"Shattered Reflections"By Alice C. Aldridge
Blake's parting words again seared into his mind, "He's not worth killing!" and the shame of his enemy's contempt scalded though his veins like acid. Damning words, but only too true as he recalled the events leading to that humiliating confrontation. How he had gone along with Servalan's illicit plan to obtain Ensor's creation ORAC, turning a blind eye to her deliberate murder of Ensor's son and Maryatt, the surgeon who once saved his life. Even worse, he had kept silent as she concealed the scheme by branding Maryatt a deserter and ordering his family sold as slaves.
Travis's mind veered back to the agonizing aftermath of his first encounter with Blake. When Maryatt used his surgical skill to rebuild his shattered body and with gruff impatience prodded him out of the self-pity and withdrawal that had threatened his mental recovery. His fist clenched in anguish, recalling the gentle hands of Kiera Cameron, the therapist Maryatt chose to assure his physical and emotional rehabilitation. But a dangerous curiosity about Blake and the revolutionary message he was spreading through Alpha enclaves and Delta domes alike brought her to the attention of the Security Division. Such disaffection in the ranks, even within the Medical Corps, simply was not tolerated. So he watched silent, unprotesting, when they took her away, knowing her memory...her very soul...would be erased as she was transformed into one of Servalan's blindly obedient mutoid guards.
All of it, Blake's fault -- for crippling him, mind and body, seducing Kiera with his lies, sowing the seeds of dissension and disaffection throughout the Federation that made Servalan's draconian methods necessary. They were the only means of preventing anarchy and chaos from replacing the Rule of Law in the Outer Worlds and Inner Planets alike.
Yet even as he rationalized Servalan's actions...and his own, he stared at that stranger's reflection. Hardly realizing what he did, he raised his fist and smashed it against the mirror, over and over, until nothing remained but scattered, broken shards. Shattered pieces of memory and a past that drifted through ragged curtains of his mind like a disembodied spirit. His disembodied spirit. He was a ghost without a past, with no hope for the future, and only duty and obsession binding him to the present.
Bits and pieces of someone's life strobed through his mind. A world of savage beauty, with withered crops dying in the fields. Faces that he almost recognized, gaunt, half-starved, filled with pain and fear. His hands covered with blood for the very first time, the blood of someone he had loved. A man's face, bitter and sorrowful, bidding him farewell. A fiery crash that left him consumed by guilt and grief. Were those random images only empty delusions born of loneliness and despair on isolated duty stations? Or the blood-drunk, exhausted aftermath of fever dreams from wounds taken in half a hundred war zones?
He staggered away from the broken glass, staring blind and unseeing at the gunmetal walls of Space Command HQ. He could almost feel Kiera's warmth, her gentle touch on his brow until, with a shudder, he recalled the icy, inhuman flesh of the mutoid she had become and the avid, cringing hunger in her eyes.
Fate had thrown them together again on an abandoned world where they had been pitted against Blake and his pilot in a duel for survival. A duel they had lost. The bile rose in the back of his throat at that shameful memory; how his bitter vindictiveness made him taunt her with his knowledge of her past and ultimately condemn her to pay the price for his failure.
Now Maryatt was dead as well, another victim of Servalan's scheming. Again, he had stood by and done nothing as the man who had saved his life was falsely branded a deserter and his family condemned to the worst punishment the Federation dispensed; slavery in one of the factory farms or mining worlds that were too inhospitable for even the most desperate colonists.
He shuddered at the memory, standing there with his fist clenched so hard it was bloodless, staring down at his shattered prosthesis. Its fused circuitry sent intermittent spasms of pain into his shoulder and back, but he allowed himself a cold smile. Such pain was a useful tool. It would serve to remind him of Maryatt's gruff compassion and Kiera's gentle persistence in rebuilding the broken man that he had been.
They had saved his life and restored his strength, yet he had failed to save either of them from Servalan's poisonous plots. But Maryatt's family were innocents and he did not intend for them face the horror of existence on a godforsaken hellhole or the whims of some depraved Amagon slaver.
He reached deep in his closet for a long hooded cloak that would cover his malfunctioning arm and conceal his identity as well. It had been a long time since he frequented the lowtown alleys in search of information. All his old contacts were likely dead or in labor camps themselves but he did not intend to let that stop him. He owed Maryatt his life and if that was the price to buy back his honor, he 'd pay it willingly. He wouldn't abandon his search. . . not as long as there was breath in his body.
A fetid mist pervaded the alleyway, beading on the broken and buckled placrete like oily perspiration. The "unbreakable" security lighting had been shattered long since by the denizens that haunted this undesirable area just beyond the docks; down-on-their-luck spacers, unlicenced pleasure drones, drug or alcohol-dazed derelicts, all of whom found the darkness more conducive to their business of survival. Despair filled the air like the stench of unwashed bodies.
Hurried steps stumbled along in that darkness, accompanied by the sound of harsh, fear-stricken breathing. A ragged young woman, herding two small children before her, staggered to a halt, sagging against a graffiti stained wall.
"Wait...just a moment..." she pleaded breathlessly to the hooded figure pacing cat-silent just behind her. "So dizzy. . .didn't feed us for the past day."
Glancing back to see if they were being followed, Travis nodded a reluctant acquiescence to the woman's desperate plea. As she collapsed to the filthy street, shivering in the dank air, he gazed down impatiently, then shrugged off his cloak and wrapped it roughly around her and the two children.
Clutching its warmth to her, Claudia Maryatt stared up at the shadowy face of her rescuer.
"Who are you?" she gasped in a fear-strangled whisper."Where are you taking us?"
His gaze raked thru the fog and smoke, still searching for the skulkers he knew were only seconds behind. The data cube he had used to intimidate Latimer into releasing the woman and children into his custody had been a rush job at best. Only his reputation as Servalan's enforcer prevented the slaver from making even the cursory background check that would have exposed his hasty fabrication.
He glanced down at the trembling figure crouched at his feet, warning in a hoarse whisper, "We can't stay here. Latimer will send his hounds out any moment now. We have to keep moving."
"No," Claudia's voice cracked in desperation. "Not another step until you tell me who you are and where we're going?"
He ached to shake some sense into her, but his cyborg arm was fused slag and the weapon in his right hand too essential for their survival to put away for even a moment.
Grimacing in exasperation, he bit off his words tersely. "I'm Space Commander Travis. Your husband saved my life after Blake maimed me."
"Then Victor sent you. I knew this was all a mistake. . . some kind of misunderstanding. My husband is a loyal officer of the Federation. He would never desert. . .never abandon us to be. . .sold! Like animals!" There was a tremulous hope in the woman's voice as she grasped at straws. "Where is he? Are you taking us to him?"
Travis quickly disabused her. "Your husband is dead," he stated bluntly.
"NOOOOOOO!" she wailed, collapsing to the filthy street, the two children clinging to her skirts, terrified and confused. Travis looked away, abruptly ashamed at his casual cruelty yet oddly envious of Maryatt that someone should mourn his passing so passionately.
He gazed at her with growing awkwardness, wanting to comfort her, but lacking the skill and the time to indulge this grief-stricken outburst. He finally interrupted her heart-broken sobs with a bleak revelation. "He didn't desert. Servalan betrayed him to further one of her schemes and I couldn't- I didn't-- stop it. But I can stop her from destroying his family."
Claudia stared up at him, her tear-smeared face filled with despair. "How? If Victor was branded a deserter, our citizenship has been revoked. We have no rights, no credit, no friends. . . nothing! What's to become of us?"
"I've arranged transport for you on a Trantinean freighter. He's headed for the Rim Worlds. The Federation's reach doesn't extend that far, so you should be able to make a new start, without having to look over your shoulder."
Claudia climbed slowly to her feet, wearily hoisting her youngest in her arms. "But I have no skills, no training. How can we survive?"
Impatiently Travis stuffed his weapon in his belt and fumbled for a small leather pouch tucked there. Pressing it into her hands, he growled softly, "There's a year's worth of credit vouchers in here. Besides the captain owes me for turning a blind eye to some of his more profitable smuggling operations. He'll help you get settled on one of the border worlds."
"A Trantinean smuggler?" she was appalled. "How can you trust him? How do you know he won't dump us out the airlock at the first opportunity?"
As Travis turned toward her, there was a feral yellow spark in his eye, smoldering like a coal banked in ash. His predatory smile had nothing of humor in it as he answered in a menacing purr. "Oh, he knows the cost of betraying my trust. If he gives you any trouble, just ask him if he's so fond of his cyberhand that he wants another one."
Claudia shivered at the chill threat in his words.
Suddenly a blaster bolt split the darkness, scorching the abandoned refuse behind them and sending up an oily cloud of smoke that set the children to coughing.
"Damn," Travis swore, flattening against the alley wall as he groped for his weapon. "I thought they'd be too busy readying the rest of their cargo for shipment to come after us so soon."
He answered with a rapidfire volley that forced their pursuers back into the darkness. Shoving Claudia ahead of him, he hurried toward the docks, trying to keep to the shadows as much as possible.
Latimer's men followed, firing at sporadic intervals despite Travis's efforts to keep them at bay. As they fled down the street, abruptly he lurched against Claudia, slamming her into the side of a wall and knocking the breath out of her.
She blinked back tears of terror and pain, gasping as she tried to clear her head. "What's wrong?"
For a long terrifying moment there was silence, then she felt a warm stickiness dripping down her side. She whimpered in dismay, not certain whose blood it was.
Travis coughed painfully then dragged himself upright and away from the shaken Claudia. "Caught the edge of that last one," he gritted out, pressing his elbow tight against the oozing wound.
He glanced at the trembling woman and children, then back down the alleyway at the hunters following them. "The Trantinean freighter's located in docking slip twelve." Reaching inside his tunic, he pressed a data cube into Claudia's trembling hand. "Tell the Captain that has his docking clearance and my records of the last ten years of his smuggling runs. That should assure he keeps his end of the bargain to get you set up safely somewhere out on the Rim."
"What about you? Aren't you coming?" Maryatt's wife asked uncertainly.
"I've some unfinished business with Latimer. . .and with the Supreme Commander as well." Travis was pale and sweating but the feral gleam in his eye sent a chill down Claudia's spine. Despite her gratitude for their rescue, she was relieved this cold, ruthless man didn't intend to accompany them any further, even as far as the spaceport.
She nodded in agreement then settled her youngest a little more securely on her hip as she tugged his heavy cloak around them both. Firmly grasping her oldest child's hand, she retreated in the direction Travis had indicated. Latimer's men attempted to follow but Travis squelched those efforts with a deadly rain of blaster bolts forcing them back in the shadows once again.
They watched in frustration while their prey disappeared into the labyrinth of warehouses and refit bays surrounding the docking area. Their leader snarled a savage curse then raised his voice tauntingly, "You didn't think that clumsy forgery would fool us long, did you,Commander?"
"Long enough for us to get to the docks," Travis answered hoarsely, holding his fire for the moment.
"You can't escape us, Commander. My men have you surrounded. Why don't you just drop your weapon and let us fetch back the woman and her brats and we'll forget this little misunderstanding ever happened."
"I think not," Travis peered around the corner, trying to spot his ambushers before they could move in closer. "Servalan doesn't have a forgiving nature where `political prisoners' are concerned and I'd prefer an easier death than ending my life in the slave pits of Ursa Prime."
He snapped off a fast instinctive shot and was gratified by the scream that answered it. But he could hear them closing in on him, rustling like rats in the darkness. They had the scent of blood now and nothing less than his death would satisfy them.
He noted grimly the flashing light in the grip of his weapon that signaled its charge was nearly depleted. Probably no more than six or eight bolts remaining. Enough for an honor guard into hell if he aimed carefully. A mirthless death's head grin crossed his scarred features.
More than enough.
He took precise aim with his next four shots, using skill hard-won in battles against urban guerillas. Three of the bolts were clean hits, stopping their targets cold. The fourth was off-center, sending the thug reeling into the street screaming in agony until one of his mates put him out of his misery.
Deep in the shadows, Travis felt the ooze of blood from his side becoming a steady stream as a burst of feedback from his crippled cyberarm radiated agony down his left side. His vision went grey around the edges from the pain and shock. "Time to put an end to this," he thought grimly, checking the charge in his weapon as he took a last deep breath of the smoke-filled air.
With a savage scream of defiance, he charged into the middle of the street, waving his weapon like a madman. His abrupt change of tactics drew two of Latimer's men out of cover, firing hastily, attempting to bring him down. But he aimed with cool deliberation and dropped them both. Then a bolt fired just beyond them grazed his face, spinning him around and dropping him to the street in an explosion of pain and blood. Convulsively he squeezed off his final bolts, in a hopeless effort to take out the last of Latimer's men. Silence settled around him like a shroud.
Travis lay there, barely conscious, as his life poured out in that filthy alley. The memories that had haunted him earlier spooled through his mind one last time, like a tally of good and evil. It hardly mattered. The words he'd once lived by, "Duty, honor, loyalty", had been meaningless ever since he allowed Servalan's ambition and his own blind obsession with vengeance to overrule his conscience. Not any longer. He coughed, tasting blood. He'd escaped her clutches at last and she'd have to hunt up another fool to use against the spreading wildfires of Blake's rebellion.
At least he'd repaid his debt to Maryatt. A life for a life. Or three lives, if you wanted to be exact. A cheap enough price to buy back his honor.
He writhed weakly, wondering when Latimer's men would close in for the kill. Surely he hadn't been lucky enough to finish off the last of them, particularly their leader. Scum like that always kept well hidden and out of range.
Drifting between in darkness, Travis was dimly aware of another long burst of blaster fire, then heavy footsteps halting at his side. He steeled himself for a boot to the head, knowing the slaver would undoubtedly vent his spleen before finishing him off. But, much to his surprise, he felt a tentative almost gentle touch attempting to brush the mud from his face.
"You bloody fool," a half-familiar voice berated him. "Why throw your life away on a fool's errand like this?"
He struggled to pierce the blood-hazed fog that clouded his vision, wondering who could have followed him to this backwater. Suddenly smooth, handsome features swam into focus.
"Carnell!" he spat, struggling weakly . "Go away, damn you . . . let me die in peace." As the puppeteer didn't seem inclined to move, Travis gasped, "Owed Maryatt my life. . .couldn't stand by. . .do nothing. . .not any more."
Carnell listened intently, before muttering under his breath. "Conditioning blocks are starting to slip and old loyalties resurfacing. Are the memory blocks weakening, as well?" Raising his voice slightly, he spoke to Travis, "What do you remember, Travis? Anything at all from Metis III? Lovers? Friends?. . .Family? 'Dining on fenris. . .before they dined on you' "
Travis started up in disbelief, hearing familiar words in a half-forgotten voice. "Dar...Dar?" then shrunk away, gasping. "But you're dead. . .over ten years dead."
Calmly the psychostrategist pressed a needle pad to his carotid and Travis slumped into unconsciousness. Carnell stood up, brushing the mud from his usually meticulous trousers.
"Memory blocks gone, as well. This does present a bit of a problem."
He glanced over at the medic standing discretely to one side and ordered sharply, "Do what you can to stabilize his condition. We'll be transporting him to a medical center as soon as matters are cleared up here."
Pulling the hood of his cloak up, the psychostrategist listened as the section leader of the squad trotted up and made a quick report.
"We fried one of the dockscum, but two others managed to escape. Do you want us to go after them?"
"No," Carnell retorted in dark amusement. "These ratholes are crawling with crimos. They'd draw you into an ambush and cut you to pieces." He glanced idly around the alleyway. "Any sign of the woman and children the Commander was escorting?"
"No sir," the section leader answered reluctantly. "But we're not that far from the freeport docks. She could have run for it when he was ambushed."
"Probably," The psychostrategist glanced down in distaste at his blood-smeared hands.
Little chance of ferreting her out of that warren of independent spacers and quasi-legal free traders. Well, Travis had paid a high enough price for the woman's freedom. Why thwart those noble intentions when it would gain him little in the way of Servalan's good will. Not when there were other, much more important matters to be dealt with.
The trooper watched as the medic worked on Travis. "D'ya think he'll last till we get back to HQ? Our orders didn't say he had to be brought in alive."
Carnell's eyes glittered with a sudden icy command. "My orders state otherwise, Section Leader. Have your men carry him back to the transport...carefully."
As the noncom saluted smartly then ordered his men to comply, Carnell pondered his next move.
Servalan had botched the ORAC affair badly, but managed to shift much of the blame for that debacle onto Travis. When they returned to Space Command HQ, he had ignored her orders to confine himself to quarters and instead left to rescue Maryatt's wife and children from the slaver's pens. Furious at his defiance, Servalan had ordered several squads out to apprehend him, dead or alive, forcing Carnell to act directly rather than relying on his usual behind the scene manipulation.
The troopers, being justifiably wary of the Commander's laser arm and ruthless reputation, had little incentive to bring him in alive. But Carnell's skills as a psychostrategist made made it child's play to coerce one of the squad leaders into including him in their manhunt and his insight into the fugitive's mindset quickly led them to the besieged officer.
Luckily Travis had been unconscious when they chased off Latimer's hitmen, forestalling any opportunity for him to be shot "while attempting to escape." Now it was simply a matter of applying the appropriate level of intimidation to remove him from their custody. Servalan might expect their prompt return with Travis's blaster-fried carcass but Carnell did not intend to allow her ambition interfere with his own agenda.
And his future as a tool of the puppeteers.
An agenda becoming increasingly difficult to achieve because of Travis's obsession with the rebel leader Blake. . .and Servalan's demand for his unquestioning allegiance despite her constant abuse of that loyalty.
He gazed down ruefully at the Commander's scarred and remodeled features, catching a glimpse of his own unmarked face in a broken window just beyond. The Clone Masters had done their work well, directed by his fellow puppeteers. Both he and Travis had been reshaped at their superiors' whims, leaving little of the two young men who had survived the crucible of Metis III. Only his ambition and Travis's implacable will remained. . . indispensable qualities if they hoped to survive the murky waters of Federation politics and the puppeteers' long range plan.
But the problem still remained of Travis's increasingly erratic and out-of-control behavior. More than anyone, Carnell was aware of the limitations of Federation conditioning, especially when attempting to reshape a strong will His attempt to eradicate Travis's early memories and replace them with the Alpha privileged background to match his remodeled countenance had been a dismal failure.
The Commander's recent actions demonstrated, without question, that the innate honor and decency of his upbringing on Metis III still survived in Travis, despite years of Federation indoctrination. But now his allegiance to Space Command was wavering as he lost patience with Servalan's faithlessness and ill-usage of his skills and intelligence.
It should be possible to reprogram Travis to be Servalan's weapon once again, but the effect would be less than satisfactory and break down that much sooner. His growing disaffection with the Supreme Commander's corrupt manipulations might even cause him to desert the Federation completely, becoming an outlaw or renegade, hunted and hounded by both sides with equal fervor. Measures would have to be taken if such an eventuality occurred; measures that would protect the Federation but also increase Travis's odds of survival and eventually draw him back into the puppeteers' web. It was a pretty problem and would require some careful thought.
As the squad of troopers reluctantly deposited Travis's limp body in the vehicle, Carnell dismissed them, "That will be all, Section Leader. I'll accompany the prisoner to the medical center. You can summon other transport for your return to base."
"But the Supreme Commander said we were to bring him straight back to Space Command HQ. . .if he was still alive," the noncom protested.
Carnell's eyes glittered with a sudden malice, "Are you questioning my orders, trooper?"
"No sir," he answered hastily, chilled by the unmistakable power radiating from the psychostrategist. "Not at all, sir."
Drawing back as the flitter hovered, the whole squad saluted sharply, though technically Carnell held no rank within Space Command. But the power and influence he wielded were unmistakable, even when he countermanded the orders of the Supreme Commander herself.
* * *
In a fury Servalan glared at the calmly smiling psychostrategist seated in her office. "You presume too much, Carnell! Why did you deliberately countermand my orders about the disposal of ex-Commander Travis? You know the man is dangerous."
"To whom, my dear Supreme Commander? The Federation's enemies...or you?" he countered urbanely.
Drawing so close he could see the heated glitter in her eyes, she demanded in a harsh whisper, "Just what did you mean by that, Carnell? Was it a threat of some kind?"
Despite her power within Space Command, the incident with Ensor and ORAC was raising some difficult questions from the High Council. There had already been one very unpleasant session with Councillor Rontane and a formal hearing scheduled for later in the week. She prowled around her office, seething at Carnell's arrogance, yet hoping his actions provided her with the scapegoat she would need to get the Council off her back.
"I simply wished to remind you of Travis's value...as a brilliant, dedicated, and loyal officer." The puppeteer's bland smile was impenetrable, leaving Servalan wondering at the real purpose of this little tete-a-tete.
"A dedicated and loyal failure," she responded coldly. "Four encounters with Blake and nothing to show for it except a series of humiliating defeats and the loss of the most complex computer yet designed, with the ability to intercept our communications and decrypt our most subtle codes. Blake himself hardly considers Travis a threat anymore. Otherwise, why not kill him when he had the chance?"
She ran a provocative finger across the back of Carnell's neck before remarking in a calculating tone. "Quite frankly, Travis is of no further use to me...except as a sop to those pathetic fools on the Council."
Carnell arched a brow curiously, "So you've decided to relinquish control of Space Command's internal disciplinary actions into the hands of the Council ?"
She stiffened, a harsh brittle tone in her voice. "Travis's incompetence resulted in that debacle. Why shouldn't he be the one to face the Council's wrath?"
"Travis is a weapon, ma'am. Nothing more. He's only as good as his wielder."
"Are you implying his failures with Blake have somehow been...my fault?" Servalan distanced herself from him, sitting primly behind her desk. There was a menacing archness to her question and the hostility in her gaze would have frozen a mutoid's blood.
But Carnell remained imperturbable, merely turning up the wattage in his smile. "Let's just say that you haven't employed his skills...all his skills... past and present, to your best advantage."
"And how do you propose I do that, Carnell? Someone has to answer to the Council for the mess surrounding Ensor and ORAC. Travis is the obvious choice. There will be little more than a few well-gnawed bones when they've finished with him."
"True, enough, Supreme Commander. If you allow them to usurp your perogatives."
"What are you saying?"
"Yielding any authority within Space Command to the Council is dangerous. It encourages them to probe into matters that do not concern them. Simply give them a factual report on the situation, stating that the officer responsible has been already been disciplined for his failure." Carnell steepled his fingers, smiling at her guilelessly.
Servalan's lush mouth was drawn into a thin, disapproving line. "What if they're not satisfied with my report and demand evidence of Travis's punishment? And exactly what punishment did you have in mind. . .so he will still be of some use to me?"
"Mindwipe . . .and personality reconstruction."
"I have enough mindlessly obedient drones, Carnell. I expected better from you." She glanced at him sidelong with cold disdain.
Carnell ignored that scornful look, drawing a small handheld chess computer out of an inner pocket and setting up an opening gambit. After a few moments, he spoke softly, "I've already ordered the surgeons to reconstruct his original features as much as possible, given the extent of scarring caused by Blake's weapon. To restore his baseline memories and personality will be a relatively simple psychomanipulation."
Servalan was aghast at the puppeteer's audacity, then quickly recovered her composure. "Of what use is an ignorant, half-civilized Outer World conscript against Blake? Particularly now that he has a sophisticated computer like ORAC and the technical expertise of Kerr Avon to maximize its potential for wreaking havoc throughout the Federation?"
Carnell studied his chess board thoughtfully. "Sometimes when technical brilliance and subtlety don't work, older, more primitive methods are necessary. Where sophisticated tracking devices fail, the stubborn persistence of a bloodhound...or the predatory skill of a hunting falcon will succeed."
There was a long silence, then Servalan regarded him with a calculating expression. "Perhaps you're right, Carnell. Perhaps we shouldn't have suppressed that primal predatory nature during Travis's retraining sessions after the neuronic amplifier was implanted. After all, his obsessive hatred of Blake was assured and the newly implanted memories you provided for him guaranteed his loyalty. Still, he was unstable enough during that time, any further internal conflicts might have rendered him useless."
She tapped one encarmined nail against her lips. "Very well, proceed with your plan to resurrect Travis's ruthless tenacity and animal cunning. It will be interesting to see how he fares against Blake's technical superiority."
"And the High Council's inquiries?" he reminded her.
"Space Commander Travis has paid the ultimate price for his misjudgement...total psychic obliteration. What more could they want?" Her voice hardened. " And any further attempts to interfere in Space Command's affairs will not be tolerated."
She stared at him thoughtfully for a long moment, before continuing. "Don't leave just yet. This matter with the High Council is only the tip of the iceberg. They're becoming a thorn in my side, Carnell, and measures will have to be taken soon to deal with them."
Carnell looked up from his chess game, somewhat surprised that Servalan would bmaking her bid for power this early. His timetable did not predict such a move for at least another six months, when his influence on her actions would be more firmly established and Travis would have escaped the stigma of his earlier failures to capture Blake.
Putting the board aside, he listened carefully as she sketched out the technical summary just reported by the Weapons Development Center.
"They've developed a prototype molecular diffuser called IMIPAK. It's silent, invisible
. . .and totally lethal. With it I could eliminate my foes on the High Council in such a fashion that no one would suspect me. I want that weapon, Carnell. But no one else must know I have it or that it even exists." She turned on her most seductive smile, "That shouldn't be a difficult task for a puppeteer of your brilliance and subtlety."
"Not at all, ma'am," he answered that smile with one equally beguiling. "Not as long as you're willing to pay the going price for my expertise."
"You'll be paid, Carnell," the honey in her voice congealed. "When I see clear evidence you have an acceptable plan...and not before. And I want to monitor your handiwork on Travis as well. Show me he's regained that coldly ruthless competent edge he once demonstrated so clearly. Then we'll discuss an advance on your fee."
"At your command, Supreme Commander," He gave her a mocking salute and silently withdrew.
The office was austerely elegant. An ideal setting for the diamond bright beauty of the woman behind the desk. Her title as Senior Strategist implied she was one of the prime movers within the Inner Circle, but Carnell had been a puppeteer too long to be deceived by that obvious fiction. Pellin was shadow and illusion; a false front to divert his attention away from who might really be pulling his strings during this particular operation.
It hardly mattered. For the moment she was his superior in the field and one link to those who formulated the long-range strategies affecting Space Command. He listened dispassionately to her warning.
"You're taking a risk bringing Travis back under Servalan's control. He's unstable, unpredictable, too much of a random element."
"Sometimes our precisely plotted schemes need an infusion of random energy to drive them to a conclusion," he countered logically.
"And just as often such input can cause them to blow up in our faces. Our calculations indicate a high probability that Travis will be one of the latter," Senior Strategist Pellin stated in an icily precise tone of voice.
"That was before the Clone Masters were added into the equation."
Leaning back in her chair, Pellin studied him impassively.
The Clone Masters had long been useful tools in the puppeteers' plans for ultimate power. Generations of inbred loyalty and strongly conditioned sense of duty made them very predictable allies. But their outmoded and almost compulsive devotion to the sanctity of human life was becoming a problem. In the past, the puppeteers had been subtle enough to use that particular blind spot to further their schemes, but more recently there were rumblings of discontent. Signs that the Clone Masters had become adept at seeing through those manipulations to their less than noble motives. But they still remained allies. . .for the moment.
"In what way?"
"They have agreed to produce two clones of the rebel Blake as part of the plan to provide Servalan with IMIPAK and accelerate her rise to power."
The Senior Strategist steepled her fingers thoughtfully. "An event that should result in increased centralization of power under Federation aegis, making our own plans for ultimate control that much simpler. Despite her flaws, Servalan seems an adequate tool to achieve that end. She possesses enormous guile and cunning, along the necessary ruthlessness to deal with disruptive elements like Sarkoff and LeGrand. And her flaws. . .a tendency to indulge her more lascivious appetites and a persistent vindictive streak . . .should make her that much easier to manipulate once she has consolidated her power."
Carnell felt the knot of tension in his gut relax slightly, knowing that Pellin agreed with his plan thus far. But her eyes hardened as she demanded further clarification.
"But what of Travis? Why go to such lengths to reinstate him to Servalan's good graces? He's an erratic tool at best; maimed in body, scarred in mind. Even our deepest conditioning techniques cannot assure his permanent loyalty to Servalan, or the Federation."
She studied him, her piercing gaze attempting to cut through his polished mask and probe at his innermost allegiances.
"You show an unhealthy interest in this one piece, Carnell. A reluctance to sacrifice it in order to advance the game. Is it possible you're allowing emotional attachment to overrule your judgement?" Her grey eyes glittered with unusual clarity. "Can it be your past not buried quite as deeply as you would have us believe? Perhaps the Inner Circle needs to examine the motives behind your part of the Great Game."
Carnell shrugged insouciantly, his expression utterly casual. "My motives are what they've always been. Power, wealth. . .and the security to enjoy them. Travis is simply too valuable a piece to sacrifice unnecessarily. Servalan schemes, he acts. His pragmatism serves as a governor on some of her more extreme impulses. He's a survivor, a most valuable quality in the long run."
"Then you consider him more a rook or bishop than a pawn?"
"A. . .knight, Senior Strategist. Capable of changing direction in midcourse. Versatile, but in a predictable fashion." He allowed himself to relax slightly, feeling he was back on familiar ground. "His obsession with Blake proves that beyond any shadow of a doubt."
"And what of your other concern?" She questioned sharply. "That Travis might tire of Servalan's constant abuse of his loyalty and desert? Turn outlaw or renegade, possibly even fall in with the rebels themselves?"
"An unlikely eventuality, given his augmented hatred of Blake." Carnell quelled his unease, giving her enough truth to satisfy her, but holding back a disquieting message just relayed from the geneticist accompanying Servalan's escort to the Clone Masters' world. "As for tuning renegade. . .even with his knowledge of Federation codes and strategies, his solitary nature would prevent him from posing a serious threat to any of our plans. And the Clone Masters have taken steps to assure that he cannot be drugged or conditioned into betraying Federation secrets."
"What steps?" Pellin studied him obliquely.
"He's been injected with a virus tailored to make him immune to the most commonly used interrogation drugs."
"That doesn't eliminate torture as a tool of persuasion," was her flat counter.
He laughed ruefully. "With his stubborn will and high pain threshold, Travis would die before telling them anything of use. Besides, Blake considers himself an idealist, fighting for justice. He won't stoop to employing such methods. He's already proved that by sparing Travis's life earlier."
"What of the virus itself? There were no side effects? No mental aberrations? After all, he has undergone major personality restructuring and retraining within the past month. Such mental conditioning is often fragile and easily disrupted in its early stages."
"It's too early to tell without a full DNA scan," he temporized, knowing the virus already had produced a disturbing mutation, resistance to the Federation's most commonly used pacification drug. But that could hardly affect his plan since such drugs were rarely used on Federation officers The only other concern was that the gene might be viable... transmissible to any offspring. But that mattered even less, since Travis's sexual encounters were few and confined to women who routinely practiced contraception. It was unlikely the mutation would ever be discovered, but if it were, it just might give Travis a slight edge to insure his survival.
He continued, smoothing over her concern. " Of course, the best way of judging effectiveness of his conditioning is to allow Servalan use him in testing the authenticity of the Blake clones."
"Testing not only his obsessive hatred of Blake but his continued loyalty to his Supreme Commander, as well. A wise precaution considering his recent disaffection in the wake of the ORAC mess."
Pellin glanced at her terminal, noting her next appointment. "Very well, Carnell. Your ongoing strategies on this level seem relatively sound. . . for the moment. But don't neglect the other random elements that are manifesting themselves. Blake and the Liberator. The Terra Nostra. The resurgence of the Free Traders and the growing dissatisfaction among the Outer Worlds. Some of them will have to be neutralized before they become a disruptive influence on our Grand Strategy. Travis is only one man and within our grasp. He would be the easiest to deal with."
Inclining his head in acknowledgment of her warning, Carnell silently withdrew.
* * *
Travis waited, numb and disoriented, within the mist-shrouded pearlescent room, trying to recall where he was and why he was here. But his mind was a dizzying swirl of disjointed images like leaves in a hurricane, leaving him confused and shaking with a chill that penetrated body and soul. He clutched at those images desperately, grasping for a lifeline out of the maelstrom that threatened to suck him down into the darkness. Three faces swam out of the darkness. Women's faces; one frightened, one despairing, one arrogant and outraged. Kiera Cameron, Claudia Maryatt, and . . .Servalan. The other two melted away like wraiths in a mist, only Servalan remained. Servalan who demanded blind loyalty and unquestioning obedience no matter what it cost him physically or emotionally.
His last clear memories surged up in a rush of agony; lying in an alley blinded and bleeding from some crimo scum's ambush. . .then nothing! Was he dead? In some kind of psychic limbo or anteroom of hell? His head throbbed with confusion until he heard the footsteps behind him. His whole body tensed, gazing upwards as the owner of those footsteps appeared out of the mist and he recognized the features of the man he would walk barefoot through hell to kill! The only certainty remaining within the broken shards of his mind.
Almost without thinking, he raised his laser-equipped left arm, Blake's name an epithet on his lips.
The figure before him cowered away, confusion and disbelief filling his face. "No. . .please." The man dropped to his knees in a futile plea for mercy, but Travis fired, like a weapon on automatic tracking, responding to heat or movement. Yet even as the body crumpled, he stared at it in disgust, his instincts screaming in denial. This wasn't Blake. . . but another one of Servalan's lies!
A shrouding mist filled the room as another figure materialized out of that veil of illusion, moving with great dignity and reserve, her face set in lines of contempt. Travis hardly listened as she berated him for his actions, rummaging through his mind trying to recall where he was and what Servalan expected from him. But his memories remained blank, stubbornly empty of everything except his loathing of the body sprawled at his feet . .and the certainty that he had been used.
He glared at the woman in outrage, recognizing her as a Clone Master, one of the Federation's most carefully hidden allies. That could only mean that the dead meat was one of their genetically engineered copies. But if they made a copy then they must have access to the original. . . somewhere.
"I want the other one," he demanded hoarsely.
"Get the other one!" His voice hardened.
Her scornful words spilled past him, unheeded. Only his obsession with Blake had any reality, any substance amid the cyclonic confusion ripping through his mind.
"The Federation doesn't protect us out of altruism," the old woman admonished coldly. "They know our value. . .and our threat."
"You flatter yourselves," he spat, aiming his weapon at her.
Chills shivered down his spine at the certainty in her voice as a second Blake materialized out of the mist, like a specter of madness. All his senses screamed that it was Blake, until he stared down at the body at his feet.
He let his arm drop, dully wondering what circle of hell he had been condemned to. Would Blake would keep reappearing, whole and untouched, no matter how many times he killed him?
The mists billowed up, concealing the old woman and the counterfeit Blake as Travis stumbled away, wondering if the whole scenario hadn't been some kind of fevered hallucination.
Slowly, painfully, the memories of the past weeks began to fall into place; the hurried surgery restoring his face, the more painstaking cybernetic reconstruction of his artificial arm, and most distressing of all, sessions with the retraining therapist who had emptied his mind of everything but his manic hatred for Blake. Attempting to eradicate his past, all honor, pride, ambition, desire, even loyalty, leaving nothing but a poisonous brew of hate and obsession for revenge as black as the uniform he wore.
He brooded on that darkness until a mutoid summoned him into Servalan's presence. He followed obediently, almost meekly, his face an emotionless mask. She glared as he approached, the pristine white of her gown a deliberate contrast to the dark calculation in her feral golden eyes.
"Travis, you are pathetic," she spat in disgust.
"If you say so." The response was coldly automatic.
"Of all the cripple-brained idiots..."
As she began to berate him, the shock of his sudden confrontation with Blake congealed the confusion in his mind and his memory of the past few hours emerged with a sudden icy clarity.
"Me or you?" he retorted.
Servalan halted in mid-tirade, shocked at the sudden insolence in his voice.
"What did you say?"
He moved closer, the harshness in his voice dropping into a softly menacing purr.
"You're angry, Supreme Commander. Surprised by what I did."
His right hand seized her throat with the speed of a striking cobra, pressing that lovely, lying face back so she gazed into his remaining eye. "You're devious. You always have been devious. You knew what would happen."
She froze in his grip, disbelieving that he would dare touch her in this fashion. Wondering if Carnell had somehow betrayed her or if Travis had finally plunged over the edge into irretrievable madness.
"Take your hand off me," she demanded haughtily, but he ignored that command, spilling months of accumulated venom into her face in a guttural whisper.
"You knew if it was Blake, I'd kill him. I'd have to kill him." His eye blazed fiercely, frightening her with its sudden intensity. She cursed Carnell and his empty promises. Travis was more out of control than ever...and this time his wrath was turned on her!
She gasped from a throat nearly choked with terror. "You'll rot in the slave pits of Ursa Prime."
He ignored her threat, bearing down still harder, feeding the rage that threatened to consume them both. "We didn't need to but you insisted. That's why -- so you could test one of them on me. You used me, like an automatic fault tracer."
His grasp loosened momentarily and she used his outrage to fuel her own, jerking out of that numbing grip and shoving his hand away as she spat, "And you functioned beautifully."
She took several hasty strides, attempting to place herself beyond his immediate reach before turning back to confront him, guile and ambition openly displayed on her face. "There are no faults. The clone is perfect."
Travis stared at her, hardly listening as she prattled on about her latest scheme and the necessity for obtaining the second Blake clone, despite the Clone Masters' outrage at his actions. He was beginning to remember the events that had precipitated his earlier disobedience; the betrayal of Maryatt and unjust condemnation of his family to the same slave pits she had threatened him with, just to obtain ORAC, the newest advance in computer technology. Their lives had meant nothing in her ambitious plans to undermine the High Council.
It was obvious that this newest plan of hers was equally unscrupulous and corrupt, serving only to advance her position within the Council. She had already used his anger against Blake to further those plans and would undoubtedly continue to rob him of the last scraps remaining of his self-respect and even the loyalty he owed Space Command.
His gaze was mocking as she finished her explanation.
"And the slave pits?"
The cold calculation in her eyes only reinforced her answer. One of the few times she deigned to admit the truth about her eventual plans for him. "When you're of no further use to me, Travis."
Judging by the growing fear in her eyes, he had very little time left. He acknowledge her candor with a brittle smile.
"Honesty...at last. A mark of contempt?"
"Or respect," Her voice dripped distilled venom as her gaze mocked him. "A man might see it as respect. You would have. . .once."
Their gazes locked. Weapon and wielder. Tool and user. Servalan observed the reluctant acquiescence that finally overruled Travis's growing defiance. For the moment at least, his razor-honed lethal abilities were her to command. But his deadly edge and obsessive thirst for vengeance were too malignantly unstable. Soon, he would turn in her hand, savaging her and spilling her blood, vampire-like, to feed his growing bloodlust. But there was still time to use Travis before she had to break him. Time enough for his skill and persistence to smooth her path to the Presidency before he shattered in her hands like the flawed creation that he was.
Content that his momentary defiance had been appropriately chastised,, Servalan turned away, her mind already rehearsing her deception of these tiresome moralizing fools in order to obtain the second clone for her purposes. Blinded by her ambition, she failed to see the stubborn spark kindled within Travis's eye. Slowly, hesitantly, like a glowing coal buried in ashes, his resolve ignited, burning slow and deep. She thought she had won, that nothing remained of the man he had once been, but she was wrong! His past was coming back to him, slowly, bit by bit, despite, or perhaps, because of Carnell's manipulations.
He didn't know where such memories might lead him. Whatever his past, it hardly mattered; only the future mattered. And he was determined to be free. Of Servalan's control, the Federation's demands and maybe even of Blake's shadow, haunting him like a bad dream. As his determination grew, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, Travis nurtured that spark of hope, of a final escape from long-forged chains of duty and Servalan's physical and spiritual domination.
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