The Best RevengeBy Alice C. Aldridge
Time shifted backwards and he broke into a cold sweat, his heart pounding heavily. For a moment he believed was still in the grim holding cell in Space Command HQ awaiting his court martial. That secret Star Chamber tribunal was ostensibly convened to bring him to "justice" for the murder of civilians on Zircaster, although in actuality its purpose was to silence him about the debacle surrounding Blake's raid on Central Control in the Forbidden Zone. But he no longer wore Space Command black, nor was he sequestered within the gunmetal walls of Servalan's headquarters.
Instead he sat, nude and shivering, his body covered with welts and bruises he had no memory of acquiring. A stained grey utility coverall lay crumpled at his feet and with pain-wracked deliberation, he donned it in an attempt to ward off the bone deep chill pervading his cell. His surroundings had the typical prison stench of vomit, urine, and old blood, but the stink was overlaid with heavy chemical odors as well.
Where in the two hundred civilized worlds was he? How had he gotten here? Was this another session with one of Servalan's psychostrategists? Or something worse?
He glanced around hopelessly, then slumped in a corner and buried his face in his hands trying to put the jigsaw puzzle of images within his mind into some kind of coherent whole. With a kaleidoscopic burst, events of the past six months broke through the white wall of pain blocking them and Travis remembered why he was alone and abandoned in this sterile laboratory cell.
That farce of a trial had been the final straw that shattered his loyalty to Space Command and when Blake's raid on HQ provided him the opportunity to escape Servalan's control, he'd taken his chance and run. That reckless strike resulted in Blake's disillusioned pilot, Jenna Stannis, calling it quits, as well. While they were separately running for their lives, an unfortunate clash with a Federation pursuit squadron left them stranded together on a lifeless, inhospitable world. Forced to cooperate for mutual survival, they forged an uneasy alliance to repair Jenna's ship, the Reina del Sol and escape the planet.
After reaching the Rim Worlds, they intended to go their separate ways, but reality dictated otherwise. His reputation as Servalan's bloodhound made him a hunted man, unable to sell his weapon's skills to the highest bidder as he'd planned. While Jenna discovered competent, trustworthy crewmembers weren't so easy to find for resuming her smuggling career on the lawless border of Federation space
Forced by circumstance to continue working together, their grudging respect for one another's skills slowly grew into a wary partnership that managed to survive confrontations with two of Jenna's former allies - Cally and Avalon. Both rebels had more than sufficient reason to shoot him on sight, until Jenna interceded and forced them to curb their homicidal impulses because she "needed" him.
Need. Much too weak a word to describe the emotions searing through his body like liquid fire as he recalled Jenna's velvet mouth and soft panting cries that reawakened desires long suppressed by the discipline of the service. Or how her warm hands soothed his nightmare haunted sleep when the savage past threatened to overwhelm him. Warm, gentle hands-not blood-stained and corpse-cold, like Servalan's mutoid guards. His memories burned cold recalling how Servalan had had a neural augmenter had implanted in his cybernetic arm to fuel his hatred of Blake and transform him from a loyal Federation officer to psychopathic killing machine.
He massaged his temples slowly as he sifted through those emotion-charged images, still attempting to recall the sequence of events that led him here.
He and Jenna had just developed a cautious working relationship when they got wind of Blake's intention to sabotage Star One. Although they wanted no part of that insane suicidal strike, old loyalties and genuine fear of the chaos likely to result from the base's destruction forced them to follow Liberator to the galaxy's edge. When they discovered the Andromedan fleet lurking just beyond Star One's minefield, it made their effort to stop Blake that much more urgent.
His mouth twisted in a caustic, self-mocking smile. He and Blake had finally confronted one another in Star One's underground control room and, for Jenna's sake, he'd tried reasoning with the rebel rather than shooting him on sight. More the fool he! Blake had not exercised similar restraint, with the result that both of them were out of action before the aliens launched their attack on Star One. Jenna and Blake's new pilot, Del Tarrant, had led Liberator's crew in a desperate last-ditch holding action until the Galactic Eighth Fleet had arrived to finish off the alien armada. Afterwards, Jenna had come after him on Star One and they'd escaped Federation pursuit ships by the skin of their teeth,
Though Jenna had alluded to reclaiming her ships before the battle, only afterwards while he was convalescing from his injuries, did she fully explain what was involved. Years before, after her father and mother were killed in a clash with a Federation border patrol. Jenna, a pilot-apprentice, had vowed to avenge them. To stop her, her uncle, as First Captain of her clan, had negotiated a marriage contract to stop her from pursuing that vendetta. So Jenna fled the Enclave to work as free-lance pilot and smuggler and strike back against the Federation when ever she could. She also searched for a man strong enough to help her reclaim those ships, which was the chief reason she'd found Blake's charisma and persuasive abilities so appealing.
Only Blake had other plans.
After leaving Blake, Jenna had almost given up on returning to the Enclave. Until a crash landing had brought the two of them together. Much to Travis's surprise, after only a few weeks of cooperating for their mutual survival, Jenna had suggested they team up to reclaim her ships. Strictly as a business proposition, of course.
Travis shook his head in rueful disbelief. He was nobody's prize catch, even within the Federation, but Jenna had said that skill, cunning, and boldness were the traits her clan valued. And those he did possess in abundance.
Even though he agreed to help Jenna regain her inheritance, he wasn't in any particular rush to return and make that claim, preferring to continue their trade missions on the Rim while pumping her for information on the Enclave and her family. He'd even have welcomed little more time to defuse the physical and emotional landmines in their relationship. But Jenna had been adamant about setting course for Sanctuary as soon as he recovered from his injuries.
"The Reina's an overage refitted blockade runner that's fought two battles and flown a high speed pursuit in the last six months. It's sheer luck her comp systems haven't crashed or she hasn't blown her drive rods by now. We must negotiate with my uncle from a position of strength. I'd hoped to have Liberator at my command . . . but the Reina will have to do."
The Federation had not considered the Free Trader's Enclave as either a potential ally or a threat, so intelligence on them was virtually nonexistent. Still, he'd been confident that his finely honed combat skills were more than sufficient to meet any challenge they could throw at him.
More the fool he!
Once they set course for the Enclave's homeworld, Jenna's urgency to rejoin her clan had been replaced by an increasingly brittle anxiety. Their entry into Enclave controlled space had been relatively uneventful once Jenna relayed a copy of her genetic ID to the patrol ship they'd encountered, but that did little to reassure her. When they finally arrived at Sanctuary, they were instructed to remain in orbit while Jenna's master's papers were processed. Well acquainted with the snail's pace that bureaucracies operated at, Travis suggested they both get some rest. But Jenna had been edgy and ill at ease, insistent on standing watch, although the Reina's automatics could easily manage station keeping orbit
Recognizing it was a waste of breath to argue with her in that mood, he'd gone to his bunk, relying on a long cultivated ability to catnap even during the nerve-wracking hours just before a battle. Nonetheless, sleep eluded him, until finally he pulled on his pants and stalked foreward, determined to discover just what was preying on Jenna's mind.
Jenna stood in the shadows, staring at the viewscreen image of the planet below. Her arms were folded tightly across her chest and she was shivering despite the constant temperature maintained by the ship's climate control. Travis halted cat-silent at the entrance to the flight deck, watching and waiting.
"... not a mistake coming back. Mikhail is my father's brother, he was only trying to protect me. " Her head dropped and although he could not see her tears, he had no doubt they were there. Midnight fears and doubts undid far too many able-bodied troopers. Time to put a stop to this.
He padded behind her, placing both hands on her shoulders. She froze, rigid and unyielding, still radiating the anxiety he'd sensed earlier, then slumped against him in surrender. He breathed the wildflower fragrance of her hair and then began to skillfully knead the tensely drawn muscles in her neck and back.
"If you're this uncertain about facing your clan, why go through with it? There are plenty of other ships out there. . .for the taking, without having to confront your past," he murmured.
She pulled irritably away. "I have to go back, Travis. Not just for the ships, but as a Stannis and a member of the Enclave. I need to reclaim that kinship."
"Kinship." There was a dark note in Travis's voice. "That's a deadly weapon to put in the hands of people you hardly remember."
"The Enclave is based on kinship," Jenna began wearily. "With family dynasties and empires and power struggles between various clans and septs for profitable routes and favorable contracts." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "There's also power brokering and arranged marriages and family alliances. When I ran away it wasn't just because I was angry at my uncle for thwarting my vendetta against the Federation, I didn't want any part of my clan's dynastic schemes and arranged marriage. But, bringing in an outsider as my bondmate. . . ." Her voice faded away
Travis made a fist with his cybernetic hand, emphasizing its deadly power. "If strength and skill are all they require for your bondmate, you needn't worry. Or is there something you're not telling me?" He gripped her shoulders tightly "You don't break into a cold sweat if you expect your family to greet you with open arms. Bloodties can strangle more surely than a hangman's noose." ."And bind far tighter," she answered in a whisper..
"I have to go through with this, Travis. I've tried to ignore my past for the last twelve years. It's time to go home and face it, healing the old wounds, if I can."
"That won't be easy with a renegade Federation officer at your side."
"You're not a Federation renegade, not any more. But my chosen bondmate. . .and the toughest bastard in fifty parsecs," she glared at him defiantly.
"Let's just hope we can convince your uncle and your clan of that."
He'd studied her for long moments, thinking how their intimacy since Star One still held the kind of guarded caution usually reserved for defusing solium bombs. It was a brutally honest passion, based on physical proximity and sheer erotic need. How would that change after Jenna reclaimed her father's ships and renewed her clan bonds.. Would there still be a place for him in her life? Or would she dispose of him as readily as Servalan had when he'd outlived his usefulness?
He pulled her tightly against him. "Let the automatic controls handle the orbit. Neither of us needs to sleep in a cold bed tonight." As he buried his face in her silken hair, she took a deep sobbing breath then surrendered to his embrace.
Just after dawn, the Reina had grounded on the rainslick tarmac at the spaceport just outside Xanadu, which housed the central administrative complex for the Enclave. From the outside scanners, Travis could tell little about the city other than it seemed to be a large urban center with numerous high rise buildings and a sprawling transportation grid, crowded even at this early hour.
Jenna had logged in the Reina's ID code and her own clan and sept identification when they'd first entered Sanctuary's space. After they'd grounded, she had meticulously prepared for their initial meeting with her uncle, scheduled for midmorning. It was the nature of those preparations which had led to another long, emotion-charged wrangle.
He'd gestured in disgust at the severely cut, but richly tailored jumpsuit in the same deep midnight blue as the long traditional gown Jenna had donned early that morning. "I'm telling you, Jenna, this is a grave tactical error. You admitted that you have no current intelligence on your clan's attitude towards wayward family members. Until you know where you stand in the hierarchy and whether your uncle is going to welcome you with open arms or have you horse-whipped, this bondmate claim of yours needs to be put on hold."
"In what way?" Her expression had been stubborn but at least she was listening.
"Our bonding contract is legally documented in the Reina's log, which isn't public record at the moment. I'll play the role of `hired muscle' during this meeting with your uncle until you get a feeling for the present situation within the Enclave and your clan. Once you've scouted out the family politics, then you can decide the best time to make your claim." His advice had been calmly unemotional, but surprisingly Jenna had overreacted.
"The Enclave may be a hotbed of dynastic and mercenary maneuvering but they don't play the same bloodthirsty power games the Federation does. And I certainly don't intend to use you the way Servalan did!" she'd flared. "I'm not coming back on my knees, begging for their forgiveness. Those ships are rightfully mine and if I must have bondmate to claim them, then by heaven, he'll be the man I choose and not someone that they foist off on me for the clan's social or commercial advantage!"
"Don't be a fool, Stannis. You don't throw away a tactical advantage out of some misplaced sense of pride or honor. You know as well as I do the reason you chose me is for my weapons skills and my battle savvy. This is not some damned love match."
She'd stared at him for long moments, her jaw set and an angry, betrayed look in her eyes. "Maybe not, but I don't intend to treat you like some lethal combination of animal instinct and killer servomechanism. Not like Servalan. You deserve better than that." Her voice faded to a whisper that he barely heard, but it echoed in his head like a battle tocsin. "Much better."
He'd smashed his cybernetic fist onto navigation table that had stood between them hard enough to dent its durasteel surface. "Dammit, woman. This kind of harebrained bravado is likely to get us both killed!" Then he took a deep breath and gusted it out in resignation,"but if you're that determined to go in with your battle standard waving, I guess I can dress the part."
He'd glared at the suit with its military-style gold piping at collar and wrist, and the black star sapphire accents at the waist, cuffs and collar. "Even if I look like one of Servalan's rear echelon fancy boys!" he snarled before going off to change.
Later that morning, at the entrance to her uncle's office door, Jenna had gone through a preliminary DNA scan before they were admitted to the outer reception area. Once she had passed that initial screening, the security door slid open and they were met by a tall, grey-haired, austere looking individual who identified himself as Brendan Doyle, executive assistant to Mikhail Stannis, Jenna's uncle and the First Captain of the Stannis clan. He was accompanied by two hulking brutes Travis immediately identified as trained bodyguards by the cold-eyed stares that quickly located his concealed blasters and the combat drill hardened callouses on the sides of their hands.
He subtly shifted his position so he stood between Jenna and any potential threat and the hackles raised on the back of his neck as he stared at the pair, tense and poised for violence. Brendan forestalled the threatened eruption by raising a portable scanner instead of signaling the two bruisers to frisk them.
"You must forgive us if we ask you to leave your weapons in the outer office. There have been several unfortunate incidents due to trading disagreements and even an assassination attempt by a hired killer from the Federation." The man's soft voice was a stark contrast to his granite-hard eyes.
Jenna gave an indifferent shrug and surrendered her usual assortment of cached hardware without protest. While Travis did the same with more reluctantly, he was not surprised when the scanner registered his cybernetic arm as a lethal device although this replacement did not have the laser weaponry of his original. There was a brief sotto voce discussion about removing or disabling the bionics of his arm, any attempt at which Travis intended to resist vigorously. Finally with a whiplike glare that flayed both of them to the bone, Brendan nodded his reluctant approval. "Leave it. I'll remain in the conference room and if he becomes a problem, I'll deal with it."
Despite the frail appearance of the older man, Travis felt the skin prickle on his neck and the backs of his arms at the deadly menace conveyed with that single quiet statement. Trying to swallow back her own nervousness, Jenna had paid little attention to the menacing byplay going on around her. After smoothing her dress, she raised her chin proudly and strode into her uncle's inner office when the electronic signal opened the door. Travis followed on her heels flanked by Brendan and one of the bodyguards.
At first glance the room revealed a great deal about Jenna's clan and the man who headed it. They were wealthy, powerful, and did not care who knew it, but the office was efficient and businesslike, not merely a showplace. Even the genuine artworks and statuary that decorated the enormous space instead of the usual 3D holograms did not detract from its workmanlike air. The furniture was oversized, antique, real wood instead of the starkly utilitarian synthaforms more commonly used. But it seemed appropriate to the rugged, raw power radiating from the physical bear of a man who turned to greet them.
Earlier Jenna had sketched out the bare bones of her uncle's background, how he'd been a cargomaster instead of following one of the piloting or engineering specialties like most clan heads. His brawny shoulders and barrel chest indicated he'd done his share of lifting and loading of the cargo bales and crates that were the lifeblood of free trade throughout the Outer Worlds. Yet despite his physically imposing stature, he had a canny sharp intelligence as well, carefully honed by the years of encyclopedic cataloging of the imports, exports and environments of hundreds of worlds. Knowledge that was essential to assure a profitable cargo run with minimum risk to ship and crew.
She'd been wistfully sentimental about how he'd been her favorite uncle when she was younger; carrying her on his broad shoulders and roughhousing with her like a big shaggy bear in more carefree times. Before the Federation's brutal murder of his brother left him First Captain of a clan whose profits were rapidly eroding. Before the Federation began its campaign against the Enclave, labeling them pirates and smugglers then illegally boarding their ships and seizing their cargos as contraband on the flimsiest of excuses.
At that time he was forced to take stringent measures to assure the clan's survival against Federation encroachment. Measures that had led to Jenna's ultimate break with him. She had only been a junior pilot apprentice when her parents were murdered but she attempted to claim her father's ships anyway. When Mikhail demanded to know why she wanted them, naive as she was, Jenna told him of her plans to avenge her parents by raiding along the Federation's borders. Mikhail had had other ideas. His strategy would assure the clan's survival as a family and business entity, but it required Jenna's presence on Sanctuary, not risking her neck in foolhardy raids against the Federation.
"He planned to marry me off the eldest son of the Niachros clan. Their fleet of trading ships was second only to ours until the Federation's crackdown brought them to verge of bankruptcy, just like us." She'd grinned sourly. " Mikhail decided that a merger of fleets, trade routes and bloodlines would be the best course of action. . . for everyone concerned. Except I wasn't willing to be bartered off to Stephan Niachros like so much yard goods. So I left." She shrugged, trying to feign indifference though Travis had heard the hurt betrayal in her voice. "The clan obviously prospered despite my defection. I guess we'll find out if Mikhail has a forgiving nature or not."
As the two of them confronted that massive figure with eyes as cold as nitrogen glaciers on Scandia, Travis had a sneaking suspicion that the man before him had the forgiving nature of a shark. It did not bode well for the meeting. Despite the set of her jaw, he could tell that Jenna was hard-pressed to maintain her composure. The stolid expression that her uncle turned in her direction had no welcome in it and the hard raking glare he gave Travis was openly hostile.
"So you've come home." His deep basso voice seemed to rumble up from the soles of his boots.
"Yes," Jenna answered tightly. "I've come home to claim my father's ships...and rejoin the clan."
The older man's expression did not change, although his eyebrows twitched infinitesimally. "And this is what you want us to accept as your bondmate and a trade captain within the Enclave?" Travis felt the scalding heat of the other man's contempt as his glance fastened on the black patch as though scrutinizing the empty socket and laser scarred flesh beneath and then down to his cybernetic left arm.
"Why didn't you settle for that idealistic rabble-rouser you ran with for a while? At least he was a whole man, not some half-crippled Federation castoff!"
Jenna's body was rigid with anger but she kept a cool enough head to make a sharp but civil reply. "Don't judge Travis by his appearance. He was still one of Space Command's elite even after his injuries. Since he left the Federation, his knowledge of their weapons and strategies, combined with his own skills, make him a valuable partner!"
Mikhail shrugged indifferently at her defensive response and went over to the heavy mahogany and leather built-in bar that dominated one corner of his office. He drew himself a mug of coffee from a brass urn and added a splash of brandy to fortify it. With cool deliberation he turned back to them, his deliberate rudeness a gesture of how far Jenna was out of favor. As he gulped down the strong bitter brew, his eyes continued to take in the two of them and their likely relationship; from Travis's guarded, reflexive awareness of everything in the room to Jenna's slender nonpregnant figure.
"Partner?" he snorted incredulously. "This is what you chose to captain your father's ships and sire the sons to carry on the Stannis bloodlines."
Jenna fidgeted edgily, not wanting to get into this argument so soon after making her claim. "His combat skills are better than half the captains on Sanctuary, I'm willing to wager. And I told you twelve years ago I had no intention of becoming breeding stock for the sake of our precious bloodlines."
"You addle-pated twit!" Mikhail's low rumble burst into a furious growl. "You'd entrust your father's ships to one of the bloodthirsty scum that butchered him and raped and murdered your own mother! He may pretend he's an outlaw and a renegade but Servalan's devious schemes are infamous in this part of the galaxy. And it's common knowledge how cunning those damned Federation psychostrategists are!"
"He's no longer under her control!" Jenna blurted desperately. "He's earned my trust a dozen times over since we first teamed up for the sake of survival."
Travis tensed ever so slightly as Jenna pleaded their cause. The situation was deteriorating rapidly and he wasn't sure whether they'd be thrown out bodily or have to fight their way back to the Reina Although he remained loose-limbed and apparently at ease, surreptitiously he scanned the room for the nearest object that he could use to slow up the big ox hulking just behind him.
Her uncle's vitriolic tirade against her lapse in judgement continued unabated. "Free from her control. . .Hah! There's no escape from that viper with her mind control drugs and electronic programming controls this side of the grave! He'd deceived you into believing that so he can infiltrate our ranks to learn our newest communication codes and trade routes. Then he'll call in her Fleet to either destroy us outright or force us to submit to the Federation's despotic rule!"
Jenna felt a momentary chill of doubt run down her spine, then pushed it away, remembering Travis's readiness to sacrifice himself to prevent the destruction of Star One and the invasion of the Andromedan armada.
"You're wrong," she husked, moving back towards Travis in an effort to reaffirm her confidence and to draw strength from him as well.
But Mikhail was not finished with her. He spat in contempt, "You couldn't even choose a whole man, could you? With that cyborg arm of his and heaven only knows what psychosurgery they performed on him after his eye was blown away, he's little more than a machine anyway!" He gestured abruptly to the guard shadowing Travis. "Take him to the labs for vivisection! See what they make of this monstrosity."
"NO!!" Jenna's voice was raw with outrage as she stared at her uncle in horrified disbelief. "You can't do this to us, you cold-hearted bastard! I'm a clan member, I have a right to choose..."
Mikhail's voice was harder than diamond as he grated out to his defiant niece. "A threat to the safety of this clan and the security of Sanctuary abrogates any of your so-called rights, girl! And I have the obligation to deal with that threat any way that I see fit!"
He addressed the guard hovering at Travis's shoulder curtly as he gestured a dismissal of the whole group. "Take Jenna to the Matriarch for questioning. If she's that besotted with a Federation cyborg, she may be under the influence of one of their mind control drugs."
Infuriated by her uncle's casual denial of any kinship rights, Jenna dodged away from the bodyguard's reach and launched herself at Mikhail in a catlike clawing fury! Travis took immediate advantage of the distraction and pivoted with an uncoiled pantherlike swiftness, sweeping a heavy brass figure from its base and hurling it with the full force of his cybernetic arm into the midsection of the oncoming bodyguard. The man let out an explosive grunt and doubled over, falling to his knees half-stunned.
Jenna's uncle had grabbed her wrists, preventing her from inflicting more than superficial damage. As he tried to consolidate his hold, Travis grabbed her by the waist, jerking her free, then pivoted toward the exit with Jenna clutching her skirts, as she staggered alongside trying not to stumble and drag them down. Suddenly he halted in midstride, his teeth clenched, one hand clawing spasmodically heavenward, then collapsed to his knees, ruptured capillaries streaming blood from his nose and ears!
Frozen by the abrupt thwarting of their escape, Jenna could only stare in dismay at Travis curled into an agonized ball, retching weakly as his blood dripped onto her uncle's priceless Oriental rugs. She crouched beside him, cradling his head on her knees, trying to ease his tortured breathing then stared up in bewilderment as her uncle loomed over them. He nodded in smug satisfaction toward the rigid, tensely drawn form of his executive assistant.
"Good work, Brendan. Your psi powers made short work of that little shennanigan. The fool thought my bodyguards were all he had to elude. Another of the Federation's schemes ferreted out." His cold blue eyes were hooded and remote as he stared at Jenna, rebellious as ever, as she attempted to comfort her Federation lover. "But I did not believe my own kin would betray me."
Doyle's face was covered with a fine sweat and he held his left fist tightly clenched as though imprisoning something that struggled fiercely to escape. "His mental shields are quite strong, First Captain. It will take considerable effort to determine the level of conditioning Servalan's psychostrategists have used on him."
"Let the lab deal with it. They have the proper drugs to lay bare every devious scheme implanted in his mind."
The telepath nodded a curt acknowledgment, tightening his grip on Travis's mind until he writhed out of Jenna's hold, barely conscious. "And what do you wish done with your niece, First Captain?"
Two pairs of blue eyes clashed, one pair coldly in control, the other burning with rage. The head of the Stannis clan ordered emotionlesslly, "Even if the Federation's tampered with her mind, her DNA can still be of use to us." He hesitated briefly, "However, she's still my brother's only child. Take her to the Matriarch and let the old woman decide where her loyalties lie."
He'd wavered on the edge of consciousness, feeling Jenna shaking with anger as she tried to wipe the blood from his face, spitting in an savage, venomous voice , "If you've harmed him, Uncle...." But the end of her threat was drowned in darkness.
His eye opened once again on the white walls of his cell, his mind still echoing with her angry, frightened words. Mikhail Stannis must have turned him over to the Enclave's equivalent of the Interrogation Division. He wasn't sure why his mind and will were still relatively intact. . . but he didn't intend to wait around for them to start working him over again!
Jenna struggled angrily but in vain with the two bodyguards who strong-armed her from her uncle's office into another suite within building. Her violent efforts at escape had left her captors with bruises, scratches, and other evidence of her fury but she was manhandled or abused. Even her sulfurous attacks on their manhood, parentage, and sexual habits did not provoke them into any retaliation other than to increase the pace as they dragged her to her ultimate destination. After depositing her firmly inside an ornate, plushly furnished anteroom, they quickly departed, locking the door behind them.
She tried to override the persona lock but to no avail. Then in a brief outburst of frustration, she pounded her fists against the unyielding doors. Hearing the main door open behind her, she spun angrily around to confront a tall, slender young woman with dark brown hair, deepset clear grey eyes and the same fine-boned ascetic features as her uncle's executive assistant.
The young woman inquired in a low, calm voice, "Seran Jenna Stannis?"
"I'm Jenna Stannis," she snarled sarcastically. "Are you one of my `loving relatives' or a another hired bodyguard?"
She merely gestured to the inner door of the suite, "The Matriarch, your grandmother, is in her sitting room presently. Will you join her there for tea?"
"And if I don't?" Jenna challenged. "What will you do? Use the same kind of telepathic mugging that my uncle's thug did?" She clung desperately to her white hot rage as a mental shield but also to cover her gnawing anxiety about Travis's fate.
The young woman's smooth brow furrowed at the raw spillover of Jenna's emotions then she regained her composure. "I am not a coercive telepath nor as skilled at mental manipulation as my father. If you do not wish to join your grandmother for a private interview and discussion then we can schedule a regular appointment on her business calendar. But it might be several weeks before she can fit you in."
Jenna stared grimly at the telepath, knowing Travis did not have weeks for her to waste indulging her stubborn pride, especially if her uncle's psychic probing techniques bore any resemblance to those used by the Federation. Even days of similar drugs and psychological manipulation could leave him a physical and mental husk.
She nodded in angry submission and followed the other woman into the silken web from which her frail and imperious grandmother schemed, plotted, and devised the Free Trader policies that Mikhail carried out. As she entered the deliberately antiquarian sitting room with its deep green plush carpeting, rose patterned silken draperies, and brocade covered divans, Jenna was not surprised that her grandmother did not seem to have aged a day in the twelve years since Jenna had last seen her.
The Matriarch was still slender and erect, wearing the flowing silken pastel gowns that she favored with her soft white hair feathering around her face in a saintly aureole. But the whole facade of ladylike gentility was a carefully calculated deception to beguile friend and foe alike. Jenna saw past the mask of kindly dowager to the steely resolve revealed in her grandmother's piercing ice-blue gaze.
In that first exchange of glances after Jenna's twelve year self-imposed exile, swords were crossed, irresistible force clashed against immovable object and the battle lines were drawn. Jenna did not flinch beneath that penetrating stare nor did she curtsy and kneel for the traditional welcoming embrace. After long moments of testing the resistance of her long-lost granddaughter, the older woman patted a chair across from her and Jenna sat down gingerly. The Matriarch gestured to a tray of sweet rolls, and other confections as she poured tea from an ornate silver urn, observing coolly, "I was about to have a late breakfast, child. Will you join me?"
Startled by this hospitality, after her uncle's undisguised rudeness prior to the outbreak of violence in his office, she wondered why the sudden warmth from her iron-willed grandmother? Then the ploy became evident. Without her Federation bondmate, she was welcomed with open arms. Remain loyal to the man they found unacceptable and she'd be treated as an outcast and stranger!
For a brief moment, she considered disavowing the bonding, rejoining the Enclave and attempting to earn her uncle's approval without Travis's help. Only two things deterred her; Travis's dispassionate warning aboard the Reina about bloodties and her uncle's chilly pragmatic observation, `all we need is her DNA.' That confirmed the bitter reality of her real value to the Stannis clan. Not her knowledge of the Federation or hard won piloting skills, but merely her damned bloodlines!
She glared truculently at the old woman and bit out, "No thank you, Grandmother. I seem to have lost my appetite."
Calmly adding sugar to her tea and stirring, the Matriarch commented in honeyed tones. "So...consorting with rebel terrorists and Federation mass murderers doesn't turn your stomach, yet the necessary measures taken by your own flesh and blood offend your delicate sensibilities?"
Jenna choked down her hostile reply, answering calmly. "Mikhail refused to allow me to claim my father's ships until I was bonded to a man strong enough to command them. You don't find that kind of man sitting at a computer work station."
"So you frequented low dives and lawless planets, consorting with gangsters and pirates?" The tone was bland but the sharpness of her grandmother's question indicated she had good sources of information about some of Jenna's less savory experiences. Probably even her brush with Largo of the Terra Nostra and her temporary stint with the Amagons.
"It's a hard galaxy and sometimes I had to make hard decisions in order to survive." Jenna raised her chin defiantly despite her grandmother's daunting glare.
"Hrrmmmph," the Matriarch sniffed with contempt as she slowly sipped her tea. "You never could learn things the easy way would you? Even when you were a child you always had scraped knees and bruised shins from testing Newton's principles and the law of gravity by trial and error instead of listening to your elders."
"But I only made a mistake once, Grandmother. I always was a quick learner."
There was a sudden darkness and pain within her grandmother's eyes as the old woman whispered bleakly. "Sometimes you can't afford to make any mistakes, child. Surely your father's fatal confrontation with the Federation taught you that much?"
Jenna swallowed hard, trying to forget the blinding grief of her father's and mother's brutal deaths and the painful changes in her life that resulted. She spoke up with angry intensity. "Yes, Grandmother. It taught me the Federation is a threat we can't ignore. Which was why I took up smuggling inside Federation space. To spy on our enemies. . . and to find a man who'd felt the lash of Federation brutality and was strong enough to survive it."
Jenna felt her throat tighten at the painful memories the name evoked, then nodded her head, determined to confront them and move on. "I believed so once. I even thought Avon might ally himself with me...if there was sufficient profit in it."
"But you abandoned Blake..."
"He became too obsessed with his own agenda - the destruction of Central Control - to listen to reason. He kept dragging us into one suicidal confrontation after another in hopes of destroying the Federation completely. I realized the odds were against us after Gan's death, but I couldn't deflect him from his bloody vendetta." Jenna's face was stark.
"So you left him to take up with another obsessed renegade so psychotically vindictive even the Federation couldn't tolerate his bloodstained savagery?" her grandmother demanded in an icily calm tone.
Jenna lunged to her feet, pacing in agitation across the opulently carpeted room before she turned back to face the old woman who could rule upon their ultimate survival.
"That whole trial was a farce; orchestrated to prevent him from revealing the truth about Servalan's mishandling of Blake's raid on Central Control." Jenna stared at her clenched hands, forcing them to relax as she admitted to a bitter truth. "He's never spoken about what happened on Zircaster. . . but it hardly matters. A Federation officer under orders has damned little choice in how he carries them out! What does matter is that at Star One he risked his life to prevent the Andromedans from overrunning the entire galaxy!"
"Rumor has it that Travis was more set on destroying Blake than preserving Star One," came the acerbic rejoinder.
Jenna made a desperate appeal to the older woman. "His obsession wasn't a conscious choice. It was the result of a neural device implanted while he was recovering from injuries he suffered during his first confrontation with Blake's Freedom Party. The device intensified and distorted his emotions until he was little more than a weapon in Servalan's hands."
Her voice dropped to a husky whisper, fearing that her next words would seal Travis's fate. "Finally, sheer disgust with Servalan's abuse and betrayal overrode the conditioning and he deserted. Later, when we had his damaged cybernetic arm replaced, the cybersurgeon on Jade discovered the implant that fueled his hatred almost past the point of sanity."
The Matriarch's head snapped up sharply. "And what makes you so certain he's no longer under that viper's control? That he doesn't have another implant she can trigger and make him betray our defenses to her troops? Or turn him into a mindless engine of destruction?"
Jenna hesitated, knowing that she held Travis's life in her hands. "I don't know...not for sure. All I have are my instincts, the gut reaction that tells me he's no longer under her control and even when he was, he resisted her warped manipulation every chance he got. He obeyed her orders, but she never earned his trust...or his loyalty."
"And you think you have, based on `instinct' and `gut reaction'?" Her grandmother threw up her hands in exasperation. "We're supposed to risk our independence, our security, our very existence...everything that we've built and preserved for generations...on your instincts! Surely, we taught you to reason more clearly than that, child."
Jenna slumped back in the chair beside her grandmother and looked at her wearily, feeling the weight of the argument going against her. "You want logical reasons why I picked him as my partner...my bondmate?" She ticked off on her fingers, "One. He's a top-notch pilot with razor-sharp reflexes that more than compensate for his missing eye and cybernetic arm. He's steady and reliable as all-around crew, with a good grasp of engineering basics. As a weapons specialist and bodyguard, he's superb; strong, fast, and deadly. Most important, he rarely makes stupid mistakes about who to trust. . . unlike me!"
"You think returning to the warm embrace of your family was a `stupid mistake'?" The Matriarch's expression held a chilling primness that Jenna chose to ignore.
"There's been damned little warmth in the welcome we've received," she countered bleakly. "Travis was right when he warned me to be wary of you."
"Just the sort of family feeling that I'd expect from one of the domebred Earth drones."
The unbridled contempt in her grandmother's voice set Jenna's teeth on edge and she flared back. "That's another hasty, ill-informed assumption. He wasn't born on Earth. He and his family were among the last survivors on Metis III, just before the Federation evacuated the doomed colony."
The old woman's eyes narrowed and took on a thoughtful expression. "Then he wasn't raised on an Inner System world under Federation control."
"What difference would that make?" Jenna responded wearily.
"Surely your experience aboard Liberator taught you about the toxic influence of Federation conditioning even on strong-willed men like Blake? Especially when augmented by the massive doses of suppressant chemicals pumped into the food and water supply on a daily basis. Perhaps your instincts aren't wrong after all, girl. There might actually be some personal integrity in this `partner' of yours that even Servalan's debased methods couldn't taint."
A faint spark of hope began to melt through the icy despair that Jenna had felt ever since entering these rooms. Reseating herself across from her grandmother, she accepted a freshly poured cup of tea but demurred about taking one of the pastries. Her mouth was still so dry with anxiety, she doubted she'd be able to swallow.
"Then you'll go with me to Mikhail and tell him that he's wrong about Travis?" she questioned tentatively.
"I think not, child. Your bondmate has to prove himself worthy of you. . . and a place in this clan. Consider this little incident part of that test. . . and of your own resolve and willingness to fight for what you want." The Matriarch's eyes glittered sharply.
Jenna clenched her nails into her palms as the last hope of her grandmother's support was abruptly snatched away. "And just how am I supposed to do that, sequestered in this velvet-lined prison while Travis is being mind-reamed by Mikhail's telepathic thug?"
The old woman's eyes held a deep inner amusement. "Surely you can think of something. Based on your past experiences as a smuggler and rebel terrorist." Jenna's bewildered expression began to try her patience. "Or didn't you learn anything from those ruthless criminal types you've been associating with all this time?"
Putting her cup and saucer aside, Jenna stood up slowly, her eyes fixed on the older woman's face as she picked up a small butter knife from the tray of pastries."Will this be sufficient, Grandmother, or do you have a clipgun hidden in the teapot?"
Cocking her head to one side, birdlike, as she studied her granddaughter, the Matriarch gave a Cheshire cat smile. "Take one of the napkins, dear, and use it to conceal the `deadly' nature of your weapon as you press it into my back. I think I'm enough of an actress to convince my staff of the seriousness of your intentions. What's our destination? Mikhail's office or your ship.
First Captain Mikhail Stannis looked up from his scheduling and manpower rosters at the entrance of his telepathic executive assistant. Doyle was slender but whipcord tough, despite his sometimes fragile appearance. Occasionally, though, his powerful mind would push his body beyond its limits as it had in subduing the Federation renegade. At the moment, he appeared drained and exhausted. Gesturing his friend to a deep cushioned chair, Mikhail went behind his bar and filled two heavy class tumblers with double shots of dark amber segir whiskey.
"Here, man. You look like you could use some fortifying. Was the Federation officer that tough a nut to crack?"
Brendan took a deep gulp of the potent liquor before glancing sidelong at his friend and employer. "Knowing the man's bloodstained, violent history, I can assure you I wouldn't have taken on this task for any other man."
Mikhail stared somberly into his own glass, concealing his sympathy as he waited for Brendan to regain his equilibrium. "And I wouldn't have asked you if there had been any other way, but that foolhardy niece of mine actually brought him here! Of all the improbable, undesirable choices for a bondmate and clan candidate, he tops the list. Yet I couldn't have him killed outright until we learned how much Jenna told him about the Enclave and how much he's already passed on to Servalan."
He took a long gulp of the whiskey to prepare for the worst."So, what's the damage? How badly has Jenna betrayed us?"
Brendan's voice was deep and roughened with fatigue, "Normally, Federation Security conditioning is no problem for me to break through but Travis's mind is something else. Alpha level mental shields..."
"Alpha level?! Don't be absurd. Everything we've heard about the man brands him a domebred, street cutthroat who only clawed as high as he did in Space Command by his willingness to do the Council's dirtiest butchery!"
The telepath arched an inquisitive eyebrow at that vitriolic outburst. "Oh, you've gotten some other telepath's report ahead of mine?"
"Dammit, man, of course not." Mikhail paced angrily across his office, sidestepping the dried bloodstains that had not yet been scrubbed away, blatant evidence of his niece's betrayal.
"But all intelligence we've received on him..."
"Nine-tenths rebel propaganda and one-tenth Delta gossip and about as accurate as `live' vidcasts. Now do you want my report or would you rather sneak down to the docks and consult a tealeaf reader for her opinion?"
Recognizing the fatigue-edged anger in his confidant's voice, Mikhail acquiesced reluctantly and Brendan continued.
"The man has strong psi shields but with odd weaknesses, apparently due to an unusual type of psychomanipulative conditioning. Recent use of a traumatic recall technique has broken through earlier induced mental blocks but left many of his older memory traces extremely jumbled."
Mikhail slammed his half-empty glass down on his desk and snarled, "I don't care if he can't remember what day of the week it is! What has Jenna told him and what did he pass on to Servalan?"
"Nothing," the telepath answered flatly.
"Nothing?" echoed Mikhail, disbelieving.
"His recent memories are quite clear. Your niece told him little more than the fact of her inheritance and your demands before she could claim it. What little knowledge he has of the Enclave comes from Federation records rather than anything Jenna revealed. She didn't even allow him on the flight deck when she gave her recognition codes to the patrol ships before they entered the Sanctuary system." Brendan's gaze was clear as a still pond and he seemed to harbor a certain admiration for Mikhail's rebellious niece.
Mikhail was skeptical. "You think a ruthless psycho like Travis couldn't force her to tell him everything he wanted to know about our communication codes and security systems?"
"The bond between them is not tainted by fear, First Captain. And your niece is too stubborn and strong-willed to be easily intimidated. Besides, Travis's loyalties no longer lie with the Federation."
"I doubt they ever did," Stannis snorted. "Giving him free rein to hunt down Blake was the only way Servalan kept him under minimal control."
The telepath took another deep gulp of the whiskey, "A hatred primarily programmed by her puppeteers."
Stannis poured himself a refill as he shrugged, "His loyalties or obsessions are no concern of mine. I simply need to know if he's a threat to us...or to my niece."
Brendan closed his eyes, pressing his fingers against his temple before he spoke in a hoarse whisper, "Not physically. He was screened for other implants that might respond to a trigger code from the Federation or relay a homing signal to them. His mental status is less certain, with his commitment divided equally between survival and claiming Jenna's ships. His emotional ties to Jenna are. . .in a state of flux."
Mikhail gave a brief tight smile of victory, "Sounds like all it will take to buy him off is freedom and a fast ship of his own. Jenna's claim will be voided. With no one to turn to but her own clan, she'll be married off to First Captain Niachros's son and her belly swelling with our clans' mutual heir within six months."
Travis paced the narrow length of his holding cell for the hundredth time in the past two hours. Once he'd broken through the initial psychic block he was able to remember disjointed images of painful procedures he'd endured before he woke up in this cell. Technicians taking numerous vials of blood and the cold impersonal shock of needle probes aspirating tissue samples from chest, flank, groin. Even though they lacked the casual cruelty of Federation researchers, their hurried clinical indifference as they violated his body filled him with impotent rage.
One pleasant surprise. Although his cybernetic arm was examined down to the microcircuitry level checking for weapons circuitry, the arm itself was not removed. He flexed its powerful servomechanisms slowly. That should give him an edge when he made his escape.
For long moments he focused on his physical condition; taking deep breaths, bending and flexing his extremities, testing for damage as he tried to block out the worst part of the examination after the technicians had finished with him.
During all his years in Space Command, he managed to survive the manipulations of retraining therapists mucking about with his mind by sheer stubborn resolve. But Stannis's telepath had shattered his mental shields like age-brittled tin, sifting through memories and motivations with a swift, merciless efficiency. Unearthing old pains and betrayals; turning over and examining each lust, rage, grief and fear as though it was some kind of curious artifact. Afterwards, they left him sprawled on the lab table, his mind bleeding like an open wound, until he was dragged away and dumped him in the holding cell.
His stomach roiled queasily at the memory of that mental violation but he forced himself to relax. This was no time to brood about the humiliation he'd endured, physical or mental. If he wanted to get out of this snake pit before they came back and started dissecting him in earnest, he would have to make his move soon.
He examined the cell centimeter by centimeter, but the walls were smooth and unbroken, devoid of any irregularity that might conceal a surveillance camera or a feeding slot. If they intended to keep him alive, they'd have to open the door to supply him with food or water eventually. If they did have him under surveillance, somehow, he might be able to lure a medic or guard in by faking a sudden illness. One way or another, he intended to seize the first opportunity to make a break for it.
Dropping back onto the sleep pod, he feigned the slumped despair of a beaten and demoralized captive, even as his brain raced, sorting through his options for eluding pursuers when he escaped. He knew the location of the Reina's docking cradle in relation to the center of the city where Stannis's office had been. But he didn't know how far this lab was from that office. The ship should still be docked since she was under persona lock but without Jenna's knowledge of the comm nets and code phrases, his chances of getting off planet were slim. At the moment he had no idea of where Jenna might be in this maze of buildings, or if she was even within the city complex.
He rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension that was tying his shoulders into knots and causing his head to throb painfully once again. Time to break off that kind of negative, self-defeatist thinking. Take things one step at a time and deal with each problem as it arose. That was the only way he'd succeed. He concentrated on planning an escape route that would attract a minimum of attention and get him through the city without being identified.
Labs usually had volatile waste products or bacterial contaminants that underwent special processing before they were disposed of through the common outlets. Such areas would be well-marked with a minimum of workers stationed there. If he could locate one, he could acquire protective clothing and then access the disposal outlets or underground repair conduits.
That would be his best escape route because on the streets he would be too easy to spot in an average crowd of citizens. But if he could find his way to the seamy underculture that usually resided on the outskirts of most spaceports, he'd be able to blend in and establish a secure base from which to locate Jenna. Afterwards, the two of them could retrieve the Reina and escape this deathtrap of a planet.
"Then what?" a tiny nagging voice whispered from the innermost depths of his mind. "Without Jenna's other ships and the Enclave's support, how much longer can the two of you survive out on the Rim?"
The Reina was a sweet little ship for a blockade runner but even with her recent refit, her drive core was aging and her computers barely able to cope with normal piloting chores, much less ion storms, asteroid fields, or other deep space hazards. Her cargo space was adequate for a shoestring profit that might keep them in survival rations and low-grade fissionables to power the ship, but little else. They were outlawed on the inner system planets and Jenna's dealings with the Rebellion were limited because of him. Without her Free Trade connections and sanctioning, their chances of surviving as independent traders were slim and none.
Taking a deep shuddering breath, he examined the situation coldly, unemotionally. Based on long years of brutal, battlefield expedience, he had only one option for survival. Being Jenna's partner, having someone he could rely on, even trust, had been a pipe dream at best. He'd been deceived by a pretty face and a gentle touch into believing things could change, that he could put his violent past behind him and live some semblance of a normal life. It was a stupid mistake and he'd gotten off easily, considering how he'd disregarded his own advice and let his guard down. His best chance would be to hijack a small scout ship and blast his way out of the system instead of relying on Jenna's knowledge to bluff their way past the patrols. Afterwards, he'd simply resume his earlier plans to sell his skills to the highest bidder.
He closed his eye in momentary pain as the memories of Jenna threatened to undermine his resolve. Her beauty. Her courage and strength. A gentle passion he couldn't believe she felt for him, yet he could never catch her in the emotional deception Servalan practised with such ease. Enough foolishness! No doubt she'd despise him for abandoning her, but it was the best solution for both of them. Once he was out of the way, she could make peace with her family and get on with her life! And he could get on with his.
He stared bleakly at the sterile white walls, trying to purge those memories and emotions. That way when the time came to make a break, his mind would be clear and cold as a Scandian glacier. He'd react as he was trained to react and get the hell off the planet.
"When the ship lifts, all debts are paid, Stannis. You'll be free to find your future and I'll be free to find mine."
He dropped back down on the sleep pod, throwing his arm across his face, with the air of a man giving in to the utter hopelessness of his situation. Yet, beneath that illusion of despair, his eye was wide open as he remained poised and alert, like a cobra ready to strike.
Hours passed but Travis's tightly focused, zen-like concentration did not waver. Finally his patience was rewarded as he heard the electronic whine of the lock's disengagement and the almost silent slide of the door's retraction. He remained unmoving, feigning sleep to lull the guard's suspicions and draw him within striking distance. There was a familiar note to that angry muttering, but he disregarded it as irrelevant and prepared to make his move.
"Drat, he's still unconscious. We'll have to drag him."
At the first touch of that hand, Travis erupted with a pumalike swiftness and threw his captor to the floor. As they grappled for the weapon, suddenly he recognized the supple figure he had dumped unceremoniously on her rear end. It was Jenna! Her eyes were shooting sparks as she scrambled to retrieve the blaster that his lunge had dislodged from her grip.
He froze in shock, then snarled angrily, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Trying to rescue you from my uncle's clutches," she answered, equally irate.
"Rescue me? If you're free, why didn't you make a run for the Reina?" He wasn't sure if he was angrier at her for coming after him or himself for his plans to abandon her.
"Because we aren't leaving without what we came for," she answered stubbornly.
He took a closer look at the person accompanying her, an imperious older woman who had her arms folded regally across her chest as she stated in a coolly sarcastic tone, "If you children are finished with this display of physical silliness, we shouldn't dally. Once Mikhail realizes you're gone, he'll have the spaceport sealed off."
He pulled Jenna to her feet and demanded impatiently, "Who's the old woman?"
"My grandmother," Jenna answered with a sharply bitten off laugh. "And hostage to convince Mikhail to take my claim...and my bondmate...seriously."
Noting Jenna's casual hold on the blaster and the fact that the old woman had not attempted to escape when he'd distracted Jenna earlier, Travis surmised Jenna's grandmother was more ally than hostage. Still, if they hoped to use her against the First Captain, at least the facade of intimidation had to be maintained. He nodded then took the blaster from Jenna's grip.
"I hope the old baggage is more valuable than she looks," he remarked drily, noting Jenna's chagrin and the old lady's amused tolerance. "Now, how the hell do we get out of here?"
"I've got a flitter at the service entrance. It's less than a mile to the Reina's landing slot
where we can take cover and then contact my uncle with our demands."
Jenna's expression was tightly controlled as she studied Travis closely. Despite the dried blood caked on his face, he seemed to have shaken off Brendan's earlier telepathic assault. At the moment he appeared to be physically and mentally alert so she was content to follow his lead. He acknowledged her plan with a brief nod then motioned with the blaster for the Matriarch to precede them.
As they hurried down the oddly deserted halls of the lab facility, the old woman had enough stamina to keep up with their pace without any urging and to direct a constant stream of caustic observations and questions to her new captor.
"You can't blame Mikhail for his attitude about Jenna's choice of bond mate. Physically and mentally you aren't exactly the kind of man we would have chosen to father her children."
"Don't worry, this is strictly a business proposition and not a breeding contract. Besides, even with one eye I can still shoot well enough to blast you if you try to run for it."
"Hrrrumph," she turned a sly mocking glance in his direction. "Shooting a helpless old woman is hardly the conduct I'd expect from an officer and gentleman. Even of the Federation."
He continued his feverish scan of the deserted corridors as they hurried down the back stairs to the service entrance. "The Federation ordered me to shoot `helpless old women' like you when they made me an officer. And I never was one of their polished Alpha `gentlemen'!"
"No, I don't imagine they had much luck grinding down your rough edges, boy. Still, you seem squeamish for a Federation butcher. I warned Jenna you'd likely break the neck of any guard entering your cell. Surprisingly, you didn't." She arched her aristocratic brows in amazement.
"Without knowing the security layout, it's a hell of a lot easier to use a live guard for a palm lock or a retinal scan than dragging dead meat around. Now shut up and let me think!" he growled sharply.
They paused on the landing just above the exit where Jenna had left her flitter while Travis voiced his suspicions. "I don't like the smell of this. The hallways were empty. Where is everybody?"
"It's midday. Maybe they're taking a long lunch." She gazed around uneasily.
"What about security? Maintenance? Hell, we didn't even spot custodial workers. It stinks of a set-up." He turned his baleful gaze on the Matriarch.
Although she'd experienced a similar disquiet ever since entering the building unchallenged, Jenna shrugged off his warning.
"So what? With her as a hostage my uncle won't dare stop us!" She pushed past him and through the heavy security door out to where her flitter was parked. Currently surrounded by a large number of her uncle's well-armed mercenaries.
Jenna stopped short, cursing under her breath as Travis quickly pressed his blaster against the Matriarch's forehead.
"Back off, Stannis. Or the old woman dies!" His voice was ragged as he shouted across the alleyway.
"Let her go, renegade, or we'll blast you where you stand!" First Captain Stannis answered furiously.
"And blow her head off as well? Even you aren't that stupid, First Captain. No, she's our safe conduct to the Reina and offplanet." Jenna tried to interrupt, knowing she had to take charge of the negotiations if they were to gain anything besides their lives but Travis hissed at her to keep quiet. As she simmered in the background, her foot tapping angrily, her uncle replied.
"Why should I trust you to release her, once you reach your ship?"
"Because you don't have any other choice," Travis's voice cracked like a whip.
A brief silence fell while Mikhail considered the offer, knowing it would resolve the matter of Jenna's claim to her father's ships but remove her from the clan's influence. He did not intend to let her slip away that easily and made a counter offer. "Leave both women here and I'll sign over master's papers for the fastest light cruiser in our fleet..it'll fly circles around your aging blockade runner."
"Suppose Jenna doesn't want to stay here, First Captain?" Travis glanced over to Jenna, listening intently with a tight pinched look around her mouth.
"You're the one with the gun. Besides, she belongs here...with her clan. Fulfilling long-neglected family duties."
There was a sly, confident note in Stannis's voice. Travis glanced again in Jenna's direction, remembering his earlier doubts about their partnership, but Stannis's tone irked him, assuming he would betray her at the first opportunity. Jenna was right about the old fox. Divide and conquer, indeed.
"I think not, Stannis. I don't sell out a partner that cheaply, but thank you for the suggestion. I'll have to up my price for the old woman's life to that faster ship you offered!"
Jenna muttered sourly, "A light cruiser's useless running cargo out on the Rim, unless you have fuel cores by the gross."
"Damp it, Stannis. Let's see just how much he wants the old baggage back."
Another angry silence fell and the Matriarch broke in with a surprisingly loud and penetrating voice. "If you two young bulls are through bellowing at one another, I have a counter offer to make to both of you."
Jenna relaxed slightly but Travis remained taut and on guard, suspecting another trap. As she glanced over to the suspicious ex-Federation officer, Jenna's grandmother asked acerbically, "Will you allow Mikhail to move in closer so that we don't broadcast our business to every listening device in the neighborhood?"
He grunted a reluctant acquiescence with one caveat. "Tell him to keep that telepathic hitman of his on a short lead. The first hint of any mucking about with my mind and I'll blow his friggin' head off!"
The Matriarch nodded calmly, recognizing the augmented rage of a trained soldier on the brink of violence. She caught Jenna's eye noting the similar awareness in her granddaughter's expression. It would take both their diplomatic and peacekeeping skills to cool off this explosive testosterone-charged confrontation.
"Jenna's bondmate has agreed to listen to my offer, Mikhail. Do be a good lad and send away your private army. You can bring Brendan to take notes, if he promises to behave himself."
The First Captain bridled at the old woman's patronizing tone and the tacit acceptance of that butcher implied in her words. But for the moment, there was little he could do about it since she was the formal head of the clan although he managed the day to day business dealings. "Tell him to throw out his weapon and I'll consider it," he shouted back, determined to at least maintain an appearance of autonomy.
"Oh, stop being difficult," the Matriarch countered peevishly. "I know you're carrying at least four hidden weapons, but I won't allow them strip search you if you come over now! I'm tired of standing on this hot, dusty loading dock. Do come down at once!"
Mikhail ground his teeth in fury at her peremptory tone but ordered his guards to withdraw. After they left, he gestured sharply for Brendan to follow him into the gunsights of that psychotic renegade. The guarded suspicious atmosphere as he came face to face with his niece and her `bondmate' was not eased by the fact that they were all sweltering in an unshaded corner of the building, with Sanctuary's blue-white sun blazing down from the cloudless garnet sky.
He shaded his eyes against the glare and muttered irritably, "Can't we find somewhere more comfortable to conduct this `negotiation'?"
"If you'd been halfway reasonable to begin with," Jenna snapped, "we could have settled this in your office at the first meeting."
"Hush, child," her grandmother admonished her. "You could hardly expect your uncle to accept your bona fides when you come claiming your inheritance in the company of a man with Travis's reputation?"
Jenna's defiant tone turned sullen,"We expected to be questioned and tested, not verbally, physically and mentally assaulted!." Her eyes cut toward Travis who was still on guard but with less of a potentially explosive air about him.
"Considering Federation interrogation techniques," her uncle drawled sarcastically, "I thought we were civilized by comparison."
Travis gave a harshly bitten off laugh, "Given a choice between telepathic assault and psychotropic drugs, I don't find either alternative pleasant."
Jenna sniffed with barely hidden contempt. "And I certainly wasn't welcomed as long lost family."
Mikhail's expression was tight and hard, "You forfeited any welcome you were due by shirking your responsibilites for the past twelve years, girl!"
Jenna flared back, "I told you when I left that I wasn't willing to be sold off to the highest bidder to further your dynastic ambitions and I sure as hell had bigger plans than becoming another of the clan's sequestered brood mares!"
"QUIET!" the Matriarch's voice cut through Jenna's shrill rage. "We will discuss this in a civilized fashion without screaming like the fishwives on Market Square!"
In the chastened silence, Jenna's grandmother continued in a hard, pragmatic tone. "You've claimed your ships and brought in an Outer World bravo as your bondmate. What do you offer in exchange for our recognition of your claim?"
Taken aback by the sudden change from her grandmother's earlier attitude, Jenna faltered. "What do you mean, `offer'? Those were my father's ships. They belong to me by right."
"Rights imply responsibilities. When your father was alive, he trained apprentices from every trading house in Xanadu. He shared market data and the best deep-space routes with other clan pilots. He contributed generously of his profits to defray administrative costs of the clan and provide support for disabled or impoverished Enclave members. Most importantly, he assured our survival by providing the clan with his descendant."
Jenna winced at the accusatory note in her grandmother's voice, then offered reluctantly. "We'll fulfill our obligations to the clan and the Enclave...once our claim is recognized. But forget about maternal obligations." Her mouth twisted ironically. "Motherhood was never an aspiration of mine and I think it's a little late to change my lifestyle."
Mikhail's voice was flatly contemptuous, "I told you, Matriarch, she's a spoiled brat with no sense of loyalty or responsibility. Send her and this lapdog of hers on their way."
The Matriarch fluttered her hands disparagingly in the First Captain's direction. "Oh, do stop dragging out the same old insults. You sound like a sulky rug-peddler bullying his
customers." She turned calmly back to her niece. "There are ways for you to make your genetic contribution to the family bloodlines without the inconvenience of pregnancy or child-rearing but this is not the time nor place to discuss them."
She turned a piercing stare on Travis. "Are you willing to undergo the testing required for admission as a member of the clan before your bonding to Jenna is formally recorded and her claim for her father's ships validated?"
Travis answered with a laconic drawl, "That was why we came here in the first place."
"Perhaps so," The old woman's voice held a sharp note. "But there's no guarantee you'll succeed. If you fail, will you disavow the bonding and leave Free Trader space, without Jenna?"
There was a pause as Jenna and Travis exchanged uncertain glances. The testing was expected, but the price of failure steeper than they hoped to pay. Jenna nodded almost imperceptibly, signifying her willingness to fulfill her part of the bargain but Travis made one last demand. "A deal...with one proviso. If I fail. . . and I won't if it's a fair test of skills. . . I'll void the bonding and leave, no questions asked. But Jenna remains free to stay or go, taking the Reina if that's her choice. Like she said, she's not the maternal type." He gave her a mocking grin and she drew her brows together doubtfully.
Mikhail and the Matriarch also exchanged glances and there was a mutual nod of agreement. "Done."
The bargain was sealed with a guarded, four-cornered handshake while Brendan stood to one side, noting the exceptions for later formal recording of the contract.
Early the next morning, following the First Captain's specific orders, his executive assistant took Travis on a carefully screened tour of the clan's docking, warehouse, and storage facilities and the few ships groundside. Travis had only dealt with the smaller Free Trader blockade runners and gunships and was mildly impressed by the size and armament of some of the large volume trade ships being loaded that morning.
Brendan's bland tourist guide monologue was of little interest to the ex-Federation officer except for minor details.
"Of course, Seran Jenna's ships are smaller, around 100 metric tons and lightly armed since they usually run well-established inner planet routes in catrine furs and tansor root. A most profitable and unexciting trade, something you're no doubt looking forward to after the risks you survived on the Rim Worlds."
The ex-Federation officer listened with a sour, disgruntled air. Even if he and Jenna were accepted in her clan, he wasn't sure that he was ready for the dull routine of a merchanter captain that Doyle seemed to be extolling. He wondered if Jenna's family might actually succeed in persuading her to assume the tame, submissive role seemingly required of Free Trader women, although her grandmother had definitely not fit that profile. He gave his telepathic guide a probing look, curious if the man was picking up on his emotions and feeding him a prepared line.
Brendan ignored the suspicious glare as they entered a warehouse size building just beyond the dives and gin joints surrounding the main docking yards. It was a large living area, broken up into several open bays filled with rows of cots, each with its own persona locked storage bin. There was a wildly diverse group of individuals of all sizes, ages, colors and sexes either sleeping, reading, or talking quietly amid typical barracks sounds and smells of overcrowded living space; the rattle of dice and shuffle of cards and the heavy stench of unwashed bodies, stale smoke and spilled liquor and food. In addition to the mass fresher facilities, there were wardrooms and even a small communal galley filled with the pungent odor of burned grease and some heavy exotic spice.
"Now what?" Travis was curious as to why Stannis's executive watchdog had brought him to this spacer's flophouse. The answer was not long in coming.
"I thought you might like the opportunity to observe the transient quarters where many of our captains recruit their crews. If you pass the piloting and combat skills section of the test, you will have to select a trading ship crew from among these temporaries." Doyle gestured to the rather bedraggled, listless group.
Travis glanced around with mistrust, spying some that were obviously sleeping off hangovers and others with the vacant eyed, infantile grin of a nova high. "Doesn't Stannis keep a contract pool of dependable pilots, navigators, and engineers?"
"Of course," Brendan answered blandly, "but part of your testing is the ability to select and recruit a competent, trustworthy crew."
"From transit barracks?" Travis's tone was flint hard.
"It's quite different in the Enclave than within the Federation," the telepath retorted with cold distaste. "Here people are not labeled by classification and locked into lifelong labor contracts that are little more than ill-paid servitude. Free Trader spacer crews have a choice of the type of contracts they sign. Some prefer the security of long-term agreements on the same ship and route for years. Others desire to flit from ship to ship, star system to star system, simply because they prefer their freedom."
"Or because they've been blacklisted by the ship's master," he answered dourly.
Doyle made a prim response. "I won't deny that there are shirkers or those with drug habits or personality flaws..."
"Or a run of bad luck," rumbled a deep baritone voice at Travis's shoulder.
He pivoted swiftly, startled that someone could have come up behind him so quietly and undetected. Especially the broad-shouldered, ebony skinned goliath towering over him. The giant had a gold ring in one ear and was wearing the same style of flamboyant, loose-flowing shirt Blake favored. A definite strike against him as far as Travis was concerned. Judging by his grim expression, the newcomer wasn't too charmed by Travis's appearance either, then a half-moon grin appeared as he gripped Brendan's hand in a jug-sized fist that looked powerful enough to crush that of the wire-thin telepath.
"Ser Doyle, it's a welcome sight you are to these poor eyes. Is the First Captain well?"
"Quite well, Engineer Akema, and yourself?" Brendan extracted his hand carefully from the other man's grip and wiggled his fingers briskly to restore their circulation.
"Not quite so well, I'm afraid. A dry run out of Khemet and then heavy ion storm damage while we were running the Rift and I find myself without a ship." He heaved a large sigh.
Brendan's expression remained neutral although Travis thought he could smell `set-up' in this whole, no doubt, carefully orchestrated meeting. Still, he eyed the giant speculatively, spotting the hard-cracked callouses and watchful alertness of a man who had babied temperamental tachyon field drive cores through long deep space hauls. But he did not like being manipulated, particularly by someone with a stake in his failure.
"Have the rest of Ayesha's crew found new berths?" Brendan inquired politely.
Sensing strange undercurrents between his old acquaintance and the hawk-faced man at his side, Akema hooked his thumbs in his belt, rocking back on his heels with calculated disdain. "Our pilot's kit bag didn't hit dirtside before he was snatched up by Fleet Captain Niachros. Brita, Phrath, Sarcar, and I are flush enough that we can wait for good slots on a first class merchanter."
Brendan nodded impassively and made his farewells, "Good voyaging to you. I have to get back to my task of showing our newest clan candidate around the docks."
Akema's gaze raked up and down the lean, hard figure before him, taking in the eyepatch, bionic left arm, and the arrogant bearing and stance of a trained Federation officer. He guffawed loudly. "The First Captain is considering Federation dregs like this for clan blood ties? Things must have come to a sorry pass indeed for Clan Stannis!"
Travis's coldly glittering cyclops stare bored into that mocking anthracite gaze. "If you're looking for a fight, Engineer, don't pussyfoot around. Take your best shot and be done with it"
Although he was big enough to break the other man across his knee, Akema noted the coiled menace and whipcord muscled body then grinned toothily. "I reserve my brawling for fun and not anger, Provo Captain. Perhaps there's more to you than appearances suggest. Come over to my cubicle for a drink and please enlighten me about how a Federation officer came to be in Enclave territory in the first place."
Brendan arched a questioning eyebrow at Travis who shrugged noncommittally. The man's remarks had obviously been more a matter of reflex antagonism than based on any real grievance. Besides the conversation might provide him with relevant facts about the Free Trade spacer pool and the quality of its independent contractors.
As they entered one of the smaller, partitioned-off, six man sleeping bays, Akema took three angry steps forward and grabbed a smaller figure by the scruff of his neck. The smaller individual who seemed to be wearing a heavily furred jacket despite the close, humid atmosphere within the cubicle, gave an ear-piercing yowl as Akema shook him.
"Dammit Phrath, I told you to stay the hell out of my kit. That was my last bottle of Altairean ale and I was saving it for something special!"
The smaller figure arched and flipped out of the Engineer's grip, bouncing to his feet as he faced the trio just entering, fangs bared and whiskers quivering. "Phhhhaugh," he spat and then lapsed into a growly snarl of a voice. "Good ale goes bad sitting undrunk. Nuthin' doing but drink and sleep, so drink I before goes bad!"
Akema snatched the half empty bottle out of his crewmate's clawed fist and gave him a sharp, affectionate cuff. "No danger of that with you here, drinking everything short of shuttle fuel, you thieving furball."
Bounding lithely out of the other man's irate reach, the felinoid spun swiftly to confront Travis and Brendan, his enormous green eyes glittering and his whiskers alert. "Is new captain fellas hiring crew? Good crew us...strong, smart, fast. Outfly, outfight, outsmart Federation patrols or Amagon raiders!"
Travis clamped down on the wave of revulsion filling him at the presence of this alien spacer. The Federation had little use for such nonhuman species and he had never seen one outside a cage in certain elite Council members' private collections. Rumour was these creatures could sniff out a man's fear, reacting to it like the beasts they were. Travis concentrated on subduing his qualms and listening impassively to the catman's half-growled, half-hissed bravado.
Akema chuckled at his overenthusiastic shipmate. "Save your spiel, Phrath. The man's a brand new candidate, not even passed his first screening yet." He rummaged in his storage bin and duffle bag looking for cups or mugs to share out the little remaining ale.
Travis had never been a fastidious man. A soldier in the field ate and drank from whatever utensils he could get with little concern about who'd used them before him. But twenty years of Federation xenophobic conditioning about the abhorrent nature of nonhumans like Phrath made his gorge rise at the thought of drinking after such a creature! Until he remembered the warning he'd given Jenna about scouting out the lay of the land in strange territory. Time to swallow some of his own advice and hope he didn't choke on it, especially since interspecies conviviality appeared to be a common practise among the Free Traders.
As Travis struggled with his revulsion, Phrath's nose quivered as he sampled the air surrounding the two visitors. "Phsssst - old blood stink on him - Federation hunterkiller - maddog - Travis!!" The feline crewman sprung for Travis's throat, his razor sharp claws erupting from their sheaths. Already uneasy about the nonhuman spacer, Travis dropped and rolled, trying to evade that inhumanly swift, deadly leap.
Akema tried to deflect his crewmate before Phrath savaged the clan candidate, bringing the wrath of the Stannis clan down on all of them, and managed to throw the felinoid off-balance enough so his talons did not tear out Travis's throat but only ripped open the back of his leather tunic, skimming over the flesh beneath.
Grabbing a double handful of Phrath's loose skin before he could attack again, he snarled angrily, "Yeah, we know he's Federation, you short-fused fleabag. But if Ser Doyle is accompanying him, that means he's under the Stannis Clan's protection! Now rein in that temper of yours, or find another place to doss."
The felinoid's normally vertical slitted pupils were wide dark pools of anger and frustration as he pulled away from the larger man's grip. "Too trusting Stannis Clan is. Danger... betrayal...he stinks of it!"
A third voice broke through the aftershock of that momentary violence; a woman's voice, pragmatic and irritated. "I knew it was a mistake to go shopping this morning. Leave the pair of you alone for half an hour and you start brawling and getting us in trouble with Dock Security!" The owner of the voice, a small plump woman with short, curly brown hair and a surprisingly warm smile despite her scolding, dropped several packages on one of the bunks and stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at the guilty pair.
Akema's expression was sheepish, "I just invited Ser Doyle and his new clan candidate over for drinks, Brita."
The woman's sharp brown eyes took in Brendan's well tailored tunic and his unruffled calm, despite the disturbance. He was well-known to most of the independent crews but his companion's edgy, barely leashed rage was something that needed to be dealt with immediately.
She made a smooth apology and gestured the two men to be seated as she shoved her packages to one side, "Forgive Phrath's impulsiveness. He's young and a gunner which tends to make him overreact to everything! I know Akema offered you that rotgut of his, but since it's so early, would you prefer coffee?"
Brendan made their refusals graciously to Travis's eternal relief. He simply wanted to get out of range before that overexcited cat creature succeeded in gutting him. Fingering the three clean tears across his back, he vowed never to come down here again without a weapon, no matter what glib assurances Doyle made. Even under Stannis's so-called protection, it was obvious that he was still a target to human and nonhuman alike.
Doyle was making their farewells as Travis kept a close suspicious scrutiny on Phrath. He was only peripherally aware of the arrival of the last member of Ayesha's crew, glancing out of the corner of his eye while a thin, wiry figure steered a teetering pile of boxes totally obscuring his vision though an obstacle course of scattered clothing and discarded bottles without a single misstep.
Brita slapped her forehead in dismay, "You idiots... not you, of course, Ser Doyle...but you other idiots got me so distracted I forgot I left Sarcar at the flitter with the rest of my packages. Just drop them on my bunk, Sarcar," she addressed the pile of boxes. "Why didn't you get the driver to help you carry them? Hell, as big a tick as we ran up, it should have included hand delivery."
"Twas eager to be gone, Seran Brita," hissed a flat monotone that sent cold chills up Travis's exposed back. "He was much alarmed by our destination being Transit Quarters and not some rich Clan House. I think he did not find our largess a sufficient inducement to tarry at this unprofitable location."
The unblinking reptilian stare and flickering tongue of Ayesha's cargo master materialized from behind Brita's boxes like a snake out of its hole as he continued on a wryly humorous note. "Or perhaps he feared I would sink my fangs in him in retaliation for his exorbitant transport charge."
Travis gazed into those cold ophidian features, feeling his stomach churn in loathing. If winning his place in the Enclave depended on his tolerance for creatures like this, his chances of passing their testing just plummeted to zero. With a curt, barely civil nod, he brushed past Brita before she could formally introduce the newcomer. Brendan made a smooth excuse about the candidate's exhausted state then followed the former Federation officer out of the building.
Travis paused in the debris strewn alley, looking over to the docks where the cruisers, merchanters, and blockade runners awaited refueling and loading. With a rueful bitter laugh, he recalled his earlier clashes with members of Jenna's clan and now this ill-fated encounter with the spacers who crewed the Free Trade ships. It seemed that there was much more to earning her clan's acceptance than Jenna had warned him about. Years of Federation training had honed his skills in weaponry, piloting and tactics but conditioned him to an obsessive intolerance of nonhuman species. A bigotry that seemed a worse handicap within the Enclave than his scarred face and bionic arm had been in the Space Command.
Disdainfully, Brendan fingered the tattered scraps of Travis's tunic as he declared in an acid tone, "I suppose we should get this replaced before we continue. Although considering the fact that you are well on the way to upholding the Federation's reputation for bigotry, intolerance, and outright rudeness, dressing you in a civilized fashion does seem a waste of time."
Travis turned a bitter scornful glance to the telepath, "Well, I may not be one of your upper-class, fine mannered captains, but at least I'm human!"
Brendan gave that savage outburst a slow mocking round of applause. "An attribute that will win you no points at all in the testing you face, Commander. In the Enclave, we do not judge a being by species or appearance but only by skill and loyalty to his clan, his shipmates, and the Enclave itself. All sentients are treated alike within Free Trader space!"
Travis laughed cynically, "As the Federation promises fair treatment for all regardless of condition or grade. It's a convenient fiction to placate the masses."
"Our equal treatment isn't legislated, you fool. It's simply the best way to optimize chances for survival on a trade run or downside on a hostile planet. Often nonhuman species have greater strength, superswift reflexes or particular inborn senses for tracking or water finding that provide that crucial needed edge."
Travis had erected a mental barricade that blocked out Brendan's awareness of most of his emotions except for the almost automatic revulsion he'd barely choked back during his encounters with the alien members of Ayesha's crew. At least his behavior had been reasonably civilized, rather than a strident outburst of anti-alien epithets as soon as he encountered Phrath. The telepath chuckled to himself in a grim humor. No doubt, the felinoid's impressive fangs and razor sharp claws may have given Travis second thoughts about airing his bigotry openly.
He turned a clear calm gaze to the officer's bleak one, "You'd do well to lose that conditioned bias against nonhumans. Within the Enclave such prejudices could cost your your life."
Jenna fidgeted uncomfortably under the chill electronic probings of the biocomp and demanded in an impatient tone, "How much longer, Katya? I've been in this damn machine long enough for it to have microprocessed my DNA and cloned me by now!"
"Not long now, Seran Jenna. The scans must test for any trace of mind-control drugs or microscopic implants that could endanger the Enclave." The reserved young telepath's voice held a barely hidden note of horror then she continued in a slightly pedantic tone. "The Reproductive Board must be certain your genetic potential has not been damaged by your reckless activities within the Federation and with Blake's rebels."
The blonde pilot retorted in contempt, "Mikhail can just forget about his plans to include me in the clan's `breeding stock.' That's not why I came home!"
Katya did not respond to that reflexive defiance, watching impassively as the scans were completed and the machine released Jenna from its mechanical grip with a harsh metallic whine and a reluctant hiss. She pulled the flimsy synthetic gown together, trying to maintain a semblance of dignity while an inhuman voice handed down its judgement. "There are no neural implants or psychotropic drugs present in your body other than a trace residue of the standard pacification drug fed to Federation prisoners. Your chromosomes are undamaged and your latent ova acceptable."
Jenna shivered at that dangerous revelation. It meant she was a viable breeding candidate. If Mikhail gave the order, her ovaries could be harvested and deep frozen to preserve her "bloodlines" for the clan's future. It wouldn't require her cooperation, merely her body; alive but not necessarily conscious. Mikhail could have her genes without the inconvenience of her obstinance. If that was what he wanted.
The computer continued its evaluation with a primly disapproving note in its artificial voice. "However, your fertility suppressant has kept the ova in an immature, unripened state. The implant has been removed and your hormonal levels normalized to permit your latent ova to ripen sufficiently for harvesting."
"How long will that take?" Jenna asked, irritated at the machine's cavalier disregard of her decision about her own body. Yet well aware how their survival depended on the answer.
"Six to twelve weeks, Seran Stannis, depending on how your body responds to the removal of the implant."
Jenna smiled sourly to herself in temporary relief. Possibly a three month grace period for Travis to win clan approval and claim her ships before Mikhail could expect her to fulfill any breeding obligations! It might give them enough time to outfit the ships and head for the farthest borders of Free Trader influence! That was all that she wanted, wasn't it? Her own ships, without the demands and duties of clan and Enclave?
She pushed that disquieting thought aside as she changed into street clothes, then questioned Katya as they left the Reproductive Center. "Where's your father taking Travis today? I need to meet with him and then inspect my father's ships."
Katya's reply was soft-voiced but resolved, "That's not possible, Seran Jenna. Your presence is required at an important meeting this morning with your grandmother and other clan members. There's barely enough time for you to change and get ready right now."
"Change?! What's wrong with the clothes that I'm wearing," Jenna demanded indignantly.
The young telepath's gaze lingered on the tightfitting and flamboyant pilot's leathers Jenna had flaunted ever since the initial explosive clash with her uncle. Her refusal to wear the clanswoman's traditional dress was one of the more blatant signs of her resistance to her uncle's efforts to reshape her into the compliant niece he expected her to be.
Katya sighed ruefully. "Nothing, except that this will be a business meeting with clan and sept leaders. Women of power and influence who can be useful allies, if they find you worthy of their support."
"And it never hurts to make a good first impression?" was Jenna's sarcastic inquiry.
"They do look beyond appearances, of course. But an openly antagonistic attitude will lose their sympathy very quickly."
"Then maybe you had better coach me in the proper attitude while I get kitted out for this `important meeting'," Jenna remarked with a resigned shrug.
"I am at your service, Seran Jenna," was the telepath's carefully neutral reply.
Despite her misgivings that the `business meeting' would be a tedious, gossipy affair where she would be given a disapproving once-over by a group of blue-haired old maids, Jenna discovered that was not the case at all. Instead, upon entering her grandmother's suite, she found a group of young and middle-aged women engaged in a wide-open, freewheeling discussion of the past tribulations and present trials of the Stannis clan under her uncle's leadership. Although several of the women were in various states of pregnancy indicating fulfillment of their childbearing obligations, it obviously didn't prevent them from taking an active role in the day-to-day administration of the clan.
She was greeted with initial reserve because of her long absence. But once these distant kinswomen of hers learned of her firsthand knowledge of Blake's rebellion and the devious schemes of Supreme Commander Servalan, questions and speculations flowed as freely as the light sweet wine and strong tea that was passed among the women.
"Servalan is history!" boomed a strong-featured outspoken redhead, Doya Marianne Wills, a distant cousin. "After Star One, Space Command Forces were so decimated that they couldn't maintain order in their own backyard. Rumor has it there was rioting and looting on the Inner System planets and the President and High Council were butchered by a mob of service grades. They'll be too busy trying to save their own necks to give us any further trouble."
"Don't be so certain," admonished a softer-spoken, dark skinned woman with a queenly profile, introduced as Trade Representative Kaleel. "Servalan's ambition always reached beyond Space Command and she has the devious mind of a pit viper. The might of the Federation's battle fleets was never the sole support of her power."
"You're right," Jenna affirmed quietly. "Blake discovered her connections with the Terra Nostra's drug lords and her attempts to acquire IMIPAK and Orac covertly without the knowledge of the High Council in order to increase her power within the Federation."
The Matriarch studied her granddaughter thoughtfully as she shared her knowledge of some of Space Command's more unsavory operations. The child had always had a wild, independent streak and years of smuggling and gunrunning on the edge of the Federation had done little to subdue it. What was her real reason for coming back to the Enclave? Claiming her father's ships was just an excuse. Some deeper need had drawn her back to them. Was it homesickness? Or was she trying to forge her bonding with that Federation renegade into something more than the business proposition they both claimed it was? Whatever the reason, together they had survived Mikhail's assaults, so far. It would be interesting to observe how their partnership weathered the trials of the weeks ahead.
She gestured to a heavily gravid, dark-haired woman, her great niece Melina. As the young woman listened carefully, she whispered and pointed toward Jenna, currently surrounded by an avid audience as she confirmed their worst suspicions of Supreme Commander Servalan's appetites and morals. The young woman moved with a stately grace to join the group, addressing a question to Jenna that diverted their interest to another area of concern. "Is it true your bondmate was once one of Servalan's most trusted officers?"
A shocked silence rippled through the crowd as Jenna set her jaw and drawled acidly, "Trusted? Hardly! He achieved his rank in Space Command through competence and skill, not political connections which left him less vulnerable to bribery and blackmail. Even the sexual coercion she uses to manipulate many of her upper echelon officers wasn't effective and she needed a neural implant to control him."
"How do you know he's still not under her control?" demanded the stocky, silver-haired Fleet Captain Delancie. "He could be a deep conditioned covert agent sent to infiltrate and destroy the Enclave."
Jenna brooded for a moment, wondering if she should reveal what she had learned of Travis's stark, painful past from the mnemonic cascade. Glancing at the closed cautious faces, she shrugged.
"I don't know for certain, anymore than I'm absolutely sure I'm not conditioned too. After all, I was a Federation prisoner before I joined Blake. I'll admit bringing Travis here was a risk, but if we played it safe, we wouldn't be Free Traders," she shrugged with a casual indifference.
The very pregnant Melina Stannis gave a knowing smile. "Well, it is the First Captain's duty to keep such risks to a minimum. I imagine Brendan turned him inside out mentally within an hour of his arrival to make sure he wasn't a danger to us."
Jenna glared at her dark-haired cousin, wondering about the purpose behind her observations but answered acidly, "True enough. My uncle's warm reception certainly made us feel welcome. Once we claim my father's ships, we're leaving for the Rim worlds and beyond."
Melina stared at Jenna in disdain, "What about the obligations you owe to clan and Enclave?"
Jenna retorted in exasperation, "They'll be repaid once we can claim those ships and make a profitable run or two."
Melina shrugged, "We need your support more than your credits. Training apprentices, supplying new planetary or trade route information, or, most important of all, assuring that our clan's bloodlines survive." She gestured to several of the other pregnant women as well as herself.
Jenna rolled her eyes heavenward in mute appeal then replied with as much restraint as she could manage. "I don't intend to become a baby factory just because this clan thinks that's a woman's sole function in life. Why shouldn't we be more at home on flight deck instead of a nursery anyway?"
Melina gave Jenna a penetrating glare, "Many of us felt the same way once, but years of inbreeding and losses of large numbers of our best captains and crews to raiders, ion storms, and Federation patrols in the last few years required a change in attitude. The decline in our numbers nearly reached critical levels before stringent measures were taken. Now, every clanswoman must produce at least three children by different fathers, for the sake of population growth and genetic diversity. If you and your bondmate have healthy genetic assays, you have a duty to your clan's future."
Jenna blanched at that unexpected revelation and its implications for her fragile relationship with Travis.
Melina patted her belly idly, "Of course, most of the outbond matches are made in the laboratory to assure conservation of the most desirable traits and to eliminate lethal ones. The Reproductive Council usually hires host mothers for these embryos." She gave a somewhat mischievous smile. "But there are definite advantages to doing things the old-fashioned way too. My bondmate and I decided this was a good time for me to be pregnant because we're on the Trade Regulation Board this term and I'm shameless about exploiting my `delicate condition' whenever they stray too far off the agenda. It keeps the meetings short and to the point."
Jenna arched a a curious brow at her grandmother and was met with a smug I-told-you-so catlike smile.
She nodded slowly, "Well, you've certainly given me something to think about, cousin."
The regal Kaleel brought them back to the question of Travis's loyalties and motivations, "Even if your bondmate isn't under Servalan's control, what's to keep him from selling us out to the highest bidder at the first opportunity. Especially since you won't bind him to the clan by bearing his sons."
Jenna was stubbornly silent but Doya Marianne gave a full-throated confident laugh, "Knowing Mikhail Stannis as well as I do, I'm sure that if Travis gets through the testing he has planned, there will be no question of his skill...or loyalties!"
Over the next weeks, Jenna learned a great deal more about her clan's duties and obligations within the Enclave than she remembered from her first training. The myriad political and family interconnections which fused the loose-knit collection of rugged individuals into a cooperative, if highly competitive, whole was not something she had been aware of when she first defied her uncle's plans for her future.
As she studied the records of the violent interdiction and legalized harassment the Free Traders had suffered during the time her father was murdered by a Federation border patrol, it provided an understandable motivation for her uncle's calculating efforts to hold the clan together. His withdrawal of Stannis ships from Federation space and proposed alliance with the Niarchos clan were desperate tactics, but had insured both clans' cooperation for survival even though the bonding between her and Stephan had not actually taken place. The promise alone had forced the two clans to maintain their tentative uneasy connection during the difficult years of Federation harassment. But since she had returned bringing an outsider and ex-Federation officer as her bondmate, Jenna wasn't sure what that meant for her uncle's future business dealings with the Niachros clan.
Late one morning she and Katya sat in a small rest area, sipping franga juice and making idle conversation as she took a break from her studies of Enclave trade regulations. Jenna tried to draw the young telepath out about her uncle's plans for the future and her part in them.
"I just don't understand, Katya. Why didn't he seal the alliance with the Niachros clan years ago with one of his own daughters? They've been raised in the Stannis clan traditions and any of them would have been an ideal match for Stephan. Why was Mikhail so dead set on my being the one?" Jenna's expression was plaintive.
"You are his older brother's only surviving child. Leadership of the clan is your children's birthright." Katya stated adamantly. "Your uncle considers himself merely an interim caretaker."
Jenna took a deep impatient breath, " He's the one who held the clan together during the years of Federation harassment while I was knocking around the Rim, looking for some way to avenge my parents." She rubbed the heels of her hands against red, aching eyes. "No matter what he thinks about birthright and inheritance, I won't be a part of the clan's dynastic free-for-all."
"Then why have you come back now, Seran Jenna?" The young telepath's voice was so soft Jenna wasn't even sure she actually heard the question and didn't imagine it.
Jenna gazed at the leafy fern-like trees and coolly splashing fountain that provided the relaxing atmosphere in the little rest area, then retorted sharply, "It's my home, Katya. I never intended to leave it forever. . .but I wanted to return on my terms and not my uncle's"
"With a Federation renegade as your bondmate, sowing discord among your kin and endangering the entire Enclave!" Katya's voice had turned cold, "Don't you realize that he's just using you."
"That door swings both ways, since I'm using him as well-- to reclaim what's rightfully mine. Which I wouldn't have to do, if Mikhail would just forego this bondmate nonsense."
"Your uncle only wants what's best for you. . .and the clan. But you've deliberately thwarted his wishes by bringing this Federation outcast into our midst. Don't you see, Seran Jenna, he's a killer and a renegade; by accepting him you've betrayed family and friends and turned against your own kind."
Jenna stared at the young telepath bleakly, "If you truly believe that, then the Enclave's become so intolerant and narrow-minded, I'm beginning to wonder if I belong here any longer myself."
Later that week, much to Jenna's surprise, Katya arranged for Jenna to meet someone who could report on Travis's progress at being accepted in the clan. The tall striking redhead shook Jenna's hand with a firm grip as she remarked mockingly to Katya, "So this is the woman who flies with that maniac on a regular basis. I expected someone with a more obvious manifestation of a death wish."
"I've got `Rebel scum' tattooed on my hip, if that counts," Jenna retorted while pulling up more chairs. The redhead snorted appreciatively as Katya introduced them.
"Seran Jenna Stannis, allow me to introduce Danielle McRae, one of our most skilled trade captains, presently in charge of the training and testing of all the Enclave's pilot candidates. She was your bondmate's co-pilot/rater during the test of his piloting skills."
Eager to hear how Travis was doing, Jenna gestured to the two empty chairs at her table, "Please join me, Captain McRae. Would you like coffee or something more substantial, like breakfast."
"Call me Dani and what I could use is a good stiff drink."
The other woman rubbed her hands wearily down her face as she responded to Jenna's apprehensive look. "Oh, I don't normally drink before noon but I just came off a run to the Altair system and it's midnight by the ship time I was running on. Besides I'm still shaking from last week's test run..." She fixed Jenna with a long penetrating glare. "I'm an experienced rater and I've never lost a candidate or a ship yet, but Travis...!
Dani lapsed into silence until her drink arrived. After a long swallow, she turned a hard, speculative look towards Jenna. "Answer me one question, before I go any further, so at least I'll have some hint of what was going through that man's mind."
"If I can," Jenna promised.
"Is he really so driven to win your clan's approval? Or does he simply not give a damn whether he lives or dies?"
Danielle's grey-green eyes bored into Jenna's face as she pondered the question, recalling Travis's recklessly suicidal efforts to kill Blake while under Servalan's control. Even after the neural implant was removed, he'd still taken potentially fatal risks to achieve his purpose; baiting Avalon, the mnemonic cascade procedure, even the attempt to stop Blake at Star One. She'd ignored his reckless behavior because it had suited her purposes.. Now, she had to wonder about the real reason behind those actions. Was it courage or a desperate pursuit of oblivion?
"I don't know," she whispered, "I just don't know."
Taking another deep swallow of her drink, Dani stared down at her square, competent hands with their short unpolished nails. "I wish I'd known that before we made the run. I probably would have aborted it before we were out of the stratosphere."
"Tell me," Jenna stared at her own tightly clenched fists.
"Like I said, I have a regular run to the Altair system and I'd just grounded, not bone-tired but wanting a long, hot shower and a chance to put my feet up when the Training officer called me from the tower....
"Dani, good work on the Altair run. I've seen your cargo manifests and if the weights match, it looks like you brought in almost 12% more drywood resin than we expected." His commendation was delivered in the rich melodious voice Burton reserved for asking his biggest favors.
She laughed ruefully, "Don't try to fool me, Michael Burton. I can tell by those honeyed words you want me here bright and early tomorrow morning to take another green trainee on his first flight. Not on your life! I've got two whole days of downtime and I intend to be on the next shuttle out to the Palimino Islands."
"He's not a green trainee, Dani, but a seasoned pilot who's flown everything that lifts. Besides, you just have to do a quick runthrough so he'll have some idea of what to expect on the real test course," her supervisor wheedled.
"Geez, Mike, can't you find anyone else? I'm tired and my reflexes are shot and I really need a shower before I climb into a G-suit again." She knew that the Enclave desperately needed new pilots in the ranks and an experienced one was a godsend. But even gunrunners and smugglers who'd been flying independently for years sometimes found the Free Trader's testing course too much of a challenge for their skills.
"This is a special request from Clan Stannis, Dani. They're testing a new member for acceptance into the clan. The First Captain asked us to proceed as rapidly as possible with getting him checked out." Mike Burton's voice held an odd undercurrent that she could almost swear was fear.
"Then why the preliminary run, for pity's sake. If he's so experienced and Stannis is in that much of a hurry, just send him out on the course first thing in the morning, preferably with someone who hasn't been sleeping on a lumpy bunk and eating reconstituted sweat socks for the past week," she retorted testily, eager to finish her check-in.
"Extenuating circumstances, Dani. You'll understand when you get his bioprofile stats. Look, Captain MacRae, I can't order you to do this because you are officially on downtime, but I'm asking you, as a favor." Mike's voice was downright nervous now and she wondered who was exerting the pressure on him, Stannis or the candidate himself. Whoever it was definitely had Burton rattled and for that reason alone, she agreed to do the run through.
"You owe me for this, Burton. Big time. . . and don't think I'll hesitate to call it in," she grumbled as she snatched the hardcopy readouts coming over the comm from the tower. Clearing her boards, she signed her cargo over to the stationmaster, then ran down the candidate's biostats as she headed for the docking area that housed the Enclave's test vessels.
The computerized readouts were supposed to give an indication of a pilot's overall status and avoid fatal mistakes due to poor physical condition and reaction time as well as prevent anyone who was mentally or emotionally unstable from taking the test. The results she held in her hand were so atypical, it was no wonder Mike wanted a dry run before the actual testing process.
The man was a good ten years older than their usual cadet recruit which was to be expected if he was an seasoned pilot, but his reflex times were still remarkably close to those of the younger pilots. He demonstrated a surprising amount of adeptness and strength in the left hand although he had the usual right-handed bias. His mental scores were nominal enough to get him accepted although she wouldn't want to crew with him on a regular basis. But the vision field readouts. She had just scanned them routinely until she realized despite strong compensation factors he was virtually blind on his left side!
She stormed down to the field ready to blister Mike Burton's ears for sweet talking her into this idiotic guided tour for a candidate who had no chance in hell of making in through the test course! Instead of encountering the Training Officer, she confronted the candidate himself, checking maintenance logs of the ship they would be taking out. He was tall, leanly muscular in the tight-fitting G-suit mandatory for the run and wearing an odd flight helmet with a polarized full face visor.
As he walked around the test ship, studying its configuration, she trailed after, swallowing back her uneasiness at confronting that blank featured mask and determined to stop this idiocy before it went any further. "Are you the candidate they want me to take on a preliminary run?"
He nodded and then chinned himself up into the cockpit from the belly hatch. Cursing under her breath, she levered herself in as well and followed him while he familiarized himself with the layout of the control panel in the trainer's tightly cramped drive sphere. The two seater cockpit had identical controls on the pilot's and co-pilot's side, but the big difference was the red abort switch by the co-pilot/ rater's seat which would allow her to override the pilot's controls if she felt he was incapable of handling the situation or if the ship was in danger of crashing. Once she had her say in the matter, they wouldn't even lift off.
"Look, I don't know how you got clearance from medical to even attempt this test but I can tell right now, I don't go up with anyone who has less than a 75% field of vision."
He'd flipped up the visor then, revealing the black eyepatch and the piercing blue of his remaining eye, stating in a flatly pragmatic tone of voice. "The helmet has a cybernetic hookup that puts any questionable readouts within my normal vision field. And I'm going to run this damned course whether you come along as wetnurse or not." His acerbic drawl flicked her like the lash of a whip as she tried to regain her composure after the shock of recognizing him.
She'd seen his face on vidscreen bulletins on the Rim Worlds, when he'd been one of Space Command's most decorated officers, then on "Most Wanted" holos after he'd turned renegade with a bounty on his head. His reputation as a brilliant, daring pilot was matched only by the rumors of his brutal savagery against rebels and resisters. She wondered what convoluted path had led him to a candidacy for clan membership within the Enclave? Had First Captain Stannis taken leave of his senses to even consider recruiting an ex-Federation officer like Travis!
Blandly indifferent to the expression of distaste on her face, Travis questioned sarcastically. "Well, Captain MacRae, do you babysit those backup controls or do I make the run solo and let the remotes in the tower rate my piloting skills?"
She glared stonily into his sneering face. "No one goes out on the course solo, not even during a dry run. It's in one of the most dangerous sections of the Sanctuary system. We're doing the practise run this evening so you can get some idea of the stellagraphy and deep space anomalies. Tomorrow, when you make the actual test run, there will be computer generated simulations of pirate attacks and other hazards."
"I don't need a practice run," he snarled in a flatly contemptuous tone of voice. "And I don't have time to waste. Now, is this a test of my piloting skills or some type of nursery school cadet milk run?"
Seething inwardly at the arrogance of the man, Dani hoped the test run would have him puking his guts up but gave him a cool reply. "As you wish, Candidate Travis. I'll notify the tower to initiate the full-scale test procedure."
After the final preflight checklist was run, as they were strapping themselves into the cockpit, Dani pointed out some crucial differences Travis might not be aware of during the testing. "She's small and configured like a lightweight trainer but once the program kicks in she'll handle like a fully loaded XY-100 C, which is our most common trading ship. She'll be logy, cantankerous, and difficult to control, not like the hair-trigger responsiveness you expect from a fighter. If you don't take that into consideration, it will be a short, brutal trip. My controls will only override yours well enough to prevent it from being a suicide run."
Travis had given her a darkly contemptuous glare before pulling down the polarized visor preventing her from having any clue about his thoughts or feelings during the test run. After a final okay from the tower, he lifted the ship with a punishing surge of power that left Dani momentarily breathless. Gritting her teeth and settling a little deeper into the co-pilot's seat, she resolved not to let her temper or her stomach get the best of her and called up the test course on the main view screen.
It was a complex winding run deep through the middle of the system's asteroid belt that involved outmaneuvering dangers both natural and computer-generated. The course was difficult enough to plot and steer on manual without the usual programmed guidance, but potential damage from an antimatter minefield, a simulated strike by pirates, and the artificially generated gravimetric and electromagnetic distortion of a full blown ion storm should take that Federation hotshot down a peg or two.
On the edge of the stratosphere, Travis took the craft through its paces, adjusting to the quirks and eccentricities of his controls before pushing the drive system wide open until the straining engines hovered just below the redline of overload. Dani's hands clenched tightly on the armrests of her seat as their subharmonic howl grated rawly across her nerves. The blank mask of the visor frustrated her efforts to keep tabs on his emotional state so she had to content herself with watching his body language as they jinked through the tumbling rocks of the asteroid belt. To her dismay he plunged into the minefield without pausing to evaluate sensor readings or even take a long look at the tactical readout.
Despite his seemingly effortless evasive maneuvers, her fingers moved from their spasmodic clutch on the seat to hover just above the override switch. Taking a moment to study him thoroughly, she noted that he was making most of the fine tuning course adjustments left-handed, with an almost machinelike precision. Recalling his left arm wasn't flesh and blood at all but some kind of bionic replacement, she relaxed ever so slightly, thinking to herself, "Well, since the minefield is based on standard Federation configurations, he's probably had it programmed into his memory. He could do this part of the course in his sleep!"
Still, she kept a very close eye on him, unable to read his face and wishing that his body showed something more than relaxed complacency. A man with Travis's level of experience should be long past the adolescent delusion of immortality that got so many cadet pilots killed during training. Yet as she watched him she sensed a terrifying resolve. Underneath his icy calm, Travis simmered with the kind of intensity she'd felt in overdriven engines just before the core blew out.
Before she could decide how to react to that intuition, a bracketing series of three plasma bolts shook the ship like dice in a cup and Dani realized that they were out of the minefield and right in the middle of the deepspace battle portion of the scenario. Travis bit off a curse as the lurching of the ship snapped his head back against the neck rest of his seat, glaring at the three ships confronting them.
With a stomach-churning surge of power, he wrestled the controls into a sharp end-over-end roll that seemed to violate Newton's first law and any normal vessel's design tolerances. Surprisingly, the ship did not break in half as Dani expected, although the engineering board lit up with enough amber and red warnings to bring her finger back to the "overide/abort" switch. But after that initial audacious evasive move, he held them on a straight course, running wide open, long enough for most of the lights to blink back to green.
To her surprise, considering his bloody-handed reputation, the officer did not reverse course for a suicidal confrontation with the pirate attackers. Instead, he continued with canny evasive and sensor-blinding maneuvers until it was obvious their slower, less responsive freighter was outclassed in speed and agility. Only then did he turn like a cornered wolf and with deadly accurate aim, bring his weapons to bear.
After a lethal burst of blaster fire blew open the bridge of the simulated lead ship, its two companions vanished in a mist of smoke and illusion. He'd turned that blank visor in her direction. "The raiders in this sector lose their taste for loot that easily?"
She'd shrugged stiffly, "I don't program the tests but I do know that I've rarely had to fight a pitched battle with even the most determined pirate. If you show them you have `teeth' and are willing to use them, usually they back off."
He grunted in disbelief and turned his attention back to piloting the course and dealing with the increasingly stiff, uncooperative controls of the fighter. "Bloody hell! Is Stannis trying to sabotage me! I've flown half-gutted battleships with better responses than this!" The muscles in his arms and shoulders bunched as he wrestled with the vessel as though sheer brute strength could force the performance from them he required.
Dani felt a momentary sympathy with his frustration until with a bone-rattling, stomach-churning shimmy of the ship's frame they were sucked into the vortex of the simulated ion storm. After that initial verbal protest, Travis resumed his grim, silent battle for survival and over the next twenty minutes, Dani had to swallow back the sour bile from her mistreated stomach at least half a dozen times. The cockpit stank of rank sweat, overheated leather and the sharp ozone tang of burned out peripheral circuitry. He had managed to hold the ship on course through the storm despite the constant battering of its abused structure, but Dani kept checking her instrument readouts. The punishment they were enduring had gone beyond anything she'd ever experienced in previous tests.
She stared in exhausted terror at their instruments and the vortex field on the screen at least a dozen times, even flicking the meters just in case the needle was frozen. But the readings never wavered, despite the fact she was convinced the simulated storm felt like force eight and the testing was never supposed to go above a force five. As another electromagnetic surge battered the ship and sent sparks flying up like deranged comets, she gasped weakly, "Something's gone wrong with the test computer! This is not a force five storm! I'm aborting this run before it shakes us apart!"
His left hand reached across and pinned hers before she could hit the "abort" switch and he flipped up his visor showing the raw determination on his bloodied, sweat-drenched features.
"NO!!" he grated out harshly. "Stannis isn't getting rid of me that easily! Keep your hand off that switch, Captain McRae or I'll break your arm!"
The animal snarl on his features sent an icy shock down her spine, but she answered defiantly, "You fool, I'm your rater! If I report this behavior you'll be disqualified. . . permanently!"
There was a cold yellow fire in the blue of his eye as he countered her threat. "Then I'll simply break you neck and declare it a testing mishap." The cruel curve to his mouth convinced her he was dead serious and if she attempted to stop him, she'd be dead.
She removed her hand from the switch reluctantly and spat out, "All right, Candidate Travis. It's your call but if this ship becomes a threat to the spaceport or any other vessel on an approach vector, I will abort the run."
"Don't worry," he answered turning his gaze back to the swirling distortion of the storm on the forward screens. "We're so far out of the system that if we break up, our debris won't reach the far side of the third moon."
She grumbled under her breath and then set her teeth in her lower lip determined to bite off any further outbursts, no matter if Travis got them blown into tiny pieces. To her eternal relief, despite the bone-rattling force of the vortex, he managed to reach its outermost edge within five minutes with no further physical or structural damage. As the overtaxed gyros and inertial shields resumed a semblance of smooth level flight, they turned back to the port and Dani fed in the codes restoring the fighter's normal control configuration. She noticed Travis's flesh and blood arm was trembling with fatigue but he took a deep rasping breath and thrust his weakness aside, plotting a straight tight route back to the docks.
Once they were on course, he'd pushed his helmet off and run his hand through lank dark hair, plastered to his forehead and matted with sweat and blood. Dani had unstrapped her own helmet, tracing a delicate probing finger across her bruised forehead as she remarked in an angry caustic tone, "You may have more guts than any other candidate I've ever flown with but in the Enclave, we don't take unnecessary risks when there's no profit in it!"
For a long moment he was silent, until his low voiced reply had startled her with its intensity. "Captain McRae, I've taken far greater risks with less to gain than what First Captain Stannis offers."
Taking a deep breath as she drained her glass, Dani looked Jenna straight in the eye. "I've never seen a man push quite so close to the edge without going over. But independent spacers, unlike blindly obedient mutoids, won't appreciate such foolhardy tactics. They prefer trading runs that don't look like suicide missions."
With that dispassionate warning, Danielle McRae departed, leaving Jenna with a cold knot of fear tightening around her heart, as she wondered why Travis was pushing himself so hard?
Sanctuary's sun had just sunk below the horizon leaving the colorful tapestry of cloud patterns in its wake just before the rising of the first moon. Normally Mikhail Stannis's office was automatically light and climate controlled so that the hours and even the vagaries of weather passed unnoticed. But today he had damped the sensors and opened his windows in a vain attempt to capture some of the vivid, clamorous sights and sounds of the space docks below. To no avail. His office was simply too far removed from the colorful, exciting life that he'd once shared in. Now, all he could hear was the hypersonic scream of departing ships leaving the shattered ions of their passage to haunt the sky like smoky whispers of unspoken farewells.
He sat behind his desk in the shadowy darkness, thinking and remembering, until a soft chime roused him. He leaned over to hit the switch and heard Brendan's cultured tones, "Am I disturbing you, First Captain?"
The use of his formal title meant the telepath had serious business on his mind and Mikhail sighed wearily, switching on the overhead track lights that illumined his desk. "No, Brendan, I was just brooding about old times. What's so urgent you aren't long gone yourself?"
"I have the final physical, psychometric, and genetic reports from the tissue samples taken from Travis when he and your niece first arrived," came the smooth bland reply.
Mikhail straightened up abruptly. That might hold the final key to the enigma that his niece had dumped into their laps. Despite Brendan's earlier telepathic scouring of the former Federation officer's memories, Mikhail was not convinced the man did not represent a danger to them. Even his niece's determined defense of Travis did not rule out the possibility of Servalan still exerting some subtle deadly control on him that would result in the downfall of the Enclave and the destruction of everything he had fought so hard to save the past ten years.
"Bring it up," he ordered curtly.
Moments later, Brendan entered hand-carrying a data flake which he inserted in Mikhail's desktop information center. Scanning the columns of information impatiently, Stannis noted the years of conditioning the man had undergone. Even if what Jenna said about the man's Outer World origins proved true, he'd been in Space Force ever since. More than long enough for the Federation's drugs and pyschomanipulation to undermine that earlier nurture.
He darkened the screen abruptly and turned to the telepath. "Look, I don't have time to read his biography. What's the bottom line? Is he working for Servalan or not?"
Mildly exasperated at the other man's impatience, Brendan tried to explain their medical and psychological findings. "Jenna was telling the truth about the implant being the source of his obsession with Blake. Judging by the scar tissue and metallic traces from the sensory filaments the cybersurgeon had removed, it was a strongly reinforced program eradicated, for the most part, by the removal of the device. He seems to be physically free of any further taint of the woman's control."
"What about mentally?"
Brendan's lips thinned in painful recall of his telepathic probe of the Space Commander's mind after his capture. Even under sedation, Travis had fought him every inch of the way, struggling to hold on to what little psychic integrity he retained despite Servalan's iron-fisted control. He'd managed to resist the worst of her depraved whims even though conditioned by one of the notorious puppeteers. It was a strength of will Brendan found admirable and clear evidence of an independent spirit uncrushed by Federation mind-subjugation techniques.
"There's no evidence of any deep-conditioning program that she could against us. In fact," Brendan answered flatly,"there are strong indications if he does encounter her again, he will try to kill her."
Stannis gave a chilly smile. "Then, perhaps we can arrange a little tete-a-tete between the Supreme Commander and her former `hound'."
"Jenna would resent her bondmate being used as an assassin, particularly in this instance. It would likely undo the Matriarch's efforts of the past weeks to regain her trust," Stannis's executive assistant warned.
"I'm afraid you're right. Odd as it may seem, considering their past enmity, Jenna's present loyalty to him outweighs all sense of obligation she has to her clan." Stannis pondered that troubling situation.
"Perhaps because the bond between them was forged during their struggle for survival. As a result, they became one another's lifeline." Brendan's expression was uneasy as he delivered this potentially explosive fact to his longtime friend.
"That's a very useful bit of information," Stannis sat back at his desk, his eyes hooded and dark. "Was that all?"
Brendan arched an exasperated brow at the First Captain. "Except for the genetic assay."
Stannis shrugged indifferently, "With Jenna continuing to balk at any mention of her childbearing responsibilities to the clan, Travis's bloodlines are of no concern to us."
"You may feel otherwise, Mikhail, when you examine this." The executive assistant hit the switch for the holo projector, displaying a 3-D projection of Travis's DNA at eye level atop Stannis's desk.
Studying the rainbow-hued image intently for a moment, Stannis shrugged in frustration, "Dammit, Brendan, this is more your specialty than mine. All I can tell is it's a relatively clean assay without the usual domebred sublethals."
"Which confirms Jenna's statement he's a survivor of an outworld colony. But that's not why his chart's important." Brendan's voice held a strange tension as he highlighted one particular gene on the display. "This is a mutagenic anomaly which isn't on any other DNA chart we have on record. It contains a dominant gene for resistance to the Federation's current pacification drugs!"
Mikhail's lips compressed tightly as he studied the holo, "That's impossible! Jenna told us...indeed your own probes verified he's been conditioned by the Federation throughout his career in Space Command."
"But never with drugs," Brendan countered. "When I probed his mind I found evidence of neural implants, electroshock, sensory deprivation, but never chemical means."
The First Captain laughed harshly as he pounded his desk so hard the projection broke into a million shards of prismatic color. "We've WON, by heaven!! With resistance to their drugs within our grasp, Central Control gutted, and the Galactic Fleet a mere shadow of itself, the Federation is no longer a threat to us. The Enclave's survival is assured now, without future fear of those damned pacification drugs hanging over our heads!"
"But Jenna's refused to fulfill her childbearing obligation. How do you propose to get Travis's genes into our bloodlines?" Brendan was surprised by Mikhail's elation.
"That should be obvious, Brendan. I doubt a soldier who's knocked about as much as he has will refuse any woman that we slip into his bed, do you?"
Doyle shrugged noncommitally, "His bond with Jenna is linked in his mind with survival. He may view anything that jeopardizes it with extreme suspicion and refuse to cooperate with your breeding plan."
Mikhail snorted in disbelief. "I doubt he's likely to climb on some moral high horse if the women we send to seduce him are beautiful and erotically skilled. But if he's that reluctant, we can just knock him out and harvest the damn germ plasm. With his sperm and Jenna's ova in cryogenic storage, the two of them can go haring off the ends of the Universe if they want."
Brendan gave an embarrassed dry cough, refusing to meet Mikhail's eyes. "It's not quite that simple, First Captain. A specimen was obtained during his detention following the altercation in your office and after an initial cursory screening, was placed in cryogenic suspension for more comprehensive testing at a later time. When thawed, the anomaly had destabilized until it was no longer viable. The sample itself was still fertile but to transmit the desired resistance to Federation drugs, it appears the semen cannot be stored."
Mikhail ground his teeth together then sank deeply into his chair, "No, it's not possible! Fate couldn't be so cruel as to hold out our salvation and then snatch it away again."
Brendan spoke in a gentle but very definite tone of voice, "I fear Fate has little to do with it, Mikhail. The gene appears to be an artificial construct of dubious origins. Though why Travis was chosen as its carrier remains a mystery, considering his uncertain life span. . . Unless its true purpose is to somehow give him an edge in survival."
"Servalan!" Mikhail appended a blistering series of dockside oaths to the Supreme Commander's name that brought a bemused look to Brendan's face.
"No..." he interjected with some certainty. "I think you're mistaken about this being one of her ploys. She is devious but has no interest in Travis's ultimate well-being. No, there's a finer, subtler hand in this. A master strategist who knows the value of castling a king or using a piece in totally unconventional manner. A chess master with his own particular plans for Travis."
"Well, what do you propose we do about it?" Mikhail demanded angrily. "Keep him locked up in cold storage until this chess master makes his play?"
"That would be our worst possible move," Brendan advised drily. "You've seen for yourself Travis is not a man who can be kept `on ice' for long. You'd alienate both him and your niece, when it is in your best interest to try and win their confidence and cooperation. Besides if the Treaty Conference comes about as planned, their knowledge of the Federation and Blake's rebellion will be absolutely essential."
Mikhail's face was remote and unreadable, "If he survives the testing, then we'll consider whether or not he'd be useful to us at that meeting. And whether we can trust him not to betray us. . . to the Federation, or your mysterious chess master."
In her spacious and beautifully decorated apartment within the Matriarch's suite, Jenna paced restlessly, consumed by a burning desire to escape its confinement. Ever since she'd reluctantly consented to fulfill her childbearing obligations at some later date, permitting the clan to harvest a number of her ova while Travis was undergoing his training and testing, she'd been sequestered here, rarely out of the sight of Katya or her grandmother! It was a smothering, stifling isolation that threatened to drive her up a wall. Worst of all, after Captain McRae's report on Travis's initial test, she had heard little more about his status.
Two weeks of cloistered isolation Katya's watchful eye had sent her storming into her uncle's office, protesting vehemently. He hadn't even looked up from his paperwork as he replied, "It's traditional, Jenna. Besides you'd just distract the man and make it more difficult for him to concentrate on his training. You wouldn't want to be the reason he failed to win acceptance, would you?" He glanced up, his smug expression grating on her nerves as she tried to counter his argument.
"He's not some brash recruit," she answered, dry-mouthed." I doubt he'd even notice. I need to see him...." her voice trailed off under her uncle's penetrating stare.
She wasn't even sure why she was consumed by this sudden urgency to see Travis. She had known her clan's antiquated tradition of sequestering unpledged bondmates prior to formalizing the contract to ensure the legitimacy of any heirs would likely be used to keep them isolated. She would have laughed at the whole medieval notion, especially in view of their unorthodox relationship, if she hadn't been so undone by it. Even though she'd warned Travis about the strategy, suddenly she found his absence unbearable. . . both physically and emotionally.
She'd always prided herself on her self-reliance and independence, never needing anyone's help to survive the harsh necessities of free trading on the Rim. Yet somehow she'd grown dependent on this outcast Federation officer; used to his rough-hewn presence, wanting him near her. Needing the hard grip of his hands on her shoulders, the velvet-sheathed steely edge of his voice breathing in her ear, his lean taut strength pressed against her, turning her blood to flame. She swayed, closing her eyes at the shocking intensity of those memories.
When she opened them again she found Mikhail's stern gaze on her face, still waiting for an answer. "I want to be sure he's all right! I don't trust you Mikhail. You've made it quite clear how much you despise him." The answer sounded lame even to her ears and her uncle's chilly reply only confirmed it.
"With good reason." His gaze was glacial as he turned back to his printouts. "The trials will be a fair test of his abilities. Just be grateful we even consider this. . . this. . . renegade for acceptance in the clan! But don't expect us to mollycoddle him or indulge your perverse notions in defiance of custom and tradition! You're still my kinswoman and you will behave properly while under my roof, until the bonding. You will not see him again until he's passed the testing and been accepted into the clan!"
Instead of standing up to him with her usual defiance while matching him outraged scream for outraged roar, Jenna dissolved in tears and fled his office. Two corridors and three slammed doors later, she'd regained enough control to wonder what in the civilized worlds had caused her to simply fold up and flee like frightened schoolgirl. She stared into an ornate gold framed mirror in the hallway, disconcerted by the unstable turmoil of emotions that had wracked her these past weeks. Had coming back to the Enclave somehow regressed her to petulant, ineffectual childhood. . . or was there another reason for her unsettled reactions?
Despite their earlier intercession, neither Katya nor her grandmother would even discuss allowing her to contact Travis in defiance of her uncle's orders. Even though they refused to help her, Jenna was determined to see him. . . somehow!
Finally after almost a month of spying and eavesdropping, she found what she was looking for. Long association with Vila and Avon had taught her how to bypass building security and create a fake ID that would get her access to the underground transport system. Katya and Brendan would both be absent, engaged in their various duties, making it that much easier for her to slip past nontelepathic watchdogs for a private rendevous with Travis after his current training session.
Changing into a subdued business tunic and pulling a drab cloak around her shoulders, Jenna wondered why she felt compelled to take this risk. Though she'd never been afraid to gamble on a dangerous smuggling run out on the Rim, if there was sufficient profit in it, directly defying her uncle's orders like this was foolish. If they were caught, it would give Mikhail the excuse he was looking for to void Travis's testing and banish him from the Enclave.
Then she shivered despite the cloak's warmth, as she recalled Dani McRae's chilling words "I've never seen a man push so close to the edge. . ." If she was telling the truth, Travis was lapsing into the kind of driven, self-destructive behavior that nearly consumed him before. Did he think she'd betrayed him, or was merely using him as Servalan had for so long? She had to find out and convince him otherwise.
She strode briskly down the hallway to the underground transit system, her mind seething with worry. Could the mental deterioration somehow be Brendan's doing? Telepathic sabotage of Travis's less than stable mental outlook to guarantee his failure. Even if she was right, what could they do about it? While a warning might enable Travis to resist subtle psychic manipulation, it might also make him more vulnerable by fueling his paranoia or setting off his hair-trigger temper. Wracked by uncertainty, she fought the impulse to bury her face in her hands. She ached to throw herself into Travis's arms and drop the whole bloody mess into his lap. Yet even as that emotion surged through her, a small cynical voice of rationality sneered in the back of her mind.
"You know what his solution would be. Shoot our way back to the Reina and blast off for the Outer Worlds, leaving us in even worse shape than before--with an aging ship, empty purses, a Federation bounty on our heads. . . and blacklisted in every neutral port along the Spiral Rim.
The bored guard waved her thru the gate to the loading platform, hardly even glancing at her ID. There, despite the sweat trickling steadily down her back and sides, she tried subdue her jagged nerves and blend in with the crowd. After boarding the transit line to the edge of the city where the training complex was located, Jenna stared down at the fists clenched in her lap, making a conscious effort to relax and pass for a bored systems analyst heading for one of the recreation areas, but her tumbling thoughts would not cooperate.
Even though her uncle had promised a fair test, Jenna knew the odds would be stacked against them. There had to be some way she could help him. All they needed was a few moments together . . . feeling the reassuring strength of his touch, hearing the cool pragmatism in his voice. Just a few moments and she would be able to think again, able to ignore the surging floodtide of emotion that threatened to overwhelm her common sense.
The center where Travis was honing his combat skills also served as recreation area for many of the workers from the central business complex and a training facility for the independent militia. To Jenna's dismay, when she arrived at the simulation area where Travis's test was scheduled, she found the observation deck already half-filled with casual observers, frustrating any hope she had to sneak in and see him before the exercise. So she eavesdropped shamelessly, wondering why his training session drew so much attention. Some were obviously there out of professional interest to study Federation trained combat skills, but others seemed to be drawn because of ill will or morbid curiosity, hoping for a training accident that might leave him incinerated, skewered, or beaten to a pulp.
Perched nervously on the back row, she watched as the technician programmed Travis's android opponent. Off to one side she overheard the low-voiced observations of two hard-eyed men who looked like militia officers.
". . . moves like a damned snake. During the light weapons scenario, he took cover then practically materialized out of nowhere using his para-rifle to blow the drillbot's friggin' head off."
"Fedscum are good at shooting from ambush. Lord knows they've had enough practice. But he won't have it so easy today. It's `mano a mano'. Hand to hand combat. . . with edged weapons. Not something a former Federation officer has much skill with, I'll wager. Odds are he'll come out of this session singing soprano." There was a malicious satisfaction in the man's voice and his companion chuckled grimly.
"You want to make a little side bet on how long it takes the battledroid to gut him?"
Jenna's teeth ground together, holding back the acid words she wanted to spew at those two vultures as her heart pounded in growing anxiety. There were supposed to be fool-proof interlocks to prevent the drillbots from permanently damaging their human opponents, but her uncle could have easily arranged to have the equipment sabotaged to kill or critically injure Travis in a training "accident".
She nearly bolted from her seat, desperate to warn Travis of the possible danger, but it was too late. He was already inside the training area, dressed in black but without the usual heavy padding used in hand to hand combat. He wore an antique cavalry saber hanging from one hip and the deadly menace of a force blade gleamed from a boot sheath. He was whipcord lean and moved with cat-footed ease but the breath caught in Jenna's throat at the gaunt strain on his face and febrile gleam in his eye .
His opponent was a Ajax Mark battledroid - two meters of laser-hardened duranium, a nearly indestructible killing machine programmed with every form of combat mayhem known to man. It was armed with two broadswords taking full advantage of its longer reach and superior speed and strength while Travis would be forced to rely on cunning and agility.
The technician activated the battledroid then scuttled through the exit. Starting off with the saber in his left hand, Travis circled warily, using its tip to probe the droid's defenses, testing its programed pattern with cool professionalism.
Suddenly the machine charged forward attempting overwhelm him by sheer brute force. Travis rolled aside then quickly riposted with a barrage of ringing blows, so fast and furious they threw off a ribbon of sparks, scoring three clean hits before the droid parried with a blow to the ribs that knocked the breath out of him. Lurching away, he paused at the edge of the arena, sucking in harsh gasps of air before he resumed his wary circling, probing for another opening.
The droid's second attack was a single cobra-swift lunge that nearly ended the match, slashing along Travis's ribs through his shirt, drawing a rill of scarlet in its path. Jenna barely stifled her gasped dismay but her bondmate dropped and rolled away before the blade could touch a lethal zone.
"First blood," crowed one of the observers. "It won't be long before the droid wears him down."
To their surprise, Travis hardly reacted to that deep bloody scratch. Or others that followed. Instead he endured with dogged persistence, circling and feinting, avoiding fatal blows as he scored points against the droid with each effective parry or successful riposte.
Despite her fear, Jenna was enthralled by the savage beauty of that battle. The harsh rhythm of Travis's breathing counterpointed by the sharp percussion of clashing blades. Man and machine locked in a stark pas de duex of thrust and parry that transcended its brutal purpose becoming a fearsome danse macabre that left her breathless at its ferocity. Travis's eye gleamed blue-hot like the core of a star while his face was locked in a blood-stained rictus grin, somewhere between orgasm and deathmasque.
For long moments the battle seesawed back and forth with human unpredictability the only thing saving Travis from the deadly choreography of the battledroid's attack. But even his stamina could not last forever.
After the first hectic moments, the audience was silent for the most part, awed by the ex-officer's skill and tenacity and somehow shamed by their earlier ill-will.
"I'll give him this much, the man has guts, if the interlock holds and the droid doesn't spill`em all over the arena."
"What about our bet on how long it would take the drillbot to wipe up the floor with him?"
"I don't mind paying off just for the privilege of watching a match like this. Truth be told, I wouldn't even object if he was assigned to my squadron."
Suddenly Travis's luck ran out as his foot slid on a pool of blood and his knee buckled, leaving him unable to avoid the droid's sharp parry that sent his saber flying across the floor. Stunned by the blow, he knelt helpless while the machine surged forward for the coup de grace. Jenna watched in wide-eyed horror, coldly certain the droid had been sabotaged and its final strike would be lethal. But before its sword could reach his chest, Travis dropped to one side, drawing his forceblade and lunging upwards with it gripped in both hands, hitting the drillbot dead center. The machine collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut as he rolled from under its toppling body.
Jenna buried her face in her hands, sagging in relief that the battle was actually over and he'd managed to survive. Struggling to regain her composure before going down to meet him, she barely noticed the other observers leaving, murmuring a grudging admiration at the skill and courage shown by the former Federation officer.
A gentle hand on her shoulder startled her and she glanced into up into Brendan's concerned but exasperated features. "You cannot remain here, Seran Jenna. The surgeon will be through with Travis shortly and you must not be here when he comes out."
Jenna shivered in reaction to his words before venting her frustration at his unwelcome presence "Why not? It doesn't matter any longer. Even if you haven't already undermined his mental stability enough to insure his failure, you'll just report I slipped the leash and give Mikhail the excuse he needs to deny our claim to my father's ships."
"That's the last thing that I want," was the telepath's calm reply.
"You're my uncle's executive assistant. Surely he's given you orders to make sure Travis fails?" Jenna's bitterness threatened to overcome the last vestiges of her control.
"Even though I work for your uncle. . . my ultimate allegiance is to the Enclave. What I've learned from Travis's mind and Katya's report on you has convinced me this bonding is essential for the Enclave's survival." The calm, matter-of-fact note in Doyle's voice did much to soothe Jenna's distress despite her earlier mistrust. She still suspected him of manipulating her emotions as she feared he had influenced Travis earlier but the momentary calm was a welcome relief. But the sensations still surging through her threatened to break past that calm like floodwaters spilling over a sandbagged levee.
"Then please let me speak to Travis for just a few minutes. His --- life may depend on it" she pleaded tearfully, clenching her hands to hide their trembling.
Doyle tentatively placed his hands on her shoulders before drawing back and clasping them at his waist. "No, my dear, that would be the worst possible thing for both of you right now." He chuckled ruefully. "Although the results would likely eliminate your uncle's chief objection to the bonding." Jenna stared at him uncomprehending. "My dear, in your present condition, any meeting with Travis would end in a frenzied coupling that would leave you pregnant with the Stannis heir Mikhail requires of you."
Jenna blushed furiously at his blunt description, then gritted out in a savage voice. "Just what are you implying, Ser Doyle? That I'll behave like some oversexed. . ."
"Not at all. But the removal of your contraceptive implant and the hormonal booster you were given to speed up your ova's maturation have left you vulnerable." Doyle's expression was sympathetic. "It is playing havoc with your emotional balance. Magnifying your anxieties and desires to the point of irrationality. Katya has kept me informed of your growing agitation, which was why I accompanied him today."
Jenna stared into the telepath's face, wondering if he was telling the truth or simply what she wanted to hear. "But he's pushing himself so hard . . . I'm afraid for him."
"Seran Jenna, I sense your bondmate has walked the razor's edge for most of his adult life. It is the only way he knows to survive." Brendan replied with surprising gentleness. "Someday, perhaps he may be able to draw back from that brink. But for now, believe me when I tell you that his stamina and resolve have not been impaired in any way."
Jenna swallowed back her frustration, reluctantly accepting the truth of his statement. "Keep him safe, Ser Doyle."
"That I cannot promise you, Seran Jenna. The best we can hope for is to keep him strong." He turned swiftly as he heard the electric whine of the security interlock disengaging. "You must leave now! He'll be out within moments."
Pulling her cloak tightly around her, Jenna exited the observation deck just before Travis entered. He'd stripped off his torn shirt and was using it to mop the sweat from his face and chest, wincing as the movement tugged on the newly bonded skin covering his scratches.
"Who was that, Doyle?" His voice was hoarse and graveled with exhaustion.
"Someone who admired your skill, though not necessarily your good sense," he observed wryly. "You could have avoided that flaying if you'd worn padding like the drillmaster suggested."
"Twenty pounds of Ryoflex would have slowed me down enough for the droid to win. Besides, I'd rather not depend on anything other than my own skill and strength."
"Even taking such punishment?" Doyle was curious.
"Pain instructs, Doyle, and its lessons are not easily forgotten." Travis turned wearily away.
Later that week, Mikhail glared at the results of Travis's combat testing with a grimace of disgust. Any other clan member with those readings would have brought a smile of satisfaction to his face. But Travis - and the potential threat he represented to the clan once he had access to their ships, trade routes and planetary data banks - left a knot of angry dread in his gut. He could cancel the final testing for any number of reasons, legitimate or otherwise, but that would alienate Jenna beyond any hope of reconciliation. And remove Travis's genetic potential from his control. A situation he did not intend to allow, even if it meant marooning the man on a desert island set up as a stud farm.
That still left the problem of how to handle Jenna, since she'd risked her own neck at least twice to bail Travis out of trouble. Damn the man's disruptive influence on her common sense! According to Brendan, her current emotionally volatile condition was due to the removal of her fertility suppressant. Once her ova were harvested and frozen within the clan's genetic banks, she'd demanded the implant be replaced, against his express wishes. Until then she would be emotionally vulnerable. Now might be the perfect opportunity to introduce Stephan Niachros, while she might be more receptive to the attentions of another man, especially one as attractive as Niachros.
He continued to stare blandly at Sanctuary's opaline skies, planning the scenario to his best advantage. Tuning swiftly back to his desk, he hit the button activating the vidcom that connected to Brendan's office.
"Yes, First Captain?"
"Tell Travis I want to meet with him in the courtyard."
"At once, First Captain." The telepath hesitated fractionally. "He's studying personnel histories and trading logs to prepare for the final portion of his testing. He may be reluctant to spare the time."
"Inform him I have an offer that will make his final testing unnecessary," Mikhail responded smugly.
The inner courtyard of the complex was as large as a small park, with trees, flowering shrubs and a tinkling fountain. The artfully designed disorder gave an impression of a spacious natural woodland with meandering trails leading to cool bowers and quiet glades.
Travis found himself recalling his convalescence at the medical facility on Kellogg IV where he recovered from injuries acquired at Star One. As he waited impatiently for Jenna's uncle, he was drawn to a one of the lushly flowering bushes. The fingers of his artificial hand brushed against its crimson velvet petals, showering him with aromatic pollen that triggered a vivid flashback of the scent of Jenna's body and the touch of her mouth during a sweetly passionate interlude in the moonlight and dew wet grass. Shuddering with the poignance of that memory,
he clenched his fist, crushing the delicate blossom as he tried to dispel that dangerous recollection!
Rustling leaves alerted him to the other man's approach and Travis wiped his hand roughly against his trouser leg then turned an insolent stare toward Jenna's uncle. "You wanted to cut a deal, Stannis?" he grated out harshly.
Ignoring the man's deliberately provocative tone, Mikhail did not immediately respond but studied the ex-Federation officer with a Free Trader's canny shrewdness. Despite his physical expertise and facade of arrogant self-assurance, the soldier was not without vulnerabilities. Though Stannis tried to discount Brendan's daily reports of his emotional status, he was becoming increasingly aware of depths to Travis beyond programmed loyalty and conditioned killer instinct.
"A deal? You might say that, Commander." He deliberately used the man's former Federation rank, planning to draw heavily on those particular memories. "You've been a soldier for a long time, haven't you - more than half your life?"
Travis stared at the older man sharply, then his glance slid obliquely away. "Long enough."
Mikhail clasped his hands behind his back as he stared into the distance. "Too long maybe? At least to want to continue the hard, dangerous life of making high-risk trading runs to the Rim Worlds and beyond?" Travis maintained a guarded silence, waiting to see what the other man was getting at. "I'll admit you've proved yourself a top-notch pilot and weapons' specialist. With your skills backing her Jenna's certain she can take on the cartels, the Terra Nostra, even the Federation itself and come out on top...and maybe she could." Stannis was briefly, tensely silent. "But everyone's luck runs out sooner or later. Right Commander?"
"I wouldn't know," Travis answered in a cold monotone. "I've always depended more on skill than luck."
Stannis's grey-blue eyes glinted dangerously, "That's not what our intelligence reports, Commander. You've always been an officer who pushed the odds as hard as you pushed your men..."
Travis broke in abruptly, his hard-edged voice revealing the tight strung condition of his nerves. "Cut the crap, First Captain, and the phony military courtesy. I'm no longer an officer and I never was a gentleman, so get to the point! What's your offer?"
"Despite the Federation's condemnation of your methods, you've shown a ruthless ability to survive and insure the survival of your men. It's a valuable trait. A legacy from your primitive home world. You come from good stock - tough, hardy, resourceful - not like the domebred drones of Earth."
"Our clan needs strong bloodlines like yours to insure our survival in the Enclave," Mikhail stated baldly.
Travis uttered a harsh bitter laugh. "You think by flattering me, I'll persuade her to submit to your breeding plans? You're a bigger fool than I thought, Stannis. Wasting Jenna's tactical skills and political acumen just to advance your clan's dynastic ambitions."
Mikhail retorted sharply. "I never mentioned Jenna's breeding potential - only yours. You're a strong man, Travis. Surely you'd have no objections to sharing your bed with a different woman - or two - every night?"
For long moments Travis stared at the clan leader with a bland, speculative look on his face before he finally roared with laughter. "You're a canny old fox, Stannis. A match for Servalan anytime. You'll kill two birds - no, the whole damned flock - with that particular stone. Take me out of the running as Jenna's bondmate so I don't endanger Enclave security. Void the bonding by driving a wedge between the two of us with that variation on the bloodlines gambit."
His vitriolic sarcasm died to a silken menacing whisper. "And smother me in enough perfumed flesh so in a month or less, I'd be dead meat hanging on a hook. No longer a threat to you or Jenna or the Enclave. No thank you, First Captain, I prefer to take my chances with whatever armpit of a world the Testing Board throws at me."
Travis pivoted abruptly to leave but despite his obvious rage, Stannis grabbed his shoulder in a bearlike grip. "Don't be so quick to take offense, man. You have to admit you were tempted. Otherwise, you wouldn't have lost your temper." A resigned smile crossed Stannis's hard-etched mouth. "It just seemed like a good way to keep Jenna from getting herself killed running guns to Blake or trying to smash through a Federation blockade."
"I'm no fool, First Captain, and neither is your niece," came Travis's starkly bitten off reply.
Mikhail gave a reluctant sigh of resignation as though accepting the younger man's dismissal of his offer, then turned and asked, almost off-handedly. "You've both declared this bonding is simply a business deal - a matter of convenience, nothing more. Then why such loyalty...such commitment, excluding any other sexual partners?"
There was was an undercurrent of threat in the question but Travis arched a coolly arrogant brow at the Free Trader as he scanned the ground at their feet. Quickly spotting what he was searching for, he picked up the broken tree limb which was about two inches in diameter and taking it firmly between his hands, snapped it in half with a sharp crack. Placing the two broken halves together between his hands, he tried to snap them once again...this time without success. Holding the two branches out to the other man, he answered with uncharacteristic mildness. "Does that answer your question, First Captain?" then turning on his heel strode swiftly away.
Stannis stared after the ex-Federation officer for long moments, not certain if he was appalled or amused by this naked display of vulnerability. Despite Travis's resistance to his earlier ploy, the soldier had nonetheless given Stannis enough insight into his state of mind to sabotage his final testing for admission to the clan. And Jenna would be the weapon that struck the killing blow!
He stared down in a amusement at the branches in his hand, then with a casual but deliberate effort snapped them hard across his upraised knee. "All it takes is the proper application of stress, Commander, and anyone can be broken.!"
Jenna drummed her fingers irritably against the heavily laden and ornately decorated refreshment table as she stared at the glamourous couples weaving patterns of light and dark in dance and conversation. Despite her uncle's declaration that this was an "engagement party" in honor of her soon-to-be-formalized bonding with Travis, Jenna did not believe him. He simply did not give in that easily. This had to be some kind of plot. A last attempt to sabotage Travis's testing and force her to choose someone more acceptable to the clan.
She snagged a flute of sparkling Antarean wine off one of the trays circulating among the flirting couples as she peered anxiously through the crowd trying to spot the other "honoree" of this little affair. Although she knew Travis too well to worry about him overindulging in alcohol or other intoxicants, there were other ways - contact poisons or other drugs - to debilitate him just enough to assure his failure in tomorrow's testing, without arousing the Enclave Council's suspicions. At least she could warn him to keep his guard up while they put in the mandated social appearance at this farce.
Taking a sip of the wine, she was surprised at its excellent vintage. Judging by the abundance and quality of the spread - Altophaxian prawns, Accadian caviar, the gingerberry tarts she had loved as a child - Mikhail had not spared any expense for this little soiree. But the number of ship's captains, clan leaders, and other important figures present, even though the invitations had been issued on very short notice definitely alarmed her.
The high level guest list could serve as Mikhail's alibi if anything untoward happened tonight. It might also supply him with unimpeachable witnesses to any unacceptable behavior on Travis's part. She'd have to warn her bondmate to keep a tight rein on his temper just in case some of the younger, more volatile captains took offence at his status as a former Federation officer and attempted to provoke him.
As she took another cautious sip of the wine, Jenna evaluated her own emotional status before she went looking for Travis. Thankfully she was no longer racked by the hormonal firestorm that had driven her to attempt a clandestine meeting with him in defiance of her uncle's orders. Understanding the physical cause of that upheaval enabled her to ignore her overwrought emotions, especially since Brendan's report relieved much of her anxiety. Bitter experience with Blake had taught her never to let emotions overcome common sense and there was no reason for Travis to affect her any differently.
She continued to scan the glamourous partygoers for her bondmate's dour, hard-etched features until her uncle approached her accompanied by a tall, broad shouldered ship's captain. His expression was too blandly innocent for her peace of mind.
"Jenna, I've been trying to find you all evening. I wanted to introduce you to Fleet Captain Stephan Niachros, the eldest son of my good friend and rival, First Captain Gregori Niachros."
"And the man you were supposed to be bonded with some twelve years back, before you ran away." His charming smile revealed more perfect white teeth than even Tarrant possessed as he bowed over her hand with a courtly suavity, then gave a self-deprecating shrug. "Not that I blame you, of course. Twelve years ago I was a snot-nosed, pimple-faced showoff with an arrogant know-it-all attitude that I'm lucky didn't get me killed."
Jenna stared at that smoothly handsome face, momentarily drowning in blue eyes as warm and deep as Sanctuary's southern seas. Only a small scar on his chin like an offcenter cleft
saved him from the blandness of perfection though his dark unruly curls reminded her painfully of Blake. But something about tousled disorder appeared too artfully careless to be accidental and the affectation was discordant enough to restore her skepticism at this "opportune" meeting.
"You've changed?" she asked, politely neutral.
He turned on the full force of his megawatt charm. "Well, I've been told there has been a slight improvement." He bowed courteously to her uncle, "My gratitude for the belated introduction, First Captain, and the pleasure of your niece's presence. After this dance, I'll return her safely to you."
Jenna sputtered with outrage at being handed off like a porcelain-fragile debutante, even to this Prince Charming, but before she could protest, Stephan had swept her out onto the dance floor. As she tried to regain control of her mental equilibrium and calm the seething mixture of anger and frustration that left her tongue-tied, Stephan guided them smoothly into the pattern of some elaborate dance she did not recognize. She struggled not to trip over her dress while parrying his questions about her checkered past.
"So the prodigal daughter finally decided to return,' he began with a mildly barbed jibe."Dockside they say you seduced Servalan's right hand man into deserting her and joining Blake's resistance."
She stared at him in disbelief then laughed aloud at that outrageous piece of misinformation, countering it with an equally flagrant bit of inner court gossip."And I heard over tea that you spend enough on jewels for your mistresses to outfit twice the ships already in your fleet."
He took the jibe in the spirit she had intended and shook his head ruefully. "If that were true, my father would have disowned me long before now." He turned on a more analytical expression as he continued, "Still, it is common knowledge your chosen bondmate is an ex-Federation officer?"
"A risky practice, bringing the enemy into the heart of our stronghold," he observed curtly.
Exasperated at having to explain for the hundredth time about Travis's disaffection with the Federation and his abuse at the hands of Servalan and the High Command, Jenna simply countered with one of the maxims she'd learned as a child. "Risk breeds profit like politics breeds corruption."
"If you don't lose your shirt - or your life - in the process," he cautioned smugly, tightening his arm around her waist and attempting to draw her into a more intimate embrace. "Surely a woman as beautiful as you finds romance much more rewarding than profit margins and supply schedules?"
Irritated by such an obvious seduction ploy, Jenna shrugged disdainfully, "I'm a Stannis. Free Trade is my lifeblood."
Ignoring her tart reply, Stephan guided her smoothly across the floor. But as they danced, Jenna began to notice the couples around them. Behind polite masks and superficial smiles, many of the women were jealous of the flattery and attention Stephan was lavishing on her. Only she knew his well-practiced seductive effort was not merely a flirtatious game for the thrill of pursuit but a coldly calculated effort to win her away from Travis, and seal a long-negotiated alliance between their clans.
Jenna took a long dispassionate look at Stephan's handsome facade and potent appeal, making the harsh comparison to Travis's scarred, dour features. If she did surrender to this deliberate manipulation, she would never lack for any material luxury, but she would be nothing to Stephan except an ornamental trophy to further his ambitions within their clans.
But Travis had respected her competence from the beginning, knowing that at Liberator's helm she had outflown and outfought Space Command's best. A partnership between the two one-time enemies had begun with wary respect that blossomed into trust . . . and something more. Not a fairy-tale romance, but something deeper and stronger.
Startled by that sudden insight, Jenna glanced around as Stephan continued their swirling progress thru the brightly-clad, flirting couples. In the midst of that shimmer of light and laughter, she caught a glimpse of a grim, dark-clad figure, watching her and Stephan with a bitter, cynical smile. Catching her eye, Travis gave her a mocking half salute and melted back into the crowd.
Disconcerted at that abrupt withdrawal, Jenna stopped in midstep, abruptly abandoning the dumbfounded Stephan in the middle of the dance floor. Pushing through the crowd after Travis, she wondered at the suddenness of his departure.
Despite their oft-repeated agreement the bonding was strictly business, she was beginning to realize there was a much deeper commitment than either of them was ready to admit. Even the physical intimacy they had fallen into from sheer loneliness was no longer the mere sexual convenience they both tried to pretend it was.
Yet Travis was uneasy about her loyalty. . . because Servalan had betrayed him so often in the past. If he believed she had fallen for the suave charms of a Free Trade captain, preferring one of her own to a Federation outcast, that betrayal would undermine his mental state for tomorrow's testing worse than any drug!
Reaching the outskirts of the crowd, Jenna glimpsed him striding purposefully for the open French doors that led into the garden. She hiked the unwieldy skirt halfway to her knees and dashed after him with no thought for her dignity or the number of drinks she knocked from people's hands. Just before he could slip into the trees, she grasped his arm and demanded, "Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you."
He shot a quick look over her head toward the disgruntled Stephan. "Really? It appeared you'd found someone else to occupy your time while I was busy."
The caustic note in his voice scalded her emotions and she nearly responded with an angry outburst until she remembered her earlier doubts and fears. "He's another one of Mikhail's ploys. I'm supposed to find his overwhelming charm and charisma. . . and his resemblance to Blake . . . irresistible."
"And do you?" The flat monotone revealed nothing.
"Find him irresistible or a mirror-image of Blake?" she smiled coyly, but Travis refused to rise to the bait. Realizing the situation had touched a raw nerve, she answered bluntly,
"He's an arrogant boor and about as considerate of other people's feelings as Blake was of other people's lives. " She placed a pleading hand on his chest. "Can we forget about Blake and get on to important matters, like our future?"
"That depends." He leaned back on the balustrade with his arms folded across his chest.
Disregarding his guarded defensive air, she was openly curious, "Do you think that you've found a good crew for the test run tomorrow?"
His response was carefully neutral but she could sense his disquiet. "Ser Doyle vouches for their bona fides. But since his first loyalty is to your uncle and we know how he feels about my passing the test, I'm not sure exactly how far I can trust the man."
Remembering her conversation with the Master Telepath, Jenna tried to reassure him. "His loyalties go beyond blind obedience of my uncle's wishes. He wants what's best for the Enclave."
"That's not terribly reassuring." He shook his head ruefully as he continued in a mildly sarcastic tone. "In the Federation I wouldn't even use dock sweepings like some of this group to swab out my core chambers. But Doyle has reminded me often enough this isn't the Federation!"
Curious about what had triggered this barely subdued anger, she probed further, "Don't you think that it will be a fair test of your abilities?"
"Scrupulously fair," he bit off savagely, "and keyed to every weakness and blind spot that Stannis's bloodhound has dug out of my psyche in the past two months."
She made a half-joking attempt to break through his grim mood, "Weaknesses? I thought you had no weakness."
A fleeting pain like heat lightning on the horizon flickered across his features before he shut down into his usual scornful mask. "Every man has his weak spot, Jenna. No matter how well he guards it. With the right weapons, anyone can punch through the strongest shields and destroy him."
Dealing with Travis's usual suspicious nature had not prepared her for this sudden admission of his uncertainty. Although she ached to reassure him of her confidence in his abilities, the words froze in her throat as she gazed into his eye, knowing there was little honest comfort she could offer him tonight. False hope or desperate bravado would do nothing except fill the silence between them with empty promises.
Finally unable to bear the awkwardness a moment longer, she caught his arm impetuously. "You worry too much, luv. Why not take Mikhail at his word, for the moment, and pretend tomorrow's test is a mere formality. Come dance with me. Who knows when we'll get another chance like this?"
He stared at her as if she had lost her mind (a very likely possibility) but short of forcibly detaching himself, he could not escape her determined clasp. With a sigh of resignation, he placed his cybernetic arm around her waist and swept her onto the floor, among the weaving, spinning patterns of couples. Neither of them knew the ornate choreography of the formal dances currently in fashion, but they were both strong and graceful and accustomed to moving as one, so they glided across the floor with deft sure-footedness. Breathless in Travis's embrace, Jenna swayed against him, welcoming the chance to be in his arms once again.
The music was haunting and lyrical, weaving a spell between them that momentarily banished their fears and uncertainty. Travis's earlier scowl had been replaced by a look of bemused concentration as he attempted to avoid a collision or misstep. Although his genuine smiles were rarer than Sanctuary's triple lunar eclipses, the absence of his earlier bitter cynicism, if only for a moment, did much to alleviate Jenna's anxiety.
The dance spun out in a scintillant kaleidoscope of silken gowns and bejeweled tunics and Jenna paused in Travis's arms, realizing their brief respite was almost over. Determined to cling to some scant remnant of it, she gazed into his temporarily unguarded expression. "Where in the two hundred civilized worlds did you learn to dance like that?"
With a gentle laugh, he led her off the dance floor then bowed over her hand in a mocking imitation of Stephan's earlier courtly manners, "You don't expect me to reveal all my secrets, do you?"
She flushed, remembering how the mnemonic cascade had made her privy to more painful secrets from his past than she really cared to be but quickly countered. "Secrets between partners... or bondmates. . .can sometimes be dangerous."
"That depends on how open the partnership is." His expression had gone very cool and remote again. "Joining your clan isn't as easy as you made it out to be."
"I know." She glanced down at her tightly clenched hands. "Selective memory seems to retain the good and edit out the bad. Do you want to back out?"
"There's not much future for us out on the Rim, is there?" he stated pragmatically.
"No," Jenna agreed. "With Federation power broken, gunrunning isn't a viable operation any longer. And bringing in new technology to the nonaligned worlds won't be nearly as dangerous. . . or profitable. . . as it was. To survive, we're going to have to play by the Enclave's rules." She looked at him uncertainly, but his expression remained closed.
"They hold the power in this sector for now. . .and power makes its own rules." He shook his head as if attempting to banish old memories. "What remains to be seen is if we can survive, playing by their rules. I doubt the Federation will remains powerless for long and Servalan won't relinquish control over the wealth and resources of the Inner Worlds and nonaligned planets that easily. Eventually the Enclave will have to deal with the Federation and her ambitions once more."
Jenna felt a chill of apprehension shiver down her spine. "Let the Enclave's administrators worry about that problem. I just want to claim my father's ships and regain some control over my life." She glared at Travis defying him to argue.
"Then I had better call it a night so I'll be sharp enough to pass this `formality' of a test tomorrow," He started to bow over her hand once again but Jenna embraced him urgently with a
farewell kiss that was determinedly passionate. Breaking reluctantly away, he turned to leave and caught sight of the menacing figure of Jenna's uncle staring at him from across the room, his expression grim.
Overhead the sky pulsed with heat like molten copper as a blue-white sun slashed razor-edged shadows across the bloodied sands. Swathed in the white loose-woven robe which was the only protection from the sun's rays that human flesh could endure in this inferno, Travis lifted his head cautiously above the charred, smoking body of his riding beast and peered across the dunes for signs of life.
"Any more of those raiders still alive out there?" hissed Akema from the cover of his own dying beast as Brita roughly bandaged the blaster burn on his arm.
Travis squinted through his long-range scanners but the heat shimmer and slowly settling dust kicked up during the attack itself made their resolution doubtful. "Can't tell for sure. Get Sarcar up here. He's long-sighted and can use his vibration sense as well."
Moments later the saurian cargo master and survival specialist Travis had reluctantly recruited for his trade ship Nighthawk slithered over to his side. Trying hard to repress his shiver of revulsion at the nonhumanoid's presence, Travis offered the creature his scanners but they were politely declined. Turning his flat stare and flickering tongue toward the barren wasteland where their attackers had just retreated, Sarcar sought to determine if they were gone or merely regrouping for another attack.
As he awaited Sarcar's report, Travis was haunted by his memories of the past twelve hours as he tried to pinpoint the critical mistake in judgement that led them into this death trap. Even if he blamed the out-of-date trade information Stannis had supplied them about current tribal relations, he'd survived other operations with faulty or nonexistent intelligence. The real cause of this abortion was his stubbornness in attempting to salvage the mission after it had obviously gone sour.
The original data flakes on Nevya had described peaceful, aboriginal nomads eager to trade the blocks of dycronium salts harvested from their dead sea flats for a variety of exotic foods, spices, and medicinal drugs. Instead, when he'd landed at the set coordinates Travis found what was obviously a band of raiders, hard-eyed, ruthless men with their weapons openly displayed, carrying the trade banner.
Leaving Phrath to man the Nighthawk's neutron blaster under Brita's cautious eye, Travis had gone to meet them with empty hands held outward in the traditional greeting. The feral-eyed leader did not make the usual welcoming response but only raked his gaze contemptuously across the bales and crates of trade goods on display. Knowing to speak first would give the raider chieftain the psychological edge, Travis dropped his hands slowly, resting them on his belt but within easy reach of the blaster concealed in the billowing folds of his robe. After interminable moments sizing Travis and his outnumbered crew up, the leader snarled impatiently, "Well, are you here to trade or just sit baking on hot rock like that damned lizard?" he nodded sharply at Sarcar, who was acting as his back-up.
"We've come to trade, Master of Herds," Travis accorded him the usual title given the head of a trade caravan, although the only animals the raider had were his gaunt riding beasts and a few overloaded pack animals which were not carrying the usual commodity."But I see no panniers of salt from the Inner Sea."
"I am called Borek, Trade Captain and we have better things to offer. Fine silks, gold, and beautiful slaves." He gestured and one of his men dragged several bruised, blank-eyed women from the backs of riding beasts where they had been bound.
Travis had shrugged then replied, "Free Trade captains don't deal in slaves. As to gold and fine silks. . .I doubt our bulkweight cargo could buy enough to make it worth our while.
Besides, you don't look like a man interested in exotic foodstuffs or medical supplies. What do you really want?"
Borek gestured one of his lieutenants forward, displaying a Mark XII laser rifle and hand blaster. Travis seethed, wondering how this outworld bandit gotten his grubby hands on the latest model of Federation's weapons' technology. The guns were so new only Servalan's elite units had carried them just prior to his trial. If they were distributed to the rank and file before Star One, it might mean the Federation's reach was extending into Free Trader space once again. Such interference could play havoc with long established trading routes. According to the data flake he'd studied, Nevyan dycronium salts were used to catalyze certain manufacturing processes on Baylor. Although there were other sources available, they were more expensive, which would upset a delicate balance of profit and loss for Stannis clan.
He wondered if this was a deliberate effort to sabotage their contracts or a test within a test of his loyalty to the clan itself? He muttered sourly under his breath, "I'm not that much of a fool, Stannis," as he turned a bland expression to the feral-eyed leader. "Mark XIIs aren't available on the open market and I have none to offer. Besides all the goods you brought wouldn't purchase more than a bare handful. Not enough to be worth the waste of your time - or mine."
As he turned coldly away, the taste of failure bitter in his mouth, Borek tossed a handful of dark, dense crystals at his feet. Startled by what he thought he saw, Travis knelt to
inspect them before motioning Akema to his side to make a more thorough examination.
As the ebon-skinned engineer scrutinized their heavy, light-absorbing structure, Travis demanded in a low whisper, "Are they what they appear to be?"
"Kairopan crystals, Provo Captain. Easily worth a hundred times their weight in diamonds."
"And definitely not native to this planet," Travis glared at the native leader. "Where did you find these, and don't say your frigging salt flats. I know where they originate."
Borek gave an indifferent shrug although his eyes gleamed greedily. "A gift from the gods. We came upon wreckage of a ship like yours deep in the great desert and these were inside, along with the weapons. I thought them cheap baubles and left the rest back at our camp. Will you trade guns for these. . . crystals?"
A crashed Federation transport ship could explain how the raiders had obtained the Mark XIIs. If the ship had been carrying Kairopan crystals, the advanced blasters were likely part of its defensive complement. Finding them intact in the wreckage would account for Borek's current fortune, tipping the balance of power in the raiders' favor. It was a temporary situation at worst, since the Mark XIIS' energy cells would eventually run out of power and the renegade and his followers would be dealt with by the more numerous, legitimate tribes. Unfortunately, not in time to do him any good. . . unless he could cut a deal with Borek now.
While Travis did not have any Mark XII's to offer (not that he would have sold them if he did), he did have a comprehensive knowledge of the Mark XII's predecessors and a hands-on skill at weapons' modification.
"I didn't bring any extra weapons with me. Maybe on my next run." Then he offered slyly. "But I can show you how to adjust the blasters' energy cells so they'll be recharged by the sun."
Akema shot a sharp, mistrustful look at the ex-Federation officer, but the deal was quickly made. Unfortunately, it required them to travel to the raiders' main camp to retrieve the crystals and to instruct Borek's smith how to adjust the power packs. Leaving the Nighthawk, even with an armed guard perturbed the rest of the crew and while they prepared for the trek, Brita voiced their objections.
"It's a big a risk, leaving the ship, Captain. What if Borek decides to cut our throats once we reach his encampment?"
Travis responded in a cold, pragmatic voice, "Borek may be a renegade but he knows his own people will roast him over a slow fire if he alienates the Enclave by killing a Trade Captain or any of his crew."
"I still don't like it," interjected Marco, the pilot Brita had recommended from the transient pool. "Borek might decide to welch on the deal after you show him how to adapt his guns. Leave me with the ship, I could do a fast point to point and snatch all of you out of danger. . . if anything went wrong."
Irked at the necessity for explaining his orders to this young hotshot, Travis gritted out his answer."Phrath can't tolerate this heat so he has to stay behind and guard the ship. I need the rest of you for backup and firepower to keep Borek honest once we reach his camp."
Marco nodded sullenly, muttering under his breath as Travis speared him with a baleful gaze. "You want to speak up, Marco? I don't think the rest heard."
"It's a mistake dealin' with scum like Borek, especially tellin' him how to recharge those weapons. It'll raise bloody hell among the tribes, screwing up trade for months."
Travis buried his cybernetic hand in the pilot's loose robe, bringing him up short. "It's already screwed up, Marco, and I'll do whatever it takes not to go back empty-handed. Jenna's depending on me and I'm not going to fail this test."
His dark eyes enigmatic, Akema pushed between the two until Travis relinquished his grip, "None of us wants to come out of this with empty pockets, Provo Captain. But neither do we want to set off a civil war by aggravating an already unstable situation."
"Don't worry, Engineer." Travis answered in a chill tone of voice. "I've dealt with men like Borek before. He'll get what he pays for. . . for all the good it will do him."
Despite Brita's fears, the journey to the raiders' main camp was uneventful. As they rode in unchallenged, ignored by men sprawled in the shade drinking and dicing, Travis gazed around the squalid encampment with a professional eye, seeing his suspicions about Borek confirmed. The raider chieftain controlled his followers through intimidation and the promise of booty from looted caravans.
Travis dismounted, grimacing. Any sign of discipline or order was nonexistent. Despite the dry desert air, the site reeked of rotting food, raw sewage, and the overwhelming stench of unwashed bodies. Even the prized Mark XIIs were propped against tentposts or dropped in the dirt, unprotected from the blistering heat and everpresent dust. He nodded to himself in
grim satisfaction. It would make his plan that much easier to carry out.
Leaving Brita in charge of inspecting and packing the Kairopan, Travis, with Akema glowering beside him, was led to Borek's weapons' specialist.
"Watch what he does carefully," Borek snarled, backhanding the smith with a casual brutality. "I want those weapons working for a long time to come." The man tried to evade the blow but both his Achilles tendons had been cut, leaving him permanently crippled.
Akema glared after the departing raider but Travis wasted no time on futile outrage. After uncoupling the power pack, he swiftly demonstrated how to link the cells in series so their capacitors could absorb solar energy. In stony silence, the lamed specialist's cold, dark eyes followed each step, copying each move with surprisingly deft fingers. Especially the careful scouring down of contact points on the brittle wires that linked the cells.
As Akema noted this subtle but effective sabotage, a grim chuckle rumbled up from his chest. "How long before the wires corrode away completely?"
"Assuming the weapons don't explode first from overexposure to heat or a barrelful of sand, probably less than a month." Travis glanced at the weapon's specialist grimly. "Sooner. . .if our friend here recharges them frequently enough."
"What if he tells Borek what you've done?" Akema glared at the lamed man suspiciously.
"You saw how he was treated," Travis replied coldly, recognizing the bitter hatred in the other man's gaze. "He'll hold his tongue about what we've done to bring Borek down. Won't you, friend?"
The man replied in a toothless, tongueless yammer of such frenzied animosity it left Akema shaken. Travis turned away, trying to hide his own outrage and pity. As they exited the tent a short time later, both men glanced sidelong at one another, fearful they might have underestimated Borek's savagery.
Rejoining their crew, Akema checked with Brita who gave him the high sign that the crystals were safely stowed in her pack. Travis glared suspiciously at Borek's hand-picked guides then shrugged, scrambling aboard his beast and jerking its reins as they started back for Nighthawk's landing site.
Once they were out of the camp unmolested, he breathed a small sigh of relief. He hadn't been entirely certain Borek wouldn't cut their throats at the camp, once he had the information he wanted. The Enclave's reputation still had some influence on the the outlaw leader's actions. Though if they were ambushed on the open desert, Borek might manage to convince the other tribes the attack wasn't his fault.
Long years of combat experience made him believe Borek's men couldn't lead them into an ambush without him being aware of it. To be on the safe side, he warned Akema and Sarcar to watch for movement behind them as he scanned the horizon ahead, alert for dust clouds or other signs of a group on the move. But they remained alone as they rode through the barren, trackless land.
Then in the uncertain half-light of twilight, as a rising breeze kicked up dust devils, they were passing through a wadi. Without warning, marauders erupted from the sand beneath the party's feet, firing rapidly as they surged up from the shallow pits where they had concealed themselves. The air was filled with high-pitched whine of weapons fire in counterpoint to the screams of terrified riding beasts.
Travis groped for his blaster then had to snatch for the reins of his wildly pitching animal to keep from being thrown underfoot and trampled. As his crew struggled to regain control of their panic-stricken beasts, Borek's raiders fired at will. Luckily, their haste and poor marksmanship only managed to hit two of the riding beasts.
Akema grabbed his weapon as he rolled out of the saddle, trying to evade his beast's thrashing body as it screamed in agony. Beside him, half-stunned by the fall, Marco staggered upright.
"Stay down!" Akema growled. But his warning came too late and the young pilot was caught in a crossfire. The engineer triggered his weapon, incinerating one unfortunate tribesman before he was caught in the side by another raider's blast.
Quickly recognizing the futility of trying to fight his mount and Borek's men simultaneously, Travis dove away from his plunging beast into a dune, rolling with the impact. Cursing and spitting sand, he took aim and fired with deadly speed and accuracy. Within moments two more of Borek's men were corpses in the dust. Suddenly off to his left he heard a hoarse choked off scream and Sarcar's hiss of satisfaction as the reptilian cargo master covered his blind side.
Pinned under her thrashing beast, Brita tried to jerk her ankle loose from its tangled harness. Finally freeing herself, she snaked over to Marco's body, snatching up his blaster and returning the marauders' fire with ruthless efficiency. Without the advantage of surprise and overwhelming numbers, the surviving attackers melted away into the shifting dunes and clouds of dust and smoke.
In the exhausted aftermath of the attack, Travis cursed Stannis and himself with equal vitriol, as he waited for Sarcar's report.
"The marauders have vanished, Provo Captain. Either they are biding their time, waiting for the desert to finish us off or have fled to Borek's camp for reinforcements."
"Well, they're afoot at least," he muttered with grim satisfaction.
"As are we, Provo Captain," Sarcar gestured to the charred bloody carcasses of their dead riding beasts.
Travis did not reply but gathered the survivors of his crew to see if they couldn't figure a way out of the mess that he had gotten them into.
Full night had fallen and the group was shivering from both shock and the sudden drop in temperature. They huddled together just beyond the burned carcasses of the battlefield and nursed their wounds as they discussed the likelihood of their survival.
"The commlink was fried in the blast that got Marco," Brita reported numbly. "Not that it would do us any good. Phrath can manage routine piloting chores but not the kind of delicate point to point planetary hop needed to get us out of this hellhole." She allowed herself a brief angry outburst. "Marco could have done it, but Marco's dead!"
Travis ignored Brita's reproach as he wracked his brain for some way of getting them off this planet alive. With her broken ankle and the burns that raked down Akema's arm and ribs, trekking back to the ship on foot was out of the question. Since Borek's raids had disrupted normal trade, it was doubtful there were any other tribes nearby that they could ask for help. But if they remained here, his marauding scum would soon return to rob the dead and finish off any survivors.
No, there was only one chance. He looked around for a low spot some distance away from the dead bodies and started digging a shallow pit. Akema watched silently for a moment, then rumbled sarcastically, "I didn't think you gave up so easily, Travis. Digging our graves before we draw our last breath? Or is this some belated mark of respect for Marco?"
"It's for the three of you, Engineer."
The ebon skinned giant whispered painfully. "Then you're going to finish us off so you'll have a better chance of surviving the trek back to Nighthawk. What will you tell Phrath? Or do you plan to kill him too?"
"I'm not stupid, engineer" Travis grimaced."He'd blow me in half before I could reach my gun." He paused, glancing up at the brilliant stars overhead. "By my reckoning, we're less than half a day from the ship. Alone, I should reach it in just over six hours. If the three of you stay buried in the sand, out of the sun, you can survive the heat since I doubt Borek can intimidate his men to return and loot the bodies for another day at least. Even if they do show up, keep still and they won't spot you."
"Thou usest his own tactics against him," Sarcar hissed in surprise.
Travis grunted in reply, not looking up as the reptilian cargo master began to help him dig. Brita shifted, trying to ease her roughly splinted ankle. "What guarantee do we have you'll come back for us?" she demanded bluntly.
"The Kairopan," he gestured toward the carcass of the pack beast just beyond their huddled circle.
"It wouldn't take much to give you a profit and guarantee your acceptance into the clan." Akema pointed out suspiciously. "You could easily carry it in a backpack . . . leaving us here for the carrion birds."
Travis leaned back on his heels, wiping the sandy sweat from his forehead. "I don't abandon my people, even when the mission goes sour." He glanced at the blaster in the engineer's grip. "Besides, I doubt you'd let me get far if I started rifling those packs."
Akema bared his teeth in a terrifying grin.
Sarcar hissed from his side,"I am thy crew's desert survival specialist, Provo Captain. Thou will not survive this trek without me."
Dusting off his hands as he stood up, Travis shook his head. "I'll travel faster alone. You'll be of more use staying here with Akema and Brita."
Sarcar's exasperated hiss grated across his nerves, "Only thy survival assures theirs, Provo Captain. If thou wilt not permit me to accompany thee, I will follow ten paces behind."
Travis glared at the imperturable saurian before turning back to the unpleasant task of stripping the raiders' bodies of anything that might improve their chances of survival. Sarcar brought one of the less bloodied robes over to Akema, helping the engineer cover it with sand so he could pull it over their burrow at sunrise to protect them from the worst of the sun and heat. As Travis picked through the looted supplies, he took little himself - only a well-honed knife and single flask of water that he drained in three long swallows. To Brita's amazement, he left the other bottles with her.
"The extra weight would only slow me down so I drank my fill before bringing them over. Traveling at night, I won't sweat as much. I should reach the ship shortly after sunrise."
"And if you don't make it?" Akema's deep voice rumbled.
"If the Nighthawk hasn't grounded by midafternoon. . ." Travis's gaze rested on the blaster and large knife on the engineer's belt before meeting his dark eyes."You recall Borek's camp. . . don't let him take either of you alive."
"How will you locate us?" chilled by the implacable note in the officer's voice, Brita took refuge in practicality. "Without the comm link..."
"By following the rough compass heading, we ought to be able to find you by dead reckoning." He nodded grimly toward the bloodstained killing ground just beyond. "Or we can home in on the scavengers, feeding on carrion like a gathering of the Federation High Council."
Turning sharply, he strode into the darkness, following star patterns memorized before he left Sanctuary, with Sarcar's scaled feet slithering through the sand beside him. He started out at a punishing pace, determined to cover as much ground as possible before the end of the short desert night. To his chagrin the stubby-legged reptilian crewman had no trouble keeping easily abreast. But he had a more unpleasant surprise when his energy flagged much sooner than expected, forcing him to drop from a ground-covering quick march to an exhausted plod.
Digging two stimtabs from his beltpack, Travis chewed them drymouthed, anticipating enough of an energy boost to shake off the exhaustion dragging him down. Instead, as he trudged onward, the dunes around him began to shimmer with nightmarish images. Ravaged faces of long-lost family pleading for him to save them. His troopers transformed into blood-crazed furies, attacking without reason, savaging friend and foe alike. Even Jenna appeared as a succubus, seductive and dangerous, feeding on his life force as she smothered him in voluptuous caresses.
He rubbed at his burning eye, trying to banish the delusions, knowing they were only a distorted playback of deeply buried fears. Survival was the only reality now and if he wasn't able to overcome his fatigue and reach the Nighthawk in time, he and his crew would wind up sunbleached bones, decorating some desert raider's tentpost.
NO! he growled in bitter denial. Borek wasn't going to win that easily. He'd clawed his way back from the brink of death too many times to surrender to it now. He owed this crew that much . . . and Jenna even more. Setting his despair aside, he goaded himself into a staggering forced march he would maintain until his feet were bloody rags and his brain boiled away.
As he dragged through the darkness and whispering sands, some dim, dazed corner of his mind welcomed Sarcar's presence, even though he'd originally protested it. The silent, stolid cargo master bolstered his faltering strength and he trusted the saurian's inhuman perceptions to alert him to any danger long before his own failing senses recognized it.
He'd assumed he wouldn't sweat as much traveling by night. But as darkness simmered into dawn, symptoms of dehydration that he'd ignored earlier returned full-blown, warning of imminent collapse. His skin was flushed and dry, no longer able to sweat, as his body temperature soared. Loss of critical electrolytes triggered wracking muscle spasms, but he ignored the grinding pain, pushing onward.
By the time dawn had boiled into the molten glare of full day, his earlier hallucinations had dissolved into a single image: Jenna, cool and beautiful, water flowing from her hands in a clear running stream. He groaned and stumbled forward, reaching for her. But she dissolved in the shimmering heat, leaving him slumped on his knees, as only Sarcar's hard grip kept him from falling facedown in the sand.
Grasping the cargo master, he struggled to pull himself to his feet but his knees buckled, dragging him down again. Sarcar knelt by his side, as he gasped through cracked, bloodied lips, "Can't reach the ship. . . too far gone. . ."
The cargo master hissed angrily, "Neither Phrath nor I have the piloting skills to raise ship."
"Call Stannis. . . tell him I'm dead. . he'll pull you out . . .won't waste good crew." His eye fluttered closed and he slid toward unconsciousness, until a cold horror jolted him awake, as he recalled the mutilated weapons specialist in the raiders' camp.
"Take the knife...left boot...cut my throat!" he clutched at the saurian's shoulder in desperate appeal. Better to die quick by a comrade's hand than suffer Borek's savage revenge. His eye bored into that of the Nighthawk's cargo master but if there was pity or disgust or any emotion at all, on that inhuman face, it was beyond his comprehension. Waves of fire surged over him and he surrendered gladly.
He floated in limbo, his thoughts drifting back to a forbidden book he'd read once. It described Hell as frozen wasteland, with its lowest circle a solid sheet of ice reserved for traitors, who betrayed friends, countrymen, or their oath of loyalty. Like the frozen anguish that wracked him now. He gritted his teeth, jerking at the ice-glazed chains binding him, but to no avail. "Not a traitor," he rasped. "Servalan was corrupt, degenerate . . .Space Command a rotted corpse of the force I once swore loyalty to. . ."
But his denials were ignored by the demons that tormented him, prodding at his seared flesh as the pressed a foul brew against his lips. He fought back, shoving it away, until it sloshed messily over the edge of the cup and a yowling, panic-stricken voice grated from a distance,
"...spill it, fool! Too little we have to waste!"
A low determined voice hissed in his ear, "And we have even less time to waste. Now, leave thy weapons' board and help me pour some of this down his throat!"
He moaned in disbelief. Surely he wouldn't be condemned to spend the rest of eternity tortured by his nonhuman crew? A rough arm dragged him up against a sleekly muscular furry shoulder as a nauseatingly sweet liquid was forced past his lips, with most of it running out of his mouth. He gasped for breath, nearly choking and a surly snarl rumbled in the chest he was propped against. "Damned Fed scum, drink all. Only chance Brita and Akema to save is your piloting. Now, swallow!"
Managing to gulp down the next mouthful, Travis recognized the bitter undertaste of Phedrazine, a dangerous, highly addictive stimulant mainly used by smugglers and rogue pilots. He'd risked it a time or two himself to stay alert during long range missions and prolonged battles. But never in the concentrations Phrath was giving him! He swallowed again, feeling a harsh jolt of energy as the drug was absorbed sulingually. As his eye jerked open, the dim lighting of Nighthawk's flight deck stabbed into his head, hammering in synch with his racing heartbeat. "Dim the lights..." he choked in a barely audible whisper.
Sarcar hastily complied then dragged him over to the pilot's couch. He stared at the controls, switches and guages outlined in a harsh white glare before sluggishly initiating the liftoff sequence. Phrath strapped in at the navigator's console while Sarcar swayed beside him, peering intently at the scanscreen. Travis's hands shook with the hard tremor of overstimulated nerves and he tried three times before managing to hit the switch activating the main viewscreen.
As the automatics took over the liftoff, he turned his cold glare on Sarcar, demanding hoarsely, "Why'd you haul me back to the Nighthawk? All you had to do was contact Stannis. You know he's got a back-up ship shadowing us. He would have pulled the rest of you out once I was dead."
Sarcar did not reply, only turning his unblinking gaze back to his screen as he continued to search for any sign of Brita and Akema. Only Phrath retorted with the same arrogant bravado he would have expected from any tough, elite trooper he'd once commanded.
"Only weaklings call for help, Provo Captain. Take care of our own, we do. Not while breath in our bodies or blood in our veins will we abandon one of our own. . .even if Fed scum."
Despite the heavy dose of stimulant Phrath had poured down him, the next half hour remained a blur as he clung to the helm, guided by Sarcar's esoteric position sense and relying on Phrath's hairtrigger reflexes to keep them on course as they maneuvered through the atmosphere. Their touchdown at the edge of the ambush site was rough but left the ship intact enough to lift again.
He slumped over the controls, barely conscious, while Sarcar and Phrath hurried out the airlock to help Brita and Akema aboard. The two of them were in much better shape than he was, judging by the volume of an ongoing disagreement he overheard as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
"...no time to dig them out from packs."
"...Marco dead and nothing to show for it?"
"...his loss not ours. First Captain Stannis guaranteed that we'd come away from this with full pockets, no matter the outcome."
"...got us into this mess in the first place."
Travis knew that the discussion was of vital interest to him but he no longer had the strength to care. He'd failed the final test. Jenna would lose her father's ships. . .and he would lose Jenna. If there was any mercy in this godsforsaken universe, the Phedrazine would finish him off before Nighthawk limped back into port and he had to face her.
At least most of his crew was still alive and the ship was spaceworthy, which was all that mattered at the moment. The stimulant wearing off and he could feel his nerves tingling then going numb as the darkness swallowed him up piece by piece. He had to get them offplanet, even if he died in the process.
Hitting the klaxon that alerted everyone to strap down for liftoff, he sealed the airlocks almost simultaneously. Phrath yowled in protest, his rear claws raking across the metal deck plates as he scrambled for his seat after helping Akema strap in. A scant five seconds after the warning sounded, Travis hit the liftoff sequence, feeling the engines roar to life. He clung to the helm white-knuckled, until Akema's sure hands took over, guiding them skyward.
It was just past dawn on Sanctuary and Mikhail Stannis paced in front of his desk, staring with a mixture of chagrin and disbelief at the dense, darkly glowing Kairopan crystals which had just been delivered to his office. When Travis's ship grounded late last night, her cargo holds empty, her pilot dead, and three of the crew in dire need of medical attention, Stannis knew he'd won. Even if Travis survived the heat prostration and drug overdose, there was no way he could claim a profitable trade run.
Then early this morning when the package arrived by special courier from the Nighthawk's crew, with a single sentence accompanying it, "Profit from the Nevya run." He crumpled the sheet and threw it across the room in frustration. The single handful of crystals was worth more than the whole hold of dycronium salts that had been Nighthawk's intended cargo. All the crew had to do was keep their mouths shut and Travis would have been banished from the Enclave. Then they could have claimed the crystals by salvage rights and retired to a pleasure planet for the rest of their lives. Instead, they'd relinquished their claim in Travis's favor so his final testing would not be counted a failure.
He paced angrily around his office. "How does he do it, anyway? He has all the charm of a Denebian slime devil and yet people who know who and what he was, still give him their allegiance - Nighthawk's crew, the Matriarch, even Brendan - somehow find qualities in the man to admire and respect."
He turned a truculent glare on Jenna, defiantly clad in a pilot's utilitarian flightsuit and perched on the arm of an overstuffed leather couch just beyond his desk. "There's a certain perverse logic to your acceptance of the man. He was an outlaw - on the run like yourself - with a strong right arm and a fast gun. Those particular skills can gloss over a great many character flaws out on the Rim."
Jenna ignored his diatribe, knowing her uncle was simply blowing off steam because of Travis's unexpected victory. But several questions still nagged at her. What were Travis's plans - and expectations - now? How would claiming her ships affect their relationship? If they decided to use Sanctuary for their base as her uncle pressured them to, could they co-exist with her clan's close-knit, conservative traditionalism.
Before she agreed to those demands, she had to make sure Mikhail acknowledged Travis's value, despite his continued prejudice against the ex-Federation officer.
She began by pointing out sharply, "Space Command doesn't commission fools or cowards, Uncle. Travis commanded in the field and had to win his troops' loyalty. That skill, nerve, and determination helped us to survive on the Rim and got Nighthawk's crew off Nevya alive. Despite your suspicions, he wasn't Servalan's weapon by choice and the fact he was able to resist her conditioning enough to eventually defect should convince you of his worth."
Mikhail stared at his niece long and hard. Her remark about "resistance" touched on his own closely guarded secret about Travis's DNA. Had the information somehow leaked? Did Jenna realize how valuable her bondmate really was to anyone with aspirations of permanently escaping the threat of Federation control? But there was nothing of calculation in her face, only the unusual tenderness that the Federation renegade seemed to inspire in her.
He gave an impatient snort. "Romantic delusions, girl. His loyalty's for sale to the highest bidder and you're only deceiving yourself if you belive otherwise."
Jenna shrugged, not willing to rehash the same old arguments for the fifteenth or fiftieth time. "Well, that's for the two of us to settle. No more games, Mikhail. We've played by your rules for the past month while you did everything in your power to break up our bonding and keep us from claiming what's rightfully ours! I want to see those ships now. . .so we can start making plans."
"Are you still set on haring off to the Outer Worlds and beyond, girl? Or have you given any consideration to your obligations to the Clan?" Mikhail folded his arms across his chest as he glanced at her sidelong.
"The Reproductive Council havested over hundred of my latent ova. And Katya's debriefed me on everything I could remember about the Federation and Blake's Resistance group. What more do you want?" she demanded irately.
He shoved a sheaf of deep-space communiques into her hands, watching intently as she quickly skimmed through them. After long minutes as she sank down on the couch, reading the messages a second and third time because she couldn't believe they said, Jenna looked up at him in disbelief.
"Surely, the Enclave isn't falling for this ridiculous invitation to, and I quote,`negotiate a mutual defense pact to promote commerce and cooperation'? The Federation doesn't negotiate; they intimidate, coerce, or annihilate when all else fails! This has to be a ploy. Probably to assemble all their enemies in one place so Space Command can burn the planet to a smoking cinder!"
Mikhail gazed out his window, hands clasped behind his back. "Normally I would agree with you, except for top secret information that we received from our agents within what remains of the High Council. Damage at Star One was so extensive the Inner Worlds are barely surviving at subsistence level, suffering from food riots and frequent power blackouts. Since Space Command was decimated in that battle, they barely have enough ships to keep order in their colonies much less mount an offensive to the treaty world of Byzantia where the Conference will be held."
He glanced back at her, a shrewd look on his face. "Besides the Enclave won't be alone there. The invitation includes Blake's rebels, Lindor and the neutral worlds, the Teal-Vandor
Confederacy, even the Aurons have decided to stop straddling their damned fence and participate."
Turning sharply, Stannis confronted his reluctant niece with a hot eagerness in his gaze. "The Federation needs us, Jenna. The Enclave is in a position to carve out new trading routes and amass enough wealth to insure they'll never again be a threat to our security or our profits. If we don't attend this meeting, the future of the galaxy will be reshaped without us!"
Jenna hurled the sheaf of messages across his desk in a cold fury. "Haven't you learned anything during the years I was gone! Even if the reports are true and not carefully planted misinformation, this still has all the earmarks of a plot by Servalan, in collusion the High Council. Some devious scheme to bring all their enemies together in order to destroy them!"
"Each group is providing their own security forces and the treaty port will only allow four Federation ships to transport their delegation. What can Servalan do? She'll be outnumbered."
Despite her uncle's smugness, Jenna was uneasy, "How would I know? I'm no military strategist. I simply know you don't deal with that woman unless you're holding a blaster to her head and even then the odds are she'll manage to wriggle out of the trap anyway."
Mikhail pulled at his lip as though pondering her warning. "Your bondmate is reputed to be a brilliant military strategist, isn't he? And well acquainted with Servalan's devious nature?"
Jenna stared at him while apprehension tied a cold knot in her gut. So that's what Mikhail had in mind. Setting her jaw firmly, she resolved not to be swayed. No matter what inducement he offered, she wanted no part of this high-risk treaty mission.
She and Travis would have to confront too many of the painful memories they'd left behind when they fled the Federation. Even though Travis's obsession with Blake had primarily been the work of Servalan's psychostrategists, he still lived with the agonizing results of that battle every day. He'd chosen to reclaim his humanity instead of harrowing his soul with the self-destructive dragon's teeth of revenge any longer. But he could never forget how Blake had shattered his body - or Servalan brutalized his mind - during those dark and bloody years.
She wasn't even sure of her own reaction if she encountered the charismatic rebel leader again. Though she'd been driven by fear and mistrust to leave him after Gan's death on Earth, she couldn't deny she still cared for him. She'd deliberately avoided Blake at Star One, still too uncertain about the alliance she'd made with his old enemy. Not sure of how she would react if he tried to persuade her to abandon Travis to the Federation. Because Travis was her last chance to reclaim her inheritance. . . and escape being immolated in Blake's burning crusade for galactic freedom.
Though freedom was the only thing that ignited Blake's passions, Travis lacked a similarly frustrating bent toward celibacy. They shared an intense and gratifying physical intimacy that Jenna did not intend to jeopardize . . . even if there were still emotional voids in their relationship. Cold barren nights when he would withdraw from any closeness at all, even the simple human contact of one lonely person reaching out in the darkness. As though he had withdrawn behind a force wall, saying "This far and no farther."
The past two months of separation left her wracked with uncertainty about their bonding even though he'd succeeded in winning her ships for her. She could not face Blake with such doubt in her mind. Or deal with the potentially explosive mixture of Servalan and Blake, both engaged in the kind of political intrigue and diplomatic maneuvering certain to occur on Byzantia. Jenna knew it was the last place in the galaxy she wanted to be.
"NO!" she whispered hoarsely.
"YES!" an equally hoarse whisper contradicted her.
She spun angrily around, spotting Travis slumped weakly against the door frame, attempting to shake off Brendan's anxious solicitude. "Captain Travis, the med center was frantic when they found you gone. You're too weak..."
Dragging himself stubbornly upright, he glared at the telepath and said in a low persistent voice, "I've passed the final testing, Doyle. I have as much right to be here as any other clan member."
As he lurched into the room, Jenna rushed to catch him in a rough supportive embrace. Heat radiated from his body yet he shivered like a man in the grips of a hard chill. His eye was bloodshot and swollen, with his face and neck still blistered and weeping. Jenna was aghast, wondering how he could bear any pressure at all against his seared skin, much less the tight pilot's leathers he was wearing. "You idiot," she chided. "You're still dangerously dehydrated. You weren't even conscious the last time I called the med center."
"I got better." His flushed, sweaty face belied his flippancy but Stannis gestured for Brendan to leave as Jenna helped her bondmate over to the couch.
This time Mikhail played the gracious host to his niece and her newly accepted bondmate, going to the bar to pour drinks for all of them. "Coffee or tea, Captain, or should I send for the medics and have them restart your dripfeed?"
"Ice water as long as you're in a generous mood, First Captain." Travis's sarcasm was weak but still present.
"What about you, Jenna?"
"Tea will be fine," she remarked absently, carefully watching Travis. Once she was certain he had a firm grip on his glass, she demanded sharply. "What do you mean, `yes'? You know what that meeting will be like! Servalan at her poisonous worst! Blake looking for a way to strike another blow at the Federation and all the other factions and planetary alliances braying at one another with impossible demands and secret agendas."
"Politics as usual." His cracked lips stretched in a bitterly ironic smile.
"We're free traders not politicians," she retorted harshly. "Why should we be there? Mikhail thrives on those kind of backroom negotiations but there's certainly no reason for us to get involved."
"Two reasons, Jenna," he countered in his softest and most menacing voice.
"Two reasons?" she questioned numbly.
"Blake and Servalan. Only you and I know the danger they represent. And we're the only ones who know how their minds work, what their weaknesses are."
"But they also know ours," she whispered.
"It's a risk I'm willing to take," was his grim reply. "Not for. . .revenge, but for survival."
Mikhail interjected, somewhat surprised to find Travis on his side of the argument, "He's right. The Clan's survival may well depend on the negotiations on Byzantia. Your knowledge and skills would be very useful. So useful I'd be willing to postpone any obligations you owe to the clan . . . for this year at least. That covers everything, financial or. . .genetic."
Oddly, her uncle seemed to be addressing Travis rather than her and Jenna gnawed her lip in frustration, sensing dangerous undercurrents that could undermine their fragile relationship. She tried to catch Travis's eye but his expression was closed and unreadable. Finally she nodded a reluctant acceptance of the bargain, hoping the cost of that `deal' would not be the small measure of trust they had built between them.
In a small, sparsely furnished office, parsecs across the galaxy, a lynx-eyed woman leaned back in her chair, studying the figure waiting in the shadows just beyond her desk. "So you've returned. What makes you think I won't have you arrested and sentenced to the painful death you so richly deserve?" she purred menacingly.
"Madame, do you have so many resources left, you can afford to squander any of them?" His smooth elegant drawl attempted to insinuate its way back into her confidence, but Servalan throttled the impulse with a calculated sneer.
"Your stupid misjudgement of Coser cost the Federation IMIPAK and contributed to the devastating losses Space Command suffered at the Andromedan's hands! If I inform Provisional President Samore you were the one responsible for that. . .that debacle, he'll have your head on a pike within the hour!"
With an insouciant saunter denied any hint of nervousness, Psychostrategist Carnell seated himself across from the silently fuming Supreme Commander. He flicked a microscopic piece of lint from his impeccably tailored suit before turning his dazzling smile in her direction.
"Don't be deliberately obtuse, my dear. Even an incompetent strategist would recognize IMIPAK's sole application would have been to accelerate your rise to power. `Old Starkiller' may be a by-the-book, strait-laced moralist but he is not incompetent!"
Realizing he had called her bluff, Servalan discarded her artificial anger as quickly as she had assumed it and contemplated her visitor.
Despite the fact he seemed to drop into a black hole after the IMIPAK fiasco, Carnell was much too well informed on the delicate situation within the Federation and Space Command for her peace of mind. And despite his obvious appreciation of her feminine charms, she had no illusions about her ability to manipulate this man.
"Wherever you were hiding, you've picked a poor time to return. Space Command has been gutted. The Federation is wracked by political upheaval and tottering on the verge of economic collapse and social anarchy. All the petty empires, warlords, alien coalitions and so called democratic states who once feared our might are circling like jackals around a wounded lion, waiting to bring us down."
Servalan's glorious eyes had turned hard as agates and Carnell steepled his fingers thoughtfully. "And what is `Old Starkiller's' response? Surely, the old lion has a roar or two left in him to drive off the scavengers?"
"Him!!" Servalan lunged upright and began to prowl angrily around the room, too agitated to even attempt hiding her anger.
"He's even worse than the corrupt fool who preceded him. He wants to negotiate with these so-called independent worlds - traitors, rebels, and weaklings - to bring the Federation back to its origins, days of cooperation and coalition, rather than conquest and the rule of law!"
Servalan's gaze smoldered with the fury she had kept well leashed during the increasingly frustrating emergency meetings where the acting President and Provisional Council tried to implement stop-gap solutions for the steadily deteriorating situation. "Negotiating with smugglers and thieves like the so-called Free Traders, politely requesting what we once took as our lawful due! Now we are even forced to recognize alien, nonhuman races because they possess precious rare elements that we must. . .bargain for!"
She gave an exaggerated shudder of disgust but Carnell merely smiled. "Surely such a weakened attitude does not sit well with the Inner Worlds who were used to the luxuries and wealth that were the result of Federation power?"
Servalan pivoted angrily, certain Carnell was baiting her but responding nonetheless. "They're spineless weaklings and idiots. They'll follow anyone who promises them regular supplies of food and fissionables so they can return to the idle, self-indulgent lifestyle they previously enjoyed."
Her lush mouth was drawn into a bitter grimace, "Cowardly fools. If the Council had anything resembling a backbone among the lot of them, they'd all be eager to go out and take what they're entitled to instead of begging for it!"
Carnell's brilliant blue eyes held a thoughtful, analytical stare, "So `Old Starkiller' has arranged for a peaceful meeting with those groups who presently have resources the Federation needs to survive and rebuild?" His expression was tolerantly amused. " A very useful idea. . .gathering all your eggs in one basket, in a manner of speaking."
Servalan turned a cold, skeptical look in his direction, "Byzantia is a well-established treaty port with formidable planetary defenses. And every group there will have their own security forces. . . besides all the freelance mercenaries in port, for sale to the highest bidder."
A sly grin teased the corner of the puppeteer's handsomely sculpted mouth, "So many guns for hire could create a very volatile situation. Especially since Space Command troops know where their true loyalties lie. Don't they, Supreme Commander?"
Servalan's expression was neutral but the spark of ambition burned deep in her feline eyes.
Travis's harsh breathing rasped into a choked outcry halfway between anguish and terror, jerking Jenna bolt upright in the crowded berth they shared. She reached out cautiously, mindful of his hair-trigger reflexes, but the deadly tension in his body had subsided into gasping shudders. As she tried to draw him against her breast to soothe away the last remnants of his nightmare, he rebuffed her coldly, "Go back to sleep, Jenna. It's just old ghosts, making their usual rounds."
He turned on his side, toward the bulkhead, deliberately distancing himself from her, physically and emotionally. Jenna drew the coverlet to her chin to warm her chilled body as she lay down again, gnawing her lip and staring bleakly at the stanchions overhead. Wondering again why she'd agreed they would come on this treaty mission.
The Enclave's delegation included representatives from the fifteen largest trading houses on Sanctuary, with her uncle as titular head of the delegation since Clan Stannis was the largest and wealthiest. Rather than endanger an entire flotilla of trading vessels, they were all shoehorned into a sumptuously outfitted but somewhat crowded private yacht the Niachros clan had offered as a gesture of goodwill.
Calypso was roomy for the parties of thirty to fifty partygoers she ferried to casinos and pleasure planets. But for the two week run to Byzantia, carrying over a hundred clan captains, executive officers, trade representatives and their bodyguards,`cozy' was a generous description of the quartering arrangements. As a result, tempers were somewhat short and several near-violent clashes between Travis and other Enclave captains had erupted during the passage to Byzantia
Stephan Niachros had been especially touchy since Travis's confirmation as Jenna's bondmate. She did not flatter herself that he was truly jealous. She knew he simply viewed Travis as an interloper who had thwarted his ambition for the increased power and influence an alliance between the two clans would have brought him.
Whatever the reason, earlier that evening, he had taken umbrage at Travis's sharp-tongued critique of Enclave security arrangements during one briefing. Afterwards, accompanied by his entourage, Stephan had confronted the two of them as they departed the delegation meeting room.
"You're quite free with your condemnation of our tactics against the Federation, Provo Captain," The insolence was blatant and deliberately calculated, but Travis ignored it.
"Look, Fleet Captain, I don't give a damn if every clan captain on this ship gets blown to bloody hell by the `pitiful remnants of Space Command' but Stannis clan is under my protection and I don't intend to see Jenna jeopardized by so-called allies' stupidity."
One of the brasher young captains in Stephan's group taunted, "No, you'd rather see us all wearing the Federation's collar like you did! Tell us, hound, did Supreme Commander Servalan use a whistle or was the bitch's scent enough to bring you to heel!"
Jenna clutched Travis's arm, her nails biting into his flesh but he dismissed Stephan with a sardonic sneer. Turning sharply, he buried his cybernetic fist in the embroidered tunic of the offending trader and drew him close, until he was only inches from Travis's face. "Better a hound than a yapping lap dog," then shoved him toward his friends, half-knocking them off their feet.
He put his arm around Jenna's waist, then turned a last scornful warning in Stephan's direction, "Just don't mistake a wolf for a hound, Fleet Captain. They're both dangerous, but the wolf doesn't back down."
Although Jenna was amused at Travis's reasonably measured response to Stephan's insults, she cautioned him after they returned to their cabin. "It's permitted to answer insults in kind, as long as honor is satisfied. Just don't let it go any further. The clans are too dependent on one another to engage in personal vendettas."
He locked the door behind them and drew her into his embrace, his hands hard on her shoulders as he nuzzled her neck
"I've got better things to do than trade insults with wet-behind-the-ears clan captains." Sliding the fastener down the back of her dress, his impatient caresses dissolved her uncertainty into molten desire. But there was a uneasy, dangerous edge to his loveplay now, though it remained as erotically charged as ever.
Travis's convalescence from the Nevya mission had been rapid and uneventful. Yet, despite the fact she shared his bed again, only the physical aspect of their relationship was unchanged. He resumed the wary aloofness he'd maintained during their first weeks aboard the Reina, when he still considered her a doubtful ally. She didn't know what had brought about the sudden shift in his mood, after he had earned the clan's acceptance and her father's ships. But the growing uncertainty left her restless and unable to sleep, especially since she felt him tense and wakeful beside her.
Deciding to face the truth, no matter how painful, she propped herself on one elbow, querying in a cool dispassionate tone, "During that meeting with Mikhail, you called Blake a menace to the Enclave, just as much as Servalan?"
"You didn't contradict me."
"Even if we have been accepted by the clan, Mikhail's favorite ploy is still `divide and conquer'. He'll use the smallest hint of dissension to set us against one another. Why do you think Blake is such a danger to us?"
"You haven't forgotten Star One already, have you? The Andromedans may have prevented Blake from becoming the greatest mass murderer in human history, but far too many people paid for his recklessness with their lives." The harshness of his voice revealed his barely controlled rage.
"He didn't realize..."
"And we're supposed to acquit him because in his monumental ignorance he managed to kill off more people - military and civilian - than Servalan ever did with the worst of her deliberate brutalities?" The strident note of old anger throbbed in his voice, like a wound barely scarred over.
"I thought you gave up revenge `for the sake of survival'?" She probed gently at the festering wound in his spirit.
He turned toward her in the dim half-light, his face a chiaroscuro mask of light and shadow. The deepest shadow being the scarred cheek and empty socket where his left eye had once been, "Forgetting comes hard, Jenna, facing scars like these in the mirror for the rest of my life."
"Not all scars are on the outside, Travis. Blake bears some that are even deeper. . .the loss of his family, the betrayal of his friends, years of mindless servitude to the Federation he despised. It made him into a fanatic, as obsessed with the downfall of the Federation, as you once were with his destruction." Her voice was husky, pleading."Don't let yourself be drawn into that maelstrom again, Travis."
"The Space Force was all I had left after my brother died. It taught me how to survive anything and everything. . . except betrayal. After Servalan stripped away duty, honor, even the last scraps of my pride, all I had left was my obsession with Blake's death." Jenna felt a hard shudder pass through his body before he turned on his back, folding his arms behind his head. "Until our paths crossed, and you `hired' me to help claim your father's ships. But now you have them. . .what next? Where do I go from here?"
"Passing the tests earned you full clan rights. You have a place here. . . ." Jenna's voice choked off, fearful his uncertainty might resurrect his recently buried hatred of Blake or draw him into Servalan's webs of deceit once again.
"Do you really think I'll ever fit in?" he asked bitterly. "When your uncle looks at me, all he sees is your father's blood on my hands."
"It doesn't matter!" she retorted."With my father's ships and access to the Enclave's data banks, we'll choose a profitable route away from Federation patrols, clan rivalries, and my uncle's dynastic aspirations. We can go wherever we please, with no one meddling in our lives." Wistfully, she spun out her hopes and dreams, attempting to persuade him, but Travis was too much a pragmatist to be drawn in to her fantasy.
"We can't run away forever, Jenna. If we're going to build a future together, we can't ignore our past. This meeting may be my last chance - our last chance - to close the books on that past." His voice was gentle but there was a grim undercurrent to it that frightened her.
She leaned against his side, feeling the unyielding hardness of his cyborg arm as she stroked the ridged, scarred joining of man and machine. In the half-light, she noted a raised scar resembling the stylized arrow of the Federation symbol. He flinched as her fingers brushed across it and she asked, "Where did you get that? It looks like a. . ."
"A brand?" He arched his brow mockingly. "It is. A brand of loyalty. . .marking me out as the best of the best. Only her elite guard wore it. One more scar, Jenna, but Servalan is to blame for this one!"
She buried her face against him, unable to bear any more of his pain or her own doubts and fears. There was no peace for either of them this night.
Placing her hand tentatively on his chest, she pleaded softly, "Hold me close, Travis. Just for a little while."
Reaching out with his flesh and blood arm, he drew her to him until her head rested on his shoulder.
But neither of them slept.
The marketplace in Khirgiz, the capital city and trading center of Byzantia was a deluge of sight and sound. Flowing silks, gleaming leather, the metallic glitter of carapaces and shimmer of fur. Almost a hundred different alien tongues clattered, screeched, whispered or squawked, harmonizing in dissonant yet compelling rhythms.
Despite Travis's growing familiarity with the Enclave's casual acceptance of nonhumanoids, he was still repelled by many of the more outre alien life forms. Multilegged sentient insectoids. Kyrenians, like Phrath, with their lethal natural armament of fang and claw. Several telepathic species who kept aloof from the chaotic emotional torrent of the city square. And worst of all, a group of amorphous lifeforms much too similar to the Andromedans he had battled on Star One.
His reaction to most of the aliens bordered on outright paranoia, fingers frequently twitching towards his holstered blaster. Though he wore the weapon legitimately as one of the clan's registered bodyguards, the penalties for an unprovoked exchange of fire were extreme enough to convince Jenna to act.
After seeing Travis tense for the tenth time in five minutes, whenever a group of nonhuman tourists or delegates brushed past them, Jenna pulled him irately into an alleyway and demanded, "What's the matter with you? You look like you expect a horde of bloodthirsty rebels to jump out from every shadow?"
His jaw was clenched but a nervous tic betrayed his agitation as he demanded in a low tight whisper. "So many damned aliens. . .how can we be sure they're the real delegates and not Andromadan infiltrators, here to sabotage this meeting?"
Jenna studied her bondmate, tense and poised for violence. She had not been there when Travis battled the Andromedan invaders face to face at Star One and had no inkling why the experience would still haunt him. Though it was possible that the paranoid attitude of the Byzantian militia officer who briefed the clans' bodyguards was responsible for his edginess.
The strategic overview Brendan gave the delegates before they disembarked had only advised taking reasonable precautions. They were alerted to possible dangers but also informed about the safeguards that were in place to insure the overall security of the meeting. Hopefully, he would trust Brendan's expertise in the matter, having prior experience of the telepath's skill in protecting her uncle.
"There are six separate telepathic or empathic races here, not counting individual translators and security personnel. Although privacy screens prevent them from reading individual delegates, they are on the alert for any hint of subversion or sabotage, besides preventing potential outbreaks of violence."
Recalling his prior experience in Space Command as Security officer for so called `peaceful' treaty talks, Travis was skeptical. Such transactions usually involved high level deception; bribery, seduction, coercion and intimidation and often actual assassination. He doubted any group of sentient beings - human or nonhuman - could operate without indulging in similar dubious tactics.
"Nonviolent negotiation? Well, that will definitely throw a spanner into Servalan's operations. I wonder how Blake will manage without explosives and proton blasters?"
Seeing he was reassured by Brendan's report, Jenna ignored his sharp-tongued remarks, not wanting to get into another harangue over Blake's goals or methods. She had never been committed to his Cause to begin with and she saw no reason to make excuses for him now.
Travis had turned his attention back to the stream of brightly garbed aliens and humans within the marketplace when he spotted the stark black battledress of Federation troopers. Even without their blank visored helmets, their presence was disruptive, producing odd eddies and currents in the flow of traffic around them.
He was somewhat surprised at the odd make-up of the group. It consisted of a large number of senior grade officers, surprisingly young for the rank they wore, acting like Alpha civilians on holiday. Out slumming and rubbing elbows, albeit gingerly, with nonhumans and human rabble they would have shoved scornfully aside on the Inner Planets. Even more unusual was the lack of mutoid bodyguards whose inhuman strength would have assured Servalan's elite had a large part of the street to themselves, even in the middle of this crowd.
This kind of artificial bon homme raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Either the Federation was so powerless it had to choke back its characteristic arrogance or Servalan was hiding behind a mask of charm and good will in order to lull everyone's suspicions before she struck. Neither situation appealed to him because he knew Servalan was at her most ruthless when she felt her power threatened.
"What's the problem?" Jenna followed his gaze and caught sight of the group of officers just before they entered a small cafe. "Anyone you know? Anyone we need to worry about?" she inquired nervously.
"They're hardly old enough to be junior staff, much less command a cruiser. Losses at Star One must have been worse than I heard." Travis remarked bleakly.
"It wasn't just the battle with the Andromedans that left so many empty command slots. There were riots and other outbreaks of violence on Earth and the Inner Planets." Jenna indulged in a one-sided smile."The Federation is under martial law at the present. With former Fleet Warden Samore serving as acting president until order and economic stability is restored."
Despite his angry denunciation of the `fools and hypocrites' who'd sat on the board of his court martial, Travis had a grudging admiration for the iron-willed, rigidly principled old man. He was a relic from the past when Space Command was respected force in the galaxy. Before the Council's fear and the President's greed had put Servalan in power.
He smiled sourly, "Your uncle may find he'll drive a harder bargain than Servalan would."
Before she could reply, Travis jerked around then dove through the crowd in pursuit of a slender, elusive figure who had accidentally brushed up against him moments before.
Although he did not waste his breath, shouting futilely, `Stop, thief!',Jenna caught a brief glimpse of his sandy haired target and hastily followed, hoping to prevent the resulting mayhem once Travis got his hands on the light-fingered pickpocket who had definitely pinched the wrong wallet this time.
The pedestrians, sightseers, and shoppers he shoved past were too cowed by his fierce expression to protest their rough treatment or attempt to stop Jenna as she hurried after him. Luckily she caught up to him just as he buried his hands in the tunic of the trembling thief, jerking him upright and face to face, as he growled, "Hand it over, Restal, before I rip your arm off and beat you to death with it!"
Vila gave his most ingratiating smile as he held out the pilfered wallet, "Errrr, fancy meeting you here, Travis. Thought you were dead, fightin' off all those nasty, hairy aliens. Never would have tweaked it..."
"The gun too, thief!" Travis's glower made Vila blanch an even paler shade than his usual pasty coloring and he reached gingerly under his tunic. "Dinnit want it...y'know. Chancy things guns are...goin' off by accident and blowin' your arm away..." The sly dig did not get past Jenna as she briskly retrieved Travis's gun and ID then glanced around wondering where the others were. Vila would not bait Travis unless he expected imminent rescue.
"Put him down, Travis. NOW! Unless you want me to blow off your other arm for a matched set." The acid-etched drawl was only slightly less menacing than the blaster Kerr Avon had pointed at her bondmate's head.
Travis relaxed his hold enough so Vila's feet touched the ground but did not relinquish his grip, "You won't use that weapon, Avon. You know the port edicts as well as I do. Besides, I could haul him before the magistrate for petty thievery. Mine's probably not the only wallet he's lifted."
Avon's chill expression of disgust was divided equally between Liberator's resident lock specialist and his captor. "What would it take to silence you? He may be a clumsy, inept, drunken fool but he's our clumsy, inept drunken fool."
"Blake's head on a platter." Travis's voice held a mocking ironic edge that did not escape the computer expert, although his reply was equally ironic.
"I thought Jenna told us you had given up your vendetta against Blake."
"Perhaps it's payment due for his actions at Star One." The edge in his voice was just a little sharper. "Or maybe I just want to give Jenna a suitable bonding gift."
Vila's jaw dropped, his eyes round with astonishment but Avon did not react, except to note Jenna's sharply indrawn breath at Travis's sudden revelation. Obviously, she had hoped to break the news to Blake herself. He turned his most charming smile in his former crewmate's direction. "Welll..." he drawled slowly, "Are congratulations or condolences the order of the day?"
Jenna frowned in irritation. She knew the news of her bonding would reach Blake eventually. She'd only hoped it would be from someone besides Avon, who was likely to twist the knife as painfully as possible when he passed on the information.
"Why are you still with Blake anyway? I thought after Star One, you were going to take Liberator and burn space for the nearest bolthole?"
Avon's expression was as remote as ever but her experience with the man enabled Jenna to read the undercurrent of sour frustration in him, "Safe boltholes are hard to find lately, with the Inner Worlds and Outer Planets in such turmoil. Blake managed to persuade me that attending this meeting was our best chance for survival. He hopes his fellow Rebels will be able to convince the independent planets to agree on some kind of mutual defense agreement."
As Avon spoke, they were joined by two more members of Liberator's crew. Travis remembered the brash ex-Federation captain Del Tarrant but the beautiful girl by his side was a stranger. She had skin the color of deepest ebony, the profile of a pagan queen and the lithe, sleek body of a trained huntress. Tarrant was obviously attempting to exert the full extent of his considerable charms on the young woman.
Much to their surprise, knowing Avon's disgust with social amenities, he made a terse introduction. "Travis, Jenna, this is Dayna Mellanby, the newest of Blake's admiring acolytes."
Travis regarded the young woman thoughtfully, "Any relation to Hal Mellanby, the weapons' designer?"
"My father." Her voice held a mixture of pride and sadness and she turned eyes as deep and dark as midnight in his direction. "Did you know him?"
Acutely aware of the sudden anxiety in Tarrant's face and the darkly warning look Avon gave him, Travis contented himself with a bland, noncommittal, "Only by reputation. He was supposedly one of the best in the Federation before he disappeared."
"The best!" was Dayna's outspoken retort.
Avon broke in and gestured abruptly towards the lockpick as he edged gingerly out of Travis's grip. "Take Vila over to the wineshop before he sneaks away again and brings port security down on our heads for certain."
Dayna bridled at the peremptory tone in Avon's voice, "I'm not a nanny for errant lockpicks, Avon. I've business of my own to attend to."
Avon's answer was savage, "Your grudge with Space Command will have to wait. Getting thrown off the planet for wholesale slaughter is not in our best interest right now."
"I'll join you in a moment," Tarrant attempted to soothe her ruffled pride. "I just want to say hello to an old friend."
Dayna may have sounded like a sulky child but Travis recognized the burning rage in her eyes. As the young huntress unwillingly accompanied Vila across the square to a well-stocked wineshop, he allowed Tarrant to draw him to one side while Jenna questioned Avon intently.
"Then Blake is here to negotiate and not to plan further attacks against the Federation?"
"Why should you care? Or does your `hired muscle' - excuse me, `bondmate' - still take orders from Space Command?" Avon's suspicious nature had not changed.
"We're Free Traders. Members of the Enclave's delegation and this meeting is too critical to our future survival to allow Blake to disrupt it." Jenna's voice held a hard determined edge.
Avon was vastly amused at this odd state affairs, with Jenna wed to Blake's one-time enemy and taking a stand against any disruptive actions by her former lover. It promised fascinating emotional fireworks to liven up the tedious political rhetoric of the next few days.
"Don't worry, Jenna. Blake is convinced this meeting will serve the Freedom Party's ends as well. He's concluded the Federation is so weak they will have to yield to demands for planetary self-government and free elections. It will be amusing to see if Servalan and the acting President are as powerless as he believes."
He took notice of the subtle understated elegance of Jenna's gown and rich jewelry she was wearing. "You seem to have done rather well for yourself lately, except for your dismal choice of bondmates. I didn't realize smuggling was so profitable."
"More so than revolution, at any rate. But Travis and I have rejoined my clan, discovering a safe and wealthy bolthole within the Enclave," she responded smugly, recalling some of their early conversations aboard Liberator.
"If they've accepted a renegade like Travis, their standards must not be very high,"
Jenna ignored his caustic remarks, knowing where the conversation was headed. "Oh, the Enclave expects that aspiring members will earn their place with skill or strength..."
"Or data system expertise, particularly if accompanied by a computer capable of tapping into any system containing tariel cells, which includes most Federation communications?"
Jenna tapped her lip, studying the enigmatic black-and- silver clad figure before her cautiously. No doubt her uncle would welcome a chance to access Orac's vast abilities, but was Avon really planning to leave or merely testing the waters? Would he relinquish his claim on Liberator just to escape Blake's manipulation? Or was it just another ploy to undermine the man's self-assured crusade for freedom?
As the two former crewmates sparred suspiciously, Tarrant gripped Travis's right hand with surprising warmth, "Glad to see you survived the battle, sir. When Jenna left aboard her blockade runner, I was sure both of you were as good as dead."
Somewhat embarrassed by the younger man's goodwill, Travis quickly countered with a sharp question, "You want to explain your little byplay with Mellanby's daughter?"
Tarrant looked acutely uncomfortable as his eyes followed the young huntress across the square. "Yes, well...that's a long story, sir."
"I've got the time, Captain. Especially if the girl's got a vendetta against Space Command. I wouldn't want to wake up some night with her knife at my throat."
Tarrant took a deep breath and blurted the tragic events which had brought Dayna into their group. "After Star One, Blake fully intended to relinquish Liberator to Avon. We were in orbit around Sarran, Hal Mellanby's refuge. Blake and Cally were going join him and return to Earth, organizing the scattered resistance groups into a united front."
"Perfect timing," Travis observed sourly. "With the remnants of the Fleet still mopping up the mess at Star One, the skeleton defense force on Earth wouldn't have stood a chance against them."
"Except the Supreme Commander's ships had followed Liberator, determined to eliminate Blake once and for all."
"With her usual brilliant success." There was a bitter self-mocking edge in Travis's voice
"She did succeed in preventing his return to Earth to unite the rebels. Mellanby was killed in the first exchange of shots and Avon teleported Blake, Cally, and Dayna off her father's ship just before it self-destructed. With her father dead and her home destroyed, Dayna joined us. She regards Blake and Avon as her heroic rescuers and Space Command officers..."
"...or ex-officers, her sworn enemy." Tarrant finished glumly.
Travis barely suppressed a rueful grin at Tarrant's despondent air. Although the Federation's abuse of power and blatant corruption had driven him to desert only months after he graduated, his pride at being, for a short time at least, one of `Space Command's finest' was as much a part of him as his unruly curls. Yet to the young woman he was smitten with, Space Command signified only butchery and destruction, leaving Tarrant in something of a dilemma.
"You lied to her about your past?"
"Just a little creative revision," he turned his gaze to the older officer in mute appeal. "I thought I should warn you, so you don't give either of us away. . .by accident. Blake's ordered her not to kill any officers during the negotiations. But she's hot-headed and impulsive."
"I'll keep my guard up," he acknowledged the warning. "I know a trained killer when I see one. But you're a fool if you think your `creative revision' will fool her for long. You should have told her the whole truth from the beginning. . ."
"There wasn't a chance. She arrived aboard Liberator, covered in her father's blood, vowing to cut the throat of any Federation officer who crossed her path," he protested mournfully.
"Meaning if she discovers you've lied, she'll likely slip a knife between your ribs one night while you're whispering 'sweet nothings' in her ear." Travis's grim warning only added to the distress radiating from the young pilot's troubled blue eyes.
Within the spartan and ridiculously small suite she had been assigned, Supreme Commander Servalan studied the numerous data flakes and holos her agents delivered daily. They revealed the vices, weaknesses, and assorted peccadillos of numerous delegates and envoys. Although Acting President Samore was too fastidious to resort to anything as unprincipled as blackmail to coerce various delegations into supporting their position in the negotiations, she still found the tapes entertaining and would discover a way to use them - somehow! She did not intend to let the power and control she had fought so hard to gain slip away because of an old man's antiquated ethics.
She leaned back in her chair, her slender well-shaped legs revealed by the ice-white, form-fitting skirt slashed to mid thigh. As she studied the data screen, one of the junior officers in her elite guard brushed past her aide's desk in the outer corridor and entered her office without knocking. She glared at the intruder with Medusan fury but if he felt the petrifying effects of that gaze, he concealed his trepidation well. He spilled a number of holocubes across her desk, eagerly revealing the reason for his interruption. "Supreme Commander, look! He isn't dead after all. Former Commander Travis is here in the trade city - right now!"
For once Servalan was taken totally by surprise and quickly leaned forward to study the small out-of-focus images from her agent's concealed spyvids. It was Travis! There was no mistaking those ruthless features or the distinctive black patch. He still moved with the same arrogant self-assurance despite the fact the Federation had a price on his head. But even more astonishing was the woman at his side!
"That's Jenna Stannis!" she whispered in disbelief. "Blake's slut!" Her thoughts spun into overdrive. What was she doing in Travis's company, smiling and relaxed, while he watched over her, armed and wary, like some sort of bodyguard?
Servalan considered the implications of those pictures, especially the last one. It was a very fuzzy, almost out of focus telescopic shot showing Stannis, Kerr Avon, and Travis - together!
That one set off a particularly disturbing chain of thoughts. For all his insolence and instability, Travis had been one of Space Command's more brilliant officers, though the best retraining therapists had not been able to quell his headstrong nature. Fortunately, her own devious expertise had been sufficient to exploit his formidable abilities against Blake and his resistance. But even under Carnell's sway his actions grew more erratic and difficult to control, forcing her to take the necessary steps to eliminate him.
In a strange twist of fate, an attack by Blake disrupted that planned execution, allowing Travis to escape. She'd been certain his headlong flight to the Rim Worlds would undoubtedly result in his death at the hands of the outlaws and renegades he had once hunted at her command. How, by all the demons in hell, had he managed to survive? By teaming up with Blake? The mere thought was so ludicrous she almost laughed aloud.
She leaned back in her chair, pondering the disturbing fact that Travis was not only alive but possibly allied with her enemies. Or was he simply one of the legion of mercenaries skulking in the port city. Did Carnell know of his presence and its possible affect on their plans to restore Federation power?
Once before, one of Carnell's schemes had gone awry because he had not taken into account a minor human pawn. Travis was hardly a pawn in anyone's game. Even under her control, he had schemed and plotted on his own. Was that why he was guarding Stannis? Was she bait to draw Blake into a trap or a curb on his pathological hatred of the rebel leader?
Whatever Carnell's long-range scheme, Servalan knew she could not afford to let those questions go unanswered. She'd have the holocubes delivered to him but take steps of her own to neutralize Travis. He was too much of a random factor in their painstakingly developed plans. He would have to be dealt with.
Despite her daunting glare, the brash young officer who barged in with the holos had remained at her side. She turned on one of her most seductive smiles. "Good work, Lt. . . .Brett, isn't it?"
Her coquettish attentions usually reduced her junior officers to stammering fools, but this one responded with a sly, self-assured charm similar to Carnell's. "Yes, Madame. I knew you'd want to see those pictures immediately."
She nodded absently as she scrutinized him in detail. He was tall, greyhound lean, with a mop of tousled blonde hair that escaped his best efforts to subdue it. Although he lacked the polished elegance of her current aide, Rai, there was a hint of the same forceful personality Travis had often shown. He might be just bold enough for Carnell's devious scheme. She glanced down at her immaculately polished blood-red nails.
This bright young man would not be of any use to her in dealing with Travis. She'd have to rely on a more subtle method with the former Space Commander. One that she had used to good effect in the past; a heated seduction to put his savage sensuality under her erotic control. No matter who owned his loyalties now, she was certain that by the end of the week they would hers to command once more.
However, the more she studied the young officer, the more suitable he seemed for Carnell's scheme. The perfect mixture of opportunism, bravado, and just a hint of idealism. She gave him another calculated seductive smile. "Lt. Brett, for your sharp eyes and quick mind, I'm going to promote you to Commander."
"Thank you, Supreme Commander." He inclined his head respectfully but his hazel eyes burned with ambition.
She nodded in satisfaction before continuing, "I have a mission that requires a very special kind of officer. One who's not afraid to take risks and can operate independently."
"What sort of risks?" he inquired shrewdly.
"One reason that Blake's outlaws have eluded capture for so long is their sole possession of an alien teleport system. But our own scientists have recently recovered a`transporter' device used during the early years of the Federation, though it fell into disuse during a period of war and civil unrest. With that device, you can finally dispose of Blake and his renegade followers, and obtain Liberator for me."
Brett frowned, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Except with the amnesty in effect, a direct attack on Blake- or his ship - will not be tolerated."
Servalan rolled her eyes in exasperation, hoping Brett might demonstrate a small degree of imagination. "Then I expect you to come up with a better way to use the device to our advantage during these negotiations. Something bold, unexpected! Perhaps a way to further discredit Blake and his followers, while dealing with the rest of this rabble in language they understand."
Meeting Servalan's feral gaze, Brett brought his heels sharply together and bowed ever so slightly, "I am at the Supreme Commander's disposal."
"Damn, damn, DAMN!" Jenna swore irritably to herself as she peered through the drinking, gossiping crowd which reminded her uncomfortably of the formal ball she and Travis had been forced to attend just before his final testing. Although there were probably no schemes specifically targeting them tonight, her uneasiness persisted.
This casual buffet/bar get-together was one of many supposedly purely "social" gatherings preceding the formal ceremonies opening the negotiations tomorrow. Old friends and enemies alike were expected to fraternize in a semi-civilized fashion before proceeding to the deadly serious business of economic and political diplomacy over the next few days. Even though many of the groups present had already announced their formal positions and demands, deals were still being struck, new coalitions formed and influence peddling at all levels.
Since she and Travis were added to the Enclave's delegation at the last moment, she was ignored by most of the serious power brokers. But the ebb and flow of political maneuvering all around made Jenna feel like she was standing hip deep in dark, dangerous waters, surrounded by treacherous undertows and dangerous riptides, knowing the sharks were out there waiting to tear her to pieces.
She had tried to avoid this reception because her encounter with Liberator's crew in the marketplace left her uneasy about seeing Blake again. But her uncle was adamant about updating her knowledge of both clan and Enclave's political connections. "You're members of Clan Stannis now, with obligations to fulfill. I want you and Travis at that party tonight with your eyes and ears open for any hint of trouble."
So she and Travis made their obligatory appearance. As she circulated as ordered, he remained at her side, silent and on guard, scanning the crowd with predatory alertness. Fortunately there were no other Federation officers there, either uniformed or in mufti. A fact that made her encounters with old acquaintances who were still Blake's allies somewhat less tense, though not particularly useful.
She spotted President Sarkoff and his daughter Tyce deep in conversation with Avalon. Although Tyce smiled and waved tentatively in Jenna's direction, Avalon glared and then stalked away in disgust. Obviously, she still held a grudge despite their part in the battle against the Andromedans at Star One.
An ugly suspicion reared its head. Considering the planetary devastation that resulted from the Andromedans' attack on Star One, Blake might have conveniently forgotten his attempt to sabotage the computer. . . and failed to mention Travis's agonizing vigil over the satellite's damaged defenses prior to the arrival of the Federation fleet. Of course, Liberator's last-ditch delaying tactics assured Blake's heroic reputation remained intact, even though he was flat on his back in the medical unit while Avon coordinated the actual defense. Such minor details scarcely mattered to his staunch supporters.
Blake's crew knew their true role in that desperate battle. A truth unlikely to get wide distribution because old hatred died hard, especially since she had added insult to injury by consorting with Blake's worst enemy after `deserting' his cause. She shrugged off Avalon's malice. Rebel politics was no longer her concern and the only loyalty she owed was to her bondmate and her clan.
She glanced around peevishly, wondering why Travis had suddenly slipped away without her noticing. With a sigh, she massaged her aching temples, having had more than enough intelligence gathering for one night. She was tired of being on the defensive against opportunistic leers or angry snubs and she still could not shake the sense of foreboding that had haunted her all evening. Intent on locating Travis, Jenna did not notice the man waving for her attention or even hear him softly calling her name, until he tapped gently on her shoulder.
Jenna turned, gasping in shock as she stood face to face with the one man she did not want to meet tonight - Roj Blake.
He appeared as broad shouldered and sturdily unshakeable as ever. Until Jenna took a closer look and saw how his trademark billowing shirts hung from a leaner, gaunter frame. There was a harsh aggressiveness in his stance, new lines of suffering carved in his face and even streaks of grey in those once coal black curls. She shivered in remembered response to his still potent charisma, almost overwhelmed by the impulse to brush one of those unruly curls back from his forehead. But if she touched him, she was lost! Instead she clenched her fists, burying her nails in her palms and lifted her chin, giving him the old defiant look.
"Well, Blake, looks like you won your battle against the Federation after all."
His smile was sad and weary, as it had been after Gan's death, "The cost was higher than expected, with little to show for it."
"Central Control crippled, Space Command a shadowy remnant of its former might, the President and High Council lynched by mobs on Earth and you say there's little to show for it. What did you expect? Victory celebrations and approval of the Freedom Party's agenda by mass acclamation?"
Jenna did not mean to sound so hostile, but long exposure to Travis and her recent meeting with Avon had evoked a surprising bitterness. She had no love for the Federation but the current turmoil did not serve the Enclave's purposes either. Only ravagers who preyed on the weak and the helpless benefitted from the anarchy that had resulted after the attack on Star One.
He appealed for her understanding, "Destruction of Central Control was the only choice the Federation left us, Jenna. Years ago the Freedom Party tried to change things through protest and peaceful demonstration but Travis and his troops butchered . . ."
Jenna's face blanched but her eyes blazed, "Don't go there, Blake! I know what happened! The physical and mental scars it left on both of you! You were as consumed by vengeance as Travis and that's why you became so obsessed with destroying Central Control after Gan's death. Cally tried to warn you about the ultimate cost of your vendetta but you wouldn't listen."
Blake gazed at Jenna in mute appeal as he tried to explain.
"I wasn't thinking straight, Jenna. I admit it. Losing Gan on Earth and then you left after the attack on Space Command HQ. . . I was hurt. I felt like the heart and soul had been ripped out of me." He placed his hands on her shoulders, attempting to draw her close but she resisted him, stiff and unyielding.
"If you had showed me, or even told me this earlier, I might not have felt I had to leave. But you never confided in me - not the way you did Cally - about your plans. I wanted to be your lover, Blake, to be part of your hopes and dreams, even if I had to share them with Cally and your bloody Cause." Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. "But you couldn't even give that much of yourself. So I had to leave, for the sake of my self-respect as much as survival."
She folded her hands together, staring at him calmly."Travis and I wound up together after a crash landing forced us to cooperate for mutual survival. In the process, we discovered how much we had in common."
Blake's hands dropped limply to his sides, as he blurted in disbelief. "Then Avon was telling the truth. You and Travis are bondmates?"
Even though she had left him months before, Jenna still shivered at the look of betrayal on his face. "It's a contractual marriage," she began hesitantly, "to claim my inheritance in the Free Traders' Enclave."
"Then it's a just business arrangement. . . nothing more?"
She flared bitterly, "Why should it matter, Roj? You never shared that much of yourself with me - not your passion, your dreams, not even your trust. But Travis put his life in my hands five minutes after he found me."
His bleak expression stirred ashes of emotions she thought long extinguished, but Jenna refused to rekindle the flame.
"It really turned out for the best, Blake," she stated bluntly. "I was never committed to your cause. I only stayed in hopes of using Liberator and you to win Clan rights and claim my father's ships."
His eyes closed, seemingly in pain, but when they opened again, they contained cool speculation. "Clan rights? Then you and Travis are members of the Free Traders' delegation?"
"Provisional members," she answered cautiously, somewhat put out at his rapid emotional recovery."We're agents of Stannis Clan although we aren't part of the voting bloc,"
With surprising ease, Blake's mood shifted from abandoned lover to consummate politician."Even though the Federation is weak, they will undoubtedly attempt to use this meeting to reestablish their domination of the Outer Worlds. Unless the independent colonies present a united front. I've already alerted President Sarkoff, Governor LeGrand and Clinician Franton of Auron to the potential danger. The Enclave would be a welcome addition to our discussions. "
Jenna smiled ruefully to herself. Same old Blake - as manipulative as ever. Hoping to use her friendship and one-time loyalty to further his political agenda. He'd abandoned his effort to rekindle the passion between them, simply because it had never burned that hotly in the first place. It didn't really bother her because she knew Mikhail was as eager to use Blake in furthering the Enclave's interests, as Blake was to use him.
She placed a companionable hand on his arm, gazing into his eyes. "Like I said before, Travis and I are not on the policy board and we know very little about their agenda. However, I'll introduce you to my uncle's executive assistant, who might be able to arrange a meeting."
Blake frowned, perturbed that Jenna refused to be his advocate within the Enclave but unwilling to let this golden opportunity escape. Still, he could not leave without one more attempt at reconciliation.
"If you do ever decide your `business arrangement' isn't working out, Jenna, Liberator could always use another pilot."
Jenna laughed gently, patting Blake's arm as she gazed into the dark eyes that once seemed to promise so much."I'm a woman of means these days - mistress of my own fleet. Why would I want to go back to piloting for a former rebel, now would-be minority politico? Besides, you wouldn't want to hurt Tarrant's feelings, would you?"
Across the room, Travis brooded and nursed a drink while as he warily eyed the pair's emotionally charged tete-a-tete. Ever since Jenna had encountered her former shipmates in the marketplace, he'd known she would be drawn to Blake as inevitably as light falling into a black hole. With about as much chance to escape his influence.
He'd been on edge all evening, knowing Jenna was a legitimate target for disgruntled rebels as well as ambitious Space Command personnel. So far Blake's diehard allies had contented themselves with murderous looks and vicious gossip rather than actual assassination. . .and Federation delegates were conspicuous by their absence. Even though he was no longer obsessed with the killing rage of Servalan's implant, when the rebel leader entered the room, his presence rasped on Travis's nerves like shrapnel twisting in an old wound. He debated remaining at Jenna's side to confront his one-time enemy, gloating over his recent successes; then decided that kind of scene would attract more attention than was advisable, possibly putting Jenna in even greater danger.
But as he faded into the crowd, watching the tension-charged reunion, he was acutely aware of the fierce camaraderie often created by facing danger together against hopeless odds. How it could overrule common sense and even self-preservation in the blinding heat of battle. . .and afterwards.
The bonding between the two of them was nothing more than a business contract, with recreational sex by mutual desire. He had fulfilled his part of the bargain, enabling her to claim her father's ships. Why should he even care if she chose to enlist those ships in Blake's cause? Stannis would gladly supply him with a fast ship, just to see him off planet and away from Jenna.
He glared sourly at the dregs remaining in his glass, seething with unfamiliar, unwelcome emotions. Rage and resentment he understood, since he'd been the one set on coming to this meeting to confront Blake and Servalan. Jealousy? Blake let Jenna slip through his fingers before, he didn't deserve a second chance, especially with the fleet Travis had won with his own sweat and blood thrown in as icing on the cake. Regret? A sense of loss? The terms of the contract had been fulfilled and the books more than balanced since Jenna had saved his life on at least three separate occasions, showing more kindness and concern for him than he had any right to expect. He had no claim on her affections . . . no claim at all.
He tossed off the last of his drink and was about to stride impatiently away, when a sly, teasing voice spoke up directly behind him, "Why not fight him for her?"
Travis spun around, hand on blaster, wondering who had the predatory skill to sneak up and eavesdrop on his discontented mutters. He was disgruntled but not surprised to see Blake's newest crew member, Dayna Mellanby. From what Tarrant had told him about the girl's training by the primitives of Sarran, she was a hunter and tracker of considerable ability.
He reholstered the half-drawn weapon and rebuked her with a scowl, "You shouldn't butt into other people's affairs. It's a dangerous habit."
She leaned over, pouncing on several hor' d' ouerves from the buffet table and examined them critically before devouring them with obvious relish. After licking her fingers with feline fastidiousness, she gave an indifferent shrug, "I have a great many dangerous habits, Captain Travis. Del says he doubts I'll ever learn civilized behavior."
Shaken out of his earlier introspection, Travis found this brash naif a momentary diversion from his bleak mood. He arched his brow in amusement, "So Tarrant is presently in the business of providing finishing school lessons to young savages?"
Dayna seized on his dark humor in an attempt to satisfy her curiosity, "When he's not piloting the Liberator. But what business was he in before he joined Blake?"
"How the hell should I know?" he retorted sharply, hoping to throw this sharp-witted young huntress off the scent about their shared background. Her obsession with vengeance for her father's murder had aroused her suspicions. For both their sake's, he had to parry her questions carefully, defusing the potentially tragic confrontation between her and Tarrant.
Dayna pressed her inquiry, "The two of you seem to be old acquaintances, yet it's obvious you're not one of Blake's followers. Your disgust for him radiates like a blast shield. Why? And if you're not a rebel, you must work for the other side. A Federation officer, perhaps?" The silky menace in her voice was a danger sign and Travis knew he had to make his next move very carefully.
Giving her a cold reptilian stare, he grabbed a shot glass from one of the circulating trays and drained it in a single gulp, making sure more went down his chin than his throat. With calculated crudity, he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and barked coarsely, "A Federation officer!! Now wouldn't that give the high and mighty Supreme Commander Servalan a case of the pip!"
Sweeping a second glass off the tray so most of its contents wound up on the floor, Travis tossed the second glass back hoping it would give him a boozy-breathed semblance of inebriation as he slurred out his answer, "Look, girl. I despise Blake because his bloody war got mates of mine killed, for no good reason. As to the rest. . .there are a lot of people out there who want no part of Blake or the Federation. Tarrant and I crossed paths once or twice free-lancing out on the Rim. . . until he had the misfortune of linking up with Blake's group."
Continuing his role of amiable drunkenness, Travis dropped his arm around her waist, hoping such over familiarity might cause her to back away. But she moved in closer, running her hand across his hard-muscled shoulders. "You expect me to believe you and Tarrant are a couple of tramp-freighter pilots who just happened to link up with the likes of Jenna Stannis and Roj Blake through sheer good fortune? I'm not buying it, Captain Travis - you're both too sharp, too well disciplined. It takes years of training to give a man that kind of edge."
He shrugged offhandedly. "So I spent a couple of years as a conscripted merchanter insystem. It wasn't by choice, I can assure you, and the price," He deliberately pointed to his eye and cybernetic arm, "was too steep for my liking."
Dayna gazed at him thoughtfully as she considered his response, although he had little confidence she'd believe his fabrication. Unfortunately, he'd just placed his neck in the same noose as Tarrant's and all it would take to spring the trap on both of them was a deliberate malicious word from Avon or an accidental one from Restal. Damn! What had come over him lately? Brooding over Jenna's encounter with Blake and now babbling like an idiot just to keep this young beauty from slipping a knife in Tarrant's ribs. He had to escape this social farrago and get the tumult inside him back under control.
He ogled Dayna's curves, spotting the arsenal concealed there, before making his final play. "Well, gel, that's my sorry past in a nutshell. Why don't we go somewhere a little more private and inventory your assets?" He pulled his encircling clasp a little tighter, hoping she'd chose a quick slap over deadly force as an escape from his unwelcome attentions.
Instead of being insulted, Dayna gave him a sly speculative look, "Don't play that game with me, Captain. There's only one woman you've been watching, and I'm not her."
As she slipped away from his grasp and melted back into the crowd, Travis stared after her in a mixture of chagrin and consternation. If she'd seen through him that easily, it was likely none of his outrageous story had fooled her. Did she intend to cut Tarrant's throat tonight or was she more forgiving than he had given her credit for? Well, there was no way to warn the young fool. He would just have to take his chances on Dayna's forbearance.
He glanced down at his chrono. It had been over an hour since Jenna had left on Blake's arm. Obviously, she wasn't coming back tonight. He'd return to their suite and pack his bags then hunt up new quarters in the morning.
Turning to leave, he spied Jenna standing off to one side, a tightly amused smile on her face, "Isn't she a little young for you?"
Startled at her presence, he gave her the flash of a feral grin. "Well, if I took up with her, I wouldn't be getting much older, judging by her attitudes about Federation officers."
"So that was the reason for the fairy tale about being a conscripted merchanter pilot?" Jenna's expression was amused and he was a little embarrassed she had overheard his fabrication.
"Ask Tarrant, if she hasn't hamstrung and gutted him by tomorrow. He's smitten with her and convinced if she learns about his past as a Federation captain she'll never forgive him." Jenna had slipped her arm through his and they strolled out of the gathering and along one of Kirghiz's glittering, bustling avenues back to their quarters.
Nodding in sympathetically, Jenna remarked with a bemused expression on her face, "People do the strangest things when their emotions get the best of them."
Travis was silent for long moments and when she did not seem inclined to elaborate on that cryptic remark, he addressed her somewhat irritably, "Well, do you want me to clear off tonight or can I wait till in the morning to find new quarters?"
"What on earth are you blathering about?"
"Blake...you're going to rejoin him, aren't you?" The question was in a dead flat monotone.
She stared at him in surprise, wondering where this sudden accusation had come from, then realized he must have been watching her encounter with Blake, although not close enough to eavesdrop on their conversation. His growing trust in her warring with his innate suspicious nature. Yet she couldn't blame him for his doubts. Not when she wasn't even sure of her own reaction until she faced Blake again and found she was truly immune to his high-powered charisma. Travis obviously believed otherwise.
She swallowed hard as the old memories flickered through her mind like a broken vidtape: Vila lifting Blake's chrono, the exhilaration of her first contact with Zen, verbally sparring with Avon, Cally's tentative friendship, Gan, cheerful and staunch, dying for an empty room.
When she looked at him again, her eyes were bleak."It wasn't just Blake's suicidal obsession with his cause that drove me away. I wanted more from him than he was willing to give and that hasn't changed at all." She smiled ruefully. "He was much more interested in my political connections than rekindling our burnt out love affair."
"More the fool he," was Travis's dry, low key response and Jenna smiled to herself knowing that remark was the closest to a compliment she was ever likely to get from him.
If there was anything more boring than the tedious self-promotion and self-indulgent declamation that occurred during the opening session, Jenna prayed to whatever benevolent spirits existed, she would never have to endure it. Sometime that morning during the second round of speeches, she was certain time had ground to a shuddering halt and they were all frozen at the event horizon of a naked singularity of unending bombast.
During lunch, she begged an audience with her uncle and pleaded to skip the afternoon session, stating she and Travis would be more useful gathering information dockside and around the lowtown section of the port. But Mikhail was not in the mood to listen, "If you expect to be of any use to the clan, you need to learn how to survive interminable negotiations like this and not let them pressure you into making rash decisions. Keep your eyes and ears open and maybe you'll learn something."
Unfortunately, the tiresome routine speeches of the morning were replaced by something more stimulating that afternoon.
After Provisional President Samore's planned speech, which had been terse and surprisingly conciliatory, Supreme Commander Servalan took the podium. She was wearing a military style tunic and skirt in stark white, with an unusually modest cut. Her gaze took in friend and foe alike with the same bland contempt.
"Fleet Admiral. . .excuse me,. . .Provisional President Samore has expressed our desire to reestablish peace and order among the Inner and Outer Worlds. It is a formidable task because of the decimation of our Fleet during the Battle of Star One and because of the loss in lives, industry and resources resulting from the damage the alien invaders inflicted on the central computers there."
Travis's expression was fierce and Jenna felt a sudden cold frisson of fear prickle down her spine. Servalan's smooth voice rose to a sharp note of accusation, "In examining our security records from the base, we have discovered that the aliens were aided and abetted by human traitors! Led by the notorious rebel Blake, these terrorists's actions nearly caused the annihilation of the human race and did cause the destruction of almost two-thirds of our Fleet and untold death and hardship inside and outside the Federation itself!"
As Servalan made her accusations, a holotape was displayed in the center of the tables. It was distorted and out of focus and Jenna could tell it had been carefully edited for there was nothing that showed the Andromedan's infiltration of the station personnel or Tarrant's and Travis's removal of Blake's bombs. There were only shots of Blake, Avon, and Cally planting their charges, followed by a brief shot of explosions before the tape went dark.
The muted whispers of dismay from Blake's allies and supporters and angry accusations and denunciations from planets who had been especially hard hit were momentarily silenced by Governor LeGrande's quiet but clearly heard disagreement, "But Liberator stood against the Andromedans at Star One. She warned the Federation and fought a holding action until the Eighth Fleet arrived."
Servalan's shrug was eloquently disdainful. "You have the evidence of your own eyes, Governor. Perhaps there was a falling out between alien and human or perhaps Blake thought such false heroics would win amnesty for his band of criminals, as this distinguished group has so generously granted him. But whatever his reasons, surely you cannot allow the man responsible for so much damage and suffering to profit by it?"
Stepping down from the podium, Servalan seated herself primly and watched as the Prince Regent of Byzantia, the nominal chairman of the opening session, tried bring the outburst of screaming planetary contingents back to some semblance of order.
Avalon stood up, in an effort to defend Blake's actions. "The Federation kept its colonies under a harsh, tyrannical rule. The attack on Star One was an attempt to loosen that control, allow the planets to gain a voice in governing themselves. . ."
"Allow them to suffer the horror of hurricanes, droughts, and starvation, you mean!" retorted one angry planetary delegate.
"What about the aliens? Was he in league with them? Did he betray humanity?" still another voice demanded shrilly.
The meeting was threatening to disintegrate into a violent dispute about the justification and/or punishment for Blake's actions. The man himself slumped in the middle of the Freedom Party delegation, his face as pale as curdled milk as he faced the accusations of those he had sought to free from the Federation's despotic rule. Cally's expression was also distressed while Avon simply wore his usual arrogant half-smile.
Travis rested his hand on his blaster, just in case Servalan decided to include Jenna and him in her accusation. But she appeared content to see Blake being cursed and reviled and did not give the Free Trade delegation a second look.
He placed his hand on Jenna's shoulder and jerked his chin towards Mikhail and Brendan sitting just beyond her. "Get his attention...quietly, Jenna. I don't like the look of this mob." But before Jenna could reach her uncle, she heard Brendan's telepathic `voice' inside her head. "Do not worry. There is only confusion and concern. There will be no violence today." She noted Travis's wince as the penetrating transmission reached him.
After several long minutes of shouting and accusations, the meeting was gaveled back to order. The Prince Regent was flustered and red-faced as he glared at Servalan's cool, unruffled expression. "Supreme Commander, we do appreciate your startling revelations but one of the preconditions of this gathering was that each participant be granted temporary immunity for past crimes, whether against individuals or governments, for the duration of the negotiations. We must adhere to that condition or this meeting will collapse in accusations and counteraccusations."
"Immunity for crimes against the galaxy seems a bit generous," she remarked tartly, then inclined her close-cropped head. "I defer to your judgement, Honorable Chairman, not wishing to see these peaceful negotiations disrupted by anything I said or did. I reluctantly withdraw my objection to the inclusion of the rebel terrorist Blake in this respected group of delegates."
Jenna saw her uncle smile in frank admiration at how neatly Servalan had carried off her ploy but Travis simmered with rage at her blatant manipulations. The seeds of dissension she had sown today would severely undermine the Freedom Party's position in future meetings and possibly become the breaking point for other alliances, as well. It did not bode well for anyone's hopes for a new era of peace and cooperation.
Over the next two days, brushfire hostilities were fueled by rumor and innuendo until it felt like whole delegations were on the verge of forgetting their incindiary speeches and denunciations and actually coming to blows. Even her uncle, canny and cool-headed businessman that he was, was not immune. The conflict that nearly broke out between him and Provisional President Samore left her chilled by its cold venomous fury.
The former Federation admiral had been trying to explain how the Fleet would protect the free resumption of trade even with its much reduced numbers. "We'll have to depend on the independent traders and merchant ships to provide as much of their own security as possible. We know most Free Trade ships are adequately armed to drive off solitary raiders or attempted piracy. It's only consolidated fleets like the Amagons which present a real threat. We hope to set up a communication network or convoying system. . ."
The grim faced officer seemed to be trying to unbend, although her uncle had met every offer with a stony faced indifference. That irked Samore to the point he finally erupted from his simmering outrage. "Well, Stannis. . .what exactly does the Enclave want us to do? I've offered every kind of security except a one-to-one escort service and I hardly feel that would be in either the Enclave's or the Federation's best interests."
"To be honest, Fleet Admiral," Stannis sneered openly. "I've damned little use for any of your `so-called' Federation security. It's just an excuse for your ships and flotillas to exercise legalized piracy on Free Trade merchant ships in the name of `inspecting for contraband' or `seizing banned technology'. Or worse yet, murdering and raping, like you did to my brother and his wife fifteen years ago! The Free Trader's Enclave can do without that type of `protection'!"
Samore flushed with rage at Mikail's denunciation and the murmur of agreement that accompanied his charges against the Federation's onetime actions, then retorted savagely, "With the kind of illicit activities your vessels engaged in, running guns and supplies to terrorists like Blake and Avalon you're lucky we didn't seize your whole damned fleet!"
As the low murmur began to swell into louder arguments and disagreements, Mikhail lunged upright, reaching for the Federation officer's throat, prompting a similar savage reaction from the former admiral. Only Travis's swift response as he gripped Mikhail's charging bulk with his cybernetic hand, halted the threatened outbreak of fisticuffs. Planting himself firmly between the two antagonists, he'd hissed at Mikhail, "Will you sit down, First Captain! I'm the bloody-handed brawler here. You're supposed to handle the tact and diplomacy!"
A similar hushed discussion seemed to be occurring in the midst of Samore's entourage, although throughout the uproar Servalan had remained seated, a smug, enigmatic smile on her face. Finally both men subsided reluctantly back in their seats, allowing the arguments and negotiations to be continued by other members of the delegation. But Samore's icy blue gaze was fastened on Travis's face as though he just recognized the man he had sat in judgement on a few months earlier.
The meeting continued with the hostility barely abated, amid the charges and countercharges of old grievances. It appeared likely that Mikhail's high hopes for the Enclave's future would not see fruition. In fact, there seemed to be a growing atmosphere of anger and hostility rather than compromise and cooperation. Blake's Freedom Party had become a focus of dissension and the conference threatened to end with the outbreak of war between the various factions. Any thought of weeding out surviving Andromedans or preventing the Federation from reestablishing its stranglehold over its subject worlds was buried in the animosity and constant squabbling that persisted through the afternoon.
Although the meeting ended without actual bloodshed, Jenna was in a frustrated fury when they returned to their suite. She threw herself down on the chair and ran her fingers through her hair in weary exasperation. "Politics as usual, Travis? These people are so damned eager to cut their own throats, they aren't even waiting for the Federation's able assistance."
Checking the data center for messages, Travis seemed distant and preoccupied. Looking up when he did not make his usual sarcastic response, she saw him take a second gun from their dresser, concealing it inside his tunic. Then he quickly blanked the screen before she could read it.
"What's wrong?" she demanded, starting up.
"Nothing, just some private business that has to be attended to," he answered curtly.
"Where are you going?" she asked in a low whisper, almost afraid to hear the answer.
"Looking for trouble...and a troublemaker." His expression was as coldly ruthless as it had been at their first encounter.
"I'm going with you."
His expression was dark and withdrawn, "I allowed you bury your past with Blake without my interference. Kindly grant me the same privilege."
"To bury your past?"
"To bury Servalan!" His eye gleamed with a savage obsession she had thought long dead and he vanished into the darkness.
The address he had been given did not take him to the uptown district where the Federation delegation had its collection of suites and offices. Instead it led to one of the more exclusive and expensive private clubs where affluent citizens of Kirghiz indulged themselves in decadent and highly illegal vices.
Although the message was signed by acting President Samore, Travis was not surprised when Supreme Commander Servalan opened the door. Her smile was as seductively menacing as ever and she gestured him into the silken opulence of the suite like a black widow spider luring prey into her web.
His boots sank into the plush carpet and his gaze was drawn beyond seductive intimacy of the sitting room to the dark red velvet hangings surrounding a large white satin covered bed. Mingling with the musk of Servalan's perfume was the cloying odor of a particularly potent aphrodisiac incense. But the blatantly seductive atmosphere only set his teeth on edge with loathing. She'd practiced this kind of manipulation all too frequently when he was in Space Command. It was obviously the stage setting for some gambit to bring him under her power once again.
Her silken fingers traced familiar patterns of arousal across his chest as she searched his face for any hint of the anger and obsession she had used to control him in the past. For once Travis's expression was unreadable to her, a new inner self-control and reserve had taken the place of the destructive fury she had once aimed against Blake.
She probed his self-control with a brief barb, "Your honor comes cheaply, Travis. A tumble with his whore and you sell your soul to Blake, the man who humbled you before all of Space Command."
His lip curled in contempt, "You're slipping Servalan. Before Star One, your intelligence agents would have informed you Jenna Stannis and I are part of the Free Traders Enclave."
"Enclave...Freedom Party...LeGrande's Alliance...Teal-Vandor Confederation. What does it matter what they call themselves? They're just scavengers and jackals, too weak and cowardly to stand against the Federation." She paced angrily away from him.
"Maybe so, Supreme Commander, except now they're stronger and braver than you want to admit. After being forced to band together to survive the chaos that followed the Andromedan invasion and disaster at Star One."
"A disaster Blake was ultimately responsible for!" she purred triumphantly, turning her compelling golden eyes in his direction. "Surely The Free Traders and their allies recognize what a dangerous, disruptive element Blake is. His mere presence has nearly caused the breakdown of these negotiations."
"I think you deserve the credit for that coup with the carefully edited holotape you displayed during the opening session." He gripped her hand, halting its teasing explorations, biting off harshly. "Stop playing games, Servalan. What are you really after?"
"Blake's head on a platter would do nicely," she pressed against him, smiling with all her seductive charm. "You settle an old score and everyone benefits - the Free Traders, the Aurons..."
"...and especially the Federation." His lip curled in contempt. "I'm not your under your thumb any longer, killing in cold-blood at your slightest whim. Much as I despise Blake, I'm not about to throw away everything I've gained just to do your dirty work."
"You fool," she hissed. "You can't defy me. Years of conditioning aren't that easily undone by your feeble attempts to escape the past." She held a small control device in the palm of her hand. "You've always been my deadliest weapon against the rebels, despite your stubbornness. You may have fled the Federation but you can never escape me." Pressing the central switch, she stared at him in avid anticipation. When he did not collapse to the floor writhing, she glared at him, outraged.
He laughed at her mockingly, "We found that little toy less than a month after I left Space Command. That's when I realized how you had used it to make me betray everything I once stood for." His mocking expression turned grim.
Dropping the useless control device, she pressed sinuously against him, twining her arms around his neck. "Don't play the righteous innocent with me, Travis. I've known you too long. You were as power-hungry and ambitious as the rest. Doing whatever it took to climb the ladder of command. But after Blake left you maimed and scarred, I was the only one who saw the potential in your deeply buried rage and ferocious will to survive. The only one who had any use for you."
"As a weapon, and nothing more," he spat.
She pressed her burning lips against his, the honeyed sweetness of her mouth underlaid by a taint of corruption. "Surely, you haven't forgotten the pleasures of my company that quickly? Tormenting you until you lost control completely and ripped my dress away as we coupled like animals. . . ." He shivered at the dizzying musk from her body as he recalled the violence of their sexual collisions, which were little more than naked struggles for dominance and self-gratification.
A cruel smile slashed across his mouth as he ran his fingers down the smooth curve of spine exposed by her deep cut gown. With the palm of his hand pressed hard in the small of her back, he ground his hips against hers, jerking her close in a savage kiss. Her fingers clawed across his shoulder blades in the old pattern of pleasure and pain she used so skillfully.
Then slowly he pushed her away, his eye filled with scorn as he laughed, "Sorry to disappoint you, Servalan, but I don't need to play those kind of games any longer."
Striking like an infuriated animal, Seravlan's scarlet nails raked down his neck, drawing blood.
He recoiled and swore at the pain, glaring at her in disgust. "You hellcat!" His fingers went to his neck, feeling the rilling blood and a strange burning sensation as well. "What have you done. . ." His voice choked off as a wave of dizziness came over him and he swayed weakly, to her obvious satisfaction.
"Even if you did have the implant removed, our standard conditioning drug should be as effective as ever, Space Commander!" Her eyes glittered with anticipation. "With you beside me once more, Blake and his outlaw band will finally be brought to justice. And your defection will provide us with much needed intelligence about the Enclave, while serving as a warning about the futility of defying us."
"You're insane," he gasped as his vision greyed in and out. "After the damage at Star One, the Federation can't hope to survive without the Enclave's cooperation."
"With the proper leadership - my leadership - willing to act with the necessary harshness against smugglers and renegades who defy our `Rule of Law', the Federation will manage quite well in the months ahead."
Deftly she removed his holstered weapon then studied him uneasily, wondering why he was still standing, as if he was trying to resist her orders. No, that was impossible, the drug never failed. Never! "Do sit down before you fall down, Travis." She attempted to regain control of the situation. "It will be hours before Carnell can spare the time to begin your reconditioning and we might as well make use of them."
As her fingers trailed down his chest once again, Travis shivered with revulsion. He broke out in a cold sweat as waves of nausea left the taste of bile in the back of his throat. The close, heavily perfumed air only added to his discomfort and Servalan's calculated provocative caresses grated on his nerves, sending shockwaves of pain echoing through his skull. He shoved her viciously away and staggered towards the door.
Thrown off-balance by his unexpected resistance, she sprawled unattractively on the brocade covered divan. "Stop fighting the drug, you pathetic fool. You can't possibly resist. Carnell used it for years to keep you in line."
"Carnell," he gasped weakly, remembering those smooth handsome features from his torturous retraining sessions after Aristo and the Orac debacle. "Never trusted him. Too many loose ends after IMIPAK. Blake's clone and that servant girl couldn't have held on to such a dangerous weapon for long."
As she stared at the weakly swaying figure looming over her, Servalan re-examined the messy, unresolved matter of IMIPAK and Carnell's convenient disappearance in its aftermath. Was it possible Travis wasn't the only one being manipulated by the psychostrategist? Had she fallen victim to those polished, seductive charms as well?
Something would have to be done about the puppeteer and soon, but right now there was still Travis to deal with! For whatever reason, the drug was not having the desired effect. If anything it seemed to be increasing his resistance to her commands rather than making him more susceptible.
She stood up, moving warily towards him as if approaching a wounded animal. "Perhaps you're right, Travis. Perhaps I can no longer trust him. Obviously he lied to me about the drug's effects on you. What else has he lied about?"
She smoothed down her dress, palming the poison-tipped needle she kept concealed on her person at all times. " Why don't you sit down so we can discuss what to do about Carnell."
Studying Travis out of the corner of her eye she thought the drug might have slowed his reactions enough so she would have a chance of catching him off-guard.
Travis was slumped against the door, his knees half-buckled and his normally keen gaze, clouded and confused. He held out his hand to her, whether in appeal or denial was uncertain. As her fingers reached delicately for his, she suddenly sprang like a leopardess upon its prey, the needle upraised to plunge into his jugular.
Whether he was faking his weakness or her sudden attack galvanized long-honed reflexes for survival, he met her in mid-leap with his cybernetic arm upraised. The needle shattered against its plasteel casing and he flung her violently to the floor. As she cowered there, waiting for the blow from his cybernetic arm that would crush her skull, he straddled her body, fumbling for the gun under his tunic as he wiped away the cold sweat that covered his face.
"Devious as ever, Servalan" he rasped. "You may have Maryatt's - and Kasabi's - blood on your hands, but there won't be any more!"
Travis had never looked closer to death or had more murderous expression on his face. He dropped to one knee, thrusting his weapon against her forehead at point blank range as she cringed, knowing she was helpless to stop him.
Closing her eyes as he started to squeeze the trigger . . . she jerked them open a split second later when the weapon did not fire.
His face was filled with revulsion as he staggered to his feet. "No. . . this meeting is too important to risk just for the satisfaction of seeing you dead. And if they traced your death to me, it could cost the Enclave dearly."
He reached behind him to jerk the door open with trembling fingers, pausing only long enough for a warning,"I swore you'd never use me again when I left Space Command, but you might think carefully about who's `using' you." Then he lurched onto Kirghiz's rain-slick streets.
It was almost mid-afternoon when he awoke in a semi-darkened room as Jenna replaced a cool compress on his throbbing head. The dull ache in his middle reminded him he'd spend most of the night before, in the fresher, spewing his guts up. He groaned weakly and tried to sit up, but she pushed him down again.
"Don't move. The medic said whatever Servalan used on you was strong enough to flatten a battalion of marines so you're not to get up until he gives you another dose of the antitoxin."
"There is no antitoxin," he groaned weakly. "It was the standard conditioning drug. She planned to have me reprogrammed then turned loose on Blake again."
"What about the neural implant...?" Jenna questioned as she removed the cloth and dipped in back in the basin of water at his bedside.
"She tried it and when I laughed in her face, moved on to something else. The woman has a one-track mind, at least where Blake is concerned." He opened his eye tentatively, surprised to find the blinding pain in his head had subsided to a dull roar.
There were dark shadows under Jenna's eyes but her anxious expression was beginning to ease, "I don't know why she even bothered. After her little holo display, Blake and the Freedom Party are on the verge of being declared `enemies of the galaxy'. Unless the next session dissolves in all out war first."
"The battle lines are still being drawn?" he grimaced in disgust. "Everyone politely waiting for a formal declaration before plunging their daggers into one another's backs."
Jenna leaned back, trying to massage the tension out of her neck and shoulders. "Brendan reported several delegation heads, LeGrand and Sarkoff in particular, are still working behind the scenes, trying to counter the suspicion and mistrust that has prevailed since Servalan's announcement. But it seems hopeless. Intellectually, the delegations all agree there has to be some form of cooperation if they hope to survive the chaos resulting from the breakdown of Central Control. Only no one wants to take the first step. It's like someone is actively working against us, exaggerating everyone's prejudices and fears."
"Someone just might be." He struggled to prop himself on one elbow. "Servalan said Carnell was here too and I doubt she'd foot the bill for a puppeteer of his expertise merely to recondition a strayed ex-officer, even to guarantee Blake's death."
"Then a puppeteer is deliberately trying to sabotage this meeting?" Jenna's expression was suddenly alert and questioning.
"I'm only reporting what she let slip during our little tete-a-tete. But you know what they say about rats?" Despite his weakness, his mind was regaining much of its clarity.
"What?" Jenna was baffled.
"They always travel in packs." He tried to sit up, but the pounding in his head quickly reasserted itself. Jenna pushed him back down firmly.
"Stay here until the medic returns. I have to get this information to Brendan and my uncle. I'm not sure what, if anything, we can do to counteract the mind-strategies of a skilled puppeteer, but maybe we can cut the strings somehow!" Jenna paused only long enough to grab her weapons and then left their suite without another word.
Travis drifted into a restless, dream-haunted sleep and did not waken again until full dark. This time Jenna was accompanied by a medic who had just straightened up with a hypo containing a vial of his blood.
"I will have this analyzed as you requested, Seran Stannis. But I think Captain Travis must have been affected by the poison more than I first thought. If Supreme Commander Servalan had injected him with the Federation's primary conditioning drug, he would still be there, docilely awaiting her orders."
"Surely Space Command has drugs that allow their officers and troopers to retain some semblance of intellect and initiative, rather than be blindly obedient drones?" Jenna's voice was sharp and demanding.
"I have little knowledge of Federation behavior modification techniques, Seran." The medical officer's voice held a haughty note of distaste. "But I've read about the effects of their drugs on planetary populations. Captain Travis does not show any sign of the mentally dull submissiveness typical of them."
"Thank you, Doctor," she dismissed him, her brows drawn together in serious thought.
After the medical officer departed, she sat beside him again, with a troubled expression on her face. He rolled to his side, propping up on one elbow as he demanded weakly, "What's bothering you now? Didn't Mikhail believe me about Servalan having someone working behind the scenes to stir up trouble?"
Jenna smiled at him ruefully, "No, he's convinced it's the absolute truth. He's passed the word on to other delegations, though it's probably too late." Her fingers traced gently along his pain shadowed face. "It's about that conditioning drug. If she was telling the truth, there's no way you could have resisted it. But what reason would she have to lie?"
"She doesn't need a reason. Her acquaintance with anything resembling the truth is nonexistent."
That answer did not satisfy Jenna, anymore than it did him. He remembered the look on that viper's face. She fully expected the drug to render him incapable of resisting her commands. Only when he seemed to be fighting off its effects had she attempted to kill him.
"Unless someone lied to her. . . about the drug and your susceptibility." Jenna's expression was thoughtful. "But why?"
A chill shuddered through him, threatening to settle in his abused stomach. Ever since the mnemonic cascade, he'd been haunted by unfamiliar faces and disjointed events; memories that Servalan's retraining therapists and even Carnell himself had attempted to erase. Something buried in that past must explain why Servalan's plan had failed. But until they could find it, he was little more than a pawn in someone else's chess game
Observing the tight pinched look around his mouth, Jenna assumed the cause was physical rather than mental. "The medic left a hypo for your headache, if you need it."
Travis turned his attention away from a situation he could do little about for the moment and back to more mundane concerns. "What I need is to get out of this bed and get some solid food under my belt."
He started to swing his legs off the bed and Jenna pushed him back just as determinedly. "Look, after spending last night watching you heave up everything you'd eaten in the past month, let's start off slow. I'll have some broth sent up..."
"I said solid food, woman." He wavered dizzily to his feet, slumping against Jenna for support until he regained his balance. "I'm going to get cleaned up. Unless you're planning to join me in the shower, have a tray waiting when I get out."
Jenna glared at him with her hands on her hips in a mixture of exasperation and amusement but did not accept his invitation to continue the argument.
When they rejoined the Enclave's delegation the following morning, relations were still strained between the various delegations but there was a much more conciliatory atmosphere surrounding the conference. Mikhail gave Jenna a brief nod of approval, before turning back to his conversation with a very intense President Sarkoff.
Brendan elaborated slightly, "After your warning, another telepathic screening for malicious intent was conducted, resulting in several abrupt departures by minor functionaries in some of the more disruptive groups. Since then, there has been considerable headbanging and arm-twisting by a group led by Governor LeGrand, alternately cajoling and browbeating the various delegations, trying to promote mediation rather than confrontation. The Kyrenian chief of battle, from Phrath's homeworld, actually retracted his challenge to the Champion of Teal to `resolve their differences in honorable combat.'"
Remembering the gunnery officer's formidable fangs and claws, Travis arched a speculative brow, "Too bad. I'd have enjoyed seeing a vid of that duel."
"Even legalized trial by combat was forbidden during the negotiations." Brendan's austere features were shadowed with fatigue. "But voluntary withdrawal of the challenge made a big impression on some of the smaller consortiums about the importance of cooperation instead of conflict. I think many of the other delegates are finally beginning to recognize the critical nature of these negotiations." He smiled somewhat ruefully as Mikhail Stannis and Provisional President Samore sat across from one another, exchanging barely civil nods, but an improvement over the vitriolic outbursts earlier.
But Liberator's crew and their supporters - Avalon's rebels, representatives from the settlers on Albion and the farmers on Destiny, and a royal envoy from Prince Ro on Horizon - still remained isolated and ignored during the morning's speeches and negotiations.
When they broke for lunch, Jenna was surprisingly subdued during their meal at the small, outdoor cafe overlooking Kirghiz's noisy market square. Travis's stomach remained somewhat queasy after Servalan's drugs but he feigned genuine appetite for the spicy Byzantian cuisine, hoping to avoid the inevitable. But with Jenna's mood remaining as sour as his stomach, Travis pushed the plate aside with an exasperated growl, "All right, Stannis, what's eating at you?"
She leaned back with a rueful sigh. "What else? Blake, of course. . . and his failure to gain the recognition and acceptance that he expected at this conference."
"I thought you'd told me you'd had your fill of Blake's suicidal commitment to his Cause. Or have you decided a political alliance is better than none at all." The bitterness in his voice did not escape her.
"You needn't worry about Blake attempting to rekindle any sparks of nonexistent passion. That's as dead as mutton," Jenna retorted tartly though her troubled expression returned. "But Blake doesn't handle failure well, especially when he expected to succeed. The debacle at Central Control was what forced him to take the actions that resulted in the near-disaster at Star One."
Travis leaned back in his chair, brooding, recalling his own role in the Central Control fiasco. And Jenna's bold stroke that snatched Blake from his clutches and revealed Servalan's true nature. The memory was bittersweet and it made him realize her fears of Blake's possible reaction to the current situation were genuine.
He attempted to reassure her, confident of his own reading of the one-time rebel leader.
"Blake's a politician, not a soldier. His chief problem has always been he forgets rebellion is finely honed political instrument and needs to be wielded deftly, like a cutting laser, not a bloody bludgeon. This conference may have finally forced him to face the true cost of his ignorance."
"Too bad the Federation has escaped a similar confrontation with the truth," she responded bleakly.
He propped an ankle on one knee, responding with a grudging admiration, "No, you're wrong there. Despite being a stiff-necked old fart, Samore's an officer of the Old School, free of any taint of the High Council's corruption. He'll honor the promises made here and with his firm hand on the reins, Space Command isn't likely to resume their practice of piracy and extortion."
Jenna was still reluctant to admit any Federation official could be trusted. "His word just might be worth the datafax it's printed on, but what about Servalan? She's still Supreme Commander and you know her aspirations are higher. . . much higher."
"He didn't survive as long as he did in Space Command by being stupid, Jenna. I doubt he's totally ignorant of Servalan's plotting or her dealings with the puppeteers."
Although Jenna's expression remained dubious, she shrugged in resignation. "It's not him I'm not worried about, anyway. No matter how suspicious people are of Samore's motives, the nonaligned planets have to deal with him. Either by paying hard cash for the Space Force's protection of their fleets or offering raw materials in exchange for information and technology. The Federation will come away from this meeting with their survival assured."
"But Blake had nothing but idealistic words and a heroic reputation when he arrived. Ever since Servalan's little bombshell sullied that reputation, thwarting his efforts to achieve political recognition or make important alliances, he may feel the only option left is to take some radical action to gain his objectives."
Travis stared at her, somewhat surprised by this sudden suspicion of her onetime allies.
"Blake's not a total fool," he admitted grudgingly. "Why would he do something that would undoubtedly alienate the few friends and allies he has left. . .and gain him nothing of value in the long run?"
"I don't know," Jenna admitted with a bleak look in her eyes."But if any kind of violence disrupts the rest of this conference, Blake will undoubtedly be blamed for it." She stared grimly over the eddying swirls of people and commerce in the market square below.
Despite his own misgivings, he tried to reassure her,
"Maybe there will be a peaceful, boring conclusion to this convocation, in spite of everything."
"And maybe Vila will join an abstinent religious order." was her tense mocking reply.
The blaze of antique crystal chandeliers in Kirghiz's largest formal hall reflected the rich gowns, jeweled finery, military splendor and diplomatic regalia that swirled and eddied below them in the final gathering to celebrate the "successful" conclusion of negotiations. Jenna was still dubious of gains made by Enclave and clan during the last few days of meetings. Especially since they appeared to return to the same paralytically dull round of outrageous demands and insulting counter demands, but Mikhail and Brendan seemed content. In fact, her uncle was almost smug about what was being achieved outside the formal assembly of delegates.
When she had bemoaned the lack of progress, he gave her an enigmatic smile. "The time you spent with Blake and his rebels ruined your appreciation of the subtle art of compromise, girl. Blowing things up isn't a particularly effective tactic for changing people's minds."
She winced at the derisive note in his voice and then demanded, "You mean you finally put aside your grudge with the Federation to cut a deal?"
"The whole delegation agreed economic conditions were ideal for us to benefit from a Federation security contract right now." His expression was bland despite Jenna's disbelief.
"So we just forget piracy, hijacking, rape and murder, like it never happened?" Though she'd gotten her fill of vengeance against the Federation while still aboard the Liberator, Mikhail's anger and mistrust for past crimes had still lingered, at least where Travis was concerned.
"It happened," he responded warily."And despite the contract, we won't ever let them catch us offguard again. But we can't let old grievances blind us to a chance to build a safer, stronger, richer future for our people."
"In other words," she remarked sarcastically. "You got a choice piece of the action for our clan?"
"Don't turn up your nose at profit, girl, or you and your bondmate will find a hard life on the Rim, living on honor and secondhand idealism."
Abruptly Jenna realized Blake's suspicion of the Federation was still influencing her, despite her fierce determination to resist his sway. Damn that man! Was there no end to his disruption of her rational, businesslike thought processes?
That evening as they'd prepared for this last formal social gathering, Travis had been testy, glaring at the rich gems and ornate piping that adorned the midnight blue of his formal wear in Stannis colors. "How much longer do we have to eat too-rich, overspiced food, drink too much wine and socialize with people who'd like to see us dead?"
"Stomach still bothering you?" she asked solicitously. After his noncommital shrug, she continued in a light teasing tone, "I thought you were used to this kind of lavish diplomatic soiree from your years in Space Command?"
He responded sourly. "Not being one of Servalan's more `ornamental' officers usually spared me the worst of it. But I would have thought the Free Traders had little use for such extravagant nonsense."
She glanced at her reflection, somewhat appalled by hairdresser's handiwork of elaborate curls dangling in front of her ears and flowing down her back. "It's being hosted by the Prince Regent and the treaty port. A formal celebration of `the establishment of a new era of peace and cooperation among intelligent beings of the galaxy'."
Travis surveyed her appreciatively: from the deep cut back that exposed her slender waist, to the sweeping skirt that hid what he privately considered her best feature, the long lovely legs that had been locked passionately around his waist earlier that afternoon.
With a dry smile, he responded "I'll wager its real purpose is give every pennyante victual merchant and wine vendor who could bribe their way on to the `elite list of caterers' one last chance to grab their share of the megacredits this diplomatic circus was supposed to generate for Byzantia."
Jenna glanced at him obliquely, somewhat surprised at his sharp insight into Byzantia's motivations for hosting this potentially explosive meeting.
"At least the convocation ended without bloodshed," she shrugged.
"With Blake and his rabble actually managing to gain some concessions from the Federation," Travis's expression was ambivalent but Jenna's reply was grim.
"If you consider a conditional pardon, based on continuing restraint from 'seditious and terroristic activities' a concession. I doubt Blake was truly satisfied with such minor gains." She continued bitterly. "No doubt he Federation will soon be under assault again by Blake's rebels while Servalan maneuvers the High Council to fulfill her ambition. It's only a matter of time until another bloody round of reprisals and oppression are `necessary' to restore order."
Travis met her gaze bleakly, as they recalled far too many quotes about the fate of those who refused to learn from history or their own mistakes. "There's nothing we can do, Jenna, except try to keep the Enclave out of it when everything goes to hell again."
At the edge of the laughing and drinking crowd, her dark thoughts seemed to be the only note of gloom in the overall carnival atmosphere of merriment and celebration. No, she caught a glimpse of other familiar faces, solemn or grim or merely wistful among the party-goers. She glanced around for Travis who usually was as close as her shadow but he was momentarily elsewhere, so she took advantage of his absence to approach an old friend, standing alone and thoughtful.
"Hello Cally," she greeted tentatively, uncertain of the telepath's reaction.
"You're looking well, Jenna," was the soft-spoken reply. "Returning home must agree with you."
"There have been some difficulties fitting in," she admitted honestly, noting the shadows in Cally's eyes. "But. . . yes, going back to the Free Traders was the right decision."
"I hoped I might also return home someday. But recent events have made me even more of an outcast than ever," she replied sadly.
"I'm sorry." Jenna felt a sudden pity for the Auron guerilla. Trying to move onto safer ground, she blurted, "I wanted to thank you for the medical supplies you gave me after Star One. They saved Travis's life."
"It was a small repayment for the risks you took to prevent us from doing irreparable harm at Star One." Cally's smile was still pained. "He truly must be a changed man if he can be in the same room with Blake and not be at his throat."
"We've both changed, Cally."
Jenna glanced around, catching glimpses of the other members of the Liberator's crew in the crowd. Dayna's dark exotic beauty at the center of a crowd of admirers. Avon and her uncle involved in a very intent conversation. Vila hovering at the bar as usual, probably badgering its tender for something more potent than the usual carefully diluted mixed drinks.
As she groped for some way to commiserate with Cally's isolation, Blake strode over and after murmuring a brief apology, led Jenna aside to a quiet corner where their conversation was less likely to be overheard, "Have you reconsidered my offer to rejoin the Liberator's crew?"
She frowned at his persistence, countering with a question of her own. "Why? You hardly need two pilots if you accept the Federation's offer of amnesty."
"Perhaps not," His expression was fervent. "Even though the catastrophe at Star One may have caused people to question my methods, the Federation still maintains its stranglehold over too many planets. I can't let their tyranny go unchallenged. . ." His voice trailed off uncertainly, "But I may be the only one willing to continue the fight. Cally was dubious about some of my actions even before Star One and Avon is actively negotiating with your uncle to find his `bolthole'."
"Orac will undoubtedly be part of my uncle's price for the security Avon wants," she informed him. "What can you do without his data on Federation tactics and operations?"
Blake bit off harsh bark of distressed laughter, "Damned little, I need Orac's computer links too much. But Avon refuses to remain aboard the Liberator if I continue battling the Federation. Yet what's the use of having the only computer in the galaxy able to tap into Federation communications, if we don't use that information against them?"
"I'm sure Avon can give you any number of profitable applications for his knowledge," she answered coolly, trying to move away.
He gripped her arms desperately, "Jenna, surely you don't believe the Federation will keep the promises they've made here. It's a plot to weaken our resolve and drive a wedge between the Resistance and the nonaligned planets. You have to help me convince them!"
"I'm sorry, Blake," she answered in a low sympathetic whisper, "I never was much of a rebel to begin with even when I believed in you. Now, I don't even have that excuse anymore."
Cally watched uneasily as Blake drew Jenna aside, knowing he was making a last-ditch attempt to convince her to rejoin them. Although she would have gladly welcomed the other woman's return, she knew his efforts were futile. Jenna had changed too much and though her bond with Travis was the least of those changes, it was the one that wounded Blake the deepest.
She felt a sudden edgy tension off to one side and turned in that direction, every sense alert. Damn! It was Travis, striding towards her, probably looking for Jenna. Despite her unease, she stood her ground defiantly. As he approached, the ex-Federation officer also seemed ill-at-ease and halted more than an arms' length away, facing her aloof gaze. Much to her surprise, the first words out of his mouth was an awkward expression of gratitude.
"I know you were directly responsible for Jenna saving my life after Star One."
She dropped her eyes, then glanced at him sidelong, "She's already thanked me. . ."
He continued bluntly, "Undoubtedly you did it more for her sake than mine." His probing gaze lapsed into a distant troubled expression. "You don't owe me any answers but. . . considering Centero, why?"
Cally went suddenly pale at the memories his words evoked. The drugs. The mental disorientation. The psychic violation. His harsh-voiced, relentless questioning and her telepathic awareness of his presence - all vicious, jagged edges, cold, dark and deadly as blued steel.
She swayed at the nauseating intensity of her recollection and he reached out to steady her, then as if recognizing her likely abhorrence of his touch, quickly drew his hand back.
But even that brief contact left her with a startling insight into the new emotions resonating within him. He still possessed a cold deadly edge. Years of struggling to survive in Space Command had burned away everything soft or weak. But the darkness that once shrouded his soul was no longer quite so deep. Instead, there was a tiny glimmer of brightness - hope, trust, loyalty - where only bitter hatred had existed before.
She whispered in surprise, "You despised Blake. Yet, you took no pleasure in what you did on Centero?"
His jaw tightened, an expression of disgust crossing his features briefly. "I was a soldier, not an interrogator. If I hadn't been so totally obsessed with Blake's destruction. . . ."
Cally shuddered, still sensing the tattered remnants of a cold rage echoing in his thoughts. Despite Jenna's assurances, she could tell Travis barely tolerated Blake, his cause or his methods. She probed further, ignoring his clenched fists, as he looked for a polite way to withdraw.
"Yet you gave up your obsession with Blake, or at least enough to earn Jenna's trust."
His expression was haunted. "After Central Control, I finally realized how much that obsession had cost me - honor, self-respect, even my own humanity. Especially after Servalan cravenly allowed Blake to escape in exchange for her own life." Despite his disgruntled tone, Cally was sure there was a gleam of admiration in his eye. "Jenna's bold stroke capturing the Supreme Commander in the heart of one of the most securely guarded installations on Earth showed more brass than the whole damned senior echelon."
Cally's smile was gently mocking. "Jenna never lacked for sheer brazen audacity. Teaming up with you proves that beyond any shadow of a doubt."
Uncertain whether to take her remark as a compliment or an insult, he glanced furtively around hoping to find Jenna before he got in any deeper.
A sparkling outline that resembled Liberator's white transport blip shimmered about a yard away from him. A split second later it materialized into a man in ragged combatwear carrying a large gun of a type Travis did not recognize.
"What the hell. . ." he blurted, reaching for his concealed weapon.
Cally already had her blaster out, pointed at the man, until it glowed red hot and she barely suppressed a scream as it seared her fingers before clattering to the floor. Travis tossed his own smoldering minidisrupter hastily aside, then lunged at the intruder, hoping to wrest his weapon away.
But the man was too quick, smashing its metal barrel against Travis's forehead with bruising force as he snarled a savage warning. "Don't try it, hero. I've got three hundred steel-jacketed slugs in this drum but Brett gave orders not to waste them. Now get to your feet and move over with the others!"
Climbing unsteadily to his feet with Cally's awkward help, he noted similar violent confrontations occuring in a dozen other areas around the ballroom. Some bodyguards did not recognize the ancient-style weapons. Others were just recklessly persistent until their captors demonstrated the lethal effects of their primitive projectile-style weaponry on several hapless prisoners. Within seconds, over a dozen bloodied bodies lay crumpled on the highly polished marble floors as panic-stricken screams were quickly silenced.
Travis glared at the Auron, muttering angrily under his breath, "They teleported in. That's Blake's SOP. How did he manage to sneak this many men past Byzantian Security or did he just hire local docksweepings to terrorize the conference into going along with him?"
Cally's face was pale with shock but she retorted angrily, "Blake would never..."
A sharp shove from their captor nearly knocked them off their feet, silencing her. Not from fear but in shocked dismay at what she saw as they were herded with other captives toward a central holding area around a makeshift podium.
Blake and Jenna stood there, beside the young man giving orders, watching coolly as their fellow delegates were brutally murdered or beaten into submission. Cally sensed the bitterness boiling up in Travis as he whispered caustically. "It appears Blake still finds bloody-handed terrorism his preferred method of persuasion."
Their captor smashed his weapon into the back of Travis's head, sending him sprawling, half-stunned, at Jenna's feet. As she stared at down at her bondmate, her face an emotionless mask, Cally flinched away from the white hot rage that surged through Travis. Half-stunned she reached for Blake's mind, seeking some reason for this uncharacteristic behavior. Nothing answered her mental probe except a painful piercing note.
Stumbling to one side, she glanced around furtively for others of Liberator's crew . . . but they were nowhere to be seen. As their captor battered Travis into submission before depositing him with the other prisoners, Cally slipped into the crowd, doing her best to blend in among the terrified delegates and envoys.
Abruptly the leader stepped up to an improvised podium, addressing the crowd in a loud clear voice that needed no amplification.
"As everyone carrying a weapon now realizes they no longer work. This is because we've activated a magnetic inductance field that neutralizes every energy weapon and comm system within this building. Your weapons and communicators are useless, leaving all of you at our mercy."
"Who are you? Raiders? Pirates?" angry voices erupted from the terrified crowd. "What do you want?"
The leader, a smooth self-possessed young man, greyhound lean with a shock of unruly blonde hair gave a confident laugh. "My name is Brett and I am the leader of this band of freedom fighters, who are resolved to see justice done!"
Shocked whispers murmured through the crowd. "Freedom fighters?!"
"Then Blake must be responsible for this atrocity." The crowd's anger surged. "What does he want?"
Avalon pushed angrily to the front, railing against Blake's accusers. "You can't just take the word of any bandit, calling himself a rebel. This is likely another plot by the Federation to discredit Blake. It wouldn't be the first time."
"But the teleport . . ."
"There's Blake standing right beside their leader. And Jenna Stannis, his pilot!"
The angry muttering from the crowd did not deter the resolute rebel leader. "Then let Blake speak for himself," she demanded. "If he's really in charge here, I want to hear what he hopes to gain by this?"
A burst of gunfire at Avalon's feet cracked the floor, showering her with sharp pieces of marble and dust.
"Hold your tongue, woman." Brett ordered harshly."You're one of the old cadres; too cowardly to seize power, even after Blake practically gutted the Federation for you with his attack on Star One. If you'd acted with the necessary force, the galaxy would be at Blake's feet now, instead of him being forced to beg for recognition and help from minor league warlords and petty politicians."
Avalon blanched at that outburst, staring in dismay at Blake and Jenna, who stood impassive at Brett's side as if in total accord with his vitriolic words and violent actions.
"What do you want?" asked Governor LeGrande, tight-lipped.
"Only what's rightfully due us," Brett replied smoothly. "Unconditional amnesty for Blake and his followers for starters. Then recognition of the Freedom Party as a legitimate political entity, with a seat on the Federation High Council for Blake himself. Finally we expect compensation from the various planetary alliances -- say a hundred million credits total -- to repay our noble sacrifices in freeing them from Federation power."
"And if we don't agree to these outrageous demands?" LeGrande's voice was strained.
"We execute everyone who stands in our way," Brett purred maliciously, "Beginning with him!" He gestured and Provisional President Samore was shoved from the middle of group of prisoners. His hands were tightly bound behind his back but he still maintained his unshakeable air of authority and some of Brett's men actually flinched at the cold, appraising glare he turned in their direction.
While the so-called rebel continued his tirade, Cally slipped furtively through the shaken crowd, searching for other members of the Liberator's crew. She was certain Blake was not involved in this blood-stained operation. But how could she prove it, especially with him standing, silent and unprotesting, at Brett's side? With their bracelets disabled they had no way to contact Tarrant and there were too many unarmed hostages to attempt overpowering their captors to take their weapons.
From behind a decorated screen that concealed one of several secluded niches designed for amorous trysts, a hand reached out covering her mouth as she was pulled inside. She resisted her impulse to break the arm attached long enough for Vila to hurriedly shush her before peering around the screen again.
Crouched in a corner as he wielded one of Vila's lockpicks, Avon labored intensely over his teleport bracelet. Sweat trickled down his forehead from his efforts override the magnetic field affecting their communicators, but his voice was deadly calm. "Do you have any type of non-energy weapon at all? A dagger, or sling, or even a brooch pin?"
She shook her head ruefully,"Dayna is the specialist at concealing odd weaponry about her person."
"Hopefully, Blake hasn't managed to reform her, yet. If Vila can spot her, we'll have half a chance of getting out of this with a whole skin." A spark burned hot under his probe then Avon pressed the transmit signal of the hastily recircuited bracelet. "Liberator. . ."
There was an interminable pause and he tried again, "Come in, Tarrant! Bring us up now! A magnetic inductance field has disabled our weapons and we're caught in the middle of some self-proclaimed rebel's power grab!"
The static-filled silence continued until Tarrant finally answered, strained and breathless."I'm afraid that's impossible, Avon. We're under attack by a Federation flotilla and I'm doing my best to keep Liberator from getting blown into space debris."
"Have Orac operate the teleport." Avon demanded savagely, knowing the longer he spent arguing with the pilot, the greater their risk of being discovered.
"He's linked with Zen right now, attempting to override their battle computers. Sorry, Avon, but you'll just have to deal with whatever's happening down there yourself."
Avon glared at teleport bracelet then hissed a final order. "Alert the Port Master, you young fool. Have him call out the militia . . .or at least activate the ground defenses. Maybe that will divert your attackers." There was a long burst of static and then the transmission went dead.
Cally stared in alarm at Avon, feeling the jaws of a trap closing about them. "If Liberator is damaged or destroyed, we're at the mercy of whoever's behind this plot."
"A quality Supreme Commander Servalan has little use for, I would imagine" Avon gritted
"Why are you so certain she's responsible?" Cally asked.
"Discrediting Blake and his movement, intimidating the neutral planets and capturing the Liberator, all in a single brilliant strike! Who else would think of planting Blake and Jenna in the middle of those trigger-happy goons, leaving no doubt that he is the instigator of this atrocity?"
Cally's expression was pinched and white-lipped. "When I tried to reach Blake earler. . . there was a high-pitched tone filling his mind, drowning out everything else."
Avon replied grimly, "Federation interrogators often use tonal triggers to condition prisoners. . .and Blake has been in their hands more than once." He questioned Cally further. "What about Jenna? Were you able to reach her thoughts?"
The telepath hesitated, "Jenna's mind is closed to me. . . I could not touch her thoughts."
Avon finished reassembling his bracelet, handing Vila his tools as the nervous lockpick reported back, "Still no sign of Dayna, but those goons have started sweeping the room, looking for stragglers. Let's get out of here. With so many big fish in their net, they won't notice if two or three small fry make a break for it."
"Probably the most intelligent suggestion you've ever made, Vila." Avon answered drily. "Unfortunately, I don't think they'll allow us that option. Our connection with Blake is too well known. Once we are spotted, we're likely to be ripped to pieces unless we join the `rebels' as Blake's loyal followers. I doubt Brett will fall for that fiction, but with any luck, he'll be too busy negotiating his demands to do more than secure us with the rest of his hostages."
"But we'll still be prisoners," Vila whined.
"So we will," Avon's catlike smile reassured his companions. "But not for long."
A short time later, much to Brett's chagrin, several of Liberator's crew was herded over. Avon was contemptuous as ever while Vila cowered nervously, muttering under his breath about "too many trigger-happy goons" for his peace of mind. The Auron simply radiated an icy, implacable calm.
Brett stared at them shrewdly for a moment. With Blake and Stannis under his control, these others weren't essential to the plan, but he needed to maintain the pretense of a rebel operation just a little while longer while his men finished placing the explosives. Besides, they just might prove useful in gaining access to the Liberator. He gestured for them to be secured with the rest of the hostages.
Which suited Avon's plans perfectly. In less than five seconds, Vila had released their bonds, allowing them to prowl stealthily among the select group of prisoners Brett kept isolated from the rest. He was not surprised to find Supreme Commander Servalan among them, where she could alert her troops to any possible troublemakers and still maintain the fiction that she was not involved in this plot.
Lunging so swiftly he took the guards by surprise, Avon clutched Servalan's delicate neck in a viselike grip, his hand placed to crush her larynx with a minimum of effort. Brett scurried over, trailed by his lieutenants, as Avon turned his deadliest smile in their direction.
His gaze raked across the so-called rebel's military bearing and the disciplined rank-and-file who stood guard over the frightened and angry group of delegates, then he purred a silken-voiced threat, "Call off your dogs, Brett. Just let me and my friends leave with our hostage and you and Blake can divide the rest of the galaxy between you."
Brett's eyes darted nervously to the struggling Servalan as he tried to maintain his fiction of a rebel-led scheme, "Pick someone else, Avon. We need her to negotiate our demands with the Federation."
Avon's eyes glittered as he noted the young fool's agitation at seeing his mistress manhandled. "With Samore in your hands, she's nothing more than the poisonous icing on the cake. An exquisitely vile serpent who's neck we'd all enjoy seeing broken." His grip tightened perceptibly, leaving Servalan gasping for air.
Certain he was dealing with a madman, Brett gestured sharply and one of his guards placed his gun to Blake's forehead, "Let her go, Avon, or we'll blow his head off."
A stunned silence descended on the crowd at this sudden about-face by the terrorists.
Avon hesitated, staring intently at Cally's glazed expression, knowing she was mentally linked with Blake right now, trying to break through his conditioning. His death would undoubtedly be fatal for her as well. With a malicious grin, he loosened his grip enough so Servalan could push angrily away. "Showing your true colors after all, Space Commander?"
Servalan divided her furious glares between her erstwhile captor and the hapless Brett, who'd just exposed her part in the scheme by his careless stupidity.
"You pathetic fool," she hissed. "You should have made sure Blake's crew were restrained and under close guard."
"I thought they were, Supreme Commander," he protested, but her daggerlike stare silenced him.
Smoothing her rumpled dress with deliberate calm, she stalked over to Avon to gloat briefly before implementing the final action that would put an end to Blake's discontent forever.
"Very clever, Avon. I always knew you were too smart to follow Blake for long. Too bad you weren't smart enough to get out in time."
She turned her attention back to Brett. "Make sure the explosives are set so the entire building collapses. There must be no survivors to contradict the evidence that Blake and his sympathizers were responsible for this crime. And move quickly before your men lose control and this mob decides they've got nothing to lose by attacking you."
Brett departed to carry out her orders, leaving Servalan with two armed men to guard Blake's crew and the rest of the hostages. The Supreme Commander could not resist the urge to taunt Avon with her imminent victory, stroking his face and shoulders provocatively as she prowled around him. "It's really a shame that you have to die with the rest of these fools, Avon. But this apparent self-immolation by Blake's followers will root out the last vestiges of sympathy for his cause. And it would be very difficult to explain your survival."
"What about you, Servalan?" he questioned in a mocking tone. "How do you intend to explain your escape from this this bloodbath?"
She waved her hand in airy dismissal. "Unfortunately, Supreme Commander Servalan will perish heroically with the rest of the Federation delegation in the explosion. But I already anticipated finding myself out of favor with the current administration and have another identity prepared. A minor bureaucrat in charge of a potentially powerful Commission. One Sleer by name. Commissioner Sleer will soon be moving up in the world thanks to Blake's fortuitous removal of most of the idiots standing in her way."
Still struggling vainly to break through Blake's conditioning, Cally ground her teeth in frustration. Brett had called Avon's bluff and now Servalan's bloodthirsty coterie of troopers were about to murder everyone in the room, unless she could create a diversion. There had to be some way to distract them long enough for Avon and the others to arm themselves and at least have a chance to fight back.
As she grappled with Blake's mind, she spied Travis, battered and bruised, with blood trickling from his forehead and the corner of his mouth. Even though he crouched there, seemingly dazed, Cally sensed his feral awareness; poised, violent, waiting for a chance to strike. All he needed was a shove in the right direction. . . preferably away from Jenna, whose seeming betrayal was the source of his seething fury.
But there was no more time!
Brett had just returned and she had to act now if she hoped to prevent a massacre. Hurriedly she planted a temporary delusion in Travis's wavering consciousness before hammering a final desperate blow against Blake's conditioned mind.
"The final charges are set, Supreme Commander. Once you are safely away, they will be detonated."
Servalan turned her venomous smile on Avon and then held out her hand for Brett's weapon. He hesitated, advising her tensely,
"Supreme Commander, further executions are not advisable. Although the crowd was intimidated by the initial violence, they are becoming agitated. Any more deaths may cause them to panic and attack the guards, despite their weapons."
"Don't worry, Brett. There's just one loose end I want to be sure of," She aimed the heavy projectile weapon at Samore. "Your spineless response to these rebels and other outlaw scum would have resulted in the ultimate downfall of the Federation. Dealing with such rabble requires a strong hand and generous application of force. I intend to be that strong, forceful hand."
Despite the murderous look in her eyes and the gun pointed at his chest, Samore remarked with cool contempt, "I should have listened to Kasabi's warnings about you fifteen years ago. Her politics may have been suspect but she was always an excellent judge of character. Though she underestimated the depths of your betrayal."
Servalan's smile twisted into a venomous snarl and she stepped back so his blood would not splatter her gown. As she prepared to fire, Blake clutched his head and screamed hoarsely, writhing in agony. The guards froze, momentarily distracted, and Avon seized the opportunity to wrest away a weapon. At the same time, Vila made a terrorized pounce at Servalan, hoping she would be easier to subdue than her overmuscular guards.
Prodded by Cally's mental tinkering, Travis lunged towards one of the guards who he now thought was Blake, grappling with the one who had just clubbed Avon with the butt of his weapon. They crashed to the marble floor with Travis on top, pummeling his foe unmercifully until the guard dropped his weapon and it spun out of reach. Travis ignored the gun, determined to repay this illusion of Blake for his long years of frustrated pursuit by throttling the rebel with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, Vila was discovering, to his dismay, that despite Servalan's polished elegance she fought like a panther, jamming her spike heels into his shins as she clawed at his face. He clung with terrified tenacity to her weapon, knowing any relaxation of his grip would likely result in his painful demise. But Servalan managed to claw at the trigger and the gun bucked in their hands, spitting out a random burst of fire.
Vila froze in dismay, certain the shells had ripped a lethal path through his pudgy middle and Servalan quickly seized her advantage, wresting the gun from his nerveless grip, her aim wavering between the cringing thief and her original target, the still securely bound Samore. But before the Supreme Commander could fire, there was a sharp hissing sound and she stared in dull horror at a crossbow bolt buried in her shoulder.
"No" she gasped hoarsely, as the gun slipped from her fingers and she crumpled to the floor. From the middle of an agitated crowd of delegates, Dayna calmly drew another bolt from the quiver strapped to her thigh and recocked her miniature crossbow, taking aim at another disguised Federation trooper..
Cally had managed to dive past Vila and retrieve Servalan's weapon, though she was still lightheaded from her mental exertions to break Blake's conditioning. The rebel leader could only stare blearily as Avon grappled with Servalan's guard, until Cally stunned the trooper with a sharp blow to the back of his head.
Avon lurched to his feet, wiping blood from his split lip as he grabbed Cally's weapon and waved her to Blake's side. Brett's men had begun firing into the crowd in a last-ditch effort to regain control of the deteriorating situation. Catching sight of the ambitious young officer, Avon dragged Servalan to her feet, jamming his gun under her chin as he snarled, "Hold it right there, Brett. Drop your weapons and tell the rest of your men to do the same."
Brett's eyes were granite hard, "We'll kill every one of the hostages if you don't surr..."
The rest of Brett's threat was interrupted by a loud crash at the front of the hall. The doors slammed inwards and a company of Byzantia's militia forces, with blackclad Federation shock troops at the fore, charged in. They'd been alerted about the magnetic field by Tarrant's warning to the Port Master and armed themselves with Byzantia's plentiful riot control tranquilizer dart guns as well as Federation supplied canisters of sona gas.
Within fifteen seconds the anesthetic gas filled the room, dropping large numbers of the delegates and their captors to the marble floors. The well-trained riot squads used their dart guns against any armed resistors who were still standing, before they could grab hostages to cover an escape. The Federation troops fanned out in businesslike fashion to forestall further bloodshed.
Still affected by Cally's mental illusion, Travis continued trying to beat Blake--or the man he thought was Blake-- into a bloody pulp. The savagery of that attack left his adversary cowering and helpless. . . until a burst of weapons' fire shattered that mindless rage. Travis glanced up and saw Jenna, arms folded across her blood-stained midsection, collapsing in a graceless heap.
Anguish ripped through him with the force of a plasma bolt, draining his berserk strength like blood gushing from a mortal wound. No longer blinded by rage, he suddenly realized it wasn't Blake he'd been grappling with, but one of Brett's renegades! Momentarily disoriented, he dropped his guard and the man he'd been mauling threw a desperate, last-ditch punch that tumbled Travis backward. Snatching up the fallen weapon, his foe aimed it at Travis pointblank, his finger tightening spasmodically on the trigger. . .until a bloody signature stitched across the so-called "rebel's" chest and dropped him in his tracks.
Barely conscious, Travis gaped up at the Federation trooper who had just saved his life before managing to croak a raspy-voiced thanks.
The cultured tones that issued from the ranker's blank visor were so incongruous, Travis wondered if he hadn't imagined it. Yet that soft-spoken "My pleasure," teased at the back of his memory, sending shivers of apprehension down his spine. He stared in bemusement, but the trooper did not speak again as he helped Travis to his feet.
The assault force had quickly split up. One group taking charge of disarming and questioning the captured terrorists and the other triaging dead and injured delegates and setting up the treatment area. As the Section Leader tried to sort out the details of who was actually to blame for the attack, Servalan, still clutching her bloody, arrow-pierced shoulder, took steps to cover up her role in the operation, gasping orders to an approaching squad.
"Kill them. . . now! " she rasped hoarsely, gesturing to the Liberator's armed crew. "They're rebels, behind this plot, and that's Blake, their leader." She gestured with her chin toward the figure slumped on the floor, his head buried in his hands, barely reacting to the hectic activity around him.
But Samore, whose bonds had just been cut, stalked over to the besieged group, ordering in a thunderclap voice "Hold your fire! Blake is innocent. Servalan is the one responsible for this attempted coup. Seize her and place her under arrest!"
Slumped weakly against his rescuer's shoulder, Travis heard Samore's words though he was still too numb with shock for them to register. The old man grimaced dourly at the assault force leader then growled out his orders.
The Section Leader snapped off a sharp salute, turned a parade ground pivot and trotted over to Travis's savior, snapping out orders as he gestured sharply in Servalan's direction. "Grab a med kit then get an armed detail down here. . .doubletime. Old Starkiller wants HER treated and under tight security aboard the Exeter within the hour."
The trooper who'd just saved Travis's life saluted crisply before hurrying away.
The Section Leader pulled off his helmet and revealed the round-faced, pug-nosed features of Trooper Parr, somehow, against all odds, elevated to his current lofty rank.
Parr placed a steadying hand on Travis's shoulder, still wearing the same feckless grin he'd had the last time they'd crossed paths - when Travis was confined to a cell in Space Command HQ, awaiting Servalan's displeasure.
"Bit of a surprise finding you here, sir, considering the pickle you was in last time."
Travis gaped down at Parr, but the Section Leader rattled on, oblivious. "But I knew you'd land on your feet, like a cat. Got more lives than a bloody cat, that's for sure."
Travis grunted tersely, his head threatening to explode. Then reaction set in and his knees almost buckled as the bruises and multiple contusions acquired during his beating and subsequent battle with one of Servalan's "rebel" terrorists made themselves felt with a vengeance.
Parr's fingers brushed the back of his head. "Nasty lookin' lump you got back there. Better get you over to triage so the medics can have a look at it."
Gathering his scattered wits, Travis queried the Section Leader, hoping for the some rational explanation about who was really responsible for this operation. "What did Samore mean `Blake is innocent'? I know Servalan was behind it. . . but Blake. . .and his crew. . .I saw them with her. They were mixed up in this, too, weren't they?" He tried to regain the burning rage that had filled him earlier, but in its place was only emptiness. . .and the taste of ashes.
Parr shrugged nonchalantly, "Dunno about that, Commander. They give the orders and I just carry them out. Fleet Warden says 'Blake's innocent' then he's pure as the driven snow far as I'm concerned. 'Sides, if it weren't for that pilot o' his-- an Academy hotshot, I hear--warnin' us, we'd ha' been caught with our pants down, while Servalan blew us all to bloody bits."
Parr glanced around guiltily as though feeling Samore's basilisk glare on the back of his neck, then hurried Travis along. "Got to get humping, sir. The Old Man threatened to have my hide for a bootrag if I didn't finish this mop-up in an hour or less."
Even after the surgeon dismissed him as "walking wounded", Travis haunted the triage area, searching for Jenna and yet fearful of finding her. He knew only too well the damage Servalan's weapon could have done, though he gladly would have murdered her himself when he thought she'd chosen Blake's side once again.
Why had he lost control like that? The bonding contract had been a business proposition, nothing more. The bargain was fulfilled once she'd reclaimed her ships. Nothing bound them any longer. Was that why he felt like he was standing at the edge of a precipice, with the ground crumbling beneath his feet? Jenna had drawn him back from that abyss once, supposedly for her own selfish reasons. What kind of future did he have, now she no longer needed him?
He found her on a gurney in the hallway with Cally at her side, checking the medic's hurried patch job to see if the bleeding had stopped yet.
The Auron glanced up, taking in his haggard expression as she offered gently, "It's not as bad as it looks. The bullet deflected off a rib, gouging along her abdominal muscles but missing organs and major blood vessels. Fortunately, the drug the terrorists used on her reduced the shock of the injury."
"Drugged? So that's why she didn't react when they were using me for a punching bag? I thought Blake had convinced her to rejoin his foolhardy crusade."
Cally retorted tartly. "Neither of them were willing participants in Servalan's attempted coup. Besides Jenna had already made it quite clear to Blake that any feelings she had for him were long dead. She chose you as her bondmate, Travis. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Travis gazed at Jenna as she lay there, pale and helpless, so unlike the brash, outspoken smuggler who had offered him a second chance. He reached out hesitantly to touch her face then recoiled, answering in a harsh whisper, "It used to mean I was the toughest bastard in fifty parsecs. . . but I don't think that's true any longer."
He turned away, still afraid to examine his feelings too closely.
Striding back into the main ballroom, suddenly he overhead a heated exchange of words. Blake and his crew were quarreling loudly with Provisional President Samore about whose justice ex-Supreme Commander Servalan would have to face.
"...crimes extend beyond the boundaries of the Federation." Blake was being stubborn again. "Ask the Free Traders or inhabitants of Albion..."
"If I'd known you were going to this difficult, President Samore," Dayna spat, "I would have let Servalan shoot you and then put my bolt through her throat. That would have settled any jurisdictional disputes!"
Samore's military bearing was evident as his voice cracked like a whip, "Treason and attempted assassination automatically mandate a death sentence. What sterner penalty could she expect in your courts?"
"Let's just say we don't exactly trust Space Command when it comes to sentencing their own." Avon drawled sarcastically. "There seems to be a slight breakdown between verdict and execution." He arched one eyebrow as Travis approached.
Samore drew himself up stiffly, red-faced and irate, "Commander Travis's escape occurred during your unprovoked attack and wasn't due to any failure of security on our part."
Avon shrugged negligently, "Well, we all make mistakes, but you can hardly blame us for our suspicions since Space Command troops were involved in this plot."
"Not regulars," Travis countered bitterly, as he knelt and ripped open the shirt of one of the `terrorist' corpses still scattered randomly through the hall. The reddened laser brand of Servalan's personal guard was starkly revealed against the pale skin. "Only those loyal to her." He bared the similar brand on his own shoulder, "Her specially conditioned elite guard."
Blake glared darkly at Travis, damned by his own admission as the worst kind of Federation killer. What had driven Jenna to choose him as her bondmate? There was nothing he could do about it for the moment - but someday...someday...
He bit off sharply, "Even if we believe that contrived bit of nonsense, why would you want to see Servalan tried by the Federation for her crimes. You have no love for either of them."
Travis smiled, little more than a feral showing of his teeth. "Federation justice, Blake. Absolutely fair, impartial justice is what she'll receive at Samore's hands. But you. . . you're given to noble impulses of mercy and compassion. I'd sooner see Servalan face Samore's justice than yours."
Blake subsided, realizing he had little choice in the matter. Even if he had regained his credibility now that Servalan's plot was revealed, Byzantian security forces were no match for trained Federation troops. When Samore's troops arrived to escort Servalan to his flag ship, there was little he could do but take it in good grace.
Even with a bloody bandage wrapped around one shoulder and her immaculate white gown ripped and stained, Servalan was still arrogantly beautiful. She glowered at Samore as she denounced him shrilly. "You weak-willed fool. By submitting to this rabble, you're allowing them to gnaw on the remains of the Federation like a pack of jackals. You're worse than Blake!"
Samore's lips were tightly compressed as he gazed at the woman whose ruthless tactics would have resulted in hundreds more deaths to assure her rise to power. "History will be the judge of that, Madame. But your ambition would have devastated Space Command and the Federation more surely than our worst enemies."
"You don't even realize who your real enemies are!" she gloated, still fiercely unrepentant.
"Perhaps not," Avon purred,"but at least the worst of them will soon be eliminated."
As she was led away, Samore turned an appraising stare on Travis while Blake and Avon conferred together in low suspicious whispers, gesturing for the former Space Commander to join them. Travis did so reluctantly as Samore addressed the group in a conciliatory tone. "You've stated you don't trust Federation security. What if I allowed you to be part of the force guarding her aboard the Exeter? Would that reassure you?"
Avon retorted coldly, "I have no intention of putting myself back in Federation hands, even for the opportunity of seeing Servalan face a firing squad. I'm not convinced that I wouldn't be their next target."
Samore's patience snapped and he flared at Blake, "I have little use for you or your undisciplined rabble, Blake, but I'm attempting to meet you halfway to resolve some of your grievances and reduce the likelihood of further disruptive attacks on the Federation. If you're not willing..."
Blake stared after the squad escorting the former Supreme Commander before nodding in grim acquiescence, "President Samore, I'm willing to take that risk."
Dayna strode over truculently, "Me too, Blake. Though I'd prefer to kill her with my own hands."
Avon turned a glacial stare in Travis's direction. "I suppose you'll also be joining Servalan's `honor' guard?"
Before he could answer, an incoming signal chimed from Avon's bracelet. Raising it to speak, he snarled sarcastically, "It's about time, Tarrant! Good of you to get back to us now that the crisis is actually over."
Orac's peevish voder responded, *Until two minutes ago we were still engaged in implementing my brilliant diversionary tactics which resulted in the destruction of two pursuit ships while driving off the other two.*
Avon demanded irritably, "Was the ship badly damaged? And where is Tarrant anyway? Admiring his heroic reflection in the mirror?"
*At the moment he is prone upon flight deck, a position he has maintained since his head impacted with the helm controls during Libertor's final evasive maneuvers*
"What!" Cally, who had just returned from triage, responded sharply to that casual report of Tarrant's injury "How long since this occurred? Is he still breathing? Orac, why didn't you notify us sooner?"
*Autorepairs have only restored communications within the past 15.8 seconds. As to the rest of your trivial questions, since I am neither a diagnostic computer nor a medunit, physical damage to humans is not my concern. . .*
"Bring me up at once, Orac," Cally broke into what threatened to become another tirade on human weakness.
After the Auron guerilla teleported up, Dayna stared at Blake, her dark beautiful face stricken. "Del's been hurt," she whispered.
Blake saw she was suddenly torn between vengeance and the newfound gentler emotions Tarrant had inspired in her, despite the fact he had once been an officer of the Federation she loathed. She gazed at Avon in mute appeal, still regarding him as the knight in shining armor who had rescued her after her father's death. But he had little patience with her ambiguous feelings towards the young pilot and turned coldly away. He'd had his fill of vendettas, both hers and Blake's.
"It's your decision. Liberator won't follow you into Federation space though. Even Cally isn't that trusting." He glared defiantly at Blake. "Set up a rendezvous point, if you wish, but I won't be here when you get back. I'm tired of wasting my time, while the two of you sate your thirst for vengeance."
Vila had been fidgeting for the past thirty seconds and Avon quelled him with a sharp glare, before turning his daunting gaze back to them.
Dayna glanced down at her clenched fists then released them, answering quietly, "I'll be coming with you, Avon. I just lost my appetite for Servalan's blood."
Blake's expression remained harsh and unrelenting. "She's responsible for the murders of my family and friends, Avon. I've waited too long for justice."
With an aloof shrug, Avon ordered Orac to bring them up.
After the others had departed, Blake and Travis glared at each other, their mutual distrust all too evident. Ignoring the glares, Samore gave brusque orders to the troopers accompanying him. "These two gentlemen will be part of detail guarding Servalan aboard Exeter. Notify Section Leader Parr and arrange for transportation to the shuttle."
Travis pondered the irony of the two of them being witness to Servalan's humiliation as she was imprisoned aboard her own flagship. Even more welcome was the thought of the vindication of seeing her stand before a military tribunal, facing judgement as he had, not so very long ago. Glancing sidelong, he noticed an unpleasant smirk on Blake's features and, with a start, wondered if his expression mirrored the rebel's.
There was a flurry of activity in the triage area as transport for the less critically injured patients finally arrived. Jenna would be taken to the medical center and he shouldn't just abandon her without some explanation. He stood to one side, watching as the medics checked her condition before transferring her to the anti-grav float.
Now would be the ideal time to make his farewells. Their bonding contract had merely been a business deal and he'd fulfilled his part of the bargain. There was nothing to hold him here any longer.
Nothing except the bonds that Jenna had forged in his heart.
Initially forced to work together purely for the sake of survival, their partnership had grown much deeper and richer than those early stark beginnings could have ever hinted. All he'd possessed were the deadly skills of a trained killer until she offered him the chance for a new life. Her warmth and passion became his lifeline back from the edge of madness as she ignored his dark, bloody past and the taint of Servalan's manipulation that clung to him, fighting to claim a future for both of them.
He choked back a bitter laugh. Going back to the Federation would finally settle his old scores with Servalan but destroy any hope he and Jenna had of building a future together. . . and Servalan just wasn't worth it. The only thing of value she'd ever allowed him was an unholy obsession with Blake's death. Jenna had given him something much more precious--life instead of death--and he didn't intend to toss that gift aside. Not like Blake had.
He hesitated for just a moment and then moved close to her side. Blake glanced at him impatiently, "Make your goodbyes short. They won't hold that shuttle for long."
"I'm not going, Blake." He gathered Jenna gently in his arms, holding her close and pressing his scarred cheek to her silken hair.
"Why not?" the rebel demanded harshly."Don't you want to see Servalan pay the full price for her crimes against the Federation. . . and us?"
"I've had my fill of vengeance, Blake. My obsession with you cost me my honor, my sanity, my self-respect, everything of value I had . . . until Jenna crossed my path. I don't intend to lose her, Blake. That price is just too high; even for the privilege of watching Servalan's execution."
His gaze met Blake's, blue eye piercing resolutely into dark and the rebel leader suddenly realized that perhaps Jenna had not made such a bad choice after all.
Then with a heartfelt pang, Blake recognized just how much his own obsession had cost him. How close he was to throwing away what little of value he still possessed. The trust of his comrades and the loyalty of his friends. It might be too late but he was filled with an urgent desire to try to salvage whatever was left.
Pressing the comm signal on his bracelet, he requested quietly, "Bring me up, Avon. It appears that my business with Servalan is finished after all."
Half a million spacials out from Byzantia in one of the two pursuit ships that had been manned by solely her elite guards, Servalan glared in outrage as Carnell collapsed in one of the chairs in her private suite, throwing the helmet of a Space Command trooper casually in the corner of the room. "I should have you blown out the airlock in your underwear! You sabotaged this mission and any chance that we had of capturing the Liberator by your premature attack! " she denounced him stridently, as the painful throbbing in her shoulder was matched by an equally painful one in her head.
Carnell stood gracefully and went over to the bar to pour her a glass of potent Trantinean brandy, "Space me in my underwear? That's poor thanks for the risk I took to rescue you from Samore's forces. Here, drink this it will cut the pain until we can get you to a med center."
Tossing off the glass in a single gulp, she scowled at him suspiciously, "That's another thing, too. This whole rescue was almost off-handed, merely an afterthought. Somehow, I get the feeling your presence with the assault force in that uniform was to engineer some other scheme once it was obvious this one had gone sour."
"How you do go on, Supreme Commander. What could be more important than saving your very beautiful skin?"
"I don't know and once I find out what you are really plotting, I may have you hung on a hook for the vultures. You said the plan was foolproof, Carnell. Why did it fail?"
The psychostategist leaned back in his chair and stared at her, his eyes narrowed appraisingly.
"Ma'am, I knew we were juggling plasma bolts, trying to eliminate both Blake and Samore in one fell swoop. They're opposing forces, linked to one another in the game. Besides with Blake gone, if Avon escaped and gained control of the Liberator, you would have unleashed an unpredictable, controllable wild card into our well-structured plan. " He studied the shimmering highlights in the dark amber brandy.
Servalan lifted her chin arrogantly, "Avon's not as uncontrollable as you might think. If you know the right buttons to push."
"Perhaps," Carnell agreed blandly. "But it's safer to rely on those chess pieces we've successfully manipulated in the past. That way the outcome is much more predictable and will yield the results you want with minimal disruption. The restoration of Federation power and your own beautifully manicured hand at the helm."
"Was that why you kept my man from shooting Travis?" she observed shrewdly. "Is he part of your plan?"
Carnell gave her his most charming and enigmatic smile, "That would be telling, Ma'am."
"...can't believe what you're telling me," Jenna protested, pacing angrily around her medcenter room while Travis watched benignly, his legs propped up on the foot of her bed. "You mean that woman managed to elude Space Command, the Byzantian militia, and half the orbiting merchant fleet?"
"Whoever engineered her escape was familiar with the security codes and clearances. He must have been disguised as one of her guards and when they reached the shuttle to take her up to Samore's cruiser, he simply blew the rest of her escort to bloody pieces and jumped orbit to the waiting pursuit ships. Their skirmish with the Liberator only added to the confusion and by the time everything was unscrambled, her two surviving ships were long gone."
"What about Liberator and Tarrant?" Jenna's voice held a mixed note of admiration and envy. The whole medcenter had been buzzing about the young pilot's outrageously brilliant solo battle against the four Federation pursuit ships. It was even rumored Samore had offered him an unconditional pardon if he wanted to rejoin Space Command and become an instructor at the Federation Academy! Jenna clutched her tender side, trying to keep from laughing out loud at that last notion. She gave Travis her full attention waiting to see whether he would confirm or deny the rampant speculation.
The man was as determinedly laconic as ever. "Liberator's autorepairs had cleaned up most of the damage before Orac notified the crew. Besides, Tarrant landed on his head, the hardest thing on the flight deck. Not much chance of inflicting damage through that thick skull." His eye held the merest ghost of an amused gleam. "Anyway, Mellanby's cutthroat daughter has forgiven him his `blackguard' past and is waiting on him hand and foot...for the moment at least." Jenna smiled gently, remembering Tarrant's brashness and headlong courage at Star One. It sounded like he and Dayna were two of a kind. "I'm glad he escaped relatively unscathed. People who get in Servalan's way aren't usually that lucky."
He shook his head at the irony. "Blake's not especially grateful about his narrow escape from being massacred with the rest of her security escort. But he's resigned himself to the fact she's free, with a grudge against him and his crew. Whether she'll go into hiding or attempt to strike back at the people she holds responsible for her downfall is anybody's guess."
"Maybe we should see if Docholli knows anyone who's good at forging identity papers?" she glanced at him slyly.
"And building new faces to go with them." he grinned. "No, I'm through running. Whatever Servalan has planned, I intend to stand my ground."
Jenna felt a sudden warmth at the confident resolve in that statement. But before she could question him further, there was a sharp rap on her door. She started to tell whoever was there to go away, but her uncle stuck his head in the door, with a sour look on his face.
"Well, girl. Had enough excitement for a while?" He gestured to the healing pad still bound around her waist.
She shrugged. "Enough diplomatic intrigue for two lifetimes at least." She returned his daunting glare. "We've met our obligations to clan and Enclave for this year, uncle! I want my ships now and data on trade routes as far away from the Federation and Blake as we can get and still stay inside the Spiral Rim."
Stannis acknowledged her demand patiently, if not with enthusiasm. "Your fleet has been refitted with topline engines and computer systems at the clan's expense. You'll have access to any information you need to make a respectable profit on your regular trade missions. You've proved yourself a valuable member of our clan and we do right by our own."
Jenna smiled wryly at that grudging admission but there were other matters she wanted clarified."No more demands for heirs and offspring? With my ova on file now, you needn't worry about losing my father's bloodlines any longer."
Mikhail ignored her defiant expression, turning his attention to Travis during that outspoken declaration.
"It's not just your bloodlines we don't want to lose, girl," he growled before turning a sour smile on both of them. "Your bondmate has proven a worthy addition to the Clan and we need progeny from strong new genestock. If you aren't willing to bear his sons and daughters, custom permits-- aye, even demands-- that we offer him the opportunity to sire those children on women eager to fulfill their maternal duties."
Jenna glared at her uncle with a mixture of indignation and dismay at that outrageous offer. But Travis dropped his feet to the floor and stood behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders.
His eye glittered with restrained amusement as he echoed her earlier defiance, "My skills are at the Enclave's disposal for the going price. Jenna's got my loyalty for as long as she wants it. The rest of me. . .you can damn well whistle for!"
Stannis glared at the stubborn pair, all too aware of the Space Command renegade's irreplaceable value as carrier of a gene for resistance to Federation mind-control drugs. It might no longer be the prime commodity it had been earlier, now they had negotiated a detente with their old enemy. But Stannis did not want to bet his life or the well-being of his clan that such peaceful times would last forever. Eventually, by hook or by crook, they would have to make sure Travis passed the gene on.
He gave the two of them a mocking half-salute before leaving the room.
Despite Travis's open scorn of her uncle's offer, Jenna sensed there had been strange undercurrents between the two men that she did not fully understand. For whatever reason her bondmate still seemed perturbed by Mikhail's proposal, staring out the window, his thoughts very much his own.
There was only one thing to do.
She pursed her lips and blew softly. As he spun around to confront her, his face held a mixture of hope and uncertainty.
"Well, you said `whistle for the rest of you', didn't you?"
She pursed her lips and whistled again, until he gave a deep-throated laugh and put those lips to much better use!
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