of the tornadic winds that they'd soon be experiencing.  Phrath was reciting one of his clan's battle sagas in a low growl until Travis ordered him to be quiet.  Drs. Hertzog and Sinclair had their headsets in place and were running down the control checklist in calm, muted voices, just like they'd done a freefall drop with JATO deterrent rockets dozens of times.  Travis tried to ignore his queasy stomach as he went over his own checklist of critical steps that had to be taken over the next hour to assure their survival and safe landing of the STEV at the correct site.

"Old Starkiller's" grandson-in-law may have been a civilian with no battle experience, but he was standing the pre-mission tension surprisingly well.  He had headphones on and was running through a direction and time check on the comm system that linked him with his wife and children.  Although there were oily beads of sweat at his temples and dark swathes under his arms, there was no tremor in his voice as he gave Travis a status report.

"Maddie says that the bunker walls are still intact despite the increasing intensity of the quakes.  The thermostat is her main concern, though satellite readouts don't show any volcanic activity in our area . . . so far.  Also, with the seismic shifts, she's not sure if the mechanism unsealing the door will still engage.  I assured her that we had the means to get in with explosives or laser fire.  Correct, Captain?"

"Once we find that bunker, Carlyle, we'll get it open, if I have to use this craft as a battering ram."

Hertzog turned a baleful look in his direction, but Travis ignored her, keeping his attention focused on his comm link with Tarrant.  The pilot was calm and self-possessed but they were still in planetary orbit.  Taking a deep breath, Travis gave the order to take the transport down into the atmosphere.

The upper level troposphere was relatively calm but as they descended, the hurricane force winds began to build Travis had piloted numerous craft in adverse conditions over the last few years, from taking the shielded blockade runner Reina into gale force winds running guns to Avalon to attempting to land the heavily armored Alamo while under attack from Auron planetary defenses.  The bone-rattling forces he'd experienced then was nothing compared to the howling violence that rattled the Midgard's very superstructure as they descended deeper into the tumult surrounding them.

The vibrations caused the Loge to shimmy inside the hold and Travis held his breath, hoping that the disruption wouldn't result in a premature release of the vehicle, which could sound the death knell of their attempted rescue mission.  Fortunately the Midgard's retaining fields and pressurization remained intact despite the increasing atmospheric instability.  Travis adjusted his comm headset, watching the descent gauges.

"Brace for firing of starboard attitude rockets, Loge," Tarrant warned them.  "We've been blown about twenty degrees to the port of our landing objective.  Activating . . . three, two, one . . . now.  Attitude shift ten . . . fifteen . . . twenty degrees port.  Kill rockets."

Travis nodded, watching the repeater screen at his controls that duplicated Tarrant's.  "Roger, Midgard.  Descent back on true.  Time to Loge release, sixty seconds and counting.  Mark."

"Loge release in 55 seconds.  Explosive bolts armed and ready for triggering in 45 seconds.  All crew strapped in and equipment secured, Captain Travis?"

"Ready as we'll ever be," Travis muttered, pressing his head back against its restraint cushion and taking a deep breath in preparation for the propulsive jolt that would result in Loge's evacuation from its transport vessel.  "Keep your ears locked on the retrieval signal, Tarrant.  I don't want to find myself standing idly by on that hellhole of a planet, while you and Dayna kiss and make up."

"No fears, Captain Travis.  Your ride home will be on target and on time.  You can bet your life on that.  Clear skies," Tarrant gave the traditional pilot's farewell.

"I hope you're right, Del," Travis replied with a groundpounder's fervent plea.  "And soft landings."

The explosive release slammed him back into his seat with the force of three g's, and Travis struggled to lean forward and watch the descent readout, along with the Loge's attitude and orientation.  He hoped that whatever chance that watched over fools and heroes would give the STEV enough aerodynamic integrity to make a halfway stable descent.  He and Sinclair had plotted the best landing area, now the problem was to get the Loge over it and in the proper attitude to make a half-way stable landing.

He checked the map grid, relieved to see the volcanic crater was still below them, though slightly off to one side.  With a very tentative touch, he activated the first set of stabilizing rockets, correcting their attitude and attempting to center them on their landing site.  The Loge shifted ever so slightly, until the crater was directly beneath them.  So far the extreme gale force winds did not seem to be affecting their downward path, so Travis activated the first of the retarding rockets to slow their descent.

As their descent slowed, suddenly the hypercane winds took full effect, shaking and rattling the STEV with a bestial howl.  Travis had foregone the use of protective earplugs, counting on the headphones that maintained his link with Tarrant to protect his hearing.  But as the tearing force of the winds accelerated to almost unbearable levels, he pressed the phones more tightly to his ears in a futile attempt to block out the siren-level scream.

His eye watered with the growing pain from that level of noise and vibration, but he kept his gaze locked on their descent gauge, calling out the altitude as they descended.  Sinclair's attention remained focused on the map grid as he called out degree and heading, while Travis's delicately precise touch operated the JATOs.

"10,600 meters and free-falling Firing deterrent rockets to begin slowing descent."

"Holding steady on a heading of 285 degrees," Sinclair replied.

"10, 200 meters . . . descent is slowing.  Wind velocity increasing."

"Heading shifted to 283 degrees, still within acceptable parameters."

"9,800 meters and still slowing.  Vibration levels building up," Travis said through clenched teeth.  "How's our heading?"

"280 degrees, but still on target."

Travis nodded, his gaze jumping between JATO fuel levels, rate of descent and hull temperature and integrity readings, even though that was Dr. Hertzog's bailiwick.

"How's the shielding holding up?" he demanded hoarsely.

"Hull temperature still under 300 C," she snapped.  "Considering that we built this craft to survive inside an active volcano . . ." 

Travis grunted in reply, calling out their current altitude, "8,500 meters" and as the craft began to vibrate alarmingly, he glanced over to Sinclair.  "Heavy turbulence, doctor, how's our heading?"

"Currently 275 degrees.  Marginal at best, should you fire attitude rockets now or wait till we're closer to the ground?"

"I'll nudge the JATOs.  Slowing our descent may shift our heading."

As he fired the rockets, a sharp jolt clanging against the hull, threatening to send them spinning out of control.  Almost instinctively Travis compensated, getting their attitude, pitch and yaw back under control.

"Planetary debris," Sinclair reported tersely, checking over his dials and switches.  "Fortunately our shielding seems to have prevented a hull breach."

Travis's face was set in a rictus of determination, "Unfortunately, it's shot our heading to hell and gone.  Check your coordinates, Sinclair.  I'm not even sure we're within ten kilometres of our planned landing site any longer."

"Searching . . . ," Sinclair muttered as he used infra-red scanners and gravimetric readings to try and locate their original landing site.  "It's not too bad, Captain. You just need to bring us 150 degrees back to port . . . and 7.5 miles northward."

"2000 meters and accelerating, bloody hell," Travis muttered as he activated the JATOs at full power, hoping for a miracle.

He didn't get one.

Midway through his speed and course corrections, the rockets died, their limited fuel supply expended.  With no other way of controlling their attitude or descent, all the crew could do was belt in tight and pray for a soft landing.

They didn't get that either.

Fortunately, the designers and builders of the Loge had expected the craft to survive rough terrain and even hard landing or two when crumbling rock surfaces might collapse beneath its specially reinforced tread system.  They had installed inertial dampers that would survive a thousand foot drop.  Unfortunately the Loge came in from a little more than a mile . . . straight into an underground river, which served as enough of an additional shock absorber to prevent the STEV from disintegrating.

The impact of the landing left the entire crew unconscious, bruised and bleeding.  Phrath was the first to recover and unfastened his safety harness to check for survivors.  He sniffed the air first, to determine if the hull was intact or if he needed to bring out O2 masks.  There were the usual smokey fumes of fused ceramics and burned insulation.  The coppery tang of blood was present too, but not in life-threatening amounts so he prowled through the smokey darkness, ears cocked as he listened for signs of life.

A muttered string of curses indicated that Travis had survived the landing, relatively intact.  There were groans and demands for light from the front of the craft, showing that the two scientists were alive as well.  Phrath crouched over the inert form of Mark Carlyle, sniffing at the blood tricking from his forehead and ears.  Taking a quick lick, he determined it wasn't lifeblood and turned his attention back to Travis.  Once he was sure that his Captain was conscious and in command of his faculties, Phrath prowled the length of the STEV, its emergency lighting system bright as daylight to his acute night vision, sniffing for any hull breaches or fluid leaks.

By the time he finished inspecting Loge's interior, Travis had restored power, though there was little they could see until they repaired the external sensor circuits.

"Well, I know it's not Paradise, Phrath, or hellraisers like the two of us wouldn't be here."  Travis shivered at the damp chill filling the air.  "And given the scuttlebutt about the climate in Hell, we don't seem to be in its vicinity either."  Swearing at the damaged external sensors, Travis turned his ire on Dr. Sinclair.  "Just where the blazes are we, Doctor? I thought we were landing inside an extinct volcano to take advantage of its lava tubes and chambers."

Sinclair stared intently at the dim screens over his console, feeling the deck swaying beneath his feet.  "If I didn't know better I'd say we landed in an underground river.  But based on the sonic readings Lynn and I made over most of this planet, there was no indication of water carved caves in this vicinity."

He turned his gaze to Carlyle who had regained consciousness and turned his attention immediately to his communications link.

"What about it, Carlyle? You've lived here since the colony was first founded. Are there any large cave systems with rivers flowing through them?"

Carlyle shook his head tentatively, wincing in pain, "I'm a bureaucrat, Doctor, not an explorer.  All I knew about Chiron was that it was a very peaceful, dull but pretty world.  Madelaine and I had two small children, the most adventure we could handle was a day at the beach . . . and only then because the waves were rarely more than a few inches high."

"We know the tectonic plates are crumpling."  Dr. Hertzog's already pale features went even whiter."  Derek, is it possible that the oceans have already drained down to this level?"

"Anything is possible," Sinclair shrugged, nonplused.  "We've never had a chance to study a world like Chiron before . . . one in the throes of a planetary break-up."

He bent under the console, resetting the circuitry so external sensors were once again online, then climbed stiffly to his feet and turned his attention to Travis.  "We need to look over our earlier geologic scans of this are and try to determine the shortest route to the bunker.  Because if Lynn is right about the suboceanic plates, then we have even less time to make that rescue."

Travis shivered despite his spacer's leathers, "Check the scans while I see if Tarrant stowed any foul-weather gear with our supplies.  This damp cold cuts to the bone."

CHAPTER V

The obscenely fat one-time governor of Gauda Prime, waved a handful of diamonds in front of the viewscreen, hissing in Avon's face.  "They're yours . . . all of them . . . and more.  All you have to do is assign a single shuttle to my bunker.  There are just two of us . . . my . . . young companion and myself.  But I have various valuable artifacts . . . paintings, sculpture, priceless furnishings.  It would be a terrible cultural loss if they were left behind.  You have to listen, Avon.  I'll make you rich beyond your wildest dreams."

"I doubt it," Avon replied sarcastically, noting that despite the former governor's claim of a single companion that at least five other pretty young boys and various servants cowered in the background, knowing that their master had just condemned them to death.  "You're on the list for pick-up at 0200 tomorrow.  You . . . and your entire household of 15.  A headcount will be taken by the pilot.  You're to bring nothing but the clothes on your back . . . and in your case, considering the excess weight, the pilot will have orders to bring you back naked.  Any violation of this order will result in you being moved to the bottom of the retrieval schedule.  Understand?"

The blubbery jowls quivered with outrage, but the stark terror in the governor's eyes assured his compliance as Avon broke off communication, sensing Blake's amused presence at his shoulder, wondering if Avon would be tempted by the Governor's outrageous bribes.  Blake should know better by this time.  Avon's objective had always been survival and his best option appeared to be completing the suicidal rescue mission that they were currently involved in and removing themselves and Liberator as rapidly as possible from the vicinity of this unstable planet.  Unfortunately, that meant having to risk life and limb while they evacuated survivors from the surface of the aforementioned planet.

Avon's lips thinned in disgust as he turned a sharp look in Blake's direction, "We probably should do a full body scan of the governor and his 'staff' before letting them come aboard.  I'm sure he'll find some way to smuggle out as much gold, jewels, and other negotiable items as he can stuff into assorted body cavities."

Blake shrugged, unfolding his arms as he looked over Avon's shoulder at the refugee list he was using.  "We don't have the time or facilities to deal with that sort of thing, Avon.  Just make a note on the survivor rolls and let the re-location agents on Sanctuary deal with him as they see fit.  We're not here to sit in judgment on these people, but to rescue them."

"People, not property," Avon would have sneered, but he was too tired to care any more.

Blake took the clipboard and list out of Avon's hand and ordered him, "Go get yourself a mug of tea and then relieve Jenna for a spell.  There's too much still to be done for anyone to take time off to rest, but swapping off jobs and getting something to eat or drink should keep us reasonably alert until the mission is over.  I'll finish the notifications."

Avon nodded numbly and headed for the Rest Room, trying not to stumble over the men, women, and children sleeping, seated, or just wandering aimlessly through Liberator's corridors.

Most of them were dazed and silent or talking numbly among themselves.  Occasionally he heard the sound of muffled sobbing and even once the raised voice of incipient hysteria.  But Cally and the other medical personnel aboard were very quick to nip any potential problems in the bud with somnium injections or a glass of adrenaline and soma if the patient was marginally cooperative.

Just before he reached the lounge area, he spotted Dayna talking very intently to a small child who seemed to be clinging to a blanket-wrapped doll.  Upon closer examination the doll turned out to be a small furry creature, with blind blue eyes that had just opened.  The child's face was screwed up on the verge of tears and Dayna seemed almost as distraught.  She looked up as he approached.

"It's a kitten, Avon.  Not yet weaned.  Her parents wouldn't let her bring the mother cat and other kittens, but she smuggled this one up wrapped in her doll's blanket.  But now there's nothing to feed it."

Avon stared into the dark, limpid pools of Dayna's eyes, remembering when he first met her.  How bold and brash she'd been, stealing a kiss and leaving him breathless.  The tragic aftermath of Star One had left her haunted by grief and hopelessness, with the loss of her sister and father.  Then when she dared to love again, the man that she had trusted with her heart appeared to have deserted her for "an important mission".  He sighed ruefully as he hoped he could perform enough of a miracle so she did not lose hope completely.

"If I'm not mistaken, Cally programmed the Rest Room dispensers for some type of milk like beverage, knowing there would be children among the refugees.  A mug of that should give us a starting point."

"But we don't have a bottle with a nipple," Dayna protested.

Pushing his way to the front of the line, Avon turned his basilisk glare on anyone who objected, stating, "I'm part of the crew and I need to stay awake at my post, if you have no objections?"

Returning with two mugs, one of strong tea and the other warm milk, Avon handed the milk to Dayna.  "I imagine the two of you can improvise some way of getting enough of this inside the beast so it will survive?  Letting it lick your fingers is one possibility, or dipping in a clean cloth and letting the creature suckle that?"

Dayna threw her arms around Avon's neck and kissed him breathless again, "You're a genius, Avon . . . and not nearly the cynic you pretend to be."

"Yes, well, let's try to keep this our little secret, if you don't mind.  I'd hate to disabuse Blake of any more of his illusions."

Carrying what remained of his mug of tea back to the flight deck, Avon approached Jenna who was apparently deep in conversation with one of the shuttle pilots.

"XB 227, Pilot McRae, you are cleared for approach in 15 seconds.  Keep your braking rockets at lowest power and follow the guidelights when landing.  Do you have any special needs getting your passengers off-loaded, stretchers . . . or restraints?"

"Nope, gotta quiet bunch this time, Jenna.  Still in shock, I guess."

"All right then, take your time, Dani.  There's no need to risk your neck, any more than you already are."

"Oh, stop whining, Stannis.  Just because you're over the hill and they picked me for my superb eyesight and reflexes."

"I'm six months younger than you, Dani and I should have been included on the shuttle pilot's roster."

"You have responsibilities, Jenna.  Not footloose and fancy free, like me."

"This time next year, you just might have a new responsibility of your own."

"Travis agreed?"

"The specimen is awaiting your convenience at the BioReplication Center."  Looking up and spotting Avon at the entrance to the flight deck, Jenna seemed somewhat flustered.

"Well, you took your sweet time getting here, Avon."

"Sorry, Dayna had a domestic emergency that needed to be dealt with.  The dispenser lines are fairly long in the Rest Room, but I'm sure that Blake won't object to you jumping ahead so you can resume your duties in a timely fashion."

"All right, I presume you know the shuttle landing procedures?"

"I did write the protocols, Jenna.  I'm sure that I can muddle through for a short while."

Noting that Dani had already offloaded her passengers and taken off to pick up another load, Avon contacted the next pilot on the rota.

"Shuttle ship, Dagger, Pilot Sing, you are cleared for approach in 15 seconds.  Maintain braking rockets at lowest power and follow the guidelights on your approach . . ." 

CHAPTER VI

Even with its high level heat shielding stripped to a bare minimum, the Loge managed to maintain its watertight integrity as the vessel was swept along in the currents of the underground river.  Once the external sensors were repaired, they determined that the water they were floating in was brackish, a mixture of fresh and salt.  With most of their sensory equipment gutted, Dr. Hertzog stated somewhat snidely that she had no way of determining the present status of Chiron's tectonic plates.  Whether they were disintegrating or not.

"This river could be a fossil remnant of the planet's earlier continent building period . . . or it could be the result of the geodynamic processes that are currently tearing this world apart.  Without proper instruments, I can't even make an educated guess."

Wrapped in blankets from the shock kits that they'd brought along to use when Samore's granddaughter and her children were eventually rescued, Travis and Sinclair shivered in the damp chill as they pored anxiously over the geomagnetic scan of the area surrounding Carlyle's house and its compound.  Sinclair had retrieved files showing the subsurface readings that he and Lynn had previously prepared of the specific continental region where the house was located.

"Although the promontory where the bunker was built is composed of granite upthrust during the initial continental formation of the planet, most of Chiron's past was not that dynamic, the majority of the strata is sedimentary.  That usually consists of millions of years of sea creatures dying and leaving their shells on the ocean floor, which is then folded and pushed upwards by the movement of tectonic shields.  Though the bunker is located within a granite base, it's surrounded by sedimentary rock."

"So?" Travis was impatient, wondering where this lecture was leading.

"An underground river can cut a path through this type of rock on its way to the ocean."

"Then you're saying if we follow the river, it will take us to Carlyle's bunker?"

"It would be our best option . . . if we had an unlimited amount of time.  Underground rivers tend to take the path of least resistance, eroding through sand, limestone and other soft rock.  But in the current situation, we need to find a quicker . . . more direct route."

"Get to the point, Sinclair . . . if you have one?" Travis gritted out impatiently.

"The lava tubes that were our original LZ date back to this planet pre-historic active volcanic period and extend over twenty miles all directions.  If Carlyle can give us a good directional fix on the bunker, we can use Loge's laser cannon to burn through to the passage that comes closest to the bunker."

Lynn Hertzog glared at her partner angrily, "You know risk we're running, if we try to burn our way out of this strata? Even if this volcano has been extinct for thousands of years, given the current tectonic instability, magma is likely already surging upwards from chambers all along the continental rift.  Using the laser cannon is just begging for trouble, especially without the proper sensors."  Hertzog's angry expression turned towards Travis. "We should just follow the river . . . it won't take that much longer."

"The scan system that's part of the guidance controls is sensitive enough to make the necessary readings.  And the longer we're down here, the greater the risk to the Loge."  Sinclair's expression was resolute as he moved over to the controls of the laser. Travis peered over his shoulder, studying the LED readouts as the geologist prepared to activate the laser drill.  After glancing into a hooded viewer, Sinclair shifted his aiming coordinates some ten degrees.

"This grid shows density readings on the cave wall, which lets me identify the most stable area.  It wouldn't do any good to burn our way through and cause an immediate cave-in."

Despite Hertzog's claims about the complexity of the Loge's controls, the laser system was very basic, akin to many of the weapons that Travis had used over the years against the Federation's enemies.  The power levels showed the greatest variation from the systems that he was familiar with, since Sinclair's objective was not to blow an enemy into subatomic particles, but to open a pathway into the unknown, to explore the secrets hidden deep beneath a planet's surface.

Only this time the planet they were exploring was in its death throes, and there was no time to chart its wonders and mysteries.  Travis stared at the map projected on the screen over Sinclair's head.  A flashing gold light indicated Loge's position on the grid and the underground river that they were following glowed blue as it wound along its circuitous path.  According to Carlyle, the tunnel leading to the bunker's entrance had collapsed, which meant they would have to burn through to the access hatch, a further drain of Loge's systems. While following the river required less power, the time factor increased the risk that conditions on Chiron would deteriorate to the point that Tarrant would be unable to land and pick them up.

Yet as Travis stared intently at Sinclair's more direct route, he was curious about the glowing red sections at the perimeter of the path he intended to take.

"What are those?" he pointed to one that actually appeared to cross their route.

"IR readings of possible lava flows.  This tunnel is the result of a lava surge that ran laterally, boring a tunnel through the sedimentary rock rather than erupting on the surface of the planet.  It liquefied miles of rock before dead-ending.  Though the volcano that produced that flow is long extinct, there are cracks and discontinuities that could allow magma to seep up from deep wells within the mantle.  The readings that we took a month ago didn't show any volcanic activity in the area, but considering the current planetary instability . . . we can't rule it out."

"And if any of those cracks do contain lava . . . what then?"

"This craft was designed to go down into a live volcano and survive the worst of its pyroclastic flows and toxic gases.  Or it was until you removed the thermal shielding."

Travis pinched the bridge of his nose and demanded in a soft voice, "Has it ever been tested under 'live fire' conditions?"

"You mean, have I ever driven the vessel inside an active volcano?"

"Something like that."

Sinclair took a deep breath wondering if he should mention the stringent experiments with flame throwers and even using the full force of a rocket engine to test the shielding and internal temperature controls, but decided not to try the Federation officer's patience.

"No, it has never been tested under field conditions, Captain Travis."

"So following the underground river is our safest route."

"Yes . . . as long as our power holds out . . . and the planet doesn't blow itself apart."

"Time differential?"

"Eighteen . . . possibly even thirty-six hours by the river.  I can't be more specific because I don't know what obstacles we'll encounter.  Six to twelve hours through the lava tube."

Travis was silent for a long moment, leaning over Sinclair's shoulder and studying the two routes mapped out on the screen, calculating the odds in his head.  As a commander, his preference was for the shortest, least complex operation, knowing that Federation strategists always tended to overplan their battles.  Strike for the jugular and then get out of the way of the death throes was his definition of a good attack.  But this time the shortest route was the most dangerous, and the most likely to run into problems.

He glanced around at the faces staring at him, waiting for his decision.  Phrath his whiskers cocked at a battle-ready angle, Hertzog distraught at the damage he'd already done to her precious STEV, Carlyle, so worried about his family that Travis could almost smell his fear, but determined to save them, and Sinclair, a scientist and explorer on the edge of the abyss, staring into the darkness, searching for the light of truth.

"We take the lava tube," he decided.  "The sooner we're off this world, the safer we'll be.  Phrath, make sure those explosives are secure from any sudden rise in temperature.  Dr. Hertzog, see if you can contact Tarrant and tell him our progress.  Carlyle, I want to see your diagrams of the bunker's interior.  If the main opening is blocked, we may have to get in another way.  Dr. Sinclair, fire up that laser and take us into the lava tube."

As the crew busied themselves with the assignments he'd given them, Travis watched in grim satisfaction.  They may not have been as jittery as green Federation troops about to go into their first combat assignment, but it was always best to keep people busy before implementing a dangerous plan.  They didn't have time to brood about the odds against their mission succeeding . . . and the less they brooded, the better their chances.

He stared at the Loge's screen while Sinclair made final adjustments on the laser cannon, feeling a certain sense of relief that they'd be abandoning this cold, dank cavern.  It reminded him too much of a prison cell . . . or a tomb.  Though he wasn't claustrophobic, he preferred to take his chances of going out in a blaze of glory in a volcanic eruption rather than being trapped underground when the planet exploded.

He shuddered as he glanced over Sinclair's shoulder while he made the last adjustments on the laser that would take them into the subsurface tunnel.

"Not much longer," Sinclair reassured him.

"Let's just hope we're not going from the fish pond into the frying pan," Travis muttered, his hands resting near the auxiliary power controls just in case the laser overloaded or lost power.

As the laser drill finished charging and then fired, Travis raised his arm to shield his face from that abrupt brightness.  It wasn't extremely powerful, but still a definite contrast from the darkness of the cave where they had landed.

The stone wall in front of them glowed red, then white, crumbling away and leading into another dark, unknown space.  Dr. Hertzog gunned the engine of the STEV before putting it into gear to push slowly through the melted rock.  There was a steep climb into the magma formed tubeway, but nothing the treads couldn't handle.

Travis glanced around at the gleaming walls, which reflected the Loge's headlights as they rumbled onto the tunnel's floor which seemed to be remarkably level.

"Carlyle, are you still in communication with your family?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Get a directional fix relative to our current location, with course headings.  We're running out of time and the sooner we reach that bunker, the better for all of us."

Glancing at the viewscreen image repeated from the nose camera, Travis gestured for Dr. Hertzog to put the STEV into gear, advancing slowly as they took sensor readings of the outside temperature and atmosphere content.

"Temperature 42 Celsius.  Atmosphere, heavily contaminated with sulfur dioxide and smoke, but clearing."

"Carlyle, course and heading?"

"280 degrees true on our current heading.  We need to find out how far the lava tube goes before I can tell you how far we'll be from the bunker's hatchway."

"All right, Hertzog, push those engines as hard as you can on the course and heading given.  Any word from Tarrant?"

"Just an automatic acknowledgment of our signal," she frowned.

Travis felt a slight twinge of worry, hoping that automatic reply did not mean that Tarrant was having trouble maintaining orbit, but was just attempting to contact Dayna or possibly even inform Jenna of their current status.

"Move out," he growled.  "At the best speed this vehicle can maintain."

Over the next six hours the STEV plowed ahead at its optimum speed, a bone-rattling three miles per hour as it remained on course within five degrees of its targeted heading.  Travis was accustomed to the hard ride of tactical vehicles, while Hertzog and Sinclair expected nothing more from their craft which had been designed to maneuver over rock-strewn trails, through caverns, across chasms, lava pits and other rough terrain

The cold damp atmosphere began to gradually warn, until the cabin temperature approached the upper 90s.  Travis had stripped off his leather jacket, sitting bare-chested and sweating at the engineering controls while Hertzog and Sinclair peeled down the tops of their jump suits, leaving the two of them in sweat-ringed vests while they kept the Loge rumbling through the tubeway, still on course to the bunker.  Samore's grandson-in-law was also red-faced and sweating, but kept his attention focused on the static-filled communication link with his bondmate and children.  Travis's biggest worry was Phrath, whose only means of regulating his body temperature was by panting . . . and his mouth was already so dry that his lips were bleeding.

He leaned over Sinclair's shoulder and muttered, "Is there any kind of climate control system in this vehicle?"

Taking in Phrath's growing distress, Sinclair nodded and then activated the cabin cooling system which produced a briefly refreshing drop in temperature.

"I don't want to use it any longer than absolutely necessary," he whispered to Travis.  "It draws heavily on our power reserves . . . and we may need every erg to blast our way into the bunker."

Travis nodded in reluctant agreement, watching carefully for signs of heat prostration in his gunner as they traveled deeper into the planet's depths.

Hertzog hissed to Sinclair as he activated the controls, "I told you this route was a bad idea.  How much longer do you think our instruments can last in this heat?"

"The cooling system is keeping them functional."

"But it's a heavy drain on our power," she muttered.  "And our odds of survival are growing shorter all the time."

Even Travis noted despite Sinclair's efforts to reassure his partner that the engineer had a worried look on his face as he made frequent long-range scans of their surroundings.  From his position at the auxiliary controls, Travis studied the sensor readings and the increase in the surrounding temperature that likely indicated the lava flows were moving closer to their current position.

He leaned forward and muttered under his breath in Sinclair's direction, "You care to explain what's happening now?"

"It appears that Lynn was more accurate in her assessment than I was.  Even though this world has been geologically stable for the last million years, that comet strike sounded its death knell.  The tectonic plates are beginning to give way, allowing the magma currents beneath the mantle surge upwards, activating once extinct volcanos, boiling away the oceans, and eventually blowing its atmosphere into space."

"I don't give a damn about the rest of the planet," Travis snarled.  "Just tell me if we're in any immediate danger from those lava flows?"

Sinclair studied the subsurface readings for a very long moment, before pointing tentatively to a secondary series of channels that led away from the tube they were traveling through.  "It's possible to use these shafts to divert the flow, based on an outmoded dangerous and aggressive technique. Years ago people would try to diver lava flows away from their homes and other valuable property by use of dikes and explosives, but those methods fell out of favor.  It became easier to abandon unstable worlds and resettle. . .or even exterminate their populations than use manpower and valuable resources to 'preserve and protect' them', especially if their citizens weren't wealthy or powerful."

Even though Sinclair's voice was neutral, Travis winced at the accusing words, recalling his own bitterness and disillusionment with the Space Forces under Servalan's command.

"We brought along some explosives," he answered in a guarded tone.  "Just in case we needed to blast into the bunker, if your laser malfunctioned or lost power.  How much would we need to divert the lava flow?"

"I don't know for sure.  I'll need to make calculations and get a better reading of its flow dynamics and tunnel density readings.  Fetch your explosives and we'll map out our diversion plan ."

Travis hurried back to the secure locker where Phrath had stored their supplies.  After a quick inventory, he appropriated eight of the containers, detonators and automatic fuses.

A figure lurking in the shadows addressed him in a ragged voice, "Big bangs you're planning to make, Travis Captain?"

"Big enough, gunner.  Help me check through these containers so I know if there's enough blasting force to block off a major magma channel."

"Tunnel blowing you are?  Best to let this one set the charges, or else cave roof down on your head you'll be bringing."

"I'll deal with the explosives, Gunner.  You like to make big bangs just to see the fireworks. This will need to be a controlled blast according to Sinclair.  So I'll be the one to set the charges."

Phrath shrugged, his mouth caked with dried blood, but green eyes gleaming with his usual indomitable spirit.

"Charge placing discussion with Sinclair Doctor will this one listen to . . . but recall whose skinnier butt narrow places can slip in and out of more easily?"

"Oh, put a lid on it," was Travis's growled reply.

CHAPTER VII

When they returned to the laser controls where Sinclair was waiting, the geologist had a detailed map projected on the main screen along with some throat-drying shots of bubbling lava taken from just above the main magma chamber.

"This is what we have to stop . . . or divert or we'll never reach the bunker."  His dark gaze rested on the Kyrenian, before coming back to the small satchel resting on Travis's hip, with a skeptical look. "Are you sure that will be enough explosive, Captain?"

Phrath's brow fur bristled, although his whiskers maintained their jaunty angle, "Big bangs coming in small packages he does not believe, Travis Captain."

"It's enough, Sinclair. Take my word ."

"All right then," Sinclair nodded as he pointed to the coordinates of a pair of angled shafts leading from the magma chamber where the lava originated.  "We need to seal these two tunnels . . . to prevent the magma from surging up to overflow our present route."

Travis eyed the tunnels that fed upwards from the main lava chamber. Though the shaft openings from the chamber were initially wide, they soon narrowed to twisting conduits that were going to be difficult to access, especially while carrying the explosives.

He protested to Sinclair, "Those two tunnels are practically a bottleneck already.  What makes you think the magma will follow that route?"

Sinclair gave him an exasperated look, running one hand through his already rumpled hair. "It's hard to explain without a basic knowledge of magma flow dynamics, but the mineral deposits within those tunnels will melt like butter as the lava surges upwards, allowing it to spill out into this tunnel."

"And just might trigger a full blown gaseous eruption that will blast us right into orbit," Dr. Hertzog interrupted in tense voice.

Sinclair gave her a mocking grin, "Well, consider it the answer to your prayers. Seeing a major chamber blowout 'up close and personal'."

"And being incinerated to bloody ash five seconds later.  No thank you, Derek, I prefer to make my volcanic observations far enough away that I survive to present the paper."

Sinclair shrugged, "I really don't think there's that much danger of a blowout . . . besides this tunnel is our quickest route to the bunker. . .and off this planet."

"We could go back and follow the underground stream."  Lynn's voice held a pleading note.

But Travis shook his head, "Too little time left."

Phrath stared at the two claustrophobic crawlways that emptied into the tunnel, where the charges would have to be set, flexing his whiskers in anticipation.  "Very tight fit map grid shows, One-eye Travis Captain.  Too narrow for bulky human to inch way into."

"A tight fit even for you, Gunner, and likely a heat sink as well.  Singe your whiskers right off," Travis said grimly.  "I can squeeze my way far enough down the rift to set the charges.  You stay here and help Sinclair keep an eye on the remotes."

The Kyrenian growled, baring formidable fangs, "A weakling you think this one is, not able to slip/slide down that tubeway?  Fool you are, Travis Captain.  Certain it is that shoulders of yours will wedge you in like cork in bottle, unlike slinky gunner."

"I'm afraid that he's right, Captain," Sinclair agreed.  "Scanners show those conduits are only a third of a meter in diameter at their entrance, with a sharp bend before reaching the optimum blast location.  It's physically impossible for you to reach the area where the charges have to be set."

Travis stared at his slender gunner bleakly, knowing that the Kyrenian was indeed narrower through the shoulders and chest than he was.  As always, he dreaded sending another to do a job he felt was his responsibility, but there was no choice.

"All right, just don't get your whiskers all bent outta shape," Travis agreed reluctantly.  "They're likely to get scorched enough as is.  Go ahead and set the charges . . . I'll stand by to haul you back to the Loge after you've flash-fried your few remaining brains."

The gunner gave him a toothy grin as he grabbed the explosives and started readying their fuses and timing devices.

Sinclair's expression was apologetic, "Captain, I need to be with Phrath, at the entry of the conduits, to tell him where to place charges. That way, there's less chance of triggering that blowout Lynn warned us about.  You stay with her at the controls, keeping the Loge in gear just in case the blasts trigger seismic fluctuations.  A rockslide or newly opened crevasse could damage the STEV, stranding all of us, and you'll need to evacuate this area as quickly as possible should that occur."

"No," Travis protested. "You're the expert with this craft, my specialty is explosives.  I'll stay with Phrath and relay your instructions."

Sinclair frowned, "Out of the question, Captain. I can't instruct Phrath based on guesswork.  And a three way conversation will only increase the risk to all of us. Besides, you said earlier that you'd driven every kind of craft the Federation used in the field.  Handling the Loge should be no problem."

Travis grunted an ill-tempered acknowledgment as he studied the screen apprehensively, hoping that the narrow shafts were not as impassable as they looked.

A short time later, he waited beside Lynn Hertzog at the idling controls of the Loge, watching the viewscreen with growing apprehension.  Keeping a nervous eye on rising temperature as Phrath inched along, pushing the ordnance package ahead of him.  Even though the temperature in the STEV was relatively cool, Travis felt sweat trickling down his back and chest as he empathized with his fur-coated gunner.  Sinclair's voice remained calmly encouraging as he guided the Kyrenian 's placement of the explosives.

"That's it.  Right beside that vein of gray-stippled hyperion granite. It will make an ideal dam to block the lava flow."

Phrath's hoarse, agonized panting caused Travis to clench his fist in frustration.  Even as Hertzog's grip on his flesh and blood arm tightened, he wanted to jump to his feet and go drag his gunner out of that inferno. "Derek knows what he's doing,  Captain.  Interrupting his concentration could result in misplacement of the charges . . . and a lava surge that would fill this corridor in seconds."

Perched on the edge of his seat, Travis gritted his teeth and listened as Sinclair pulled his gunner out of the tunnel, "Just rest a moment. Catch your breath."

Phrath's hoarse warning was barely audible, "Rest we cannot.  Lava rises fast.  Burning rock this one smelled."

"That's not possible," Sinclair protested weakly.  "Unless the soundings were wrong . . . His voice took on an urgent, almost hysterical edge.  "Lynn, get the Loge moving NOW.  There's no more . . . "  A burst of static cut off his last words and Lynn Hertzog started to put the STEV in reverse to go back for Sinclair. But Travis pushed her aside and took over the controls, accelerating them down the tubeway just ahead of a collapsing wall of rock triggered by the premature explosion of the charges.  Hertzog's agonized cry made the hairs stand up on the back of Travis's neck, as she struggled to grab the controls away from him,  "We have to go back!  We can't leave him. . .them . . . we have to dig them out."

"On the comm. . . that was the second charge detonating. . .prematurely," Travis's voice was harsh and unyielding.  "Neither of them could have survived that blast, even before the ceiling collapsed."

"You don't know that.  Not for sure!  They could still be alive, back there.  Trapped in an air pocket."

Travis stared at Hertzog's desperately hopeful expression before pointing to the IR readings on the screen, showing the ugly red surge of active lava, seeping through the fallen rocks.  "Nothing's alive in that inferno, not any more."

Hertzog stare at him with an empty desolate expression, them wiped her streaming eyes with her sweaty arm as she steered an erratic course away from the smoldering rocks, cursing under her breath, "Damn Samore and his scheme, appealing to Derek's tender nature.  Damn Carlyle and his family for settling on this backwater planet.  And damn you and that mangy misfit gunner of yours for bringing those damned explosives along . . . and being the cause of his death."

Travis ignored her verbal outburst; knowing she was as ravaged by grief and shock as he was and slumped in the seat next to hers, numbed by the suddenness of Phrath's death. That someone so vibrantly alive could be swallowed up by the earth, with no body, not even ashes, for them to remember him by.  He could hardly believe the Kyrenian was gone, that he'd never again hear the deep-throated, ferocious growl of his gunner's battle cry or his rumbling purr of satisfaction whenever they'd made a good deal . . . or managed to beat out the competition for a profitable contract.

He struggled to catch his breath and get his mind back on the mission, as he'd done so many times in the past, whenever he lost a friend or comrade in the middle of battle. There would be time to grieve later, but now for the sake of Carlyle and their family, he had to shoulder the burden and soldier on, like a good Federation trooper. They had a mission to accomplish and with Hertzog on the verge of emotional collapse, everything could easily come unraveled unless he presented a bold front.

"Give me the controls," he ordered as they rumbled blindly through the increasingly narrow lava tube.

"Keep your bloody hands to yourself," Hertzog snarled as she dragged her forearm across streaming eyes, trying to wipe the tears and dirt from her face.  "I'm the only one alive who can handle this craft now.  No matter what Derek said, you're barely competent to drive it under ordinary circumstances, much less in our current situation.  Just leave me alone, hear.  Leave me alone!"

Wanting to avoid a struggle that might wreck their only means of transportation, Travis backed away.  Hertzog seemed to have regained control of her emotions, for the moment, and was keeping the STEV on course.  Turning his attention to the monitors, Travis noted that the stretch of lava tube that they were traveling through seemed relatively smooth and free of obstacles.

Dragging himself out of Sinclair's seat, Travis went back to check on Carlyle.

Mark sat tensely in his seat at the communications panel, earphones on, relating what had just happened to his bondmate.  He stared at Travis with a haunted expression, "What now, Captain? Do we go on . . . or go back?"

"There's no going back," Travis answered bleakly.  "The tunnel behind us will be filled with magma soon.  Our only hope is to locate the bunker, then use the laser to burn our way to the surface."

"But Dr. Sinclair was one who knew how to operate this craft.  With him . . . gone . . ." 

"Samore chose me because of my experience with tactical vehicles and lasers.  Dr. Hertzog and I should be able to do whatever's needed to get your family safely to the surface."  Travis rubbed his eye hard, trying to banish the tight burning feeling in his head and throat, and nodded toward the comm set, "What's the word from your bondmate?"

"Earth tremors are increasing, though the walls are still intact.  However, she thinks the thermostat controls may have been damaged though, the shelter's temperature is gradually rising."

"Let's hope the magma flow Sinclair died trying to divert isn't the cause."  Travis muttered as he slumped beside Carlyle, who was attempting to reassure his increasingly distraught spouse.

Noting that Carlyle apparently had his emotions under control, he returned to Sinclair's position at the laser controls.  Her face was a dirt-streaked mask of sorrow but Lynn Hertzog's eyes burned in outrage as she railed against Travis, still managing to keep the STEV on course.

"Do you realize what you've done?" she gasped.  "Those damned faulty explosives haven't just doomed us, but robbed the universe of a true genius.  Derek Sinclair wasn't just the greatest visionary in planetary science in the last century . . . but was also a brilliant engineer."

"Without his hard-headed practicality, the Loge would still be a pipe dream on the drawing board of a second rate geology professor teaching at a third rate mining school.  He spent every penny he could beg or borrow building the Loge, because he wanted to study geologic phenomena on small, sparsely inhabited worlds like Chiron.  We'd offer to do cheap mineralogical surveys to identify valuable raw materials that would improve the colonists' lives.  All Derek asked for payment besides our basic expenses was the preservation of some of their larger cave systems."

She pounded at the steering controls, tears streaming down her face.  "He didn't want wealth or fame, just to be allowed to explore the depths that he loved . . . until Samore conned us into this suicidal rescue mission."

Travis reached across to take over the controls when suddenly Hertzog glanced at the monitor and hit the brakes hard, throwing him against the panel.

"What the fu . . ." he growled, then glanced down at the monitor screen as Hertzog tittered with a lunatic edge to her voice.

"End of the line, Captain.  Our highway to hell just dead-ended.  Now what, oh fearless leader?"

Travis stared at the external camera feed, momentarily dismayed at the blank stone wall facing them, then shoved Hertzog away from the controls as he studied the headings.  "Judging by Samore's coordinates, we're less than five hundred meters away from the bunker site.  Carlyle, show me your diagrams of the lift shaft and entry lock so we know where to burn through."

Carlyle's hands were trembling but his voice firm and resolute as he leaned over the monitor screen and added the file with the bunker's blueprints into the map field.  "It might have been simpler to try to dig our way back down shaft, but the closest mining equipment was three weeks away.  The Loge was already in transit . . . so the Fleet Warden planned the operation with what was available."

"Including one hard-assed ex-Federation officer," Travis said somewhat sourly, adding with a wry grin, "Well, he always told his commanders, 'You have to win your battles with the weapons you have, not the ones you wished you had.'  "

He was familiar with Federation weapons grade lasers, but Sinclair had obviously made numerous adaptations to the original device in order to be able to use it as an excavation tool without incinerating its operators . . . and blowing up its platform.  He could probably puzzle out how to operate the system safely and effectively, if he had enough time.  But that was the one thing in critically short supply . . . time.

Lynn Hertzog peered irately over his shoulder as he ran through the basic operating controls and fail-safes.

"This is not like your mindless, delta-operated fire control systems, Captain," she sneered.  "It requires an engineer's knowledge of various rock strata and their properties.  You'll never figure it out in time."

"Maybe not," Travis said grimly, "but I'm not about to quit without giving it my best shot.  I doubt that Dr. Sinclair would give up that easily either . . . if he were still alive."

Dr. Hertzog stared at him, grief burning in her eyes, before turning back to her own controls and reluctantly making the calculations to help him link the sensors and laser drill so they could burn through the tunnel wall and surrounding strata without overheating their compartment.

Based on directional readings given them from Carlyle's comm, they angled the STEV upward and fired the laser.  The initial burst nearly blinded them both until Hertzog activated the radiation screens and projected a map of their heading on the main viewer.  Locking in on the coordinates where the bunker was supposed to be located, they burned upward at a 45 degree angle, the Loge's tracks grinding over and through the melted rock and glassy debris.  Despite the vessel's air filtration system, smoke and fumes seeped through hairline cracks into the main cabin, leaving their throats raw and their eyes watering.

"Break out the breathing masks, Carlyle" Travis choked, "and see if there are any radiation goggles in the kit.  Otherwise, we'll be blind before we reach the bunker."

Carlyle started to balk at using the breathing masks, which were part of the limited resuscitation supplies that had Travis included.  Then without being reminded, he realized that if the crew of the STEV passed out, then the rescue that Fleet Warden Samore had sacrificed so much to mount would not survive long enough to reach the bunker.  He handed the masks to Travis and Hertzog but did not take one himself until Travis snarled at him

"Put it on, you young fool.  We can't find the bunker without your guidance . . ." 

Carlyle complied reluctantly, using the mask intermittently, only when his vision was actually blurred and darkness was closing in on him.  Travis did not argue any further, keeping his own oxygen intake as limited as possible while still remaining marginally functional.

Reaching a layer of sedimentary strata, Hertzog advised him to power down the laser, and let the powerful engines of the Loge grind through to the next level.

"We're almost there," Carlyle gasped.  "I recognize the subsurface readings.  The Fleet Warden had a Federation geologist identify the most stable region on the planet and then the best engineers in the quadrant designed and built the bunker.  They said that it would withstand anything except a nova bomb."

"Or a planet-destroying asteroid," Herzog said in a bitter tone.  "All right, we're near the bunker, what now? Where's exactly is the entry? Or do we just burn our way through the walls . . . and warn your wife and brats to keep their heads down?"

"I'm not sure," the young colonist peered into the faint illumination of the external lights gleaming into the darkness.  "Maddie said environmental controls showed that lift shaft collapsed, the hatchway was blocked by debris. I have the override code that should open the access, if we can get to it . . . I don't think this laser will be able to burn through the walls.  They're duranium coated.  The Fleet Warden insisted."

"Hell," Hertzog muttered under her breath.  "I don't know why the old man was so desperate to get them out.  That bloody bunker could likely survive the break-up of this planet.  All he needed to do was wait in orbit until the debris blew into space and then retrieve his precious family."

Carlyle ignored Lynn's vitriolic outburst, turning his attention to Travis, whose seemed to be pondering how to reach the airlock with a minimum of effort.

"Power down the laser, Doctor.  We'll use the weight of the Loge should be able to break through the walls and shove aside the debris until we reach the door seals.  After that, it's up to you, Carlyle."

The comm specialist's expression was frightened but resolved.  "Don't worry, Captain Travis.  I have the security codes that will override the damaged interlocks. Getting in should be no problem ."

"It's getting back to the surface that will be the problem," Dr. Hertzog muttered under her breath.

Fifteen minutes later Travis and Carlyle were burrowing out of the Loge, prying aside the shattered walls of the airlock.  Gasping and covered with chalky dust from the limestone deposits they'd plowed through earlier, Carlyle brushed aside the gravel and dirt covering the door seals of the bunker's entry.

Kneeling beside the featureless wall, he pressed his hand against the durite screen set into it.  Nothing happened.  He pressed harder, a worried look on his face, but the scanner that was supposed to identify his handprint was not responding.  "Computer must be down," he muttered.

He glanced back at Travis, "Do you have a knife . . . or anything I can use to pry up an access panel?"

Travis pulled a wicked looking blade from its hidden sheath inside his boot, and Carlyle took the razor sharp weapon and slid its edge into a virtually invisible crack.  Pulling open the panel to access an LED alphanumeric screen, Carlyle carefully entered a random series of letters and numbers.  The screen responded reluctantly, demanding a second set of figures and even a tissue sample, which Carlyle supplied by slashing the knife across his palm and letting blood drip on the panel.  Finally with a groaning reluctance, the door leading from the airlock into the bunker slid partway along its track and then froze.  Travis choked at the stale air as he and Carlyle muscled the hatchway open.  Squeezing through the narrow entrance, the colonist stumbled through the semi-darkness, calling for his wife and children.

"Secondary power's failed too.  The exhaust fans aren't running."  He searched desperately through the dimly lit rooms calling, "Maddie, Dickon, Billy-boy.  Daddy's here, I've come to take you to a safe place."

Travis's eye adjusted to the red-tinged emergency lighting, as he noted the close, stuffy atmosphere of the bunker.  The air recycling and temperature controls were barely functioning.  A six hour delay and there likely would have been three dead bodies to greet them.  He'd made the right--the only--decision, taking the more direct route. . . he just wished that the cost hadn't been so high.

Carlyle and his bondmate were clinging desperately to one another, a blanket-wrapped bundle between them, while a runny-nosed five year-old clutched at their knees, howling pitifully.

"Save the tender embraces for later," Travis snarled.  "There's no time to waste.  Get them back to the STEV."

"You made it! I was so afraid. The air was getting stuffier . . . and the temperature was so hot . . . I didn't want my babies to suffer."  The young woman, her fiery red hair plastered to her forehead and cheek bones with sweat and tears, babbled as she sobbed with relief.  She opened her hand, showing Travis three pre-filled syringes.  "I was about to use this . . . and put the children to sleep.  But you came . . . you came . . ."

Delicately Travis took the syringes and hurriedly passed them to Carlyle despite his impulse to smash them beneath his heel.  He was furious that Samore's granddaughter would even consider taking the easy way out, knowing that rescue was on the way.  Struggling to control his temper, he spoke in a firm tone to the distraught young woman.  "We managed to reach this bunker, but we still have to get back to the surface and off this planet before you and your children are safe."

Carlyle had scooped up his eldest boy and was staring at Travis, his eyes streaming from smoke and emotion as the former Federation officer ordered impatiently,  "Get them strapped down on board the Loge. I'm going to check for any supplies or equipment we might need on our trip to the surface."

Prowling hastily through the semi-darkened bunker, Travis had to admire Samore's foresight and practicality.  Enough food and water, along with a waste recycling system and virtually perpetual power supply to have survived a nuclear war . . . just not a random strike by a planet-killing asteroid.

He glanced over the bunker's control system, noting that it was computer failure rather than lack of power that resulted in their environmental systems running down.  Judging by the readings, the self-contained unit that operated the bunker's Command and Control, along with its life support system, had enough power to keep the everything running for another six months.  Travis hastily disengaged the computer interlocks before unhooking the compact fusion cell and hefting it over his shoulder.  The linkages might not be compatible, but he was unwilling to leave any potential power source behind.

By the time he returned to the STEV and secured the salvaged equipment, Carlyle and his bondmate had the children soothed enough so their unhappy howls were little more than a few hiccoughy whimpers.  The two parents had hastily improvised secure fastenings that would hopefully keep the children restrained on the return leg of their journey.

Travis was belting himself in and going over the laser control panel, checking the power levels and system warning lights.  Looking up from the steering controls, Lynn Hertzog glared at the rescued family members of the young colonist and hissed in a hoarse voice, "Just tell me why you think that Samore's granddaughter and her brats' lives are worth more than Derek's . . . or Phrath's?"

"I didn't make that choice," he replied in a level tone.  "They did.  They both knew the risks when they volunteered . . . and took the chance they did to save you and me . . . and Samore's 'brats'."

Lynn's expression was still filled with rage as she gunned the engine to start their ascent.  Travis had the laser on line and aiming at a 45 degree angle which was about as steep a climb as the Loge could make.  Burning through the shale deposits was relatively easy for the first two hundred yards, until they hit another granite outcropping and the laser's power levels were drained much faster than they expected.  With temperature rising and smokey fumes filling the cabin, Travis allowed Carlyle to place emergency O2 masks on his children but wouldn't let him give his away to his wife, instead ordering him to share it between them.

"We need you alive and conscious to contact Tarrant and give him the landing coordinates when we reach the surface.  You're not expendable . . . so don't go all noble on me."

Dr. Hertzog was wearing her mask constantly, while Travis used his only enough to keep functioning.  There was no telling how much longer it would take them to burn to the surface through granite and other basaltic type rocks.  Then with a sudden shuddering gasp, the STEV came to a dead halt.  Travis's head jerked at the abrupt silence inside the cabin and he turned a demanding glare on Lynn Hertzog.

"That's it, gentlebeings," she rasped with a harsh laugh.  "Our little excursion has come to its foregone conclusion, I'm afraid.  The power cells are drained.  The laser is dead.  We aren't going anywhere, any more . . . at least not until the magma chambers overflow and this section of your planetary garden spot is blasted into space.  So, we might as well relax and enjoy the show."

Travis scanned over the laser controls grimly noting their depleted power levels, then pried open the panel and checked the linkages.  The engine and life support systems were still functional, only the heavier demands on the laser's power unit had drained it.  Travis had jury-rigged mismated systems like this before, but if the laser drew too much power from the engines then they'd be in even worse shape.

He stared at the laser controls, his mind racing back to another time when his life and Jenna's had depended on his engineering skills.  Aboard the Reina, when he'd jury-rigged the power system from a Federation stealth craft to augment the controls of an overage blockade runner.  It had been a suicidal risk, but he and Jenna had miraculously survived it.  He glanced back at the barely functioning generator he had salvaged earlier.

"Is she telling the truth?" Carlyle demanded hoarsely, his expression distressed.

"Maybe not.  There's the slimmest chance that I can jury-rig the bunker's generator to get the laser back on line long enough to get us to the surface."

"And if you can't?"

"Then the system overload will likely blast us to atoms long before the planet explodes."

CHAPTER VIII

The earlier organized mayhem aboard Liberator had dissolved into controlled chaos, despite the most intimidating glares of computer expert Kerr Avon.  Refugees were still packed in the corridors, but now the physically injured and mentally distraught were overflowing their limited medical facilities and being treated or confined in rest rooms, eating areas and, in the case of a few violent individuals, locked into storage rooms.

Blake's carefully thought out schedule and space allocation for the homeless colonists had lasted less than twelve hours in the hectic tumult of the actual rescue operation.  His meticulously planned duty roster had been thrown out the airlock as the needs of the evacuees overwhelmed their limited resources.  Liberator was not the only ship of the task force with medical facilities, but it was the best equipped which resulted in the overflow of sick and injured evacuees.  Now, they even had to care for many of their pilots and other rescue personnel who had been injured during their attempts to save the colonists from their rapidly disintegrating planet.

Unfortunately, few of the injured and stressed out pilots actually survived to fill their overcrowded medical facilities.  Too many of them crashed onto the planet's surface while trying to bring up one more batch of survivors or had their overloaded shuttlecraft disintegrate in the planet's deteriorating atmosphere.

Jenna's eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, not just from overwork and exhaustion but from the tears that she'd shed over the deaths of too many of the gallantly reckless young pilots.  She'd been on duty at Liberator's controls for almost eighteen hours, despite Blake's ideal intentions that no one would take more than a six-hour shift guiding the shuttle pilots in for landings, determining if they were fit for another rescue attempt and giving them their coordinates.  During that time, she'd heard too many over-stressed pilots make the critical mistake that cost them their lives, but there was no one else who could do this job.

Dayna lacked the necessary skills and along with Vila and Soolin had been relegated to assist Cally in treating the sick and injured, while keeping order among the increasingly agitated survivors.  Blake was also trying to keep the colonists and their families appeased and under control, while conferring with the other ships in the task force about how much longer they could safely remain in orbit and how to allocate personnel, supplies and shuttlecraft.  Avon was now working around the clock to keep Liberator's overstressed life support and shielding systems online.

"XB 227 coming in for docking . . . and I need an approach slot soonest, if you don't mind.  I've got a woman in advanced labor and a man with crush injuries."

"Dani," Jenna gasped in dismay.  "What the hell are you doing out there?  I downchecked you four hours ago.  You should aboard Liberator or one of the other ships, sound asleep or at least resting."

"Yeah, yeah, I know.  My response times weren't within acceptable ranges.  Look Stannis, half the kids out here have worse times than I do . . . but we're running out of pilots . . . and time.  The scientists say that this planet could blow off half its surface area anytime within the next twelve hours.  We don't have that much more time to get to the survivors."

Jenna took a deep breath, ready to make a furious retort, then realized that neither of them had the time or energy to continue the argument.  "I've put you into the next landing slot as soon as Captain Reid's ship clears the bay.  He's got a fuel leak and needs to get to the repair section soonest."

"Standing by," Dani responded tensely.

With his comm system linked into the rest of the fleet, Jonathon Reid overheard the anxiety in McRae's voice, easily imagining the current situation in the cramped space of XB227's hold.  The woman on the verge of delivering, likely screaming bloody murder and the injured man groaning in agony while any other passengers tried to help or just gave in to their own hysteria.

He didn't have any passengers aboard his craft because atmospheric debris borne by the increasingly deadly hurricane winds had also damaged his landing gear when impacting with his fuel cells, causing him to abort his last rescue mission.  Even with the docking crew working at top speed, it would take them at least twenty minutes to vent his fuel before they could take his ship into the repair bay.

An eternity for Dani and her passengers.

Looking over the readouts on his panel, Jon thought he could probably hold his craft together long enough for Dani to land and offload her passengers.

"Bring Dani's ship in first," he ordered, breaking in on Jenna's comm line.  "A man's life may be at stake . . . and I can hold this ship together for another couple of orbits."

"Captain Reid," Jenna used his name and rank, hoping to get his undivided attention.  "You said your readings were approaching redline.  You need to ground that vessel before it's too late."

"Just do it," he snapped.  "I can take this ship another 10 thousand kloms out and vent most of my fuel.  That should stop the overheating.  Now, give Dani her landing instructions!"

Reluctantly Jenna obeyed, watching fearfully as Captain Reid gunned his ship's engines accelerating away from the group of orbiting rescue ships.  She held her breath, hoping that he was right about being able to safely vent his fuel.  But before he got a chance, there was a blinding flare as the overheated fuel blew his ship to atoms.  Fortunately, he'd managed to get far enough away that the explosion didn't endanger any of the other ships

"Noooo," Jenna gasped in dismay.

"XB227 here.  Jenna, what's wrong?  Has my approach been aborted?  Tell me what to do!"

"Bring your ship in, Dani," she said in a choked voice.  "Slow and easy, follow the guidelights.  There's no rush now.  A crash team will be waiting to evacuate your two criticals.  Take your time . . . I don't want to lose you too."

The silence at the other end of the comm signal was a small indication of Dani's shocked disbelief, but there was no time for tears or grieving.  There were only more ships to guide into Liberator's hold . . . with more sick, shocked and barely alive refugees to be cared for, bedded down and reassured as much as possible.

Nearly six hours later, when Blake finally relieved her at the shuttle craft guidance controls, he told her to get what sleep she could.  There were less than twenty shuttles still out retrieving survivors and once these stragglers returned, they would take Liberator out of orbit within the next eight hours.

"We've rescued all the survivors?"

"Not everyone . . ." Blake admitted reluctantly, "but fuel supplies for our shuttles are running low and most of our personnel are dangerously overstressed.  Flight fatigue has been increasing exponentially and it's becoming a matter of diminishing returns.  Spending ten lives to save two."

"You sound like Avon . . . calculating odds of survival," she spoke sharply, though more from exhaustion than anger.

"I'm sorry, Jenna, but as leader of this task force, I have to make the decisions.  Even if they are unpleasant ones."

"Has any one else arrived to continue rescue operations?"

"Sanctuary was the only world close enough with the resources to mount an operation like this.  With most of its planetary craft damaged and pilots on the verge of total exhaustion, there's no one else."

"Have you heard anything from Travis? Or Tarrant?  They were supposed to be carrying out a subterranean retrieval operation from a damaged bunker."

"Tarrant called right after they achieved orbit . . . but I don't think he's gotten a pick-up signal yet."

Jenna pressed a clenched fist to her lips, refusing to give in to her fears and then turned to Blake, remembering her errand.

"Where's Dayna, Blake? I have some bad news for her and I don't want her to hear it from a stranger."

Hurrying towards the main corridor after Blake had given her a general idea as to Dayna's location, Jenna was nearly run down by a self-proclaimed "People's Representative" with a number of smaller functionaries scurrying in his wake.  The man had the "lean and hungry look" of a born predator, and his so-called assistants reminded her of pilot fish trailing in a shark's wake, feeding off its leavings.

"Ahh, there you are Blake.  I have several petitions and protests to present to you about the abominable conditions that my fellow citizens have been forced to endure . . . no privacy for even the most intimate of functions, sanitary facilities overcrowded and overflowing . . ." 

Jenna did not hang around to hear Blake's diplomatic efforts to placate this slimy would-be politician.  If the former rebel had an ounce of sense, he would slit the scumbag's throat and cycle him out the airlock, and his hangers-on with him.

She rubbed her tired, aching eyes wearily, much more depressed by the incident than she should be.  Still shocked by Captain Reid's death . . . and the loss of so many bright, eager young Free Trader pilot apprentices.  Was it worth the cost, she wondered to herself bitterly?  Like Avon had told them before Blake organized this rescue effort.  Most of the people that they had rescued were Federation bureaucrats and politicians.  People who fed off of other people's lifeblood and contributed nothing to the universe, except reports filed in triplicate or mountains of red tape.  Was saving their useless lives worth the price those young pilots had paid?

Stepping gingerly across the sleeping bodies sprawled in the corridor and stopping to reassure one anxious young mother there would be basic food rations distributed sometime later that evening.

"I just want a little something for the children, you see.  They were too frightened to eat before and now they're hungry . . . and they don't understand why I can't just go to the dispenser and fetch their favorite treats."

"It will probably just be protein bars and a soy drink," Jenna cautioned.

"Hopefully they'll be too hungry by then to complain," the young woman gave an ironic laugh.  "Thank you for telling me . . . and for being part of this rescue."

Jenna tried to shrug off the woman's thanks, wanting to have a reason to cling to her bitterness and resentment.  But it was no use, seeing these people as individuals; families trying to reassure frightened children, even those that weren't their own, two women whose husbands had not made it to shelter, clinging together and offering each other a shoulder to cry on, a young boy rocking a baby brother or sister, while his mother whose broken arm was covered by healing pads dozed restlessly at his side, her.  It didn't matter whether they were Federation or Free Trader, they were human beings who suffered and died.  The cost to rescue them may have been high, but she could not deny the noble intentions of the young pilots, men and women who had sacrificed their lives.

As Jenna was looking over the crowded corridor, she spied a lithe young figure with close-cropped ebony curls, dressed in a flamboyant jumpsuit with a young girl clutching a wadded up blanket apparently asleep in her lap.  She tiptoed quietly over and saw that Dayna's beautiful dark eyes were swimming in tears.

"It died," she said in a low, angry voice, pulling back a fold of the blanket so Jenna could see the tiny ball of motley fur huddled limply in the child's arms.  "She fed it every hour, using a cloth wrung out in milk just like Avon said to do . . . but it still died."

Jenna didn't know what shocked her more, Dayna's tears or the fact that Avon had actually made an attempt to help this ragged waif and her illegally rescued kitten.  Thinking of all the losses Dayna had suffered in her young life - her sister, her father, her homeworld - Jenna could only shake her head in commiseration.

This tragedy only added to Dayna's sense of loss now that she had just begun to open her heart again only to find that Tarrant had other priorities.  Jenna had no idea why the young pilot had volunteered to be part of Travis's rescue mission unless it was out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, whether to her bondmate or the dour old man who once commanded them both.

"I'm sorry," was all she could say, feeling the tears burning behind her eyes, not just for the child and her dead pet, but for all the death, loss, and sadness that she had seen over the past day and a half.  It wasn't right that so many people had to suffer and die for no other reason than they were in the path of a random rock fragment tumbling through the universe.  And she had no hint of what was going on with Travis and his insane effort to carry out a subterranean rescue operation right in the middle of geothermal chaos.  She rubbed her palms against her own eyes, determined to keep her emotions under control.  If she started to cry now, she'd never stop.

"Has anyone told you about Captain Reid?  His ship was damaged during a rescue mission and his engine overloaded before he could dump his fuel.  His ship was a total loss."

Jenna cursed herself for that cold depersonalized report, but if she told Dayna the truth about how he'd sacrificed himself for Dani, the two of them would fall completely apart . . . and they couldn't afford that.  Not now, not when so many people were still depending on them to be strong, to hide their emotions, and let others give vent to their feelings.

Dayna choked back a brief hiccoughy sob, "Why, Jenna? Why did it happen to him? What does the universe have against people who are brave, gallant and self-sacrificing? Or helpless children . . . or fuzzy kittens who buzz like miniature dynamos, while licking your fingers with a tiny pink tongue."

Jenna's voice was almost too choked to answer, but she managed to gasp out her distraught reply, "I don't know, Dayna . . . and I probably never will."

CHAPTER IX

Mark Carlyle and his bondmate stared uncertainly at the various components, linkages, power couplings, and assorted tools that were spread across the very limited floor space of the STEV.  Dr. Hertzog clearly felt no such uncertainty as her expression registered nothing but contempt for former Space Commander Travis's desperate efforts to transfer the remaining reserves from the fusion cell that had run the bunker's systems to the energy reservoir that powered their laser.  It was laughable.  Hopeless! Like trying to power up a sectorwide defense system using one of the three-for-a-credit rechargers that were sold on the docks.

She glanced down at Travis's lower body, which was all she could see at present, since he was under the control panel fiddling with the power linkages.  At least his meddling would give them a quicker death than they could expect waiting for the planet to blow itself into pieces.

"All your monkeying with the controls is futile," she sneered.  "There's no way that you can link such mismatched systems, no matter what you've done in the past.  The Loge's power system is beyond your comprehension . . . and skill level."

 Face smudged and covered in sweat, Travis pushed his way out from under the panel and answered her back sneer for sneer, "Never tell a Federation trooper he 'can't' do something, doctor.  He's likely to hunker down and perform the impossible . . . just to prove you wrong."

Kicking aside the tools and couplings strewn across the floor, Travis shoved them into a half-empty storage locker which he slammed shut.

"Belt yourselves in," he ordered.  "And make sure those kids and any other loose items are well secured.  No telling how this craft is going to react once I crank it up.  So be prepared for a rough ride."

As Dr. Hertzog reluctantly started the Loge's engines, Travis attempted to power up the laser.  There was a loud buzzing and hissing at the linkage as the laser slowly, weakly came on line.  Travis stared at the read-outs grimly.  Even at maximum output, the best reading he could get was 25% of normal power.  He wasn't even sure that would burn through shale much less the granite outcroppings where they were located.

Lynn Hertzog arched a smug eyebrow in his direction, "It seems a bit redundant to say 'I told you so,' Captain, but at those power levels, we could probably dig our way out faster using spoons.  Too bad the system didn't overload.  At least that would have been a quicker, easier death."

"Are you really that eager to die, Doctor? I'm not . . . and I don't give up that easily."

He turned his attention back to the laser controls, pushing the power all the way up to emergency levels and turning it on rocks and dirt ahead of them.  Slowly the laser began to burn through and Travis growled at the geologist, "Alright, push this machine forward, as close as we can get.  Try to use the STEV to bulldoze our way through if the laser can weaken those veins of rock ahead of us."

The going was much slower and harder than they experienced originally as they cut through from the lava tube to the bunker.  After a painstakingly long interval, though they'd advanced only about 100 yards, the STEV stalled and the laser powered down.

"Now what," Travis growled and Dr. Hertzog pointed out the red flashing light on his board.

"Air intakes are blocked by melted rock and debris.  At full power that's no problem because the laser vaporizes everything it comes in contact with.  At this level, it accumulates over the intake valves and causes the engine to overheat and shut down."

"What do I need to do?" Travis demanded.

"I'm not sure," she answered uncertainly.  "We never had this problem before, we always operated the laser at full power.  I suppose you could try to clear the intakes . . . but with melted debris there's no guarantee . . ." 

"Doctor, life doesn't give you guarantees.  You make your own luck . . . your own chances, or you might as well lay down and die."  Travis snarled as he burrowed through the tool lockers, looking for some combination of shovel, rake and boat hook. "And I don't intend to quit while there's still breath in my body."

"This ought to do the ticket," he muttered savagely to himself as he retrieved a heavy-weight rock probe that Derek had used on previous underground missions to pry up samples of rocks and volcanic debris so he could bring her the samples she requested.  She nearly protested Travis's cavalier handling of one of Derek's prized tools, then realized it no longer mattered.  Derek was dead . . . and she'd be joining him sooner or later.  Though whether from asphyxiation or being blown to bits when the planet self-destructed was still in doubt.

Sweating and panting, Travis cleared the air intakes and staggered back to the controls as Lynn cranked up the engines and pushed the laser controls to their last stop.  As he slumped into his seat, she held out his breathing mask.

"You shouldn't have gone out there without this.  The air is increasingly foul with sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and monoxide, and likely worse things, maybe even cyanide gas."

"That would solve your problem, wouldn't it?" Travis choked hoarsely, as he took a single deep breath from the mask then put it aside.  "I get a good whiff of deadly fumes, drop dead and all you have to do is sit here, twiddling your thumbs and saying 'I told you so' until the planet blows.  Death wish fulfilled."

"I don't want to die," she answered sharply.  "I'm just realistic about the odds of us getting this craft to the surface with crew and passengers still alive."

"So am I, Doctor," Travis said as he turned his attention back to the laser controls, powering them up again and pushing the system to overload levels.  "And the odds don't improve while you sit there and complain about them.  You have to push the limits, go for broke, hell, get out and beat your head against a stone wall if you want to survive in this galaxy.  Survivors don't quit, Hertzog.  As far as you've come, you ought to have learned that by now."

Lynn stared at Travis, her expression closed and enigmatic, then turned her attention back to guiding the STEV through the debris.

"All right, Captain.  I'll go along with this madness for as long as we've got left and drive the Loge to its absolute limits.  Hell, I'll even get out and push if that's what it takes.  But when we reach the surface, if we do, I don't want the STEV left behind.  Moreover, you had us strip off the shielding and scientific equipment to improve the odds of rescuing Samore's family.  I want your solemn oath that you will make sure this ship is repaired and refitted, stem to stern.  Even if I don't survive.  No excuses, no rationalizations, best equipment money can buy.  The Loge is all that remains of Derek and his legacy of exploration.  I won't let it die with him."

"You have my solemn word," Travis turned his intense gaze in her direction.  "As a Federation officer and Free Trader Captain.  The Loge will be refitted, rebuilt if necessary as a top of the line underground exploration craft."

Dr. Hertzog did not reply to Travis's avowal, only set the controls and pushed the craft ahead inch by inch, melting, burrowing, sometimes just using the weight of the STEV to ram its way though the rocks and dirt that blocked their path to the surface.

Travis's vision was blurry and he felt increasingly light-headed so he grabbed his breathing mask for another gasp or two of fresh air, only to realize that its supply was exhausted.  He glanced around the cabin for another mask and was dismayed to find there was only one spare remaining and its oxygen level was nearly half empty.

He glanced up at Hertzog who had been wearing hers almost full time and she answered his inquiring look sharply.  "I've been watching the power consumption curves, maintaining the air and fuel mix, and half a dozen other meticulously demanding tasks, besides trying to steer this craft over increasingly impassable terrain.  My mind has to be sharp and my senses alert, because if I blow the engine or throw a tread, then we're as good as dead."

Travis nodded a slow agreement, before turning his attention to Carlyle who had passed his own breathing mask to his bondmate as she tried to soothe the increasingly fretful and frightened children.

"I told you to use that mask yourself, Carlyle.  We can't afford for you to pass out, we still need you to give us directional headings . . . and contact Tarrant once we reach the surface."

"Directional headings are useless, Captain," he wheezed.  "The way Loge is zig-zagging to avoid granite outcroppings and push through less dense stretches of soil, all I can tell you is that we've got less than 500 meters until we reach the surface."

He coughed hard and took a deep rasping breath.  "I've already sent Midgard the recall signal and received Tarrant's reply that he'd land as close to our rendezvous coordinates as weather conditions permit."

Carlyle continued in a grim but hopeful tone.  "The planet's weather is continuing to deteriorate.  Though the winds have died down, there's an increased amount of dust, ash and pulverized volcanic debris currently filling the skies.  His radar will give him an image of the landing area, but the growing amount of particulate matter is a serious danger to the ship's sensors and other delicate equipment.  Tarrant promises that he'll be at the landing site . . . but doesn't know how long he'll be able to stay grounded."

As he gasped half-choking, the young colonist whispered hoarsely, "I almost forgot.  He said to tell you that Blake's rescue fleet is leaving orbit in less than two hours . . . and that Jenna and Dayna are safe and well."

Travis took a deep shuddering breath, surprised at the knot of tension that abruptly loosened in his chest.  Putting the remaining mask over Carlyle's blanched face for a moment, he turned his attention to their "cargo".  The young woman was tall and slender with a gentle winsome face bearing no resemblance that he could see to her implacable grandfather.  She was bending over her children, making soothing noises as she checked their breathing masks and assured that the restraints were still securely fastened.

He turned to go back to the controls, but Maddie -- he thought that was her name -- took hold of his arm with a surprisingly firm grip.

"Where are the spare rescue breathers?"

"That's all we have," he answered.  "We stripped the craft down to the bare essentials so it would survive a freefall drop."

Her face went pale, "You took that kind of risk to come to our rescue?"

"We were already committed," he shrugged.  "It was the easiest, quickest way to get planetside."  He started to turn away, but she kept her hold on his arm.

"The children's masks are flashing red.  Are you sure there are no refill cartridges. . .or spare breathers?"

Carlyle and his bondmate were already sharing the last dregs of his breathing mask, while Travis was a little better off with his own.  Hertzog had taken the spare adult breathing mask from the rescue supplies when hers had run out and Travis could not argue with her rationale.  She was the only one who knew how to operate the STEV under these conditions; how to steer it over and through the underground detritus, how to maximize the laser's effectiveness, how to get them to the surface of the planet and onto the Midgard, their retrieval ship.  She had to remain conscious and functioning.  They had no chance of survival without her.

"You're sure there are no refill cartridges?"

"I checked the emergency kit and the supply cabinet thoroughly."

He handed Maddie the mask he was using, taking their almost empty one.  "Share it out the best you can.  This is the last mask, except for the one Hertzog is using . . . and if she passes out, we're all dead."

He sucked in the dregs of air from their mask, feeling light-headed as he headed forward to the laser controls, but Carlyle grabbed his arm.

"We're not going to make it, are we?"

"What makes you say that?"

"What Dr. Hertzog said about the power linkages . . . and now the breathing masks are virtually drained."

"Then stop wasting air yammering at me and let me get back to the controls," Travis snarled.  "Make sure your family is securely strapped in.  No telling what surface conditions will be like."

Carlyle gave him a grim look, "I won't watch them suffer, Captain.  Oxygen deprivation is not an easy way to die, I'm told . . . and I'll spare them that."

"Strap in, Carlyle.  I won't say it again."

As he returned to the controls, Hertzog glared at him, "I hope that's the last of your little diversions.  We've reached a critical stage here and both of us need to be as alert mentally and physically as possible."

Travis turned his cockiest and most self-assured smile in her direction as he put aside his breathing mask so she couldn't see its flashing red light.  "I'm ready when you are, Doctor.  Let's see if we can't beat that reckless pilot of ours to the surface."

Whenever Travis tried to recall the last stretch of tunnel driving as the Loge burrowed its way upwards, he could only bring flashes of images accompanied by vivid hallucinations to mind.  He was sure that they were hallucinations, because he did not believe in specters, like the one of Phrath that urged him onwards, even when all he wanted to do was lay his head on the controls and gasp out his last breaths before going into the dark.

Lazy Travis Captain, too soon you quit.  Too close you are to lay down and die now.  Jenna Captain deserves better than an empty crypt to weep before.  Old Fedscum Admiral's grandcubs . . . their lives depend on you.  Travis Captain.  No coward you are, no slacker.  Controls you must steer . . . pushing to surface you have to do.  Ship is waiting for you.

And it seemed that Hertzog was subject to similar delusions, as she tearfully greeted her deceased partner, "Derek, you're back, where you belong.  I knew you wouldn't abandon me . . . wouldn't forget about all our years of hard work and sacrifice.  Wouldn't sacrifice it on some hopeless, ill-conceived rescue attempt." 

Travis wanted to comfort the sobbing scientist, but it seemed that there was something else he had to do.  Something more important, as he moved her slumped body away from the controls and took over, steering them through the claustrophobic darkness, only temporarily illuminated by their weakened laser.  The treads rumbled shakily across rocks and debris as they plowed their way upward, half choked by smoke and noxious gases, eyes watering and throats burning.

With a final ear-shattering rumble, they broke through to the surface of the planet, into the dying force of the planetwide hurricane winds.  Ash, dust and debris whipped wildly around them as Travis activated their nearly dead radio signal, hoping Tarrant and their retrieval ship was somewhere in the immediate vicinity.  Much to his relief, he spotted the Midgard's oversized bulk approximately a hundred yards away and tried to accelerate the Loge toward its yawning hold and home and safety.

The STEV rumbled forward, its overheated engine redlined on almost every gauge and reading on the controls.  All Travis could do was keep steering the craft onward and hope that it did not self-destruct before reaching the secure haven of the retrieval craft.  With smoke pouring out of its exhaust vents, the Loge shuddered to a halt just below the boarding ramp.  However, Tarrant activated the powerful magnetic couplings that were able to drag the stalled craft up the ramp and into the hold, where the automatic locks clamped into place as Tarrant began activating the Midgard's engines to lift them away from the dying planet.

Slumped at the controls, so dizzy and short of breath that he could barely see, Travis tried to look around and congratulate Hertzog on her partner's brilliance in designing such a versatile and indestructible craft and her own perseverance in completing the mission.  But she wasn't at the controls.  Instead, he stumbled over her, sprawled half-way between the front of the ship and their limited passenger space, where Carlyle and his family were.  She wasn't wearing her mask.  As Travis dropped beside her, he couldn't tell if she was still breathing or not.  Apparently she had given her mask to Carlyle at some point after Travis taken over the controls.  But despite her efforts, the young colonist was slumped beside his wife, with three empty syringes clenched in his hand.

Travis didn't know whether to laugh or scream . . . it had all been for nothing.  Nothing!  Phrath's and Sinclair's sacrifice.  Hertzog's desperate race to get them to the bunker.  His own intense struggle to get them to the surface and aboard the retrieval ship . . . and Carlyle had chosen not to let his wife and children suffer.

Damn the man.

Stumbling to his knees beside Hertzog's body, he pressed his finger to her pulse, trying to see if it would do any good to call for medical aid.  But before he could tell if she was still alive or not, a black hole opened up in front of him and he dropped gratefully into its event horizon.

CHAPTER X

The first thing he noticed was the pungent antiseptic smell.  That more than anything convinced him that he wasn't a guest in whatever afterworld took in cashiered ex-Federation officers and Free Trader captains with a death wish.  The next thing he noticed was the welcome murmur of Jenna's voice conferring with the not-so-musical tones of computer expert Kerr Avon.  Avon seemed to be asking directions and advice from his bondmate . . . though he hardly believed that the item the cold-eyed pragmatist was seeking was "a kitten, preferably in some motley combination of black, white, and orange."

"They have animal shelters at various locations in Xanadu," Jenna said, barely able to hide her amusement.  "But that might not be the best choice for someone like you, Avon."

"Why not?"

"Well, some of them have pretty stiff requirements before they let one of their animals be adopted . . . proof of financial solvency and moral rectitude, for starters.  Then they'll probably ask you to sign some sort of paper that you don't plan to use it for inhumane experiments."

"Perhaps I'd do better to go bar crawling with Vila instead.  It seems like every dive on the docks has one of these creatures on staff to keep the four-legged vermin at bay.  Surely one of them will have a furry specimen that will meet with Dayna's approval."

"Well, good luck . . . and good hunting."

He groaned and tried to say something, only to find that his throat and tongue felt as dry as the Nevyan desert.  Hurrying over to his side, Jenna poured him a glass of ice cold water and helped him take a few gasping swallows before she pulled it away.

"Not so fast, love.  You haven't had anything by mouth since they brought you in.  Go slow and see if that stays down."

Travis flung an arm over his burning, aching eye and demanded hoarsely, trying to ignore the rumble in his stomach initiated by the cold water.

"Where am I? How long have we been back? Has anyone notified Samore?"

"Slow down, slow down.  Let me tell the medtech that you've regained consciousness."  She glanced at the numerous electrodes attached to his body.  "Though you'd think they'd be a bit more observant . . ."

Before she could say anything more, several technicians entered the room and after an uncomfortable half hour, Travis was relieved to be free of many of the wires and tubes that had been attached to him, monitoring and stabilizing his condition.

Returning to his side after the departure of the "medical vultures" as Travis referred to them, Jenna seated herself beside his bed and stared at him with a somber expression.

"You had a very close call this time, you know.  Hypoxia, toxemia, they've even started to genetically rebuild over half of your lung tissue.  Closer than any other time . . . except maybe Star One.  The Dark Captain would have claimed you for sure, if it hadn't been for Tarrant."

"Tarrant . . . where is that lugheaded excuse for a pilot, anyway?"

"Trying to explain to Dayna why he didn't tell her about the mission.  Though she's already forgiven him for his part the rescue of Samore's granddaughter and her children."

Travis pushed upright, trying to ignore the dizziness that left him nauseated and gasping for breath.  "Rescue . . . but they were dead . . . the whole damned family.  Carlyle drugged them.  I saw their bodies . . . and the empty syringes . . . just after Tarrant brought us aboard."

"Carlyle split the doses, resulting in a drug-induced coma that slowed their metabolism enough so none of them suffered any serious damage from the toxic fumes and lack of oxygen.  Of course, if Tarrant hadn't taken the time to put breathing masks on the lot of you before lifting the Midgard into orbit, even that might not have assured their survival."

Travis sagged down again, his head throbbing as he gave a harsh laugh.

"Just in a coma, and not dead."  He shook his head at the irony of the situation before turning a curious gaze on Jenna, "Then I presume Samore is pleased with our results?"

"I haven't spoken to the former Fleet Warden," Jenna answered primly.  "You'll have to ask Tarrant if the old man appreciates the sacrifices that were made to save his family."

"Phrath, Dr. Sinclair . . . Dr. Hertzog."

"Dr. Hertzog survived," Jenna reassured him.  "The neurospecialist still isn't sure whether it was lack of oxygen or toxic fumes.  Tests reveal there's no damage to the brain, heart, or breathing centers that they can identify.  She should have regained consciousness by now . . . but she just won't wake up."

"Not all damage shows up on medical scans.  Like a broken heart."

He glanced down at his clenched cyberfist.  "I never should have let Phrath come along,  in spite of his knowledge of explosives.  The risk was too great.  Stubborn Kyrenian, always pushing the limits.  Wanting to prove himself . . . that he was better than his sire, that Cub-Killer's blood wasn't tainted."

Jenna reached up and stroked the hair back from Travis's sweaty forehead, noting for the first time faint strands of gray among its darkness, like stars in a night sky.

"We all have something to prove at sometime in our lives, Colin.  You and I when we came home to the Enclave, you returning with Blake to Zircaster, even this mission wasn't done out of charity.  You wanted to rebuild bridges you'd burned when you deserted the Federation.  There was no other reason for you and Tarrant to risk your lives, except to prove yourself to Samore."

Travis turned away from Jenna's comforting touch, knowing she was right, that she'd recognized the truth about this mission even before he had.  Even though he'd cut his ties with the Federation, put Space Command and its claim on his loyalties behind him, he could never close off that part of his past forever.  It was part of him, like his life on Metis III, the death of Rissa, his service as a Federation officer, the first bloody encounter with Blake and the resultant trauma to his body and mind, his years as Servalan's weapon, and the encounter with Jenna that had freed him, body and soul, and given him a second chance . . . and a new life.

He took a deep shuddering breath as he clutched Jenna's hand tightly, a ghost of a smile on his face, "You're right, Jenna . . . about proving myself one last time.  But it's done with now and the old man certainly got his money's worth . . . from all of us."

As Travis's mind grew more alert and he recalled events from the last hours of the rescue mission, his expression became increasingly thoughtful.

"You said that Tarrant was with Dayna trying to make peace with her for not telling her the truth about his mission.  Is there any way we can reach them?  I need to know about the condition of the Loge and her transport ship . . . and soon.  If it's already been declared salvage or gutted . . ."  His expression was troubled and Jenna leaned forward to reassure him.

"As far as I know, Tarrant put the transport ship in a polar orbit after you were evacuated by medical shuttle, then teleported over to Liberator.  Why all the concern over that oversized excavation craft?  According to Tarrant, the main controls are burned out, the laser crystals cracked from improper use and the ship frame itself severely damaged by that high-impact landing.  We'll be lucky if we can get enough from stripping it down for scrap metal to pay salvage fees."

"We aren't going to gut it for parts or melt it down, Jenna," Travis said, his mind going back to that last conversation in the overheated metal cocoon when they'd been struggling to survive.

"I made a promise, Jenna, to Dr. Hertzog even though I doubted that I'd live to complete the mission.  She and Dr. Sinclair built the STEV to investigate the depths of colonized worlds. Dr. Hertzog hoped their discoveries of untapped resources would enable borderline colonies that might otherwise be abandoned to survive.  She also hoped the finder's fees would enable Dr. Sinclair to fulfill his own dream, of mapping and preserving some of the rarer and more exotic cave and tunnel systems before they were destroyed by ignorance or accident."

"You want us to repair . . . rebuild this Subterranean Exploration Vehicle?" Jenna demanded in a shocked voice, wondering if the oxygen deprivation had left Travis delusional.  "But why?  What use is it, even if we went to the trouble and expense of repairing it?  We don't know any geologists or scientists. . . or anyone else who could operate the thing."

Travis leaned forward, taking Jenna by the shoulders and staring intently into her disbelieving face with his one blue-gray eye, "Sometimes Jenna, you have to take a chance, whether it's trusting a broken down former Federation officer . . . or believing in someone's dream.  I know it's a lot to ask, especially since we've just begun to show a profit, but Dr. Sinclair lost his life trying to save others. . . and I don't think his dream should die with him."

Jenna buried her face in her hands for a brief moment, then looked up with a calculating expression, "Samore hired the craft originally and it's his name on the contract, along with Sinclair's and Hertzog's.  I'm sure he'll be more than willing to contribute to this worthy cause, in memory of the scientist who died saving his family, and rebuilding the STEV so their work can continue."

Travis stared at her a moment almost alarmed by the occasionally devious workings of his bondmate's mind, then grinned in relief.  If he knew Jenna half as well as he thought he did, Stannis crew members would be part of that reconstruction team, making sure that Samore's funds purchased top-of-the-line supplies and that repairs were performed in a more than adequate manner.  He was not sure where they would be able to find a geologist or cave expert with the vision to continue Hertzog's and Sinclair's mission, but there would be time to worry about that later.

He leaned back on his pillow, the sudden sense of relief leaving him shaken as Jenna leaned forward with a tender smile and caressed his cheek, "Well, lover, do you have any more impossible demands?"

"Dayna and Tarrant are on speaking terms at the moment?"

"She's still a bit irritated at him for not telling her the truth, but after what she saw aboard Liberator during our rescue mission, I think she's put aside her hatred of the Federation.  She saw them as people, mourning, frightened, lost, or in pain . . . and it's very hard to be angry at someone who is suffering."  She gave him a cheeky grin, "Besides, thanks to my advice, I think he has a lot better chance of finding that calico kitten he promised her than Avon or Vila."

"Why the hell does he need to find a calico kitten for her anyway?" he growled, feeling almost normal again.

"It's a long story, Travis, and I don't think you want to hear it on an empty stomach.  Do you want me to see if they will let you have something to eat or drink? The water you drank earlier seems to have stayed down . . . for the moment at least."

Recalling the usual bland, tasteless menus offered by the medcenter in the past, Travis asked somewhat wistfully, "What are my chances of getting a sixteen ounce steak, blood rare, with a side of chips and a cold beer?"

"Only in your dreams, lover," Jenna laughed as she activated the intercom and ordered him a bowl of broth with dry toast on the side.

FINIS



Rate This Story: Feedback to
Alice C. Aldridge

Selection Library Help

Back to B7 Top