Necessary SacrificesBy Alice C. Aldridge
Firing his engines, he skipped along the outer edge of the planet's atmosphere gambling that its albedo would confuse his pursuers' sensor arrays long enough for him to get out of range. Unfortunately, whether out of a justifiable fear of Servalan's poisonous wrath or genuine greed for the bounty on his quarry's head, the squadron commander was vigilant and suspicious. He ignored the distorted data his sensors reported and simply used his viewscreen to pinpoint the shadow of the fugitive's ship.
Within moments ex-Space Commander Travis was surrounded, ensnared by a squadron commander using the Picard Maneuver taught to first-year Academy cadets. Although Travis had the instincts of a born pilot and enough hands-on experience to outfly and outfight any two pursuit craft with a ship of equal size and power, his current vessel was a cramped, lightly armed scout with virtually no shielding. Against three to one odds and the superior reflexes and suprahuman endurance of the mutoids piloting the Federation craft, Travis knew he was overmatched.
Still, he wasn't about to surrender to the arrogant commander of this flotilla, even if Servalan had given orders to take him alive. Blake's surprise attack on Space Command had allowed Travis to escape Federation "justice" amid the panic-stricken mob that fled the courtroom just before the inner hull blew. Despite years of disciplined obedience, a fierce instinct for survival overruled his long-conditioned loyalty and in the melee that followed, Travis had smashed his way into Servalan's office intending to use her as a hostage to assure his freedom. Unruffled by his armed presence in her sanctum, she'd offered her "assistance" with his getaway. For a price.
"You're not going to use me anymore," he'd spat, refusing the pursuit ship and mutoid pilot who would have reported back to her. Instead, he'd taken a faster, virtually invisible stealth prototype and run for the Rim, intending to put Space Command and its Supreme Commander's ambition behind him forever.
He had joined the Space Force at a time when its uniform was something to be proud of; when troopers protected colonists on the Outer Worlds from raiders and hostile life forms and kept the peace against terrorists like Shivan and Avalon. He rubbed his left shoulder where artificial joint met tortured flesh. <And Blake too,> he thought grimly. <The worst of the lot.> But now Servalan was turning the once proud and respected force into an army of thugs and bullies whose sole purpose was to support her rise to power.
Glancing again at the surrounding pursuit ships, he ignored the buzz of an incoming comm signal. Better to go quick and clean in a burst of blaster fire or by opening the hatch to space rather than face Servalan's vindictive smile as she condemned him to the slave pits on Ursa Prime or the tender mercies of still another psychomanipulator. <NO!> Travis vowed bitterly to himself <At least I'll take an honor guard into hell with me!> and started to redline the drive mechanism of the scoutship as he plotted a kamikaze course through the middle of the formation.
But before he could engage the self-destruct, a free trader with the stripped-down lines of a blockade runner hurtled between his ship and the squadron, breaking up the overlapping shield effect that had nearly immobilized him. Seizing the chance offered by that momentary diversion, Travis raked his blasters down the port side of the command ship, disabling its main shield generators.
Meanwhile, the second pursuit ship peeled off after the trader, trying to get a weapons lock but the rimrunner snap-rolled end-over-end, evading his tracking beam. Oblivious to the abrupt course change, the Federation pilot blundered along his predicted vector until hunter became hunted and the trader spat a sharp burst of short-range plasma bolts that smashed the pursuer's shields, opening his bridge to space in a white spume of escaping oxygen.
Although crippled by his opening attack, the Federation flag ship returned Travis's fire, forcing the ex-Space Commander into a fast inside loop that wracked him with unshielded g-force while his tiny vessel shuddered with the stress of deep-space manuevers it was not designed for. Ignoring the howl of its alarms, Travis reversed course to face the lead ship again, triggering his fire controls until, with a soundless glare, it dissolved in a burst of superheated plasma.
Travis's ship bucked wildly, caught in edge of the explosion, while random debris flung around the drive sphere opened a deep gash in his forehead. Pausing only long enough to wipe the blood from his eye, Travis resumed his desperate struggle with the disintegrating controls, trying to pull the erratically pitching ship out of the planetary atmosphere before it broke up.
As his instrument readings went redline, warning of impending failure of the drive system, Travis nursed a feeble hope that the planet below might be at least marginally habitable since he'd likely be spending the rest of his life there. . . if he managed to survive the landing.
But the shrilling proximity alarm warned of the approach of the surviving pursuit ship and his chances of making a landing dropped to zero. He tried to open fire but his blasters only sputtered weakly before an empty silence declared their depleted energy banks. He cursed the tenacious Federation pilot then firewalled his faltering thrusters in a final hopeless effort to ram the larger vessel.
"You bloody bastard! I may be finished, but you aren't getting back to Servalan to gloat over your kill!"
Once again, before he could give vent to his suicidal impulses, the free trader came to his rescue with a decisive salvo of plasma bolts that smashed the pursuit ship's main drive and triggered an overload, consuming it in the fury of its own atomic fires. Trying to outrun the detonation, the blockade runner skipped along the edge, heeling over hard as only its pilot's superb skill prevented a fatal spiral into the atmosphere.
Travis muttered sourly to himself as he fought his controls, struggling to stay in one piece long enough to land.
"Typical heroic ending, trader, both of us shot down in flames. Wish I could be more grateful but I don't think we'll be grounding on one of the Federation's garden spots."
The experimental scout ship he'd stolen was stripped down for speed and sensor-blinding qualities but in the atmosphere, it had the aerodynamic qualities of a falling brick. Travis wasn't even sure why he was fighting so hard to bring it in for a soft landing after his earlier self-destructive impulses. But a rekindled instinct for survival had overcome that death wish...for the present at least. Probably due more to curiosity about his rescuer than any other reason.
Any rim runner who'd stick his nose into the middle of a Federation ambush obviously had more guts than brains...and he hadn't seen that kind of hellbent piloting since the three months he'd been on restricted duty, teaching Urban Warfare Tactics to wet-behind-the-ears cadets at the Federation Space Academy while Medical did the neural connections to his cybernetic arm. There'd been a cadet there with the same kind of spit-in-your eye reckless bravura that free trader had shown. Travis wondered what had become of the boy. Probably hadn't survived to graduate, judging by the blindly orthodox tactics of pilots he'd just battled.
Finally, not even brute force could keep his floundering ship stable in the final descent and, in desperation, he punched in the backup retrostabilizers. They cut in late and at a quarter power and as he hit the emergency switches to throw every last erg of power into the landing sequence, a mocking voice in his head whispered. <At least it'll be quick. At this velocity you won't even leave a grease spot.>
But at the last second, the emergency power cut in long enough to slow the ship so its landing impact was bone-shaking rather than shattering. As it settled to the ground with an almost human groan, a deep silence descended on its battered hulk.
On the flight deck of the Liberator, a tense confrontation was underway. The recent loss of two of their crew, one by death and one by defection, had left the survivors gripped by a growing sense of futility and despair that threatened to blunt even their idealistic leader's revolutionary fervor. Jenna's abrupt departure in the wake of Gan's death had shocked Blake out of his complacency about the crew's loyalty and commitment. That new uncertainty left all of them disconcerted, especially computer expert Kerr Avon.
"I've called this meeting so we can discuss our options about future operations," Blake began tentatively.
"Hopefully, ones that are not as suicidally insane as the last two," Avon injected with his usual cool vitriol.
"It was a calculated risk," Blake dragged his arm across his eyes in weary resignation "It's success would have aided the Resistance enormously."
"And your rash, foolhardy attack on Space Command? How did that further your Cause, noble leader? Or was it simply a sop to your guilty conscience, trying to atone for the death of one of your devoted followers?" Avon continued in a snide tone.
"Stop it!" Cally broke in with unusual intensity. "There was no way Blake could have known Central Control was an elaborate Federation hoax."
"Not by relying on the ill-informed, ignorant rebel bands as his sole sources of information." The computer expert's contempt was plain. "But you're afraid to face the truth, the hard facts that ORAC would make inescapably clear. Your outlandish scheme of inciting the oppressed citizens to throw off the Federation's control is a madman's delusion and doesn't stand the chance of a snowball in hell." Avon's savage outburst cut through Blake like a knife.
"If you are that disgruntled with my cause. . .and my leadership," he responded softly, "why didn't you leave with Jenna on that blockade runner you helped her repair?"
"Because I am not one of your blindly loyal followers. Why should I settle for that fourthhand death trap, instead of the fastest, most indestructible ship in the galaxy? No Blake, you won't get rid of me that easily. Even with your penchant for foolhardy actions and hopeless causes, this is still the safest place for me to be until I find my bolthole and the wherewithal to live the life of safety and ease that I require. Until then, I intend to be the token voice of rationality in this chorus of fools."
Crawling slowly out of the shattered wreckage of his ship, Travis scanned his immediate surroundings for hostile life forms or possible survival resources. The barren grey plain undulated outward until it blended into the dismal pewter skies, naked of any sign of caves, firewood, or forage suitable for food or shelter. It seemed his life here would be short and painful. Already the raw wind cut through the tattered remnants of his black leather combatwear and the pale sun overhead provided little warmth.
Staring down at the torn plastiskin covering his cybernetic arm and the sputtering circuitry within, he wondered which would finish him first: the biting cold that would descend at planetary nightfall or the electrical surge from his malfunctioning arm. He'd been able to salvage a small survival kit from the remnants of his ship, with the tools to disable the limb's internal controls, except for the fact they were deep inside the shoulder joint itself and beyond his limited visual field. He could attempt to do the disconnect blindly by touch, but, in all likelihood, he'd just set off the neural shockwave that much sooner.
A deafening roar overhead jolted him out of grim contemplation of whether he'd prefer to die by freezing or electrocution. The foolhardy free trader who'd come to his rescue must also have suffered battle damage, forcing him to ground here and make repairs. By a stroke of fortune, he was coming in close to Travis's crash site and, as far as he could tell from the ship's descent, neither its main drive nor superstructure appeared severely damaged.
Travis smiled grimly to himself as he broke into a jog heading towards the rimrunner's touchdown site. Although such ships often had a three-man crew--pilot, navigator, and engineer/weapons officer--he felt confident of his ability to intimidate the foolhardy spacers into giving him a lift off this misbegotten world and out to a neutral planet. Most Free Traders were pragmatic enough not to argue with a loaded blaster and a man with his reputation for ruthlessness. For a fleeting second, he considered just shooting the whole crew and piloting the ship himself, until a sharp jolt from his failing cybernetic arm reminded him of his vulnerability. Far better to "reason" with the crew and work out a deal. Their survival for his passage offworld.
The craft had settled down at the edge of an old lava flow as blowing ash obscured much of her clean, crisp lines. Only the name, Reina del Sol, splashed in gold across her bow provided any brightness against the stark, grey sky. The airlock was sealed but responded to standard Federation access codes and he entered cautiously, using his left arm to operate the manual controls on the internal lock despite the pain searing into his shoulder, in order to keep his blaster out and ready.
He did not encounter anyone at the airlock or in the lower companionways so he moved cautiously, silent as a ghost, up to the flight deck. The ventilating system was operating at maximum but, judging by the acrid smoke and fumes, there had been major damage to the ship's computers and mainline systems. That suspicion was verified as he entered the cramped flight deck and found the smoke-charred panels where much of the guidance circuitry and main piloting controls were fused ceramic slag. Apparently, he and his "rescuer" were in the same bind.
Quickly glancing around for the pilot whose recklessness had overcome common sense, he only spotted a single body half-buried under a mound of shattered plasform. Judging by the elaborate autopilot system at the helm, installed by a computer tech of considerable skill, navigation, engineering, and weapons had all been slaved into the piloting controls. With it, one man could handle the ship, if he slept on the flight couch and didn't take stupid chances. . .like flying through an ion storm.
"Or picking fights with Federation pursuit squadrons," he muttered to himself. Heaving off the debris that covered the pilot's unconscious body, he swore a blistering oath as he spied the slender curves and fall of blonde hair. Kneeling beside her to confirm his suspicions, a cold fury surged through him as he brushed the hair back from her face.
"Stannis!" Her name was a strangled curse on his lips and his hand clenched in her jacket, lifting her semiconscious body off the deck. Blake's pilot, who had waltzed into a Space Command base and snatched Servalan and Kasabi's daughter right out from under Security's nose, forcing him to release the captured rebel in exchange for Servalan's worthless life.
"Where is he?" he spat. "Where's Blake?"
She was still too stunned to answer and he dropped her thoughtlessly, wheeling around in a fury and prowling through her ship, every sense hyperalert. There had to be some clue as to the location of Blake and the rest of his crimo scum. Much to his surprise, Jenna was not only alone but her cargo holds were empty as well. By the time he returned from scouring the vessel for some hint of the rebels' plans, Jenna had regained consciousness, although her face was pale as milk.
"You're wasting your time, Travis," she gasped through cracked, bloodied lips. "Blake isn't here."
The blonde smuggler glared up at him with surly defiance, despite the fact he could almost smell the stink of fear on her. There was a hopelessness in the slump of her shoulders that told him she wasn't expecting any rescue. That and the absence of Liberator's teleport bracelet on her slender wrist seemed to indicate she'd finally broken off with Blake and his hopeless Cause. Still, it wouldn't hurt to probe a little deeper.
"Where is he?" The reptilian gleam in that cold blue eye chilled Jenna to the bone, even more than the numbness seeping through her from the loss of blood.
"In hell or on the far side of the galaxy for all I know," she retorted with deliberate sarcasm, glaring at him in resigned petulance. "We've parted company."
"You expect me to believe that?" He squatted beside her, his expression flat and emotionless, observing the blood pooling under her body. "That Blake would let the best pilot in this sector just walk out on him? " He gazed at her obliquely. "You're good, Stannis. Good enough to command your own ship in the Federation. If you hadn't picked the wrong side."
"And you picked the right one?" she sneered. "Then why was that pursuit squadron hot on your tail?" She winced, shifting her weight and trying to ease the sharp pain shooting up from the gash in the back of her thigh. "Never mind, I don't really care. As for being a Federation pilot, modification to mutoid never appealed to me, if you know what I mean?" She moaned softly and caught her breath as the sharp pain bit deeper. "Well, get on with it, man. If you plan to beat on me till you get it through your thick skull I'm not lying about Blake's whereabouts."
Travis blanched, as something dark and painful surged up in his eye. Then straightening stiffly, he prowled around the flight deck as though hunting for something. "Bloody waste of time. The way you're bleeding, you'd be dead before you broke." With a grunt of satisfaction, he located what he was searching for, then knelt beside her. "Turn over."
She gaped at him dumbfounded for a moment and, when she wasn't quick enough to comply with his order, he flipped her on her side, one-handed, with surprising strength.
With a chill of horror, she felt him fumbling at the rent in her trousers, ripping it wider, and she flailed back at him with her fists, determined to fight off rape as long as she was still conscious!
He recoiled sharply, snarling at her, his voice hoarse and tight with effort, "Stop thrashing around, Stannis. Whatever gashed your leg, didn't tear the artery or you'd already be dead, but it's close enough that if you jiggle my elbow I'm likely to hit it myself."
She froze in shock, unable to believe this Federation butcher would try to save her life instead of finishing the job her crash-landing had started. Then a momentary searing pain along with a queasy odor of burning flesh made her realize he was using the laser cautery from the Reina's medical kit to stop the bleeding. After slapping a heavy field dressing into place and tossing her the gauze, he climbed slowly to his feet, favoring his left side much more than he had earlier and remarking with a weary sarcasm, "You can probably tie that on better than I can manage onehanded...and you won't have a Federation killer manhandling you."
She almost blushed that he was able to read her fears so well, then threw him a baffled, suspicious look.
"Why, Travis?" After your treatment of Cally and Avalon, you can't expect me to believe you've developed a sudden streak of chivalry?"
He shifted painfully and gave her a dark, hooded look. "Call it a favor returned, if you like...for getting that Federation pursuit squadron of my neck. Or simply the fact that you're more use to me alive than dead."
"Why were they after you?" Jenna was curious, ignoring for the moment the implied threat in his answer.
"After Blake escaped following his raid on Central Control, someone had to take the blame and I was the sacrificial goat." His smile was cold and bitter. "Of course, Servalan had to have concrete charges for the court martial, especially if she wanted the death penalty. So they dug up an old incident in which I was overly zealous in obeying orders to put down an insurrection on Zircaster and turned it into an `unauthorized' massacre of unarmed civilians." His jaw tightened as though holding back some dark and venomous secret. He bit off his next words harshly. "It worked. Despite the fact I had only done as I was ordered, there was enough self-righteous hypocrisy on that Board to have me drawn and quartered for the vidshows. I didn't wait around for the sentencing."
"You don't expect me to believe that pack of lies?" She pushed to a sitting position, gazing at him in open contempt.
"I don't care what you believe, Stannis. I saved your life because I need your help." His voice was devoid of emotion.
"What?!" She looked up, startled, from where she'd been knotting her bandage.
"The cybernetic circuitry in my arm is overloading its neural connectors. I need someone to short out the main power before the feedback delivers a fatal shock." He slid down the main panel till he was slouched beside her.
She stared into his hard-edged features, noting the grey tinge to his skin and clammy sweat oozing down his forehead.
"And if I don't," she answered coolly.
He bared his clenched teeth in a death's head grin. "You get to see how good a pilot you really are!" gesturing weakly to the slagged remains of the auto-pilot system Avon had jerry-rigged enabling her to fly the Reina alone. She'd hoped it would last long enough to get her to the nearest nonaligned planet where she could hire a reasonably competent crew. Now without computer back-up for the navigation and engineering systems, it would be almost impossible to get spaceborne by herself, much less pilot this shuddering hulk as far as the nearest neutral planet.
<But Travis!> her deepest inner fears were screaming at her. <He'll cut your throat and space your corpse at the first opportunity! Or worse still, betray you to the Federation!> <No,> her shrewder, more pragmatic self argued, <he needs me more than I need him. The Reina's my ship and I'm the only one who knows all her quirks and eccentricities. Besides, we'll be heading for the Rim and as far away from Federation space as we can get.> She arched a skeptical eyebrow at him. "You want me to take you on as crew aboard the Reina?"
"Whatever it takes to get off this mudball and out to a neutral planet," was his stone-faced reply.
"How do I know this isn't some kind of scheme...a plan to use me as bait to lure Blake into a trap." she demanded suspiciously.
His expression was remote and pained. "Right now, Stannis, all I want to do is survive. Away from the Federation, Blake, and the whole misbegotten, hypocritical lot of them."
"That won't be easy, even on a neutral planet. You have a bad reputation among the outlaws and free traders running on the borderworlds," she gave him a caustic warning.
"If I do get that far out, I don't propose to broadcast my identity. Besides sometimes a bad reputation can be good advertising." He winced as a particularly painful neural burst caused his back muscles to spasm. "Will you either fuse the circuits or shut up. If you're going to just sit there and watch me fry, at least close your flapping lip."
Jenna bit back her angry retort, savagely grabbing the probe he held out to her. Taking a deep breath, she began the delicate work within the arm's microcircuitry. Each exploratory touch must have sent rivers of fire along Travis's nerves, judging by his clenched teeth and the involuntary muscle spasms jerking across his back and shoulders. But he remained silent, refusing to to show any outward sign of his agony, as she fumbled with the instrument, trying to pinpoint the trunk line.
The crash had not only damaged the line but dislocated it as well. From her basic knowledge of servo-system wiring she could identify most of the peripheral nerve hook-ups but the main junction was still unreachable, and she was uneasy about the vagal offshoot connecting to his chest wall that could totally paralyze his breathing. Reluctantly admitting that she did need his help if they were to escape the planet, she didn't want to kill him by accident. Taking a deep breath and trying to still her shaking hands, she thrust blindly deep inside the main control circuitry. The arm convulsed in a sudden spastic burst before dropping inert to his side.
Travis's pent-up breath sighed out long and slow, almost like a dying exhalation as he sagged semiconscious against the control panels. Jenna could feel the tension in his body as he fought his way back to awareness, with his right hand, white-knuckled, still gripping the holstered blaster. His expression was so flat and empty, Jenna wondered if he might shoot her in sheer reflexive reaction to the pain, but he shook off that terrifying blankness and climbed laboriously to his feet.
For long moments, he braced himself against the pilot console, breathing hard. Then he turned towards Jenna, startling her with the rapid recovery of his tigerish speed and strength. With only one arm, he wasn't able to pick her up, but he did manage to pull her upright until she was standing unsteadily on her uninjured leg.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, her voice sharp. "Where are you taking me?"
"To your cabin. You're useless in that condition and might as well get some rest while I clear out the debris and see what can be salvaged."
"Don't be a fool," she snapped. "The Reina's my ship and I know her systems better than anyone. Just set me down on the pilot's couch because it will take two of us if we hope to get her spaceworthy again."
His experience with Servalan had taught him the futility of arguing with a woman when she took that tone of voice, and he did as she ordered.
For the next four hours, Jenna watched and advised while he disassembled and evaluated the
remnants of her ship's navigation and engineering control systems. Despite her prior contempt for the ex-Federation officer, she discovered he had more than a fundamental grasp of basic engineering and was even able to appreciate some of the exotic computer recircuiting Avon had added before she left Blake's crew. But even with the two of them working on the salvage operation, it was obvious that there was too much damage to her ship's essential systems for it to be spaceworthy.
Dragging a sweaty forearm across his soot-stained forehead, Travis gestured to the pile of circuit boards and fused components he'd just pulled out of her ship's controls. "Well, that lot's nothing but junk, he stated flatly.
Jenna gazed in despair at her almost denuded instrument panel. "What's left isn't enough to get us off this planet, much less out to the Rim."
With the same untiring, almost inhuman persistence that he'd demonstrated throughout the afternoon, Travis began removing the useless components from the flight deck and taking them to the airlock to be dumped. Jenna flared at his seemingly futile actions. "Didn't you hear what I said? The controls are useless. We're marooned on this frozen grey mudball!"
Ignoring her volatile outburst until he finished his clean-up operation, he rummaged through the collection of survival gear that he'd salvaged from the scout and retrieved a small, foil-wrapped bar. Using his teeth to tear it into two equal pieces, he tossed one to Jenna.
She caught it clumsily and looked at him in surprise.
"What is it?"
"Survival rations--high-energy, low-bulk, with a mild stimulant. But drier than a summer on Arrakis. Did your water tanks survive?"
There was a no-nonsense attitude about him that steadied Jenna's nerves and she nodded wearily, pointing to the food and beverage dispenser on the flight deck. Without the main computer to reconstitute the CHO/protein base, the food component was useless, but the battery power that supplied heat and light dispensed water as well, although it could not maintain the reclamation and purification facilities. They would eventually have to ration water unless they could find a way to rebuild the gutted computer controls.
As they sprawled on the flight deck floor and shared the dry rations and water in a kind of edgy camaraderie, Travis remarked in a matter-of-fact tone, "My ship grounded less than a mile away. Its computers were topline, with better EM shielding from the blast effects. We may be able to salvage enough from them to get off-planet. How far would we have to push this hulk to make it to the nearest neutral planet with a refit base?"
"If we can keep her together that long, Jade would be our best bet, but it's two weeks away at standard speed," she answered wearily. "And that's the best the Reina can do under these circumstances."
"It may be the longest two weeks of your life." He gave a bone-cracking stretch, then stood up to help her limp to her cabin.
"Or the shortest," she retorted, only too aware of all the ways such jury-rigged systems could fail, either killing them quickly or condemning them to a slow, lingering death in the dark between the stars.
On Albion, in the aftermath of their overthrow of the Federation, Blake and mercenary Del Grant were conferring amiably, while Vila lounged in the background, sampling the remnants of the former Federation Commander's wine cellar.
"Since I'll be staying here to help them set up their planetary defenses and establish the new government, I obviously won't need a deep-space pilot with Tarrant's skill. You're quite welcome to recruit him for your Cause." Del chuckled at the thought of the young pilot's bumptious enthusiasm colliding with Avon's grim-faced self-control. "I should warn you, though. He can be arrogant, smug, utterly egotistical..."
"Another Avon!" Vila groaned.
Del nodded in commiseration. "Well, there's a passing resemblance, I'll admit. Though that headful of curls he sports could easily rival yours, Blake."
"It gets even better," Vila lamented. "Another one with more hair than common sense."
Blake threw a quelling glance at Vila before responding to Grant with a heartiness that sounded false even to him. "Well, when do we get to meet this paragon?"
Blake had resisted replacing Jenna for the last two missions, convinced she'd change her mind about leaving him and the Liberator. He couldn't let himself believe that their recent estrangement along with her growing mistrust of his obsession with Central Control would drive her away permanently. Not when she knew how much he needed her support in the face of Avon's growing challenge to his idealism and his leadership. Besides, he'd been certain she wouldn't find it quite that easy to resume her former lifestyle.
Blake sighed deeply as Grant led them to meet his pilot. He had to face facts. Jenna wasn't coming back. They were all capable, with Zen's occasionally untrustworthy assistance, of managing routine piloting chores. But if he was able to persuade them to continue their attacks on the Federation, especially his ongoing search for Central Control, Liberator would need a skilled pilot. Not just skilled, but a masterful one. . .like Jenna had been.
They paused in the doorway. Grant craning his neck, searching for his pilot's tall, gangling figure and Blake off to one side, eyes downcast, pinching the bridge of his nose as he tried to banish Jenna's memory. Her sunlit smile, the music of her laughter, the sharp blade of her wit as she verbally sparred with Avon and Vila. That was all past now. Time to move on.
He glanced up from his dark brood to confront a youth with a head of dark curls and a dazzling smile, waiting impatiently at Grant's side. Grant made the introductions, "Blake, my pilot, Del Tarrant...graduate of the FSA, former Federation officer, outlaw, gunrunner, and all around bon vivant. Tarrant, this is Roj Blake, rebel leader and captain of the Liberator. He's looking for a pilot."
The dazzling smile got even brighter (impossible as it seemed) as the young mercenary asked brashly, "Who do I have to kill to get the job?"
Jenna awoke in darkness, sodden with sweat and gasping at some nightmare she couldn't remember. Wincing at the dull ache in her leg, she shifted around, trying to find a more comfortable position, but it was no use. She was too agitated to get back to sleep. Glancing at the chrono she calculated that it was nearly planet dawn. There was a lot to do today if they were going to get the Reina ready for space again so she might as well get an early start.
Drawing a scant trickle of water from the limited supply into the basin, Jenna sponged herself off before changing into fresh clothes. She glanced down at the torn, bloody outfit she'd discarded the night before, then bent stiffly to retrieve it, remembering that it had been one of Blake's favorites. After studying its tattered condition glumly, Jenna shrugged her shoulders and, with a small sigh of regret, tossed it over with the rest of the junk to be pitched out the airlock before they lifted off.
Despite the earliness of the hour, Travis was already gone, probably to retrieve whatever was salvageable from his scout ship. Jenna breathed a small sigh of relief that she need not confront the man this morning. His story about being on the run from the Federation was at least half- believable in view of yesterday's altercation with the pursuit ships. But giving up his vendetta against Blake? Now that was a bit hard to swallow. The crew of Liberator had crossed paths with Travis often enough in the past so she knew he was a relentless enemy, cunning, ruthless, and totally without scruples.
During their first encounter with Travis, Blake admitted the particular enmity that had existed between the two of them since a Federation strike force led by Travis had ambushed Blake and his followers some years before. During the firefight that followed, Blake had been wounded but managed to get off a blaster bolt at Travis that left the officer maimed and half-blinded. Since that initial confrontation in the heat of battle, both men had nursed a long-term festering grudge against one another.
Jenna folded her arms across her chest, shivering, as she recalled Blake's obsession with Central Control and how it had resulted in Gan's death. Poor Gan, the most honest and straight-forward of them, dying for an empty room. She'd charged blindly after Blake and been fortunate enough to stumble on Servalan and Kasabi's daughter, which gave her a bargaining chip to free Blake from Travis's clutches. But the price had been much too high, and when Blake had run off to brood on that misbegotten planet, Jenna had finally realized just how little she meant to him.
Apparently Servalan and Travis had come to a parting of the ways as well. Whatever the reason, Travis had skills she could use. If she could tolerate a drunken sot like Vila and Avon's devious nature and snide remarks, then Travis shouldn't be that much harder to endure.
Besides, if he had any idea of betraying her and trying to steal her ship once they were offplanet and on course to Jade, there were a few surprises in store for him. Smuggler's tricks that she'd learned over the years to protect her cargo from hijackers and freebooters; hidden weapons, booby-trapped panels, even a hair-trigger on the airlock cycle. If he made her the least bit nervous, she'd pull out a blaster, blow a large messy hole in him, then space the remains. Even without his dubious help, she should be able to pilot the Reina into Jade by herself.
She brushed off her hands briskly, turning her attention to her usual flight deck chores. With most of the computers down or gutted, doing routine checklists was out of the question and actual repairs would have to wait for Travis to return with the spare parts. But she could take care of the less critical internal damage that had been ignored earlier. With the two of them in such tight quarters for the next two weeks, even minor annoyances could become unbearable.
She began by mopping up the sticky pool of her blood on the flight deck. Next she replaced the filters in Air Recycling and upped CO2 absorption capacity to compensate for the heavier workload with two occupants instead of just one. None of the interior bulkheads appeared warped and the water tanks had miraculously remained intact. Unable to do anything about the food dispensers with the main computer down, she checked on the tiny alcove that served as the Reina's crew quarters.
Rummaging through a wall bin, she found a musty blanket and tossed it on the bunk pad along with the kit that he'd brought from his scout ship. Despite an intense curiosity about her onetime foe and current crewmember, she resisted the impulse to rummage through his belongings. He already wore a blaster strapped to his hip, so there was little to be gained by removing any other weapons. Given their lack of privacy within the close confines of the Reina, she'd do well not to violate his any more than absolutely necessary. Besides, considering his paranoid reputation, the damned thing was likely booby-trapped and she was only too aware of the fate of inquisitive felines.
Quickly finishing her chores, she pondered likely crew options once they reached Jade or one of the other neutral planets. Circumstances could easily compel Travis to remain with her all the way out to the Rim. Despite his notion about concealing his identity, she didn't believe he'd have much luck. That black patch and cyberweapon arm were too well known...and hated. There might be some warlords or crime family heads keen on having a man with Travis's unsavory reputation on their payroll. At least she hoped so, the ex-space commander radiated too much menace and unpredictable rage for Jenna to be comfortable with him remaining aboard her ship any longer than absolutely necessary.
She had enough troubles of her own to deal with in the weeks ahead, assuming they even made it to the refit yards. Paying for the repairs was no problem, with "souvenirs" she'd appropriated from Liberator's treasure room, but getting in tight with the dealers and suppliers who fueled the Rim world economy would take time. Possibly more time than she could afford, piloting an aging blockade runner without a crew she could trust. Fighting at Blake's side for the past year had sharpened her piloting skills and increased her knowledge of Federation tactics but had done damn little for her reputation as a free trader. No one remembered her defiance of the Terra Nostra, or how she'd outsmarted Amagon raiders, or the fact she could fly circles around Federation border patrols. She'd have to start from scratch, winning back that respect, and to do that she'd need a top-notch crew, including someone with a really good--no, strike that--really bad reputation and the muscle and skill with a blaster to back it up.
A brilliantly perverse idea suddenly jolted into her brain. Travis already had that kind of reputation and had demonstrated more than adequate piloting and engineering skills, as well. She could hire him to stay on as part of her crew! <That is totally insane!> her common sense screamed at her.<You know what he is--butcher, torturer, Federation officer. We have nothing but his word that any of that has changed...and you know what that's worth! Besides this garbage about him giving up his revenge on Blake? Not bloody likely! Not when the first thing he did when he saw you was try to shake the knowledge of Blake's location out of you!>
<But don't you see?> her enterprising, aggressive side argued. <What better way to keep him off Blake's back than to hire him as bodyguard, then stay as far away as possible from the Federation and Blake's rebellion?>
<Bodyguard, huh? Like hiring a tiger to protect you from the wolves, then wondering when the tiger's going to slit your gullet?> Her common sense settled down to a steady monotone grumble and Jenna turned on the viewscreen trying to banish those unsettling thoughts by studying their landing site.
It was even less appealing in daylight than it had been the evening before as she'd helped Travis shove debris out the Reina's airlock. Under overcast leaden skies, a heavy rain mixed with ash and dust sleeted downwards, smearing grittily across her ship's external sensors. Frequent wind gusts rattled the debris around them, flinging it against the ship's frame before hurling it towards the unwelcoming horizon. She shivered in sympathy. If Travis had been working out in that all morning, he was probably on the verge of hypothermia. She'd better try to fix something hot for him to drink when he got back.
<Why?> she wondered even as she began tinkering with the food dispensers.<What do I care if he freezes his hard-assed attitude off?> Her common sense responded pragmatically. <Because if he's half-dead with the cold, he can't help you install his computers and you'll be stranded on this frozen hellhole that much longer!> "That should do it" she muttered to herself as she managed to crosswire the batteries to the food dispensers well enough to deliver a hot cup of coffee.
A short time later, she heard a loud clang just inside the airlock as Travis deposited his booty on the deck and then stumbled inside, away from the bone-chilling cold. He staggered onto the flight deck, his dark hair lank and wet across his forehead, blowing on his right hand trying to restore some feeling to his numbed fingers. Jenna held out the steaming coffee she'd just drawn and for a long moment, Travis stared at her blindly, uncomprehending. Realizing he was too numbed by cold and exhaustion to react, she pressed the cup into his hand and steadied it as he raised it shaking to his lips.
She remarked brusquely to hide her concern, "It's dispenser coffee--tastes like an old boot, but at least it's hot."
His teeth chattered against the cup as he gulped the scalding liquid. Gradually it began to thaw the chill that had settled into his bones and he rested it against his face, attempting to ease the icy talons of pain raking across the old scars left by Blake's laser. "Thanks." His voice was graveled and harsh, then its acid, mocking tone returned. "Black and bitter as Servalan's heart." He took a slower sip of the heated brew. "But not much hotter than her..." He glanced at Jenna obliquely, letting his obviously crude comparison go unspoken.
"Kindness to your enemies, Stannis? Blake's idealism must have gotten a deeper hold on you than you thought."
"Idealism be damned," she turned uncomfortably away, staring at her stripped-down console."We need those computers installed if we're going to get off this planet and it will take two of us to do the job right."
She limped down the companionway to the jumble of hardware and components he'd dropped just inside the airlock and began carrying random pieces back to the flight deck. "So...do we have enough parts here to cobble together a working system?"
"Maybe," he answered shortly, putting his cup aside. "It depends on how compatible they are with what you've got."
Painstaking hours later, Travis unfolded his stiff, aching muscles from under the half-rebuilt pilot's console, swearing sulfurously, heedless of any regard for Jenna's "delicate sensibilities" he might have shown earlier.
"...frigging power feeds...and butt-brained design experts..." He glared at Jenna who had been handing tools in while he soldered and rewired the two mismated systems. Wiping his sweaty forehead, he spat out, "My computer can handle the Reina's controls despite the information feed differences but the power input system is totally incompatible."
Jenna pushed her head and shoulders into the cramped space he'd just vacated, making a brief survey of the two systems. Ducking out again, she proposed, "What if we bypass the safety interlocks and do a direct connection into the drive core itself?"
Travis's eye widened in disbelief and Jenna noted with amusement that she'd actually managed to shock the hardened Federation officer. Irritated at her amusement, he studied her sharply before replying in a dead flat tone, "And the first programming flaw will detonate this ship in the biggest ball of fire since the last supernova in this sector."
"Not if we slave the failsafes to the main console. That will give us enough warning to shut down the power manually if necessary. It should work. Avon used a similar bypass when Zen was offline once." Her lips thinned in painful recall. "When Gan's limiter malfunctioned."
The memory of Gan's death at Travis's hands, though not intentionally, dropped a sudden silence between them like a force wall. He slid out of her way so she could begin the delicate cross-circuiting. When the last of the dangerous, hair-trigger wiring was done, Jenna dragged her aching body out from under the controls and motioned for Travis to replace the access panel. Wincing as her injured leg protested the sudden movement after long hours of immobility, she exchanged a guarded glance with the ex-space commander.
"You want to get some sleep and take off in the morning?" she questioned uncertainly.
"Sleep--atop this primed plasma bolt?" He shook his head in disbelief. "I'd sooner cuddle up with a strontium grenade. If it's going to blow us into radioactive dust particles, we might as well get it over with."
Jenna nodded wearily as she massaged her tense, aching shoulders. "All right...can you handle the takeoff? My hands are numb from the rewiring."
Travis nodded grimly, taking the helm and running through the preflight check-offs. Seated at the engineering station, Jenna suddenly realized that Travis's limited vision field and nonfunctioning cybernetic arm were making him work twice as hard to maintain the delicate balance between the mismatched systems. She started to push out of her seat and take over the controls when he shot a dark resentful glare in her direction, "I don't need your pity, Stannis! Any time you think I can't do the job, you're free to shove me out the nearest airlock!"
Jenna returned to her station, grimly working on the course calculations Travis would need once they got out of the planet's atmosphere. . .if they got out of the planet's atmosphere. But she watched out of the corner of her eye, observing Travis's ease with the controls, despite his physical limitations. He caressed the board like a lover, piloting the ship like it was an extension of his body, on an almost instinctive level. . . as natural as breathing. Despite her misgivings, Jenna found herself relying on him in a way that she had not permitted herself for a very long time.
While Travis was nursing the engines up to full power, she monitored the engineering board, making the constant essential adjustments of the drive core and its regulator. Attuned to the ship during this final, critical sequence, their communication lapsed into the nonverbal cues of long-time partners -- glances, gestures, and monosyllables.
The bone-deep vibration of the laboring engines changed harmonics into a full-throated roar as the Reina hurled herself skyward; out of the chill grey mists of the world that had nearly been their tomb and into diamond-studded darkness ...and an uncertain future.
Giving a sigh of relief as they reached escape velocity, Travis turned to Jenna for her navigational coordinates. Their eyes met and, like the shattering of brittle glass, the intense mental linkage required for the take-off abruptly dissolved, leaving them strangers; one-time foes forced to cooperate for the sake of survival. Jenna flushed as she recalled her easy acceptance of Travis's skill in handling her ship. It was a dangerous lapse of judgement. . .and one that just might get her killed. Hurriedly, she programed in the necessary coordinates then made a lame excuse and fled the flight deck for the safety of her quarters. . .and the blaster concealed in a secret cubbyhole.
After setting their course for the Rim Worlds, the two reluctant allies established their deep-space watch and maintenance schedule, avoiding personal contact as much as possible. It wasn't just mistrust that fueled Jenna's desire keep her distance, but a growing awareness of Travis as human and no longer a faceless, implacable foe. But the close quarters of the blockade runner resulted in the walls between them crumbling more each day.
Jenna's past bitter experiences with the casual brutality of Federation border patrols made her especially leery of this close confinement She expected Travis's long-nursed enmity towards Blake to manifest itself constantly in bitter invective or lewd jibes that would make the next two weeks unpleasant, if not actually threatening. Much to her surprise, Travis seemed uninterested in either physical intimidation or verbal harassment when they were together.
That was not to say that Travis treated her with the same benign indifference that Blake had. Instead there was a tightly drawn tension between them. A raw sexual awareness he kept under very tight restraint, though sometimes his intent regard made Jenna's skin crawl, like being in the sights of a lethal weapon on a hair-trigger. She was accustomed to being ogled by males from space tramps to Amagon harem masters ever since she'd had breasts. But Travis's gaze went beyond her physical attributes, to reach something deep inside her. Something that yearned for the touch of a kindred spirit. Somehow, in Travis's brooding gaze, Jenna glimpsed the man he might have been before he became a weapon of Servalan's forging. Flushing, she shuddered in alarm, attempting to throttle down those dangerous, traitorous thoughts.
They had been on course to Jade for almost a week, deliberately avoiding each other, except when they were both required on the flight deck. Despite the physical awkwardness caused by his nonfunctioning cybernetic arm and the forced intimacy of a single head, Travis was quick and quiet in his morning routines. He usually shaved and showered very early then worked on their cobbled together control system while she cleaned up. After finishing whatever adjustments or repairs were needed that shift, he would keep to himself.
Late one night shift, she spied him engaged in a series of martial exercises that seemed designed to maintain speed and flexibility. The savagery and speed of his movements left her wondering if she had any hope of reaching a blaster, if he actually did decide to kill her and take the ship.
Given those newborn qualms, Jenna was determined to find out how psychotically dangerous he still was. Late in the second watch, she finished logging her navigation coordinates while Travis tried to coax their Cochrane coil out of a potentially troublesome oscillation.
Staring at his absorbed concentration for a moment, she remarked nonchalantly, "I have to admit you've surprised me while we've been stuck here together."
"Hmmmm?" There was a rising note to his neutral response, although his attention was still mostly focused on his task.
"You don't live up to your reputation... and behave like the typical Federation bully -- or Servalan's bloodhound." Jenna was not quite as acidly sarcastic as Avon would have been There was genuine curiosity under her caustic observations."You're considerate, not nearly as abrasive or abusive as I expected. Where did you learn such self-restraint?"
He put aside the coil and gave her a cold, remote glare before he answered in a an emotionless tone. "The hard way, Stannis. As an Outer World conscript on a stinking, overcrowded Federation troop carrier. Irritating quirks, ill-temper, or just plain bad manners got your throat cut faster than falling asleep on duty. I survived."
Jenna watched him intently, like a cat at a mouse hole. "Outer World conscript to Space Commander. You must have had friends in high places, since you're hardly pretty enough to have slept your way to power. "
Something in her voice flicked a raw spot and he muttered sullenly,"Don't underestimate my charms." He resumed his painstaking adjustment, then glanced over at her. "You don't believe I made it on skill alone?"
Jenna flushed, momentarily embarrassed as she recalled his adept piloting against the pursuit squadron, his survival skills on the planet they'd just left, and his determined perseverance in getting the ship spaceworthy in an amazingly short time.
Licking her lips nervously, she blurted, "Well...even Blake admitted you were a brilliant tactician. But Space Command these days is run by politicians and bureaucrats, with rank bought and sold like a cheap whore. Judging from what I've seen, actual competence is a distinct liability."
His fist clenched hard, then he gave a choked off laugh."Based on what, smuggler? Your own experience...or Blake's anti-Federation anarchist credo."
Bridling at her skeptical look, he continued bitterly, "I don't know why I'm wasting my breath except maybe to save you from making a stupid assumption about Federation troopers and losing that pretty blonde head of yours." His fiery blue eye bored into hers with the intensity of a laser drill. "Listen and learn, Stannis. Ninety-nine of a hundred Space Command troopers and officers are educated, trained, or indoctrinated into being the meanest, toughest fighting force in this galaxy. They are the steel in the Federation's fist that enforces its `Rule of Law.' They keep anarchists and rebels, like Blake and his rabble under control."
Bleakly recalling his "trial", he admitted with pained reluctance, "Unfortunately, the upper echelons lately have been dominated by fools, hypocrites, and power-hungry incompetents, all dancing to Servalan's tune because of their ambition. But don't make the mistake of underrating Federation officers, especially out on the Rim. It's a sure-fire way to wind up dead."
After giving that harsh warning, he replaced the coil and slammed the panel shut with an angry finality. Jenna stared at his tall, broad-shouldered figure as he stalked off the flight deck, finding herself with more questions than answers and wondering how his divided loyalties might affect her future survival. Would his obvious loathing for Servalan overcome any sense of obligation toward onetime comrades-in-arms, if they encountered Federation patrols? Would Space Command ignore Travis's outlaw status or would they hunt him down because he had deserted and gone rogue? It raised disturbing questions.
As if she didn't have enough problems. As they neared the Outer Worlds, Jenna found herself haunted by painful memories of Blake and the Liberator. Despite her disillusionment with his hopeless idealism, she still missed his physical presence; his sturdy reliability in a crisis and the trust he gave so generously, even where it wasn't wanted.
She shook her head in angry frustration as she brooded.
You courted Avon's favor more than you did mine because you wanted his support for your cause! Even Cally had more of your trust, your confidence than I did! Did you think I'd wait forever, content with the scraps of affection that you tossed my way, whenever you could spare the time. . .or effort? Her fists clenched in outrage. That frustration killed anything I might have felt for you. Not even my joy in piloting the Liberator could fill the void. The cost was simply too high. That's why I had to leave, go back to free trading. Whatever it took to regain my self-respect and forget about you and your damned cause. Now, if I can just manage make a new start and rebuild my own life.
She massaged her forehead trying to banish those tormenting thoughts but it was night watch and she was alone on the flight deck with all the painful ghosts from her past. For the first time in many years, she thought of her mother and father. Their violent deaths at the hands of the Federation. Her uncle's refusal to acknowledge her claim on her father's trading ships. Her frustrated anger at the Free Traders' Enclave's outmoded and restrictive rules about inheritance and family "duties". She clenched her teeth determined to banish those galling memories as she'd earlier banished those of Blake. That life was gone, forever behind her. She was as much of an outcast from the past as Travis was.
Pushing away from the pilot's console, she paced restlessly down the full length of the tiny flight deck and then back to the jerry-rigged controls that she and Travis had built together and that he alternately cursed and coddled on a daily basis. She could do much worse than try to convince him to stay on as part of the Reina's crew.
He was a good instinctive pilot and a competent engineering officer, although he had little patience with the finer intricacies of navigational plotting. But it was his skill with weapons, both personal and ship's that weighed heaviest in her decision. Free trading without the Enclave's sanction was a risky proposition. It meant unlicenced consignments, unregulated ports, and freelance crews who were often half-psychotic from illicit drugs, or were would-be rapists or hijackers. Irritating as Travis might be, he was a paragon of virtue compare to some of the crews she'd dealt with in the past. Besides as far away from the Federation as she intended to stay, neither current enmities nor old loyalties should have much hold on him.
Considering his current behavior, unless he acquires some nasty vice while we're down on Jade, he'll probably be the least dangerous member of any crew I sign on. she thought ruefully. At least as far as my safety is concerned. Well I might as well ask him tomorrow if he'll consider it.
Early on first watch, she found him rummaging through the storage cabinets in a methodical fashion. She watched curiously for a moment then ventured, "If you'll tell me what you're looking for..."
"Camouflage. Whether I take a job on a neutral planet or head further out on the Rim, the Federation uniform is a drawback." he remarked, holding up a pair of brown trousers with a somewhat critical glare.
"The patch and cybernetic arm..." She shrugged. "Even without the uniform, your reputation will have preceded you."
Travis added a few other items of nondescript clothing to his pile before he replied. "Like I said before. Sometimes a bad reputation is an asset."
"If all you want is to hire on as a `fast gun.'" Jenna continued pragmatically. "Even with your `reputation', you might find some top mercenary leaders and warlords reluctant to recruit a one-armed, half-blind gunman."
"Any suggestions?" he countered sarcastically, starting to pick up his clothing and leave.
"Suppose I offered you a job?"
"Piloting, maintenance, general crew. . .like you've been doing for the past two weeks. Plus, you would be may `hired muscle' whenever the need arose." Jenna made her offer with a bland indifference, hoping he wouldn't suspect her of ulterior motives.
He gave a sharp shake of his head. "It wouldn't work. My reputation would bring you more trouble than it would scare off. Besides, what would your rebel friends think?" His mocking smile was a red flag to her temper.
"I told you, Travis. I'm finished with Blake and his cause. I don't have any rebel friends, not any more...only customers," she flared in reply.
"So what's your deal, smuggler?" The mocking smile was gone, replaced by a cool, calculating expression.
"A share of the profits," she offered.
"Which means a share of the risks and a profitless run means I'd take a loss as well." He rubbed his inert cybernetic arm with a kind of abstracted restlessness. "Sorry, Jenna but I've got big potential expenses and it has to be cash at the bottom line."
She nodded her head curtly, accepting his refusal in good grace. But deep inside, despite her initial anxiety and apprehension at his presence, she felt an odd sense of loss that he'd be leaving at Jade and they'd likely never cross paths again.
On the flight deck of the Liberator, Roj Blake continued his ongoing argument with Avon. "Look, Provine told us just before he died that Central Control was located at Star One and that a cybersurgeon named Docholli knows where to find it. All we have to do is find Docholli and we have the location of Star One."
"Central Control! Star One! It's just more of that same dangerous delusion. And what do you expect to gain by its destruction?" Avon's acid tones seemed to etch new lines of pain into Blake's face as he turned away and flung himself on the couch.
"Peace," he whispered with a desperate intensity, gazing up into the computer expert's cold expression. "Peace for my murdered past, for Kasabi's ghost. . .and Gan's."
"Peace! In the middle of your blood-splattered revolution, you think you can put their ghosts to rest by dragging the rest of your unwilling followers to their deaths?" Avon's dark eyes blazed with scorn and a growing uncertainty.
"I don't want to be the cause of any more death," Blake responded quietly. "But I can't let this go, Avon. It's the only thing that will give their deaths meaning. It may be our last chance to cripple the Federation, breaking its hold over its subject worlds, and we can't ignore it. We must find Star One and destroy it."
"Perhaps you must," Avon bit off in a tight angry voice, "but don't count me as part of your bloody, self-righteous crusade." He stalked out, leaving Blake still brooding darkly.
His arguments with Avon had grown increasingly vitriolic over the past few weeks. He wasn't sure the tech's unsettled mood was in reaction to Tarrant's youthful enthusiasms or his own growing obsession with Star One. Whatever the reason, he knew their conflict would have to be resolved soon before they savaged one another beyond any hope of reconciliation.
Cally came onto the flight deck, sensing the residue of anger and frustration lingering in the air like a foul odor.
"You and Avon have been quarreling again?"
"About Star One," the rebel leader admitted. "Avon is still trying to avoid the issue about our actions once it is located."
"I think he fears the possible consequences of those actions more than anything." The Auron showed her usual insight into others' doubts and uncertainties.
"What possible consequences could there be. . .except destruction of the tyranny that the Federation holds over its member planets." Blake seethed in a sudden righteous ferocity.
"What if such destruction caused widespread misery and suffering?" Cally questioned, her face pensive as she pursued the thorny ethics of the matter.
"Could it be any worse than the overwhelming misery and suffering the people already endure at Federation hands?" he countered bleakly.
"Two wrongs do not make a right, Blake" Cally's response was unusually tart.
"Another Auron saying?" he teased her, subsiding back on the couch.
"A human one, I'm told. But it's one that we might profit from studying a little more thoroughly," she mused.
Making the rounds of the bars and gin joints on Thieves' Street just beyond the refit docks on Jade had been a disappointment for Jenna so far. Every potential navigator or engineer she'd bought drinks for either already had a long-term contract or was half-stoned on nova, the newest Terra Nostra euphoric. And the weapons' specialists were even worse; most of them hollow-eyed and unshaven with a feral psychotic look that unsettled her nerves, even after living with Travis's tightly reined air of menace for the past two weeks. His grim presence beside her warned off troublemakers, like wild dogs shying away from a wolf. But an undercurrent of uneasiness followed in their wake. . .a whisper of recognition that filled the air like the build-up of a static charge before a thunderstorm.
When the storm finally broke, Jenna was caught by surprise. Engrossed in conversation with saloon owner as she negotiated a "finder's fee" to steer any likely crew members her way, she was oblivious to the sullen mutterings of the crowd around them, until a blaster-scarred mountain of a man shoved Travis against the bar with a snarl of recognition.
"You Federation bastard! You're the scum that ordered the massacre on Zircaster. . .wiped out my whole family! I swore I'd kill you if I ever got the chance!"
Travis gazed up at his burly challenger, his face gone stark and empty. Jenna hissed at him, "Don't be a fool..." but he ignored her warning, stepping away from the bar, his right arm poised above his holstered blaster.
The larger man's friends were also trying to prevent his foolhardy action. "Don't give him an excuse, Ran! His left arm is a laser pistol! He can fry you `fore you even get your gun out," cautioned a smaller ferret-faced man.
Ran shook off his friends' restraining hands, then unfastened his own belted weapon and let it drop. "Then I guess we'll just have to settle this barehanded." He sketched a vicious gap-toothed grin. "Don't try any of your slimy Federation tricks either `cause if you shoot me down unarmed, they'll rip you to bloody pieces `fore my body's cold." He shrugged at the crowd behind him, seething angrily but willing to let Ran mete out their retribution, for the moment at least.
Travis said nothing, simply letting his holstered weapon drop and stepping away from the bar. With a bull-like roar, the larger man charged, attempting to use his greater weight to pin his foe and crush his ribs. Cat quick, Travis evaded that lunge, tripping Ran as he rushed past and smashing a hard, one-armed blow to the back of his neck as he fell. But Ran's neck was too well muscled for Travis's blow to snap the cervical spine as he'd intended. Momentarily dazed, he shook off its effects, then scrambled to his feet, swinging his ham-sized fist with enough force to knock the soldier's head off his shoulders if the blow had connected. But Travis ducked that telegraphed roundhouse punch easily before burying his fist in his opponent's solar plexus with the full force of his weight behind it. Left momentarily breathless by a blow that would have floored a lesser man, Ran quickly shook off the effects before retaliating with a low leg sweep that knocked Travis to the floor then dived on top in a rolling, pummeling fury.
Jenna watched the brawl with a mixture of amusement and distaste until she realized that the crowd's mood was turning ugly as it became evident the scuffle wasn't going to be as one-sided as they had hoped. Despite the fact his opponent towered over him and outweighed him by at least 25 kilos, Travis's superior skill made the match nearly even. Threats from the sidelines were growing louder and bloodier about disposing of Travis if Ran failed to finish him off.
"Shoot `im and throw the body in the street to rot!"
"Nah, that's too quick. Gut him and see how long it takes him to die."
"I say just string him up and be done with it!"
The crowd surged forward, closing around the two men, feeding off their frenzy. Waiting for the opportunity to separate them and deal with Travis on their own.
Stepping away from the bar, Jenna pulled out her blaster, set it on wide dispersal and aimed it at the ringleaders. In her coldest, most deadly voice, she threatened, "Anyone who butts into that fight had better be willing to back his words with firepower. It started between the two of them and that's the way I intend for it to finish."
"Are you crazy?" the ferret-faced man demanded. "That's Travis, Servalan's pet killer!"
"Not any more," Jenna contradicted. "He's working for me now and if you have any complaints about the way he does his job, I'll deal with them." The blaster's wide-angle field and the deadly gleam in Jenna's eye quelled most of the crowd's thirst for vengeance and, except a few diehards determined to see how the battle ended, they drifted back to their drinks and conversations.
Travis was still fighting for his life against his bearlike opponent. Despite his speed and superior training, the dead weight of the damaged cybernetic arm was becoming more and more of a liability. It halved the strength of many of his counterblows and was gradually draining his stamina and endurance. Finally, with a desperate ferocity, he rolled to his feet while Ran was still gasping in pain from a knee to the groin. Driving his elbow into the other man's jaw, Travis hammered the back of his head until Ran went down for the count.
Breathing in deep ragged gulps as blood streamed from his battered nose and mouth, Travis wavered over his unconscious foe, gritting out, "Anyone else with a grudge against the Federation they want to take out on me?"
There was an uneasy muttering, then a scar-faced man spat contemptuously at Jenna's feet. "Take your man and get out, smuggler! And don't come back! We may be the dregs of the galaxy, but we got some standards!"
Jenna motioned Travis out of the bar and sidled along behind him, her blaster still covering the mob. Once they had retreated to the dark end of Thieves Street where it crossed Leeches Lane, Travis spat out a mouthful of blood and then winced as he probed a particularly sore spot on his jaw. Giving Jenna an oblique look, he questioned, "Your man, Stannis?"
"Seemed like the best way to keep that mob off your neck." She holstered her blaster and then turned to glance down the street for other dives were she might recruit possible crew members. With an exasperated shake of her head as she realized the one they had just left was the last one open at this end of the docks, she ground out. "Right now, you seem to be the only crew available, judging from the quality of space debris currently groundside. Damn!" she swore. "If only Avon's autopilot hadn't been blown to slag, I could at least limp to another planet. Now, it looks like I'm stuck on this misbegotten dustball until another ship grounds whose crew I can try to lure away, or else some of the nova addicts bottom out."
Travis glared at her but refrained from commenting on the dangers of hiring a drug-crashed crew. Jenna knew the hazards as well as he did but had few other options. He had none at all. There were no recent territorial disputes or border skirmishes which meant local mercenary captains weren't eager to fill their rosters. Without someone to cover his back, he was an easy target for crimos and bounty hunters or anyone else who might want him dead for "old times' sake".
There was a uneasy silence as they headed back to the lodgings at the edge of the refit yards where Jenna had taken a room. Finally Travis stated flatly, "No one's hiring fast guns or any other kind of muscle on Jade right now. And waiting around the port seems an unhealthy option, considering the reception I just encountered." Jenna almost grinned at the dry understated note in his voice. "You still want to hire me on? Or now that you've seen the trouble I'm likely to attract, you want to reconsider that offer?"
Jenna stared at him for a long, thoughtful moment and then, grabbing hold of his useless cybernetic arm, started determinedly down Leeches Lane with him reluctantly in tow.
"Where the hell are you going, Stannis? You want a contract signed in blood?"
"No, but if it's just going to be us crewing the Reina, you'll need two good arms to do your share of the work." She was peering at the signs and numbers as though she had a specific goal in mind.
"I don't take charity, Stannis. Besides," he gestured in grim disgust at the narrow alley lined with dingy cubbyholes and stalls whose garish signs proclaimed the efficacy of their various panaceas, aphrodisiacs, love potions, and youth serums. "I don't think you're going to find a skilled cybersurgeon among these charlatans and snake oil peddlers."
"No?" she glanced up a dark, narrow stairwell leading to an aerie of an office that overhung the winding lane. Stenciled on the grimy wall in almost invisible blue-black ink was the legend, "G. Docholli. Bionics, cybernetics, and neural implants."
"You didn't just find this place," he accused with an undertone of suspicion..
"I made some general inquiries while I was spreading my credits around, attempting to flush out a crew." Jenna's expression was enigmatic as she gazed back at him. "I thought it might be a useful bit of information."
His grip on her arm was painful. "To bribe me to sign on with you?"
She jerked away. "Not really. I simply planned to pass it on to you before I left. Sort of a bonus, for services rendered...whenever you could afford his price."
"I doubt he comes cheap," the officer remarked with less rancor. "He was one of the Federation's best before he dropped out of sight. There was never any official explanation...though rumor had it he'd developed an acute attack of politics."
"Rebel sympathies?" Jenna inquired as they climbed slowly up the steep narrow stairs.
"Worse. A conscience." Travis's deep voice held a strange, thoughtful note as he reached for the door. "No office hours listed." He turned toward Jenna on the tiny landing. "I mean it, Stannis. I'll pay for any work that has to be done."
"Damn straight," she grinned from the shadows. "You don't draw wages until any repairs are off the books. If Docholli's fees match his reputation, you may be crewing for me until I retire, rich and famous."
Ignoring the black look he threw in her direction, Jenna pushed into the tiny, sparely furnished office, occupied by a snowy-bearded man whose feet were propped on an antique wooden desk. Despite that indolent pose, his expression was haunted, with watery blue eyes that seemed to look right through them.
"Docholli?" Jenna hazarded. "You open for business?"
Dropping his feet to the floor, the man ventured a shaky laugh. "Sure, why the hell not? Day or night, it's all the same to me. The voices are still there, crying in the darkness, as we robbed them of their memories, their minds, their souls..."
Jenna balked, peering dubiously around for drug vials or a stash of empty bottles. She hadn't saved Travis from an angry mob just to turn him over to some half-stoned cybersurgeon.
Noticing that mistrustful look, Docholli sighed, holding out his hands, which were rock-steady, before getting down to business. "Excuse my maundering but it does get lonely with no one to talk to but ghosts. Now, how can I be of service?"
Jenna gestured Travis out of the shadows. "Damage to his bionic arm. Had to short out the main power system to prevent the feedback from giving. . .my partner. . . a fatal shock. Can you repair it?"
Docholli snorted indignantly before climbing to his feet. Lifting the inert limb in his hand, he flexed and extended its joints, as Travis watched stolidly. Abruptly, the surgeon ordered, "Roll up your sleeve, Commander. I need to see how much of the main circuitry is damaged."
Jenna froze at that reference to Travis's rank, then placed a hand on her blaster, "You recognize him?"
"I was one of the Federation's top cybersurgeons," he replied in weary resignation, opening one of the panels on the arm. "How could I fail to recognize one of the Supreme Commander's elite guards, even this far out on the Rim."
"Not any more," Travis growled."I'm on her `elite' wanted list instead."
"I'm not surprised." The cybersurgeon picked up a small laser probe and began to test various linkages inside the arm. "That woman uses and discards people faster than a two credit whore goes through condoms. It's amazing you lasted as long as you did." He arched a curious brow at the former officer. "Was it her methods or her politics that finally brought you down?"
Travis shrugged with amused bitterness. "Blake's group broke into Central Control and escaped. Someone had to take the blame. Although the actual court martial charges were a sop to the bleeding hearts on the Council,"
"Central Control!" Docholli's face was filled with a strange mixture of guilt and loathing. "How ironic, Commander. Both of us victims of the same monumental lie." His voice momentarily dropped into its earlier remorseful tones. "Central Control...Star One...all those lives wasted for the sake of political expedience."
Travis gave Docholli a dark penetrating glare that abruptly silenced him. Still, Jenna did not miss the implication that Travis was privy to certain secrets about the Federation and Space Command that he did not intend to violate. Despite his disaffection with Servalan, he was still bound by some higher sense of duty.
She glanced around uneasily, then turned her attention back to the surgeon. "If you're through exchanging old gossip, can we get on with this?" she drawled sarcastically, trying to conceal her misgivings."I've already paid for a room and I'd like to grab a little sack time before daybreak."
Docholli tossed the probe aside. "This isn't doing any good. Looks like I'll have to go inside the shoulder and that requires a sterile field." He led them back to a tiny but scrupulously clean surgery adjoining his office. As Travis shrugged off his torn, bloody shirt, Jenna winced in sympathy at the contusions rapidly darkening down his ribs and across his back from the earlier battle. Oblivious to the battered human flesh, Docholli hummed tunelessly through his teeth as he inspected the cybernetic damage.
"You managed to blow out the whole bioelectronic system when you shorted the trunk line. All the neural connections are going to have to be checked for damage. Since I have to disconnect the shoulder anyway, why don't you just let me replace the whole arm? It will be quicker that way, plus the model I have is lighter and stronger. . .much more lifelike."
Pausing in his inspection of the circuitry, Docholli scrutinized Travis's face, reaching for the black plastic patch that concealed the empty socket and scarred flesh where his eye had once been. Travis jerked away then reluctantly allowed the surgeon to examine the old wound site. "As long as you're here I could even put in a bionic eye and repair some of that scar tissue. Make you a hell of a lot harder to recognize . . . by old `friends' and enemies alike."
Jenna pressed her lips tightly together, considering the cost versus the benefits of Travis being less conspicuous. Did she really expect he'd stay around long enough to justify such a major drain on her resources? Especially if she recruited a more reliable crew at their next planetfall or Travis sold his lethal skills to the highest bidder. Of course, she could demand reimbursement before allowing him to leave.
Before she could decide, Travis gritted out a harsh, "No!"
Jenna moved closer while Docholli withdrew, "Why not? Keeping a low profile for the next few months would be in our best interest . . ."
"It won't have the built-in weaponry," he argued.
"Without the trigger circuit, the laser is just dead weight. And there's damn little chance of us finding a well stocked weapons' lab where we could get a replacement anytime soon."
"I told you, Stannis. I don't take charity. I can work off a repair job with a month's wages. But the replacement arm. . .and the rest of it. . . . How long would it take me to pay off accounts then? A year? Two?" His face went cold and remote. "You'd own me, Stannis, and I never cared much for slavery."
Jenna turned away, her fists clenched, furious at his stubbornness. After taking a moment to breathe deeply, she saw the logic behind his refusal. His recovery period would cost time they couldn't afford, not as a shoestring outfit just starting out. Not only that, his adjustment to the bionic eye might take months, making his weaponry skills and piloting, her chief reasons for hiring him, useless. He'd be dead weight, like that laser weapon of his. He was right enough about that, dammit, even though Docholli's suggestion was tempting for her own peace of mind, to avoid any repetition of tonight's clash.
But that replacement arm Docholli suggested. . . .
Jenna gazed at Travis's damaged prosthesis, lying on the table. It was heavy-duty, utilitarian, obviously mechanical; a constant reminder that he was no longer whole. Its laser further robbed him of his humanity, making him little more than a weapon at Servalan's disposal. Jenna wanted to correct that dehumanizing situation right now, but without wounding his pride so much he would be of no further use to her.
Her face was composed as she turned back to confront him.
"All right, we'll forget about the bionic eye but you're going to let Docholli attach the new arm rather than just repair the old one." she ordered."You heard what he said. It will be quicker. Besides I don't trust cybernetic rebuilds. If the system goes bad, it might not just kill you but endanger the Reina as well." She was cool and reserved. "I don't consider it charity, Travis, simply insurance for the safety of my ship...and myself."
His answer was equally cold and remote. "It's your ship. You're giving the orders...for now."
She glanced over to Docholli, observing the whole scene with a bemused smile, and pulled out a small pouch filled with silver coins. "This should cover your fee..."
Docholli's face went bleak, his words as bitter as a winter wind. "I'm doing this to repay a debt...to the Federation." But as Jenna started to return the pouch inside her jacket, he held out his hand, "However, I need replacements for my inventory and medical supplies."
Jenna nodded as she poured half the contents of the purse onto his desk. "And to forget?"
Docholli stared at the coins disconsolately for a moment before opening a drawer and sweeping them inside, whispering,
"Forget? Oh no, there's already too much that's forgotten in my past. One day I'll buy back those memories."
Abruptly all business again, Docholli informed her. "I should have the hook-up finished in about four hours. Go get some sleep if you want and then come back for him."
Jenna eyed the surgeon dubiously, "I'd rather stay here, if you don't mind? Just to make sure you take good care of my... partner." There was a tiny hesitation just before that brisk declaration. "After all, I want to make sure I get what I've paid for."
Shrugging as he began to lay out his instruments, Docholli suggested, "Why not? If you can avoid the heavy-handed tactics you used to disable the system, I can use your help. Finish the job in half the time." Jenna watched curiously, recognizing the same sort of laser probes and circuit testers that Avon used while working with the Liberator's computers.
Turning his attention back to Travis, who appeared pale and drawn in the harsh UV light that was sterilizing the instruments and work area, the surgeon inquired, "There shouldn't be too much discomfort but it will be tedious procedure requiring you remain still. You want something to let you sleep?"
"I'd rather keep an eye on things, too, since I'm going to have to live with your handiwork." It wasn't paranoia in his voice, only a justifiable caution.
"Suit yourself," Docholli muttered then started to work. Over the next half hour, he dismantled the sensory motor connections linking the bionics to the reconstructed remnant of Travis's shoulder. The area was ridged and seamed with adhesions and scar tissue but Travis didn't flinch at the surgeon's handiwork. Docholli operated with the impersonal detachment of a man replacing a burned-out circuit board until the old shoulder fitting was removed and he encountered two unpleasant but not totally unexpected surprises.
"Well, well," he commented neutrally as he removed a tiny strontium-powered micropulse transmitter from Travis's shoulder. "A homing device, Space Commander. It seems Servalan didn't let her `bloodhound' out on such a long leash after all."
Jenna glared at the device, suspecting another one of Travis's schemes until she saw the icy rage contorting his features.
He rolled onto his side, trying to get a closer glimpse of the device. "Damn that calculating bitch," he swore softly. "I was under her control constantly...from the very beginning."
"I don't think that's the worst of it," Docholli muttered peevishly, pushing his patient flat once again. "Stannis, move that surgical microscope over here and turn up the UV. I'm going to have to probe to extract this next little bit of nastiness. You want something for the pain?"
"Just get on with it," Travis snarled.
For long painstaking minutes, the cybersurgeon dissected numerous, almost microscopic, filaments of a tiny venomous control device out of the ridged scar tissue along Travis's shoulder. Jenna read his agony in the sweat pouring down his face and the distended veins in his neck, but other than a single stifled groan, he remained silent.
With a grunt of disgust, Docholli finally extracted the blood-smeared device, pitching it into a basin where it glistened in dark malevolence.
"Another homing device?" Jenna questioned.
"Oh no, this is a real piece of work--a neural implant, related to the limiter but working in an opposite fashion. It sent out a low-level impulse to augment pain in the affected area. Not enough to cripple him...just keep him on edge, bring out the `killer instinct'. Undoubtedly, she used it in conjunction with her psychostrategists' manipulations to feed his irrational obsession with vengeance. Turned him into a loaded blaster, half-crazed to kill...and aimed at Blake."
Travis was nauseated and shivering, sucking in deep hungry gulps of air as his body reacted to the abrupt cessation of the constant pain. It hit him like a shot of whiskey on an empty stomach, leaving his head reeling at Docholli's explanation; that the agony he'd endured the past five years had been Servalan's doing. One of the ways she had used him; sharpening his rage against Blake and molding him into a weapon for her exclusive use.
hat remained of his left shoulder felt numb and he groped blindly where the plasteel coupling had been. Jenna quickly intercepted his hand. "Don't! It's raw and bleeding. Let Docholli get the tissue regenerator in there."
He stared at her dully for a moment before gasping in a tightly controlled mixture of fear and anger. "I don't feel anything, Stannis. He's burned out the nerves completely. . .left me a cripple! I won't be able to use the replacement at all!"
Docholli answered with flat contempt. "I'm not a Federation butcher, Travis. Not any more. The nerves are still functional. They just need time to adjust to sensory input other than pain."
Without further discussion, he excised the scar tissue that was the result of Servalan's neuronic amplifier and completed the shoulder and arm reattachment in less than an hour.
As soon as the operation was complete, Travis swung his legs to the floor. Although his knees nearly buckled, he shook off Jenna's support, holding on to the table with a white-knuckled grip while he flexed and tested his newly restored arm.
Jenna stood to one side watching Travis run through the arm's fine and gross motor control, while Docholli cleaned his instruments and inspected Servalan's "toys" for salvage possibilities.
Glancing at her obliquely, he gave a muted warning. "Don't expect him to change that much, even without Servalan's implant spurring his irrational hatred of Blake. That obsession with revenge filled his life. . .was his life for the past five years. It's like an addiction. . .more potent than nova, deadlier than shadow. He won't get it out of his system without some kind of withdrawal symptoms. Watch yourself."
"I always do," Jenna responded, noting warily the tightly controlled power and the emptiness that dwelt behind Travis's eye.
By the time they reached the inn at the refit docks, the brief surge of furious energy that had gotten Travis to his feet in Docholli's office had dissipated. Jenna had his arm across her shoulders as she guided his dragging steps up to her room, steering him over to its single narrow cot. He slumped there barely conscious, while she pulled off his boots before easing him down to its musty sheets.
Rousing briefly, he tried to push himself to a sitting position with a mumbled protest, "Your bed. . .paying the bill. . .I'll stand watch..."
"All right," she agreed, watching in amusement as he fell back to the pillow, asleep almost before the words were out of his mouth. After covering him with the threadbare blanket, she glanced around the room, debating whether she wanted to risk a permanently kinked neck sleeping in the room's only other piece of furniture, a straightback chair, or gamble the floor wouldn't be as cold and hard as she remembered. Well, she'd slept in worse spots, with nastier company. Propping the chair in the doorway to alert her to any unwelcome visitors, she curled up on the floor, with her jacket wrapped as snugly as possible to ward off the chill.
It was not yet dawn, judging by the ghostly light leaking through the tattered curtains, when Jenna was awakened, stiff and shivering with cold, by half-gasped, hoarsely bitten-off words. Pushing up on one arm, she glanced blearily at the cot, where Travis was thrashing in the grips of a nightmare. "Dar, get the recharger. . .braks stampeding through. . .thorn barricades won't last. . ."
Heedless of the risk, she staggered over to his side, trying to shake him gently awake. "It's all right. Wake up. It's just a dream."
He reacted violently, grabbing her shoulders in a bruising grip, before his eye opened and he realized where he was. Abruptly his grasp loosened as he took a deep shuddering breath then wiped his hands down his face trying to shake off the remnants of his nightmare.
"Jenna?" he mumbled. "But thought I was back on Metis III..."
"Fighting off braks with someone named Dar," she repeated his half-heard words. "One of your old battles?" she questioned idly, glancing away to give him a chance to regain his composure.
"Not exactly...Dar was my brother." A momentary anguish cracked his voice before he masked it with his usual sarcasm. "And braks - the dominant lifeform on Metis III -- were half a ton of fangs, claws, tusks, and evil disposition."
Jenna turned toward him, recalling a tiny scrap from the flood of planetary data that a smuggler/free trader learned as a matter of survival. "Metis III was one of the Federation's `lost colonies', wasn't it? Unpredictable weather, repeated crop failures, no other resources. Abandoned almost twenty years ago. . ." Her voice trailed off.
Travis's expression was remote, lightyears away, "Abandoned . Do you ever abandon the only home you've known?"
Jenna winced, his words evoking her own long-buried memories, drawing Travis's attention abruptly back to the present. He was chagrined to find himself occupying the room's single cot while Jenna's rumpled appearance indicated she had probably slept on the bare floor, if at all. As he started to swing his legs off the bed, she quickly forestalled him.
"There's no rush. It's barely dawn and the bars won't be open until noon."
"You're not still hunting for a crew?" he asked dubiously.
"No. We'll hit the higher class clubs this time...on the lookout for a seller/consigner with a cargo." She wrapped her arms around her waist, shaking with the chill. "Go back to sleep. You had a hard time of it last night."
"You paid for the bed," he pointed out.
She shook her head, still shivering. "Couldn't get to sleep anyway. Too cold and stiff."
Reaching up, he drew her gently beside him under the blanket. "Here, let me warm you for a bit." His usually harsh voice had softened until it was as smooth and mellow as fine whiskey.
Pulled against his hard-muscled body, Jenna felt herself warming quickly. Too quickly. His breath was soft against her hair and her heart pounded wildly as the heat radiating from him kindled an answering warmth deep inside her. Her hand brushed his cheek, feeling the dark stubble that shadowed it, then traced across the sweat beading his upper lip.
He murmured huskily, his voice deepened with desire. "Is that better?"
She pressed her mouth to his, feeling its grim outline soften at her touch. "Ahhh...but that was better still."
He laughed low in his throat, pulling her back into his embrace with relentless strength. "Then why are you still shivering? Is it cold. . .or fear?"
His body was drawn wire taut but the look in his eye was strangely vulnerable. If she lost her nerve, he wouldn't force the issue but the spark of trust between them would be extinguished as though it never existed. She buried her face against his chest, trying to hide the hesitation mingled with her desire. She could think of a dozen reasons not to surrender to this abrupt passion; the lethal power of his cyborg arm, his reputation for brutality, his uncertain mental state. But there was a deep, compelling strength in him that offered solace for her long loneliness.
Her hands wandered across his body in unmistakable invitation, "Why don't you come closer and find out?" Then shivered as his eager response pressed her back on the narrow cot.
Sex between them had the hard-driving violence that Jenna had expected from Travis, but there was an unanticipated, almost unnerving tenderness as well. He wasn't content just to gratify his own needs but brought her to a wild explosive climax with the skill and intensity of his caresses. She was caught in a maelstrom of desire, abandoning control as he explored her body with deft sensual touch, fevered devouring mouth, finally embracing her with a fierce power that took her to the edge of ecstasy and beyond.
Some immeasurable time later as she drowsed in a warm sense of satiated relaxation, Jenna sighed against Travis's shoulder, "So good between us," and fell asleep in his arms. Travis cradled her gently, remembering other lovers in the recent, and not so recent, past. The cold wanton depravity of Federation courtesans. Servlan's sexual command performances that she used to manipulate and humiliate him. In stark contrast, Jenna had been honest and generous in her passion, seeming to enjoy pleasuring him as much as having her own needs fulfilled. The episode was sexually satisfying, but rife with dangerous possibilities.
The physical side of the relationship didn't perturb him. Hell, either of them could have scratched that itch at any of a dozen places up and down Thieves' Street. But Jenna was getting too close; awakening emotions other than the obsession with vengeance that Servalan had coldly manipulated for years. Docholli's removal of the neural implant, that she had used to control him, abruptly exposed him to sensations long overridden by that loathsome device. It was an unsettling situation, to say the least.
He shook his head in mute denial even as his hands caressed Jenna's silken smoothness with a hunger he didn't dare admit. . . not even to himself.<Why had she come to his arms so readily now?> he wondered <Was it loneliness. . .pity. . .or simply making the best of a bad situation?> He'd already agreed to help fly the Reina until she found a crew, so sexual bribery seemed a bit pointless. Besides, that was more Servalan's style than Jenna's. Or was she looking for closeness that Blake hadn't given her? Did she really expect to find it in him?
He slid cautiously off the narrow bed, easing Jenna's sleeping body out of his embrace. Padding barefoot over to the room's minimal facilities, he drew a basin of tepid water to sponge the rank sweat from his body. As he rubbed his hands down his face, trying to knead away the tension left by those unresolved questions, he was startled at the wild sweet scent rising from his fingers. Her scent clinging to his skin as the memory of her passion threatened to haunt his dreams.
He plunged his hands into the basin, determined to scour those images from his mind as he scrubbed her fragrance from his body. <I don't need anyone. . .not anymore, nor ever again.>
He'd given Space Command his allegiance for more years than he cared to remember, never counting the cost to body or soul. Servalan's ambition had made him her tool; fueling his vendetta against Blake, at the cost of what little humanity Space Command had left him. Until her recent betrayal violated his tattered honor and he finally fled, determined to preserve the last scraps of his self-respect. But survival seemed meaningless now, with his oath of loyalty to the Federation forsworn and his obsession with Blake revealed as little more than strings pulled by Servalan's puppeteer.
He stared blindly at his dripping hands, feeling only frozen emptiness where the raging inferno of his hatred against Blake had once burned. A chill wind razored through the barren waste of his soul as he gazed at his tarnished reflection. He'd seen that same vacant look in other men's eyes as they tried to fill that void with drink, drugs or self-destructive behavior. Did Jenna offer him an escape from that desolation?
It was obvious from her defiance of the angry mob last night, then hunting up Docholli's address that she'd taken a proprietary interest in him. Was it purely pragmatic as she kept insisting, or was there something deeper there? Despite this morning's passionate interlude, he wasn't sure.
He dressed quickly, then gazed down at the pilot, still sound asleep on the cot, her face unusually open and vulnerable. With trembling fingers, her caressed the gold of her hair before turning abruptly away and striding over to the room's tiny window, where he peered out at the still deserted streets.<I can't let you close to me, Stannis. It's just too dangerous... for both of us.> By the time Jenna was awake and dressed, the dockside area was slightly busier. She washed her face and attempted to fluff out her hair as Travis sat in the chair, long legs propped on the cot. Frowning at her reflection in the scratched and faded mirror, she briefed him on their itinerary.
"...check on the progress of the repairs and see if the supplies are loaded yet."
"You want me to check out the quality of the goods?" he drawled with a hint of a lazy threat.
Jenna brushed back her hair impatiently. "I've dealt with Lovell before. He knows better than to try and short me. No, you and I will be cruising the local bistros, looking for someone with a cargo he's in a hurry to move."
Within the next twelve hours, they had lifted off with a shipment of proscribed electronics and hardware loaded aboard the Reina. It was a consignment for Horizon, a planet that Jenna had visited before when she was still Blake's pilot and Liberator's crew was instrumental in their secession from Federation control. The delivery would be especially hazardous for that reason. There was the possibility of a run-in with Federation forces sent to bring Ro back into line. And the current upheaval would unquestionably draw raiders, eager to take advantage of the breakdown of order to reap what profits they could by hijacking, kidnaping, and hit-and-run larceny.
She drummed her fingers on the controls in apprehension, also perturbed by Travis's reaction since they'd left Jade.
His edginess was justifiable under the circumstances but his sullen withdrawal after their physical intimacy on Jade, began to grate on her nerves. Aggravated by his stiff silence and monosyllabic responses to any attempt at casual, friendly conversation, she finally snapped at him.
"Why the big chip on your shoulder, Commander? Did I enjoy myself too much yesterday? Wasn't it enough like rape to suit your depraved Federation sensibilities?"
He turned a coldly furious eye on her. "Surprisingly, Stannis, I prefer paid sex to rape...at least when I'm able to find a hooker willing to service what Blake...and the Federation. . . left of me."
The coarseness of that reply was undermined by the odd vulnerability in his voice, abruptly chilling Jenna's anger. She noted his growing disillusionment with the Federation, although he still held Blake responsible for his injuries.
Docholli's warning about Travis's likely reaction came to mind as well. With the removal of the neural implant, he had lost the driving force in his life...his vendetta against Blake. Now he was probably being overwhelmed by other feelings long- buried under that single-minded obsession with revenge. Grief. Self-doubt. All the sadness and loss he must have felt at being maimed, half-blinded, and scarred.
Those normal reactions would have been useless to Servalan in her goal of forging him into a weapon, consumed by rage. But stripped of the armor of pain and fury that he'd worn for so long, Travis was probably overwhelmed by his own emotions and mistrustful of the motives behind her recent actions. No wonder he was shying away from her. Well, she'd just have to be patient and let him know she also was aware of the emotional pitfalls gaping at their feet.
She reached across the controls, placing her hand over his.
"I really don't think last night qualified as either."
He jerked angrily away from her touch. "I don't want your pity, Stannis. I don't need it. I pay my debts in cold, hard cash and not sexual favors. You hired a co-pilot and a bodyguard--strictly business. When the debt is repaid, I'm gone!"
All her good intentions went up in smoke with the flare of her own temper. "And good riddance!
Early the next morning although the emotional temperature on the flight deck remained chilly, they both were at the controls as they approached the outer edge of the Horizon system. Its debris belt offered the ideal spot for potential raiders to lay their ambushes. Travis spotted a suspicious pair on their screens; small, heavily armed, and skulking at edge of the Reina's detector field. He evaluated them with a professional eye, reporting, "Planet hoppers, usually carry a three-man crew, tops. Freebooters'll only have a single man piloting and using the targeting computer so there's a less of a split. Minimal shields and shoddy fire control. They're bluffing. The most they could do is shake us up."
"Call their bluff," Jenna bit off harshly.
Opening ship-to-ship communication, Travis gave a gravel-voiced warning, "Stop wasting your time on evasive tactics. We've got you on our screens, so either back off or take your best shot."
A sullen-faced punk sporting an Amagon headdress blustered at Travis with false bravado,"Just surrender your cargo. You're outnumbered and outgunned. You can't escape the two of us!"
"Escape?" Travis flashed a wolfish grin. "The day I can't send two jackals like you running with your tails between your legs is the day they bury me." Then he aimed the Reina at one of the ships as though intending to ram him. At his signal, Jenna fired a close bracketing series at the second would-be raider forcing him to veer off. Realizing they had bitten off more than they could chew, the two hoppers turned tail and limped back into the outer reaches of the Horizon system.
They made planetfall in the next six hours and after the usual formalities at Customs and Immigration delivered their cargo to Ro's agent. Jenna declined the new ruler's invitation to dinner and his offer of a regular cargo run under his aegis. The planet had too many painful memories for her--Gan, Blake, and a time when the almost unlimited speed and power of the Liberator had been hers to command. But she had made a small beginning towards rebuilding her life as a Free Trader and she saw no reason to cling to the past.
Despite her earlier pique, Jenna was still glad Travis was with her as they prowled the bars and pubs dockside at Horizon's spaceport to let off steam and try to drum up new business. Hopefully something a little less risky than proscribed technology. But with Travis's dark, menacing looks beside her, she recalled a little of the swaggering sense of brash assurance she'd felt on her first free trade run--before she encountered pirates, ion storms, border patrols and the other harrowing realities of a spacer's existence.
They pushed their way to the bar in "The Star and Comet," which was a little quieter than some of the joints closer to the docks. Jenna ordered a Yarollian brandy while Travis contented himself with a snarl at the bartender when he suggested segir whiskey, "I don't drink on duty. You got anything nonalcoholic on this planet that doesn't taste like sheep piss?"
The terrified bartender scurried to the far end of the bar to inventory his stock and Jenna took a hurried gulp of her drink to keep from laughing out loud. Travis was taking his chosen role as Federation thug turned renegade a little too seriously. She knew that a cultivated macho facade was as important to a hired bodyguard as his speed with a blaster, but she was going to have to warn him not to carry it to such extremes.
Suddenly her mind rang with a familiar telepathic "voice" broadcasting in such outraged fury, she feared that everyone in the bar must have heard it! But despite her alarm, no one else seemed to notice. Either she was sensitized to Cally's transmissions or everyone around her was psi null. As the target of that outrage, Travis was eyeing the Auronar guerilla with the taut unease of a man in the presence of a primed grenade, wondering exactly when it will explode. Although the bar patrons around them seemed oblivious to the tense drama unfolding, Jenna was certain their momentary inattention would not last long. Fearing another incident like the one on Jade, she had to separate the two antagonists before violence erupted.
Cally did not react to Jenna's presence, being too intent on her own vengeance. <Federation animal!> her mental voice spat.<At last I find you alone without your mutoid guards. Now I will collect in full for the pain you inflicted on Avalon and Gan and me!!> She tensed like a cobra prepared to strike.
Despite his wariness, Travis had not moved away from the bar in answer to her challenge. Instead, he turned toward Jenna, his face white as chalk; a terrible mixture of anger and betrayal racing across it, before he blanked those emotions, standing poised and deadly, awaiting Cally's attack.
Recklessly disregarding the consequences, Jenna charged forward, grabbing Cally's arm and steering the slighter woman outside while nattering away a mile a minute.
haven'tseenyousincethebigbashonCentero...areyou still runninground..."
Totally dumbfounded by Jenna's presence and the flood of words deluging her, the Auron telepath did not resist, allowing herself to be steered away from her foe onto a quiet side street. But once away from the crowd, she erupted into a mixture of verbal and telepathic demands for an explanation. <What are you doing with that Federation butcher? Have you betrayed Blake? Gone over to the Federation?> "Is he threatening you...holding you prisoner?" Cally's angry telepathic shouts subsided into a softer verbal inquiry as she saw the anxiety and defiance of Jenna's expression.
"No, I'm not his prisoner, or hostage, or under his control at all. In fact, he owes me at the moment. He's an outlaw, on the run from the Federation." Jenna stated flatly.
"But how could you remain with him...you know the kind of man...the kind of animal he is?" Cally's outrage was rising again.
"Like everyone knows the kind of animal Blake is...based on his records of child molestation."
"Federation propaganda...to discredit Blake and the rebel movement." Cally answered levelly before her face went dark and haunted with the memories of Centero. "But Travis is one of their own. Why spread lies about him...when the truth of his brutal savagery is damning enough. As I have good reason to remember!"
"I remember things too. Another man...strong yet gentle, until his limiter malfunctioned and he nearly killed all of us in a berserk rage." Jenna reminded Cally quietly.
"You don't expect me to believe Travis was under the influence of some kind of neural control device all the time that he has hounded and persecuted us?" The telepath's verbal scorn was scathing but Jenna persisted, somewhat defensively.
"I was there when a renegade cybersurgeon on Jade removed a neural implant that he said probably goaded Travis into his psychopathic obsession with Blake's destruction."
"And you believed him?" Cally was skeptical. "Can't you see this is just another one of his elaborate schemes? A set-up to trap Blake and destroy him."
"Then this is exactly where I should be. At Travis's side, watching every move. Ready to warn Blake at the first sign of trouble." Jenna's expression was pained and withdrawn. "I meant what I said when I left. I don't want to be sacrificed to Blake's holy ideal of freedom...not the way Gan was. This obsession with bringing down the Federation, no matter what the cost, is dangerous. . .to all of you."
There was a long silence as Cally stared at Jenna bleakly.
When she spoke again, Jenna heard the doubt and uncertainty in her voice and since she had been more sympathetic to Blake's ideals, the Auron's misgivings only fueled her growing fears about his future actions.
"I'm afraid you are right," Cally's face was hidden in the shadows. "Ever since Gan's death, Blake has been consumed by the idea of destroying Central Control. We've been following a trail of obscure hints and half-truths across this entire sector. That's why I'm here tonight, hunting for clues about the location of something called `Star One'."
Jenna shivered as though someone had walked across her grave, remembering Docholli's ravings and Travis's reaction to the mention of that name. . .Star One. Shaking off her nerves, she answered practically, "Well, I doubt if Blake will be able to convince Avon to go along on this wild goose chase for the sake of his Cause."
"No," Cally answered quietly. "But he will for the possession of Liberator."
"WHAT!!!" Cally's matter-of-fact statement sent a pang of irrational jealousy through her. Liberator was hers. . . even if she was no longer its pilot. She and Zen had an understanding. How dare Blake promise it to the vile-tempered, cold fish of a deceitful embezzler!?! Regaining control of her emotions except for the cold knot of fear settling in her gut, Jenna realized how formidable a combination Avon and Orac really were. If any hint of Star One's location existed in Federation records at all, the two of them would find it.
"Blake has promised Avon possession of Liberator if he will help find and destroy Star One." Cally's statement was toneless but still managed to convey her disapproval.
"Has Avon said yes?"
"He was still thinking about it," Cally sighed. "There are other factors to be considered as well, including our new pilot, a one-time Federation officer--Del Tarrant. Deciding who would stay and who would go is still under discussion."
"You have to stop Avon from agreeing," she demanded forcefully.
"I do not have that much influence on him," was Cally's muted reply. "Especially where Liberator is concerned."
Jenna heaved an enormous sigh of frustration. "Damn Blake! Now that Travis is no longer a charged blaster aimed at his head, he decides to stick it in front of a laser cannon instead."
"Then you truly believe that Travis is no longer a danger to Blake ?" Cally's candid gaze tried to pierce the other woman's mental shields.
"He seems to have other plans," Jenna replied evasively.
"Then leave him to them ...and come back with me. Blake needs you." Cally implored.
"As what? Second assistant scullery maid," Jenna jibed bitterly. "He already has a replacement pilot...and I was rarely his lover...and never his confidant, not the way you were."
The Auron dropped her eyes at the pain in Jenna's face, before continuing her plea,"I did not share his bed, Jenna, only his dream of freedom from Federation tyranny. He needs you now, for your common sense and pragmatism. If anyone can shake him out of this obsession..."
"NO!" Jenna interrupted harshly, fighting against the pull of old loyalties. "The main reason I left was Blake's total disregard for my `common sense. I'm not getting dragged into that hopeless struggle again. I'm sorry Cally, but I've gone back to free trading and Travis is a useful man to have around, considering the problems I'm likely to run into out on the Rim; pirates, hijackers and the like." A sudden honesty forced its way past her mask of calculating pragmatism. "He saved my life, Cally. . . .and I saved his. That's not a bad basis for a partnership."
Cally's skeptical look irked Jenna and she continued, saying much more than she intended. "He may not be a good man, Cally, but he's no longer the crazed killer that Servalan forced him to be. I've seen his courage. . . his loyalty. . .even a kind of gentleness."
"You care for him!" the telepath declared in horror.
"No," Jenna answered bleakly. "I don't think Space Command left anything in him capable of caring. . . and I won't go down that dead-end road again. Besides, even if his obsession with Blake is gone, it would be better for both of them if they never crossed paths again. That won't happen out on the Rim."
Cally shook her head mournfully. "I think you have given up one `lost cause' for another. What is that Earth saying about `leopards not changing their spots?'"
"He's a man, not an animal."
"A very dangerous man--whether he's working for Servalan or himself."
Jenna embraced the slender Auron with a sisterly fervor. "I'll remember. Just try to keep Avon from agreeing to Blake's offer...and take care of all of them, Avon, Vila, and especially Blake."
<I will> was the emotionally telepathed reply as Cally faded into the smoky darkness.
Jenna started to return to the bar that she and Cally had so hastily vacated, when she spied Travis waiting for her in the alley. Blending into the shadows in his habitual black leather, he was leaning casually against a wall, within easy earshot of their whole conversation.
She tried to cover her embarrassment with a sarcastic observation. "Eavesdropping is a big risk to take around a telepath. . .particularly the mood that Cally was in."
"One of Blake's crew just happens to turn up on a recently `liberated' Federation colony and the two of you go off for a little chat..." His grim look smoldered. "Eavesdropping seemed a sensible precaution."
"Hear anything of interest?" Jenna studied him curiously. He had shaken off his earlier shock at Cally's appearance but didn't seem particularly concerned about what he had overheard of Blake's plans. Instead he reacted to one of Cally's comments. "The Auron's right, Stannis. Don't take on any more lost causes."
Jenna countered with an indifferent shrug. "Lost causes don't pay the bills, Travis. Like I told Cally, you're a useful man to have around."
"Considering the old friends you run into, I seem to be more a liability than an asset."
She grinned. "No man who can bluff his way out of an Amagon ambush or stand up to an Auron telepathic tirade is ever a liability."
He rubbed his forehead ruefully, as some of the tension ebbed out of his face, erasing the hard lines bracketing his mouth. "She certainly has a formidable vocabulary."
"I guess I only caught the tail end of the barrage. But she's probably been exposed to some of Avon's more imaginative language when he's attempting to rid Zen of programming flaws."
The mention of Blake's computer expert reminded Travis of Cally's more disturbing news. "He still hasn't given up on finding Central Control? Doesn't he realize what destruction of the facility will
mean? Not just to Space Command but all the civilized worlds?"
Jenna was silent, brooding for a moment. "I don't think he cares, Travis. After the fiasco on Earth...Kasabi's death and Gan's. Your gloating laughter. He simply wants to hurt the Federation any way that he can, hoping that the Resistance will be able to pick up the pieces." She took a deep breath, trying to push the past away. "Hopefully, the others will be able to stop him. Vila's a confirmed coward. Cally's a freedom fighter not a terrorist. And Avon...Avon has an absolute aversion for recklessly stupid actions."
"Smart man," Travis grunted.
Back on Liberator, Cally reported to Blake, "None of my contacts have heard any rumors about Star One. . .or a cybersurgeon named Docholli. Are you sure of your facts, Blake? Isn't it possible that this is another fabrication of Servalan's to distract you from uniting the various resistance groups? That should be our real objective now." Cally tried to appeal to Blake's more pragmatic side.
She did not consider, even for a moment, mentioning her encounter with Jenna on Horizon. Blake was still brooding about the smuggler's defection although it had been more than a month since she left. Her unease about Jenna's current situation might lead Blake to discover his former pilot was now in Travis's company, which could drive him over the edge completely. Whatever her reasons, Jenna had made her choice and Cally was determined that Blake should forget about her.
If he would just resume the war of attrition that he had conducted so successfully against the Federation and forget this foolish notion of a single massive strike, he might regain enough of his confidence to go on with the struggle.
But there was a fanatic gleam in his dark eyes as he ignored her suggestion. "If we can destroy Star One, it would cripple the Federation; doing more good than the uniting of a dozen planetary cells. Outposts would be isolated, security fields crippled, pursuit ships blinded and the populations on dozens of worlds, maybe even more, could easily overthrow their military governors and planetary dictators. All we have to do is locate Star One."
"A seeming impossibility now the last of our leads has come to an abrupt dead end." Avon interjected caustically.
Blake's broad shoulders momentarily slumped, then he turned a weary eye towards ORAC. "Then we'll just have to have ORAC sift through the data once more until we pick up the ail again." He placed the key in the supercomputer's access port.
*Why are you interrupting my important research with your trivial questions?*
"We're going to keep interrupting until we get the information we want. Now go through those Federation personnel records again and see if you can't find some hint of where Docholli might have run to... also include any references to...what was that alias again, Avon?"
"Kline," the computer tech answered coldly.
*Oh very well," the irascible machine sputtered. "But you realize that there are thousands of officers on hundreds of planets. The chances of locating the one particular individual you are looking for is infinitesimal."
Blake sighed morosely. "Just do it, ORAC, and let me worry about the odds." He pulled out the activation key. "You would think a skilled cybersurgeon would be easier to locate than an ordinary trooper, but the man covered his tracks well."
Despite her uneasiness with Blake's obsession, Cally somewhat guiltily recalled her conversation with Jenna. "Blake, down on the planet no one had any new information on Docholli or Kline. But I did hear about a renegade cybersurgeon on one of the Outer Worlds."
Blake sat up with a sudden eagerness, "Was there any mention of his name?"
"No..." she paused thoughtfully. "Only the fact he was skilled at removing Federation implants."
Avon threw an icy glare in her direction but Blake jumped to his feet, suddenly galvanized into action. "Tarrant," he called over the flight deck's intercom, "Forget about writing that new tactics program into Zen's battle computer. Get up the flight deck immediately and set a course for..." He glanced at Cally eagerly. "Which one of the Outer Worlds?"
"Jade," Cally whispered, suddenly filled with misgivings about furthering Blake's search for Star One.
Their next few cargo runs were uneventful, primarily exotic foodstuffs and medical supplies. But they were only marginally profitable, leading Jenna to the rediscovery of one of the earliest principles of trade she'd learned but forgotten while part of Blake's crew. Low risk meant little profit. Only high-risk runs with scarce or illegal cargos had the kind of profit margin they needed to sustain their one-ship enterprise. Since she drew the line at carrying drugs or slaves, that only left gunrunning and smuggling banned technology into Federation controlled worlds as financially viable options.
Despite their lack of hard cash, Travis remained with her, only occasionally needling her about their shaky finances. Most of the time he shrugged her worries off, "The bunk's soft. The meals regular. Nobody's taking potshots at us. What more could I ask for." He flashed a sardonic grin. "Besides, you're a hell of a lot easier to work for than Servalan."
Yet, there was more to their relationship than the mere tolerance his words implied. Though their physical intimacy on Jade appeared to have been a fluke, a onetime breaching of barriers unlikely to recur, there was a growing respect between them. A comfortable acceptance that seemed to be blossoming into the beginning of...trust. Seeing Travis in this new light, Jenna began to wonder if her past and inheritance were as out of reach as she once believed. Could Travis be the man she needed to reclaim her father's ships? Did he actually have the qualities necessary?
But before she could bring herself to discuss her past and its secret with him, she overheard a disturbing rumor. It was late in the evening after another long day of trying to line up a cargo for a smuggling run that would yield a decent profit without involving suicidal risk. She relieved Travis on the flight deck then blurted out her unsettling news.
"I just ran into someone with connections to Avalon's resistance group. They're stockpiling weapons for a major attack, contingent on some anticipated break in Federation security, and are paying top credit to anyone who can deliver guns to their base. I know where we can get a good deal on what she wants."
Travis kept his expression impassive, but his voice held a grim reminder. "Avalon. . .I doubt she'll appreciate seeing me again."
Jenna took a deep shuddering breath. "I know and I'd leave you here and make the trip solo if I could. But the atmospheric conditions at her current base are so severe that it will take two of us to get the Reina grounded in one piece. You'll just have to stay inboard while I deal with her people." Her face was suddenly haunted. "I have to contact Avalon. Rumors are flying about Central Control again and I think its destruction is the contingency they're waiting for. I'm afraid Blake has finally located Star One."
Avalon's new base was little more appealing than the one Blake had rescued her from almost a year before. It was another mining colony with climatic conditions more suitable to polar bears than humans and magnetic storms that played havoc with their communications and attitude controls. Their descent from primary orbit was a shuddering, bouncing exercise in barely contained mayhem requiring four hands on the helm to maintain any pretense of control over the Reina. Seasoned pilot that she was, even Jenna's stomach was unsettled by that breakneck landing. . .or dread of her meeting with Avalon.
Following her consigner's directions, Jenna set her ship down in a hidden valley just beyond the massive cliffs riddled with underground caverns reportedly housing the rebel base. Travis muttered in a terse undertone as he stared at the whirling blizzard revealed on their viewscreen. "What is it about the woman? Was she whelped on a Scandian glacier? Can't she find any temperate worlds to incite to revolution?"
"The Federation terraforms most mining colonies to only marginally habitable conditions," Jenna remarked coolly. "From what she said on the Liberator, her parents were geologists who died due to a bureaucratic foul-up on a colony similar to this one. She has a great deal of empathy with the miners and the hardships they endure."
"And more than enough reason to want to bring the Federation down." He lapsed into a bleak silence, listening to the bitter winds howling around their grounded ship. "So, what's the plan?"
"Like I said earlier..." Jenna started digging through the lockers for the Reina's cold weather gear. "You stay here while I make contact with Avalon or one of her lieutenants."
As he helped her sort through the odds and ends of heavy clothing, Travis stated flatly, "Dangerous weather, unknown terrain inside those caves, even the possibility of an ambush... you need someone to cover your back, Jenna. You aren't going out there alone."
Jenna's teeth clenched in frustration. "You know why you can't go with me. Even if Avalon didn't shoot you on sight, your presence would ruin any chance I had of getting her to confide in me. It's already a gamble, hoping she'll trust me, based on my part in our rescue of her."
"Even if she admits Blake has discovered the location of Star One," his voice was relentless, "what the hell would you do about it? What could you do about it."
"I don't know," Jenna whispered, agonized. "But I have to find out."
"Women!" Travis snorted with disgust as he grabbed one of the all-concealing cold weather suits with its deep, furred hood, snow goggles, and breathing mask. "Look, I doubt that she could recognize her own mother kitted out in one of these."
Jenna was startled by Travis's insistence on accompanying her. His attitude was more protective than paranoid, despite his obvious skepticism about the mission. "Why won't you let me go alone? If I don't come back, you know where the master's papers are. The Reina would be yours, free and clear."
There was a brooding vulnerability in the look he shot in her direction, despite the cynicism in his answer. "Maybe I don't trust you, Stannis. Maybe I suspect if you and Avalon put your heads together, you'll figure out a way to turn me in for the bounty."
"All right," she retorted more in exasperation than anger. "Just don't underestimate her. She hasn't survived in the resistance this long without being canny, suspicious and a sharp observer. Keep your hood and goggles on, try to change your walk so you don't prowl like a damned tiger, and for pity's sake--keep your mouth shut!"
As Jenna expected, they were challenged by sentries before they had gone more than five meters into the maze of caverns.
"Hold it right there and raise your hands!" The harsh voice echoed all around them, sounding like they were surrounded by guards.
Jenna shook her head at Travis, warning him not to react, then threw back her hood, exposing her tawny blonde mane. "I'm Jenna Stannis with a shipment of guns for Avalon. She knows me. I was with Roj Blake when he rescued her from Servalan."
"Just stay where you are while we check you out," ordered the disembodied voice.
They started to lower their hands but the voice responded warily. "Just keep your hands where I can see them. Or better yet, drop your weapon belts and kick them over by the wall."
As they complied with the nervous guard's orders, Jenna was not too concerned about being separated from her blaster. She had two smaller guns hidden in her clothing and a thin stiletto in the seam of her boot. Travis was undoubtedly carrying enough hidden firepower to topple a planetary government.
Moments later, a test of her identity was relayed. "If you're Stannis, what was the name of your ship's computer?"
"Zen," Jenna replied.
"They're all right," a voice acknowledged. Then with a rattle of loose pebbles, its owner scrambled down from his post, calling back to his mate, "I'll take them into HQ, Bemmer, and see if I can't light a fire under our relief."
When they met the sentry face to face, he seemed much too young to be involved in the deadly serious business of revolution with tousled copper hair and a scattering of freckles across his round cherubic face. But there was a hint of darkness within his bright blue eyes even his outgoing exuberance could not conceal.
"You're one of Blake's people?" The boy was bubbling with curiosity and no small amount of hero worship. "Avalon told us how he outsmarted Servalan and that psycho commander of hers." Jenna winced at the young rebel's voluble outburst but Travis seemed to find it amusing. If that shaking of his shoulders was repressed laughter and not fury.
They followed him deeper into the caverns, toward Avalon's HQ as the boy babbled on, studying Jenna with an almost worshipful awe. "My name's Brad and I've been with the movement almost three months now--ever since my Da was killed in the cave-in." His expression was momentarily withdrawn before he turned the smile on once more. "Are you still with Blake? Is that why you brought us guns? We could sure use `em. Seems like we're repairing and rebuilding constantly due to the cold." Their guide turned his attention toward Travis, to Jenna's dismay. "What about you? Were you one of Blake's crew, too? You can take off your breathin' mask and goggles. The base isn't far from an underground hot spring. It stays warm, no matter how cold it gets outside." Quickly trying to deflect their young guide's solicitude away from Travis, Jenna answered for him. "I'm working freelance. Guns for credits. My partner--O'Brian--never met Blake." She emphasized the latter with a hard, warning glance in Travis's direction, then blurted onward. "He was in a brawl at our last port and got slashed pretty badly. It was hard enough getting the mask over his bandages the first time, so we better leave matters like they are."
"Does he need a medic? We got someone with real training, not like most resistance groups." Their guide's pride was evident, but Jenna refused again.
"No...no...he'll manage." She cursed under her breath, grateful the boy's naivete made him unaware of the clumsiness of her lies. She questioned him in an effort to divert his attention. "Hot springs, huh? I'm surprised the Federation hasn't used thermal detectors to locate this place."
As the boy rambled on, describing the properties of the caves that stymied Federation detectors, Jenna stared with increasing trepidation at the torturous maze of tunnels and lava tubes that the lad was guiding them through. She wasn't claustrophobic--no deep-space pilot could be--but something about this winding, twisting labyrinth and the strange flickering shadows thrown by the cold chemical illumination of their guide's light rod made her very uneasy. The entry into the stronghold was not a straight path, but twisted around and doubled back so much that she wasn't sure she and Travis could find their way out alone, if it became necessary.
Finally the tunnels opened out into a large main cavern where harsh artificial lighting cast stark shadows across the jut and flow of glittering natural rock formations. The rebels had made use of the numerous stalagmites to anchor the partitions that separated their base into working and living areas. The large central area appeared to be the command post, with maps, communication equipment, and numerous weapons in various stages of assembly.
Avalon glanced up from the map that she had been studying with one of her lieutenants, coming over to greet Jenna with a warm clasp of her arms. Her cinnamon brown hair was pulled back in a severe bun and there were new lines of strain and worry at her eyes and mouth, but they vanished as her face broke into a warm smile. "I couldn't believe it was you running the guns. Then the rumors were true...about you quitting Blake and the Liberator?"
Jenna's face went bleak at the memory."He didn't leave me much choice. Much as I enjoyed piloting Liberator--a ship like that comes along once in a lifetime--I enjoyed living more. The disaster at Central Control. . . Gan's death. . .and Blake's reaction to it. . . . It opened my eyes." Jenna's voice died to a low whisper as she looked into the other woman's face, her jaw set and lips tightly compressed. "And I didn't like what I saw. Blake had changed, forgotten about other people's lives and the cost of his actions. All he cared about was making a gesture, building our legend so he could go on with his plans to destroy the Federation."
"You can hardly blame him," Avalon answered in a low, tight voice, "considering what they did to him, body and mind." She rubbed her hands together in distraction. "But. . .this newest plan of his. It's madness." She drew Jenna aside, hardly noticing her partner trailing after like a second shadow. "All the revolutionary cadres on the Inner Planets and Federation-dominated worlds have been alerted in the past week. Blake advised us that he's located the Federation's Central Computer Complex once rumored to be inside the Forbidden Zone on Earth. Its true site is an artificial planet called Star One at the edge of the galaxy. He intends to sabotage the complex and wants the various cells to coordinate a unified attack throughout the Federation, once their defenses are disabled by Star One's destruction."
Avalon glanced down at her hands, "It's a bold plan and brilliantly conceived." She turned an agonized look on the other woman. "But it won't work!" She rubbed her hands on her upper arms as though chilled. "Oh, he's right about the Federation being helpless. Surveillance systems, battle computer coordination, defensive shields. . .all of it will be totally useless. But so will weather management systems, planetary traffic control, ecological and agricultural coordination, as well. I know this planet is no garden spot but without the weather engineering satellites, conditions will be ten times worse! Our fliers couldn't last thirty seconds in the cyclonic winds and killing cold that are the prevalent conditions on this planet. And we're not the worst! Do you know how many other planets depend on the Central Computer Complex for essential planetary services?"
Jenna shook her head numbly. Her years as a free trader had taught her about the interdependence of planetary economies. But she had never considered how much its members and subsidiary worlds depended on the Federation, not just for security but for their very survival.
"I thought most planets maintained their own independent computer systems?"
"They do for basic minor functions, but the overall control needed to coordinate more advanced systems, like the planetary defense nets and ecological support linkage has all been slaved to the Master Computer Control System on Star One." Avalon's expression was grim as she concluded. "If it's destroyed, the Federation will undoubtedly fall, but at the cost of millions, maybe billions of lives."
"Weather control, agricultural coordination, ecological balance..." Jenna muttered in a horrified litany.
"Security fields," a dark voice echoed behind her, but Jenna was too numbed by Avalon's revelation of the extent of the havoc Blake's action could wreak to react to that interruption.
But Avalon's attention was abruptly drawn to Jenna's new partner, momentarily shaken out of her distraction by that lean sinewy figure. Something about him made her hackles rise. . . that brooding hawklike poise. . .that harsh voice.
"Security fields? Something we'd all be better off without!" she retorted edgily.
"Tell that to the farmers on Brekke IX when maneating thrakes overrun their settlements or the underwater construction crews on Denali facing off against the Medusas." His voice was equally angry.
Avalon was familiar with both of the planets he mentioned and shivered at the bloody images his terse sentence evoked. . . and at her sudden realization of where she had heard the soft-spoken menace in that voice.
"Take off your hood--Travis!" she spat, stepping back and drawing her blaster to cover the Federation officer and his doxy. Several of her lieutenants and the young sentry who had led them in quickly joined her, brandishing blasters and pulse rifles with expressions of open hostility.
Jenna cursed sulfurously under her breath, wondering if Travis had some kind of death wish, arguing with Avalon in the center of her stronghold. Even as she studied the angry and confused faces surrounding them, looking for a way out, Jenna didn't think they'd have much of a chance to shoot or talk their way out of this mess. But she studied Travis obliquely, waiting for him to make the first move.
Moving with an exaggerated care that both acknowledged and mocked his captors' bloodlust, Travis still radiated his usual arrogant self-assurance as he unfastened his breathing mask and threw back the concealing hood. A rumble of suppressed violence went through the crowd and only Avalon's direct order, "Hold your fire!" kept them from being blasted where they stood.
Stalking over to the ex-space commander, Avalon struck him with a violent open-handed blow that rocked his head back and split his lip, but did little to shake his open disdain.
"We heard he'd gone rogue," she bit out harshly. "But I assumed it was just one of Servalan's schemes, hoping to infiltrate and destroy the movement from within. There's even a reward of fifty thousand credits on his head. . .when delivered to Space Command. On a platter."
Travis answered with a cold, sarcastic smile, despite the blood rilling down his chin. "A pitiful sum. . .beside what she's offering for Blake and his crew."
"Oh, I imagine there are plenty of people who'd gladly do it for nothing just to rid the galaxy of the likes of you," Avalon grated before she turned away from her onetime tormentor and lashed out at Jenna. "How could you abandon Blake and join up with scum like this?" Her body was rigid with fury but Jenna matched it with equal outrage.
"You can ask that after what you've just told me?" the smuggler answered defiantly. "Even before Gan's death, Blake was growing careless of other people's lives where his cause was concerned. I'm not squeamish, particularly about the deaths of Federation lackeys, but too many people were dying for no reason at all." She stared down at her clenched fist. "Now because of the death of one gentle, sensible man, Blake is on a path of self-righteous destruction likely to leave at least a hundred planets smoking ruins."
"Vengeance and starry-eyed idealism." Travis interrupted softly. "A deadlier mixture than blasters of the Galactic Eighth Fleet."
Avalon turned back at him and spat, "When did you get religion?" Her eyes raked hotly between the two of them. "I owe you, Stannis, and I don't default on my debts, not even to traitors." She turned a calculating gaze on Travis, "But fifty thousand credits would buy a lot of guns for my people. . .if Servalan could be trusted to pay off as promised."
Travis's expression remained coldly mocking. "If you think you can trust Servalan, you're stupider than you look."
There was an angry mutter at his insolence, but Avalon shrugged it off. "Well, it hardly matters since the destruction of Star One will render the whole situation moot very soon now. I wonder if there's anywhere you'll be able to hide, after the Federation and its armed thugs lose their grip on the worlds they once controlled."
Travis's gaze was contemptuous, "You'd do better asking yourself if there will be anyone left alive for Blake's followers to set free after he destroys Star One."
Ignoring Travis's bitter rebuttal, Avalon turned to Jenna, "I know you were a smuggler and your ties to the Resistance have never been strong. . .but what about your loyalty to Blake? And your own self-respect? How can you even associate with this...butcher...torturer...this animal!"
Travis remained impassive under Avalon's scalding denunciation. But Jenna stared at the faces surrounding them, recognizing a few who had been wanted for murder, hijacking, and other crimes long before they joined Avalon's group. Even if she described the appalling physical and mental tactics Servalan had used to rob Travis of his humanity, leaving him little more than a ruthlessly cunning animal, she doubted that would alter their opinion of the former Federation officer. But she knew only too well how such intimate revelations about his past would affect Travis. It would utterly destroy the tenuous trust presently existing between them.
All she could do was fall back on her stated neutrality and hope that Avalon did not hold grudges at the expense of her group's survival.
"Loyalty? Self-respect?" She gave a mocking laugh worthy of Avon himself. "Since when did that buy fuel cores, or weapons, or even a glass of soma in a spaceport dive? Travis and I discovered a common goal when we first met...survival! Since then, he's proven himself an adept pilot, a competent navigator, and the toughest bastard in fifty parsecs. All valuable skills on the trading routes I run. He's a survivor, Avalon, just like me. And if that goes down hard with your noble, self-sacrificing Resistance, then you better start looking for other suppliers. But just remember, out on the Rim no one's going to give you what you need out of sympathy for your `Cause'. You'll pay the going price. . .or they'll sell to someone who will. Like the Amagons. . .or the Federation."
Jenna's eyes raked across Avalon's band, still angry and sullen, but no longer on the edge of violence. "Now, do you want the guns, or not?"
"I could execute the two of you as spies, confiscate the guns and your ship. No one would ever know." Avalon's voice was tight with suppressed fury.
Jenna arched a disdainful brow. "You think not? The Reina's known as a neutral ship, with a reliable reputation. Just try welching on a deal with us and see who takes the risk of ever delivering to you again."
Avalon glared at the smuggler, realizing control of the situation had subtly shifted in the other woman's favor. Despite her disgust with Jenna for forsaking Blake and her painful memories of Travis's past savagery, she was in no position to indulge in petty vengeance.
She spat out in abhorrence. "Geri handles logistics. He'll see that you're paid and your cargo off-loaded. But stay away from the Resistance, if you know what's good for you. Travis may be a survivor, but there are a lot of people who would like to see him dead. Bounty or no bounty."
"I'm sure that can be said of a great many of us," Jenna answered with acid-etched sweetness, gazing intently at several of the more notorious members of Avalon's cell.
Sometime later as they watched Avalon's people off-load the Reina, Travis remarked with an irritating gleam in his eye, "You're almost as good a rabble-rouser as Blake. Another few minutes and half her followers would have been begging to sign on with you."
"Don't push your luck," she gritted out. "You should have kept your mouth shut..."
"I couldn't resist," he answered mockingly. "Seeing the expression on Avalon's face as she counted up the cost of destruction. . ." He clenched his fists in frustration. "Damn it, Stannis. We can't let them go through with this. Blake has to be stopped!"
"Hush!" she muttered, looking around furtively. "Let's just get out of here alive first!"
Once the Reina was in open space, Travis programmed in the coordinates and pushed to engines to maximum. Alarmed at the haunted expression on his face, she glanced down at the board then confronted him angrily.
"Are you insane? That's intergalactic space, not even deep space probes reach that far. Beyond the Rim...no planets, no space stations. No one goes out there!"
"Blake might. . .if he's set on destroying Star One." Travis did not seem as obsessed with Blake as he had earlier, even after disavowing his vendetta. Instead, something else seemed to be haunting him. She'd caught a glimpse of it during his conversation with Docholli and seen it more plainly exposed by his reckless baiting of Avalon. Despite his conspicuous loathing for Servalan, the Federation itself--or perhaps his former comrades in Space Command-- still held a definite claim on his allegiance.
Tight-lipped with anger, Jenna retorted, "Altruism, Travis? That's a little hard to believe, given your past record!"
Setting the autopilot, he pushed out of the control seat and paced the length of the flight deck before responding in a tightly controlled monotone. "My brother and I were sold as conscripts to the Space Force to pay for the rest of our family's escape from Metis III. After Dar died. . .I had nothing left. . . nothing except my mates, the troopers I'd trained with and fought alongside."
He continued in a voice ragged with pain. "Some of my actions over the years may have been. . .out of line. I won't make excuses. Battlefield judgement tends to be quick and bloody and my decisions have been harsh, sometimes brutal. But it was for the sake of survival. . . and I've never indulged in butchery for some political whim."
He paused in his restless pacing, his eye burning into Jenna's. "But Blake and his damned idealism will probably kill millions, nine-tenths of whom don't even comprehend the `freedom and justice' he's trying to shove down their throats." Bitterness etched his face. "Is that altruism enough for you, Stannis? Or can you believe that even after all these years, needless, wasteful death still turns my stomach?"
Jenna wrapped her arms across her chest, ruing the curiosity that had brought her to Avalon to learn what Blake was planning. What good had it done? Travis was right when he protested her decision. Even though Avalon had affirmed her worst fears, there was nothing the two of them could do. They didn't know the location of Star One and even if they did, what chance would an overage blockade runner like the Reina stand against a star cruiser like Liberator?
"It doesn't matter," she answered bleakly. "We don't even know where Star One is."
"Maybe we do."
Jenna stared at him, distrust rearing its ugly head.
"What are you saying?" she demanded, a sudden chill running up her spine. On Earth he'd gloated to Blake that even he didn't know the new location of Central Control. Had it all been a lie? Was this another one of his elaborate schemes to trap Blake ?
Oblivious to the sudden suspicion on Jenna's face, Travis clenched his fists on the back of the pilot's seat."When I was still a raw trainee, my squadron was assigned to a top secret installation on a rogue planet in one of the remotest sectors of the Federation. The assignment was dull and tedious, mostly boring patrols and long shifts of watch-standing. With no real enemy, we turned on each other like rabid wolves. After we fragged two Section Leaders in one month, the Project Head demanded a replacement squadron. On orders from Space Command HQ, we upped ship and left, without waiting for a relief detachment."
"And what makes you think that installation was Star One?"
"Instead of putting us before an execution squad, like we expected, HQ reassigned us to the Inner Worlds, battling bloodthirsty rebels rather than standing watch on a deserted world. But before the transfers went through, the Council sent in their psychostrategists do a deep hypnotic memory block on the details of that mission. It's obvious we knew something too dangerous for Space Command to be trusted with."
Jenna sighed hopelessly. "Even if you're right, we're back to square one. Without a skilled telepath or someone who knows how to bypass that kind of conditioning, there's no way we can dig those coordinates out of your memory."
Travis gave her a death's head grin. "There's one way. . . . mnemonic cascade."
"Mnemonic cascade!" She spun around and glared at him, shocked by his mention of the suicidally dangerous memory retrieval technique.
"Why don't you just put a blaster to your head? At least that kind of suicidal action wouldn't leave as much of a mess for me to dispose of!"
"There's no other way," he answered in a low growl. "I'm no bleeding heart like Blake but I don't intend to let half of Space Command be slaughtered out of hand because of his so-called idealism."
"Blast you, Travis," Jenna spun on her heel, confronting him, her body tense and trembling "I don't give a bloody damn about Blake or the Federation. You're all that matters to me now. Why don't you believe me? Didn't Jade mean anything to you?"
She reached up, burying her fingers in his hair, drawing his mouth down to hers. As Jenna pressed against him tautly, hungrily, Travis tasted her tear-wet lips and the sweetness of her tongue as it slid eagerly against his own. Even as he recalled the heated caresses and explosive passion of that all too brief interlude, he recognized her desperate ploy and gently pulled her arms from around his neck.
"It was good between us," he admitted bluntly. "You're an honest, generous lover. But don't spoil that by trying to use it like Servalan would. . . to control me."
Jenna stared at him, anguished.
"Believe what you will about the Federation...or Space Command, but Blake has to be stopped and if this is the only way to do it, I'm willing to pay the butcher's bill."
She clenched her fists, her mouth twisting bitterly. "If you do retrieve those coordinates but die in the process, what am I supposed to do? Carry out some hell-for-leather suicidal attack on Liberator? Kill Blake for you?"
His expression was somber. "It won't come to that. Remember what the Auron said. Blake's not that much of a fool . . .he'll take you back. And with three of you arguing against that strike, he'll have to listen. Hell, he was an engineer before he took up this holy war of his, maybe he'll even heed Avalon's warnings if you tell him about your meeting."
"And if he won't listen to reason?"
Travis stroked her cheek, "Use your feminine wiles on him. They worked with me."
She jerked angrily away, "You still don't believe me about Blake, do you?"
His face went grim and gaunt as he gripped her shoulder painfully, "If you don't succeed in changing his mind, take the Reina and run as far and as fast as you can. Because when the Federation goes under, the only law will be the law of the jungle."
They rummaged through the Reina's minimal medical supplies, hunting for the drugs to break down Travis's mental barriers. Spotting the necessary vials of nerve block and cortical destabilizer, Jenna's fist closed tightly around them, but Travis read the anguish on her face and held out his hand for the potentially lethal medications. She dropped them into the palm of his cyborg hand, trying to swallow back her fears. Travis had already buried his fear behind a mask of duty, his eye narrowed and mouth a stark grim line.
Jenna turned to the medunit and programmed it for the necessary dripfeed to infuse the drugs and monitor the patient's condition. Travis swung his legs up onto the surgical bed, briskly fastening the restraints over his knees and chest before ordering her to strap both his arms down.
"Why?" she managed to choke out.
"From what I know about the procedure, it sets off a wide range free-association until the specific recall is triggered." His face was haunted. "That was a bloody time in my life and I. . .I don't want to take the chance of injuring you."
"If you're free-associating through years of memory, how will I know when you've located the specific one?" she demanded irritably "Easy enough," he countered in a flat tone."When recall of the coordinates activates the neural block, there should be just enough time for me to repeat them once before I go into convulsions." There was a hint of his old sarcasm. " Make sure the audio monitor is on. You won't get a second chance."
Jenna clenched her fists but double-checked the equipment then turned her attention to the medunit's minimal life-support section. As she checked over its limited options, Travis advised her in a dead flat voice. "There's not much chance of my surviving this. The Federation's best psychostrategists programmed the self-destruct."
His iron control broke for a moment as dread roughened his voice, "Run a neuroscan afterwards. . .before you bring me around. If there's not enough of my mind left. . . just space the carcass and make your best time to Star One."
Jenna's hands trembled as she made the final adjustments in the medunit. Turning to secure Travis's arms as he'd ordered, impulsively she bent down and pressed her lips to his with a final desperate passion. His mouth was so cold and his gaze so empty and bleak that for a moment, she was afraid that she'd already triggered the procedure. Then he reached upward, caressing her cheek, "Too bad it has to end like this. We'd have made a good team."
Blinded by tears, she secured his arms under the strap, then turned back to the medunit, staring at its readouts as the drugs were injected. Travis shuddered and groaned as they took effect. As his painful thrashing subsided, the normally harsh lines of his features smoothed out and Jenna caught a brief glimpse of Travis's younger self; vulnerable yet determined, struggling to survive the hardships of the last days of the Metis III colony, before he and his brother were conscripted into the Space Force.
Watching Travis's psychic barriers being stripped away disturbed Jenna even more than the physical dissection that Docholli had performed on Jade. She felt like a voyeur of the worst sort, even though exposing the memories to her was his choice. His terse, impassive description of the early abuse and indignities he'd experienced at the hands of senior rankers and NCOs left her wondering how he'd even survived, much less managed to get promoted to his current rank.
Still, the harsh, demanding existence of his primitive homeworld had toughened him enough, physically and mentally so the usual hardships of his first months as a new recruit were easy by comparison. There were the usual clashes with older troopers and noncoms, establishing territory, setting limits on the kind of abuse he would and would not tolerate. But he had a sharp mind and a facility with weapons that made him an asset to his platoon and marked him out for early promotion and training for the pilot corps. That was an exhilarating time, until his brother's death in a training accident left him wracked with grief and guilt.
Jenna managed to piece the events together from Travis's disjointed, half-muttered ravings. A savage curse as an older trooper tried to stake his claim on the "fresh meat". His cool control during the mass confusion of battle. Heated gasps of hurried sexual liaisons in the dockside dives of half a dozen war zones. A choked back sob of anger and loss at his brother's death.
She wanted to press her hands against her ears rather than hear his emotions so nakedly exposed, no longer walled away behind the armor of his self-control. But she had to pay careful attention, trying to interpret those agitated, half-slurred cries and whispers, hoping that she would be able to decipher the coordinates from this disjointed recital.
Suddenly Travis broke free of emotional tides surging through him, reciting a crisp, precise collection of facts and figures that seemed to be the result of some indoctrination process. She glanced up to make sure that the audio monitor was functioning and then quickly rechecked the medunit's resuscitation cycle. Despite Travis's skepticism, she did not intend to stand by, wringing her hands, while he went into terminal neural shock.
"I've got good money invested in you, Commander and I don't intend to flush it out the airlock." But her tenderness as she caressed his pale, sweaty features belied the mercenary tone of her words.
Moments later, he gasped in a hoarse, breathless voice, "Star One...Eleventh Sector...Grid 1720 Z-17 V-20." As he grated out those words, his body arched into a tonic convulsive spasm and then collapsed, his breath sighing out in a long agonal rasp.
Shocked by the violence of that physical reaction, Jenna clutched his shoulders. "NO!!! I'm not going to let you die on me!" Hastily activating the resuscitation cycle, she watched fearfully as it jolted him with an electrical charge to re-initiate his heartbeat and respiration.
Cursing herself for that momentary panic, Jenna skimmed down the computer readouts of his vital signs to the list of drugs recommended to compensate for the neurological shock that triggered the cardiac arrest. Hurriedly she located the vials and injected them into the IV line as the unit instructed. But, even after she administered the drugs, the readout on his status was heartbreakingly brief.
"Independent vital signs absent. Patient on total life support."
Jenna stared in dismay at his comatose body, remembering his plea for a quick death. Her hand trembled over the controls of the resuscitation unit, but she couldn't force herself to pull the switch. She would not surrender him that easily! With a savage curse she strode blindly towards the flight deck and set the Reina on course for Star One and the rendezvous with Blake.
Once their course was set, she sat in the pilot's seat staring out at the void, recalling how empty her life had been the last few months. She'd been drawn to Blake at first. His rugged good looks and charismatic self-assurance seemed to make him the ideal partner to claim her inheritance. Then aboard the Liberator, her infatuation had turned sour as his obsession with his Cause took control of all their lives.
Abruptly she activated the autopilot, forcing herself to return to the medical alcove, reluctant to leave Travis unconscious and alone. Drawn back to his side, she gazed at this onetime bitter foe, wondering how her feelings could change so much in a just few short weeks Was he truly such a different man? Transformed from barely tolerated bodyguard to warily accepted bedmate and partner? Or was it her viewpoint that had altered, only recognizing his tenacity and resourcefulness now that they served her purposes and not Servalan's?
Why had she been so drawn to this battle-scarred, embittered renegade, considering the handsome, smooth-talking charmers who had crossed her path in the past? Was it his deadly controlled power that made the breath catch in her throat? The stubborn pride which provoked them both into verbal outbursts they sometimes regretted? Or his keen mind, mocking tongue, or wounded, wary gaze that she found so compelling?
Or had she finally recognized that even after being conditioned and controlled by the Federation for most of his adult life, Travis still possessed an untainted core of honor and decency. Despite the rampant corruption within Space Command, he'd bootstrapped his way out of the ranks on skill and raw nerve alone, becoming Blake's nemesis. . .and the one man who could help her reclaim her past. If only she'd recognized that possibility sooner!.
But Blake's reckless plans had suddenly overshadowed their lives, and Travis's sense of duty forced him to take this chance that had likely left him mindless husk. Jenna stroked his clammy forehead, her eyes blurred with tears. With him gone, her last hope of claiming her inheritance was gone as well. No past, no future. . . nothing left to do, except keep a rendezvous at the edge of the galaxy and attempt to reason with a man undoubtedly beyond reason.
"Damn you, Travis," she cursed his slack body as she gulped back her tears."You knew it was hopeless leaving me to face Blake alone. Even if he does take me back, he won't listen to my warning . . .no matter what `feminine wiles' I use on him."
She sniffed, laughing bitterly at that notion. "He's much too noble to let mere carnal impulses come between him and his cause. If Cally's ethics and Avon's logic still haven't gotten through that thick skull of his, what chance do I have?"
Kneeling beside the medical couch, Jenna leaned her head against his shoulder, drawing what small comfort she could from the touch of his body. "You and Blake weren't the only ones obsessed with vengeance. After my parents' ship ran afoul of a Federation patrol, I was so determined to exact bloodprice for their murders, I'd have dragged the entire Free Trader's Enclave into my personal vendetta!"
"The Clan Captains knew the Enclave's only sane course of action was to avoid further clashes with the Federation until their grip on the outer planets weakened. And the last thing they needed was a half-grown girl-child, haring off on some cockeyed scheme that might irritate Space Command into enacting a full-scale embargo. My uncle, who became First Captain after my father was killed, thought the easiest way to silence me was to keep me 'barefoot and pregnant' and arranged a suitable alliance of bloodlines and trade routes that would benefit both Clans."
She lurched to her feet, pacing aimlessly down the companionway toward the flight deck, then turned back to stare at Travis's body, where only the faintest rise and fall of his chest was any indication that he lived.
"When I overheard his plan, I slipped aboard the first outbound ship, determined to keep my freedom and take what vengeance I could. Perhaps even find a man strong enough to help me face down my uncle and reclaim my father's ships!" She laughed bitterly. "Instead, I spent years knocking around the border worlds learning the bitter facts of life as I honed my skills as a pilot. Inside the Federation, the kind of strong-willed, independent man I needed was likely dead or mind-wiped."
She heaved a painful, hopeless sigh. "Then Blake and I crossed paths. . .and I was foolhardy enough to get sucked into his crusade. He was honest and strong-willed, but set on a suicidal course of political impossibility. And Avon was too independent, the ultimate loner, caring for nothing except his own wealth and safety."
"After months of trying to convince Blake of the hopelessness of his cause, I finally gave up and left him, before I wound up dead. . . like Gan. Any hope I had of returning to my clan was as dead as Gan. . .until you crashed into my life." She stroked his pale features, austere and stern even in repose.
"You saved my life. . .despite your blackhearted, bloodyhanded reputation. Then turned around and trusted me to save yours, which was more than Blake ever did. Yet, you remained an enigma. All the way out to the Rim, you kept surprising me. . .never being what I expected. Especially on Jade. . ."
Her face went utterly still as she clutched his hand fiercely. "You were. . . vulnerable. . . and gentle. . . and more a man than anyone who had shared my bed for more years than I care to remember. I should have realized then you were the man I was looking for; that you had the skill and strength. . . and nerve. . . it would take to claim my clan rights."
"But I wasn't sure. Despite my instinct to trust you, you'd been involved with so many of Servalan's schemes. I couldn't risk betraying the Enclave's homeworld." Her eyes burned but she refused to let those hopeless tears spill over. "So I waited. . .until it was too late. And now our only chance is gone. As dead as the Federation will be once Blake succeeds in destroying Star One."
She buried her head on her folded arms, exhausted by the emotional outburst. Despite her intention of returning to the flight deck, her eyes fluttered closed and she dropped into a restless sleep, Travis's right hand clutched tightly in hers.
The Reina hurtled through the void with most of her systems on automatic, escaping disastrous encounters with random space debris only because of the virtual emptiness of the sector they were traversing. The computer gave priority to engines and life support, dimming lights and cutting back on the environmental controls. Jenna slept on in that shadowy chill, until a softly pulsing signal cut through her exhaustion. She jerked awake, unnerved by the dimness, glancing about for the source of the alarm
With a sudden shock she realized the sound signaled the switchoff of the med unit's automatic life support system. Hurriedly she glanced over the controls, looking for malfunctions, but everything appeared normal. Travis was breathing on his own again, his heart beating in a regular rhythm!
But her elation chilled as he thrashed in semi-delirium, fighting the restraints. His voice grated out harshly, "Damn you, Blake! You and your malcontents are nothing but troublemakers. You've been warned about stirring up the Deltas, now clear off!"
Jenna stepped away, wrapping her arms around herself, shuddering from more than just the chill of the flight deck as she realized that Travis was still locked in the mnemonic cascade; apparently re-experiencing his first clash with Blake. No telling what the outcome would be. Travis might relive the incident, then wake normally. Or he might relapse into his insane obsession to kill Blake and anyone associated with him!
She hurried over to one of her weapon caches. . . just in case the straps couldn't hold a crazed madman. As she did, Travis convulsed with a ragged scream, splitting the chest strap with the deadly power of his cybernetic arm. Jenna snatched up the blaster, aiming at him, as she wondered if he was her enemy once again, both of them victims of deadly memories triggered by the cascade procedure.
Travis raised his head, staring at her, his eye blood-shot with its pupil so dilated, only the faintest rim of blue remained. Caught up in that dark and empty gaze, Jenna exhaled harshly then put her blaster aside and moved tentatively closer, reaching out until her hand rested on his stubbled cheek.
"Travis. . ." she whispered through a throat dry as ashes. "Don't leave me. . .I need you. I can't face Blake alone. . .."
At her touch, Travis's eye closed and he shuddered."Cold. . . dark. . .and . . .empty. . . ." Jenna started to move away to readjust the thermostat and fetch another blanket, but his cybernetic hand closed over hers in a deathlike grip.
"Cold as hell. . ." he gasped, shivering still harder.
She tried to reassure him but his grip tightened until it was almost painful.
"So alone. . . so empty," he croaked desperately.
"I'm here, Travis" she consoled him. "I'm not leaving. . . just let me get some more blankets." Although, his grip did not relent, Jenna managed to pull away from his weakened grasp, hurriedly resetting light and temperature controls as she rummaged through the bins, looking for more blankets.
As the lights in the medical alcove brightened to a harsh glare, Travis abruptly roused from his delirium. Flinging his arm across his right eye, he groaned, retching weakly, "Turn off the bloody lights! It feels like someone shot off a laser cannon inside my head!"
Quickly dimming the lights to a more tolerable level, she started to tuck the blankets tightly around him but he protested irritably. "Release the bloody-be-damned straps, will you? And take those away. . .I don't need them."
"Let's just leave them both on, all right?" Jenna ordered tartly."You were showing signs of severe shock not thirty seconds ago. Chills, half-raving. . . you didn't even know who I was."
There was a long silence before Travis answered "I knew you, Jenna. . .even halfway through the gates of hell. . . ." His voice died to a hoarse whisper, "I recognized your voice. . ." He turned his face away from hers, staring into the distance.
Despite his prior deranged state, Travis appeared so weak that Jenna decided she'd be able to manage him in his present condition. She unfastened the straps then grabbed his shoulders as he tried to push upright.
"Hold it right there! Just because I released the restraints doesn't mean you're in any shape to get up."
"Got to check the controls," he muttered weakly. "Make sure we're on course. Too much time wasted already. Need some kind of plan before we find Blake or Liberator will blast us into space dust."
Jenna glanced at the chrono, wondering just how much time had passed since she set the coordinates for Star One.
Almost six hours!
The Reina had been running on automatic controls for almost an entire watch, while she sat watch over Travis's unconscious body! It was a miracle they were still in one piece; that shields, or life support, or some other critical system hadn't crashed in the interim.
She pushed Travis down on the medcouch, "Don't worry, I'm headed back to the flight deck right now! You're staying here until the medunit gets borderline normal readings on you. I've set the alarms and if one foot hits the floor before that machine gives you a clean bill of health, I'll tie you to that cot! Understand?"
Travis nodded weakly, subsiding back onto the medunit bed then propped himself up long enough to demand, "Star One. . .how much longer till we reach it?"
"At least 72 hours on our present course and speed. That should give us plenty of time to come up with a plan to stop Blake without being blown into our component atoms." Jenna pulled the blanket up over his chest, dimming the lights before she headed for the flight deck. "Assuming we haven't already used up our allotment of miracles just getting this far."
After six hours of sleep, Travis was on his feet, somewhat shaky but seemingly recovered from the physical and mental trauma of the cascade procedure. But Jenna still observed him suspiciously, fearful of the aftereffects of the cascade procedure, struggling to stay alert even though she was worn down by the emotional strain of the harrowing events of the past two days.. Finally, after two shifts of close scrutiny had revealed no outward abnormalities in his behavior, she yielded to the blinding fatigue and dropped onto her bunk in an exhausted stupor.
When she woke, there was a tray with hot coffee and what the Reina's food dispensers pretended was breakfast by her bed. Surprised at Travis's sudden thoughtfulness, she gulped down the coffee as she dressed, then hurried onto the flight deck. There she found him under one of the engineering control panels doing some minor troubleshooting.
"Not past time," he muttered peevishly. "Did you plan to sleep all the way to Star One?"
Jenna answered in a lightly bantering tone, "Captain's privilege, First Officer. What did you add to the coffee anyway? Engine coolant?"
He gave her a sour smile, "Ship's stores are running low on just about everything else."
She peered over his shoulder into the controls, "Trouble?"
He dragged a sweaty arm across his forehead. "Not yet. ..but the Reina wasn't designed for such a long run at maximum power. Several modulation crystals are already showing microfractures." Jenna cringed, "Supply should have spares."
"Enough for one complete replacement cycle," he agreed. "After that..."
"Then we'll just have to monitor them closely and power down whenever they show signs of overheating." Jenna stated with pained pragmatism.
"Which reduces our chances of catching up with Liberator in time to prevent Blake's strike against Star One practically to zero." Travis's face was haunted.
Equally grim, Jenna took the controls, sweeping the void with Reina's sensors "They may not be that far ahead. Blake has to alert other rebel cells if he wants to take advantage of the chaos after Star One is destroyed. And Avon will be resisting every step of the way; trying to prevent Blake from blundering headlong into another Federation trap."
Travis glanced at her sidelong, the ghost of a smile momentarily easing his bleak expression,"And if he's foolish enough to have taken on a Federation pilot, the two of us can easily outsmart and outfly any Academy trained hotshot"
Jenna focused on her piloting, bemused by what she'd just heard. Though Travis had supposedly given up his vendetta against Blake, his wariness of her had persisted, always keeping his guard up, as if expecting her to betray him at the first opportunity. Something had broken through his doubts and brought a newfound trust. Was it an unexpected side effect of the mnemonic cascade . . . or was there another reason?
Then the enigma was resolved late on the evening shift as they were reformatting the navigational data input.
"Just how many ships of your father's were you supposed to inherit?," he inquired with bland insouciance.
"Three Gryphon Class freighters," she answered without thinking, her attention still focused on the task. Then she looked up in shock at his unexplained, impossible knowledge of her past.
Then in a sudden jolt of fury, she erupted, "You were awake. . . conscious . . . after the cascade procedure. . . when I thought you were dying!"
"Sense of hearing is the last to go, so you might want to be a bit more cautious about what you say at deathbed confessions." A hint of his old sardonic look resurfaced "It could come back to haunt you. Besides, you wouldn't have wanted that wonderful wallow in guilt and self-pity to go unappreciated, did you?"
Jenna seethed with outrage at his mocking tone, until the ridiculousness of the whole situation hit home and she burst into laughter. "All I needed was a crying towel...and a long black veil. You bastard...well, what did you expect after your farewell declaration, `We'd have made a good team'?"
"Well, if Liberator doesn't blow us into asteroid dust, we still might." His voice turned pragmatic, "Just what's involved in reclaiming your `clan rights'?"
Jenna shot him a sharp look, then hesitantly began to explain. " Single women don't usually inherit trade ships in the Free Trader's Enclave. Instead, two families will negotiate a contract marriage, exchanging ships, trade rights, and market information."
"Sounds more like a business deal than a bonding."
"What's wrong with that?" Jenna bristled.
"How are they going to feel about you bringing in someone who doesn't have anything to offer in exchange?"
Travis's cynical smile was back, goading her "It's not always that cut and dried," she retorted tightly. "There are ways for a man to prove himself worthy to a woman's Clan. Tests of his ability to survive out on the Rim; to pilot, to fight, to command a crew's loyalty . . .and other things as well."
"What sort of things?" There was more curiosity than skepticism in his question and much to his surprise, Jenna was hesitant in her response.
"I'm not really sure," she hedged. "I didn't study the history records that closely."
Travis leaned back in the control seat, propping his ankle on his knee, studying Jenna coolly. She wasn't being totally honest with him. That much he could tell, but her reticence seemed more a kind of embarrassed discomfiture than any calculated deception. He clasped his hands behind his neck, gazing at her speculatively.
"Sounds risky. So. . .what's my percentage?"
Jenna stared at him, momentarily taken aback. If they survived this mad pursuit of Blake, Travis was actually willing to come with her back to the Enclave? To face those trials for her. . .or for a share of her inheritance? Or perhaps he just wanted to escape the past. . .even if it meant starting over as a Free Trader deckhand. Whatever his reasons, whether it was out of some sense of obligation to her or strictly business, value given for value received, she did not intend to let him get the upper hand in the bargain.
"Percentage," she answered wide-eyed. "I thought a flat-rate one-time fee would be sufficient. After all you still owe me for that cybernetic arm."
His grin was wolfish, "Considering my back pay and hazardous duty bonuses, that should be off the books by now."
"Hazardous duty bonuses?" she pursed her lips, thoughtfully. "Horizon was a milk run and..."
"Running guns to Avalon ought to count double, just for the verbal abuse," he challenged. "Let's make it a ninety/ten split. . .my favor."
"Your favor!" she bristled in feigned outrage, settling into the give and take of the bargaining, like slipping into a comfortable, well-worn pair of boots. "Why, any hired gun in the galaxy would gladly do it for ninety/ten...my favor!"
But I'm not just any hired gun, Stannis." His expression was suddenly gentle and possessive as he stroked her cheek gently with his noncybernetic hand. "What was it you told Avalon, `the toughest bastard in fifty parsecs'? Eighty/twenty."
Jenna's throat tightened as she stared into the brilliant grey-blue of his eye, alight with a surprising warmth. She swallowed hard, resolving not to let any quaver in her voice to betray her. "That's not necessarily an asset in proving your worth to the Enclave. Twenty/eighty." Her voice was steady and Travis's ardor subsided to a cool speculation.
But before their mock-serious bargaining could proceed any further, the proximity alarm sounded, pulling them back to the deadly business at hand. Travis quickly shut off the alarms nd activated their long-range scans. At the very outer edge of their screens was the off-center mass that could only be the artificial planetoid, Star One. Although Reina's detectors were no match for Liberator's in distance and sensitivity, they could only hope Blake would not be on the alert for a single small craft while Travis used every bit of his hard-won skill to make their ship resemble random floating space debris.
"Shut down all power except life support," he ordered sharply. "With our shields at maximum, hopefully there won't be any energy leakage for them to spot."
"What about our long range sensors?" Jenna glanced up from her survey of the planet, hoping to spot some sign of either the Liberator or the Federation base they intended to destroy. "Won't they be able to lock in on our signal?"
"Not if I bounce it off the planet and make it look like part of their sensor array." Travis was totally immersed in his camouflage operation, so Jenna continued her long-range scans, trying to pinpoint Liberator's orbital position.
In the red glare of their emergency lighting, Travis's profile was grim and intent as he studied the planet's surface searching for some hint of Blake's strategy. "The computer is in a hardened underground facility and the base itself too well-fortified for him to be able to blast it from orbit."
"I've pinpointed their orbital position," she stated with cool assurance then bit her lip before continuing, an uneasy sense of betrayal pulling at her conscience. "Our usual operation was to use the teleport to infiltrate our targets and plant explosives sited for maximum property damage with a minimum of casualties."
Travis nodded in absent approval of the tactic. "Since this facility is shielded, he'll have to find another way in. They may still be hunting for that entry, Jenna. We might have a chance to stop them."
Jenna nodded bleakly, not looking forward to that confrontation and Blake's probable reaction to her "disloyalty'. As she reset her scans for planetary readings, after locating Liberator, she noticed an odd echo, like an afterimage, at their outer range. Peering sharply at the screens, she was surprised at what they revealed.
"Travis, there's some kind of minefield out beyond the planet, millions of spacials wide. It's not part of the planetary defense system, toward the Inner Planets, but between it and the Andromeda Galaxy."
Reacting to the bafflement in her voice, Travis answered in a preoccupied tone. "Yeah, I remember its history from my indoctrination classes. Some sort of threat from the Andromedans during the early days of the Federation...an advance scouting party was captured and questioned, revealing plans to invade. Initially, the Federation Council planned to negotiate with them. Then politics changed and a more cautious approach was advocated, seeding the minefield as an early warning system." He glanced at her screen and its reading of those distant, deadly devices. "I guess they established Central Control out here when the threat within the Federation outweighed that of a phantom invading fleet that never arrived."
Jenna swallowed hard, staring at her long-range screens intently. "I think your phantom fleet may be more real than you think," she whispered in a dry voice. "There's something out there, Travis. A very large reflective anomaly, just beyond the resolution capability of our scans."
Travis stood over Jenna, peering down at the screen, trying to finetune the signal. "That's impossible. It just intergalactic dust or debris from malfunctioning mines. It can't be. . .not after all these years!"
His denials sounded lame even as he made them and Jenna responded quietly, "There's one way to be sure. Liberator's long range scans should be able to clearly identify whatever is out there."
"That proves it's just space dust," Travis snapped. "Blake wouldn't still be planning to destroy Star One if he spotted an invading enemy fleet on our doorstep."
Jenna shook her head in frustration. "All it proves is that he hasn't turned on his long-range sensors. He would have only been interested in short-range planetary defenses and how to avoid them."
"Assuming you're right," he demanded skeptically,"how do you plan to get aboard the Liberator to use her long-range scans?"
Jenna gave him a wistful smile, "I'm going to ask an `old friend' to let me in."
"Tarrant," Vila's voice beseeched over the comm from the teleport controls. "Why, do I have to stay down here at the teleport? We're in orbit now and everything's secure. Why can't I come up to the flight deck and let you keep an ear out for Blake's signal?"
"Besides. . .it's ever so much cozier, napping stretched out on one of the couches while you're supposed to be on watch," Tarrant muttered sharply under his breath, before raising his voice to remind the little lockpick of his responsibility. "Vila, when Blake comes charging out of that base, he's very likely to have several extremely irate Federation technicians in hot pursuit. Someone needs to stay at the teleport and bring them up without any delay. Besides, Blake ordered me to remain on the flight deck just in case any Federation pursuit craft come calling." He stared intently at the viewscreen and the odd blip drifting in their wake. "And there is something out there I don't like the look of." He switched off the comm before Vila could barrage him with a flood of fearful questions.
"Zen," he continued questioning the reticent, "can't you give me a better reading on that slow-moving piece of debris? At least some kind of surface scan?"
+Unable to comply. Shielding interferes with my scans.+
"Shielding?" Tarrant questioned sharply. "You mean it's man made and not a piece of rubble?"
+No conclusion possible due to lack of data.+
Hastily Tarrant switched on the short-range scans, putting them on a full 360-degree sweep. The anomalous blip seemed to be coasting in very close to Liberator's hull. Although Zen's deflector system should have kept it at a safe distance, Tarrant was alarmed when the automatic defenses did not activate and instead opened a docking port into the main hold. Although it was a tight squeeze for the mysterious object, something or someone guided it deftly in, touching down as lightly as a feather.
"Zen," Tarrant ordered sharply. "Activate automatic defense systems in the hold. Don't give whatever's out there access into the ship!" But the computer refused to acknowledge him, remaining perversely silent.
Cursing the uncooperative computer and wishing he had someone other than the cowardly lockpick to back him up, Tarrant grabbed a weapon, pausing only long enough to warn Vila of the possible encroachment. "Tell Orac to operate the teleport, Vila, and get up to the flight deck. Zen just allowed someone or something into our main hold and I want to know what their intentions are. Set the scans on long-range sweep while I deal with our visitors."
"Visitors!" Vila's boredom turned to alarm. "Orac, operate the teleport," he managed to gasp before scrambling frantically toward the flight deck and away from the potential danger.
Moments later after a hard run aft, Tarrant had his blaster aimed at the inner airlock door, with the question of why Zen had allowed this breach of the ship's defenses foremost on his mind. When the door cycled open, he had his answer.
"Jenna Stannis! Then you're the one who ordered Zen to let down the defensive screens..."
Jenna stared at the tall, curly-haired youth facing her, his blaster aimed at her chest. "You must be Blake's new pilot," she acknowledged flatly. "Look. . .I don't have time for chitchat. Where's Cally? I have to warn her."
Tarrant's eyes narrowed as he took in the dark, sinister-looking man at Jenna's side, recognizing him as well. "Commander Travis!?! What are you doing here. . .with her?" His voice was hard and his aim did not waver.
"I'll explain later," Jenna answered tersely, brushing past his weapon and heading for the flight deck. "Zen, activate long-range scans," she ordered with assurance.
+Confirmed+ the computer complied.
Tarrant gasped in outrage at the ship's mutinous compliance, bringing his weapon to bear on the blonde smuggler. But before he could fire, the inhuman grip of Travis's cybernetic hand forced his arm down as he snarled, "Drop it or I'll break your arm!"
Staring at the unlikely pair in confusion, Tarrant did as he was told, muttering in disbelief, "Blake erased your voice print from the computer. Why is Zen still obeying your orders?"
Jenna's face was enigmatic, "Zen and I were telepathically linked after Blake first boarded the ship. Zen knows my mind . . .intimately. I don't think it's possible for Blake to completely erase me from the memory banks...not unless I do something counter to Zen's programming."
They hastened through the companionways, Travis still maintaining a firm grip on Tarrant's arm as Jenna demanded impatiently, "Where's Cally?"
Despite his wariness, Tarrant saw no harm in telling Jenna the truth. Their presence here at the edge of the galaxy meant it was likely they also were aware of the importance of the planet below. But even if they intended to try and stop Blake from destroying Star One, they had no chance of succeeding.
"She's on the planet. . .with Blake and Avon."
Jenna groaned in dismay, "She was our only chance of convincing them! How long have they been down there?"
Tarrant was silent, uncertain, his gaze flickering between Liberator's former pilot and the ex-Federation officer who had been one of his heroes when he was at the Academy. "What's this all about? Convince them of what?"
"Not to destroy Star One," Jenna bit off sharply.
Tarrant's suspicions surged up again. Despite Zen's sanction, Jenna must have been suborned by Travis into working for the Federation if she was set on preventing the destruction of this base.
He spat out in accusation. " Why not?! It's the center of Federation power!"
"No!" Travis countered harshly. "It's the center of Federation computer control! Dammit boy, you were a Federation cadet, not some undisciplined revolutionary. You showed a faint grasp of reality in my Urban Tactics course. Surely you recognize the chaos that would result if the central computers are destroyed?"
Tarrant was momentarily abashed at the other man's critical outburst, then recovered his composure, retorting defiantly. "Could it be any worse than the bloody-handed oppression and destruction that the Federation already inflicts?"
Travis turned to Jenna, remarking with bitter irony, "Wonderful! Blake's managed to subvert one of `Space Command's finest' into another unthinking, idealistic terrorist!" Before she could respond, he had taken the younger man's tunic in both hands as though trying to shake some sense into him. "Listen to me, you young pup! You don't know the half of destruction and oppression that will follow the sabotage of Star One. Especially if those long-range detectors show what we suspect!"
Moments later, they burst onto the flight deck and found Vila mesmerized by the horrifying display on Liberator's main viewscreen. He nodded blankly at Jenna and Travis as if it was the most natural thing in the world to see Blake's worst enemy and his former pilot together on the flight deck. " `lo, Jenna, Travis. Fancy meeting you here. Tarrant, there's ships out there . . .lots and lots of ships. A whole fleet of nasty alien ships, in fact."
"Oh, shit!" Tarrant's voice was a shocked whisper as the full extent of the alien fleet was revealed on the main screen. "There's hundreds of them! And only that antimatter minefield is holding them back."
"And if Blake blows up Star one, not only does the minefield go down but half of Space Command will be crippled by the computer systems failures. Blake will be issuing an engraved invitation to those aliens to come in and obliterate humanity!" Travis spat in contempt.
Tarrant's expression was haunted, suddenly old beyond his years. "There's no way to reach Blake in time to stop him," he protested even as his brain raced, searching for a solution.
"Call down on the teleport bracelets," Jenna interrupted shrilly. "Warn him about the invading fleet!"
"I can't," the young pilot snarled in frustration. "The base is too well shielded. They teleported down outside and then ambushed a security patrol to get their uniforms."
Jenna froze, horrified by the thought that they had gone through so much only to be thwarted at the very last second, but Travis had no intention of giving up so easily. "Then someone's got to go down after him and warn him to abort the plan."
"I'll do it," Jenna promptly volunteered.
"He won't believe you," Tarrant advised, his voice tight with strain. "He doesn't trust anyone outside his crew anymore. This mission is too important to him. It has to be one of us." He quickly dismissed Vila's shivering figure. "Vila couldn't keep the message straight, besides there still might be Federation guards running loose."
He stared at Travis and Jenna in momentary suspicion, fearing if he left the ship, they would easily overwhelm Vila and take possession of Liberator. Was this all some kind of elaborate hoax on Travis's part?
Reading the doubt on the younger man's expressive features, Travis gave him a sardonic grin. "I'll be coming with you, Tarrant. Just to put your mind at ease. . .and cover your back."
"Are you insane?" Jenna breathed hoarsely. "If Blake sees you, he'll be certain it's a trap. This time he'll shoot you on sight. . .or Avon will. Let me back Tarrant up."
Travis gripped her shoulders firmly as he disagreed. "No, someone has to stay here and keep an eye on the situation. As soon as we teleport down, send a message to Space Command and warn them of the invasion. Even we manage to stop Blake, these aliens haven't come two million light years to let a mere antimatter minefield stand in their way!"
Tarrant winced at the idea of summoning Space Command's battle fleet while Liberator was still in the area, but realized that the threat to the human race was too great to do otherwise.
"What should I do after notifying Space Command?" she questioned bleakly.
"If we can't stop from blowing up the base, you may have to fight a holding action until the Fleet gets here. Think you can manage?" His mocking grin challenged her skill and, for the moment at least, overrode her rising anxiety about his dangerous mission.
"If I have to," she answered coolly. "But I'd prefer to see the five of you back on board, safe and sound, before Servalan and her ships arrive."
"That may not be possible, Jenna." He would not meet her eyes, checking the charge on the blaster he was carrying and refusing Tarrant's offer of one of Liberator's weapons. Finally, he gazed into her face before they went back to the teleport. "A good trader--like a good soldier--knows when to cut his losses and run."
Leaving Jenna with the cold, sinking sensation that she would never see him again, Travis stalked off the flight deck with Tarrant at his heels.
Once down on the planet's surface, the two former Federation officers covered each other's back as they scouted the terrain for any sign of security forces or Blake's landing party. But the cold, barren surface of the artificial world appeared to be totally deserted.
Scrambling down a slag-covered hillside, Travis spied one of the portals into the base standing ajar. Pausing momentarily before venturing inside, Travis glanced back at his onetime student. "Looks like they've already taken out the internal security forces. I just hope they haven't sabotaged the whole system yet."
"They haven't," Tarrant answered with growing assurance as they slunk cautiously past the outer security station. "The explosives they had would have blown this place to rubble if they'd already been detonated."
Prowling swiftly down the installation's corridors with their weapons primed, Travis was startled when they almost stumbled over a Star One lab suit crumpled into a pool of bottle-green sludge. As Tarrant watched in revulsion, Travis knelt to make a closer examination of the appalling slime.
Straightening and brushing off his hands in distaste, he remarked, "Unless Liberator's weapons have a power setting unlike anything I've seen before, Blake's isn't the only group that's infiltrated the base."
"You mean the aliens..." Tarrant stared in disbelief at the puddle at their feet.
"I presume they're determined to get their ships past that minefield one way or another." Travis unholstered his weapon as they continued furtively down the hall.
Following in his wake, Tarrant was still curious. "But how could they have gotten into the base itself?"
"If you can believe old intelligence reports, they were shape changers. Or maybe they just have better stealth technology. Let the after-action officers puzzle it out," the older man snarled. "But the odds against us just multiplied. . . with two groups set on sabotaging this base and one of them not even human!"
Suddenly a high-pitched whine of blaster fire alerted Travis and he took off at a dead run. Pausing at the end of the corridor, he peered warily around the corner before charging into the middle of an uncertain situation. There were a group of technicians in Federation uniforms firing at someone pinned down behind a stack of equipment. Momentary indecision wracked him, wondering if these were legitimate Federation scientists or their alien dopplegangers. But the question was rendered moot when one of them spotted him, crying out in warning. "It's another one of the terrorists. Behind us!"
He dived and rolled, evading their blaster bolts as he returned fire instinctively. Close behind, Tarrant laid down a rapid volley to give him a chance to get under cover. For a brief moment, he wished he'd worn his old Federation battledress; then at least he'd be certain who the enemy was, since only Blake or the aliens would be shooting at him. <No> he thought grimly. <The situation was already too volatile without making it worse. Convincing Blake of the imminent alien invasion would be difficult enough without waving that uniform in front of him like a red flag.>
Despite his misgivings, his and Tarrant's deadly aim quickly revealed the truth about their adversaries as the bodies dissolved into the same ameboid mass they had encountered earlier. <Shape-changers> he shivered in disgust. <Why the hell did the early Federation even consider negotiating with such inhuman things in the first place?> Glancing over at Tarrant, who had remained under cover, he realized that the aliens' target was still firing at the two of them.
Catching sight of the slender figure, half-hidden behind the boxes, Tarrant recklessly stuck his head around the corner and called to the pinned down rebel. "Cally! Hold your fire! It's me, Tarrant!"
Straightening cautiously from behind the sheltering boxes, the Auron guerilla glared in suspicion at her rescuers, keeping her weapon pointed at both of them. "Tarrant, why did you abandon your post? What are you doing down here. . .with him?"
Heedless of her dubious look, Tarrant charged forward, grasping her wrist, his whole body radiating the urgency and utter conviction of his warning."He came with Jenna.. . .to warn us. These aliens. . ." He gestured to the burbling mess at their feet. "They've infiltrated this base and they have a huge battle fleet just beyond the minefield that Star One controls. They're trying to destroy this base too, and if they succeed, or Blake does, nothing stands between them and the rest of the inhabited worlds. They'll sweep in and annihilate us."
"How do you know they're hostile?" she demanded.
"You don't bring a bloody armada if you're making a social call," Travis snapped. "I got a good look at some of their weaponry. Anti-proton beams and wide-range disrupters aren't your standard defensive armaments. Besides, sabotaging computer control systems isn't exactly a friendly gesture in anyone's first contact procedures."
Cally glared at the soldier, wanting to disbelieve, but sensing the absolute truth in his and Tarrant's words. Her gut roiled in horror at the catastrophe looming before them.
"We have less than ten minutes before our explosives are set to detonate."
As she hurriedly retraced her steps to retrieve her own strategically placed charges, Tarrant and Travis followed while she attempted to direct them to Blake's and Avon's locations. "Avon took the computer center and Blake was going to place his in the power core, to assure the system couldn't be brought back on line soon."
She linked with their minds briefly, trying to mentally project a map of the base but neither man was able to receive more than a fuzzy outline. Despite the limited time, Tarrant did not want the three of them to separate. The idea of sending his onetime worst enemy after Blake alone, raised serious doubts in the young pilot's mind.
"We can't split up," he ground out.
"We have to," Cally disagreed. "There's no other way to remove all of the charges in time." Without giving Travis a second look, Cally sprinted down the hallway to gather the charges she had planted throughout the base. Staring uncertainly at his former mentor, Tarrant could only trust that Cally was sensitive enough to read any guile or deliberate malice within Travis's mind.
As they hastily parted, Travis had his own doubts about the outcome of any encounter with the other two men within that underground maze. He hoped it would be Avon, if a confrontation was inevitable. At least the computer expert was reputed to have an aversion for unnecessary violence. He was certain if he and Blake crossed paths again, considering their long bitter enmity, violence would be the unavoidable outcome. Even though he was no longer obsessed with killing the rebel leader, there was too much hate and bad blood between them to be so easily forgotten.
Fortunately, luck seemed to be running his way for once. Even though it was the generator room he happened on first, it was deserted. Blake had apparently set his charges and then departed. In a feverish haste, Travis ripped open cabinets and panels searching for anything resembling the image of the explosives that Cally had placed in his mind during their brief contact. With a sigh of relief , he quickly located the three bombs, strategically placed where they would cripple the power core. Assuring himself that they were merely on timer and did not have motion sensors, he quickly detached them from their moorings, bundled them together, and sprinted for the door to dispose of
them on the planet's surface.
Only to find Blake's sturdy figure blocking the doorway, his face contorted in righteous fury and his gun aimed straight at Travis's chest. "I should have known you'd be here to try and stop me. All those rumors about your defection. . .being on the run from Servalan. . .were lies! Federation propaganda! You think you've won again, don't you? Like on Earth when you killed Kasabi . . .and Gan! Gloating over your victory! You may have deceived Cally with your lies, but it doesn't matter. The explosives Avon and I have planted are enough to destroy this whole base. . .and take the Federation with it!"
"Blake!" Travis's voice rumbled low in his throat, his teeth grinding together in rage. Groping for self-control, he tried to speak calmly. . .rationally, so Blake would at least listen to his warning. "There's an alien armada on the other side of the minefield Star One controls. If you destroy this base. . ."
"No!," Blake choked out, his fury barely contained. "More lies. .. like all the other delusions that the Federation used to poison my life, my mind, even my past."
"It's the truth," he pleaded desperately."Call up to your ship. Ask Vila. Ask Jenna! She'll tell you about the aliens, out there. . .waiting for the minefield to be neutralized!"
"Jenna?" Blake whispered, his face pale as salt. Then anger and betrayal gleamed pitch black out of the abyss in his eyes. "Another poisonous lie. Jenna's gone. . .forever. She wouldn't come back. . . not with the likes of you!" Consumed by his growing outrage, Blake did not hear the approach of the alien doppleganger.
""Blake," Travis gritted out, trying to warn the rebel as he clawed for his blaster.
Blake fired first, his weapon searing into the right side of Travis's chest, higher than he intended but still dropping the Federation officer to his knees, gasping at the white-hot pain.
Choking on the blood filling the back of his throat, Travis could only watch helplessly as Blake was caught in the back by the alien's weapon and blown spread-eagled to the floor inches away from his rapidly darkening vision. Reacting blindly, Travis blasted the ambusher into pieces of green slime, although not in time to save Blake.
Swaying on his knees, Travis fought the blinding agony that threatened to drag him into the darkness. He knew that he had some urgent task to accomplish, a life-or-death mission he couldn't ignore! If he could just put purpose and action together in his mind. If Servalan's mocking voice would only stop echoing in his head, the result of years of insidious programming. <Blake's dead, now you can die! Blake's death was the only purpose remaining in your life!>
"No," he gasped in denial. "Can't die. Got to get. . .take the bombs. . .get them outside. . .away from the base." His vision grayed in and out, as images of the deadly consequences of the destruction of Star One rippled though his mind like fever dreams. One in particular, a beautiful woman piloting a valiant ship, facing a deadly alien armada. . .alone.
"No!" He sucked in the air hungrily, ignoring the agony that knifed through him as he reached dizzily for the bombs that had fallen out of his grip when Blake shot him. But a rolling heave shook him off his knees and across the rebel's limp body. He stared in bleary confusion at the still intact
bombs after the ground stopped shifting beneath him. <That wasn't the bombs...> he thought dazedly.<They're still here...and so am I.>
A dark-clad figure charged into the room with his gun poised to fire at the first suspicious move. "Blake, we've got to get out of here. The base is under attack . . ."
The half-shouted warning died in his throat as he took in the blood-spattered bodies before him. Disregarding the green alien slime as irrelevant, Avon knelt beside Blake's prone form, feeling gently for a pulse. When he found what he was seeking, he straightened, turning a cold ruthless glare on the semi-conscious figure sprawled across Blake. After pushing him off with the toe of his boot,. Avon pressed the barrel of his gun against Travis's temple.
"He's still alive, Travis. Pity. Looks like you'll have to make your trip to hell alone."
<"Stop!!"> The combination of verbal and telepathic commands froze Avon before he could fire and he spun around in a gunfighter's crouch to confront Cally and Tarrant.
The Auron poured a rapid-fire telepathic recap of the impending alien invasion into Avon's stony-visaged skepticism as Tarrant scooped up the explosive charges Travis had retrieved.
The young pilot abruptly cut across her explanation. "That's three, Cally! How many more?"
"Just Avon's two in the main computer controls," she gasped.
Grabbing Avon's arm, Tarrant manhandled the irate computer expert back towards the main control room that he'd just departed. As they hastened away, the older man hissed, "There's no time, Tarrant! We have less than a minute until they detonate!"
"Then tell me where the others are before you dump those outside," Tarrant demanded, charging down the corridor with Avon reluctantly following.
Left behind with the two critically wounded men, Cally quickly applied a pressure dressing to slow the gush of blood from Travis's chest before turning her attention to Blake's condition.
"It just missed the spine," she muttered to herself, "but there may be substantial damage to his internal organs. The medical unit on Liberator ought..."
Before she could finish, there was another rolling heave that nearly shook Travis down from the wall where Cally had propped him to aid his breathing. It did pitch the Auron to the floor as the lighting flickered and went dark and the overhead panels cracked, raining dust and plasform on the trio. Cally threw herself on top of Blake's body, attempting to shield him from the falling debris. Travis's position against the wall helped him escape the worst of it.
"He didn't find them in time," Cally's voice echoed agonized out of the darkness and Travis had to agree. Even if the base was under attack by aliens, that blast was too close to be anything but one of Blake's explosive charges. It had probably obliterated that headstrong former student of his and Blake's cold-eyed computer expert at the same time.
Long moments passed in the darkness. Finally certain that there would be no further explosions, Cally shook off the debris that had showered down on her and climbed shakily to her feet. Groping warily through the dusty gloom, she reached for her patients, trying not to trip over them.
" I did not bring any type of emergency lighting so you must tell me if you have been injured again." She paused. "Travis, are you all right?"
"I'll live," he answered sourly. "For the moment at least."
She held her hand in front of Blake's face, feeling for his breathing. "Blake also lives, although his condition is not good. We cannot remain here. I'll see if the main exit is still open. If not, we'll have to find another way to the surface so Jenna can teleport us back to Liberator."
While Cally checked to see if the corridor had been blocked off by falling debris, Travis did not mention it was likely that Jenna was no longer in orbit above the planet. If that blast had taken out the defensive shields as Blake planned, she and Vila would be making a last desperate stand against the alien armada. By the time the Federation arrived, even if Jenna and Liberator managed to survive, he and Blake would be long dead from shock and blood loss. Still, there was no reason to dash the small hope Cally held for their survival. He'd done her enough harm in the past.
Cally stumbled back from the corridor, shifting debris and coughing hoarsely as she knelt beside him. "It's clear for about five meters. Then we'll have to crawl the rest of the way. Do you think you can make it?"
"If I have to," he answered tightly. "What about him?" he gestured to the still unconscious Blake.
"I'll move you first and then drag him," she answered thin-lipped, as sweat trickled down her dust-smeared face.
He licked cracked lips, steeling against the agony searing through his chest as Cally dragged him to his feet. "Too bad about Tarrant," he gasped. "Damned hotheaded pilots always think they can outrun the laws of physics."
A ghostly chuckle echoed in the darkness. "Maybe we can't outrun them, but if we're quick enough, occasionally, we can sidestep them." Panting and bloody, but unbowed, Tarrant pushed his way though the debris, followed by Avon, who was also still breathing hard.
Easing Travis back to the floor, Cally knelt beside Avon at Blake's side.
"How is he?" the computer expert demanded.
"His spine is undamaged but there may be internal injuries. Let me check his dressing again before you and Tarrant start to move him." Avon nodded, glowering in Travis's direction.
The Auron placed a restraining hand on his shoulder. "He came to warn us about the aliens. . . and I sensed no malice towards Blake when I read him earlier. He didn't shoot Blake. It was one of the alien infiltrators."
"Perhaps not," the computer tech turned a dark-eyed gaze on Travis who grimaced while Tarrant reinforced his saturated dressing. "But he is as devious as Servalan. Don't rule out deliberate poor timing that allowed the alien to do his dirty work for him."
"That doesn't sound like the Travis I remember."
Avon watched Cally work on Blake, stating in a dry remote tone. "I contacted Jenna while we were on the planet's surface after the bombs exploded. Despite the fact the defensive minefield is still intact, the aliens are beginning to clear a pathway by using drone ships to detonate the mines. She says we only have a few minutes until Liberator is under attack. Can Blake be moved yet?"
Cally nodded, "He's stable for now. Just let me check on Travis and we can leave."
Tarrant surveyed his makeshift dressing somewhat critically before answering Travis's question about his narrow escape. "We got all of the bombs out except one Avon planted in the automatic control systems. The main computers are still intact but they need to be monitored manually. Otherwise the system begins to oscillate out of control."
Cally's approach interrupted the pilot. As she knelt to inspect Tarrant's handiwork, she drew a hypo from her kit. Travis grasped her wrist weakly to prevent her from giving him the injection.
"It's only a mild opiate," she stated in a flat, dispassionate voice."Moving you into teleport range will be. . . painful. This will help."
"I'm not going with you," he rasped.
"Why not?" Despite her hatred of the ex-Federation officer, Cally was perturbed by his refusal. "You . . . have no reason to fear us."
"You heard what Tarrant said," he answered hoarsely. "With the automatics trashed, the system won't last until the Fleet arrives. Someone has to man those controls to slow down the aliens and prevent this station from being destroyed."
"So the Federation retains control of its colonies," Cally answered stiffly, certain they had been tricked by him again.
"Take a long look at that armada when you get back to your ship, Auron. I doubt there will be much left of Space Command. . .or the Federation, after this battle. But at least we gave them a chance to go down fighting. . .instead of dying in their bunks from bloody systems failures."
Cally would not meet his eye, remembering her own doubts on the way to Star One. It shamed her to see the human side of this Federation "butcher". Even if it was only a pretense to preserve the Federation's tyranny, somehow it felt like the truth; the action of a rational man and not a psychopath. Especially considering the weakness that left his mental shields wide open.
Tarrant interrupted with his usual brash assurance. "Jenna got through to Command HQ and the Fleet is on its way. Surely the system can hold together that long?'
Setting his jaw, Travis disagreed. "If the aliens are already cutting through the minefield the Fleet will have a running battle just to get here. Someone has watch the perimeter defenses, or this base will be nothing but dust before they're close enough to land. " He coughed then spat blood, breathlessly appealing to the younger man. "Hold them off, Tarrant. . . and buy the Fleet a little time."
The pilot glanced uncertainly toward Avon and Cally, knowing they had little reason to risk their lives for the Federation's sake, then answered with a defiant bravado. "I'll do what I can."
Avon shook his head in disgust at Tarrant's suicidal impulsiveness and Travis's pretended self-sacrifice. "I think I'll just stick around too, Commander," he volunteered disdainfully. "To forestall any plans you might have of using this base to further your own ambitions after the Fleet arrives. Besides, if Tarrant is engaging in his usual impetuous heroics, this complex will undoubtedly be the safest place for the duration of the battle."
Travis glared at him bleakly, "Do you really want to fall into Servalan's hands? I won't be taken alive. Can you say the same?"
For long moments, Avon stared at the former officer, noting his blood-soaked tunic and the cold greyish tinge to his skin. Ambition seemed a hollow threat since Travis appeared unlikely to survive until the Fleet arrived. He nodded a reluctant concession to the man's relentless logic, then turned to help Tarrant with Blake.
Cally had hurriedly sorted through her medical supplies before helping Travis over to one of the consoles. As she placed the medpads within easy reach, she abruptly labeled them.
"These are stimulants and the others a quick-acting pain-killer that shouldn't make you drowsy." She gazed at him with a detached clinical concern. "Or alleviate the shock to your system. How much longer do you think you can hold out?" He was obviously bleeding into the chest and it was only a matter of time until his lungs filled with blood.
"I don't know. How long do you think you can?" The savagery in his expression reminded her of Centero, sending a frisson of fear shivering across her skin.
"Against an entire alien armada? I don't know if my companions are that suicidally inclined. . . even to save billions of lives," she answered doubtfully.
"Blake and that blasted ship had the Fleet chasing its tail for over a year. Surely you aren't intimidated by a few hundred aliens?" Breathless as he was, the sarcasm still bit.
Cally gazed into his face, seeing the shadow of death there. Hastily she averted her eyes before answering reluctantly. "I will try to convince the others, but do not expect too much." As she turned to leave, he gave her a gravel-voiced farewell. "You're a hell of a warrior, Auron. It was good fighting by your side . . . for a short while."
She did not acknowledge his parting salute but only ran swiftly for the exit.
Vila gaped in horror at the gory mess that materialized in the teleport chamber when Avon finally called for retrieval. Once he realized that most of the blood covering Tarrant and Avon was someone else's, he was able to get his stomach under control. . .until he caught sight of Blake's limp body and realized he was the source!
Jenna called sharply over the comm. "Are they up yet, Vila? I'm tired of sparring with these aliens while Avon takes the scenic route."
"Take us out of orbit, Jenna! Those are only advance scouts. Unfortunately, the rest of the armada will be following close behind!" Avon's voice was harsh with a tightly controlled fury. They were in the path of an impending invasion because of Blake and he doubted even Liberator could get them out of this hopeless situation alive. "Tarrant, get up to the flight deck and do what you can to keep this ship in one piece."
"Avon," Cally's voice was low and urgent. "I need your help getting Blake to the medical unit. He's bleeding again."
Vila fidgeted momentarily, not certain which way to run. He had a stash of soma in the medical unit, but he didn't want to get underfoot and risk Cally's ire while she was tending to Blake. Besides, his stomach was unsettled by the sight of all that blood, even if it wasn't his. On the flight deck, the battle shouldn't be as messy. At least he hoped not.
He hurried forward, hoping to arrive in one piece as Jenna put the ship through a series of stomach-churning evasive maneuvers. As he stumbled onto the flight deck, he spied Tarrant at the weapons console, targeting their alien foes while Jenna eluded their tracking beams. Vila managed to drag himself over to Avon's usual position by the force wall controls.
For long moments there was little said except the minimum necessary to coordinate attack and defense while they engaged three of the alien ships pursuing them. As the last ship exploded in superheated plasma burst, Jenna mopped the sweat from her eyes and took advantage of the momentary respite to demand an explanation.
"What the hell went wrong down there, Tarrant? I thought you said you'd found Blake and stopped him in time. But the aliens are getting through! Where is everybody?" There was a hint of growing hysteria in her voice.
"The aliens had infiltrated the base and were trying to destroy it when we arrived. There was a firefight. . .and Blake and Travis were wounded. We weren't able to remove all the explosives in time." Tarrant slumped wearily.
Jenna's lush mouth was pinched and drawn. "Then we don't have a prayer." She shook her hair back, "I guess Cally is tending Travis and Blake down in the medical unit."
Tarrant would not meet her eyes. "She and Avon are with Blake. Travis remained on Star One."
Her face flushed in outrage, "You let them abandon him to die down there!" She gripped the control pylons, preparing to steer Liberator back to the besieged planetoid.
Tarrant grabbed her wrists to forestall that impulsive action. "It was his decision, Jenna. The automatics were destroyed in the blast. Someone had to remain behind and operate the controls manually to keep the defensive field intact as long as possible. It's our only chance for survival."
"I thought we were going to run for it," she whispered hoarsely. "Leave the Federation. . . and Travis. . . to fend for themselves."
"He urged us to fight a delaying action and keep the Andromedans at bay until the Fleet arrived." Tarrant's expression was somber.
"Did Blake agree?"
"He was unconscious when we teleported up. Avon went with Cally when she took him to the medical unit."
Jenna did not need to hear any more. Blake was wounded, possibly even dead, leaving Avon in command of Liberator. She knew he was too much the pragmatist to risk his life or this ship in some reckless skirmish with the Federation's enemies. He'd run for it and let them fight their own battles, leaving Blake and his rebel cadres to salvage whatever remained.
Plotting a course that would take them away from the battle zone, she prepared to lay it into the navigation controls.
"Zen, put the battle computer on line," she ordered calmly.
Tarrant glanced over in surprise. "Why'd you do that? The two of us can fly circles around Zen's standard programming."
"I know," she answered softly. "But when Avon gives the order to run, I'm taking the Reina back to Star One."
"But you'll be right in the middle of the attack!"
"Someone has to delay the aliens and buy Travis some time." she shrugged casually. "I don't have anything better to do."
"Are you insane?" Tarrant demanded with his usual tact. "Your ship's a blockade runner. She won't last thirty seconds against those alien cruisers."
Jenna's proud defiant look was her only reply.
Avon strode angrily onto the flight deck in a vile mood, right into the middle of their argument. Abruptly noticing Jenna standing away from the helm and the odd expression on Tarrant's face, he addressed them in his usual acerbic drawl.
"If this is some sort of strange piloting ritual, do get on with it. Blake is committed to his usual suicidal folly and I'd like to do whatever is possible to improve our chances of survival."
"What. . . " Jenna stared at the irate but obviously resolved computer expert.
"Guilt or approaching death has shaken Blake loose from what little common sense he had." He glared at Jenna. "Or perhaps he's just determined to emulate Travis's shining example. Whatever his reasons, we are expected to stand between the Federation and the much deserved retribution presently descending on them. . .to the last man if necessary."
"To the last man!" Vila moaned. "Why us, Avon?"
"Ask Blake," he retorted sourly, glaring at Jenna. "We're holding the aliens back until Space Command's Battle Fleet arrives to take up the gauntlet. Any estimates, Jenna?"
"The closest are elements of the Eighth Sector Fleet and they're still at least six hours away at top speed."
"Well," Avon remarked with his usual scorn, "let's hope they are making top speed. Tarrant, take Blake's position. Vila, get back to your controls."
The lockpick stared with dismay at the appalling scene in their main viewscreen as Jenna steered Liberator toward the oncoming fleet. He moaned in distress, "Avon, this is stupid!"
"When did that ever stop us?" was the snarled reply.
"They're coming through," Jenna warned tensely.
Travis hunched over the computer controls in Star One, watching the base's main viewscreen while Liberator battled the advance wave of alien ships coming through the minefield. But despite Jenna's canny piloting, in the past hour several smaller ships had eluded their neutron blasters and made strafing runs on Star One, severely draining the base's energy reserves and depleting his remaining strength as well.
Staring blurrily at Liberator's gallant stand against the invading force, he whispered weakly, "You're a hell of a pilot, Stannis, and a hell of a woman. I just wish. . ."
He viciously suppressed that useless, maudlin thought, turning his long-range scanners to their most extreme setting. If his failing senses could still be trusted, those tiny pinpoints of light at the edge of the screen should be the advance elements of Space Command's Fleet. Minutes later, they must have registered on Liberator's screens because the rebel cruiser broke off engagement, limping away from the aliens at approximately standard by two.
He slumped weakly back in the control seat, no longer concerned with the sorties and skirmishes of the Terran Fleet against their invading foes. Jenna's part in the battle was over. She was safe now. Or at least as safe as she could be in the company of a foolhardy fanatic like Blake. Still, she was safer with the rebels, he supposed, than smuggling on the Rim under the dubious protection of an ex-Federation officer who was number one on Servalan's personal hit list.
He tried to wipe the cold sweat from his face but neither arm seemed to be functioning anymore. His eye fluttered closed, recalling the bargain they'd struck. Too bad he wouldn't be able to help her claim her inheritance. It might have meant a fresh start. . .a new life. No chance of that now. Not anymore.
Duty forced his eye open again, peering dimly at the defensive controls. They were holding steady for the moment. Ought to run without his supervision for a little while. At least until the advance elements of the Fleet grounded. He just needed to rest for a few minutes. He was so tired. . . couldn't even feel the pain in his chest any longer. Everything faded to grey around him as silence enfolded him in a soft, comforting blanket. Tender and warm. . .like Jenna's hands. . .Jenna's voice.
His head dropped limply.
Suddenly someone was shaking him roughly and a harsh, frightened voice berated him. "Wake up, Travis! Don't quit on me now! Here, take a deep breath." A mask was pressed over his nose and mouth and pure oxygen pushed deep into his laboring lungs, bringing him back to sudden painful awareness. He coughed and choked bloodily while Jenna raised his shoulders to help him catch his breath.
"What are you doing here?" he gasped. "I saw Liberator leave. . .just after the Fleet arrived."
"I took the Reina and ran," she answered shortly, working with clumsy haste, administering injections and adjusting his blood-soaked dressing.
"You left Blake?" he questioned, trying to push the mask away and wincing as she did several uncomfortable things to his back and chest. "Why? You were safe there. What the hell are you doing here? Got to leave. . .this sector is swarming with Space Command ships."
"I know," she answered shortly. "I was dodging pursuit ships all the way in from primary orbit. I shook them off for the moment. Now just shut up and let me work. Cally told me what to do but we were both in a bit of a rush."
He held his peace because he was too short of breath to argue. Momentarily the jagged pain subsided into a dull throbbing ache as she muttered, "That should hold you together until we get to the ship."
"Why. . ."
"Later, Travis," she cut him off impatiently, then gazed at him with a strange undercurrent of tenderness that alarmed him. "Right now we've got to get away before the shock troops hit dirtside."
Glancing around the debris-strewn control room, his breathing was a ragged gasp. "Not a lot for them to do. . .except pick up the pieces. . . with remotes slagged. . .need a bloody battalion. . .to keep critical systems online."
He slumped against her shoulder as they lurched through the deserted base and Jenna rattled on, trying to hold his wavering attention so he wouldn't black out again.
"It will take the Federation years to rebuild the central computer, if they even have the resources. And the planetary governments will have a chance to upgrade their own systems, rather than depend on the Federation any longer."
"May not have the parts...or skills," he wheezed.
"Blake and his rebels will figure out a way to supply them. Or maybe we can...for a price."
"Doing your bit for his cause?" he prodded her, then suddenly felt the pain gripping him viselike once again. "How much farther?" his voice little more than a hoarse gasp.
"Not far...just another couple of meters."
His knees started to buckle, until Jenna was practically dragging him into the airlock and down the companionway to the medical alcove. By that time his face was gray and his life signs ebbing dangerously as she shoved him onto the couch and hurriedly activated the medical unit. Despite her urgent haste to get them offplanet, she paused long enough to stroke his face tenderly, murmuring in a soothing voice.
"It's all right. . .we're safe now. We're home."
With those softly whispered words the last thing in his mind, Travis surrendered to the dark.
"Dammit, Stannis!. Don't you have anything better to do? Like blow up a Federation outpost?"
That raspy voiced irritation was a welcome balm to Jenna's nerves as she dragged Travis out into the medcenter's sunny enclosed courtyard. Impatiently he shrugged off her supporting arm, moving hesitantly at first then with growing confidence as they strolled down one of the neatly landscaped pathways. But he remained sullen and withdrawn, deliberately ignoring the rich cascade of colors and intoxicating scents filling the air.
Considering that he'd been almost moribund when she'd rushed him into the receiving center of this small but well-equipped medcenter on Kellog IV, his rapid physical improvement was little short of miraculous. Still, ever since he'd regained consciousness, his moods had fluctuated from surly to morose to total withdrawal. Jenna was determined to get to the bottom of whatever was bothering him and that was the reason she stubbornly forced him out of his darkened room into the quiet sunlit courtyard.
He slouched on a rough hewn stone bench; elbows propped on his knees, hands dangling loose, glaring at the myriad brightly colored insects spiraling from flower to flower.
Sitting down beside him, Jenna demanded in exasperation, "Just what is your problem, Travis? You've been grimmer than a trooper with empty pockets and a four-day layover in Freedom City. Aren't you grateful the aliens were defeated and civilization isn't crumbling around our ears? Or are you sulking because Servalan escaped the destruction of her flag ship? Or the fact that Blake and Liberator are still at large?"
Travis ignored her deliberate provocation, still glowering at the colorful gardens for long moments before glancing at her sidelong. "I was surprised Liberator stayed as long as she did, holding off the aliens. Tarrant must have had more of an influence on Avon than I credited him. . .or was that your doing?"
"It was Blake's, actually," she answered in wry amusement. "When he regained his senses and saw the size of the alien armada, he realized the devastation they would cause on the undefended Outer Worlds. He persuaded Avon to stay and fight...since you'd already won over Tarrant and Cally."
He nodded, still perplexed by the enigma of the Auron guerilla, but persisted with his questions, an edgy uncertainty in his voice. "But why did you come back for me? With Star One powerless. . . and Space Command crippled by their battle with the Andromedans, Liberator has free run of the galaxy now. Even if the Federation still exists, its control of its member worlds will be nonexistent. Blake's won. Though I doubt he'll ever realize the real price of his victory.
Jenna grimaced at the bitter note in his voice, well aware that despite his break with Servalan, in many ways he still felt bound by old loyalties to Space Command. That divided loyalty disturbed her, but they had other issues to resolve today. Deeply personal ones that would be the crux of any relationship between them, now and in the months to come. If they could just find some common ground.
Clasping her hands in her lap, she stared down at her interlaced fingers. "Yes, Blake has won. And he'll never give up his Cause now. Crusading on, to free the oppressed and overthrow tyrants on every forgotten, backwater world. Playing hero to half the galaxy. But I never wanted a hero. Just a man -- bold, keen-witted, and stubborn enough to stand beside me to reclaim my inheritance."
"And you think I'm that man."
The jagged edge in his voice tore at her heart but Jenna lifted her chin, defiantly.
"It's a chance to make a new start, to be your own man and not a Federation puppet. Break away from your past," she answered firmly. "Unless you'd prefer to go back to wearing Servalan's collar for another chance at Blake."
Ignoring her harsh words, Travis did not respond. Despite the sunny warmth of the courtyard, he sat in shadows, cold as stone; his gaze fixed on some distant time and place. Jenna twisted her hands, feeling him slip away from her.
He looked up, grim-faced as he spoke in a hoarse whisper. "All my adult life I served in Space Command; following orders, trying to be a good soldier and a good officer. Until Servalan had her puppeteer twist my mind and strip me of my humanity to forge me into her weapon against Blake."
He stared down at his cyberhand, clenched at those memories of his dark past,"At my courtmartial, even the presiding officers denounced me as less than human. . ."
The knot inside Jenna's chest tightened at those bitter words. Even though he'd given up his vendetta against Blake, he still nurtured a cold deadly rage.
"Cally was right, I guess," she muttered in resignation. "A leopard can't change his spots."
Mention of the Auron's name momentarily shocked Travis out of his self-indulgent recollection of the abuse he'd suffered at the Federation's hands, recalling his own hands weren't so lily-white either.
Cally had more reason than Blake did to wish him dead after what he'd done her on Centero. Yet, she had saved his life on Star One. . . when Avon would have finished what Blake started. She'd even tended his wounds and given Jenna the medical supplies that kept him alive until they reached Kellog IV. He'd understood her anger and desire for vengeance when they had crossed paths on Horizon, but her compassion at Star One mystified him.
Suddenly he recalled Jenna's foolhardy charge between the two of them in that bar . . .and the soft-spoken words he had later overheard. Other memories of Jenna surged up, like sunlight breaking through a stormfront. How she'd snatched Servalan out from under the senior echelon's noses, to rescue Blake from his trap. Her steely resolve against the lynch mob on Jade. Her outspoken defiance in the face of Avalon's outrage. Now she was offering him the chance to have that fierce loyalty and unflinching courage by his side, covering his back. All he had to do was let go of his past and the hatred that had consumed him for so long.
For her sake . . .and his own.
He turned towards her, tentative, wary, but holding out his hand. "You disagreed with her that night, saying I was a man. . . not an animal. A dangerous man, it's true. . . and still the toughest bastard in fifty parsecs, if that's what you want. . . partner."
Partner? Jenna felt her icy uncertainty slowly melt in the warm regard of his gaze. Whether this temporary alliance would ever become more than strictly business was something only the future would reveal. But for now she had no intention of allowing him to think he was in control, just because she'd offered him a share of the deal.
"Partner," she sniffed. "You mean you'll take twenty-five percent of the profits and I'll do seventy-five percent of the work."
"No...a fifty-fifty split will be fine." His voice held a hint of mellow laughter.
"I can see we still have some serious negotiating to do." She shook her head in amusement and led him back inside.
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