Queen's GambitBy Alice C. Aldridge
"The Hephaestus asteroid belt is an ideal location to rebuild your power base. Close enough to Federation borders so defecting troops loyal to you can easily elude Samore's irregular patrols. Yet, the orbital eccentricities of the belt itself provide an extra layer of security. Only those individuals we are sure of will be given these coordinates. Once defensive shields are in place and we seed random proximity mines throughout the belt, this citadel will be impregnable."
Servalan's critical gaze rested on an ancient stain of some long-dead defender's vital fluids marring the smooth plascrete floor. "And I suppose this is just the result of sloppy housekeeping rather than a life or death struggle for control of this so-called `impregnable' stronghold." Her stare matched the chill surrounding them. "I don't appreciate stupidity, Carnell. If this base has vulnerabilities, I want to know about them."
Carnell took note of the shrill edge to her voice and replied with his usual glib assurance. "Don't you trust me, ma'am? After all the trouble I went to. . . ferreting out this abandoned base? And unearthing the alien teleport system that you used to discredit Blake on Byzantia."
The former Supreme Commander laughed bitterly, "The less said about the Byzantian debacle, the better. Unfortunately, your so-called teleport system is dependent on a rapidly deteriorating crystalline power source that we've been unable to recharge or replace." She gestured in disgust. "And this base is little more than a scoured, abandoned rock, honeycombed with tunnels. Why should I believe your assurances about its security?"
His smile was blandly enigmatic. "I rescued you from Samore's troops after that 'debacle.' Don't you trust me to act in your best interests?"
"A chessmaster like you, Carnell? Hardly. We're all just pieces on your board, aren't we?" She impaled him with that ruthless glare. "Just remember who is Queen in this particular gambit." Carnell gave an elaborate bow of acquiescence although both of them knew that the matter was not settled. Servalan was determined to take advantage of the chaotic aftermath of Star One to gain the Presidency and restore the Federation to its role of political ascendency. Carnell had always been a useful tool in furthering her ambitions, but troubling questions about his private agenda had surfaced recently. Was he truly working for her? Or did he consider her only a minor pawn in some larger struggle in the shifting balance of galactic domination?
She glanced around as black-clad troopers, singly and in groups, scurried past the two of them and down to the labyrinth of tunnels carved deep within the asteroid's nickel-iron core. As they cleared away ancient debris and reactivated solar energy panels, installed defense nets and placed surveillance cameras, they seemed like some great collective insect army -- ants burrowing tunnels or bees constructing a hive. All that power and energy, ceaselessly directed toward protecting and defending her, providing for her comfort, fulfilling her slightest whim. A Queen surrounded by her warriors, workers, and drones. She clasped that gratifying image to her tighter than the fur, allowing it to dispel her doubts, assuring herself without her will and ambition, their existence was meaningless.
Turning her attention to more mundane matters, she asked,"How many Federation troops have defected and joined us so far?"
"Nearly two hundred and fifty ships of the line and their complements," Carnell answered off-handedly. "Varying in size and firepower from two heavy cruisers to numerous pursuit ships, two-man fighters, transports, scout craft and a few odd planet hoppers."
"Almost a quarter of the surviving fleet." She smiled to herself. "A vast improvement over the two battered pursuit ships that remained when we fled Byzantia. That should be a more than adequate force to inconvenience Samore and his gutted corpse of Federation power."
"Direct assault is not the best way for you to regain political power, Servalan." Carnell's expression was remote and unreadable. "You need to be devious - use guile and cunning to sow discord among the newly forged alliances. Turn your enemies against each other so they forget about you."
Servalan regarded him coldly as they turned back from the chill, musty outer corridors, heading towards the operations center.
"And how do you propose that we do that, hiding out inside this pathetic floating rock?"
"As I said before, there are nearly two hundred and fifty ships of the line and their complements, hidden within this asteroid belt."
"And most of them are running low on supplies, fuel cores, and ammunition," Servalan retorted.
"Which are common cargos on trading vessels traveling through this sector of space."
"Enclave Trading Vessels," Servalan spat, "With Space Command pursuit ships providing security."
"Oh, I don't think that many Enclave ships will be willing to wait their turn for a Space Command escort. Most are too reckless and impatient. Others are mistrustful of Samore's assurances. There will be a sufficient number of easy targets for your raiders," Carnell shrugged.
" You seem to have forgotten that former Space Commander Travis is currently a Free Trader Captain. His knowledge and tactical expertise could endanger our plans, Carnell." She drew closer to the handsome puppeteer and rested one blood-red nail daggerlike against his smooth cheek, demanding in a low, seductive whisper, "You never did give me a satisfactory explanation about why you spared his life during that bloody mess on Byzantia."
Carnell's face remained unreadable, though his eyes seemed to burn right through her. Strange how she'd never noticed their piercing intensity before; how it resembled that of former Space Commander Travis. Especially during their meeting on Byzantia when Travis had resisted her efforts to seduce him. His stare had seared through the armor of her beauty and penetrated to the depths of her soul, contemptuous of the evil and corruption he'd uncovered there. Carnell was merely. . . amused.
An enigmatic smile curled the corner of his mouth. "As I told you before, ma'am, Travis can still be of use to us. He's a valuable tool."
She resisted the impulse to strike him. "I'm especially curious how you expect to use this tool, since he seems immune our most powerful conditioning drug. A drug that you reported using successfully during his prior retraining sessions."
Carnell shrugged "Drugs are a clumsy tool, Madam President. Though successful in the short term, longterm effects are often weakened by a subject's mood or physical state, or even other substances that he's ingested."
" In Travis's case, 'knowledge is power' and we have a data base on him going back almost twenty years. He's been tested, monitored, and psych-indexed since he was first conscripted. His basic psych profile is on file along with personality indices that describe his responses in any given situation. All of which makes him the most predictable piece in my strategy to assure your return to power."
"How can you be so certain that his actions still remain within your tested parameters?" she demanded in a hoarse whisper. "Everything about his current actions is totally at odds with his past behavior. None of our previous methods of controlling him seem to have any effect at all!" She glared at the psychostrategist, her golden eyes glittering like those of a cornered animal.
Carnell studied her tense, angry posture and the frustration it projected. Something about Travis's behavior on Byzantia had frightened her. . . badly. So much so, that she might decide to have him killed, rather than captured as Carnell intended.
He offered a diversionary thought to pique her curiosity. "Regarding our earlier discussion of my role as chessmaster, you might consider the knight, ma'am. His ability to change direction in midcourse makes him one of the most aggressive and versatile pieces on the board. Travis will react exactly as we expect -- he has no choice, no choice at all."
She studied him intently then turned on her heel and stalked away.
Hopefully his reassurances would satisfy her for the moment and prevent her
from sabotaging his plans. His fellow puppeteers were depending on him to
manage the situation in this corner of the galaxy. The Andromedan invasion
had been a terrible setback to their plans for galactic domination. Their
strategy was in disarray and their most powerful pieces scattered randomly
across the board. Perfect circumstances for an ambitious man to take
advantage of-and Carnell had always been ambitious.
"Xanadu Control, Stannis Clan ships Alamo and Balkis on approach vector 21, requesting landing clearance for warehouse area and maintenance yards." Navtech Brita Rocklin's voice was casual, certain the change would be approved. That was the chief reason for Captain Jenna Stannis's earlier check-in with the Valkyrie; to deal with the trivial routine matters of quarantine, scheduling and inventory in order to speed up their processing into the refit docks.
To her chagrin, the Tower Controller's nasal tones interupted, "Clearance denied, SCSAlamo, Balkis. Your check-in papers are incomplete."
"Incomplete!" The tall, dark man at Brita's side rumbled threateningly. "Jenna flits in 6 hours ahead of us just to get the damned red tape out of the way and it's still not finished!"
"Fleet Captain Stannis received an urgent summons to the Trade Hall, almost as soon as her ship grounded," the controller's voice answered primly. " Cargo manifests are incomplete. Central Records requires the information before you're allowed to offload or accept another consignment."
"Friggin' bureaucrats!" Newly confirmed Free Trader Captain Travis muttered angrily under his breath. "Why do they need six bloody copies of the same forms and invoices?"
Brita gave an exasperated snort but her square competent hands flew lightly across the board, entering the necessary coordinates to bring the two ships to a smooth, uneventful touchdown amid the midafternoon rush of routine port traffic.
After securing her board, she joined Travis and Sarcar, the Alamo's reptilian cargomaster, where they were grinding away at weight and value tables required by the Enclave's Portmaster. Sarcar was phlegmatic and unflappable as his coldblooded nature predisposed him to be, but Travis had the harried, impatient look of a man with a distinct aversion for the number-crunching details of their trading runs.
Out on the Rim, Captain Travis was one of the ablest captains in the Free Trader Fleet--competent, decisive, and not prone to taking reckless chances, unlike some others that she had crewed for. But back on Sanctuary, hemmed in by rules, regulations, and bureaucrats, he was like a caged hawk, apt to lash out at anyone who crossed him.
Raising her hands to halt the spate of curses she could see he was ready to pour equally on Jenna's uncle and the Portmaster, she glanced at the stack of hardcopy Sarcar had already printed out.
"Damn it, Brita. Jenna's the expert on these damned regulations. She could have finished the exemptions in a third of the time."
"I'm sure she could," the Navtech answered brusquely. "But Clan business always takes priority over an individual Captain's desires."
Travis grunted suspiciously, "You mean the First Captain's business."
Her smile took on a hint of a mocking edge. "To Mikhail Stannis, the two are one and the same. You're a former Federation officer, Captain. I thought you'd be used to following orders without question."
His sour expression did not lessen but she could see the hard lines around his mouth soften slightly. "I'll take battle up to my neck in slime and lasers over this maze of paperwork, anytime."
Sarcar's tongue flicked in and out swiftly, the only indication of his growing impatience. "In the time thou has wasted on chit-chat, we could have finished sorting data on the cargo in number three hold."
Shrugging his shoulders in resignation, Travis turned back to the routine logistical data shuffling that no officer, Federation or Free Trader, ever escaped. With Brita's and Sarcar's help, the daunting task was finally accomplished and their cargo speedily off-loaded.
After checking that all three ships had docking slots in the refit yards, Travis left them to the tender mercies of the maintenance crew for the special refit required by their next cargo run. He glanced over crews of the two trade ships, who were fidgeting impatiently to hit the pleasure houses and gambling dens dockside.
"You're port free for the next twelve hours. Don't drink yourselves blind or run afoul of dock security. I won't bail you out. Just make sure you're here at 0600 tomorrow to begin readying the ships for the Lescaux run."
At his curt nod of dismissal, most of the crew quickly dispersed, leaving only Brita and Akema beside him. The brawny engineer glanced down at his shipmate to confirm the invitation, then suggested, "If you'd care to join us for dinner, Captain?"
Travis gave them a brief tight smile, "I appreciate the offer, Engineer, but
it seems I have business with the First Captain."
Jenna fidgeted on her seat among at least twenty other Fleet Captains in the main meeting room of the Trade Hall. She glanced impatiently at her chrono for the second time that hour, wondering why the urgent summons from her uncle to sit in on what seemed to be an interminable wrangle about distribution rights and trade runs that was of no interest to her at all. She had her current cargo lined up and a pressing need to see to her ship's refitting in order to meet the necessary deadlines.
She had tried to attract her uncle's attention a number of times during the last four hours of arguments and negotiations, but he had ignored her frustrated expression and hastily scrawled notes, continuing to study the various hardcopy contracts and data flakes before him. Finally exasperated with his deliberate disregard of her efforts, she left her seat during a ten minute break and attempted to speak with him privately.
"First Captain, I've a cargo to offload and a shipment of genebank livestock to prepare..."
He brushed her off impatiently. "I know your schedule, Jenna. Surely your bondmate is competent enough to oversee a routine shielding upgrade. There are several open contracts coming up that will be of interest to you. Now, sit down and be patient."
As Jenna returned to her seat, she caught sight of Fleet Captain Stephan Niachros studying her with his usual assessing gaze. She turned a haughty shoulder in his direction, trying to ignore his silken smile.
After what seemed like an even more interminable wait, her uncle's gaze had finally turned in her direction. "Last of all, we have supply requests from a world recently freed from Federation influence as well as a cargo run for a newly formed political alliance." Jenna felt apprehension shiver through her, even before her uncle elaborated on those business dealings. "Nia Avalon, provisional governor of Martin VI has put in an order for weather control equipment as well as the services of a good terraforming crew. Since they've been freed of the necessity of fighting off Federation encroachment, the miners there have uncovered a new source of verbantium ore."
An excited murmur rippled through the group as Jenna fidgeted uncomfortably. Her uncle continued his spiel. "Stannis Clan has first claim on the contract by prior arrangement. But all our ships are committed at present." His glance turned inquiringly toward Jenna. "Of course, if someone presently in port was willing to pay penalty clauses on their next cargo..."
Jenna glared at him furiously. The profits off a single load of verbantium would make the Lescaux penalty clauses look like small change, but dealing with Avalon, even now? Jenna shuddered, remembering their narrow escape from her base just prior to Blake's attack on Star One. When they met again on Byzantia, the rebel leader had made no secret of her disgust for Jenna's desertion of Blake. Or of her justifiably virulent antagonism toward Travis.
Jenna turned a bland expression toward her uncle. "Thank you for offering us that option, Uncle, but sometimes even large profits are not sufficient to overcome bad blood between old enemies. I'm afraid that Avalon and my bondmate could not sit down to negotiate a deal without bloodshed." She tried to shrug off his glacial disapproval of her reply. "Besides, we haven't established enough of a reputation yet that we can risk voiding solid contracts like the Lescaux agreement."
The First Captain nodded a reluctant acquiescence to Jenna's argument and Stephan Niachros spoke up quickly, "Clan Niachros will be glad to fill that contract and pay Clan Stannis an originator's share, as well."
With a sour expression, Mikhail passed the supply request down to the young Fleet Captain and was shuffling through his papers again when he was interrupted by a soft chiming from the desk comm. He muted the circuit so no one else could overhear, listened intently for a moment, then nodded in agreement. "Send him in as soon as he arrives. We're about to begin discussing his offer and he might have something further to add to the negotiations."
Moments later there was a white flicker of light and to Jenna's dismay, Roj Blake was teleported into the Free Trade meeting room. "Down and safe," he reported before turning gravely to shake Mikhail's offered hand. "You did say I could come right in, didn't you?"
The First Captain's smile had a feral charm. "So what can the Enclave do for you, Blake? Or are you empowered to negotiate for your newly recognized Freedom Party?"
"Freedom Alliance," Blake replied drily.
Mikhail's glance seemed to register a certain absence at Blake's side and questioned slyly, "Will other members of your `alliance' be joining us?"
Despite the bold front that Blake put up, there were odd currents of antagonism between the two men. Putting aside her own uneasiness at Blake's presence, Jenna watched them both with increased interest.
"Not at the present, First Captain." Blake's jaw was set stubbornly. "Avon will conduct his private negotiations at a later time. I'm here on behalf of the farmers on Safekeep, hoping to find someone willing to assist the Liberator in ferrying agricultural and medical supplies to them."
"Safekeep?" Mikhail's expression was guarded. "They're pretty far off the beaten track to be members of your Alliance, aren't they? Considering their limited resources, it's not surprising that the Federation never took an interest in them."
Blake shrugged impatiently, "Why should their politics concern you, Stannis?"
"I'm simply wondering about their credit balance or what exploitable resources are available to make the run of interest to the Enclave." He gave the former rebel a tolerant smile. "We are in business to make a profit, you understand, and not for the sake of altruistic ideals."
Jenna hid a smile behind her hand at her uncle's not-so- subtle jibe.
Blake's brows drew down in exasperation. "The Alliance is paying for the supplies and the shipping fees. We want to assure the survival of various independent colonies until they can develop their own agricultural or industrial base enough to have something to export."
"Very admirable of you, Blake." Mikhail answered dubiously. "But I wasn't aware that your Alliance's coffers were that full. With that much credit you could have just bought the Freedom Party a seat on the High Council instead of engaging in futile clashes with Space Command."
"By the time I had the resources available, that wasn't a viable option," Blake answered, looking around the room until he spotted Jenna. "But that's past history and we have a present situation that needs to be dealt with. Can you help us?" he demanded bluntly.
Mikhail steepled his fingers together, appraising the brawny, impatient man before him. "You've caught us at a bad time, Blake. Most of our ships are out of port or have long-term contracts."
"As I mentioned earlier, the Alliance can offer a substantial fee to whoever agrees to help us." For some reason Blake's gaze had turned to Jenna in appeal, catching her in the thrall of old memories aboard Liberator. The dangers and excitement and hopes that they had once shared so intimately. She clenched her fists and glared down at the table, trying to avoid his dark, entreating gaze, instead forcing herself to recall how closed and stubborn that expression could be when Blake set his mind on some suicidal plan.
To her chagrin, her uncle's gaze had followed Blake's. "Well, Jenna?" he questioned.
She retorted peevishly, "You know that we're committed to the herdbeast genestock delivery on Lescaux and thanks to this nonsense, I'm already more than four hours behind in offloading my present cargo. If I don't get that protective radiation shielding installed on schedule..."
Mikhail's voice checked her outburst in midsentence. "The full shipment of genestock with their nutrient tanks will only fill the cargo holds of two of your ships, at the most. What were you planning to do with the third? Let it sit idle here in Sanctuary running up docking fees?"
Jenna set her jaw as she replied, "The Alamo will accompany us as security escort and to act as a back-up in case anything goes wrong."
"You need Travis as security escort for a load of embryonic mutton?"
There was a scattering of amused laughter at her uncle's mocking query and Jenna felt her cheeks burn hot with embarrassment. "You know why I'd prefer not to take this trade run," she gritted out, glaring accusingly at Blake for putting her in this awkward position. "There's bad blood between Travis and him and I'd prefer not to aggravate the situation."
"If you're that set on avoiding Travis's enemies, you're likely to have a very limited clientele," Mikhail growled caustically. "Surely Blake's credits are as good as anyone else's?"
Jenna started flare back then realized the truth of her uncle's argument. She couldn't avoid Travis's past forever. They were simply going to have to learn to live with it or give up Free Trading. Reluctantly she nodded, agreeing to take the cargo run for Blake but making one very crucial change. "All right, Blake, you've hired yourself a ship -- but not Travis and the Alamo. I won't rub salt in old wounds Valkyrie will make your run to Safekeep and I'll be at her controls. But it will cost you a pretty penny for our services."
Blake's confident smile was disarming but Jenna had seen it too often to be deceived. Nor was Mikhail's smug satisfaction any more reassuring. Even though Travis had proved himself to her clan as an able ship's captain, she was all too aware that her uncle did not consider him a suitable bondmate. This was obviously another of his schemes to undermine their relationship. Cursing under her breath for allowing the two of them to back her into a corner like this, Jenna curtly excused herself to make a private call to the spaceport.
In the maintenance chief's office, she caught Travis just as he was signing the final papers to approve the installation of the radiation shielding. If he was angry about the last minute change in plans and the extra work it made for him, he kept his temper on a tight lead. She feigned a nonchalant agreement with her uncle's logic. "He's right about not wasting our cargo space letting Alamo run empty, much less pile up docking fees by sitting idle. The Lescaux mission is a milk run-you could do it in your sleep."
Despite her assurances, Travis could still read the unease in her body language.
"Farm supplies to Safekeep," he echoed flatly. "For Blake. I suppose he expects you to do this cut-rate, for `old time's sake.'"
Jenna heard the bitter anger welling up in his voice and attempted to dispel his doubts. "Blake knows better than to ask favors of me `for old time's sake.' This is strictly business and he's paying prime rates and a hefty incentive clause if we can arrive prior to spring planting. Plus, Mikhail has agreed to defer our share of the originator's fee we owe to the Enclave because this gives us an inside track with Blake's allies in the future."
Travis remarked sourly, "He's got no worry on that account. Blake doesn't have too many people who're willing to do business with him and his reformed rebels. Not since it's become common knowledge about his part in the destruction of Star One."
Jenna nodded, "True enough. But he's not going away, no matter how hard we wish he might. He'll be a power player in this part of the galaxy, whether we like at not, and we might as well resign ourselves to dealing with him. At least this way, we start off with him owing us."
Travis shrugged irritably, "For all the good it's likely to do us." He took a ragged breath before continuing, "When do you leave and how long is the run?"
"Blake's still negotiating final deliveries on some of his supplies and it will be at least another day until they can begin the actual loading." She gave him a ghost of a smile. "I'll be there tomorrow to help sober up the crew and oversee the beginning of the refit. And I should be back shortly after you return from Lescaux."
Despite her reassurances, Travis doubted that things would resolve themselves as neatly as she hoped. Certainly not where Blake and Mikhail were involved. Neither man wished him well and both of them had their own particular plans concerning Jenna's future...and they definitely did not include him.
He stared into the comm screen for long seconds, wondering if Jenna had really been deceived by their little ploy. Or did she have her own reasons for complying with her uncle's wishes?
He nodded abruptly. "I'm grabbing a quick supper at O'Malley's then I'll come back to the maintenance yard to tie up loose ends."
"I'll meet you there," she promised and signed off before he could
O'Malley's was one of the quieter pubs just beyond the refit yards. Because it had a slightly more eclectic menu than the typical steaks and chops and a proprietor with no patience at all for general rowdiness, its clientele was mostly fleet captains and the occasional older spacer who wanted to avoid the bright noisy diversions and frequent fisticuffs of typical dockside watering holes. It was also a good place to hear the latest scuttlebutt of what was happening on outer rim trading runs.
Jenna had chosen a table in a quiet, dark corner that Travis preferred and was nursing her second whiskey, knowing he was still at the docks making sure that the maintenance chief understood the change in the shielding refit. She was glad of the delay because it gave her the chance to gather her thoughts regarding any further objections he might raise about this trade mission for Blake.
As she brooded, she overheard a slightly drunken, rather emphatic, conversation between two spacers at the next table.
"`s not Amagons I'm telling you," tipsily averred the first voice. "Amagons are cunning but unlimber your blasters and they turn tail and run. Nope, new raiders are tougher breed and smarter, too."
"Wattya mean smarter?" a second voice questioned muzzily.
"Used old Federation salvage decoys to lure me off course, then crippled my blasters and maneuvering rockets so I was a sitting target, ready to be shucked like a damned oyster," the other man answered bitterly.
There was the creak of leather and wood as his listener shifted his weight
uneasily. "Then how'd you escape?" the hoarse voiced demanded. "Raiders don't
leave witnesses. They strip the ship down to the bolts, leaving only a
gutted hulk and bloody corpses."
"Not this bunch," the merchanter answered soberly, recalling his narrow escape. "Smug bastard only took half my cargo, mostly machine parts and some foodstuffs. Even made sure I had enough power to limp back on course. Said something about this being a toll for passing through his sector of space. When I told him I didn't think much of his means of livelihood, he just gave me this damned cocksure grin and said to get used to it `cos from now on Free Traders were gonna have to pay a levy to him and his fellows if we wanted to conduct business."
"Damn," the second man swore softly under his breath, a sentiment that Jenna echoed fervently. As if she and Travis didn't have enough trouble with Blake and her uncle plotting together, the Federation trying to rebuild its power base, Servalan running loose and up to no good -- now some enterprising freebooter had come up with a new scam to feed off the Enclave's ships and profits. She ground her teeth in frustration, looking up angrily when someone approached the table.
It was only the rather antiquated roboserver making a programmed round of its tables so customers could tap the computer screen menu that made up the server's torso. Jenna waved it away, too unsettled by her encounter with Blake to feel like eating. Travis's arrival several minutes later did little to calm her nerves. He was surly and on edge and took a long swallow of the double whiskey that arrived almost as soon as he sat down.
Leaning back in his chair as the potent segir burned down his throat, he propped one long leg up on the table. Jenna glared at him, then turned her attention to her own drink, ignoring the calculated insolence of that pose, determined not to let him provoke her into defending either Blake or her uncle.
"I gather that the Portmaster was particularly officious today."
Travis gazed at her over the rim of his glass. "One day I'm going to take those anal-retentive rules and regulations of his and ram them up his. . ." He took another swallow of the whiskey before continuing, "Speaking of assholes, just what is Blake up to these days?"
"Politics as usual," she responded mildly. "Doing favors for the nonaligned worlds, hoping to win them over to his Freedom Alliance."
Travis dropped his leg to the floor, pulling his chair closer to hers."If that's all he has in mind, he could have hired a dozen tramp freighters out on the Rim for half of what he's paying for your ships, Jenna." His dark brooding gaze sent a chill of apprehension down her spine.
" It's not what you think, Travis. There have been an increasing number of attacks on the smaller freighters recently. Not your standard raider either. . .more like extortion, or some kind of protection racket."
"Can't be the Terra Nostra, not this far out." Travis's gaze was hooded and turned inward. He stared down into the last of his whiskey swirling in the bottom of the tumbler. "Servalan's out there, somewhere. In hiding. . . and hatching poison like viper in a pit."
Jenna shuddered, recalling how the woman's ruthless scheming had nearly sabotaged the trade meeting on Byzantia and almost gotten them both killed the last time they crossed paths. Despite Travis's efforts to win acceptance as a Free Trader captain, his past as Servalan's "weapon" still haunted him, judging by the half-choked-off cries as he started up from blood-spattered nightmares in the darkest watches of the night. Worst of all, even earlier memories had been resurfacing lately. The bitter sense of abandonment he'd felt when he and his brother were conscripted to pay for the evacuation of the rest of their family from the failed Metis III colony. The casual brutality of indoctrination and mental conditioning he'd endured during tours of duty as a Federation trooper and officer.
Jenna had spent too many sleepless nights, holding him as he fought those nightmares and trying to banish the poison spewing up from that half-buried past. But Travis resisted revealing any more than she could surmise from his half-stifled outbursts of pain and denial.
"Jenna, there are things about me...things I've seen, things I've done...you couldn't live with. Let it lie!"
Those scars from his past seemed unlikely to ever heal.
After Byzantia and their narrow escape from death, she and Travis had been forced to confront the fact of their deeper feelings for one another. The business deal they had pretended existed between them for the past few months, had grown into a desperate mutual need . . . and the sudden erosion of their emotional barriers made it all too easy for them to savage one another, whether through mere carelessness or cruelty. Sometimes it seemed every action or word was filled with proximity mines that blew up no matter how desperately they tried to defuse them.
Jenna knew it was that vulnerability that made Travis so suspicious of Blake, but she was at a loss for how to reassure him. Best to get off the subject of Blake and Liberator completely.
"Watch yourself while I'm gone." She finished off her drink, turning her attention to dinner selection from the hovering roboserver. "Phrath and Akema will watch your back. . .if you let them."
"I doubt those raiders will be interested in a cargo of 'embryonic mutton,'" he muttered sarcastically, as he called for a second whiskey. Since Travis seemed more interested in drinking his dinner, Jenna ordered for him as well, while heaping silent curses on whoever had passed along her uncle's derogatory comment.
"Don't take his remarks personally. After all, I doubt he'd be as eager as he seemed on Byzantia to bring your bloodlines into the Clan, if he didn't respect your skill and courage."
Travis sipped his whiskey a little slower this time, allowing its smooth, smoky fumes to settle into a glow in his midsection. "It's not my supposed `peerless genes' that the First Captain is interested in. . .but something - someone he can hold over our heads, to make sure we toe the line. Like the Space Command did with my brother Dar-playing us off against one another." He set the glass down and stared into it. " Until he was killed-a test pilot in the Cobra project."
Jenna placed her hand gently over his. She knew that Travis's brother had died soon after they were conscripted off their homeworld. But he'd never mentioned exactly how-till now.
Jenna stared at him, somewhat put off by that blunt reply
"At least they couldn't use us against one another any longer. What's taking that damn server so long anyway?"he growled, clenching his fist and peering angrily around the grill. "I could have been served and half-finished down by the docks."
"This place cooks and serves real food," Jenna responded tartly. "Not those flash frozen protein packs that you get elsewhere. We're always in such a rush that we never take the time tosavor things anymore." She rubbed the toe of her boot suggestively against his leg.
He froze, giving her an enigmatic look, then resumed the deliberate sipping of his whiskey. Though his expression remained cool and guarded, under the table his fingers slid up her thigh in a heated caress that left her mouth dry and the rest of her body tingling with desire. She started to push her chair away from the table and drag Travis back to their quarters when the server arrived with their dinner.
Travis turned his attention to the meal, giving her a feral smile. "You're right, Stannis. We do rush through things too much lately. . .and don't take the time to enjoy our little pleasures."
Jenna ate mechanically, barely even tasting what was on her plate, much less savoring it.
The only image that filled her mind was Travis's hard muscular body pressed against hers and the heated intensity of his caresses. Despite his obvious intention to prolong the meal with dessert and coffee, Jenna thumbprinted the credit chit even before the dishes were cleared away and practically dragged her bondmate back to their suite at the Stannis Clan House.
She embraced him avidly as soon as the door closed behind them but his mouth was hard and grim against hers and his body rigid with suppressed rage.
"What's wrong with you?" she demanded bitterly. Furious at his coldness toward her, she lashed out viciously, "Don't tell me you're still jealous of Blake?"
He pulled away from her angrily. " At least you could try to be as honest as Servalan. If I'm no longer useful to you, Jenna, don't beat around the bush. Tell me flat out if I've lost my charm as your pet killer. . .your sexual toy. . .your kept man?"
His painful sneer flayed the skin off that particular sore spot and she was after him in two swift strides, the outrage burning hot in her veins. She confronted him in a fury. "You bastard..." and slapped his face hard, drawing blood, then tried to slap him a second time. But he caught her hand in his cybernetic fist, squeezing it painfully in his inhuman grip. He wiped the blood from his chin and there was an ominous flash in his eye that frightened her, yet only added to the desire already filling her. The irresistible strength of his cybernetic arm pulled her hard against him, as he bit off harshly, "Does the truth hurt that much?"
Trapped in his embrace, she writhed helplessly against him, tears of anger and offended pride threatening to spill over. "Damn you! Why can't you trust me...just a little?"
He stared into her face, his expression hooded and withdrawn. Suddenly, mutual fury flared into violent desire and they melted together while white hot kisses seared down their bodies and urgent caresses fueled the passion raging through them like a devouring flame. The next hour banished everything from their minds except sensations of heated flesh and driving need, accompanied by sensual growls that roused a frenzy of passion leaving them mutually sated and gasping in sweaty release.
Lying there in a tangle of arms and legs as Jenna felt his heartbeat slowing under her cheek, she hoped the angry violence of their argument had been burned out by the sweeter violence of their lovemaking, but she could not help wondering why he still doubted her. She thought they had laid to rest the ghost of her one-time attraction to Blake a long time ago, but the damned thing kept coming back to haunt them.
Of course, the whole situation was only aggravated by Travis's sense of being an outsider in the Enclave, despite his acceptance as a Clan captain. And her uncle's antagonism and clandestine scheming didn't help matters any.
As the sweat dripped off her chin onto his pleasantly hairy chest, Travis teased her with a dark velvet edge to his voice, "We certainly didn't take much time to savor the experience this time. You want to try again and see if we can enjoy it a little more?"
Jenna collapsed onto her back, her head still pillowed on his shoulder, "I'm not sure I could survive any more enjoyment than that. Besides, we have to be at the docks early to make sure the refit gets started on schedule and then I have to do the preflights on Valkyrie and make sure the loading goes smoothly."
"Damned nuisance, all this refitting and bureaucratic red tape. Why not just delegate it? That's what junior officers are for-dealing with scutwork."
"Maybe in the Federation" she answered tartly, propping herself up on one elbow, "but you're an Enclave Captain and a partner in our trading fleet, equally responsible for the details and dirty work of keeping these ships spaceworthy. You paid a high price to earn that right."
"Not high enough, in your uncle's opinion."
"My uncle be damned,." Jenna retorted with growing heat. "Those ships belong to us by bloodprice and clan right and I'm tired of jumping through hoops every time he whistles. He may be First Captain but that doesn't give him the right to interfere in our private lives."
Travis studied her for a long moment then an ironic smile quirked at the corner of his mouth, "Does that mean you're going to blow off Blake and his shipment of 'farming supplies' to Safekeep?"
Her eyes dropped, unwilling to meet his. "I can't do that. Blake's depending on me. Besides, my uncle was right, we can't afford to let any of our ships sit empty, when someone's willing to pay top credit to hire them for a routine cargo run."
He was silent for so long, she wondered if he hadn't dropped off to sleep. Then his voice echoed out of the darkness, so harsh and strained, it was as though a stranger had spoken, "I just hope that cargo run of Blake's doesn't wind up costing us more than we can afford." He shifted his position so she was no longer resting against his shoulder and folded his arms behind his head, staring up at the ceiling.
The chime of an incoming comm signal buzzed impatiently for a second then a third time. Lying half under the sensor panel with its circuitry pulled out around him, Travis narrowly missed crashing his forehead into the controls as he scrambled out to answer the repeated call. Slamming down the comm switch he snarled, "SCS Alamo here. Wotin'ell do you want?"
"And a pleasant good morning to you, too," responded Jenna's cheerfully mocking voice.
Although he'd already had three cups of coffee since 0600, when they'd both been on hand to greet their surly, hungover crew, Travis was not at his best this morning. Nor had Jenna's departure soon after to oversee the loading of her ship improved matters. He managed to turn his scowl into a relatively neutral expression. "Finished your loading yet? How many pulse rifles and chemical explosives have shown up in those `agricultural supplies' of Blake's?"
"None. So far, it's just been soil additives and trace element replacements as listed on the manifest." She stifled a yawn. "How's the shielding refit progressing?"
Travis raked his hand through his hair in disgust. "The maintenance chief conveniently forgot to mention that the installation would require recalibration of the entire sensor array and half the comm system. With you and Brita gone, it's been slow going."
She acknowledged his exasperation. "Well, at least if Brita's with me, I don't need to worry about Zen having one of its occasional psychotic episodes and attempting to lose us on the far side of the Spiral Rim. Haven't Phrath or Akema been much help?"
He snorted in amusement at the sympathetic tone in her voice. "Phrath nearly electrocuted himself trying to rewire a live board, so I sent him down to help Sarcar installing the nutrient tanks. Akema's still fine-tuning the Reina's new autopilot system."
Jenna sobered. "Why take the Reina along on this mission, anyway? The cargo's not so valuable that we need an armed escort."
"Even if the raiders aren't interested in a load of 'embryonic mutton,'" Servalan's still out there and holding a grudge. A Stannis cargo ship with me at the helm might just be tempting enough to draw her out of hiding."
Hesitating for a long moment, Jenna asked, "Have you mentioned this to Mikhail?"
Travis's mouth twisted in grim humor. "The First Captain is well aware of any and all threats to the clan's ships. And he's not expressed any particular worry about Alamo."
Jenna swore under her breath then glanced down at her board. "I've got an incoming signal. Hold for a moment."
The comm screen blanked for thirty interminable seconds and when Jenna reopened the line, her expression was irritated. "That was Vila," she reported. "Blake just picked up the last of his cargo sooner than expected. He wants us to take off during midwatch rather than waiting until 0800 tomorrow as scheduled."
Travis grimaced sourly. He'd hoped to see Jenna again before she left, at least long enough to apologize for his actions the night before. He suspected that Blake had arranged this early departure just to have that much more time with Jenna. No matter that she'd be piloting theValkyrie while he was aboard the Liberator. The teleport system would easily overcome that minor obstacle.
He drew in a deep unsteady breath and let it out slowly. There was no reason for him to mistrust Jenna where Blake was concerned. She'd made it clear in the aftermath of Star One and later on Byzantia, despite Blake's blatant attempts to win her back, that she'd had her fill of suicide missions and revolutionary zeal.
But Blake was wearing a new "hat" these days, political reformer and small planet benefactor. He'd thought Jenna was as dubious as he was of Blake's sudden conversion , but she obviously had her own reasons for taking this cargo run. Whether it was pressure from her uncle or merely the desire to stand on the flight deck of Liberator once more, he told himself that they had nothing to do with Blake himself. Whatever had been between them once was gone, dead, buried. Jenna had told him so herself.
Why didn't he believe her?
What was it that burned inside him, blind to reason, common sense, and every other rational thought? Surely not-jealousy? Even though they were bonded, it was merely a contractual convenience with a little physical gratification on the side, wasn't it? Business partners and nothing more.
His head dropped between his braced arms, as he recalled the last time he and Blake had stood face to face. On Byzantia, in the aftermath of Servalan's efforts to disrupt the trade conference. When he'd stood there holding Jenna's unconscious body and chosen to stay with her, rather than accompany Blake back to Earth and see Servalan executed for her crimes.
An admission that armed Blake with a blaster pointed at his head, finger on the trigger.
It wasn't that he doubted Jenna's loyalty, but he'd been betrayed so often-by his first love, his family, ultimately by the Service itself- He shook his head hard, trying to banish the dark, bloody images crowding in on him.
He glanced up and to his surprise, Jenna was still onscreen, waiting for him to respond. He wanted to apologize for the night before, but his mouth was so dry and his thoughts so scattered, he knew he'd likely only make things worse. Besides, for all he knew she still had an open comm line to Liberator and the last thing he needed was for Blake to overhear his stumbling efforts to explain just why he'd acted like such a bloody fool.
Travis pushed himself away from the controls, and rubbed his hands down his face, trying to push the troubling thoughts aside. Jenna recognized the gesture, having seen it so often in the past few months and started to speak again, but he cut her off, "Well, soonest gone, quickest returned. Keep your guard up. . .and don't let that FSA hotshot pilot of Blake's provoke you into
taking any shortcuts through black holes."
A tentative smile broke through her concerned expression at his warning about Del Tarrant, who he'd once taught at the Federation Space Academy.
"I won't, if you promise to keep Phrath from busting up half the dockside bars before you lift off for Lescaux."
"I'll try. Maybe Akema can nursemaid him."
"Don't you go dockside either, without Akema to watch your back."
He started to retort that he didn't need any damned nursemaid. but he saw the worry in her eyes and simply replied gruffly, "See you in three weeks."
"In three weeks," she affirmed, breaking the comm link between the two ships.
Over the next twelve hours Travis acquired a much more intimate knowledge of Alamo'scircuitry conduits and crawlways than he thought strictly necessary. The freighter's previous crew had maintained its sensor array with inspired but eccentric alterations and though Akema had pulled up the basic schematics from the log, any resemblance between hardcopy and hardware was virtually nonexistent. The brawny engineer finally puzzled out the hieroglyphic notation of sensor modifications but couldn't squeeze his herculean frame into the confined space to make the necessary recalibrations.
Phrath was skinny enough to reach the circuits in question but the Kyrenian's volatile temperament often led to his "fixing" things by bashing them with a spanner. That left Travis no choice but to strip to his briefs and slither through the narrow ductways, making the tedious and painstaking adjustments as Akema directed him via a staticky headset. Stubbornly, he held out for almost six hours, despite stale air and desiccating heat, managing to recalibrate almost half ofAlamo's circuitry.
By the time he skidded out of the conduits, sweat-drenched and covered in grime, he was ready to blow both ships to atoms rather than crawl back into those bloody-bedamned circuitry conduits for the eighteen hours still necessary to finish the job. Especially since the tedious process had be completed by the end of the week if they hoped to get their cargo loaded and enroute to Lescaux on schedule.
Despite the fact every muscle in his body was twitching with exhaustion, Jenna's absence still left a void inside of him. An aching black hole that threatened to reach out and swallow him whole. The demanding work aboard the Alamo had been a welcome distraction-he could fool himself into believing that she was on the flight deck, or down in engineering or even across the yards in the refitter's office. Now the thought of returning to their empty quarters with Jenna's clothing scattered about the room and her scent still clinging to the sheets left him cold inside. Perhaps a couple of stiff drinks dockside would deaden the pain enough so he could snatch a few hours sleep in the Alamo's stripped down crew's quarters.
He'd never been much of a social drinker. Certainly not after Servalan was appointed Supreme Commander and Space Command social occasions became ongoing skirmishes in an undeclared war, requiring constant vigilance to keep fellow officers from slipping a knife between his ribs figuratively or literally. And he was still too wary of Jenna's kin to let down his guard at any of the Enclave functions they'd attended. Mostly he drank alone, using the alcohol as an anodyne for the pain-physical and mental-- that was his constant companion. Jenna had done what she could to ease that pain over the past months, but now her absence had left the old scars raw and bleeding once again.
To his surprise Phrath and Akema were waiting for him just beyond the maintenance yards. Although he tried wave them off, hinting that he wasn't in the mood for company, Akema grinned, his teeth startlingly white against his ebony skin. "Maybe so, Captain. But this is not a good section of town to be drinking alone. Captain Jenna would not appreciate having to default on the Lescaux mission just because some nova-jagged bravos decided to bash in your head just for the hell of it."
"I can take care of myself, Engineer," he growled. "I don't need you or that furry excuse for a gunner to nursemaid me."
Phrath bared his fangs, hissing at the affront but Akema continued with a determinedly amiable expression, "Maybe so, but it never hurts to have someone covering your back."
Travis brooded, recalling how Jenna had backed him up in more than a few tight situations. He was too bone-weary to keep his guard up and. he didn't know this section of the docks that well. Phrath's superhuman senses and Akema's intimidating presence ought to give any potential trouble makers second thoughts. He agreed and Phrath let out a long angry hiss of exasperation, "Human custom polite silliness done?"
Akema nodded and Phrath swaggered along beside them with his usual bravado, his shorter legs making two strides to Akema's one, all the while muttering in a growly diatribe, "Too much talking, not enough drinking. Could have had two ales under belt in time talking wasted."
"And just who was it that spent the past two hours glittering his fur and grooming his whiskers and asking which neckpiece looked more impressive?" Akema rumbled .
Travis glanced at the typically well-groomed young felinoid, noting the gunner's offduty adornment. His soft grey coat shimmered with stardust and he wore a dramatic gold neckpiece that set off his white ruff to perfection. There was also a particularly rakish tilt to his whiskers.
"Downworld Glynis is and port free." His fangs gleamed merrily.
"Aha," Akema's laughter rumbled. "That calico minx has her claws in you for sure this time."
Grim and silent, Travis tuned out the bantering byplay as they strolled through the lowtown district that he and Jenna rarely frequented. Phrath sniffed the air, then led them into the Three Ringed Moon. The smoky narcotic haze and dim, red lighting that gleamed off the oiled and almost nude bodies of its bar dancers reminded Travis of early Federation shore leaves when he was still a raw recruit.
"Good ale. Good meat. Good sex," Phrath's declared, his pupils dilating until his normally golden eyes shone black in the smoky darkness.
Given Akema's intimidating size and Phrath's natural armament, the three of them had no trouble finding a table. While Akema gave their drink and food orders to the scantily clad and artificially buttressed waitress, Phrath's sharp eyes spotted Glynis and he bounded away. Despite the general rowdiness of spacer crews drinking, socializing, gambling and in general blowing off steam, Travis maintained a grim, preoccupied distance.
Akema leaned back in his chair, taking a long look at his captain. Branded by the Resistance as a psychotic mass murderer, the former Space Commander had earned a reputation as a relentless pursuer of the Federation's foes and would-be nemesis of the anarchist Blake. Yet, Jenna Stannis had seen something more behind that black patch and deadly facade as Servalan's ultimate weapon. Something-- or someone-- worth risking her life and her heritage for as she fought tooth and nail to have him accepted into her clan.
Travis had proved himself a skilled pilot and canny fighter in Stannis Clan's testing. Moreover, Akema had more than sufficient reason to be grateful for the man's battlefield skills and dogged refusal to lay down and die when other lives were at stake. That stubbornness had been the only thing that got him and the rest of Nighthawk's crew out of the mess on Nevya.
The waitress returned with their food and drinks, jiggling her artificially augmented breasts right under Akema's nose. He stuffed a fifty credit note in her cleavage, muttering, "Forget about the floor show and just keep our glasses filled."
Travis seemed oblivious to the food and the waitress's admiring glances as he gulped down his drink. Akema took a more cautious sip, well aware of the potency of the undiluted jet fuel served on this end of the docks. At least in the Three Ringed Moon, they washed the glasses between customers, rather than relying on the alcohol content of the drinks to sterilize them.
Glancing around the darkened bar, Akema spotted his crewmate. Over the hoots and whistles of encouragement as one of the dancers gyrated in a particularly lewd display, Phrath's distinctive battlecry could be heard as he engaged in a holographic game based on the Star One alien war scenario. Judging by the orange and black furred Glynis's screeching enthusiasm, the two of them had already wiped out the Andromedans single-handed and were about to mop up the remnants of the Federation's Eighth Fleet.
Taking another swallow of his drink, Akema continued studying the man slouched across from him. Akema's mother had claimed to be a seer, saying she could read a person's soul. Akema was skeptical, but as he grew older, he found that he could sometimes see the fire inside people. Whether it was a person's soul or not, he made no judgement, but he soon learned to avoid those people with nothing but ashes where that soulfire should be.
Of his shipmates and friends, Phrath was the most volatile; a firecracker, always shooting off sparks. Brita was hearthfire, comforting and warm, Jenna's fire was bright and sharp as a blade. The First Captain was a forge fire, intense enough to reshape everything around him. Travis was an enigma. There was something at his center, but it felt like embers frozen in the center of a glacier: cold, hard, and so brittle it seemed he would shatter into a million pieces. Definitely a man to be wary of.
He remarked idly, "Good piece of work we got done this afternoon."
Travis shuddered, staring around the bar, "Sarcar would have had an easier time of it, slithering through those crawlways."
"Maybe so, but you can't trust him with Alamo's circuitry. His brain is hardwired for Orphidean organic based systems, which are totally different from ours. He's the best number-cruncher in this sector, but don't let him near any control hardware. He'd like as not fertilize it."
Travis met his gaze, no longer so remote and distant. "That's a useful bit of knowledge,
Akema. What about the rest of the crew? What useful information can you pass on about them?"
The engineer shrugged, his broad shoulders rippling, then began to count off on his fingers, "Phrath's temper you recall. Brita's a top navigator, but doesn't have any stomach for evasive maneuvers. Benson, !tsach, and Ling are fresh out of apprentice barracks. Middlin' scores, but eager to take on the galaxy. Don't know our back-up navigator that well but if Brita approved him, he knows his charts forward and backward." Taking a long sip of his drink, Akema turned his ebony stare on Travis, "What about you, Cap'n? What are your deep, dark secrets?"
"Soldier, deserter, renegade-Free Trader Captain." Travis's blue eye burned into him with laser-intensity. "Does that answer your question?"
"Surely there's more than that. Else why would Jenna have chosen you over Blake?"
Travis's gaze shifted into the distance, "That's a question I've been asking myself the past couple of days. Especially since she chose to make the Safekeep trade run. Was it just for old time's sake. . . or has she decided that Blake's a better bargain than me?"
"Better bargain. . .?" Akema snorted, before downing a large portion of his drink. "Not by my lights. . .or hers either, I'll wager. No matter what front he puts up, Blake will always be a crusader. And you know what they say about crusaders? 'A good one's willing to die for his cause, but a great one convinces others to die for it.' Seran Jenna has no desire to die for Blake's causes any longer."
Travis slumped down in his chair, "I wish I could be as certain as you, Akema." His voice died to a husky whisper, "I just wish I could be sure that I could trust her. That I'm no longer on a one-way road to hell."
Akema shivered at the darkness in Travis's voice. Suddenly the ear-piercing yowl of Phrath's genuine battlecry brought him abruptly to his feet, overturning his chair as he muttered,
"Damned furball, can't stay out of trouble for five minutes."
Shoving his way between the would-be combatants, Akema glared at the two rowdies facing Phrath, before grabbing the Kyrenian's paw with its five razor sharp claws fully extended and hissing loud enough to be heard across the room,"I told you to settle for what's on the menu. No more fresh kills!"
One of the men backed quickly away, and when the other hesitated, Akema flashed an apologetic grin, "He's been a bit short-tempered lately, what with all those vaccinations he's had to take since we grounded. . . Mad Max's syndrome, tourist's revenge, the Aldebaran crud. . . ."
Travis pushed away from the table, in case Akema needed any help, though he seemed to have the situation well in hand.
A swift featherlike touch brushed up his arm, coming to rest on the base of his throat and sending a dizzying heat flooding through his veins. His heart raced as a smoky haze clouded his vision. Travis shuddered, rubbing a clammy hand across his face and attempted to get a closer look at the owner of that bewitching touch. The alcohol he'd drunk suddenly went straight to his head, leaving him befuddled and barely able to make out a vague impression of smoky amber eyes, framed by ebony hair falling on either side of delicately arched cheekbones.
"Who the hell are you?" he rasped.
Her laughter was a whisper of wind chimes.
"My name is Martine. But I can be whoever you want me to be."
As her fingers brushed across his forehead, Travis blinked, trying to bring her into focus.
The bartender had cranked up the music in an effort to get the crowd dancing again, now that the fight had fizzled out. Colored lights strobed across the dance floor. When Travis's vision cleared, the woman next to him had tumbling blonde hair and fierce blue eyes but with a red slash of a mouth that laughed at his unease.
"Jenna. . .?!" He reached for her but Martine smiled coquettishly and slipped gracefully from his grasp. "But you're with Blake . . . halfway across the galaxy."
"Is she the one you desire? Your lover. . . your bondmate?" The lush red mouth made a moue of disappointment. "Surely there's someone more exotic. . .more dangerous?"
Travis blinked again, trying to shake the whiskey fumes from his head, but it felt like his whole body was throbbing in time with the pounding music that erupted from the walls.
He pulled away from Martine's touch, rubbing his hands down his face, still attempting to clear his head. When he looked up again, Jenna was gone and in her place was Servalan's razor cut dark hair and ruthless smile. Travis lurched forward, his hands reaching for that slender throat, determined to wring the life out of her this time.
"Ooooops, not a good choice," Martine dodged away from him, her head tilted to one side. "Lots of one-night stands but nothing memorable there---- Wait. . . wait a minute. Oooooh, this one was buried deep, very deep. . . . a grave covered with rocks so the predators won't tear her body again. Guilt, anger, regret. . . and tears. . . tears, frozen on your face."
As she touched his face, which was no longer frozen in grief, but filled with longing, Martine transformed herself; her body no longer lush and voluptuous, but slender to the point of gauntness. Her hair was still dark, but without the ebony sheen of a raven's wing and the only beauty she had was in his eyes
"Rissa. . .you're here, you're alive." The rational part of his mind knew Rissa was dead, that she wasn't really there. He knew the whole set-up was just an illusion, probably even bait for a trap. But he didn't care, not right now. All he wanted to do was hold her in his arms and remember what that first love was like. He dragged her into his embrace, his body shaking so hard, he could hardly stand.
She pushed him gently away. "Not here. . . .Colin? Colin. Come with me. I have a room not far from here."
He followed blindly, forgetting Jenna, Akema, Phrath-everything in the present.
Akema was dickering with the bartender over the damage that Phrath and his playmates had inflicted on the hologame while Phrath was whispering into one of Glynis's silky black ears. Neither one happened to be looking at the door when Martine made her exit with Travis's arm wrapped possessively around her waist.
As he dragged the two felinoids back to the table where he'd left Travis, Akema glanced hastily around wondering where his Captain had wandered off.
" High-price hour girl him in tow had," Gynis purred suggestively. "Not long gone-" she glanced sidelong at Akema, "Unless more credits in his pouch has than you been spreading around?"
The brawny engineer settled back into his chair with an impatient growl, "Order another round of you drinks, you two. Seran Jenna didn't want him wandering the docks alone."
Phrath curled his lip, baring formidable fangs as he rumbled in low growl, "Bad rep forAlamo's crew you be makin'. Accusin' Phrath of chowin' down on paying customers. Now, strayin' Cap'n nursemaided gotta be. Cap'n Jenna gonna be plenty hot when she hears. . ."
Akema glared at the Kyrenian, " Just keep your whiskers out of another man's
trouble, furface. Besides, the honeymoon had to end sometime."
Travis stirred weakly, then opened his eye. Even the dim light in the heavily curtained room sent bursts of pain rocketing into his brain. His head already felt like the Fleet was holding war games inside his skull, setting off proximity mines every time he tried to sit up. With a groan of effort he finally got his feet on the floor and slumped there, trying to recall what exactly had happened the night before.
Squinting his eye against the muted light, he identified the cramped barren surroundings of an overnight room in transient quarters. The walls were grey, the bedside table and single chair extruded from plastic in a nauseous shade of green, and though the bed was small, it obviously was roomy enough for someone to have indulged in hot and heavy sex for the last few hours, judging from the musky aftermath that permeated the room. The sheet tangled around him reeked of sweat and stale perfume, indicating he likely was one of the participants. Why couldn't he remember ?
He and Akema had been sitting at a table in a dockside bar. Then Phrath had started yowling and the engineer scrambled to his feet. Travis had started to follow him. . .and everything after that was a blank.
Travis rubbed a hand tentatively across his head and neck. The inside of his head felt like someone had been using it for target practice but there were no external bumps or bruises so no one had blindsided him with a bottle during that brawl. Besides, Akema wouldn't have dumped him in some joy girl's crib and just left him. Phrath maybe, but not Akema.
He looked around hastily, searching for his clothes and ID. Locating his pants at the foot of the bed, he reached down and snagged them, despite the fact the movement left stars wheeling across his vision. Groping through the security sealed insert, he located his credit voucher and papers. Everything seemed to be there, so whatever the set-up, it wasn't robbery.
Travis lurched to his feet, intent on gathering the rest of his clothing scattered randomly across the room, then spied three used ampules on the bedside table. Sniffing cautiously, he recognized the bitter scent of a common blackmarket sexual performance enhancer. He crushed the ampules in his hand, letting the pulverized glass trickle onto the floor. No, whoever was behind this definitely didn't have robbery in mind.
He heard the whoosh of a recyle unit then the sound of running water from behind a closed door that he assumed was a fresher.
A woman stepped out, fully dressed with a bag slung over her shoulder. Now that he saw her, he recognized the dark hair, smoky amber eyes, and delicate features of the woman who'd been standing next to him in the bar last night.
She seemed somewhat surprised to see him awake and on his feet, "You're a strong one, aren't you? After last night's fun and games, I thought you'd sleep till noon."
He glared at her, brow drawn down and eye glowering, "Who the hell are you? What'd you do to me?"
"Name's Martine LaJoie. I'd give you my card, but I'm fresh out. Look I'd like to stay longer, but I've got an early afternoon appointment and I need my beauty sleep."
Travis's cyber hand snaked forward and he grabbed her by the throat, "I've checked my credits and everything's still there. Girls like you don't give free samples. Now, who paid you! Who set this up!"
Her eyes went wide in fear, as she struggled in his relentless grip, "No one, luv. No one! I saw you in the bar and you looked lonely. Occasionally I like a good time myself."
"And that's why you hit me with the Turbo before I even got the door unlocked?"
"Just to get you primed. . . for me, Captain. Your mind was elsewhere."
He glared at her through one bloodshot eye. "Elsewhere. . ." he gasped, "You went inside my mind, my memories. . . of Jenna. . .and Servalan. Even dug up those memories of Rissa!" From a whisper, his voice rose to a hoarse scream.
Suddenly the splitting pain in his head along with his sense of revulsion triggered a violent nausea and he doubled over, dropping to his knees retching, both arms wrapped around his waist. Martine dodged out of his reach, then ran into the hall, slamming the door behind her. Not having eaten in almost eighteen hours, Travis brought up little more than bile and the spasms quickly subsided, leaving him watery eyed but with his mind and memories somewhat clearer.
He certainly hadn't been thinking clearly last night when Martine deluded him into seeing her as his first love, Rissa. Once in her room, she used the blackmarket aphrodisiacs to rouse him to such a state of blind rutting need that he remembered little about what happened except a series of sexual collisions of such orgasmic intensity, they'd been almost painful. When the fire in his blood finally cooled, he'd dropped off to sleep like a man falling down a well.
Sluggishly Travis pulled on his clothes then stumbled out of the room, heading back to the maintenance yards. His mind was a whirl of anger and confusion, but there was work to be done if he was going to meet Stannis's shipping schedule.
From inside a public comm booth, Martine peered out after Travis hurried past, making absolutely sure that he had not seen her. Once he was out of sight, she activated the privacy screen and then made her call. As soon as she was connected, she reported anxiously.
"I've done as you asked, First Captain. I have your specimen."
He employer responded tersely, "He must have been half-drunk by the time you approached him. Was he able to function at all?"
Martine was all business. " He climaxed twice in half an hour with first dose and then twice more after I doubled the dosage. You'll have your sample for breeding purposes."
"Well, don't just stand there," Mikhail Stannis ordered curtly. "You know the time constraints we're operating under."
Martine massaged the red handprint on her slender throat. "You owe me a hazardous duty bonus, Stannis. And tell Doyle, we're even now and I'd appreciate his forgetting my name. . . permanently."
Glancing up from the comm screen and feeling very satisfied with himself, Mikhail caught the disapproval in Brendan Doyle's calm grey eyes.
"I hope I don't have reason to regret recommending Martine's erotic/empathic skills to you, First Captain. Jenna deserves better of us than our setting up an incident which could destroy her bonding."
Stannis's expression was noncommittal but the exasperated note in his voice was evident. "There are raiders out there, reportedly taking their orders from Servalan, who are hitting more and more frequently along our trading runs. Travis is not a cautious man and with the grudge she holds against him, we can't take the chance of him getting killed before the drug-resistant trait he carries is passed on. Since we already have Jenna's ova, an in vitro cross will preserve Stannis bloodlines, as well. The Aurons are willing to assist us for the chance to study the gene."
"Is that their only price?" the telepath inquired politely.
Mikhail's momentary satisfied expression turned sour. "No, they're charging a hefty fee for the use of the biochambers and lab replication facilities. But if they're successful, the profits will be enormous."
"If the cost to Jenna does not prove to be too high," Brendan remarked
By the time he reached the maintenance yards, his earlier blinding headache had subsided to a bearable throbbing, but his suspicions about that encounter were mounting by the second. The whole episode was obviously a set-up, but who was behind it? And what was the reason for it? Was Martine's effect on him merely the effects of a drug. . .or was there something more sinister to it?
Considering Servalan's depraved nature, she was the first one he suspected. . .except for the fact, he didn't wake up with a knife between his ribs. Though there was the possibility that the episode had been videotaped, she knew him too well to think blackmail would be an effective weapon. Besides, to Servalan, blackmail was business as usual, but vengeance was personal. She'd prefer to be present in person to twist the knife herself.
He tried to look over the work schedules on his desk. A hurriedly scrawled note in Akema's handwriting reminded him of the urgency of the sensor recalibration but he was still too angry and suspicious to be able to concentrate on that tedious and delicately demanding job.
His mind was still focused on the images Martine had used to entice and seduce him.
Jenna's face would have been easy to find; she was constantly on his mind. Servalan seemed less likely, though violence and savage sexuality tended to trigger flashbacks of those memories. But Rissa. . . he massaged his temples irritably. Those memories were dead and buried. Or had been, until the mnemonic cascade had broken through the puppeteers' conditioning. . . and that telepathic hit man of Stannis's began raking up skeletons from his past.
Travis's stomach roiled as he recalled the telepath's cool deliberation, when he shattered Travis's mental shields and uncovered every dark secret from his past. . .including Rissa's death. If Doyle knew, then Stannis knew. Dangerous knowledge in the hands of a man he did not trust.
He slumped wearily behind his desk. Just who could he trust, now that Jenna was gone?
There was a sharp rap at his door and before he could answer, Akema burst in like a thunderstorm. His clothes were rumpled, his eyes bloodshot and he glowered at Travis as he snarled, "Where the hell were you? We closed the bar, waiting for you to come back, but you never showed. Did you take a bloody mortgage on the ship to pay for your fun?"
Travis glowered silently while Akema continued, "That was a pretty fancy piece of the skin trade that you left the bar with."
"You recognized her?"
"No, but Glynis did." Travis arched his brow and Akema continued, "Her captain has exotic. . .and very expensive. . .tastes. This Martine is one of the best psi-sexperts around. Specializes in illusions, fulfilling your fondest dreams. . ."
Travis's expression went bleak and filled with pain and he slumped back in his chair.
". . .or darkest nightmares, judging by your expression."
Akema eased himself down into the narrow chair in front of the desk, "I gather you didn't exactly get your money's worth."
"I didn't . . .but someone else did. It was a set-up, engineer. Though I'm not sure justwho was behind it."
"Rival clans have been known to disable pilots to sabotage trade runs and void a contract. Or someone might want to disgrace you in Seran Jenna's eyes."
Travis stared at Akema for a long thoughtful moment, then straightened in his chair, his expression hard
. "I didn't mortgage the ships, Akema, but if we don't make this run on schedule, we might as well sign them over to the First Captain. I'm not giving up Jenna's fleet without a fight. Pull that chair over here and brief me on what needs to be done before we can liftoff for Lescaux."
Wincing at the throbbing ache in his own head as he dragged the chair across the deck, Akema glanced down at the work schedules and the blueprints of Alamo and Balkis. "Well, the maintenance chief wants to recheck the shielding installation they finished yesterday but knowing his schedule, I doubt we'll see him before midafternoon."
"And I can't continue the sensor array readjustment until that segment of shielding is checked off. Damn!" he swore under his breath at the delay. "What about the nutrient tanks and monitoring equipment, how much more of that has to be installed?"
"They're finishing the number three hold right now, but they have to stress-test the seals and linkages to make sure they hold up during take-off and landing."
Travis pushed away from the desk and paced angrily around the confined space. "Keep on their backs, Engineer. I want to liftoff as soon as possible. We're a sitting target in drydock."
"Just who do you think is the target, Captain? You or the ships?"
Travis did not answer, rubbing his still aching head.
. "What sort of rumors are making the rounds dockside, Akema?"
"Pirates mostly. New raiders hitting the trade runs, always picking the ones that aren't rich enough or critical enough to rate Federation protection. They seem well informed about Space Command's standard patrol patterns."
Travis grabbed a small pouch from one of the drawers in the desk and tossed it to the engineer. "Give this to Phrath or anyone else who's good at listening and not being seen. Find out who's been hit in the past two weeks, where the raiders struck and their approximate heading when they left. And what was stolen."
Akema jingled the purse lightly. "Why so interested in the raiders, Captain? They've been hitting food, fuel and machinery for the most part. The odds are they aren't going to be interested in a cargo of embryonic sheep."
"Maybe not, Akema, but it never hurts to know what old enemies are up to. Or old friends either," he muttered in a barely heard undertone as Akema left the room.
The rest of the day was consumed with the usual exasperating tedium of refit checklists. No matter how carefully he planned, one work crew was always standing idle waiting for another to finish a job that should have been done before they arrived. The docking supervisor's late afternoon inspection and downcheck of the inner layer of shielding left Travis in a foul temper.
The whole segment would have to be resealed, a time consuming job that could not be rushed. And he was left with little to do except oversee the work crews until that was finished. He snarled in frustration as Akema reported back to him. "Can we get it finished tonight if we pay overtime for a swing shift crew?"
Wincing at the extra expense the overtime pay would add to a run that had a very narrow profit margin to begin with, Akema grumbled, "The job is delicate and time-consuming and was botched the first time because we rushed it. I think this crew would be better off if you called it a day, got a good night's sleep and started fresh in the morning."
Feeling the heat of his engineer's glare, Travis leaned slowly back in his chair, realizing how hard he'd been driving his crew and himself. Despite the delays, the refit was still on schedule and there was no reason to drive them to the point of exhaustion despite his sense of foreboding triggered by guilt over last night's episode with Martine. If Servalan was scheming against him, it would come to light sooner or later. He'd do himself no favor by overworking his crews to the point that they made careless mistakes.
"You're right, Akema," he admitted reluctantly. "I have been pushing too hard. Trying to compensate for Jenna being gone, I guess."
The muscular engineer remarked dourly, "Burying yourself in work is one way to forget, I guess. As long as you don't drive the crew to mutiny."
"One of the few advantages of a mutoid crew," Travis muttered, then noting the engineer's sour expression, changed the subject. "Any word from our dockside listener?"
"Just the usual jetwash. I really don't expect anything until tomorrow, after the downside crews are thoroughly lubricated."
Difficult as it was for him to trust anyone, Travis realized that Akema was not only a competent engineer but knew the ins and outs of Sanctuary's spaceport docks better than Travis did. As that knowledge sank in, Travis began to feel the effects of his overindulgence and lack of sleep the night before and his normally taut, erect body slumped in the chair. Akema caught him under the arms then steered him to his spartan cabin aboard ship.
"Things will look much better after a few hours sleep, Captain," Akema helped pull off his boots, then departed. In a stupor, Travis finished undressing, letting his clothes fall where they dropped, but carefully placed his blaster within easy reach on the nightstand before collapsing onto the hard bunk, asleep before his head reached the pillow.
Despite his exhausted state, the nightmares began almost at once.
He dug futilely at the iron-hard ground, ignoring his bloodied fingers and Rissa's shrouded body beside him, choking back sobs as the tears froze on his face. Fenris howls shivered through the night and as he stared into the darkness, their hungry eyes gleamed back at him. He groped for his blaster but it was gone - leaving him empty-handed against Metis III's most fearsome predator. He groped blindly around for a stick . . . a rock . . . anything to defend himself against the terrible beasts that circled closer and closer.
His left hand closed around a rock and it felt like he'd plunged his hand into liquid nitrogen as his fingers froze then shattered like glass! The pain drove him to his knees and he watched in horror as the icy pall crept up the rest of his arm leaving it a frozen dead weight, useless against the slavering beasts that circled ever closer. He dragged himself over to Rissa's body, determined the beasts would not ravage her body again.
But he was too late!
They lifted their bloodied muzzles away from her torn flesh and Travis lunged at them trying to drive them away, but someone's arm was wrapped across his chest, holding him back! He struggled within that grasp, then suddenly recognized the face of his older brother, Dar, though it was half-hidden in the shadows.
"You're 'disarmed,'" Dar mocked him "You need a weapon, if you want to save her."
"She's dead!" Travis gritted out in a voice raw with pain. "I couldn't save her."
"You just need the right weapon," and Dar reached over and snapped off the rest of his frozen arm, letting it drop to the ground. Travis screamed but the pain he felt then was nothing compared the agony that ripped through his entire body as Dar attached his new arm.
Trembling with shock and nausea, Travis stared at the replacement. It was an unholy mixture of machine and bioengineered flesh. Tentatively, Travis aimed it at the fenris and was gratified to see the beast burst into flame and run howling into the dark. Quickly adjusting his aim, he pivoted on his heel and fired again and again, determined to exterminate this pack. But as the beasts burst into flame, their bodies shimmered and transformed until he saw his father, his mother, his sisters Deirdre, Margaret, Megan, and little Gwen, and his younger brother Brian, all writhing and screaming as the flames devoured them.
"No" he rasped in agony, "not them. I didn't mean to kill them!" and he heard Dar's mocking laughter behind him.
"You're a weapon, Colin. Nothing more. And a weapon's only purpose is to destroy everything in its path."
Blinded by his grief and fury, Travis fired at Dar's mocking figure, watching him burst into flame as well. His brother screamed and the flames roared up, burning away his face and replacing it with Servalan's. Despite the flames, she continued laughing as she mocked Travis with those final words. ". . . .destroying everything in your path."
" Dar. . .no!" he screamed, starting up in the pitch-black room, drenched in sweat with his heart pounding. As he fumbled for the gun at his bedside, the ordinary nighttime noises of theAlamo- swoosh of ventilator fans, the chrono's hum, routine security system beep- replaced the terror and agony that filled his dreams.
"Lights," he called hoarsely and threw off his sweat-drenched sheets.
For years, due to Federation conditioning and retraining therapists, his past had been a void. But now, ever since he and Jenna had used the mnemonic cascade to locate Star One's coordinates, spectres and painful memories from Metis III haunted his dreams with increasing frequency. All of them-his parents, Rissa, even his brother Dar- forcing him to relive a hell that he'd barely survived the first time. He rubbed his eye fiercely, trying to banish the scalding images from his mind, then glanced at the chrono.
No use taking any sleep-inducers now. He'd be too groggy to function tomorrow. Besides, he'd gotten almost four hours sleep, he ought to be able to get two ships space-worthy on that much sack time. Hell, he used to run bloody planetary campaigns on less.
Showering and shaving with meticulous care, he grabbed a protein pack and mug of coffee from the galley before returning to his desk.
But despite his best intentions of dealing with the routine refit chores and the day to day running of Balkis and Alamo, Travis found that his mind kept wandering. Back to his explosive encounter with Martine. And the similar episode on Byzantia when he had barely resisted Servalan's erotic wiles. During that blatant seduction attempt, she'd taunted him by mentioning Carnell. . . the psychostrategist.
With a sudden chill, Travis realized that the brutal reconditioning that he'd undergone in the aftermath of Aristo when Servalan had lost Orac had not been the first time the smooth chessmaster tampered with his memories. There had been other incidents following successes and failures of varying degrees, all the way back to Servalan's initial programming of him in the aftermath of Blake's capture and the injuries that he'd sustained during that mission.
Why waste the time and money to rebuild the shattered hulk he'd been, when there were so many bright, young officers ready and eager to fill his boots? Why magnify his obsession to destroy Blake past the point of rationality? The reprogramming hadn't made him a better officer. If anything, it had blunted his usually keen intellect and strategic expertise.
Again. . .why?
What purpose had it served?
Whose purpose had it served?
Servalan's motivations of ambition and revenge were crystal clear but Carnell's presence definitely muddied the waters. What was the psychostrategist's true agenda? It hardly seemed to be increasing Federation power. Carnell's machinations with IMIPAK would have easily have destabilized the entire Council.
And just what was Carnell's interest in him anyway? The puppeteer had been solely responsible for most of his conditioning in Space Command. Or at least in the years since Dar's death in that training accident.
Lost in those memories from his past, Travis was startled when the maintenance chief stuck his head in the wardroom to report they were reapplying the inner layer of shielding, if he wanted to supervise. Travis glanced at the chrono, noting that it was only 0800, well ahead of the time that Akema had promised the night before. Since it was likely his earlier impatience that resulted in the job being botched the first time, he just nodded his head and indicated the job should continue without his direct oversight.
These disturbing speculations suddenly pushed the refitting of Alamo and Balkis to a distant second in priority. Impatiently, Travis shoved aside the accounting and inventory sheets for the ships' refit and began sending out inquiries After the carnage at Star One, he'd lost contact with most of the operatives who'd kept him informed about military and political intrigue in high circles. But there were still a few people with connections that owed him a favor or two. He also activated several older codes hoping to access Federation records of Carnell's connection to his past.When Alamo's comm system went down because of the shielding effect, he did not resume his recalibration efforts but left the maintenance yards to continue his search operation elsewhere.
It was late evening before he returned to Alamo, irritated and out of sorts. Virtually decimated in the aftermath of Star One, Servalan's downfall had left most of his old network of contacts out of business and looking for a new line of work. Still, there had been one or two unsettling hints about someone's future plans that boded ill for the Enclave. He could not believe Servalan and her band of deserters represented that much of a threat, but the jackals were circling in anticipation of a big kill. . .and who or what was the prey?
He found Akema and Phrath waiting in his office. The tall, muscular engineer rarely lost his temper because of his overwhelming physical presence, but this time he was seething.
"Where the hell have you been all day? We've been trying to reach you for hours! The internal shielding was checked off on both ships at noon and you could have finished the recalibration on Alamo in the time we wasted looking for you."
"There was urgent business I had to attend to," he answered coldly. "The recalibration can wait."
"That wasn't what you said earlier, when you wanted to pay overtime crews to finish the job last night," Akema rumbled.
"Priorities change, Engineer. Something important came up."
"More important than Jenna Captain's ships is what?" Phrath hissed, his ears flattening.
" Hot date with minxvixen tail Martine is keeping!"
Travis spun angrily around, catching the loose fur of the felinoid gunner in his cybernetic fist. "That's my business, Phrath, not yours. And you'll keep your mouth shut about it, if you know what's good for you!"
The felinoid tensed, flexing his claws in response to that threat, then glancing at Akema, he dropped into a half-submissive, half-defensive crouch when Travis released him.
"Did you discover anything useful dockside?"
With Phrath no longer in combat mode, his enormous pupils narrowed to slits in the ship's artificial lighting. But he remained jittery and on edge as he reported the rumors and speculations rife among the independent ships and crews that ran the more dangerous routes along the edge of Enclave space.
"Cunning foxes raiders are-with sharp noses and sharp claws. Maybe Fed hounds gone bad. Use old Fed comm codes to bait salvage-hungry loners. Not hunterkillers. Leave captain and crew alive, with enough scraps to survive . .so can steal from again." Phrath's whiskers quivered with a mixture of curiosity and outrage.
The information confirmed Travis's suspicions, but he saw little advantage to informing either of his officers what he'd uncovered. They already mistrusted him and this would only add fuel to that fire. He nodded absently, dismissing the Kyrenian. Phrath glared, his fur bristling at such cavalier treatment but Akema gave a jerk of his thumb, reinforcing the order.
After the young felinoid left, the engineer leaned on the desk, studying Travis's brooding features before he finally demanded, "Well, what's the agenda tomorrow, Captain? The reinforcements to the nutrient tanks and sealant checks will be finished by noon. But there's at least another twenty-four hours of work needed to recalibrate the comms and sensors. The earliest we can expect liftoff would be the end of the week."
"Arrange to get that cargo loaded as soon as the sealant checks are done," Travis ordered.
"But the sensor/comm work will take another two or three days--at the very least. Keeping embryos in storage that long is risky. A temporary power outage could leave us with a lot of dead mutton."
"You just worry about your part of the refit, Engineer, and I'll worry about mine."
Furious at that cold dismissal, Akema stalked angrily from the office before he gave into the impulse to inform the arrogant bastard that their survival was just as dependent on properly functioning sensors and comms as the engines and shielding.
Phrath was waiting for him at the main hatch and they left the ship for a quiet dockside pub. Phrath was still in a huff about Travis's attitude.
"Fedscum bastard. Good officers we are-engine tamer, and sharpshooter, none better than us. Bloody run to Lescaux, he won't survive without our help."
"Maybe not," Akema leaned back in his chair, studying the bubbles in his beer as they floated upwards. "But I'm thinkin' it may not be the Lescaux run that he's worried about surviving. Things have been tense between him and Captain Jenna lately."
Phrath's bright pink tongue flicked across his sharp fangs, as his eyes glittered. "Hearing about bondmate's hot date with Lajoie, Captain Jenna might appreciate."
Akema's dark eyes glinted dangerously. "Keep your mouth shut about what happened in the Three Ringed Moon or I'll pull off your ears and stuff `em down your throat."
Phrath drew himself up with offended dignity, "No stupid cubs came from my dam's den. Know better than to foul own nest. . . even with truth."
Back in the wardroom aboard Alamo, Travis brooded over the information he'd just received . If Phrath had his facts straight, it was obvious that renegade Federation troops were behind the raids. But why the restraint? Terror had always been Space Command's tactic of choice for keeping the neutral planets cowed and unresisting. Did Servalan think that by taking a more moderate approach, the Enclave and nonaligned worlds would turn a blind eye to her piracy and just consider it one more cost of doing business?
Or was something more behind these carefully planned and executed raids? A ploy against the Enclave or Samore or anyone else that she held responsible for her present fall from power? He'd severed his ties with Space Command and the Federation months before. Servalan's scheming was Samore's problem. . .and the First Captain's.
The same went for Carnell, no matter what his link to Travis's past might be. That past was dead and buried. Or at least as much as it could be, given the nightmares that still haunted him. But he was trying to put all of that behind him now, with Jenna's help, so they could build a new life together.
Travis pushed away from the desk and prowled through Alamo's deserted corridors. Despite the echoing emptiness, he felt a bond with this ship. . .and its crew. Almost as strong as his bond with Jenna. She'd left him in charge of the Lescaux mission and it was his responsibility to see that it was completed safely and profitably. It was his chance to prove he was capable of assuming equal command of their trading runs. And to disprove the innuendo that he was only tolerated as Jenna's consort because of his inside knowledge of Space Command . . .and his skill at keeping her sexually gratified.
His touchy pride about those implications was one reason he'd reacted so badly when Jenna had accepted that trading mission with Blake. That and the feeling, despite his acceptance into the Clan, that First Captain Stannis was watching like a cat at a mouse hole, ready to pounce at his first mistake. And the Lescaux run could very easily be that mistake. . .unless he acted to prevent it right now.
Hurrying back to his desk, he dug out Akema's notes on the reworked sensor array and
wormed his way into the access tubes to resume the grindingly tedious procedure. Hours later, when he dragged himself to the galley to grab some coffee and a bite to eat, he ran into Akema . Glancing down at the crumpled, sweat-stained notes on the table, the engineer remarked mildly, "Looks like you've finished the recalibration in Alamo , Captain. Phrath and I could get started on Balkis while you catch forty winks."
Travis gulped his coffee and shrugged off the other man's concern, "I'll manage, Engineer. Besides, I don't think that circuitry could survive Phrath's temper."
Just after noon, the last of the comm linkages was completed and Travis stumbled to his bunk and collapsed onto it without even stripping off his grimy coverall. A scant two hours later, the duty comm tech buzzed him
"Sorry to wake you, sir. But there's an urgent call and the caller won't speak to anyone but you."
Travis rolled out of his bunk and hurriedly splashed cold water on his face. It probably wasn't a personal call from Jenna, but he could always hope. Stumbling up to the flight deck, he found himself face to face with the dour features of their cargo consignee on Lescaux. At Travis's curt greeting, the man's expression grew even sourer. "Agrocommisioner Payne here. I'm afraid you're going to have to delay delivery of our genestock shipment. Heavy magnetic storms have shorted out generators to main agritech center. We're unable to store the embryos until repairs have been made."
Travis snarled in frustration, "When do you think that will be? It will cost us a fortune in storage and docking fees just sitting here."
"Medtech equipment takes priority, then food production. It's hard to say when the disaster coordinators will allocate repairs for future breeding stock. Transit delays are covered in contract clause 56, subheading H. We'll keep you informed about repair progress. Payne out." He almost punched his fist through the screen, but the comm tech's terrorized expression stopped him. He took a deep shuddering breath and managed to regain control,
"Print out three copies of that message then forward it to the First Captain and the Trade Board. Find out our options. . ."
Before he could finish his order, there was the chime of a second incoming signal. The tech automatically hit the RECORD switch, thinking it was probably Lescaux demanding a hardcopy acknowledgment that their original message had been received.
Instead, much to Travis's surprise, its relay coordinates indicated it had originated from one of the Rim Worlds, an obscure little planet called Jade. Surely none of his informants were that far out. Unless. . .could it be Docholli?
Travis quickly scanned the contents and first, he thought the message had been garbled by one of the relays that boosted the signal. Then an old memory resurfaced and he recognized groupings from one of the first Federation codes that he'd learned as a raw recruit. The damned thing had to be almost twenty years old. Who'd even remember such an antique encryption system, much less use it? Though, if the message was from the cybersurgeon, he'd have had very little experience with codes past his initial indoctrination.
Muttering to himself, Travis marked and counted the letters and numbers, erasing and starting over at least twice. When the message was finally translated, he read it though twice, perplexed, wondering what it could mean.
". . .evidence of puppeteer tampering in Cobra Project files . . ."
Suddenly the memory resurfaced, so stark and real, he felt the pain as though it had happened only yesterday. "Cobra 2 to Base, Cobra 2 to Base. The engines are overheating. . . I've cut the throttle but it's no good. She's going to blow!" Dar's scream and the fighter's explosion echoed through his brain, along the actinic aftershock of a fiery crash that didn't leave enough of his brother's body to identify, much less justify the expense of a military funeral.
He stared at the slip of paper, his face so grief-stricken that the comm tech spoke up in alarm, "Sir, are you all right? Do you want me to call the medcenter?"
Travis did not reply but carefully folded the translated copy and placed it in his inner tunic pocket before departing the flight deck. The still coded original that the machine had recorded lay abandoned on the console.
Akema was in Alamo's number six hold making a final preflight check on the nutrient tank fittings when Travis found him. Normally that task would have been his responsibility but Akema had taken the job allowing him catch up on sleep before liftoff. It was a wasted kindness.
"Did you get the bugs worked out of the Reina's autopilot?" Travis demanded harshly.
Somewhat startled at that odd inquiry in view of the demands on everyone's time that the refit had made over the past three days, Akema shrugged. "Well enough, I suppose. The alarms still won't sound for anything more than a tenth of a percent drift over a thousand spacials. But I guess that won't put it more than twenty or thirty kloms off course during a regular run. The collision screens are still acting up..."
Travis cut him off in mid-report. "Release the magnetic couplings and preflight her. I want her ready to launch in thirty minutes...or less."
As he turned on his heel and started to hurry away, the engineer's ham-sized fist dropped on his shoulder and checked him. "Why? The last of our nutrient tanks will be loaded and ready for takeoff by the end of the shift. This is no time to go out joyriding."
"You might as well unload them. I just got a message from Agrocommissioner Payne. Lescaux's been hit by heavy magnetic storms causing planetwide power failures. They want us to delay the shipment until they can get the power restored to their storage and reproductive facilities."
Akema subsided, rumbling in exasperation, "That could take anywhere from two days to a month, depending on available resources and manpower priorities." He grunted in disgust. "I hope there's a clause in that contract that compensates us for the docking fees that we'll be piling up, sitting on our tails awaiting their pleasure."
Travis shrugged indifferently. It was no longer his concern. Heading for the palm-locked safe in Alamo's wardroom, he quickly gathered the port clearance, docking releases, and other essential items he needed before lifting-off. As he stuck the papers in the inside pocket of his tunic, he stared for long moments at the handful of loose gems and odd pieces of jewelry. All that remained of the items Jenna had taken from the treasure room when she left Liberator.
. "Payment for services rendered," she'd referred to it with a mocking laugh.
She'd squirreled the valuables away, managing to avoid having them included on the inventory of assets listed with the Enclave's computer system when they rejoined her clan. Years as a smuggler on the Rim had taught her the value of having an alternate escape route, even when dealing with "old friends"- or family. Her way out, if Mikhail ever betrayed her trust.
Yet she hadn't been reluctant to spend that treasure when his freedom had been at stake. Freedom from the neural controller in his cyberarm that had turned him into a programmed killing machine at Servalan's disposal. Looking for someone to repair the arm, they'd stumbled across Docholli, a cybersurgeon on the run because of his knowledge of Star One and also the one man with skills to enable Travis to escape Federation control.
The cybersurgeon had charged them little more than the cost of supplies, saying it was a small payback for some of things that he'd done under the orders of the Senior Echelon. Especially his mindwipes of the personnel involved with Star One's transfer to the galaxy's edge.
The Andromedan attack on Star One had left the Outer Worlds in chaos, assuring Docholli that his bolthole remained safe. But increased Federation presence on the Rim, along with Servalan's growing influence as a local crimelord, had likely unnerved the cybersurgeon. Especially since there had once been a considerable bounty on his head.
A golden chain spilled across his fingers, reminding him of Jenna's hair spread across a pillow. Abruptly he let it drop on the desk, among the docking clearance papers and other documents. Docholli's career as a cybersurgeon had made him privy to a great many dangerous secrets over the years. The Cobra Project easily could have been one of them. But was he telling the truth about the puppeteers' involvement. . .or just what Travis wanted to hear, in order to finance his escape ?
Whatever he'd discovered, Docholli was a frightened man, looking for a way to drop out of sight permanently. Though the cybersurgeon had tried to cover his tracks by using an antique code and relaying his message through half a dozen backwater worlds, such primitive techniques would not fool a professional--not for long. Even if Travis left now, there was a better than even chance that one of Docholli's former employers had already found and silenced him. But waiting until after the Lescaux run, especially with its current delay, would guarantee that Docholli would either be dead, or if he had managed to find a bolthole, he'd have pulled his tracks in after him.
Travis stared down at his clenched fists. If he left for Jade now and the Lescaux trade run was rescheduled before he returned, Akema would have to delay takeoff, forfeiting the timely delivery clause and being assessed a rapidly escalating set of penalties for each day they were delayed. It would kill any chance they had of making a profit this year and might even cost Jenna her ships.
All of which would put paid to his new life in Enclave society as Jenna's bondmate and a Free Trader captain. Though he'd surrendered his hatred of Blake and Servalan in an effort to escape his past and make a new start, he'd forgotten a bitter truth written by an ancient Earth author, "The past is never dead and buried, sometimes it isn't even past."
Despite his efforts, his history's hold over him wasn't easily broken. Carnell and Servalan. Dar and Metis III. Spectres looming out of the shadows of that past. And Docholli held the key. A key that would likely cost him everything in the pouch. . . and his honor besides.
His mouth clenched in a hard line as he gathered up the jewels and poured them into the pouch. Before he could put it in his belt, Akema burst into the wardroom, glowering.
His fist shot out and closed over Travis's, "Just where the hell do you think you're going with those anyway?"
"Move that arm or I'll rip it off, engineer."
"That treasure belongs to Captain Jenna," Akema said, making a visible effort to hold on to his temper. "I'm not letting you take it without some kind of explanation of where you're going. . . and why? Not when we've got two ships loaded with delicate cargo and a time-sensitive mission on indefinite hold."
"That's my personal business, Akema. Not yours. . . or Jenna's. Now, are you going to release me. . .or do I have to kill you?"
Akema was not easily intimidated, but something about that cold stare chilled him to the marrow. He released his grip and watched without speaking as Travis put the pouch and dock clearances inside his tunic. He made one final effort to break through his captain's icy exterior, "What the hell are we supposed to do for a Pilot/Captain if Lescaux calls tomorrow and says that their generators are up and running and they'd like their genestock delivered as scheduled?"
"Notify the First Captain," Travis remarked bitterly as he strode down the companionway and out the main lock."I'm sure he's already planned for this eventuality."
"And what about Jenna, what do I tell her?" Akema's deepset eyes glowered as he followed Travis to the Reina.
Travis paused just inside the airlock. Despite Akema's brash attitude, Travis had respected the man as an able spacer and competent engineer from the first time they met. Over the last few months, he'd felt the mutual respect and trust they shared growing into the closest thing to real friendship that he'd ever experienced But now he had to betray that friendship. . .and Jenna as well. All because of his past.
He answered roughly, "Tell her the truth, Akema. Tell her to forget our paths ever crossed."
Sealing the lock, Travis sounded the klaxon that warned the maintenance
crews to clear the field. Pausing only long enough to get clearance from the
Xanadu tower, he blasted off as though the Furies themselves were pursuing
Leeches Lane was even darker and grimier than he remembered from their previous visit to this neutral docking facility and marginally legal supply center. With Blake, the Federation, and the Enclave no longer at one another's throats, smuggling, mercenary recruiting and gunrunning profits were sharply down and underdeveloped worlds like Jade had little else to fall back on. Even with his clearance and Free Trader Captain's ID, Travis got the definite feeling he was not welcome here, despite the fact he paid the rather exorbitant transit tax in hard cash and not the usual credit transfer voucher.
Rather than test that unfriendly welcome any further by hitting the taverns dockside to see what gossip and scuttlebutt was making the rounds, he relied on his somewhat fuzzy memories to locate Docholli. He hadn't been terribly alert either coming or going from the renegade cybersurgeon's office; shaking off the effects of a dockside brawl when Jenna had dragged him here and in shock with aftereffects from removal of the neural implant when they'd left.
He peered uncertainly at the smoke begrimed walls, finally locating the neatly stenciled name, almost hidden by a neon green splash of Tealian graffiti. Climbing warily up the dark stairs, with the hairs at the back of his neck prickling, he cursed himself as seven kinds of a fool for being lured back to what was undoubtedly a trap. With one hand on his blaster, he opened the door into the spartanly neat office.
Docholli had changed. He was no longer the drink-sodden, guilt-haunted individual of a year ago, Instead, Travis faced a man who was sober, alert, and frightened. With an air of grim determination and a very large blaster pointed steadily at Travis's midsection.
He demanded in a level tone of voice, "Where's your partner?"
Travis's eye narrowed then he shrugged off the question negligently, "She had business of her own. . .and your message was in Federation code." He glared at the blaster in disgust. "Expecting unfriendly visitors?"
Docholli's watery blue eyes were suspicious, but he accepted Travis's assurance that he was alone. Deftly he removed Travis's blaster and the money pouch at his belt, placing them on the desk, within easy reach.
"Let's just say that I've uncovered some very dangerous secrets recently, Captain, and there are too many people who'd like to see them buried again. . .and me with them. You'll find my information worth the price, but I just don't want any sudden distractions to separate me from the funds necessary to escape from Servalan's clutches."
"Haven't you heard? Servalan's history now. Her coup attempt on Byzantia failed and she's on the run, hiding out from what remains of the Fleet after Star One. I doubt she has the time or manpower to waste on vengeance."
"Never underestimate her appetite for vengeance, Captain. That was how she kept underlings in line; stark fear of how terrible and unrelenting her retribution could be." He glanced around nervously, before finally lowering the blaster and motioning Travis to a straight-backed wooden chair across from his own.
Travis seated himself warily, keeping a close eye on Docholli. For the moment, the cybersurgeon had regained some control and didn't seem on the edge of bolting. Docholli dragged his forearm wearily across his mouth, trying to wipe away the cold sweat clinging there.
" Damn Blake for dragging me into his bloody quest for the location of Star One," he lamented. "I let my conscience overcome my instinct for survival and now I have to run for my life to an even more primitive world and start all over again- new papers, new identity, new network of informers, if I can even find any that far out." He hefted the small pouch he had taken from Travis's belt. "Hopefully, this will be enough to give me a headstart."
Travis leaned forward, grabbing Docholli's arm in his cybernetic grip " I'm not here out of the goodness of my heart, Docholli. The Black Cobra files. Where are they? Where did you find them? That project was deep-sixed years ago. And what about the puppeteers, what was their part in that bloody mess?"
Docholli shrugged off Travis's grip, studying the former Space Commander, more certain of his ground. Travis had not come all the way out to the Rim just out of curiosity about his half-forgotten past. Some stronger emotion was driving him in his search for answers about his brother's death. Was it merely anger and grief? Or perhaps even. . .guilt?
Leaning back in his chair, Docholli stared into the distance before he began to speak, "Carnell has been a compelling figure within the puppeteers' cabal, though something of an enigma. . . much like you, Travis. He flashed onto the scene a few years ago, like a comet out of the darkness: brilliant, erratic, and extremely dangerous. No trace of his background - family, homeworld, education -- exists in Federation records. He seems to have sprung into existence full grown, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. The first evidence I found of him involved a deep-cover tampering operation with files of the Black Cobra test project."
"Why the hell would a puppeteer be interested in Black Cobra-it was a dead end. Waste of time, credits, and . . .and lives."
"I wondered the same myself," Docholli murmured. "Why would a skilled psychostrategist waste time, after the fact, tampering with flight records. . .and disposal of a test pilot's remains?"
Travis reacted like someone had poured acid on an open wound, his voice torn with rage and grief. "There were no `remains.' When the prototype exploded and burned, there wasn't enough left of my brother to even bury."
Docholli was silent for a long moment, hearing the underlying guilt and doubt under the rage of that reply. Then he continued carefully, knowing he was treading on dangerous ground. "The records I found seem to indicate otherwise. That your brother survived. . . or enough of him for the puppeteers to take an interest. At least, I assume that was why Carnell was tampering with the records of Diarmid Travis's test flight of the Cobra I prototype. . . and his untimely death."
Travis's face went dead still and there was a white pinched look around his mouth, before he exploded in low-voiced curses, "Damn you Docholli! And all the bloody puppeteers, clone masters and other meddlers with human flesh just like you! We're only collections of bits and pieces that you rebuild and reshape to your private whims!"
"Don't tar me with that same brush, Space Commander. I made mistakes in the past -- just like a lot of other people." Docholli gazed down at his still skillful hands. "But for the past twenty years I've attempted to atone for my sins. Rebuilding arms, legs and even whole nervous systems, so human wreckage discarded by the Federation and Space Command can have a chance for some kind of a life."
Travis seemed to regain some semblance of control, though his eye still burned with a cold flame. "I know about Carnell's ability at manipulating people and events like pieces on a chessboard. He's been part of several of Servalan's more devious efforts to seize power, like the IMIPAK scheme and the recent attempts to assassinate planetary leaders on Byzantia. But why would he still be working for her? She's little more than a small time crimelord now, commanding a few disaffected Space Command troops engaged in minor piracy and hijacking. Surely the puppeteers have bigger plans than petty larceny."
"Servalan has no intention of rotting on some backwater planet. Almost a quarter of Samore's surviving Fleet have defected and joined her. Besides the food and fuel that they've been stealing for resupply, they've also acquired enough hard cash to hire additional mercenary troops." Docholli's eyes glittered feverishly. " She's been sowing mistrust among the Byzantian treaty members as well. Planning to have them at one another's throats while she raids all sides with impunity."
"Once she's hired sufficient troops, she'll have Samore assassinated and be back in power with her boot heel again at the galaxy's throat before anyone even guesses the real purpose behind those raids." He tossed two data cubes on the desk, next to Travis's money pouch. "Here are the Black Cobra files you paid for. . . as a bonus, I'm including a cube containing Servalan's plans. Subspace messages to mercenary captains offering looting rights within the Enclave. Plans for resuming power and rebuilding the Inner Planets by stripping the neutral planets of wealth and resources. Key officials to be assassinated and specific strategic targets to be spared because of their importance in reestablishing her base of power. Even a map of the minefield surrounding her asteroid base."
Travis's cybernetic fist clenched as he stared at the two cubes."It's not my concern, surgeon. I'm no longer a Free Trader captain. Mikhail Stannis and the rest of the Enclave are welcome to deal with Servalan. All I want is the truth about my brother."
"Getting to Carnell may be more difficult than you think," Docholli retorted harshly. "Servalan's current base is virtually impregnable-orbiting mines, patrolling scouts, and an army of mercenaries who jump when she whistles. Why not go ahead and warn the Enclave and their allies? Let them deal with Servalan and her troops, while you hunt down Carnell."
"That's how he escaped on Byzantia," Travis gritted out, "blending in with the crowd then slipping back into the shadows." His hand closed over the Black Cobra data cube, shoving the other one back to Docholli. "If you're that worried about Servalan and her troops, send it to Stannis yourself. Who knows, he might even add a few megacredits to what you've already squeezed out of me."
Docholli shook his head ruefully, "Too dangerous. I took a big enough risk contacting you. Now that I have sufficient funds, I'll get the necessary identity papers and permits to drop out of sight, permanently this time." He tucked the pouch inside his shirt, "Good-bye, Captain Travis, and good hunting. Just remember, sometimes the hunter can become the prey."
Travis turned on his heel and left without another word.
On his way through the foggy back alleys of Jade's dockside district, Travis brooded on Docholli's unsettling revelations. If the cybersurgeon was telling the truth, the Enclave and the independent worlds were in great danger. Even the Federation was threatened by Servalan's scheme to regain power. Just where did his loyalties lie? To a brother he believed long dead or to someone who had saved his life and offered him a future?
He clenched his fists angrily. And who ran off with her former lover the first chance she got. No, that was wrong. It wasn't her decision, but Stannis's scheming that sent Jenna off on that trade mission with Blake. First Captain Mikhail Stannis, who still held Travis accountable for the Federation's crimes against the Enclave. What loyalty did he owe Stannis? And the Enclave? And yes, even the Federation, for years of abuse and conditioning, treating him as less than human, little more than a weapon. But that was all Servalan's doing. Along with Carnell's masterful manipulation of people and events, especially him. All of which brought him full circle back to his hunt for Carnell. . . and answers to questions about his past. And his brother's death.
Most of all he was sickened by the doubts that Docholli had raised: whether or not his brother was truly dead, or part of some ruthless experiment by Carnell and his fellow puppeteers. Had he been cloned like Blake? Or turned into a half-human mutoid? Or worst of all, become a cybernetic construct like Travis himself ? Only more so, considering how little had been left after the crash of the Black Cobra fighter. Did Dar exist as little more than a sentient brain inside a killer robot? A rush of bile surged up in the back of his throat and he spat it out, wiping his hand roughly across his mouth.
Stop it, he thought to himself. You're letting your imagination get the better of you. The only way to discover the truth is to find Carnell. . . and beat it out of him, if I have to.
Three disreputable figures watched from the shadows, their eyes gleaming in anticipation.
"You sure that's him?" a small weaselly man demanded uncertainly. "He don't look like much."
"I studied the holos real good. That's him all right. No mistaking that patch or the cyber arm. Fifty thousand credits for him, alive and healthy," rumbled the voice of another man deeper within the alleyway.
"How much for the corpse?" questioned a third voice nervously, apprehensive of the man's low-slung blaster and the smooth, tightly coiled power of his stride.
"Small change. Only five hundred No, the man wants him alive. I wonder why?"
"No telling what runs through a puppeteer's devious mind," the first man shuddered. "All right, let's get on with it. Weapons on wide beam and don't get in close till the gas disperses."
Despite his preoccupation with Docholli's information, Travis sensed he was being stalked as soon as the bounty hunters began to close in on him. He dropped to one knee dodging the stun beam that flared out of the darkness, as he swiftly drew his own weapon and fired by instinct. But the gas grenade tossed at his feet enveloped him in a nerve gas derivative that paralyzed him almost instantly, while still leaving him conscious of the voices and movement around him. Unfortunately, the man he shot had also inhaled its potentially toxic fumes, a situation that caused a whispered argument between his captors.
"Clumsy fool. We've only got enough antidote for one. If we don't use it on our prize in the next ten minutes, we'll only get the bounty for his corpse."
"Leave Jesup then," the third man retorted harshly. "He was fool enough to get too close and we don't need him anyway. Besides, it's easier to split the bounty two ways instead of three."
"And no split is easiest of all," The blaster discharge whined out of the
darkness dropping the second bounty hunter to the ground. Travis struggled
weakly, trying to shake off the gas's effects while they argued over him, but
to no avail. Moments later, he was hefted over the survivor's shoulder and
jounced painfully toward the docks.
Jenna stared in confusion at the stranger answering her hail to the Alamo's flight deck. She knew all the relief pilots and couldn't imagine why a newcomer would be on the duty roster, much less taking Travis's calls.
No reason for alarm. she thought to herself. There could be any number of reasons for another pilot's presence. She addressed the stranger with a reasonably calm note in her voice, "Good to see you're on schedule, Alamo. Is Captain Travis offwatch?"
An odd expression crossed the other woman's face, sending a cold chill into Jenna's gut. If she didn't know better, she'd swear it was pity.
"We're running a little behind. There was an ion storm so we're just now making our delivery run, rather than the return leg. But, let me connect you to Engineer Akema, Fleet Captain Stannis. He can give you the details."
Moments later, staring into the engineer's stolid expression, Jenna listened impassively while he sketched out the weather delays and Travis's increasingly erratic behavior before he took the Reina and departed without telling anyone his destination.
"He left the credit vouchers but took all the hard cash in the Alamo's safe."
"Damn him,"she bit her lip. "Didn't he say anything at all about the nature of this `urgent personal business?'"
Akema rubbed a distracted hand across his polished ebony scalp, taking a deep breath before he replied, somewhat evasively. "Errr--not a hint, Seran Jenna. There was a commfax sheet left on the flight deck and I thought it might have some a clue about his destination, but it's gibberish."
"A coded transmission?" she wondered out loud, then ordered in a carefully neutral voice. "Have it transmitted, Akema."
Moments later, she held a copy of the message that had sent Travis haring off heaven only knew where. Judging by the transmission headers, it had been bounced around half the planets in the Spiral Rim. Her comm tech could probably isolate its origin point, but if it was in code, it wasn't one she was familiar with. Maybe Avon or Orac could make something of it.
After acknowledging the transmission, Jenna spoke briefly with the officer on watch. "After you offload at Lescaux, Captain, please have Alamo and Balkis rendezvous with theValkyrie at the following coordinates, Sector 19, X-28, Y-17."
The other captain made the course adjustments as ordered then glanced in the viewscreen somewhat baffled, "That's out on the Spiral Rim, practically at the border of the Outer Worlds."
"Very astute of you," Jenna observed blandly as she cut communications to her ships.
Moments later she had raised Cally aboard the Liberator. " I think that message I just forwarded to you is a Federation code, but I can't make heads or tails of it. Maybe Orac can--"
"There's no need for Orac," the Auron guerilla answered. "I recognize this from my training on Saurian Major. It's one of their earliest and most basic codes, almost twenty years old. We familiarized ourselves with it because it often led us to abandoned installations and weapons caches where the defenses had been left on automatic."
"Can you decode it?" Jenna demanded, trying to hide the urgency in her voice.
"Give me a moment." Cally studied the message, made a few notations and then read it back to Jenna. "Evidence of puppeteer tampering in Cobra Project files. Chessmaster's strategm Black Queen's gambit."
Jenna frowned, momentarily baffled until she recalled Travis's stark words the night before she left "Cobra Project files? Travis's brother was a test pilot in the Cobra Project." She remembered Travis's nightmares after the mnemonic cascade. The agony in his voice as he'd relived his brother's death again and again during their first year as Federation recruits. A cold knot of fear settled in her stomach.
Whoever sent that message knew that Travis couldn't resist it.
"I'm more concerned with the second part of the message." Cally observed calmly. "Mention of a Chessmaster and Black Queen could very well mean that the puppeteer Carnell and Servalan are scheming together again, like they did on Byzantia. If so, their plans could endanger Blake and the new alliance he's trying to build."
"Considering the increased raids we've been suffering, it's more likely the threat is aimed at the Enclave."
"Or even the Federation," Cally continued, "considering Servalan's attempted grab for power on Byzantia. Still, Blake should be informed about this."
Jenna's expression was guarded. Travis's abrupt and unexplained desertion of his responsibilities and his violation of her trust left her seething. Yet, someone had specifically tailored this message to his vulnerabilities. His obsession with Servalan and Carnell. The half-buried memories of his brother that still haunted his nightmares. Was the message truly a warning or bait for a trap? And if it was a trap, whose?
Jenna shook off her broodings, and started to thank Cally, but before she could speak, Cally asked her, "Were you aware that the message originated on Jade? Whoever sent it tried to hide his tracks by relaying it through several remote stations, as though he was afraid of someone tracing it back to his hiding place."
"Jade," Jenna whispered to herself, "Not . . .Docholli? But why?"
"Docholli- that was the name of the cybersurgeon who gave Blake the coordinates for Star One."
Jenna stared thoughtfully at Cally. They'd grown closer over the past months, now that Blake and his Cause no longer stood between them. Cally's skills had saved Travis's life after Star One and she actually seemed to approve of their relationship. Or at least she was empathetic enough not to make sarcastic remarks like those Avon had dispensed with even-handed irritation over the last two weeks.
Her trade run to Safekeep had been an interesting experience, getting to know Blake's newest crewmembers. Over the past week, Dayna's obsession with killing Servalan and avenging her father's death had begun to wear a bit thin. And Tarrant- well, if she'd still been mooning over Blake, Tarrant might have served as a welcome diversion. As it was, his youthful exuberance made her miss Travis's stoic silences even more.
"Thank you for the translation. . .and the location, Cally." She glanced down at her controls, then up to Cally in appeal."Warn Blake if you think it necessary. Just don't tell him where the message originated. . .please. I intend to go after Travis and I don't want Blake muddying his trail."
Looking towards Valkyrie's crew, she bade the Auron farewell. "We're breaking away now to head for Jade. Tell Blake. . . 'Goodbye' and remind him of the thirty percent bonus he owes me for getting those soil supplements delivered before spring planting."
After she signed off, Brita brought the latest navigation log and fuel consumption report for her okay. As Jenna studied the figures, the navtech remarked drily, "Do you think Travis will appreciate you coming to fetch him back like a strayed pup?"
Jenna glanced up angrily, Brita's remark reminding her of the harsh words Travis had spat in her face, the night before she left. How often had he endured the sly, snickering derision that triggered that outburst? For a man with Travis's pride and skills to be regarded as being little more than her sexual plaything, a Free Trade captain by virtue of her inheritance and not his own abilities must have provoked him almost beyond endurance. But to hear that cruel, and untrue, innuendo on the flight deck of her own ship was very nearly the breaking point!
"I'm sure he'll have no objection to our coming to his rescue if this is another one of Servalan's traps," she snarled
"He escaped her clutches without your help on Byzantia, didn't he?" Brita persisted. "Besides, suppose the message is true. Doesn't he have the right to find out the truth behind his brother's death?"
Jenna was frustrated by Brita's astute question. As furious as she was that he would leave their ships in the middle of trading mission just to chase after some long buried secret from his past, she couldn't forget that it was her own longings that had drawn the two of them back to the Enclave. She should have realized that Travis was as much a prisoner of his past as she had once been. They both had hidden secrets in their pasts. Whether his secrets would save him or destroy him, Travis had a right to find out for himself. Still, it was so very hard just to do nothing.
She clenched her fists. "What are you saying? That I should just abandon him to his search and whatever risks or ambushes he might run into?"
"I'm saying," the navtech pointed out, "that a Free Trade fleet in a backwater hole like Jade is sure to call unwelcome attention to your bondmate. It may even set him up for the kind of trouble you're worried about." She continued in a more sympathetic tone. "Take the fleet back to Sanctuary and continue `business as usual.'"
"Then what?" Jenna demanded bleakly.
"Send out feelers. Travis is not a man who blends into a crowd that easily. He'll be noticed wherever he goes and such information is cheap enough on the open market," she continued in a reassuring tone of voice.
Jenna slumped in resignation, before nodding her agreement. "I hope you're right." Whether the navtech was correct or not about Travis being easily spotted while he searched for information about his brother's death, Jenna knew she couldn't abandon their hard-won acceptance within the Enclave. They had both paid too high a price for their ships and her clan's approval to throw it away in a futile search when he probably didn't want to be found anyway.
She reopened the line to Cally. "Seems like we won't be breaking off after all." She paused thoughtfully for a moment and then continued. "Tell Avon that I have a business proposition for him."
"He may not be interested," Cally replied. "He's still deeply involved in his negotiations with First Captain ...your uncle, proving how Orac's capabilities can be useful to your clan and the Enclave as a whole."
Jenna had to smile ruefully. "And how is Blake reacting to Avon's impending defection?"
"Well enough, I suppose. At least, they're not arguing this morning," the Auron observed uneasily. "And everyone is being so deliberately polite that Dayna has threatened to set off a stink bomb on the flight deck just to clear away `the cloying stench of sweetness and light.'"
Jenna had to smile at the young huntress's outspoken irritation. "Well, the information I need won't tax Orac's tarriel cells that much and will probably overlap with Avon's research for Mikhail anyway."
"I'll mention it as soon as I see him," Cally promised, then continued hesitantly. "You'renot going after Travis?"
Jenna tried to maintain her nonchalant air. "It's his personal business and he doesn't need me looking over his shoulder. Besides, I've got a fleet to run."
As his captor headed towards a dingy tramp freighter at the extreme edge of Jade's landing, Travis had struggled to fight off the effects of the gas. But the paralysis that gripped him moved slowly up his body, making it harder and harder for him to breathe. As he choked and gasped, trying to drag air into his oxygen-starved lungs, a cloaked figure stepped out of the shadows just before the bounty hunter reached the entry lock of the freighter.
" Do you have something for me?" The identity of that smooth voice teased at the back of Travis's memory.
"If you're the man offering ten thousand bounty for former Space Commander Travis?"
"Only if he's the right man. . .and still alive."
The bounty hunter had dropped Travis onto the landing apron and yanked his head up so the customer could inspect his features.
The shadowed figure allowed his head to drop, before observing coldly, "I told you he was worth the ten thousand only if you brought him to me alive. This man's dying of Quelcene poisoning."
"I got the antidote," the bounty hunter growled. "But I want to see the color of your money before I hand it over."
"Very cautious of you," the hooded figure approved, then handed over a heavy pouch. The bounty hunter peered inside it cautiously, noting the gleam of gold and platinum,
before reaching inside his shirt for a slapshot ampule. "This should bring him around."
Stepping back and pulling his weapon as the other dropped to one knee to hurriedly administer the antidote, the bounty hunter warned, "Don't try to double cross me, puppeteer. I got friends all over the docks."
Travis felt the vise constricting his chest slowly ease and as the darkness clouding his vision began to clear, a white-hot beam seared out of the darkness, slicing though the body of the bounty hunter, killing him instantly. The figure at Travis's side stood up and threw back his hood, revealing the smooth blonde features of the psychostrategist Carnell.
"Too bad you disposed of them earlier."
A squad of troopers dressed in Space Command black but without the Federation sigil hurried over to Carnell's side. Their leader was a burly, scar-faced man who stared down at Travis's body and aimed a kick at his ribs, only to be forestalled by the puppeteer's painful grip on his arm.
"Restrain your vindictive impulses, Section Leader. He's Servalan's prisoner and she wants him delivered intact. . .at least until she passes judgement on him."
"When do we get to pay him back?" the scarred man snarled as he glowered at the barely conscious Travis.
"I'm sure something can be arranged, if you exercise due caution so the damage isn't visible. . . or terminal."
"He'll beg to die before we're through with him. . .sir."
"Just make sure that he doesn't, Section Leader."
Carnell gave the Section Leader a cool look, then gestured to the bounty hunter's body,
"Dispose of the carrion. . . and return the bounty money to my quarters. Then lock the prisoner in the brig. He needs a chance to recover from the nerve gas before you indulge in your usual 'fun and games.'"
Deposited roughly in the 3x5 space that was the ancient freighter's "holding facility," Travis slumped into an uneasy stupor. When he awoke, he felt the high-pitched hum of the freighter's bare deck plates under his cheek, letting him know that they were underway and pushing its ancient engines to the limit. He raised his head tentatively and three hard-eyed troopers dragged him into the companionway. They didn't waste their breath on threats or taunts but proceeded with brutal efficiency to beat Travis into bloody submission.
Despite his efforts to defend himself, using every trick of dirty fighting he'd learned in twenty years of survival in the Space Force, their superior numbers and calculated savagery gave them total control of the situation. They maintained a precise edge to their abuse that inflicted the maximum amount of pain without permanently damaging him. Or granting him the surcease of unconsciousness until they were finished "having their fun."
Some interminable time later, he was allowed to slump to the floor, battered and drooling, before they'd dragged him back to his closet-sized cell then slammed the door, leaving him alone in the darkness.
At irregular intervals during their trip, the Section Leader or a group of selected troopers returned to thrash Travis in a brutally methodical fashion. They always left his face untouched and were careful not to fracture any ribs or rupture his spleen. For years, Travis had used a savage rage to fuel his driving will, whether in pursuit of Blake or resisting Servalan's programming. But these carefully systematic beatings left him frustrated and exhausted, eroding his resolve and feeding his doubts and uncertainties.
He knew he'd fallen into Servalan's clutches, but what she intended to use him for was a question that tormented his mind more than the beatings wracked his body. Carnell's presence was even more disturbing, because it had been the puppeteer's retraining techniques which had transformed him from a loyal officer to little more than Servalan's programmed killing machine.
Seventy-two hours later, he was dragged from his cell and his tattered, filthy clothing stripped off, after which he was hosed down with icy jets of water.
"The Supreme Commander is ready to see you, scum."
The Section Leader tossed a utility coverall at him, but Travis was so cold, he could no longer even shiver and it slipped through his numbed fingers. The escort was forced to hurriedly dress him before he could be dragged out to face Servalan.
. She strolled around him, wrinkling her nose in distaste at his appearance. Then seating herself with calculated ease, she remarked in a venomously mocking tone of voice, "You're a pitiful specimen, Travis. Soft, weak, hardly worth the few paltry coins that Carnell paid to retrieve you from that backwater hole of a planet. Why were you skulking there anyway? Scrounging up business for that fleabitten trading fleet of yours. . .no, I forget their quaint customs. Not even your ships. . . your `bondmate's.' Or are you still playing the part of the Stannis slut's hired bodyguard? A little difficult to do with the `body in question' on the far side of the Spiral Rim with your old enemy, Blake?"
Travis took a deep shuddering breath as the anger and jealousy surged through him. Gritting his teeth, he tried to laugh in her face but could barely manage a week sneer. Finally, after a long moment he croaked weakly, "Still getting your. . . intelligence. . . from the tabloids, Servalan?"
She purred maliciously, her eyes narrowing at his still defiant air . "Oh, I've uncovered so much more than that, Travis. Carnell's research on your past, despite some very high level code blocks, has made it an open book to me. It's a very interesting past, Travis. I wonder how much of it you remember?"
Despite his best intentions, he flinched. Though he tried to cover it with a nonchalant shrug, Servalan could tell he was disconcerted by her revelation. She decided to shake him up a little more before turning him over to Carnell's delicate ministrations.
"My biggest problem was I always underestimated you, Travis. Despite your coarse, crude exterior, you're very bright. . . so bright that even in the ranks you stood out. An adept survivor with the instinct for the jugular only born killers have. Fools that they were, the senior echelon still knew superior material when it was waved under their noses, even if it came from a nowhere failure of a colony rather than the Academy. The Admiralty. . .Samore and a few other fools like him...had plans for you. You were marked out, given special training and opportunities, groomed for high command. . .for power."
She gave a girlish trill of laughter which was totally incongruous coming from those blood-red lips. "Until Blake got lucky. . .leaving you a shattered physical and mental wreck. Totally useless to those fastidious, bleeding-heart generals and admirals. Only I saw the potential that remained. Your burning rage to live, the driving obsession to make Blake pay for your suffering."
She shrugged negligently. "Oh, I'll admit I used Carnell's mental tricks as well as the neural implant to augment that fury and to shape you into a killer obedient to me and me alone."
"If you wanted total obedience, why didn't you have me modified and be done with it," he demanded harshly.
She pushed out of her chair and prowled around him once again, catlike claws trailing provocatively across the bare skin of his throat. "And lose that brilliant cutting edge of insanity to simple mindless obedience. I wasn't that much of a fool."
Pacing deliberately away, she pivoted sharply, her eyes narrowed, spitting out her contempt. "You're the fool if you want to be one of the Enclave's tame dogs, fetching and carrying at their command. That Stannis bitch may have lured you into the Enclave's clutches, but you're a lone wolf by nature and you can't change that essential part of you, Travis. Sooner or later your true instincts will resurface and your friends and allies will try to kill you before you kill them. You might as well slink back, with your tail between your legs, to where you belong. . .with the wolves, not the sheep."
He glared at her with the tattered remnants of his dignity. "That's your problem, Servalan. you always treated me as little more than a beast. Using me to hunt down Blake and savage him at your command. But Jenna respected me as a man, not a half-human killing machine You won'trob me of that."
Servalan gave her usual carefully controlled smile as she gestured for her guards to drag him away. "Don't bet on it, Travis. Carnell is quite skilled at restoring your true nature."
Afterwards, the troopers gave him a relatively minor beating but combined with exhaustion and shock, he was barely conscious when they deposited him in his cell. When he regained his senses, he stared at its cold stone walls, laser carved out of the naked rock judging by the melted slag. He rolled over on the thin mat that was the only furnishing of the starkly utilitarian cell, then stifled a groan as the aftereffects of the past three and a half days made themselves felt with vengeance. Collapsing back onto his mat, his head throbbing and a taste in his mouth like the aftermath of Armageddon, he tried to take an inventory of his cell's contents, to determine what he could use as a weapon against his captors. . . or as a last resort, himself.
The mat was foam padding and unlike cloth, couldn't be unraveled to make a noose or garrote. Possibly he could shred it and block up the plumbing to get a guard inside. He glanced around for the cell's sanitary facilities and spotting a bare hole in the floor, he grimaced. It appeared Servalan's new base was not exactly equipped with modern conveniences. Struggling to his feet, he went over the cell inch by inch, trying to spot the surveillance camera that he knew had to be there and hoping to find something. . .anything. . . he could use to escape.
From his office, Carnell leaned his chin on steepled fingers, watching as Travis continued his painstaking search for a way out
"Same old Colin, stubborn as ever. No matter the cost."
At first, he'd feared that Travis's stint as a Free Trader Captain might have softened him and extinguished the ruthless paranoia that made him such a useful tool. But the edge was still there, and it would take little effort to reshape the one-time Space Commander back into the deadly weapon he once had been. Though this time his loyalties would serve the puppeteers' vision of galactic domination . . and not Servalan's venal ambition for power and wealth.
He made sure the surveillance camera was operating, adding to the archive of observations that he already had on Travis. He hardly needed the additional data; he already knew his subject well enough he could predict his moves, like a rat in a maze. Still, knowledge was power in Carnell's universe and one could never have too much power.
His earlier intimidation of the guards had restrained them from inflicting the kind of extreme bodily harm that Servalan would have had to officially notice. But he had to get Travis out of that cell soon before the guards had the opportunity to fully indulge their sadistic impulses. A little well-planned abuse would accelerate the erosion of mental and emotional barriers, but it was a delicate process and he didn't want to push his subject completely over the edge into psychosis. . .or worse, catatonia.
A light flashed on his desk, indicating that Servalan wanted to speak with him. . .at once. He switched the screen over to her comm line.
"Yes? How may I be of service, Supreme Commander?"
"Stop beating around the bush, Carnell. How long before Travis will be ready for duty?"
"It's still too early to tell, ma'am. Judging by preliminary scans, his conversion may take a little more time than I originally scheduled. During the last year, he's been subjected to several instances of telepathic tampering and certain psychopyretic drugs. I may have to re- initiate much of his original conditioning."
"How long, puppeteer?" The golden glint in her eyes had a sudden reddish tinge.
"Two weeks at a minimum. More likely it will take at least a month to recondition him to his previous level of submission."
"I don't have time for you to mollycoddle him, Carnell. I need his tactical skills soon, if we're going to have any chance of destroying Samore. . .and that motley alliance of his."
Carnell leaned back in his seat, stroking his chin as he stared at the ceiling.
"The quickest and easiest way to achieve that goal is to use electroshock to erase Travis's memories of the past two years, then reprogram him, as we've done in the past."
"That is not an option, Carnell," she spat. "He has too much valuable information about the Enclave-codes, ship manifests, trade routes and cargos. We need that information to provide supplies for our own troops. . .and to pay our mercenary allies."
"Then I must proceed more slowly, Supreme Commander. If you don't want me to erase those memories, then at the very least, I must remold his perceptions of them. It's a painstaking process with at least a 30% chance of failure."
"What if you drugged him now to extract the information and then proceeded with your usual retraining techniques?" One well-manicured nail tapped her carmine lips.
Carnell stared at the screen for a long moment, his eyes hooded and face blank and unreadable. "I'll have to run tests on his current sensitivity to our drugs. Preliminary debriefing indicates that over the past months he's been exposed to numerous unknown chemical substances, besides an unknown degree of telepathic tampering. Besides, chemical extraction of that information will decrease our chances of successfully reconditioning him to less than ten percent." "I don't reward failure, Carnell."Servalan's eyes glittered dangerously. "Do whatever you have to, but get me that information. . . and restore Travis's loyalty. . .by the end of next week."
She terminated the link, leaving Carnell still gazing at the blank screen, though his mind was a thousand light-years away.
Damn the woman's impatience. . .or better still, damn my own cleverness, for accepting the Clonemasters' 'help' after the Orac debacle and the first breakdown of Travis's conditioning. I should have realized that smooth-faced cow, Fen, had her own agenda. Their tailor-made virus was supposed to make Travis resistant to standard interrogation drugs, reducing his opportunity to betray the Federation. . .if, or when, he went rogue. Unfortunately, whether by accident or design, their gene-spliced virus made him immune to our mind-control drugs as well. So here I am hoist on my own petard, with orders to re-condition this dangerous outlaw into a good little soldier and damned little time or means to get it done.
He massaged his brow in frustration. There were other ways that he could use to break through Travis's mental barriers but he was leery of using them. They were extremely dangerous, putting an enormous strain on the heart and nervous system, and their actual effects on the mind were haphazard, making it even harder for him to re-condition the loyalty and obedience that Servalan demanded.
Carnell reactivated the surveillance camera in Travis's cell, then used his thumbprint to open a sealed compartment in his desk, taking out a set of electrodes and control box.
"Well, no time like the present, my dear Space Commander. . .to start
rebuilding the past."
Over the next week as her trade fleet was refitted for normal cargo runs, Jenna buried herself in the tedious business details of clan and Enclave. But her sudden over-exacting attention to every detail from cargo manifests to the actual refitting of her ships had all three crews and half the yards' workers on the verge of mutiny. Even the normally phlegmatic Sarcar was expressing a degree of agitation that Akema had never seen before.
"Three times she hath made me recalculate the profit/loss ratio on the Lescaux mission. For no logical reason. Even with extra docking fees and a replacement pilot's wages, the books were in the black." The Orphidean brushed nervously at the scales glittering on the shoulder of his normally immaculate tunic. "T'is causing a most severe itch and I just shed skin six months ago."
Akema nodded sympathetically, knowing an unscheduled molt would wreak havoc with Sarcar's family life, not to mention their cargo runs. Sarcar's second was still learning the ropes and nowhere near as mathematically gifted.
"I'll have a talk with her, Ol' Snake, and see what I can do."
When he caught up with Jenna, she was peering over the shoulder of the engineer's mate who was removing the extra shielding that had been necessary to protect sensitive embryos from radiation damage. Now it was just excess weight that would cut down on Alamo's fuel efficiency.
"Careful with that laser torch, pinholing this hull won't be good for anybody's health."
"Captain Stannis, could I have a moment of your time?"
"What is it now, Akema? Is Phrath still complaining about the targeting computers? He'll have to wait his turn, I can only deal with one crisis at a time."
Taking Jenna's elbow and leading her gently but firmly away, Akema rumbled, "Exactly, Cap'n and neither this nor Phrath's complaint exactly qualify. Don't you trust me to do my job? I've got the best people on Sanctuary working on this ship and I trust their ability to do the job right without me overseeing the placement of every damn rivet. When you come along behind me, it makes them nervous. Hell, it makes me nervous because they're three times more likely to make a mistake with you breathing down their necks."
Jenna drew in a big breath and Akema braced himself for a fiery outburst of temper, but instead she let it out slowly and looked around the fitting yards. "I guess I have been making a nuisance of myself. It's just I feel so helpless, just sitting around waiting, not knowing what's happened to Travis . . .or what I can do about it."
"No new leads coming in?"
"Nothing. It's like the ground opened up and swallowed him. Cally tracked the message back to Jade, but we couldn't get confirmation that the Reina had actually grounded there. Travis could have landed on any of a dozen worlds in that sector of space."
"What about the computer specialist your uncle's been dickering with and that computer of his -- what's it called - Quack?" Akema rubbed a ham-sized hand across his smooth skull.
Jenna laughed shortly, "Almost, engineer. Orac is the name of the computer, but I thought Avon had already come to an agreement with my uncle."
"Scuttlebutt has it negotiations are still in progress. Knowing your uncle, he's not about to trust this Avon character that easily. After all the man was a convicted embezzler before he joined up with Blake."
"True enough," Jenna admitted. "But if Avon gives you his word, he'll keep it."
"Well, maybe you should see if he's willing to do a little work on the side while he and your uncle are still feeling each other out."
Going to Valkyrie's flight deck Jenna raised the Liberator. To her irritation, Vila answered her hail. He was well-lubricated, considering the early hour.
"`Lo Jenna," he greeted her, giggling tipsily. "Cally's in the medcenter, restocking supplies. I found where she hid the adrenaline and soma."
She shook her head impatiently, "Where's Avon? I need to talk to him."
Vila swayed, blinking nervously at the brittle note in her voice. " 's not here. I think he went planetside about four hours ago..."
Jenna blanked the screen, clenching her fists on the controls. Damn! Had Avon and Mikhail finally cut a deal? She had hoped their suspicious tango of offer and counteroffer would continue for another week at least. Blake's change of heart at Byzantia had kept Avon aboardLiberator for the past few months, but the recent increase in raider activity must have unnerved him so he'd decided that Liberator was no longer safe.
She paced the Valkyrie's flight deck in agitation. If Mikhail had signed a formal contract with Avon, for exclusive use of his and Orac's intelligence skills, her access would be cut off. The First Captain's agenda for such valuable resources definitely would not include her wild goose chase for her missing bondmate.
Her fists clenched in frustration. Cally had given her the message's origin point, but though Jenna suspected she knew who sent it, so far she'd been unable to confirm her suspicions. Records on the Outer Worlds were haphazard at best. People's memories often had to be prodded with a careful mixture of bribes and threats.
Only now, her uncle had arranged for her to run a cargo of Vincan silk blocks to the tailoring cartel on Nippore and by the time she got back, the scant information Avon had been able to obtain for her might be totally useless and whoever had actually sent the message vanished as well. She couldn't let this chance escape.
She bowed her head, tightlipped at the bargain she was about to make. It wasn't that she didn't trust Blake, it was simply that she did not want to let herself become vulnerable to his charismatic charm again. Well, there was no choice, she'd simply have to do it.
Pressing the comm signal abruptly, she spoke in a very calm, controlled voice, "Vila, Jenna again. Could you have Blake call me at his earliest convenience?"
Vila stared at her, blinking. "You . . .wanna speak with. . . Blake?"
"Yes," she swallowed hard. "Tell him I have a. . . proposition for him."
When Blake returned her call, she was surprised to see Orac beside him on the flight deck. Especially since Avon rarely let the ill-tempered little computer out of his sight in recent weeks.
"I thought Avon already decided to take my uncle up on his offer and by now Orac would be up to his tarriel cells in commodity futures and planetary weather reports."
"Not yet," Blake's expression was determinedly neutral. "Neither of them quite trusts the other, so while they're still dickering over the fine points of Avon's life of ease and security, Orac remains in my keeping."
"Avon's smarter than I thought."
Blake gave her a probing look. "Vila said you had a `proposition' for me?"
At the look of speculation on his face, Jenna felt a nervous tightening of her stomach.
"A. . .business proposition," she qualified.
Blake was silent for a moment, his enigmatic half-smile seeming to mock her. "Go on."
"Travis. . .is still missing," she began hesitantly, then paused, waiting for the inevitable harsh rebuttal.
To her surprise, Blake remained silent, waiting for her to continue. She studied him intently while sketching out the scant details that she actually knew about her bondmate's disappearance.
In the past year since she had left Liberator, Blake had changed. Not just his gaunter, grimmer expression, the gray in his once dark curls, the haunted eyes, but in subtler ways as well. Unexpected losses and unplanned victories had left him less certain about his grand, idealistic cause and the price he had been willing to pay to achieve doubtful ends. Without that arrogant self-righteousness and occasional bullheaded stubbornness, she found herself warming to his charismatic charm and newly discovered empathy.
She blinked hard as he asked her a question, breaking away from those dangerous musings.
"What makes you think he wants to be found?" he questioned gently. "If that message implicating the puppeteers in his brother's death is true, Travis may have his own plans for Carnell. After all, he hasn't exactly made a habit of forgiving old grievances."
Jenna's eyes glittered hotly at that accusation, but she stifled her impulsive retort to make one more appeal. "Yes, but that message also links Carnell with Servalan and we know the danger if he falls into her hands."
"To him or to the rest of us?"
"Damn you, Blake! What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Travis and Servalan were once a formidable threat to the Liberator and the Resistance. If reunited, they could be just as dangerous to the Enclave, the Federation, and the independent worlds."
Jenna's face flushed with anger, yet there was a chill, despairing note in her voice, "I should have known this was a waste of time. You always think the worst of him, no matter how many times he's proved otherwise." She clenched her fists and then started to reach forward to break the connection. "I don't care what my uncle or the rest of the galaxy believes, Travis would never betray us. And if I have to comb through every one of the two hundred civilized worlds and beyond to find him, I will!"
Blake raised his hand to halt her outburst. "I just wondered if you had considered the possibility. Obviously you have, but believe otherwise." He gave her his most open look. "I trust your instincts, Jenna. I always have." As she paused, somewhat startled by that avowal, he continued, "How can I help?"
She took a deep shuddering breath, a little surprised by his sudden reversal. But she was too desperate to be skeptical, so she gave him everything that her contacts had uncovered so far.
"Cally traced the original message to the spaceport on Jade. Records show it was paid for by credit voucher from a man called Kline, a man with several sets of background ID records, including that of a cybersurgeon named Docholli."
Blake frowned at the mention of Docholli's name, gnawing thoughtfully on his finger. "What's he still doing on Jade? I thought he bolted offworld right after he gave us the coordinates for Star One. I'll see what Orac can uncover about what he's been up to. But are you sure Travis even went to Jade? He might have decided to check out old records within the Federation."
"No, I finally did discover that Travis landed on Jade over two weeks ago and paid a large sum in hard cash for docking fees and transit taxes to the Port Authority. But since then, there's been no sign of him." Jenna tried to maintain a stoic expression, but Blake easily read the worry and concern on her face.
He nodded thoughtfully, knowing to express any more doubts would only alienate Jenna at this particular time. "I'll see what Orac can come up with, about Travis's whereabouts. . .on Jade, or elsewhere. As to that business `proposition' you mentioned. . ." He smiled gently. "Let's just say this one's 'on the house.' After all, the Freedom Alliance needs all the good will it can get, especially from friends in high places."
Jenna nodded in bemusement, before she switched off, wondering how a man could change so vastly and still remain so much the same. If. . .no, cancel and erase. . .when she found Travis, she hoped he wouldn't regard her dealings with Blake as a betrayal of his trust. But her resources were limited and access to Orac, even if it meant yielding emotional ground to Blake, greatly increased her chances of locating her bondmate. Oh well, she'd gladly do whatever it took just to have that surly, difficult, compelling man at her side once again.
Turning away from the comm screen, Blake put the key into the irascible computer and demanded impatiently, "Orac, why did the cybersurgeon Docholli remain on Jade?"
*Why ask me about irrational human motivations? It is a waste of my valuable time.*
"Because, great god in the machine," Blake began with unusual sarcasm, "Avon says you can be a useful tool. . . when it suits you."He ruminated for a moment. "After Docholli gave us the coordinates to Star One, I thought he was too frightened to remain on Jade?"
*The disruptions caused by the First Intergalactic War were not limited to the Inner Planets and the neutral worlds,* the perverse computer replied primly. *Emigration transports and resupply ships were affected as well. There was even a brief period when Docholli was not actively attempting to escape, possibly due to a small degree of trust in the new Federation regime. However, the activities of Servalan's raiders must have alarmed him because soon after the rumors began, he resumed his efforts to obtain the appropriate documents to establish a new identity and enough credit to drop out of sight completely.*
Blake could hardly believe Orac had been so forthcoming with the information he had required. It was totally out of character. Almost as much of a shock as if Avon decided to stand on his head in the middle of the flight deck and recite some of Vila's more obscene limericks.
Deciding he'd better take advantage of this sudden generosity, he requested, "See if you can get any hint of his whereabouts, Orac. He was likely the last one to actually see Travis and may know what his plans were."
*Really,* huffed the computer in mechanical irritation. *This type of routine inquiry requires no intelligence at all. Vila could easily...*
"Just do it," Blake ordered sternly, yanking the activation key before Orac's
voder could articulate any more protests.
As she was performing often neglected restocking chores (and searching for another hiding place for the adrenaline and soma) in Liberator's med unit, Cally was interrupted by a call from Tarrant on the flight deck.
"Cally? I have a personal message for you. Do you want to come up here or should I relay it?"
She wondered who would be sending her a personal comm message, then shrugged. She'd find out soon enough. "Just relay it, Tarrant. I'll replay the video portion later if necessary."
He acknowledged her request somewhat tentatively, in an oddly shaken tone of voice as he swallowed hard. "It's from your sister. . .Zelda."
Knowing that Zelda's identical appearance was likely responsible for the pilot's disconcerted air did not alleviate the terrible worry that suddenly seized her. What could be so urgent to cause Zelda to defy the edicts of the Auron Elders who had exiled Cally from her home? With a hard knot of apprehension in her chest, she hit the comm button that relayed the signal to the med center. Even without the vid portion of the message, she saw her clone sister's face clearly in her mind's eye. The mere sound of her voice caused a resurgence of the telepathic resonances that united them even across lightyears of space. They were clone siblings, but with differences that had seemed almost irreconcilable given their common genetic stock.
Zelda had always been the quiet, obedient child, complying with arbitrary rules and regulations within the creche and co-op school as though they had been programmed into her nervous system. Cally's defiance of authority had been equally ingrained, more than just a political difference of opinion. She had shown such wide variation from her expected genetic potential, it seemed a threat to the breeding stability of the entire family group. It was a matter of survival, hers and theirs, that had required her to leave Auron.
For Zelda to defy those rulings was inconceivable, unless there had been some tragedy. She consulted that inner image of Zelda, hearing the bare bones of the audio message and the emotional appeal she was using to reinforce its urgency. "Cally, you must return to Auron...at once."
"Why?" Cally questioned almost resentfully. "What does Auron require from an `outsider'?" That was what she had been labeled just before she went into exile on Saurian Major. Outsider. Non-Auron. . .a threat to all she held dear.
Zelda's voice was pained, in sympathy with the pain in Cally's. "The Council of Elders agreed to certain business arrangements with `outsiders,' in an attempt to end our ideological and genetic isolation." There was a nervous pause and Cally could almost see her sister wringing her hands in distress. "But things did not turn out as planned and our. . . client is not happy about the result."
Cally attempted to shrug off the urgent note in Zelda's voice. "If it's a business matter, attempt to negotiate with them. Surely some sort of compromise can be reached. It's not like it's a matter of life and death."
Zelda's voice was filled with a mixture of anguish and shame, "But it is a matter of life and death. We used the bioreplication chambers to gestate several in vitro embryos."
"To confirm transmission of a certain desirable, genetically engineered trait." Zelda's voice regained a dispassionate and professional note as she discussed her life's work.
"And the embryos don't have that trait?" Cally questioned flatly, finally beginning to understand a little of her sister's distress. If the embryos did not meet his specifications, the client probably considered them useless, a waste of time and money. Unlike Zelda, to whom all life was precious no matter what its genetic potential.
It was a painful dilemma, but she did not see how she could be of use. Zelda's answer confused her even more.
"The embryos do have the trait," her sister began. "But the gene engineers were dubious and..." Zelda broke off in obvious agitation. "It's too dangerous to discuss over an open comm line. You must come at once. You're the only one who can help."
Still bewildered by the urgency in her sibling's voice, Cally reassured her, "Blake is planning a short mission to the Outer Worlds, but I'm certain he can manage without me this once. Since we are on the Free Trader's homeworld, it should not be difficult to charter a fast ship to Auron."
"Don't delay," Zelda pleaded. " Clinician Franton is under a great deal of pressure to terminate the whole experiment, including the clone."
Even more confused, Cally tried to demand further information, "What clone?"
But Zelda had broken off the call without even saying farewell.
In his luxurious aerie of an office, Mikhail Stannis and Avon were exchanging less than friendly glances as their negotiations progressed. The First Captain was openly skeptical of some of Avon's claims about Orac's abilities.
"If that box of circuits was as infallible as you claim, especially in tapping Federation information and control systems, why were Blake's strikes against them so ineffective? With the knowledge supposedly at your fingertips, you should have been able to sabotage communication systems, cripple life support, sent whole battle fleets plunging into the middle of ion storms and worse. You could have countermanded orders from Space Command itself!"
Avon glared at the first Captain, disgruntled by the man's suspicious nature. Then he shrugged to himself, realizing that Blake increasing openness and honesty, particularly over the past few weeks, left him ill-equipped to deal with one of the Enclave's sharpest dealers. His best bet would probably be to dismiss Blake's leadership skills and focus on Orac's data gathering and trend projection capabilities
"Blake's agenda was always more political than tactical. At first, he was concerned with winning the `hearts and minds' of the rabble rather than actually toppling the Federation. Only later did he become obsessed with the idea of locating and destroying their nerve center at Central Control."
"With no thought at all about the consequences for the rest of the galaxy," the Free Trader captain growled.
"Well," Avon drawled acidly,"there was some effort to prevent that rush to bloody destruction. But reason and logic have never been Blake's strong suit."
The First Captain leaned back in his chair, locking his fingers together as he studied the man across from him. "Whereas they are yours," Mikhail observed shrewdly. "Along with a large degree of greed."
"I prefer to think of it as enlightened self-interest."
Mikhail waved a dismissive hand, then leaned forward, settling into the bargain.
"Suppose I offer to buy this Orac of yours outright, no tedious testing or proof. Just set you up in a luxury resort here on Sanctuary for the rest of your life."
Avon gave an enigmatic smile. "Keeping me permanently under your thumb. . . once you got your hands on Ensor's brain child. I prefer to be an independent contractor, First Captain, and retain control of Orac. That assures my safety and freedom while we share equally in the profits."
Mikhail bolted upright in outrage. "Equal shares! With my clan ships taking all the risks, for only fifty percent return. Think again, Ser Avon, no inside information, no matter how infallible, can take into account every contingency affecting the outcome of any given trade run. I think you need to come up with a better offer."
Avon frowned, realizing that the Free Trader Captain was a much harder sell than he originally thought. The man would require a concrete demonstration of the supercomputer's usefulness to convince him of the appropriate level of reimbursement.
He studied his folded hands before making his next offer, "All right. Orac and I will act as hired consultants for the next month and show you how to maximize your profits in individual cases for a set percentage."
Mikhail smiled slyly. "Ten percent of the net," he offered.
"Ten per cent of the gross," Avon countered.
Mikhail protested, "Five percent of the gross. We'll be absorbing all the overhead."
"Seven point five percent," Avon rebutted. "With Orac's help, you can reduce your risks to almost nothing."
Mikhail nodded reluctantly, then reached inside his desk for a data crystal. After handing it to Avon, the two men started to shake hands to seal the bargain when they were interrupted by a sudden chiming from Avon's teleport bracelet.
He answered peevishly, "Blake, I'm busy at the moment. Whatever you want, it will have to wait."
Blake responded mildly, "Liberator will be leaving orbit in thirty minutes. If you're not coming with us, you'll need to make other quartering arrangements."
Avon glared at the bracelet, mentally cursing Blake's sense of timing. Although he'd just made a tentative deal with Stannis, he wasn't ready to cut his ties with the Liberator completely. That would make him too entirely dependent on this canny Free Trader.
"What kind of idealistic nonsense are you involved in this time, Blake?" he demanded peevishly.
"Nothing you need to worry about, Avon. Unless you're planning to come along?"
Irritated at Blake's enigmatic reply, Avon persisted, " How long will we be gone? I have important matters pending."
"Probably no more than a week, possibly less, depending on what turns up. Can your business wait that long?" The overly solicitous note in Blake's voice irritated him, but he did not intend to give the man the satisfaction of reacting to it.
"If it must." Avon turned his attention back to Stannis. "I'll have Orac sort through the information you just gave me. We should have a strategy for you when we return."
"I hope so," Stannis commented. "I'm a patient man, Ser Avon, but only if there's sufficient profit in it."
"There will be, Stannis. Have no doubts about that." He reopened the signal to theLiberator. "Bring me up, Blake."
After Avon departed, Mikhail sat brooding for long moments until the chime on his desk interrupted his thoughts. "Yes, Brendan," he responded, noting the worn look on his telepathic executive assistant's face.
"A message from the Aurons, First Captain. Marked URGENT and coded for your retinal scan. Shall I have it relayed now?"
"Yes, and get up here as soon as possible. I'll probably need your help to decipher the technical gibberish." Stannis was eager to see the outcome of his little experiment in reproductive engineering. Travis might have believed he was in control of his genetic contribution to posterity, but Clan Stannis did not leave such important matters to chance.
Scant moments later, Mikhail had the data downloaded into his computer and the hardcopy was accumulating on his desk in the copious stack betokening a "complete scientific study."
Damned Aurons. Years of inbreeding and isolation left them with an overly meticulous tendency to dissect everything down to the subatomic level. All he really wanted to know was if the gene in question gave its carrier true immunity to Federation suppressants and if it could be passed on.
He flipped through the still incomplete report, looking for a hint of plain English in the usual geneticists' jargon but bogged down in descriptions of "interpenetrant recessives," "lysine induced resistance," and "maturation hormonal inactivation." He glanced up as Brendan Doyle entered, his expression carefully neutral.
"Good! Maybe you can make some sense of this doubletalk. I don't know why scientific minds have to be so deliberately obscure."
"I can translate the terminology of the entire report, First Captain," Brendan stated with unusual formality. "But the project head gave me a summary of the results, if that will suffice?"
"Well spit it out, man," Stannis ordered impatiently. "Don't keep me dangling."
Brendan appeared ill-at-ease considering his usual serene demeanor. One indication that things had not gone well. "The first stage cell division embryos that arrived at Auron survived the cryostasis and were placed in the bioreplication chambers to gestate. Of the six that were sent, one did not go past second stage division. The other five continued accelerated development until there was enough cellular differentiation to see if the gene for resistance was present. It was."
"Why so gloomy?" Mikhail rose from his desk and strode over to the bar. "It sounds like we succeeded."
"The Aurons are accomplished genetic engineers, First Captain. Their survival depends on that skill. The gene's unusual DNA matrix intrigued them but it proved unsuitable for
large-scale duplication. Travis's immunity cannot be replicated by a virus and passed on to populations at risk for exposure to Federation mindcontrol drugs."
"Damn," Stannis swore bitterly as he poured them both generous splashes of whiskey. Instead of celebrating victory, they'd be commiserating over a partial failure. "I hoped allowing the Aurons to copy it would defray some of the expenses of the research." He took a long gulp of his drink. "Oh well, at least Travis's offspring will have the gene. With a little in vitro tinkering and accelerated gestation, we can seed it through key members of our future population. Just in case the Federation decides pacification is more efficient than negotiation."
Brendan stared darkly into the drink Stannis had pressed into his hand. "Unfortunately, that option is not workable either."
"What!" Stannis spun around, aghast.
"We already knew the gene Travis possesses was unstable in cryostorage. The Aurons spotted certain amino markers within the helix that usually indicate other flaws. So they force grew one of the embryos to sexual maturity, using Clone Masters' techniques. The `clone' possesses Travis's immunity to the pacification drugs but cannot pass it on. A genetic dead end."
Mikhail stared in disbelief at the telepath, until his growing outrage at the crumbling of this scheme around his ears finally had to be vented. He hurled the half-filled antique glass at the clear plass of his window. The tumbler shattered with a satisfying crash although the window only vibrated with a discordant low hum. "Damn that bastard! I should have known the whole situation was a set-up! They dangled him in front of us like bait until the hook was set. Damn Samore and Servalan and that whole corrupt lot of Federation schemers."
Brendan flinched at the raw, irrational fury spilling past his telepathic shields then took a deep, steadying swallow from his own glass to steel himself to the task of unravelling this mess. "You still think Travis is secretly working for the Federation? That this gene construct is part of some plan to destroy us? How? What would they gain? His resistance to the drug represents more of a threat to their power than ours."
Mikhail spun around, glaring at the clear-eyed, thoughtful man before him. "Psychological warfare, Brendan. Tantalize us with the hope we could be free of that sword of Damocles hanging over our heads then snatch the hope away."
"A clever scheme indeed, First Captain. But why not plant the gene in a man with the loose morals to assure its widespread distribution? Instead of using Travis with his physical and emotional fixation on your niece," Brendan continued coolly.
"Hell, I don't know. Maybe because the gene wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny. Maybe because they thought we wouldn't be taken in unless the carrier was demonstrably reluctant to pass his so-called `genetic gift' on. Sort of the old `forbidden fruit' gambit."
"Perhaps," Brendan replied in a neutral tone of voice that was not an agreement but a springboard to other possibilities. "But if I may mix my metaphors, I think that `goose that laid the golden egg' might be a more valid comparison."
Stannis halted, suddenly chilled, remembering a much earlier conversation when they had discussed the possibility of someone wanting to assure the preservation of Travis's life for reasons of their own. "Not bait for a trap but an inducement to keep him alive. But why, Brendan? Who values one Federation deserter that much, other than my niece?"
"Perhaps if we knew who, Mikhail, we might have some clue as to where he has disappeared."
Mikhail shrugged irritably as he massaged the tension wracked muscles in his neck. "Good riddance to bad rubbish." He gestured toward the stacked papers, somewhat ill at ease. "What about the report? Was that all the Aurons' bad news or was there more?"
"Only a reminder that the embryos have been placed in cryogenic storage for safekeeping but the `clone' cannot be kept in stasis for more than six months without severe cellular degeneration," Brendan reported neutrally.
From the bar where he was pouring himself another drink, Stannis snarled caustically. "Tell them not to waste their storage space. They can heave the whole lot down the nearest disposal chute as far as I'm concerned."
Brendan froze, shocked to stillness by that callous remark, then spoke up softly. "You don't understand, First Captain. The clone is roughly equivalent to a sixteen year old male. You cannot discard him like so much refuse. He is a living organism."
"He's dead meat on total life support with a flatline EEG," Stannis retorted harshly. "Don't give me your idealistic, soft-hearted nonsense."
"He's Jenna's flesh and blood," Brendan stated bluntly.
"And Travis's," Mikhail countered. "A half-psychotic, programmed killer who deserted her and who, hopefully, will turn up dead on some backwater planet on the Rim."
"You would wish such terrible pain on your own niece?" Brendan's voice was oddly strained.
"She's young. She'll get over it." Mikhail stood silently at his window staring down at the docks below, trying to ignore Brendan's response.
"I do not think so, Mikhail. The bond between the two of them runs much
deeper than you realize. . . and it may draw Jenna into troubled waters in
the days ahead."
Much to Jenna's relief, Captain Dani McRae was available to pilot Alamo on the run to Nippore. She was not only more comfortable with a pilot of Dani's long experience but since Dani had her own ship, she would have no ambition to replace Travis permanently. It was one less item to worry about when it seemed like her days were filled with anxieties about Blake, her uncle, her ships, and her missing bondmate.
She had been grousing halfheartedly about her troubles to Dani while they exchanged fuel consumption reports, when the other woman cut her off sharply.
"At least be grateful your ships are in one piece, instead of in drydock after being raked over by a raider's neutron blasters."
"What happened?" Jenna was shocked, knowing Dani's usual run was along well traveled space lanes. If the raiders were getting this bold. . . .
"The raiders have started moving in from the outlying, irregularly scheduled runs to the bigger ships on the regular routes." Dani remarked sourly, "I'll give them credit. This bunch is good - tough, disciplined, almost militarily precise in their operation."
Jenna felt a cold chill shiver along her spine at Dani's description. "How did they catch you off guard? You don't seem trusting enough to go after an abandoned hulk broadcasting old Federation transponder codes."
"Was that the bait they used on some of their earlier victims? I've got to get dockside more often, I'm not picking up the latest jetwash any more." She shook her head ruefully. "You're right, Jenna, I'm not that naive. No. . . they were broadcasting a standard distress call, using a Free Trader recognition code."
Dani continued grimly, "Not the most recent one to be sure, but you know how it's been since Star One with the Federation no longer a threat. People get sloppy about security procedures, using last week's or even last month's recognition codes." Her mouth twisted ironically. "At least that's what I let myself believe. The more fool I." She glanced down at the helm controls, making a tiny course adjustment before meeting Jenna's eyes once more.
"I was lucky, all things considered. None of my crew dead or injured. My ship only crippled and not floating space junk and enough of my cargo left behind to cover my docking fees and repairs."
Jenna fidgeted uneasily at the other woman's story. "Yours is the second incident I've heard about in less than a month."
"There have been others," Dani informed her. "At least three that I know of in the last two weeks."
"It's getting worse. What the hell happened to the protection the Federation was supposed to supply?" she demanded hotly.
"Their ships are doing convoy duty along the most heavily traveled lanes but the raiders always seem to hit when they're elsewhere. Like they're familiar with the standard patrol patterns."
Jenna was beginning to put two and two together and did not like the answers
she was getting. Travis missing. Raiders striking Free Trade ships with
military precision and knowledge of Enclave codes and Federation strategy.
It was a very ugly picture of betrayal and she prayed that she was wrong.
But Dani's suddenly suspicious look could not be denied.
On Auron, Cally, Zelda, and Franton stared into the cryounit at the youth frozen there. Lifeless. Unmoving. Pale as a marble sculpture of some pagan god. From the urgency of Zelda's message about "a clone," Cally had expected to find a full grown replica of Blake or Avon, mentally programmed to wreak havoc among the still shaky alliance of independent worlds. Being shown this half-grown stranger baffled her.
"Why was I summoned so urgently, Franton? I don't even know this child."
Clinician Franton's lips were tightly compressed and her eyes haunted. "No, he is not truly a clone but a forced growth product of an in vitro fertilization."
Cally listened intently. The technique Franton described was common enough if certain specific traits were desired in a child or if the genetic parents did not wish to risk the random selection of normal fertilization. Of course, all Auron children were gestated in artificial wombs to insure optimum conditions and minimize any risk to the fetus.
After "birth," the infants grew and developed normally, in order to mature through experience and instruction. To force grow an embryo to maturity within the bioreplication tanks was unheard of, for the simple reason that, unlike an adult clone with its seeded cell's memory imprint, the replica would only have the memories and personality of a newborn!
"Why did the Council allow such an irregular procedure?" she demanded, appalled.
"To test the viability of the gene," Franton answered, her tone flat and emotionless.
"The mutagenic construct that First Captain Stannis's niece's bondmate carries - for resistance to the Federation's pacification drugs."
It took a moment for Cally to reconstruct that connective chain and then the light dawned.
"Jenna's bondmate - TRAVIS?" Cally stared at the other two in frank astonishment. "Travis is the carrier of a gene for resistance to Federation mind control drugs?!? Is this some kind of joke?"
"If it is," Franton remarked bitterly, "it has been played on the First Captain and anyone else who believed it might hold a hope of escaping the everpresent threat the Federation still holds over its member worlds, allies and opponents. The gene is only viable under conditions that mandate the survival of its carrier."
"Freezing and storing the sperm deactivates the gene,"Zelda inserted in prim distaste.
"And the gene itself cannot be passed on to a second generation. Because of its instability, the hormonal changes of sexual maturity inactivate it completely."
"Which makes it useless for First Captain Stannis's purposes," Cally stated. She was not well acquainted with Jenna's uncle but her impression had been of a man not used to having his desires thwarted. She wondered how he would react to this setback.
"And our own hope of replicating the trait to pass on to our people," Franton answered in a listless tone of voice.
In the grim silence, Cally's gaze was drawn back to the cryo unit. With the mysteries of his origin unveiled, she could see the genetic markers of his parentage like a blurred image through murky glass; Jenna's strong cheekbones and wide spaced eyes, Travis's determined jaw and stern mouth. Even in the gangling, immature body, there was a hint of Travis's lean, hard-muscled power. Yet, perhaps the reason it had taken her so long to recognize the boy's features was the unmarked tranquility on them.
It was not an expression common to either Jenna or Travis. Jenna had always been suspicious and on guard around her aboard Liberator. And Travis. . .! Even with the shadow of death hanging over him on Star One, Travis's face had shown only a burning resolve, with nothing of peace or acceptance in it at all. She wondered if such raging inner fires were hereditary or ignited by the life he had led.
She looked back at Zelda and Franton. "Well, I know Blake will be disappointed to learn there's no hope of developing a resistance to the Federation's pacification drugs anytime soon. But why the urgent summons? Couldn't you have sent a coded transmission?"
Franton twisted her hands nervously. "We're disappointed with the failure ourselves. But considering the Federation's greatly weakened position, we thought it unlikely that President Samore would resume the wholesale use of those drugs. He needs an energetic, creative population rather than a drug-befuddled, mindlessly obedient one. The drug-resistant gene is not our concern at the moment. This child presents a much more serious dilemma."
"Send him to the First Captain," Cally stated the obvious. "He contracted the replication and the boy is his own flesh and blood."
"A connection Stannis seems intent on denying without the inducement of the drug resistant gene. His disgust with the child's male parent was quite plain in his instructions. `I want no part of that Federation bastard's tainted bloodlines if drug resistance isn't part of them. Dispose of the whole damned project.'"
Zelda could not conceal her distaste at Stannis's reaction and Cally stared in horror at the young man whose very humanity was repudiated by those harsh words.
"Aren't there family groups on Auron who might take him in?" she questioned uncertainly.
"He's human, not Auron," was Franton's neutral reply, reminding her of the close-minded insularity that had driven her off-planet.
Cally's thoughts turned to Jenna, left fearful and distraught by Travis's disappearance. The passion that burned between them was so strong even a nontelepath could read it. But Jenna was a free spirit, with no interest in planetary domesticity or maternal responsibility. It was unlikely she'd welcome this artificially conceived and matured intrusion into her life, even if he wasTravis's flesh and blood. And the fact of the matter was she had nothing in common with this half-grown youth except their shared DNA. No, taking him to Jenna was not a good idea.
But her pondering of that option led her to realize why Zelda had summoned her so urgently. "He has no memories or personality. You could implant any memories and programming necessary for him to fit into Auron society."
"Yes, we could," Franton admitted. "But the conflicts between his inborn 'human' nature and our Auron programming would very likely result in a dangerous mental breakdown. The best thing to do, for this child's sake, would be to give him a joint mental imprint that partakes of both his parents' personalities."
Cally glanced sidelong at her sister in exasperation. She should have suspected something like this when Zelda mentioned needing "an outsider," but she had hoped that she was wrong. Franton was correct. A joint imprint was the youth's best option for successful personality integration and her familiarity with both parents' minds made her the logical choice. But the cost to her emotionally. . .!
She shuddered, recalling her first encounter with Travis on Centero. 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, deadly as blued steel. She swayed at the nauseating intensity of that recollection and her sister reached out in support.
Clutching those friendly, familiar hands she recalled her more recent insights into Jenna's bondmate. There was still a hard, deadly edge to him. She doubted that he would ever be anything other than a cold-hearted, ruthless survivor, but the inner darkness that shrouded him was not quite so bitterly cold and deep. A spark of something brighter - hope...trust...love - burned where only the frozen ashes of obsession had existed before.
Jenna had changed as well. Cally had seen the early signs of it when she had first encountered the pilot after she had initially teamed up with Travis. The suspicion and mistrust had been banked and a newfound tenderness had shone out of Jenna's eyes. She'd denied any gentler feelings for the man, claiming she stayed with him only out of self-preservation. Yet in the aftermath of the Battle of Star One, Jenna had risked her life and her ship in a foolhardy dash into the teeth of the Federation fleet to rescue him. Hardly the act of a woman obsessed with preserving her own life.
Cally took a deep calming breath, looking into Zelda's eyes and seeing the compassion mirrored there. She would give those memories and others, pleasant and unpleasant, to this "child" of her friend and a man she was slowly growing to respect. The boy deserved a future, no matter what his genetic heritage. Despite Mikhail's condemnation, she did not believe that the Federation's corruption and cruelty would taint Travis's and Jenna's son.
"If I give him this foundation of identity, will you do your part?" she questioned intently.
"He will have full benefit of our educational and training facilities," Franton promised. "And the opportunity to make his own choices when the time comes."
"He mustn't know about any of this," Cally cautioned. "He must choose his own future, free of any doubt about his past."
"We will do our best," Zelda promised, embracing her sibling in admiration
Travis had lost all track of time, drifting in and out of a pain-hazed delirium. As part of his earlier "retraining" Carnell had amputated his memories, much as Federation surgeons had removed the charred ruin of his arm in the aftermath of Blake's attack. Now for some obscure reason, the puppeteer was intent on resurrecting that painful past like some deranged field surgeon attempting to reattach the scorched flesh and scalded nerves of that long missing limb.
As Carnell's smooth, persuasive voice insinuated itself past his defenses, more and more of his past began surfacing. Not just random flashes like those triggered by the mnemonic cascade and the Enclave's telepathic tampering, but whole streams of days and nights. The storm-wracked skies and barren fields of Metis III. His parents' forgotten faces, worn down by fear, loss, and borderline starvation. His younger sisters and brother, forced to grow up too soon. And throughout the fear, hunger and loss, another presence was almost always at his side, closer than his own shadow, guiding, teaching . . .sharing the hard lessons of survival. His brother. . .Dar. Less than a year apart in age, they'd been allies, comrades. . . partners, until everything changed.
Yet even as Carnell was painstakingly reconstructing his past for whatever dire purpose, Servalan had her own agenda. She would interrupt Carnell's sessions and insist that he administer the drugs necessary to extract the information that she needed to keep her troops supplied.
Useless as those drugs were for Carnell's reprogramming efforts, they did succeed in breaking down Travis's mental barriers, leaving him adrift and unanchored on the seas of time and space. Memories of his life with Jenna as a Free Trader Captain would randomly surface like storm wrack and he'd babble out bits and pieces, old codes and cargos, former trading routes. All of it yesterday's news and not particularly valuable, but Servalan took whatever scraps she could get and departed unsatisfied. Always with the same threat on her lips.
"You have less than five days, puppeteer, to restore his loyalty. Make the
most of them."
Slumped in a chair across from Carnell's desk, Travis slowly began to shake off the ravaging effects of Servalan's drugs,
" 's obvious who's pulling your strings, puppeteer," he sneered, his lips cracked and bleeding.
Carnell poured a glass of water from a carafe on his desk and pushed it over. "Drink up, Colin. We can't proceed until you've shaken off those drugs."
Travis leaned forward trembling, on the verge of smashing the glass across the room, but his survival instincts kicked in and he grasped it weakly, gulping down its contents. As Travis drank thirstily, Carnell studied his linked fingers before remarking in a very low voice, "Servalan is merely a tool. Without her, it would have been much more difficult for me to retrieve you."
"She has Docholli terrorized for certain." Travis's voice was stronger but he still regarded Carnell with suspicious contempt.
"Docholli's merely a bottom-feeder who occasionally dredges up dirty little secrets."
"Like your involvement in the Black Cobra project? Why, Carnell? Why were you tampering with those records? What use did the puppeteers have for that abortion?"
An enigmatic smile curved across Carnell's perfectly sculpted lips. "What use indeed? Except the possibility of acquiring a very talented recruit." The smile twisted into a grimace as the puppeteer continued in a low, accusing tone, "It wasn't supposed to be Dar who died in that accident, but you! Except you were so blind drunk, you couldn't even stand up, much less take that prototype fighter through its paces. So your brother took your place and died in the accident that had your name on it. "
Travis jerked upright as shock and fury burned out the last vestiges of the drugs in his system. "You're lying!" he spat. "There's no way you could know that."
Carnell laughed harshly, "Unless I was there, flying the prototype in your place."
Travis slumped down in the chair once more, his single eye fixed on the figure across from him. Then he broke into a harsh laugh with an underlying hysterical edge. "You might as well pull the other one, Carnell. A powder pouf like you? You wouldn't have lasted five minutes on the world where Dar and I grew up."
The puppeteer studied him with a sly grin, "Dar used brains rather than brawn to survive on that hellhole, Colin. Surely you remember that much from your past? That mnemonic cascade left your memory blocks a shambles, but I have been trying to help you put some of the pieces back together."
"Damn your meddling puppeteer, for all I know, you planted half the memories in my mind." Travis raged.
"Oh no, Colin, you won't get off that easily. Implanted memories are very easy to recognize, they're flat, colorless, with no visceral associations. Not like your memories of Dar's 'death.' You do remember those, don't you? The jagged edges of the cockpit cutting into your hands. The charred stench of burned plastic. The raw hunk of bleeding meat. . .luckily with the brain case left relatively intact. Not much left of your brother, was there Colin?"
Travis's face had gone dead white, his eye blank and empty as the memories ripped through his mind.
Carnell's composure was unshakeable as he continued, " Fortunately, the puppeteers were able to coerce the Clone Masters into rebuilding that wreckage and even made a few improvements on my original appearance. Some basic enhancements to improve my use to them."
"Why go to all that trouble just to rebuild one raw outworld recruit?" Travis demanded hoarsely, still skeptical of the puppeteer's disclosure
Carnell leaned back in his chair, his dazzling smile smoothly in place. "Luckily the commander leading the mission to evacuate Metis III had recognized my. . .talents."
"Brannen!" Travis snorted in disgust, "All he recognized was the fact that we were both underage, unskilled low grade ratings that he could use however he pleased."
"True enough," Carnell continued, with a brittle edge to his earlier insouciance. "He was in the market for a lad or two, naive - or desperate - enough to do his bidding to escape the rougher types below decks. He saw that possibility in us and paid our father a `premium enlistment' bonus, although we were barely qualified to do service grade scutwork. We weren't regular conscripts, but bond slaves - bought and paid for!"
Travis lapsed back in his seat with a surly response. "I don't recall Brannen molesting me that much. At least no more so than half the senior ratings in the section."
"Of course not, you fool. You proved too much the wolf cub for his taste; savage and half-wild, with a weapon close to hand almost every moment you were awake. He preferred his `lads' a little more civilized. Aware of the advantages of friends in high places. By the time we returned to the Inner Systems, he gladly commended me to the attention of the psychostrategists. . . . who recognized my skills from the very beginning."
Carnell pushed out of his chair and moved over to Travis's side, gripping his shoulder,
"Skills that I had used time and again to save our lives on that cesspit of a homeworld."
"You're no brother of mine." Travis spat. "Even if I was a bound conscript, I didn't sell my manhood for petty ambition and a safe place to sleep."
Carnell froze, then backhanded Travis, stunning both of them at the vehemence of his reaction. "You bloody fool! Our father had already sold us into slavery! We had no more rights than the lowest Delta drudge in the domes."
Travis reached up to wipe away the blood rilling from his battered mouth. "He did it for the sake of our brother and sisters. We were the oldest and had already endured the worst Metis III could throw at us. The odds were good we'd survive the hardship and discipline of the Space Service. But without the money Brannen demanded to pay passage to a decent colony world, our whole family would have wound up on some dumping ground planet with no resources except crime and drugs. How long would it have been before Brian was running drugs for the Terra Nostra or Deirdre or Gwen sold themselves into prostitution, just to keep from starving to death?" Travis's face was contorted in grief and rage.
"I understood the bitter necessity behind the decision our father made." Travis continued in a harsh voice. "To `sell' our lives to Space Command and buy a future for the rest. I was a soldier from the beginning, Dar, and I never let anyone treat me otherwise!"
Maintaining his mask of anger in the face of that outburst of defiance, Carnell was nonetheless pleased by his progress in restoring his subject's memories. Obviously Travis had accepted the startling disclosure that Carnell was his brother, judging by the outburst just spewed in his direction. But regaining his loyalty- that would be a true test of his skills as a puppeteer.
He drew himself up, with a cold retort, "Quite admirable, though it wasn't your superior skills that won you promotion within Space Command. Only my careful guidance brought you the rank you presently hold. And if you hadn't been such a rash, stubborn, insolent fool, you'd be Supreme Commander instead of Servalan!"
Travis's eye narrowed as he sneered, "That's another one of your little manipulations of the truth. Servalan regaled me earlier with her version that she alone was responsible for keeping me in Space Command after my confrontation with Blake."
"Don't discount either influence," Carnell observed shrewdly. "You knew about Servalan's ambitions, since you were her catspaw and scapegoat almost from the beginning. She had the prestige and connections you lacked, along with the glamour and seductive skill to charm her way past her opponents in the Admiralty and the High Council. She's been a useful pawn in our efforts to extend the Federation's reach beyond the Inner Worlds. But she's strictly a schemer, she's always needed someone with audacity and skill to carry out her plans...to be the enforcer for her ambitions, the weapon in her hand. The only way to guarantee Servalan's rise to power was to assure Blake's downfall. And you were the ideal weapon for that purpose."
Travis stared at the psychostrategist - his brother - totally appalled. "So that's why you hunted me up, after Blake had nearly destroyed me. You were the one responsible for my reprogramming. Along with the neural implant and its artificially induced obsession. You made me little more than her obedient killing machine!"
"Don't play the injured innocent," Carnell retorted in contempt. "You already were a seasoned trooper, well-blooded in combat. Accustomed to following orders to eliminate the Federation's enemies as readily as any other officer."
"But never mindlessly, without reason. I did as I was ordered by my superiors for the security of the Federation."
"As did I," Carnell expounded in a reasonable tone. "Only my superiors have a somewhat longer view of the overall political and strategic situation. And in my capacity as one of their agents, I was striving to assure us both positions of power and influence within the hierarchy."
"You used me, Dar. Your own brother! I was just one more pawn to be maneuvered and manipulated to smooth your rise to power." Travis's voice was ragged with a sense of betrayal, but Carnell's furious outburst surprised him.
"Of course, I used you, you fool! I've been plotting since we first joined Space Command, how to preserve both our lives. How to achieve enough power and prestige so we would have some control over our fate. You haven't made it easy, Colin! Your stubborn nature and insolent attitude made you few friends in the senior echelon. Only my maneuvering of Servalan and others on the High Council kept you out of trouble as long as it did. Then you had the blind stupidity to make a run for it during your trial! Do you realize how much careful planning that fiasco undid?"
"Somehow I fail to see how I would have been of use to you in front of a firing squad!" Travis retorted stiffly.
"It was all planned for, Colin. As predictable as a grandmaster's endgame until you decided to take yourself out of the game completely by that little escapade with Jenna Stannis."
Travis looked up, taken momentarily off guard by the mention of Jenna's name. He'd tried to block off those memories, hoping to keep Servalan's questions away from that particular area. Praying he hadn't given away any crucial information that might endanger Jenna, or their crew.
"So I did manage to escape your clutches. . . for a little while. The Free Traders weren't part of your scheme."
" Not directly, no," Carnell admitted, smiling to himself. "But I've been aware of their agenda to free themselves from Federation 'influence' for quite some time. I know all about the First Captain's obsession. . .and obsessions are my stock in trade, little brother."
A chill crept down Travis's spine at those words, hearing his brother's voice years before
saying something very similar, ". . .and survival is my stock in trade, little brother." And Dar had lived by that credo the last months on Metis III, no matter what the cost to friends or family.
Momentarily caught up in the vivid and painful memories those words recalled, Travis missed much of Carnell's explanation of how he'd duped the First Captain.
". . . Clone Masters implanted when you and Servalan visited their planet some years ago. The gene provides immunity to the Federation's most commonly used pacification drug. Bit of a red herring actually, but Stannis obviously took the bait, since you're here alive and in one piece, relatively speaking."
Travis nodded dully, recalling the conversation he'd had with the First Captain about his supposedly "superior" bloodlines. Stannis must have known about the gene then, when he'd made his offer of a free choice of bedmates, since Jenna was determined not to become one of the clan's brood mares. When he refused to be put out to stud, Stannis had used other means, which was the most likely explanation for Martine's blatant seduction of him at the Three Ringed Moon.
"Why go to all that trouble?"
"Merely the price of your survival, Colin." Carnell turned his compelling blue eyes on Travis. "Of course, Stannis has had time to have the gene thoroughly analyzed by now and has discovered that you're of no use at all to him."
Travis's lip curled. "Why should I care? Jenna's the only one I ever gave a damn about."
The defiant words died in his throat as the puppeteer gave him strangely pitying look.
" Haven't you realized how she's used you and then betrayed you from the very beginning? She transmitted your knowledge of Star One to Blake, hoping to destroy the Federation. Then on Byzantia, she was part of Blake's scheme again, preventing Servalan from getting rid of that weakling Samore and restoring the Federation to its former power. Now, she's openly working for him, seducing planets into joining his dissident group."
Travis slumped wearily, knowing that Carnell was twisting and distorting the facts to suit his own purpose. It no longer mattered anyway. Whether Jenna decided to rejoin Blake or remain with the Free Traders, he'd deliberately cut his ties with her when he rifled her safe and stolen the Reina, going in search of the truth about his brother's death.
Instead, he'd discovered that the truth was a lie and as a result been drawn into his brother's ongoing web of lies. Carnell's words had stirred up old memories, reminding him how he'd idolized Dar when they were growing up and turned a blind eye to his brother's sly, selfish nature. Scheming to escape the drudgery in the fields, Dar often volunteered to put meat on the table by hunting, though he frequently came home empty-handed. Yet despite his preference for hunting over farming, his brother managed to avoid communal hunting parties because they were often attacked by the predatory fenris. After they were conscripted into the Space Service, it had been Dar's plotting that brought them to the attention of Commander Brannen. Now Travis had uncovered the truth that it wasn't just the Federation that had conditioned and re-programmed him. His own brother had been responsible for the worst of it.
"Why?" Travis demanded one last time.
"It was our only hope of survival. To ally ourselves with the most powerful and influential advocates within the Federation. . . the puppeteers. Yes, they've used me and I've used you, but it was the only way to guarantee my eventual rise to power within their ranks. When Servalan assumes the Presidency of the Federation, I will be the power behind the throne, pulling her strings." Carnell spoke with quiet assurance.
Travis glanced warily around the puppeteer's office, rough-hewn out of the native rock. "That's a dangerous admission to make aloud."
"There's no way she could hear us. This office is swept for listening devices daily."
"You're a fool, if you think that will stop her."
Deep in the heart of her inner sanctum, Servalan studied the holo image of the battered figure of her former Space Commander. "A fool indeed, Carnell. Travis is right. . .and still so much better than anything I've got left."
Dani's bitter experience with the raiders left Jenna apprehensive and edgy during the Nippore run. However, whether because of their alertness or the fact that their textile cargo was of little interest, they did not intercept any unusual messages, security coded or otherwise. Even with their long-range scanners at maximum they encountered no traces of the ghostly harriers who were making their presence felt so alarmingly among the Enclave Trading Fleet.
On final orbital approach to Sanctuary, Jenna spotted the familiar profile of the Liberatoron station, obviously returned from Blake's fact-finding mission to Jade. To her elation, the Reinadrifted alongside the bulk of the larger ship, like a pilot fish escorting a shark.
"They found him!" she rejoiced over the comm link to the Alamo
"So it appears," Dani answered tersely. Certain that Jenna would be eager to see her bondmate, she offered, "You want me to handle the check-in with the Portmaster?"
Resisting the impulse to accept that generous offer, Jenna shook her head ruefully, "No, I'd better handle the paperwork myself. It'll give me time to decide whether I want to hug the bastard or bust him one in the mouth."
Dani hid a grin at Jenna's ambivalent reaction. Her own encounter with Travis several months ago as a rater of his piloting skills had left her with similar mixed feelings. Though she admired his superb piloting ability, she'd been absolutely terrorized by the suicidal risks he took. She did not envy Jenna the life that man must lead her.
Sometime later, after completing the records portion of her trade run, Jenna arrived at her uncle's office hand-carrying the data fiches required by her clan. To her surprise, she encountered Blake and Avon in the reception area.
Before she could she could barrage him with questions, Blake spoke to Avon first, " Give Stannis the bad news. I'll be in as soon as I talk to Jenna."
"Don't waste too much time commiserating, Blake. If what we suspect is true, Servalan's fleet could be lurking on our doorstep any time now." Avon's features held a chilly warning.
"I doubt she'll be reckless enough to attack a planetary base the size of this one. Even with knowledge of comm codes and security systems."
Avon shrugged indifferently before entering the office.
"What knowledge?" she demanded sharply, her momentary sense of relief congealing into apprehension. "Roj - where's Travis? I saw the Reina in orbit..."
"We didn't find him," the former rebel answered bluntly. "The man who sent the message, a cybersurgeon named Docholli, bolted offplanet over three weeks ago. His surgery was stripped to the bare walls, so there was no way to tell if Travis had ever been there. The Reina had been impounded for nonpayment of docking fees and none of Travis's personal effects remained on board."
"Did you check the med centers?" she whispered hoarsely.
"And the security blocks...and the morgue," Blake continued in an increasingly sympathetic tone of voice. "No one matching his description had been picked up in the last month. I'm sorry, Jenna, but there was simply no trace of him. . .anywhere."
"No hints at all where he might have gone?" her voice echoed hollowly.
Blake massaged between his brows, then spoke bluntly, "Right now Jade is seething with activity: smugglers on the move, mercenary captains recruiting, arms dealers and gunrunners hawking their wares openly. Vila did a little drinking at one of the local pubs and managed to lift a data cube, along with a fat purse, from one of the mercenary's pockets. Judging by its contents, Servalan is planning a major attack on the Enclave and the Federation soon."
"Servalan? No, Roj, Travis wouldn't have gone back to her. . .not willingly."
"Perhaps not," Blake bit off with brutal pragmatism. "But willing or not - Servalan's interrogators would likely have wrung him dry in a week or less. That kind of security breach represents an enormous danger to the Alliance, the Enclave. . .even the Federation."
He glanced at the closed door into Mikhail's office, "Avon has undoubtedly presented at least a dozen `worst case scenarios' to your uncle. I'd better get in there and put in my two cents worth." He gripped her shoulders gently, "I'm sorry, Jenna, truly I am. After Byzantia, I really believed that he had changed."
. She set her jaw in determination and pulled away from his attempted consoling embrace. "I'll be all right." She swallowed hard. "I appreciate your returning the Reina."
"That was at Tarrant's insistence. He protested she was too `bonny and bold' to be stripped down for parts in some half-legitimate refit yard."
Jenna nodded thoughtfully as Blake hurried into her uncle's office. No matter what Blake said, she knew Travis had not betrayed her. . .or the Enclave. If only she could find someone else who believed in him the same way that she did.
Turning on her heel, she headed to the main docking area where the Reina was
In Stannis's office, Kerr Avon listened impassively as the older man passed on the news of Travis's defection to the Enclave's central dispatch center. Leaning back for a moment after the warning had been acknowledged, the First Captain grimaced in disgust. "Ideally his knowledge of comm codes and trade routes should have only included the two or three areas that overlapped with his and Jenna's current routes. But I have no doubt that he accessed the restricted intelligence about our defenses and security procedures at the first opportunity. As if our problems with Servalan's raiders weren't bad enough."
"They may be worse than you thought," Avon responded coolly.
"What do you mean by that?" Mikhail demanded.
With a casual gesture, the computer expert tossed a small datacube on the Free Trader's desk. "Thanks to Vila's nimble fingers and prodigious capacity for drink we managed to obtain this from one of the local mercenary captains. It contains rather alarming evidence that the raids are only the beginning. Servalan is building a mercenary fleet with intention of regaining control of the Federation."
Mikhail dropped the cube in his desk slot and began scanning it. There wasn't a great deal of data there. Some of it was obscure and other parts seemingly innocuous unless taken as a whole. But fifteen years as a Clan leader, surviving the worst of the Federation's depredations, had made Mikhail Stannis a canny and suspicious man. While he was scrolling through the data screens, Blake slipped quietly in the door.
Avon remarked in a sarcastic undertone too low for Stannis to hear, "I thought you'd be too busy consoling Jenna to put in an appearance."
"I was curious to see what you and the First Captain plan to do about the growing danger Servalan represents," he remarked blandly.
Avon compressed his lips tightly, avoiding Blake's probing gaze. "She represents more of a danger to the Federation than to us."
"If you believe that you're blinding yourself to reality."
Stannis looked up at the pair, his face flushed with anger and his jaw tightly clenched, "We should have throttled that woman when we had the chance on Byzantia!"
Avon nodded, a sour expression on his face "Despite my distaste for bloody vendettas, I'm forced to agree with you. However, if you recall, Acting President Samore's troops were in control of the situation at that time and took her into custody for a `fair' trial. . .with their typical lax security for high ranking prisoners."
"Samore!" Stannis spat in contempt. "He's probably secretly supporting her raids. After all, the majority of her troops and ships are Space Command deserters!"
"You're crediting the man with more guile than he's capable of," Blake remarked sharply. "If the former Fleet Warden intended to attack the Free Traders and the rest of the neutral planets, he'd use a standard blockade and interdiction. No, Servalan represents even more of a threat to him than she does to the Enclave. While she bleeds your ships dry, she's stocking up on weapons and other supplies, and recruiting even more ships and men to mount an offensive against the Federation. One way or another - bribery, intimidation, or murder - Servalan fully intends to claw her way back to power."
"Then it's Samore's problem, not ours." Stannis pushed away from his desk, handing the data cube to Avon, with an air of dismissal. "He's the one who stands to lose the most if her scheme succeeds."
Blake leaned on Mikhail's desk, confronting him."Surely, you're not that much of a fool, First Captain. Samore's an honorable man, he proved that on Byzantia. But if Servalan regains power, she'll use every means at her disposal to extend Federation control over all the independent worlds, from here to the Rim."
" Then why not just pass on this data that you've acquired to Samore. After all, they're histroublemakers and deserters and he has an entire fleet at his disposal to deal with this one band of thieves and cutthroats."
Blake smiled ironically. "Somehow, I don't think he'd welcome my suggestions on that subject. Besides, everyone knows the Federation fleet is undermanned and over committed, hardly in a position launch a preemptive strike against Servalan, even if they knew where her hidden base was located."
He paused, his expression brooding on a dark and bloody past. "No, our only hope of ridding the galaxy of her poisonous influence is with a united fleet, like the one that fought the Andromedans."
Mikhail glared in disbelief. "I take it that you're suggesting that the Enclave join forces with the Federation to clean out Servalan's base?"
"It does seem like our best - our only - option."
"Blake, you don't seem to understand that the Enclave is just a loose association of forty odd clans with a motley collection of planet hoppers, ore carriers, cargo haulers and general purpose freighters. We are not a bloody armada! It would be like sending out men with flintlocks and tomahawks against an organized army."
Blake allowed himself a small ironic smile. "Funny you should mention that. Some two hundred years before the Atomic Era, a band of rebels armed with little more than 'flintlocks and tomahawks' managed to defeat the most powerful empire on Earth."
Stannis glared at Blake, then shrugged his shoulders in resignation.
"Very well, Blake. I'll present your. . .proposal to the First Captains' Council, along with my own recommendations. But there's no guarantee that they'll go along with it. Especially since we don't even know how Samore will respond."
"I'll transmit the information from the data cube that Avon and Vila acquired to President Samore, along with a warning about the increased mercenary activity in this sector. Hopefully, he'll recognize the potential threat."
As they left Stannis's office, Avon grimaced at the curly-haired rebel, shaking his head in frustration. "Well, you've sabotaged my business negotiations for the moment, attempting to drag the First Captain into another one of your foolhardy plans."
" Let's hope he and his fellow Captains see reason, for all our sakes." Blake replied somberly. "Because if Servalan does regain power, I doubt that you and Orac would be able to find a secure bolthole anywhere in this galaxy." He continued on a slightly more genial note,
"If they do decide to go along with us, the First Captain will likely be more interested in battle plans than spreadsheets. Maybe you should see if Orac can pinpoint the location of Servalan's base from the information on that data cube. Consider it insurance for your survival,"
Avon nodded tensely, before snarling into his teleport bracelet, "Vila, bring
Aboard the Reina, Jenna was only half-listening to Tarrant's explanation of what they had discovered on Jade.
"...no real clue of who he planned to meet in the ship's log or any other records. Blake and Avon determined the message he'd received did come from Docholli. But there was no trace of where either of them could have disappeared aboard the Reina, in Docholli's office, or within the rather slipshod files that make up Jade's Central Computer system."
Jenna nodded, her mind obviously on other things. Then she looked into the young pilot's face in desperate appeal. "Do you believe Travis went back to Servalan . . .willingly? Was everything he did this past year merely an elaborate deception to infiltrate the Enclave?"
Tarrant tried not to flinch away from the naked anguish in Jenna's voice. He remembered his own doubts when he'd first encountered the ex-Federation officer attempting to halt Blake's attack on Star One. But there was no denying the man's determination and self-sacrifice in remaining behind to operate the manual controls and prevent further carnage while the Liberatorfought a desperate holding action against the Andromedan invaders. Only it wasn't his courage that was under suspicion now. . . but his loyalty.
Tarrant could only offer her his impressions from when he'd first encountered the Space Commander at the FSA. Travis had been a guest lecturer in "Urban Warfare" while recuperating from the injuries he'd acquired during his first clash with Blake. Even then he'd been openly critical of the senior echelon and the course it was taking under Servalan's command .
"No, I don't think so, Jenna. I think he truly was disillusioned with Servalan's betrayals. His defection was genuine. From my few conversations with him on Byzantia, I got the impression he was content to be a trader captain within the Enclave. Unfortunately, Servalan has a long memory for wrongs committed against her and a vindictive attitude about repaying them. I'm afraid it's much more likely that someone set a trap to drag him back into her clutches."
As Tarrant shuddered at the memory of some of the stories that had circulated through Academy of Servalan's vendettas and the dire consequences of crossing her will, he glanced down into Jenna's horror-stricken face.
"Oh blast! I've put my foot in it again, haven't I? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
She waved her hand in dismissal, interrupting his apology brusquely. "I'd rather face the hard facts, than deceive myself with half-truths. I'm well aware of what she's capable of doing to her prisoners. But I don't intend to sit around and twiddle my thumbs while it happens."
She scrutinized the features of the eager young pilot, noting the youthful enthusiasm but also the steely resolve underlying it. Plus, his admiration of Travis was a definite asset. She looked down for a moment, trying to compose her thoughts and then locked gazes with those piercing blue eyes.
"Would you be interested in hiring on with me as a temporary pilot?"
"Why?" he questioned, bewildered. "You've already got a full roster for your fleet. Even if you did want to hire a replacement for Travis, I'm not ready to give up the Liberator for the sedate life of a merchant pilot."
She laughed to herself at the faint note of contempt in his answer. "Not aboard one of my trade ships. But piloting the Reina for a high-risk, covert operation. Does that sound exciting enough for you?"
"High-risk. . .covert?" Slowly the light dawned in those intense blue eyes. "You're going after him? But how? You don't even know the location of Servalan's base! Or its security set-up or how many troops she has! You don't have any of the information that's absolutely essential before you even begin planning this kind of operation." His voice had grown steadily louder, as he reacted with shock at her reckless plan.
She shushed him hurriedly, before glancing around and suggesting in a conspiratorial whisper, "I've already heard about Vila's acquisition from the mercenary captain on Jade. With what's on that cube plus Orac's tarriel cells, we should be able to acquire the tactical data we need to rescue Travis."
"Avon keeps the activator and monopolizes the computer's time whenever he can cajole or threaten it to take time from its interminable private `researches,'" Tarrant protested.
"Enlist Vila to lift the key. Bribe him with enough adrenaline and soma and he'll gladly do it. Hopefully, my uncle will be involving Avon with some Enclave project over the next few days."
Tarrant nodded reluctantly, then voiced the fear that Jenna had buried deep in her heart. "Even if we do manage to rescue him. . . he's been in Servalan's hands for over a month. She'll have used every means at her disposal to break him. . . Carnell, interrogators, her own troops, who've been known to mete out bloody treatment to anyone they considered disloyal or a deserter! He may not be the man you remember. . .he may never be that man again!"
Jenna's eyes flashed with a stubborn fire. "She's tried to break him before. More than five years using psych conditioning, neural implants and every other nasty trick at her disposal. She didn't succeed then and I don't think she'll succeed now. Besides, no matter what she's done to him. . .I won't abandon him!"
The fire threatened to dissolve into tears and Tarrant hurriedly changed the subject, seeing how vulnerable and shaken she was. "Can I include Dayna in this operation? Her knowledge of weapons and explosives could be invaluable."
Jenna smiled damply, seeing through the ploy but grateful, nonetheless. "She'd be a good choice. There are several crew members on my ships with equally useful specialties. I'll see if they want to volunteer for this mission." She raised a cautioning finger. "But don't mention this to Cally or Blake. Since Star One, they 've both developed an aversion to madly suicidal enterprises."
"What makes you think I haven't?" Tarrant protested weakly.
"You're a pilot, Del, and all pilots are madder than March hares." Jenna smiled gently.
As Jenna reviewed a few of the particular points that he should make sure Orac investigated, Tarrant let his mind wander to his initial encounter with Travis. He'd been assigned as Travis's striker and as a result witnessed firsthand the devastating change in his personality. Under the control of the psychostrategist, Carnell, Travis was transformed from a dedicated, brilliant tactician into an obsessed, almost mindlessly driven engine of vengeance.
He hoped - no, he prayed - that Travis had not undergone a similar
personality obliteration this time. It would definitely complicate an
already high-risk operation.
The thief froze at that menacing purr of a voice and turned to confront the bleary-eyed Avon who had a decided tic in his cheek.
"Just where do you think you're going with Orac's key?"
"Nowhere in particular?" the lockpick extemporized nervously. "The rest room maybe? See if that glass-bodied sourpuss wouldn't benefit from a few of my jokes and funny stories? Everybody's goin' round with expressions grim as death, I thought I might..."
Avon was too exhausted to waste his energy on more than a reflexive jibe. "Wrong. You didn't think. Just hand it over. Blake wants Orac to evaluate some strategies that may be marginally more important than your juvenile humor."
Doing so with surprising reluctance, Vila sauntered down the corridor, whistling blithely, until Avon turned back toward his quarters. Then he abruptly altered speed and direction, making for the flight deck with unusual haste.
After reaching it, he threw himself down on one of the couches before addressing his fellow conspirators glumly, "Avon demanded the key before I could get down here. Sounds like he and Blake are taking Orac to Stannis's office for another all-night session."
"Damn," Tarrant swore under his breath. "And we're so close, too! We have the probable coordinates of her base's position inside that asteroid belt and the security codes for the mercenary fleet. All we need is an interior map of the base and any nasty surprises that might be waiting for us defensively."
"You can make an educated guess, can't you?" Dayna demanded, impatient at the delay. "After all, you studied standard security procedures and defensive networks at the glorious FSA."
Del ran an exasperated hand through his unruly curls as he explained to the dark-skinned young huntress, "Making guesses about Federation security procedures is a good way to wind up dead. Especially where Supreme Commander Servalan is concerned. That woman's devious mind worries me."
He sighed in resignation. "Besides, I wanted to pin Orac down a little more conclusively on the exact orbital coordinates for the mercenary fleet. I would prefer not to be fried by some overeager pursuit ship pilot for coming in on the wrong approach vector. "
"At least, Jenna was able to coax Avon into installing a version of his anti-detection screen aboard the Reina That should keep them from spotting us when we actually infiltrate the base," Dayna observed.
"I think I would have backed out of this mission, otherwise," the young pilot admitted ruefully, glancing over to his darkly beautiful and impulsive shipmate. "Playing hide and
seek with proximity mines and random orbiting space junk while trying to jam their detection system is a little beyond even my masterful abilities. You're sure you want to go along? Even with Orac's help, the odds are not good."
Dayna gave a distinctly predatory smile, "I made the mistake of letting Servalan out of my clutches once, Del. I don't intend to repeat it. She's going to pay for my father's death and so are as many of her loyal troopers as I can send to hell after her."
He gripped her shoulders angrily. "This is not a bloody suicide mission, Dayna! Jenna wants to get Travis out alive and I have no intention of going up in a blaze of glory just to sate your thirst for vengeance!"
She glanced sidelong at him, "I thought you were going to stay with the Reina to throw off suspicions while Jenna and I and the rest of her crew infiltrated the base?"
"Jenna's crew won't be coming with us. Several of them are non-humanoid, which means they'd be too conspicuous inside a Federation base. The others have been "drafted" by her uncle for some plan of his. The two of you will have a hard time making your escape if Travis isn't able to navigate on his own."
Dayna eyed the pilot's lanky frame, then remarked, "I don't see you hauling his unconscious body through that maze of tunnels that easily, either."
"You do what you have to." Tarrant's face held a momentary grimness, then he continued with his bleak thought. "Besides, knowing Federation interrogation techniques as well as I do...Travis just might require the kindness of a blaster bolt to the head. It would be better for me to be the one to administer it, instead of Jenna."
Dayna's dark eyes were suddenly compassionate and she placed a gentle hand on Del's shoulder. Blake and Avon would always be her "knights in shining armor" for their rescue of her and her father from Sarran, but Tarrant had been the sympathetic ear and broad shoulder to cry on as she grieved for her father's death. Even discovery of his Space Command background had not changed her tender feelings for him. But they would not stop her from taking any chance that she could get to kill Servalan.
He shrugged irritably. "Let's go over these maps again. I'm still not convinced you know the best locations to plant those delayed action bombs to create maximum confusion without damage to the lighting or life support system."
Dayna pouted. "Afraid of a little `blind man's bluff' complicated by CO2 narcosis?"
Del put on his most martial Space Command attitude, "Let's not make this mission any more difficult than it already is!"
"Spoilsport," she muttered, only half joking and bent over the maps in total
In Stannis's office, Avon studied the numerous tactical printouts and probable base schematics suspiciously, while Blake sprawled in one of the office's oversized leather chairs. The former rebel was massaging his aching temples and listening with half an ear to the argument between Stannis and Samore that threatened to dissolve into a political harangue.
"...acceptable losses! Tweny-five percent of our ships and crews do not constitute anything approaching acceptable losses!" The First Captain coldly raged, "This tactic is more suitable to your conscripted Deltas and mindless mutoids than spilling the Enclave's lifeblood like water!"
"Your undisciplined pilots are too independent to be part of the coordinated attack," Samore bit off sharply, only the pronounced bags under his eyes giving any indication of his own fatigue. "They'll go in as a diversionary force and engage her patrol ships, drawing them off..."
"Serving as shock troops in a suicidal sortie, you mean," Stannis snarled.
Dragging himself wearily out of the chair before the threatened explosion of tempers could erupt, Blake broke in wearily, "Isn't there some way of getting through the minefield other than a direct frontal assault?"
"If they were only proximity mines," Samore countered, "we could use that supercomputer of yours to come up with a map of their location so the fleet could steer an evasive course through them. But there's such a mixed bag in the middle of that floating garbage heap - metal sensors, heat detectors, visual activation. There's no hope of plotting a course through that without inevitable losses. Even if it were possible, the ships would be so scattered and out of formation, we'd have no chance of regrouping before her fleet hit us. We'd have to face her ships in a strictly one-to-one engagement."
"What's wrong with that?" Blake shrugged. "I realize that all available Free Trade ships are drilling with your battle fleet in an attempt to familiarize them with basic Federation battle tactics. But surely the combined fleets outnumber her ships enough to simply overwhelm them by sheer force of numbers."
Samore's expression was wearily tight-lipped. " Unfortunately, Servalan's fleet consists of some of our most advanced ships and best pilots, whom she seduced through careful flattery, liberal distribution of her sexual favors and a free hand with promotions and monetary rewards. They were the elite of our Command, and I assure you they will be using every advantage of squadron and fleet battle tactics available to them. With that edge, they can defeat an enemy that outnumbers them. They've proved that innumerable times - most recently at Star One. Plus we have no idea as to how many mercenary ships she's hired. No, we've got to come up with some way of getting the Fleet though that minefield as a single tactical unit."
He drew a hand across his bleary, bloodshot eyes and Blake stared at the man, realizing how very old Samore looked. With a sudden poignant insight he realized how difficult it must be for the former Fleet Warden to plan a battle against troops who had once been loyal to him. Possibly even confronting officers he had trained or served with. It must be a bitterly frustrating experience.
Stannis seemed unmoved by the man's plight, still angry and defensive about the Enclave's expected part in the operation. "Then what?" Mikhail sneered. "Your almighty Fleet has still got to crack the shell of that shielded asteroid base of hers. Your cruisers are going to be pounding on her force screens till hell freezes over."
"No." Samore's voice was quiet, but rang with a note of stern resolve. "I won't risk her escaping again. The High Council has authorized me to use whatever means are necessary to neutralize the threat she represents. Including a `planet-buster' bomb capable of reducing that asteroid to so much cosmic dust."
Blake jerked upright at that startling revelation, dumbfounded that Samore would consider using it against his former troops. Yet he found himself wondering at the Federation's previous restraint.
"You had such a weapon and you never used it against the Resistance?"
Samore's hooded eyes regarded him contemptuously, "It would have been the equivalent of swatting a mosquito with an elephant gun, Blake. Your group never represented enough of a threat that we found it necessary to render a whole planetary system uninhabitable just to silence a few noisy troublemakers."
"But you consider Servalan enough of a threat to use such a device on your own people? Members of Space Command whom you've known and served with?" Blake demanded in disbelief.
Despite the exhaustion lining his face, there was an implacable will underlying it. "Servalan's troops are turncoats and renegades who represent a violation of everything that Space Command stands for. By their criminal actions, they've betrayed every loyal, honorable trooper and officer in my command!"
Swallowing back further protest, Blake glanced over to Avon whose expression was remote and unreadable as usual. The computer tech slouched against the wall, demanding in a coldly sarcastic tone,"So, you need Orac to provide some kind of diversionary tactic to deactivate Servalan's defenses and allow your combined fleet penetrate them in formation. . . enabling yourships to engage her ships in that careful, precise order of battle that military strategists dote on?" Avon's voice dripped with derision as he placed the key in Orac's activator. "Well, Orac, do you have any brilliant suggestions? Preferably something that doesn't involve any kind of self-destructive madcap folly with an inflated bodycount."
The irritated little machine's reply sounded even more out-of-sorts than usual. *I am deeply involved in my own researches and should not be bothered with this kind of childish gamesmanship. Zen is a battle computer whose limited intellectual capacity is more than sufficient for your requirements.*
"Perhaps so," Avon snarled viciously. "But apply your overqualified circuits to this problem before I decide to limit your intellectual capacity. While I realize human lives are meaningless to you, consider minimizing casualties a required parameter of the program."
There was a soft chime from Stannis's desk, signaling he had a visitor in the outer office. He hit the switch in exasperation, "I told you to cancel all my appointments for the rest of the day. I'm in conference and can't be disturbed."
"I know, First Captain," responded the receptionist apologetically. "But it's your niece and she insisted..."
"Damn." Stannis raked his hand through his rumpled hair in exasperation. "You might as well send her in. She won't leave until she's had her say."
Jenna strode in, moments later, her gaze taking in Blake, Avon, Samore on the viewscreen and her irritated uncle.
"I see you're busy," she began curtly. "I only want a minute of your time. I'm taking theReina out the Rim Sector, looking for Travis. Blake's wrong about his defection. I've arranged for Dani McRae to take charge of my ships for the next few days and I wanted to make sure her account was properly credited."
"I thought you'd come to your senses about that bondmate of yours,"Mikhail growled "It's obvious that he's gone back to Servalan, giving her our comm codes and trade route data in the bargain. You're well rid of that traitor."
Jenna's jaw was set in determination, "I don't care what you think, Mikhail. He's my bondmate and I won't give up on him that easily."
Stannis shook his head in disgust. "Well, how long are you planning to chase after this will o'the wisp? Spend too much time on a fool's errand and possession of your hard earned trading fleet will revert to the Clan."
Jenna glanced around the room, her expression guarded. She had to be very careful about her answer. She might easily fool Roj and her uncle with her prevarication but Avon had an almost uncanny facility for spotting duplicity. She could only hope his usual indifference to other people's actions unless they impacted directly on his own well-being would hold true this time.
She shrugged, trying to remark in an off-handed tone of voice, "Blake said the trail went cold on Jade and everyone assumed that he rejoined Servalan at that point. I'm going to see if I can't uncover hard facts, rather than just speculation, about his disappearance."
Stannis waved his hand in dismissal. "I won't tell you to be careful. You've ignored my advice for years. Just remember, if you waste too much of the clan's valuable time and resources, you'll lose your fleet. Permanently!"
Jenna glared coldly at her uncle for a long moment after he delivered that warning, then spun on her heel to depart. But before she could escape, Orac's strident tones stopped her dead in her tracks.
*If you humans would simply combine the two scenarios that you keep pestering me about, you would increase your odds for success in both instances. Besides minimizing the human casualties that are of such concern to you.*
"Two scenarios?" Avon turned a dark, accusing glare on the computer."Who else has been consulting with you?"
*Del Tarrant, Dayna Mellanby, and Jenna Stannis with the complicity of Vila Restal. While their initial inquiries merely dealt with raw data acquisition and planetary body studies, recently have they been using my extrapolation circuits to run various covert operation scenarios.* There was a prim, self-righteous note to Orac's usually peevish voder.
Jenna gritted her teeth in disgust as Orac spilled out their whole carefully plotted scheme. "Damn you, Orac! Tarrant swore he'd put a lock on those files."
There was a sound that resembled a scornful sniff from the glowing entrails of the computer. *Del Tarrant's computer skills are so negligible as to be considered nonexistent. You should be grateful for my disclosure of this pitiful attempt at a covert operation. Even under optimum conditions, its chances of success were less than one in ten.*
There was a shocked expression on Mikhail's face while Blake's was merely pensive. Jenna's uncle demanded sharply, "Covert operation? What sort of covert operation?"
"I'm going after Travis. Everyone else may have written him off but I know he didn't go back to Servalan willingly. And I don't intend to abandon him to her tender mercies, no matter what the rest of you say!" She glared at the four men defiantly.
"Only one chance in ten of success?" Blake questioned. "You always demanded at least an even chance before you'd go along with my plans."
"Your plans. . . for your goals!" Jenna retorted savagely. "I'm taking this risk for something of value to me!"
"What about the others?" Avon observed snidely. "How did you persuade them to get involved in this lunacy? Especially Vila?"
"Vila's involvement was minimal. He merely lifted Orac's key from your pocket whenever the opportunity presented itself. `Just to keep his hand in.' Though he didn't object to the extra adrenaline and soma we supplied him with. Tarrant and Dayna. . .." She paused, glancing between Samore and Blake. "Like most pilots, Tarrant's an adrenalin junkie, but he's also helping me out of loyalty to a fellow officer."
"Former officer," Samore contradicted sourly but Jenna ignored him, finishing her reply to Avon. "And Dayna welcomed the opportunity to get another shot at Servalan."
Samore covered his eyes as he shook his head in disbelief. "I cannot believe you actually thought this kind of haphazard, ill-conceived operation had the remotest possibility of succeeding. How did you plan to infiltrate her base? Neutralize the security guards? Locate and extract former Commander Travis from whatever restraint she has him in, physical or mental? And make your escape with pursuit ships breathing down your neck through that labyrinth of a minefield!"
Jenna gave the Federation President a scornful look. "I'm not some fatuous female, Samore. I'm a Free Trade Captain, a skilled pilot, and was once a member of Blake's group when we had Space Command chasing their tails trying to catch us. I learned how to plan an operation like this from Cally and Blake. Del's prior reputation as a mercenary captain will get us access to the base. Dayna is extremely skilled at stealth and infiltration, in addition to her talent with weapons and explosives. Both Del and I survived the Andromedan Fleet at Star One, so our combat skills are on a par with the Fleet's. Does that convince you I'm serious? Now, if you'll pardon me, I have a mission to fine tune."
Her uncle stared at her, aghast,"You're not still planning to go through with this insanity?"
"I've heard nothing here to change my mind. And have seen a few things that convince me I need to speed up our timetable, before all hell breaks loose." She glanced sidelong at the men.
"You cannot go through with this foolishness," Mikhail ordered harshly. "Not only are you risking your own lives, but you could spoil other plans, critical to the survival of the Clan and the Enclave. I forbid you to go any further with this."
Jenna gazed her uncle with disdain. "Right now I don't give a tinker's damn about the Clan or the Enclave and I'm not a member of your household, so you can take your orders..."
Before Jenna could finish her statement, Samore roared in a parade ground voice that was impressive even over muted circuits of the viewscreen. "QUIET! ALL OF YOU! There is no reason to persist in this childish squabbling." In the sullen silence that followed, he observed candidly, "This young woman seems to have already planned the diversion we need in order to reduce the number of casualties projected in our initial battle scenario."
"That desperate scheme?" Stannis reacted irritably. "No, it's out of the question. I won't allow my niece to be a part of any suicide mission."
Samore's amused glance took in the defiant pilot and her equally adamant uncle. "It appears that you don't have that much control over her actions. But now we know about Captain Stannis' plan and how it meets our needs, we can supply her with the necessary resources to optimize its disruptive effect within Servalan's base. . .and possibly improve her crew's odds of survival. Does that meet with your approval, Fleet Captain?"
Jenna smiled warmly at President Samore's use of her Clan rank. "I never said I was pleased with the odds against us, President. Only that I was willing to take the risk to rescue my bondmate."
"An admirable goal, Fleet Captain. Perhaps with the help of Blake and that supercruiser of his, it might become a less dangerous one." Samore's smooth suggestion surprised all of them and there was a momentary outburst of reaction.
"Of all the stupid..." Avon began.
"That's not a good..." Jenna demurred.
"Liberator is not suited for..." Blake balked.
The three former allies glanced at one another, noting their similar responses while Samore's expression lapsed into his usual dour look of disapproval. "You asked for my strategic input and I've given you the benefit of it. No military operation can succeed unless you're willing to make the necessary sacrifices! When you've accepted that reality, let me know. I've wasted enough of my precious time, talking to people who lack any concept of duty or responsibility."
Before the disgruntled former admiral could break the connection, Blake spoke up quickly,"I see your point, President. But there are still details that need to be worked out. We'll try to come up with a viable plan and then get back to you. Is that acceptable?"
Samore's curt nod was his only reply before the connection was severed. Blake turned his attention to both Avon and Jenna who were glaring at him suspiciously.
"I don't want you involved, Blake. You're too trigger-happy where Travis is concerned."
She hesitated, then continued bluntly, "I don't trust you."
Blake shrugged, then spoke in a flatly pragmatic voice," Samore was right. You have to be willing to make sacrifices to win battles. Liberator and its teleport system may be the only way you can get everyone in and out in one piece. Especially if Travis is less than cooperative with your rescue plan."
Jenna stared at him for a long moment, then nodded her head slowly..
"Why don't you teleport up to the Liberator with Orac. Alert Tarrant and Dayna to the change of plans. Then start to develop the best approach for getting a strike force into Servalan's base using Liberator's capabilities - teleport, long-range scanners, and anti-detection screens."
After Jenna had blinked out, Avon and the First Captain stared at Blake in disbelief.
"Are you really planning to go through with this, Blake? Endanger your ship and crew to infiltrate Servalan's base and rescue your worst enemy?"
"He's not my worst enemy, Stannis. . . he's Jenna's bondmate. And Samore's right, we have to be willing to take risks to achieve anything worthwhile. So I intend to use Liberator to help Jenna improve her odds for success . . .and rid the galaxy of Servalan. As to endangering my crew," he smiled ruefully at Avon. "This mission will be strictly voluntary in nature. Which means you and Vila will have to find other lodgings for the next few days."
Avon's gaze flicked between Blake and Stannis, weighing his options. What he could expect from the First Captain if Blake and Liberator did not come back from this mission.
A sarcastic smile curled his lip. "Much as my better judgement argues against volunteering for this suicidally reckless mission, Blake, ridding the galaxy of Servalan might actually be a good enough cause to risk my life for. And unlike Jenna. . . I do trust you. A lapse of sanity that will undoubtedly get us all killed."
Slumped on a bench inside Carnell's nondescript and spartanly furnished quarters, Travis leaned against the roughhewn stone walls. Clenching his fists, he tried to pull his scattered thoughts together and focus on the duties and behavior that would be expected of him once his brother returned. Carnell had gone to inform Servalan of his success in reprogramming her weapon of choice against Blake, former Space Commander Travis. All Travis had to do was play the part of her loyal commander until the puppeteer made his next move.
He shuddered, the cold of the void sinking into his bones, as he tried to assimilate the memories and disclosures that he'd been deluged with over the past weeks. He'd left the Enclave after receiving a message about the "truth" behind his brother's accidental death years before. When he tried to uncover that truth, Travis had discovered that Dar was still alive, for all the good it had done him. Diarmid Travis no longer existed. Instead, he'd been rebuilt and recruited by the puppeteers, becoming Master Strategist Carnell. The man whose warped ambition had betrayed Travis's loyalty and honor in order to further Servalan's rise to power in the Federation.
Travis still found it hard to believe. How Dar could have changed so much from their harsh childhood on Metis III, when they'd balanced on the razor edge of survival on a daily basis, learning to count costs almost as soon as they learned to walk. . .or use a weapon. They'd both mastered the hunting and tracking skills essential for the well-being of the colony and the ruthless pragmatism of putting women and children first to assure the survival of the community. Yet even then, Dar had been sly and manipulative, shrugging off that ultimate lesson, putting hissurvival above everyone else's. Finally, after all these years, Travis realized how Dar had used and controlled him for most of their childhood. His life meant nothing to his brother; he'd merely been another tool to further Dar's ambitions.
Still, it hardly mattered whether those ambitions came to fruition or not. Travis had no real choice about his future. Dar was his brother, all the family he had left. And Space Command had owned his loyalty for longer than he could remember. His attempt to escape his duty had been an aberration, a temporary retreat from the only real certainty in his life.
He leaned his head back wearily, remembering Jenna - her softness and warmth, the fire of her free spirit, the forged steel of her courage. He knew he would never see her again. Even if the Enclave survived Servalan's vastly expanded ambitions for power and wealth, it would exist with only a shadow of its former autonomy. He prayed he would not be the one sent to deliver the ultimatum, when Servalan annexed them into the Federation. That confrontation with his past - and its final betrayal - would be too bitter to endure.
He glanced up as Carnell entered the room with a black leather uniform folded across his arm and a less than assured expression on his smoothly handsome features.
"Here," the puppeteer thrust the uniform at him. "Get cleaned up and kitted out quick as you can. She's calling in all the mercenary ships and their captains for an operations briefing. Her informants at Space Command have heard rumors that Samore's going to attempt a strike against this base. She'll need our skills to prepare her defensive operation."
Travis stood there, clutching the uniform and staring at his brother as he finally pieced the last of his shattered memories together. "The night before I was scheduled to fly the prototype, Ididn't go to the bar and get drunk like you conditioned me believe. Instead, I stayed in my quarters, studying the control specs. Until you dropped by to wish me luck.. . .and drugged my coffee!"
Carnell stared at him, momentarily disconcerted, then shrugged as his features smoothed over once more. "Yes, I did. If the prototype had performed as predicted, the acclaim and automatic promotion would have advanced my plans and assured our security that much sooner.
Unfortunately, the craft malfunctioned."
There was an awkward silence.
"However, the puppeteers weren't about to let a minor setback like that rob them of my considerable skills."
"Why, Dar?" Travis demanded hoarsely. "Why did you do it?"
The psychostrategist stepped over to a small mirror set into the rock wall, studying the smooth blonde perfection of his features. From behind him, Travis looked like a battered, scarred shadow of his brother.
"When we left Metis III, I promised Father that I'd always take care of you. . .and I have."
Avon glanced around at the cramped, down-at-the-heels flight deck of the Reina and grimaced in distaste. After hearing Tarrant's avid praises of Jenna's ship, he wasn't sure what he'd expected, but it certainly wasn't this dingy, overaged blockade runner. Especially after Jenna bragged that the ship had undergone two major refits since he'd installed the initial autopilot system aboard the blockade runner when she'd left the Liberator. Obviously, none of the improvements had been for comfort or appearance.
Vila's disappointment was voiced loudly, almost as soon as they'd come aboard.
"Not much better than a prison ship, that's for sure. Thin, lumpy mattresses on the bunks. A food dispenser that's only one step above protein packs and not a drop of soma anywhere!"
The striking redhead who'd been introduced as their pilot, Dani McRae, had cocked a mocking eyebrow in Vila's direction. "I'll admit I'm unfamiliar with Federation prison ships but theReina wasn't exactly outfitted to be a a pleasure craft. However, she's solid where it counts with extra shielding and upgraded weapons. And she's faster and more maneuverable than she looks. A fact that may save our lives once we're in Servalan's clutches."
Avon glanced dourly around the flight deck, noting its antique control systems and small weapons console. In addition, a similar but less well-designed autopilot system replaced the one he had originally installed.
Dani noted his glance. "Jenna said you weren't particularly keen on relief piloting chores so we installed this one. Besides, you never know what might happen in an operation like this."
The auburn haired beauty's casual acceptance of the risks involved irked Avon and he commented acidly, "We were shanghaied into volunteering to be a part of Blake's plan in the off-chance that my computer expertise and Vila's break-in skills can cause more of a diversion than Dayna's random distribution of explosives. Supposedly this crackpot scheme will reduce the 'rate of attrition' in the Fleet, though hopefully not at the cost of our lives. How did you get coerced into taking part?"
Dani made a minor adjustment in their navigation coordinates. Then she checked her comm to verify Liberator was still within range, although invisible to the Reina's scans, before remarking almost off-handedly, "I owe those renegades for shooting up my ship. If the Enclave is going in to clean out that snakepit, I want to be part of operation so I can make sure the job is done right."
"You could have been assured of that by simply being a part of the main attack force. Why take part in this suicidally deranged covert mission?"
She gave him a rueful smile. "Funny you should mention that. Because I was rater for Travis's piloting skills before he joined the Enclave and I made a similar remark to Jenna. Something about Free Trader crews preferring to avoid runs that looked like `suicide missions.'" She reflected for a moment. "But sometimes you have to take the risk for something of value."
"You think Travis is worth this kind of risk?" the computer expert questioned incredulously.
"Jenna's a friend. . . and she thinks he is. Rumor has it that she was so determined to carry out this operation, that she openly defied First Captain Stannis and `Old Starkiller' himself."
Avon smiled sourly, remembering Jenna's brazen defiance of "wiser heads" who had written Travis off as a traitor and defector. It would be amusing to see who was proved right, if he didn't get killed in the process.
As they approached the Hephaestus asteroid belt which Orac had identified as the point of origin for the raiders, Avon's air of calculated indifference began to crack. Dani could see evidence of a nervous anticipation growing in the computer expert. Like a man on his way to a rendezvous with a lover... or a mortal enemy.
She remarked to Vila who was staring somewhat nervously at the approaching asteroid field, "You've crossed paths with Servalan a number of times, haven't you? Not many people have. . . and lived to tell about it."
"She's got this `thing' for Avon," Vila replied morosely.
"`Thing?'" She glanced at him suspiciously, beginning to wonder just who was the bait in this trap.
"He's close-mouthed about it, but I think he's had a few closer encounters with Madame Supreme Commander than Blake realizes. She for sure had her hands all over him at Byzantia."
"What about that?" Dani gestured to the odd glass box with its glittering internal circuits. "I thought it was our real bargaining chip to get invited into her lair."
"It?" Vila sniffed. " Orac, Jr., ya' mean? Bogus 'rat in a box' is just icing on the cake. 'Course, Servalan has always been itchin' to get her hands on it." Warming to his story with an attractive and attentive audience, Vila continued, embroidering events ever so slightly. "Didja know that I was with Blake when he snatched the original right out from under her nose. . ."
As Vila spun out his colorfully embroidered tale of 'hairy primitives', radiation poisoning, and his own no doubt inflated role in acquiring the supercomputer, Dani studied the garrulous little thief. He was not really as small as he first appeared, but maintained the wary, circumspect posture of a man skilled at fading into the background. A useful talent for a thief and pickpocket.. Despite obvious misgivings, he had actually volunteered for the mission, muttering something about "watching Avon's back in that viper's pit."
"So, tell me about Avon and Servalan," Dani broke into Vila's recitation of the torments he suffered from the radiation poisoning.
Vila rolled his eyes nervously, "Well, I really shouldn't mention this..."
"Then don't!" Avon's acid tones echoed from the companionway just beyond the flight deck. "Keep your flights of inventive fiction and spurious speculation to yourself."
He glared at Dani who had replaced her look of curiosity with a bland expression. "Any contact from the raiders yet?"
"Not so far," she responded. "I wasn't sure if you wanted me to put out a general hail or just start into the belt and send a distress signal when we ran into trouble?"
"Ooooh, let's avoid the latter," Vila shivered. "All those floating rocks, not to mention proximity mines and other sorts of nastiness. We could get bruised if we ran into them."
"More likely, we'd wind up dead." Avon retorted grimly. "No, the only way to deal with Servalan is from a position of strength, while it appears we still have the option to withdraw. Then she'll consider the offer of something she wants for. . . something I want."
"Orac Jr. for..." Dani questioned.
"A safe bolthole and adequate funds to maintain a suitably comfortable lifestyle."
The Free Trade pilot studied the rocks and debris tumbling past their viewscreen. "Well, I suppose it might be safe enough. Although I have my doubts about the comfort factor."
Avon did not continue the discussion but gave his orders. "Send this out on a general comm band, no scrambling, no code."
As soon as Dani indicated that she was transmitting, Avon began, "Servalan, it seems you were correct about wasting my skills on people without the proper appreciation of them. I'm fed up with Blake's idealism and decided to look for employment elsewhere. You made an intriguing offer once. Does it still stand?"
The signal was broadcast and after a seemingly interminable wait, the board chimed with an incoming reply. As Dani listened warily, she couldn't swear the woman's voice reflected her evil nature but its honeyed venom definitely sent cold chills down her spine.
"Why Avon," Servalan purred. "How sweet of you to remember. But I thought you had found your bolthole among those rug merchants and trinket peddlers."
Dani bristled visibly at the jibe, but Avon ignored it. "I thought I had, but they don't have the true appreciation of my skills that you do."
"How sad," Servalan's voice was filled with a kind of sultry menace. "But you must realize that my need for your computer expertise has declined as well, due to my rather changed circumstances." He could tell she was toying with him, like a cat with a paralyzed mouse. "Unless you brought me something else of use - perhaps the Liberator?"
Avon's laugh held a bitter mocking edge, "Vila's an adequate thief and lockpick, but neither of us are that good. No, I didn't bring you Liberator. But I did manage to appropriate something else that you might find of use...Orac."
There was a momentary break in the signal then Servalan's voice returned, expressing much more interest.
"And Blake had no objection to this `appropriation'?"
"Blake's too busy attempting to rebuild his Freedom Party and finance the reconstruction of half the nonaligned worlds in an attempt to win their support. He's decided that the contents ofLiberator's treasure rooms should be used to `repair the damage done by our actions at Star One.' Since I was opposed to that insanity from the beginning, I saw no reason for giving up my share to salve his guilty conscience. He was not cooperative when I suggested that the treasure be divided equally. Then he and any other fools could use their portion to atone for their guilt, while I used mine to fund an appropriately luxurious lifestyle. While he was off on one of his tedious goodwill missions, I took Orac as payment for `services rendered', hired a ship, and began looking for someone with a true appreciation of my skills."
There was another long silence and Dani could almost see the wheels turning in Servalan's mind. Obviously, Avon was familiar with the way those devious thought processes worked, because he appeared totally at ease, absolutely certain she would not refuse his offer.
"Very well. Remain where you are. I'll send out one of my patrol ships to ferry you into my base," came the cool response.
"I'd prefer to come in on my own ship, Servalan. That way if we can't reach a mutually satisfactory agreement, I'll be free to leave without being quite so dependent on your goodwill," he countered smoothly.
"Don't you trust me?" The sharp note of malice was audible even through her sweetly menacing tones.
"Let's just say I prefer to keep my options open," he replied with an acid smile.
"This isn't one of Blake's little schemes, is it? Where you have saboteurs or assassins concealed aboard your ship?" she demanded with increased suspicion.
"I'd hardly be that much of a fool, would I? Putting myself in your hands while Blake carried out some recklessly suicidal operation?" The contempt in Avon's voice was blatant. "You can scan this ship thoroughly before we dock and you'll find only three life forms - Vila, myself, and the pilot we hired. The ship has no teleport and is only lightly armed, no threat at all to that battle fleet you've accumulated."
"Very well, Avon. I'm sending out a cruiser to guide you through the minefield. Tell your pilot to blank your viewscreens and release the controls. You'll be towed in by tractor beam." She broke the signal abruptly, leaving Avon, Dani, and Vila all breathing out a momentary sigh of relief.
As Dani hurried to comply with her instructions, Avon checked the lowband communication link and inertial monitor that linked the Reina with Liberator. Those two well-concealed devices would record their path through the minefield then transmit it to Blake for relay to the fleet presently marshaled on the border of Federation and Enclave space.
"Do you think she believed you?" Vila questioned nervously.
"We'll find out soon enough," the computer expert replied sourly, "when that cruiser approaches, whether he blasts us to atoms or takes us in tow."
Ignoring Vila's alarmed expression, Avon demanded in a terse, flat voice, "Once we do arrive at her base, do you both remember what you're supposed to do?"
Forestalling another one of the back and forth sniping sessions that the two men practised with such avidity, Dani declared, "I'm to wander through the base as much as possible, seeing if I can locate Travis and pinpoint the most critical areas of the base itself. If we're confined to the ship or placed under guard, I deal with the guards, while Vila disables the security system, then we proceed with step one."
Avon studied Dani for a moment, taking in her spare, elegant body and strong-featured, attractive face. "Do you think you'll be able to handle them? Space Command troops play rough, with gang rape their usual approach to recreational sex."
The pilot smiled grimly. "I've been dealing with horny spacers and dockrats since I was an apprentice pilot. Servalan's elite troops shouldn't be that much harder to handle."
There was a chime from the comm board and a harsh-voiced warning as they took the message. "Space cruiser Reina, we are taking you in tow. We have a wide-range monitoring field on you. Do not attempt to record or transmit these coordinates or we'll blast you into space dust. Also, attempt no adjustment to your controls while in tow. If you vary your course by even a degree, the odds are very high that you will impact with one of our mines or floating debris - like the derelicts of other ships who've tried to sneak through."
Vila swallowed hard at the hostile tone of that warning. "Maybe we should reconsider..."
There was a hard lurch, then a low-frequency shudder throughout the ship's frame.
"Too late," Dani remarked. "He's locked on and taken us in tow." She glanced up at the blank grey viewscreen."`Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.'"
Tarrant studied the monitoring devices Avon had installed prior to leaving on the Reina as part of Blake's diversion to increase the odds for success of their covert mission. The bearing necessary to avoid the minefield, asteroids, and other floating garbage was being recorded and relayed to the Fleet as planned. The coordinates were also being fed into Zen so the almost sentient computer could predict, with reasonable assurance, a safe approach on a totally different vector.
As they waited for the "Go" signal from Blake, Tarrant brought up the Hephaestus belt on the main screen and studied their approach one more time, hoping their information was correct.
Navtech Brita Rocklin glanced up from Cally's station and the alien controls she'd been familiarizing herself with and remarked, "That's an unusual view of the system, Captain Tarrant."
He flashed that improbably perfect grin at her. "Just call me, Del, Brita. We rebels are not much on titles and formality."
She shrugged off his automatic charm, having overheard his low-voiced plea for caution to one of the members of Blake's raiding party earlier. She drew her brows together and studied the screen as Zen scanned what would have been the south polar regions of their target had it possessed an atmosphere and free water.
Del highlighted their probable course on the screen as he explained smugly, "At the Academy, they taught us to think in three dimensions when we're piloting, X, Y, and Z coordinates. Yet, most star systems, because of the centrifugal forces that shaped them, have the greater portion of their planets, moons and other orbital companions stationed along the rather narrow band called the plane of the ecliptic."
Brita nodded patiently, though aggravated by the young pilot's pedantic tone. "Yes, Captain. Navtechs learn the same astrocartography rules that pilots do."
He gave her a half-abashed, half-doleful grin. "Sorry, Brita. Just worried about Dayna and nattering on trying to keep my mind off her."
"I understand perfectly. . . Del," she nodded in sympathy, thinking of Akema and her other crewmates aboard a hastily armed and upgraded Alamo as part of the combined Federation and Enclave Fleet. Supposedly, they were in less danger than she was as part of this combination sabotage/rescue mission, although no ship going into battle could ever be considered safe. Just for a moment, she wished she was with her friends and crewmates, then her attention was drawn back to Tarrant's ongoing explanation.
"...efficient use of mines is geosychronous orbit but this asteroid is almost too small to even have a microgravity that permits that. The likelihood is they've been sown along an equatorial but randomly distributed area that uses the belt itself for most of the defensive capability. That means our approach from below the ecliptic should be relatively safe."
Zen's voder suddenly intoned, +Approaching cluster of proximity-magnetic mines. Shall I destroy them?+
"No!" Del answered. "The flare would give us away. Steer an evasive course, Zen."
With Del's attention drawn back to the delicate and precise course adjustments necessary for final approach, Brita busied herself making sure the coordinates of that bit of orbital lethalness was noted and compensated for on the navigation board. When they made the pick-up of Blake's team, there likely wouldn't be time for such careful piloting. With the joint Fleet attacking, ongoing ship-to-ship combat, and Servalan's defenders swarming like a hornet nest stirred with a stick, they'd have to swoop in and out again as quickly as possible.
As she was finishing her program, Phrath bounded on to the flight deck, hissing in disgust, his dorsal fur roached up and tail twitching in offended pride.
"Stealth operation, himself says and Fedscum uniform fit it doesn't," was the Kyrenian's outraged hiss as he flexed his wrists, revealing razor sharp claws. "Best silent killer in my pack." Though Phrath's low voiced yowl echoed Tarrant's own frustrations about the selection of the strike force, he gritted his teeth, determined to succeed in his part of the operation.
"You're the gunner that Jenna brought aboard?"
"Best damn gunner in Enclave, by damn!" Phrath's fangs gleamed with his feral grin.
Tarrant gestured toward the weapons' board. "There are the gunnery controls. Familiarize yourself with them. According to Blake, our special skills are needed here more than on the infiltration team."
Following the young pilot's orders, Phrath still snorted with exasperation.
Brita decided she'd better put in her two credits worth to salve all the wounded male pride before it went into sulking fits.
"You have to look at it from Blake's point of view. Dayna is a demolitions expert whose skills are essential to the ultimate goal of the mission, crippling the base's defenses. Cally's trained for this kind of covert operation, besides having telepathic abilities that might help them locate Captain Travis."
"What about Jenna?" Tarrant's pique was still evident.
Brita glanced at him obliquely. "You don't think Captain Jenna would set up this whole operation then let someone else go down after him, do you?"
Remembering Jenna's reckless dash into the very teeth of the Federation fleet to rescue the critically wounded Travis in the aftermath of the Battle of Star One, he had to shake his head in rueful acknowledgement. Odd as the pairing might seem to outsiders, the bond between the two of them was obviously deep and strong. Jenna was not only willing to risk her life but her trading fleet as well in this rescue attempt.
He wondered if Dayna would ever feel that strongly about him? Shaking off those distracting musings, he exchanged glances with his flight deck crew.
"Once we get Blake and his crew inside that base, we'll see how good we are at playing hide and seek with Servalan's defenses."
There was a call from Blake at the teleport chamber, "I'm having Orac set us down now, Tarrant. Try to keep out of sight of patrols as long as possible. Dayna's setting her timers for one hour from now, which should coordinate with the Fleet's new attack plan."
"One hour?" Tarrant recalled the labyrinthine twistings of the asteroid's underground tunnels. "That's not much time to locate and rescue Travis."
"It will have to be enough," Blake answered shortly. "According to Orac, after that, our odds of getting out alive drop to one in a hundred."
Tarrant nodded numbly and watched for the light on his board that signaled teleport had been completed.
"Good luck, Blake," he said softly, then steered Liberator into the
Materializing in a deserted secondary tunnel pinpointed by Orac, Blake pressed a button on his bracelet that signaled their safe arrival, then quickly removed the telltale band and pocketed it. They were all carrying spares so whoever located Travis could immediately teleport him up to the Liberator. . . if Tarrant was within range. The Reina would be their backup escape ifLiberator came under heavy attack and couldn't break away. Blake hoped it wouldn't be necessary, because he knew the docking area would be heavily guarded and if they had to shoot their way to the ship, there would likely be casualties among his team.
Lifting the visor of his trooper's uniform, Blake quickly reviewed their plan. "Dayna and I will plant the charges at the red zones Tarrant marked on the map. Those are the power junctions controlling the perimeter defenses."
"What about the main power grid?" Dayna demanded. "I thought that was going to be one of our targets."
"Not unless we find a way to isolate the life support system," Blake cautioned. "We can't take the chance of blowing the main system then passing out from oxygen starvation before we can make our escape."
She nodded briskly, checking to make sure all her charges and timers were properly set.
Blake turned to Cally and Jenna. "You may have to split up to improve your chances of locating Travis. If Vila manages to slip the leash while Avon is distracting Servalan, he might be able to help with any locks that you encounter."
"Otherwise, we're on our own," Cally acknowledged. She patted one pocket lightly. "Vila supplied me with a few his simpler `tricks' to help us bypass standard security systems."
"Travis may not be confined to a cell," Blake warned darkly. "If he's been reprogrammed , don't let him catch you off guard."
"We'll be careful, Blake." Jenna glared. "Just don't get trigger-happy if you spot him yourself . That weapon does have a 'stun' setting."
He nodded sourly rather than get in another argument with her about whether Travis was salvageable after being under Servalan's control for the past month. Jenna had a much higher opinion of the soldier's mental resilience than he did. But then she'd never had her memory and identity obliterated by one of their more adept psychostrategists. Having lived in the thrall of that kind of mental bondage, Blake was all too aware of their skill at extinguishing the strongest will through drugs and other less savory techniques.
After Cally and Jenna left, he and Dayna quickly strode out of that deserted side tunnel toward the base's operations center. Spotting a junction box in the corridor, Dayna pulled out one of her charges and tamped it in place, hurriedly setting the timer while Blake kept watch for patrolling troopers. Luckily most of Servalan's defecting troops had come from the upper and mid-level officer cadre and there were too few rank and file troops to waste on routine security patrols of empty corridors.
Despite his uneasiness about their disguise, the plain black fatigues minus the Federation emblem and blank-faced helmets assured their anonymity. While Dayna was busy setting her charges, Blake hurriedly explored adjacent corridors, locating key areas like the armory and ops center while he searched for Travis.
The operations center was bustling with activity even though it was late on the third watch, the "graveyard shift" it used to be called. If she'd allowed a normal diurnal pattern to establish itself among her troops, there should have been only low level maintenance activities then. Obviously, she'd decided to maintain a full working crew on each shift, like a red alert drill. It was not sustainable in the long run, causing sleep disturbances, stress-induced illness and mental burn-out. But then the Federation, or at least Servalan, had never been overly concerned about the human cost of her demands.
Despite his effort to mimic the deliberate haste of a trooper on an urgent errand for an impatient superior, he was suddenly brought up short by what he saw just ahead in the main computer center. Even though he had warned Jenna of Travis's probable betrayal, seeing the man, free and unconstrained, in the flesh, still sent a shock of dismay through him.
Travis had changed since Byzantia. He was gaunt and exhausted looking, with a hooded withdrawn expression on his face. But he stood obediently at Servalan's side as she gave her usual imperious directives. With a start, Blake recognized the other dark-clad figure beside her. It was Avon with "Orac Jr." in hand.
Blake almost ducked into one of the rooms just off the corridor to avoid being seen, but quickly stifled the impulse and attempted to continue his purposeful stride past Servalan and her entourage. Avon did not even glance in his direction, engaged as he was in a heated discussion of Orac's much vaunted abilities. But Travis's predatory gaze marked him and moments later the soldier was following swiftly behind. Blake felt the hairs prickle on the back of his neck as the other man approached, waiting for the swiftly unholstered weapon and strident denunciation of his identity.
To his surprise, Travis only gave him a quick, bleak glance before ordering in a hoarse rasp of a voice, "Trooper, Supreme Commander Servalan requires some specialized equipment from supply room six. I'll show you what she wants, then you'll deliver it to the ops center."
Rendering what he hoped was a passable imitation of the standard salute, Blake followed Travis as ordered. In closer proximity to his old enemy, Blake noted yellowish traces of half-healed bruises along his chin and under his right eye. Even the loose tigerish stride was changed, for Travis moved with the hesitant, tentative step of a man in pain. His past month in Servalan's clutches had obviously been a difficult one and Blake wondered exactly how much physical damage was concealed by that stark black uniform.
But worst of all was the expression in Travis's eye as he had spoken unknowing to his onetime enemy. Blake knew that face better than anyone in the galaxy. It was the aspect of a foe known more intimately than a lover. He recalled the many masks the soldier had worn throughout the years. The icy contempt of their first confrontation, before the vicious battle between Space Command and the Freedom Party that had so drastically altered both their lives. The fires of insanity that he'd felt across the deeps of space as they'd battled one another in physical and mental conflict. Then a rekindled humanity, accompanying the desperation, that he'd been too obsessed with vengeance to recognize in the bunker on Star One. Finally, the odd gentleness as the soldier had refused a chance to exact a just retribution, because he did not want to risk losing something he valued. Something Blake himself had so foolishly discarded months before: Jenna's trust and affection.
Now, all hint of the quicksilver emotions that had once gleamed within that eye were gone. Blake shuddered at the chill emptiness remaining. It was like looking in a mirror at the distorted reflection of himself years before, after the Federation had erased his memories. He thought Jenna might have endured anger, betrayal, or even the resumption of their old enmity in Travis's face. But not this blank-faced withdrawal, desolate and empty, as though the fires within him had been totally extinguished.
She mustn't find Travis like this. And she wouldn't. There was barely enough
time to strip Travis's body of the Federation uniform and deposit him in a
cell, somewhere. Even if the price of this mercy was Jenna's undying hatred,
he would spare her the cruelty of facing that hollow-eyed stare. He aimed
carefully between the shoulder blades and started to squeeze the trigger.
Dani glanced nervously at the chrono, knowing that if the operation was running according to plan, Blake's team had just infiltrated the base. Servalan seemed to be as predictable as Avon expected. He, Vila, and Orac Jr. had been escorted from the Reina as soon as she docked by a cold-eyed lieutenant leading an armed patrol. Now it was time for her little part in this scenario.
She rotated the Reina's external sensors, quickly spotting the troopers left behind to assure that she didn't leave the ship or cause any trouble. They wore standard black battledress and the full-visored helmets, so there wasn't much she could tell about them. Hopefully, none of Servalan's defecting troops had brought along mutoids to take on the more boring, mundane routines like this guard post. If they had, her little gambit would be a failure.
After a brief interlude in the fresher putting on "war paint" and making a few minor strategic adjustments in her appearance, Dani sauntered to the bottom of the exit ramp.
One of the guards quickly raised his pulse rifle and ordered, "Get back aboard, pilot. This base is off limits to the likes of you."
"Aww hell, fellas," she simpered, toying with the front zip of her pilot's leathers which was already low enough to expose an impressive amount of cleavage. " Don't you keep an ancillary supply depot handy? That bravo who hired me was in such a flamin' rush, he wouldn't even let me wait for my scheduled delivery of soma and ale. It's been a long, dry run and I'd be willing to pay top credit for anything you could spare."
"Sorry," a young voice nervously snapped from behind that blank visor. "We don't keep recreational beverages in stock and if we did..."
His partner had moved closer to ogle Dani's increasingly blatant display of her charms and gave his hesitant partner a sharp elbow in the ribs. There was a brief heated discussion before the second guard's older, rougher voice interrupted, "What my buddy means to say is that we don't keep recreational beverages in stock near the landing bays. But if we was to show you where they was, maybe we could work out a little deal among the three of us?"
Dani could hear the lecherous note in his voice even through the muffling of the helmet. She responded with a seductive smile, dropping the zipper another half inch.
"Any little thing your heart desires, as long as I get enough bottles to keep my throat from getting dry between here and the Outer Worlds."
"Oh, I can guarantee your throat won't get dry, little lady," the older trooper responded. Dani heard the murderous undertone in his voice. The deadly note of a man plotting rape followed by a slit throat and a fast recycle of incriminating evidence out the nearest airlock. She surreptitiously checked that her two knives were in place, before sauntering down the corridor with her newfound "buddies."
Moments later, they dragged her off into an abandoned side tunnel, fumbling
at her clothes in typical haste. There was a brief scuffle, a strangled
groan, and choked off shriek. Shortly after, Captain McRae exited the
corridor, dusting off her clothes and checking to see that her knives were
secure in their hidden sheaths once again. Then she ducked into the shadows
of one of the less traveled tunnels, hoping she'd be able to find the holding
area where Jenna's bondmate was imprisoned.
Avon scowled as the guards hustled the two of them toward their rendezvous with Servalan. The guards' insistence- at the point of a gun- that Vila accompany him for this meeting threatened to undo all their careful planning.
As usual when surrounded by hostile weaponry, the Delta idiot was babbling, "I'm a man, not some beast of burden for a fishbowl with an overinflated ego."
Servalan had an almost uncanny ability to sniff out plots against her and her feral gaze would undoubtedly cause Vila to blurt out their entire scheme. Even if Vila did manage to hold his tongue, his presence would throw a spanner into Avon's efforts to keep her distracted while the Federation-Enclave fleet was moving into position.
He had to get Vila out of the way, preferably back to the Reina with airlocks sealed.
Snatching the computer away from the unhappy thief, Avon snarled, "At least a beast of burden would make less of a nuisance of itself without your continual whining. Go back to the ship until I send for you."
The lieutenant leading the escort turned to the squabbling pair and snarled, "Out of the question! We don't allow unauthorized personnel free run of this base!"
Avon shrugged indifferently. "Then give him an armed escort back to our ship. Or lock him up. Or shoot him if it suits you. If I'm going to demonstrate Orac's abilities, I can't do it while I'm subjected to a nonstop stream of Delta inanities."
For a moment the officer seriously considered the third option, just to rid himself of the squawking Delta pest. But Servalan had shown unusual interest in this pair, allowing their ship inside the base. He wondered if they both might be valuable to her to one degree or another.
Quickly he jerked his hand, summoning one of the patrol out of formation and pointed to the quivering Delta.
"See that that gets back to their ship, unharmed, with no unauthorized side trips. Servalan may want to question him later. Or use him for leverage against his friend."
Nodding obediently, the trooper gestured with his pulse rifle, prodding Vila firmly back the way that they had come. As they proceeded down the corridor, Vila kept up a continual stream of nervous chatter as he glanced around hoping to spot some way of distracting his captor and making his escape.
He'd volunteered for this mission to watch Avon's back, but the computer tech had obviously decided he could manage without Vila's help. Dani had likely already dealt with the guards around the Reina and was searching the tunnels and cells for Travis. He probably should go look for her, though he wasn't best pleased about dodging trigger-happy troopers while breaking into various cells, rooms and other locked areas, searching for something of no value to him. Servalan had such a sick, devious mind, she had probably booby-trapped anything that might be even remotely interesting, like treasure rooms or liquor cabinets. And this base wouldn't be all that safe or healthy, once Dayna started setting off some of her "toys" that made such loud noises!
He decided that as long as Avon didn't need him, he'd be much more useful guarding theReina rather than stumbling around looking for Travis. That way when things started blowing up and people started shooting at each other, he'd be safely behind the Reina's metal bulkheads, making sure no one stole their ship. Dani would undoubtedly thank him for keeping watch over the Reina, if they got out of this alive. She struck him as a practical, sensible woman, perhaps even one with an appreciation of short, balding lockpicks!
He straightened up from his nervous cower and started to pick up his pace back toward the Reina. A hard jab in his ribs from the rifle made him look back at his escort, noticing he seemed to have acquired an extra guard from somewhere.
As he stared in befuddlement, the guard lifted his visor exposing Cally's exasperated features, followed by the same action from the second guard, revealing Jenna's worried look.
"Will you stop daydreaming, Vila? We've been trying to get your attention for the past thirty seconds. Where's Avon ?"
"With her high and mightiness in the control room by now," Vila reported nervously. "How'd you do that? I mean, get past my guard so easily?"
Jenna glanced obliquely at the Auron, who just shrugged. "They don't question anyone in the proper uniform. It was simple enough to catch him off guard and then dump the body in an empty storeroom."
"What about Travis?" Jenna demanded. "Have you been able to get any hint where he might be kept prisoner? Holding areas? Lab facilities?"
"Not yet," Vila protested anxiously. "I thought that was supposed to be Avon's job, using Junior to winkle out all Servalan's secrets. Then you two would bust Travis out while Dayna got her jollies by blowing up assorted Federation defenses and Madame Servalan too. Then we'd all make our getaway in your ship."
"We may not have that much time," Jenna reported tersely, pulling down her visor and dragging a reluctant Vila along. "Blake got a last minute alert from Samore and my uncle before we teleported down. The inertial tracking guides on the Reina gave them a clear enough route through the belt so that they're on their way in. Hopefully, Dayna's blasts will serve as a distraction and disable some of the defensive screens, but we don't have time to pussyfoot around with Servalan's records. We've got to find Travis and get out of here! In less than forty-five minutes, this place is going to be a smoking hell!"
"Then what are we standing around for?" Vila almost squealed. "Let's hurry back to your ship and get out of their way! Neutron blasts and plasma bolts are very unhealthy for a man with my delicate constitution!"
Jenna's pulse rifle was jammed into his abdomen as she gritted out, "This gun will be unhealthier still unless you help us find him!"
"How can I help?" he whimpered. "I'm no good with computers. That's Avon's specialty."
"We've located what looks like the office of one of Servalan's senior officers. Help us get inside so we can find base schematics or computer records that may give us some clue about
where to find him."
"All right," Vila grumbled reluctantly. "Then after I do that, will you let me take cover back at the ship?
"Just help me locate my bondmate," Jenna promised, "and you can teleport back
aboard the Liberator."
In Servalan's quarters, Avon permitted himself a small sigh of relief at the success of the deception so far. He had not doubted the ability of this impressive copy of Ensor's masterpiece to fool Servalan. After all, the duplicate had been produced by the peevish computer itself and could have fooled even his expert eye. The real Orac was safe aboard the Liberator, attempting to keep that young hothead Tarrant out of trouble, while providing safe piloting coordinates to various elements of the combined Federation and Enclave Fleet.
His chief worry had not been the appearance of the replica but the information it might inadvertently give if Servalan questioned it about Samore's current strategic situation. If he was not able to deflect that type of question onto something a little less dangerous, their whole operation would collapse like a house of cards.
Fortunately, she was too confident of her own assessment of Samore's and Stannis's reactions to her raids. "They're toothless, spineless old bears," she preened. "Samore will make a futile attempt to increase his ships' patrols along the perimeter of Free Trader space, but to no avail. We'll simply continue to hit where he isn't, causing a widening breach between the newly reconciled Federation and Enclave. Stannis will become infuriated at his escalating losses and void the contract completely. Without the bare minimum of food and fusion supplies that the traders were supplying, the Inner Worlds will be in revolt within a week. Then when I graciously deliver the supplies that we've appropriated from the Free Traders' ships, they will proclaim me President for Life."
She raised her glass in mocking salute to Avon and Orac. "So you see, I've managed quite well without you and that obnoxious little box."
Taking a cautious sip of the sparkling Altairean wine she had just poured, Avon remarked, "Very astute, Madame Supreme Commander. . . or perhaps I should say Madame President. Seizing power is a simply matter of strategic timing. But holding on to it, particularly over such a devastated political entity as the present Federation, is much more difficult than you imagine. "You are going to have to find new natural resources, rebuild the industrial base, as well the damaged infrastructure like roads and bridges before the Federation can resume even a shadow of its former influence. All of this reconstruction will have to be accomplished with very limited capital."
Servalan smiled archly, remembering just how Avon had come to the attention of Federation enforcement. "And pray tell, how can you help me with that problem, Kerr?"
"Put Orac in charge of the banking system and make me Minister of Finance," was the smooth reply.
She almost choked on the wine she had been sipping as she studied Avon's calmly assured poise. "Make you Minister of Finance?!? That's like sending the wolves in to guard the sheep! You'd strip the banking system bare inside a week!"
"Now why would I want to do that?" Avon replied with acid charm. "If I bankrupt the Federation, then how are you going to allocate the funds to rebuild all the pleasure planets and luxury resorts where presidents and ministers of finance can relax and get away from the tedious, demanding responsibilities of rebuilding the Federation?"
She paused and stared at him intently. "If I do make you Minister of Finance, how would you begin to rebuild the Federation exchequer?"
Avon's smile was enigmatic. "If I tell you all my secrets, Madame President, then I'm no longer of use to you." He took another appreciative sip of the sunlight colored wine. "Let's just say that with Orac's able assistance, I'm capable of amazing feats of financial wizardry."
Servalan moved with catlike grace onto the divan where he was seated and leaned against him very provocatively. "I can see that you have a bright future ahead of you under my command."
Avon took another deep sip of his wine, cursing Blake silently for putting
him in the clutches of this predatory female. He hoped Blake or Jenna would
find what they were looking for soon. Because it was becoming obvious that,
like the black widow spider she resembled, Servalan's plans for him went
beyond the council chambers. A prospect that he found distasteful if not
Tarrant glanced up from his painstaking orbital corrections, trying to keep Liberator in the shadow of one of the larger asteroids orbiting Servalan's base. Phrath's yowled warning preceded Zen's careful analysis by almost half a second. +Enemy attack flotilla on approach vector 31.9 degrees+ echoed the computer's precise intonation.
" Anti-detection screens intact?" he demanded.
+Ships within visual ID range. Deflector screens no longer effective.+
"Take evasive action," Tarrant ordered almost involuntarily, his piloting instincts taking over as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Navtech Brita Rocklin had already programmed in the orbital positions of many of the asteroids and defensive mines recorded on Zen's scanners. That enabled Zen and Tarrant to set an evasive course that took them momentarily out of range of their attackers.
"Jam their comm signal!" he continued breathlessly. "They mustn't alert the base."
Lurching for the comm station during that initial set of acrobatic maneuvers, Brita triggered the preset static pulse that would randomize all incoming signals going into the asteroid base. Now, if they could just keep this damned deep space dogfight off the visual screens....
Despite Liberator's rolling evasive moves, she felt the recoil of a neutron blast and heard Phrath's characteristic yowl of victory. "Eat space dust, Fedscum!"
Tarrant's shaky response, "That's one down. Only three to go," reassured Brita slightly.
Moments later, a sharply vectored change of course resulted in a second member of that patrol tumbling headlong into one of its own defensive mines. The resultant backlash of the explosion was barely damped by Liberator's force wall and with a thump that knocked the breath out of her, Brita was thrown against her navigation console.
"OOOOOOMPH!" she grunted, as she blinked back tears of pain momentarily produced by the sharp blow to her hip.
She glanced over to the helm controls, seeing Tarrant's unruly curls were plastered to his forehead by sweat as he gave her a rakehell grin that was anything but reassuring. "Fasten your restraint field, Navtech. This next maneuver is where we separate the cadets from the real pilots!"
He swung the controls into a 360 degree corkscrew turn the likes of which Brita had never experienced in all her long years as a Free Trader navtech. She gulped hard as her internal organs were turned wrongside up and swore not to lose her lunch like some groundbound greenie. Peering over at the weapons' console, she gaped at Phrath, hanging loose and relaxed in his restraint field, a jaunty angle to his whiskers with his teeth bared, in an untamed display of exuberance.
"Hot damn!" he chortled. "Pilotfella got real spacer zero-grav instincts. Guts too! Thinks like catfella - fights like demons us! Whoopee!"
Brita closed her eyes in momentary terrified queasiness. They were in a life-or-death struggle, with hundreds of other lives depending on them and those two idiots thought this was some kind of joyride!
She gritted her teeth, staring down at her navboard readouts in dismay! While they had been jockeying for position and trying to keep the battle out of range of the base's detector screens, they'd gone beyond the reach of Liberator's teleport field. She glanced at Tarrant who seemed determined to end the battle as soon as possible. Well, there was nothing to be done about it. She only hoped that no one inside the base was in dire need of emergency evacuation. Until their pursuers were eliminated, they wouldn't be able to get back on station.
She gripped the console determinedly and continued feeding in coordinates of each new bit of space garbage or defensive mine as it registered on the screen. Zen continued its automatic defensive strategy as Tarrant piloted manually through the battle maneuvers. Hopefully, the combination of mechanical precision and human intuition would prevent them from blundering into the path of something too massive or lethal for their screens to handle. But the procedure was making space battle tactics and target acquisition an increasingly difficult operation.
After the initial flush of victory at their first two "kills," Tarrant and
Phrath settled down to the nerve-wracking, murderous work of deep space
"Vila to Tarrant. Vila to Tarrant! Come in, you great oaf!" The lockpick repeated his call for the tenth time, his voice growing shakier and more uncertain each time there was no reply over the teleport bracelet's commlink.
Finally, he gave up and wandered hopelessly over to where Jenna and Cally were rummaging though the desk and data files of the office they had just broken into. Cally looked up from the computer, being slightly more skilled at that task since Avon condescended to teach her something of computer break-in techniques.
She was not unduly concerned by Tarrant's silence. "We knew he might have to move out of range to escape detection. Don't worry, Vila. He knows the exact rendezvous schedule. He'll be on station when he needs to be for the pick-up."
"But that's over a half hour from now," Vila protested. "I could be shot, skewered, tortured, grilled and fricasseed in that amount of time."
"All the more reason to remain with us," Cally suggested patiently. "You can help Jenna scan those microfiches and holovids. There must be some hint of what has happened to Travis."
"Maybe he didn't get picked up by Servalan at all," the canny thief protested. "Maybe he just dropped out of sight in some backwater, lowtown space dive. It wouldn't be the first time a man decided he couldn't live with a woman or the niche she carved out for him."
Jenna looked up from the tapes she was scanning and snarled, "Why don't you shut up, Vila! If you aren't going to help, just keep your useless opinions to yourself."
Subsiding somewhat guiltily, the thief retreated to a corner to watch as Cally and Jenna continued their desperate search. Unable to stand even a few minutes of the growing tension, he approached Cally tentatively. "Look, we're not that far from the docking bay. I'm going back to the Reina. Maybe I can help Dani get ready for takeoff. That way when you do find Travis, if Tarrant still isn't taking calls, we can burn out of here in half the time."
Cally nodded absently, her attention suddenly caught by a file labeled "Metis III," as she recalled Jenna's mention of its connection to Travis's past. She cautioned Vila before turning her attention back to the critical file, "Just be careful and don't get caught."
Vila peered hurriedly around the door then ducked down the hallway. After he had left, she called Jenna over quickly. "Why would Servalan want these old records on the colony where Travis grew up?"
They both scanned the file quickly. There was little recorded except increasingly desperate appeals for food and weapons, and impersonally filed casualty lists: the cold brutal facts behind the nightmares that sometimes escaped from the mass grave where Travis tried to bury them.
Jenna shrugged noncommittally, trying to hide how those facts disturbed her. "Data, I suppose. Information for the psychostrategists who manipulated him all those years. What buttons to push to make him angry or frightened or obsessed with vengeance." The breath caught in her throat as two fuzzy vid shots stood out from a collection of approximately sixteen appended to the closing records by the captain of the ship that had evacuated the colony.
"Standard ID shots of new conscript troops," Cally read off coldly. "It seems that the Federation's price to evacuate the colony's few survivors was virtual slavery for the strongest and fittest of its men. All were signed to a ten year labor/combat contract. With all recruiting bonuses and pay vouchers, except survival wages, being signed back to the captain of the ship. `In payment for services rendered in evacuating and relocating the colonists.'"
Jenna heard the note of disgust in Cally's voice and remembered a painful echo of another voice from her memories on the backwater planet of Jade . "How long will it take me to pay off accounts on that replacement cybernetic arm? A year? Two? You'd own me, Stannis, and I never cared much for slavery."
The hot, anguished tears at that memory blurred her vision, threatening to spill over, and her fingers rested momentarily against the screen and the fuzzy vid shots. Diarmid and Colin Travis. Both dark-haired and blue-eyed, with the gangling lankiness and unmarked faces of half-grown adolescents. Cally gasped, noting the resemblance to the child within the Auron cryostasis unit. Jenna simply saw her bondmate's face, whole and unscarred, with a mixture of fear and bravado clearly evident in the defiant jut of his chin and pain-filled eyes, already old beyond his years.
Diarmid's - Dar's - face was older, although by less than a year according to the records. It was a bland, unrevealing mask. Jenna shivered at the hint of dark secrets in that closed and secretive expression. He shouldn't affect her that way. Travis had mourned his brother as dead and buried these past twenty years, yet why did she have the terrible premonition that he had come back to haunt them? She tried to shake off that absurd fear by looking for some clue as to who originated these files. It wasn't difficult to find.
"Carnell!" she whispered harshly.
"Who?" Cally questioned, bewildered.
"The mastermind behind the attack on Byzantia," Jenna answered bleakly. "Travis suspected he was behind some of Servalan's other devious schemes, though he wasn't certain whether he was using her or being used by her. He was also the psychostrategist responsible for much of Travis's mental reconditioning and `retraining' while in Space Command. A calculating chessmaster who considers people mere pawns in his grand strategies."
Cally was appalled by Jenna's revelations. Servalan's corrupt machinations and ambition within Space Command and the High Council were bad enough. But puppeteer involvement in this devious power struggle was appalling news. She must warn Zelda. Auron could no longer afford to isolate itself from the rest of the galaxy, with such power-hungry, ambitious individuals acting behind the scenes to control events.
"Oh!" Jenna's soft moan as she clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle any further outburst, roused the Auron out of her momentary introspection. Cally quickly realized the reason for Jenna's distress, as she caught sight of the surveillance camera's meticulous recording of a vicious beating inflicted on her bondmate. She stared in horror for scant, nauseating seconds, before blanking the screen and taking Jenna by the arm to lead her away.
"Let me finish scanning the tape in case it gives some hint as to where that cell is located," she offered gently.
"But Travis...what they did to him!" Jenna barely managed to choke back her distress.
Cally continued firmly, "We both know what Servalan is capable of. There's no need for you to watch it. Gather any records that you think might be useful while I finish here."
The Auron quickly scanned past the records of the physical abuse, hoping that there might be useful data further along. She paused when the tape showed Travis and another man, she assumed was Carnell, engaged in conversation. The terrible secret exposed by the soft-spoken words was even worse than the beatings. Betrayed! By his own brother! A concept almost beyond imagining to one raised within the close family bonds of the Auronar.
After determining there was no way of locating the cell from the tape, Cally debated whether to leave it to be destroyed or bring it back to the Enclave. The tape would show that Travis hadn't rejoined Servalan voluntarily, but the other revelations, of his brother's survival-and role as a puppeteer-- might destroy Travis and Jenna's relationship, if Travis was still alive.
Jenna's voice spoke up dully, "I found the last entry, Cally. His file was closed two days ago with the following notation, `Reconditioning complete. Patient returned to duty, all proper loyalties restored.' She succeeded in breaking him."
The Auron tried to assure her, "Federation conditioning is not infallible. Remember Blake
. . .and Gan's limiter?"
"Gan's dead and Travis might as well be."
"NO!" Cally countered sharply. "There are things in Carnell's files that you must see before you make a final decision." She took a deep breath then blurted, "Carnell claimed he was Travis's brother Dar, the one he thought had died years before."
Jenna gaped at her, aghast."It's a lie! It must be, after what that bastard has done to Travis over the years..."
"I don't know, Jenna. There was no time to listen to the whole tape. But Travis did not contradict him and if he believed it was the truth... "
The Auron glanced hurriedly at her chrono. "There's no more time. We have less than twenty minutes to locate him and rendezvous with the others. Was there a list of his duties when he was released or..."
Before she could finish the question, she heard the click of bootheels coming down the corridor, approaching the office. Quickly positioning herself beside the door, Cally gestured for Jenna to pull down her visor and remain at the desk.
There was a soft hum as the palm lock engaged and the door slid open. Carnell stood in the doorway, staring in bemusement at what appeared to be one of Servalan's troopers, rummaging through the files and recordings of his sessions with Travis.
"Is Madame Supreme Commander already bored with her new pet?" he demanded in a coldly sarcastic tone. "Or is Avon proving stubborn and she thought a little demonstration of her troops' persuasive abilities might be useful?"
"Come in and close the door." The weapon pointed at his midriff reinforced the order, despite the incongruity of that softly feminine voice filtering out from behind the visor. "I should kill you now for what you did to him!"
The trooper at his desk lifted her visor, revealing the angry, flushed features of Jenna Stannis, the woman who had replaced Servalan in his brother's loyalties.
He was well aware of the damning images on records she was holding, but decided to try to bluff his way out, anyway.
"Me?" he protested in his mildest, most placating tones. "I've saved his life a half dozen times at least. Even tried to spare him the worst of the punishment Servalan so eagerly dispensed. Brought him food and water. Talked with him so he didn't lose all touch with reality."
"A reality that you controlled, filling him with drugs and subjecting him to the worst kind of mental tortures," she spat.
Carnell turned an appealing look to Stannis's companion, the Auron, who seemed somewhat calmer, hoping for a voice of reason. He was not disappointed.
"We can't kill him, Jenna. He's our last chance of finding Travis in time."
He quickly agreed. "She's right, you know. Besides, Travis's loyalty is fixated on me at the moment, part of his conditioning. Harm me and you've lost him ...permanently."
There was a hushed and hasty consultation between the two women, then Jenna nodded reluctantly. "I'll buy that for the moment. But make one false move and I'll blow a hole in you large enough to fly Liberator through and take my chances Travis is strong-willed enough to break free on his own. Now, where is he?"
Staring into the faces of his captors, Carnell shrugged eloquently, "I don't know."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" the ragged voice demanded in a shadow of its old contemptuous tones. "I got you away from Servalan before she saw through that clumsy disguise, Blake. If you want me out of the way so you can win Jenna back, now's your chance." He turned around to face the shocked rebel. "Or are your high-class Alpha ethics offended by the notion of shooting a man in the back?"
Blake flipped up the visor, staring at his old enemy in outrage, "Are you insane? Jenna's been half out of her mind with worry! The only reason I came down into this snakepit was to fetch you back."
Pain flickered behind that glittering eye momentarily, before the mask was back in place, "Fetch me back? No, Blake, I think you intended to make sure I was dead. . .no longer an obstacle between the two of you. Except you don't have the stomach to shoot me outright. You're still too much the Alpha hero."
Blake fought back his fury at Travis's words. Something was out of kilter about the soldier's reactions. But what? He probed a little deeper. "Why did you do it, Travis? Betray Jenna and return to Servalan?"
Travis stared at Blake, his thoughts barely coherent. He'd hated Blake for years, consumed by his thirst for vengeance, only to discover that he'd been used by Servalan and Carnell. Even when Travis thought he'd escaped their control, Carnell had still been working behind the scenes. Poisoning his relationship with Jenna, robbing him of any chance to start over. Blake had never been his real enemy; just another victim of the puppeteer's schemes
"It wasn't Servalan that I was looking for, but the truth about my brother's death. But he wasn't dead. Just 'remade' by the puppeteers into one of their own. " The monotone note in his voice suddenly broke into harsh, bitter laughter, "Carnell's my brother, Blake. Carnell, the psychostrategist, who programmed me to be Servalan's dealiest weapon."
"Carnell's your...brother?" Blake questioned, numbed by the implications of those words. He knew the man's reputation, having seen evidence of his scheming in the bloody terrorist strike on Byzantia. Jenna had even told him that Carnell was responsible for Travis's programming during the worst of their conflicts. Blake suddenly flashed back to when Bran Foster had broken his conditioning, telling of his brother's death. A rush of bile filled the back of his throat at the thought that Travis's own brother would commit such crimes against his flesh and blood.
He stared, appalled, seeing beneath his one-time foe's brittle facade to the raw, bleeding wounds beneath. For the first time, he felt a surge of pity for the man who had replaced him in Jenna's affections. A man violated and betrayed by the Federation he had sworn his loyalty to. Worse still, deceived and manipulated over the years by his own brother. Death would almost be a kindness after what he had suffered, but Blake resisted the impulse. Travis deserved better than to die, still a prisoner of the puppeteer's control.
But before he could act, the soldier lunged at him, knocking the blaster out of his grip, trying to throttle him in a half-crazed rage. "Go ahead and kill me, Blake! It's the only way Jenna will ever be free. . . and the only way I'll be free."
Blake struggled within that frenzied grip. The cybernetic hand was inhumanly strong, even though the muscles that powered it had been weakened by the abuse Travis had suffered over the past weeks.
With an abrupt effort, Blake tore loose and reeled back, panting, "Death isn't the answer, Travis. Jenna wouldn't give up looking for you. You're not taking the easy way out, I won't let you. Your brother may have betrayed you, but you can break his control. If I can do it, you can. We were both victims of the Federation's drugs and programming. Programming that made me betray my friends, programming made you a killing machine. You're more than that, Travis! You're a man and you've proved it . . .to Jenna, to me, and half the damned galaxy. Don't give up now."
"It's all lies, Blake!" Travis reacted furiously, throwing another punch at the burly rebel with the force of his whole body behind it. "Jenna. . . love. . . freedom. None of it exists. It was all a delusion, created by the Master Programmer Carnell." Another savage blow grazed Blake's chin, stunning him, as Travis continued to swing wildly. "All lies, nothing but lies. . ."
Blake sidestepped and weaved, thankful that Travis's weakness and emotional turmoil had robbed him of his usual speed and cunning. Winning the battle was simply a matter of dodging those out-of-control blows, until the other man dropped his guard momentarily, then he stepped in with a quick one-two combination to the solar plexus and the jaw that dropped Travis to the floor.
He stood over that fallen body, panting and trying to catch his breath, before he gasped out in a rueful and unheard rejoinder, "The truth, whether you believe it or not, is that Jenna wants you back. Though what she sees in such a stubborn, hard-headed fool, I can't fathom. But if that's what she wants, I intend to see she gets it."
He fastened the teleport bracelet around the Federation officer's right wrist, then called Tarrant.
"Liberator, this is Blake. I've located our stray and we need pick-up now!" Despite the increasingly urgent tone in his voice, the bracelet remained silent, leaving Blake with the uncomfortable feeling that the odds had just turned against them and the young pilot was in trouble up to his neck.
As if to confirm his fears, there was a muffled distant roar and tremors underfoot that shook the whole corridor. Loose rocks and dust crumbled from the cavern walls and Blake muttered to himself, "Either Dayna misprogrammed her timers or the Fleet got through Servalan's defenses much faster than anyone expected."
Kneeling beside his stunned captive, Blake hefted the limp body across his shoulders in a fireman's carry and glanced around, trying to remember how far it was to the docking bays and the Reina's slot. He quickly pulled down his visor, hoping the rest of the team was now headed in that direction, as well. Judging by a second, then third muffled explosion and the resulting pressure shifts, Servalan's base was under heavy bombardment and they needed to make their escape before everything came crashing down around their ears.
He staggered under Travis's not-inconsiderable weight as he made his way through the officers and troopers scrambling for their posts in an undisciplined rush. Suddenly, he heard the screaming klaxon that signaled an impending structural breach as Dani and Vila came charging blindly toward him from the docking area.
With a loud "OOOOFFF," the thief collided with Blake and his unconscious cargo, causing the three of them to tumble to the floor in a fortuitous crash. Moments later, there was a much louder explosion, followed by a burst of heat and a billowing cloud of smoke and acrid fumes that set them all to coughing. A sudden pressure shift caused their ears to pop, until the emergency doors activated, sealing them off from the docking area, which was now, in all likelihood, open to space.
Raising his visor, so the pair would recognize him, Blake demanded, "What happened? Were the docking bays hit?"
Dani sat up and tried to wipe some of the dust off her face as she answered.
"Lights were flickering and there was a lot of running around and hurried lift-offs. Two troopers yanked us out of the Reina and said they were`appropriating' it, so we lit out for the inner core. Then everything went up with a loud bang!"
"Sounds like the two of you escaped by the skin of your teeth," Blake remarked wryly.
"OOOOOhh," moaned the thief, rolling painfully onto his back. "I could use a drink to settle my nerves."
"So could I," Blake muttered, "since our back-up escape plan just went up in that loud bang."
Dani's expression was grim, "Tarrant's still not answering?"
"OOOOOOHhh," Vila groaned much louder. "That arrogant oaf! If I ever get out of this mess..."
"Save it, Vila," Blake ordered, easing Travis off his shoulder, as the man began coughing and showing signs of regaining consciousness. Blake slapped his face lightly, trying to bring him around a little quicker.
"Come on, man. Wake up, our escape craft just went up in a blinding flash andLiberator's otherwise engaged for the moment. There must be another way out of here. If I know Servalan, she's got her personal escape well-planned, even if this entire base and her troops have to be sacrificed! Where's her escape ship, Travis?"
Semiconscious, his fury momentarily burned out, Travis wiped the dust from his mouth as he answered in a daze, "Flagship's orbiting on station, in the base's shadow. Strict orders not to engage the enemy. She'll teleport out at the last minute, using the system from the Byzantia raid."
"Taking a page from our tactical manual," Blake commented sourly. He dragged
the still weakened Travis to his feet, ordering Vila, " Use the bracelet's
commlink to notify the others about our change in plans. Because if I'm not
mistaken, our last minute escape plan is down to its last seconds."
In his office, Carnell waited motionless, carefully studying his brother's bondmate. The chill in Jenna's voice had approached absolute zero after his admission that he had no idea of where to find Colin.
She pointed to his desk. "Get on that comm and tell him to report here. NOW!"
"I can't do that," he countered carefully. "He's been released for duty. If I order him back here, it will arouse Servalan's suspicions."
Jenna's expression was flint hard. "I think she's too busy with her new toy, Orac, to be concerned about Travis's whereabouts at the moment. Just do it!"
The barrel of her pulse rifle jammed against his ribs. Moving slowly behind his desk, he mentally reviewed Jenna's psych profile information from her brief time in Federation custody, along with his studies of the Free Trader hierarchy. Though not a cold-blooded killer like Blake's computer specialist Avon, Jenna would kill in self-defense or to defend someone she cared about. And obviously she cared enough about Colin to risk her life coming after him.
The Auron with her was an enigma, due to Auron's isolationist policies. A most dangerous situation that his fellow puppeteers would have to remedy quite soon. Carnell allowed himself a brief moment of frustration at this extremely volatile situation, before assuming his most charming expression.
"Anything you say, my dear." He pressed the comm switch on his desk, "Space Commander Travis, report to my office at once."
His best chance was to keep these two off-guard until Servalan sent a security patrol to investigate that unusual summons. He gestured to the chairs across from his desk and tried to project his calmest manner, as he temporized, "If he's checking the security perimeter, which is one of his duties, it could take him a good fifteen minutes to get here. Why don't you ladies have a seat and make yourselves comfortable?"
The Auron nudged him with her blaster, "Do not think to fool us, puppeteer. I sense you expect a rescue party to arrive. Servalan's troops will soon be needed elsewhere, but if someone does come looking, you will send them away. Do you understand me?"
"Perfectly." Carnell's opinion of his captors increased and also his sense of unease. Were these two the vanguard of a larger, organized attack? If so, his plans were in danger of miscarrying completely.
He must determine the real motive behind this rescue mission.
"Why come after Travis, anyway? You must have known he'd been broken, once we started using the information he supplied to loot your ships. Were you that set on vengeance, or do you genuinely believe you can undo his mental conditioning? It's futile, you know. He's a programmed killer, he'll never be anything else."
Jenna's eyes burned with a hatred so hot he felt it like a brand against his skin. "Damn you, Carnell! How could you do such a thing to your own brother?"
Oddly he felt he owed her an answer. As though their mutual link to Colin had somehow forged a bond between them.
"For survival and a chance of a better life. The same things you offered, my dear, except your future is on a much smaller scale than I offered. He'll have an essential role in the puppeteers' plans for galaxywide domination and power."
"Surrounded by scum who feed on power, like vultures on carrion." The Auron's voice echoed the contempt he saw in her eyes. "You nearly destroyed your own brother to fulfill your sick ambitions."
Carnell's smooth assurance cracked as he countered mockingly, "Don't expect me to believe your motives for fetching him back are all that pure. I'm well aware of First Captain Stannis's pragmatic nature. The only reason he would have backed this foolhardy plan to retrieve your bondmate is because he still believes Travis carries a gene which is the key to the Enclave's freedom."
"What are you talking about?" Jenna demanded suspiciously, remembering the oblique references her uncle had made to Travis about "preserving his bloodlines." Was this scheming puppeteer somehow responsible for that?
"He hasn't discovered yet that Travis's immunity to Federation pacification drugs is genetically unstable." Carnell gave a bitter, ironic laugh. "It seems that my plan was much more successful than I ever could have hoped."
"What plan?" Jenna demanded coldly. "What else did Servalan order you to do to him?"
"It wasn't Servalan's idea." Carnell stood at his desk, idly straightening the disarray left by the two searchers, "but mine. Although the end result, from either viewpoint, was a most unfortunate accident."
He took a deep breath and began his explanation. "Recent events had resulted in Colin becoming increasingly erratic and difficult to control. My fellow psychostrategists predicted that he'd eventually desert, possibly fall into the hands of the Resistance. Though I managed to prevent his summary execution by convincing my superiors of Travis's value to our ultimate plan, I knew we couldn't allow what he knew--tactical plans, troop strength and so forth-- to be discovered by our enemies. So I had the Clonemasters tailor a virus that would make him immune to the most commonly used truth drugs. Only it reacted in a totally unforeseen fashion, producing a resistance to our primary pacification drug, all the way down to the DNA level. Fortunately, the gene was unstable, though nothing less than a comprehensive screening would uncover that fact. Since defecting Federation officers are typically scanned and screened before taken into even lower level Rebel cells, I theorized that the drug resistance might improve Colin's odds for survival."
"If he wasn't shot on sight," the Auron remarked sarcastically.
Carnell steepled his fingers, giving her a cautious smile, "Life is full of risks, especially for a man in Colin's position. It wasn't an absolute guarantee of his survival but the best I could manage under the circumstances. Obviously, it worked, since you came after him."
"Not because of his damned genes, Carnell!" Jenna responded savagely. "If you thought to fool the Enclave with that ploy, you're sadly mistaken. My uncle didn't send us on this rescue mission." Jenna's voice cut across his smooth explanation, "I came after Travis on my own, not because of some damned genetic trait, but because he is my bondmate - the man I am sworn to. And I will fight you and Servalan and this whole damned base, if I have to, to get him back!"
Carnell stared into that falcon-fierce gaze, recognizing a woman as proudly willful and fiercely independent as Colin. He realized that he had made a grave error in his calculations. Even worse than underestimating the effect of that female bondslave during the IMIPAK debacle. He suddenly recalled the resolve on his brother's face as he fought the drugs, struggling desperately not to betray his newfound allies. As Colin had drifted in pain-haunted nightmares, Jenna's name was always on his lips. He'd given his loyalty to this woman and her allies, who had come willingly into the stronghold of their enemies to rescue him.
He glanced into Jenna's eyes once more, glittering fiercely but with an underlying tenderness. Had Colin truly kindled the love he saw burning there? Did this woman believe his brother was more than just Servalan's deadly weapon created by his ambition? Was it possible she had touched some spark of humanity that had survived the bloody fields of Metis III and brutal demands of his duty to Space Command?
Carnell withdrew into a brooding silence after Jenna's defiant words.
Cally glanced in despair at her chrono. Their time had run out. She tried to signal Tarrant on her teleport bracelet and at the continued silence, she turned to Jenna. "We can't wait any longer. We have to head for the Reina. The first elements of the Fleet will be attacking at any moment."
"But what about Travis?" Jenna demanded tightly, then gestured to Carnell. "And him?"
"Hopefully one of the others have found him. If so, we still may need his expertise. If not..." The Auron left that final threat unspoken.
She gazed at the silent psychostrategist. She was not able to read his thoughts behind that bland, unfeeling mask. Not because his mental shields were particularly strong, but because the motivations behind those shields were twisted and knotted like a ball of snakes. No matter. As long as the weapons were in their hands, he had no choice but to obey their orders.
She pulled down her visor, then prodded him with the pulse rifle, "I think you realize that we mean business and will shoot you if you try to warn anyone."
As they exited his office, there was a low rumble of explosion that shook them off balance and sifted down a heavy fall of dust, followed by the screaming klaxon of Red Alert. As numerous officers and troopers scrambled around the trio, running toward battlestations, one of them crashed into Jenna, knocking the weapon out of her grip. Before she could recover, Carnell pulled out the blaster that he had taken from its niche inside his desk, pressing it against her forehead as he said in a soft but firm voice, "I'm giving the orders now. Auron, drop your weapon."
Cally reluctantly complied and Carnell quickly removed the energy pods charging them before directing Jenna and Cally to retrieve their now useless rifles. "I don't know how manyother infiltrators there may be inside this base, but the two of you are going to accompany me quietly down this corridor, until I can make my escape."
In the operations center, where Servalan had brought Orac Jr. for testing, Avon scanned a row of viewscreens surreptitiously, hoping Tarrant was as good as he thought he was. He trusted the effectiveness of his own long-range deflection screen. But their only guarantee against visual identification was the ex-Federation pilot's skill at keeping the asteroids and floating garbage around this base between him and their surveillance cameras. He hoped the arrogant young fool was good enough.
"Oh, Avon." That cloying note in Servalan's voice sent a chill of apprehension down his spine.
As he turned to face her, the blaster she had pointed at his midsection did nothing to alleviate that chill. Nor did the increasingly venomous note in which she continued her questioning. "You're quite certain that Blake didn't have some clever scheme to attack this base?"
She gestured to the cluster of blips on the screen, following their carefully plotted evasive course through the labyrinth of tumbling rocks and proximity mines. "That you weren't a decoy to distract my attention long enough for this motley fleet to attempt some kind of foolish action against us?"
There was a rumble of a distant explosion, followed by a Red Alert klaxon, sending her pilots scrambling to their ships. Servalan ignored the frantic activity around her, as her hotly glittering eyes focused on Avon. "It's a doomed effort, you realize. Surely Blake can't believe the undisciplined, seat-of-the-pants flying of the Free Traders in their ancient blockade runners and cargo ships is any match for the tactical abilities of trained Federation pilots. This time he's made a fatal error."
Avon was silent, a nervous tic running along his jaw at this snafu in their tightly planned operation. What the hell was Stannis doing roaring in ahead of schedule like this? Dayna's bombs wouldn't explode and take out the perimeter defenses or the ops center for another seven minutes! In all likelihood, a lifetime for him and those unfortunate pilots facing Servalan's disciplined and tactically superior forces. As her attention was focused on the bloody slaughter on the viewscreens, two guards seized Avon to drag him away.
"No," she ordered harshly. "Leave him here, so he can watch the obliteration of another of Blake's suicidal follies. Afterwards will be soon enough to show him how we deal with spies." She gave him a sidelong, mocking glance. "Besides, I might even be disposed to be merciful, once Blake and the Enclave are eliminated."
Despite her confidence, the battle was not as one-sided as she expected. The Free Trader flotillas were using advanced Federation engagement tactics that, when combined with their own recklessly outrageous piloting skills, were making them much more formidable than she expected. Worse still, they turned out to be only as a diversionary force. With her ships separated and drawn out of formation by the Free Traders' nontraditional gambit, the much reduced elements of the Federation's fleet came ripping through her weakened defensive line.
"Samore," she breathed the name as a curse.
Before she could warn her engaging cruisers or give the orders to fall back and regroup, there was a series of loud explosions that blanked every computer screen in the operations center. A second, even more devastating, series of explosions rocked the floor beneath their feet, deluging them with falling pumice and loosened plasform.
Attempting to make his escape during that diversion, Avon was knocked off his feet, half-stunned by falling debris. Sparks shot up from the comm center as its technician was hurled from his chair and the overhead lights flickered and faded, leaving them momentarily in the dark. Finally the emergency lighting cut in, washing everyone in a blood-red hue, even those not already wounded or dying.
"Sabotage!" Even in that dull reddish glare, Avon could see the ashen hue on Servalan's features. "You let Blake use you as bait in this scheme! I ought to have you shot right now!"
Climbing unsteadily to his feet, while he attempted to brush the dust from his clothes, Avon responded with his usual self-assurance, "You'd do better to get that comm set repaired and see if you can't negotiate a surrender with your enemies out there. Samore and Stannis were not predisposed to taking prisoners when I left. But knowing Blake's humanitarian impulses, he may have managed to convince them not to have you drawn and quartered as soon as they get their hands on you."
"How magnanimous of them," her eyes gleamed dangerously. "But I have other plans. . . and they don't include surrender." She gestured sharply to the two guards she had waved away earlier.
"Bring him with us to the auxiliary control center, but you can leave that here," she pointed to the crystal glowing container that supposedly housed the most powerful computer in the galaxy. Her expression was coldly calculating as she stared at Avon. "I'm quite certain that gaudy little box is not the real Orac. Blake was always more protective of it than his loyal followers. But I think he will be willing to bargain this time. Your life and Vila's, if we stumble across that cowering worm, in exchange for mine."
"Don't be so certain. Blake might harbor lenient impulses but Mikhail Stannis is leading that strike force and you've hit him where it hurts a Free Trader most . . . in his profits. He may not be inclined to be merciful. Not to mention, President Samore has more than ample reason to wish you dead."
Servalan did not respond and the guards simply prodded Avon's ribs harder, as they picked their way past the fallen debris and sprawled bodies in the dim corridors. The continuing muffled explosions shaking the base revealed how close the battle between the two fleets loomed over their heads. Avon wondered if the others had made their escape yet.
He'd caught a brief glimpse of Travis among Servalan's guards earlier, but the man had vanished as though the ground had opened and swallowed him. Probably in one of her ships, shooting down former allies with his usual cold, professional skill. Damn Blake for convincing him to come along on this foolhardy mission! Even if Servalan decided to contact Stannis, he doubted that the First Captain would be willing to negotiate . . .not for him, anyway.
The auxiliary controls were already manned when Servalan arrived, a fact she seemed to find disquieting. The two blank-visored troopers had Vila and Dani in their custody, while the long-sought and much battered Travis was slumped at the controls of what appeared to be some sort of teleport system.
The troopers accompanying Servalan were instantly on guard as she brought up her own blaster, although it was aimed at no one in particular. "How disappointing, Travis. After all Carnell's assurances of your loyalty, to find you here. . . like a rat deserting a sinking ship. Move away from those controls. . .now!"
Staggering slightly as he straightened, her one-time commander did as he was ordered, with the aid of one of the troopers. Servalan's eyes slid nervously over the group, not at all pleased by their presence and even less pleased that anyone knew of her escape plans. "And where is our brilliant psychostrategist? Making his escape. . . or planning to sell his skills to Samore or the Enclave?"
Carnell stepped out of a darkened corridor, weapon in hand, gesturing Jenna and Cally over to stand beside Travis. "I'm here, Madame. I wouldn't want you to leave without me."
"Then, why the prisoners, Carnell? Time and space are limited. We can't afford deadweight." There was a decidedly shrill note in Servalan's voice.
"One is Stannis's niece; a useful hostage for making our escape." Carnell watched cautiously, knowing Servalan was most dangerous when she felt threatened. "Besides, she'll be useful in controlling Space Commander Travis."
Servalan glared at him, a feral gleam in her eyes. "I thought he was already under your control, Carnell. Or are you no longer able to pull everyone's strings, puppeteer?" She hissed,
"You're incompetent, Carnell. . .and you've lied to me from the very beginning. Did you think I wouldn't know when you failed with Travis?"
Carnell kept his casual grip on his weapon while Servalan continued in a cold tone."It seems your all your schemes and plotting have backfired, Carnell. You know this teleport's capabilities as well as I do and I can't afford dead weight any longer. I'm afraid that my troops shall have to dispose of all of you."
As her troopers started to aim their weapons, there was a loud click of safeties being disengaged as the other two troopers pointed their pulse rifles in her direction.
Lifting his visor, the trooper supporting Travis revealed Blake's stolid features, "I think not, Servalan. We have the upper hand at the moment."
Servalan pressed her weapon hard into Avon's spine "No, Blake, I think it qualifies as a stalemate."
Another rumbling shake of the room reemphasized their growing danger but Blake recovered quickly. "A stalemate that will mean death for all of us, unless we get out of here soon. A truce, Servalan, until we can escape this doomed base?"
"What sort of terms, Blake? Will you guarantee my life in exchange for Avon's? And how do you plan to convince your allies to go along with this deal?"
"I'll guarantee your safety. . .if you release Avon. Then you'll be turned over to Samore for a fair trial by Federation officials."
Servalan's laughter was as brittle as cracked glass. "I'm afraid those aren't acceptable terms, Blake. I don't intend to be the sacrificial lamb in a show trial to placate unruly Federation mobs."
She moved her weapon from the base of Avon's spine to press it against his skull as she stepped up on the teleport platform, pulling him along. "You'll be coming with me, Avon. Even without Orac, I'm sure I can find some use for that calculating mind of yours."
She pressed a stud on the gemmed necklace she was wearing, "Activate teleport now."
"It will take a few moments to build power to safe levels, Supreme Commander."
"Then don't waste my time talking, just do it. And make sure there's sufficient power for two. I have a most important guest with me."
She gazed smugly at Blake, Carnell and the rest, helpless under the guns of her guards. As power built and the few remaining tunnel lights flickered, Servalan mocked them, "All of you, especially you, have outlived your usefulness." Abruptly she pointed her weapon at Travis, but before she could pull the trigger, Carnell and Blake fired almost simultaneously.
Servalan's body crumpled to the floor of the platform, her spasmodic grip firing her weapon wildly overhead and triggering a shower of sparks which Avon tried to dodge as he dived out of the line of fire. For the next fifteen seconds the alcove was a free fire zone as Servalan's guards tried to avenge her death as well as preserve their own lives. But Dayna was a very good shot and soon the only sound remaining was the harsh breathing of the survivors.
In the shocked aftermath of the battle, Blake straightened up from his defensive crouch. After glancing around to see if any of his people had been seriously injured, he hurried over to the teleport alcove to determine if Servalan or her guards were still a threat. The two guards were little more than carbonized skeletons, but Servalan's face had been left relatively intact. Her glorious eyes were still open and appeared somewhat surprised, though from the neck down her body was a raw, charred mass. Blake choked back his nausea and reached down to close her eyes, then went to help the others.
Vila was curled in a ball whimpering, "Don't shoot me, I'm harmless," while Dani was crouched at his side, the two razor sharp knives clenched in her fists arguing otherwise.
Cally had her medical kit out, hurrying to Jenna's side as she knelt beside Travis, gently rolling him onto his back. Hurriedly, the Auron checked for plasma burns and seeing no evidence of serious injury, she tactfully withdrew, leaving Jenna to gently probe at his freshly bruised cheekbone and bloodied nose. His eye fluttered open and he stared at Jenna in disbelief.
"Blake was telling the truth. . . you came after me. In spite of everything."
"He was the one who found you?"
Travis smiled bitterly, trying to wipe the blood from his upper lip. "Had a bit of a spat, convincing me of the truth."
"Blake did this to you?" Jenna was outraged.
Travis gripped her shoulder. "To pound some sense into me, after I'd been conditioned by Carnell for the past month with his version of the truth." He grimaced then continued, "Jenna, he's my brother ."
"I know. We saw the files." She glanced around hastily. "We'll deal with it later. Do you think you can stand? We've got to get out of here. . .and soon."
With Dayna's help, Avon limped over to the teleport, staring down numbly at the grisly remains of the beautiful woman who had menaced all of them only moments before. As he rubbed absently at the bruised place on his spine where her weapon had been jammed, Dayna knelt beside the ruined body, staring intently as if to confirm there was no breath, no pulse. Rising, she turned to him and whispered in a harsh voice, "I didn't even fire at her once, Avon. I was too afraid that I'd hit you."
"Well, I'm glad to know that someone was concerned for my well-being," he glanced up as Blake approached. "You didn't consider lying to her, did you, Blake? Just long enough to get us out of this death trap?"
"Out of the frying pan, into the fire, Avon ?" Blake spoke calmly. "The teleport would have taken us aboard her flag ship and I don't think that would have been much of an improvement over our current situation."
"And things are obviously so much safer here." The computer expert struggled to regain his old sneer, although for the moment he was too grateful to be alive to have much success at it. "We're stuck on an enemy base under assault. Liberator is not responding to our calls. Our back-up escape ship is a smouldering ruin. Our only hope of escape is this antiquated teleport system . . . unless you fried its circuits when you finished off Servalan.
Blake glanced around, spotting Carnell seated at the edge of the teleport platform while Cally tied a loose bandage around his lower ribcage. "Try to raise Tarrant again. He may just have been too involved in evasive tactics to answer earlier."
Avon glared at him but Blake ignored the computer tech's irritation, his interest piqued by the presence of one of the more enigmatic of the Federation's mind control technicians. He remembered very little of his own reconditioning in the aftermath of his first capture, but what he did left a chill in his marrow. Especially when he recalled Travis's bitter words.
"Carnell's my brother, Blake. Carnell, the psychostrategist who conditioned and programmed me to be Servalan's deadliest weapon. My own brother."
As he approached, Carnell gave an indulgent laugh, turning on the full force of his rational urbane charm. "I 'm not a monster, Blake. I don't read minds or rip seditious thoughts out of the head of would-be rebels. I'm a psychostrategist and my job is to predict human behavior and adjust it to conform to Federation standards. That's all."
"That's what you did to Travis? Adjusted his behavior to conform to Federation standards?"
Carnell shrugged, "Colin was. . .a special case. I'd promised our parents that I'd take care of him. Collaborating with those in power seemed our only path to security."
"No," Blake contradicted softly. "It's the path to destruction."
Carnell's gaze met Blake's with wry amusement. "Better to run with the wolves than be slaughtered with the sheep."
As Carnell struggled to his feet, Blake turned to Dayna, who was still kneeling by Servalan's body as if to confirm that she was dead beyond any hope of resuscitation.
Dayna had a dazed look on her face, "My father's death is avenged, Blake. Why don't I feel anything?"
Blake patted her shoulder gently."I don't know, Dayna. Shock, I suppose. I'm finding it hard to believe it myself."
As Blake stared at the lifeless body of the woman who had nearly ruined his life,
Carnell brushed his fingers across her forehead as he remarked ruefully, "Servalan's ambition made her a useful tool, though she was becoming difficult to control. It's too bad really, I don't know where I'll be able to find another pawn as cunning. . . or as sexy." He smiled ironically at Blake " You should warn Samore of the danger. He's not corrupt enough to suit my fellow puppeteers. If they can't buy him with the base coin of ambition, they'll have him assassinated . . .and put someone more cheaply bought in his place."
Avon was hurriedly disassembling all but one of Liberator's teleport bracelets and employing their components to restore and reprogram the teleport machine that Servalan had planned to use for her escape. It was an antique dating back to the earliest days of the Federation when resources were plentiful and free travel and commerce existed between the civilized worlds. It had played an essential role in her terrorist strike on Byzantia when she'd attempted to implicate Blake in that heinous act. Though the device had almost doomed them once, Avon hoped it would serve as their salvation now.
Speaking brusquely, as he made the final adjustments, "I've contacted Tarrant and he's within teleport range. . . for the moment. He reports that the battle's winding down but he'd rather not be a 'sitting target.' Unfortunately, Liberator's teleport system sustained damage that will take at least six hours to repair." Another trembling rumble punctuated the bad news. "So our bracelets are useless. Since I don't think it's healthy for us to remain here that long, I've used the aquitar in them to boost the power in this device enough to teleport us to Liberator. If my jury-rigged power couplings don't blow sky-high, it should be finished...now." He applied a last delicate touch with the laser probe and glared at it suspiciously.
"Will it work?" Blake inquired calmly.
Avon gave an exasperated shrug, "We could try it on something animate and totally useless. . . like Vila."
As they crowded together, waiting to take their place on the teleport platform, Carnell turned to Travis and said softly,
"Whether you believe it or not, Colin, everything I did was for your sake."
Travis stared at him coldly, then spat, "Liar-you never cared for anyone but yourself. Not on Metis III. . .and not here."
Carnell shrugged, then continued, "I restored most of your lost memories, but I doubt you'll thank me for that either. Oblivion would be kinder for a man with your past."
"It's not finished between us, Dar. I give you my word on that."
Avon called up on the remaining intact bracelet, "Are you still within range, Tarrant?"
"Holding position at five hundred spacials from the base, Avon. But I can't stay here much longer, we're a sitting target, " Tarrant replied peevishly.
"Hopefully, you won't have to," he responded, noting that everyone was in place as he set the timed control. They were all present and accounted for. "Either this relic works or we'll just be random agitated molecules rapidly dispersing."
"Ooooh, that sounds painful," Vila winced.
As the sparkling transport effect dematerialized and then rematerialized them, Avon continued without a break in his acerbic commentary, "Don't worry, Vila. For once your physical condition would be congruent with your mental state. "
They had teleported onto the flight deck and as soon as Tarrant was certain the procedure was complete, he heeled Liberator over in a quick evasive maneuver while Phrath fired off a bracket of plasma bolts.
Blake did a hasty head count, then realized that someone was missing.
"Tarrant, get us back within teleport range! Someone didn't make it."
"Who?" the pilot demanded harshly, "All of our people are present."
"Carnell. . . Travis's brother."
Tarrant's jaw dropped in shock but he steered them back to their previous coordinates, as Avon protested. "There's nothing we can do Blake, the controls were pre-set. If Carnell was foolish enough to step out of the teleport's field. . ."
" Use the comm circuit on your bracelet. Tell him how to reset the controls." Blake persisted.
"This was the only intact bracelet, Blake," Avon replied in an icy tone.
While the two men argued, Brita's hands flew across the comm board, isolating Liberator's signal and trying to get through the interference to the planet. Moments later she reported, "No signal coming from the planet, Captain. There's nothing but dead air."
In the silence that followed, Tarrant looked in Travis's direction and said softly,
"I'm sorry. . .Commander."
Nodding bleakly, Travis leaned on Jenna as she guided him towards the medbay.
Avon glanced sidelong at Blake. "Rather convenient, Carnell not teleporting up with the rest of us, don't you think?"
"What are you suggesting, Avon?"
"I think he didn't want to be tried for Servalan's crimes, even if he was the one pulling her strings. At the last minute, he deliberately ducked out of the teleport field." Avon brushed futilely at the dust virtually embedded in his clothes.
"Then you think he's still down there?" Blake folded his arms as he studied Avon.
"No. Given his past record, I'm certain he had a back-up escape plan. We haven't seen the last of him, Blake." His eyes glittered darkly. "You may be certain of that."
Leveling off their attitude, Tarrant turned to Brita again. "Get back online and see what's happening with the Fleet."
The navtech complied, reporting moments later in a relieved tone of voice, "Except for a few stragglers, Servalan's troops are finished. Most of her surviving ships have already surrendered and all that remains is to land on the base and clean out that snake pit."
"I doubt if there will be many serpents left," Avon observed tersely.
"Why not?" Tarrant questioned.
"Servalan's dead," came the flat monotone answer.
"You're certain?" Tarrant could not believe that she had finally been brought down. After all her years of scheming and plotting, he had thought her invincible, but Avon's off-handed report seemed to indicate otherwise.
"As certain as one can be about a viper like her," the computer expert remarked caustically. "Ask Dayna if you don't believe me."
Tarrant nodded, glancing at the strangely subdued young huntress. Handing
offLiberator's controls to the startled Phrath, he walked over to Dayna and
gathered her gently in his arms. After a momentary resistance, she melted
against his lean body, sobbing in a mixture of relief and frustration.
"...casualties and battle damage are considerably less than original estimates."
Samore's image was being relayed from Earth by one of the large destroyers in the Federation's portion of the Fleet. Ionization from the heavy weapons' discharges in that immediate area made the transmission grainy and out of focus, but Blake could see enough of the old man's face to read the relief there. Despite Carnell's warning of future threats from the machinations of the psychostrategists, Samore had not appeared unduly disturbed.
"The Federation's future will be one of order and justice, Blake, not imperial aspirations. Once the order is restored on the High Council and the Governors' Board, it won't matter what happens to me. Succession and transfer of power within the government will proceed in a legal and orderly fashion. There will be no anarchy for anyone to use for their own ends."
Blake did not argue with the dour old man, although he thought him somewhat naive. Particularly about the ruthless and self-serving individuals on the Council. Still, he had done his duty by passing on the message. Hopefully, Samore would exercise due caution.
He nodded his apparent agreement to those stern features. "Let's hope you're correct, President Samore."
The Federation president had no sooner signed off than another call quickly followed from First Captain Mikhail Stannis, leader of the Enclave Fleet. The signal originated on the flight deck of his flagship, less than a thousand spacials distant, and was much clearer than Samore's. The First Captain was irritable, with a nervous tic running along his jaw.
"I suppose you consider yourself a brilliant strategist now, since total losses were less than half of what was originally projected?"
Blake shrugged. "The final plan was Orac's, if you recall. I just led the diversionary mission."
Stannis's eyes narrowed, "Did Jenna succeed in rescuing Travis? Or were you able to get to him first, and dispose of the problem?"
Blake's jaw clenched at Stannis's ruthless assumption. Then he took a deep breath before making his answer. "He found me first. . .and we had a brief discussion about Jenna before I persuaded him to come with me." Blake reached in his pocket and extracted a data cube, which he inserted in the opening on the comm controls.
"While Jenna and Cally were searching for Travis, they uncovered some tapes you might find of interest, regarding Travis's treatment as Servalan's prisoner. I'm transmitting it by high-speed dump. You'd do well to look at that tape before making any further judgements about Travis's loyalties. . . or his fitness to be Jenna's bondmate."
Stannis grimaced."I'm not about to waste my time watching fabricated Federation interrogation tapes. Get Jenna to a comm system, now. I need to speak with her."
" You seem to have forgotten, First Captain, that Liberator is not an Enclave ship. You don't give orders to me or my crew. Jenna's with Travis at the moment, but I'll pass your message along."
Cally looked up from the data pad where she was transferring files they had taken from Carnell's office into Zen's memory banks. Though Stannis had cut the visual link, Blake was transmitting a high speed data squirt to his ship.
"You didn't send him Travis's entire record, did you?" she demanded in alarm. "There were things there that no one else should know, except Travis and Jenna. Jenna's uncle is a ruthless man and would gladly use that knowledge against Travis."
"I know, Cally," Blake answered patiently. "All I sent were records of how long Travis resisted the physical and mental abuse Servalan's troops inflicted. Surely Stannis doesn't blame Travis for what he revealed under the influence of Federation drugs?"
Cally was grim as she turned back to her data pad. "The First Captain is not a forgiving man where Travis is concerned, as the Aurons have reason to know."
"Would you care to elaborate?"
Shaking her head, Cally replied, "It's a private matter, Blake. Though I'll inform Jenna of the details before we reach Sanctuary." She glanced at her chrono and put her data pad aside.
"Are you going to check on him?"
"Yes, Jenna and I decided to sedate him after applying the regeneration pads. Otherwise, he was going to come up to the flight deck and supervise the 'mop-up.' Jenna was worried that he might teleport down to the base, to look for his brother's body."
"A waste of time," Blake stated flatly. " Carnell undoubtedly had at least two back-up escape plans that didn't depend on Servalan. I think I'll come with you and see how Jenna's holding up."
He shrugged off Cally's dubious expression. "Just to pass on her uncle's message."
In the medunit, as the effects of the sedative wore off, Travis became much more restless. He thrashed about, gasping muffled curses while Jenna gripped his hand and tried to reassure him in hopes he would rest a little longer. He quieted at her touch, breathing her name as she drew closer and stroked his dark, sweat-dampened hair, attempting to smooth away the harsh lines newly engraved on his scarred features.
It was ironic how events had brought each of them full circle to confront their past. A family and clan that she believed forever lost to her - a brother that he believed dead and buried. The past they'd both tried to ignore, to forget, had exploded in their faces.
That volatile situation had been aggravated by their choice to deliberately ignore the emotions growing between them. She'd been especially guilty of blinding herself to Travis's growing vulnerability - his uncertainty about his role in the clan and his jealousy of Blake. As a result, she'd nearly lost Travis to the cruel lies and oppressive mind control that had once ruled his past. Not to mention betrayal by his own brother.
Jenna squared her shoulders. Well, she wouldn't make that mistake again, now that her eyes had been opened to the truth. It was time for both of them to face that past head on- to live up to their obligations and make peace with both of their histories, no matter how painful.
She glanced at him gently, brushing her fingers across his scarred face, peaceful for the moment. They might never be able to completely banish the demons that haunted him, but they could build a future together
She heard the click of boot heels in the corridor and tried to bury those nakedly tender feelings. Dealing with Blake would be difficult enough, without feeling emotionally vulnerable. Cally was with Blake, which complicated matters, but the Auron went directly to the medunit computers and busied herself studying their readouts.
"How is he?" Blake glanced guiltily at the fading bruise on Travis's jaw.
"The regeneration pads have taken care of the worst of it." She smiled ironically, "Don't worry about that. Travis explained." She glanced down at the fingers clenched in her lap "I. . . apologize for not trusting you, Roj. Thank you for rescuing him, despite himself. . . and for saving him from Servalan's blaster."
Blake hemmed and hawed, seemingly at a loss for words, until Travis's voice cut raggedly across his hesitation. " I misjudged your ruthless streak, Blake. You actually shot her. . . to save my life."
"Her gun was pointed at Avon's head. And Carnell fired as well." Blake hesitated, then blundered on. "I'm sorry, Travis."
"Your brother. . .the teleport failure. His . . .death."
Travis gave a harsh bark of laughter, "You don't believe he's dead, anymore than I do. Besides," Travis's expression went cold. "That wasn't my brother. Dar died fifteen years ago. What we saw was just carrion. . .dead meat programmed by the puppeteers with his memories."
There was a brief uncomfortable silence, until Jenna cleared her throat, saying firmly, "I owe you, Blake. For Avon's research on Docholli, retrieving the Reina, and most of all for bringing Travis back, alive and sane." She reached across and clasped her bondmate's right hand as though she would never let it go.
Travis hesitated a moment, then gripped hers even tighter, though he gave a sardonic smile. "I'm sure the First Captain will loudly declare his doubts about the latter ."
Cally stepped away from computer and stood between Jenna and Blake "Then we will convince him otherwise. Travis succeeded in throwing off the conditioning that fed his obsessive hatred of Blake for so many years. The aftermath of Servalan's abuse and Carnell's revelations shouldn't be nearly as traumatic. Though there will likely be some emotional repercussions."
"There already have been." Jenna gazed into Travis's face, tentatively caressing the scarred cheek below his black patch. "We may have started out staying together for the sake of pragmatism and survival, but there's much more to it now."
Blake was silent, wondering if Jenna had finally recognized the truth that he'd suspected when she made her desperate appeal for his help.
Cally covered a sly smile. She'd already known that Jenna was falling in love with Travis during their accidental meeting on Horizon, before the battle at Star One.
"I love you. . . Colin. I first suspected I was falling in love with you when Tarrant told me that you'd stayed behind at Star One to keep the manual controls operating. I could have stayed with Blake then, gone back to piloting Liberator, but there was an aching void inside me. And only you could fill that void."
" That's why you risked your neck, dodging Federation pursuit ships and alien mines -- to come back after me." He gripped her shoulders so tightly that she almost winced, his voice hoarse and ragged with emotion. "You bloody little fool, that's why I stayed behind, hoping you'd go with Blake and forget about me."Travis coughed harshly, then continued "I was a deserter, a hunted man. What did I have to offer you, except life on the run?"
"With the 'toughest bastard in fifty parsecs'," Jenna smiled, "who trusted me enough to come and reclaim my father's ships. All Blake wanted was my piloting skills, but you and I can build a future. . . together. "
Travis shivered as old memories surged through his mind.. Rissa's face. . .her touch. . . and her rock-covered grave on Metis III. For years, his heart had been buried with her in that frozen earth, leaving him a cold, callous, ruthless man. Until Jenna 's touch ignited a firestorm of passion that had threatened to consume him, leaving nothing but ashes. Was he man enough to walk into the fire? Did he have the heart to love anyone, especially Jenna, again?
Looking into Jenna's eyes, he whispered hoarsely. I . . . love you, Jenna, now and forever. And I'll kill anyone who ever tries to take you away from me."
Blake and Cally withdrew, half-guilty at overhearing such a private, intimate moment between the two reunited lovers. Taking her arm in amiable camaraderie as they strolled down the companionway back to the flight deck, Blake said, "It looks like Jenna and Travis have made a new life for themselves with the Free Traders. If the peace holds, it will probably be a good one."
With that said, Blake allowed himself a brief sense of regret over all that had been lost in their struggle against the Federation. His fellow resisters in the Freedom Party, Bran Foster and the rest. Allies and friends like Kasabi and Gan. Jenna, who'd offered her trust along with her heart, but he wouldn't accept either on her terms. Much to his surprise, she had found someone who matched her pragmatism, and her passion as well, in his former enemy, Travis.
He still found it hard to accept that the obsessed, hatred-consumed ex-Federation officer could have changed so much. But in the past year, so many similarly impossible things had occurred, he was no longer sure what to believe in anymore.
He turned to Cally, appealing to her Auron sensitivities. Knowing that if she could not read human minds like an open book, she sometimes had a great deal of insight into the human heart. "Will it work out between them, Cally?"
He walked on, shaking his head with disbelief that he had worn a Federation uniform andLiberator had led a Federation battle fleet less than a day ago! Considering his past-- all their pasts-such amity seemed impossible. Still. . .
"Will all the changes that we've seen...in the Federation, the independent worlds, our own Freedom Alliance. . .will they last? Have we finally seen an end to our struggles?"
Her eyes were distant and withdrawn as she contemplated his appeal, then she turned an open, honest smile upon him once more. "No one can predict the future, Blake, not even the telepaths of the Auronar. But if people can change, then perhaps the governments and institutions they create are capable of changing, too. Travis is no longer the cruel, savage killer you once despised. Nor are you the desperate, driven terrorist who would have killed millions just to destroy the Federation."
"Servalan's Federation,"Blake remarked grimly. "Things seem to be better now, with Samore in power. Though that could change."
"The puppeteers are only one threat. There will always be battles for us to fight, against old enemies or new. We must never become complacent. For freedom from tyranny and oppression is too precious a treasure to let escape our grasp, no matter what price must be paid in blood." Cally's eyes were bright with the intensity of her emotion.
Blake nodded a silent amen to her ardent declaration, only hoping for a small
measure of peace to begin rebuilding his dream.
Over Jenna's protests, Travis was present on the flight deck the following day. Judging by the relative ease of his movements, it wasn't his physical debilitation that was the reason for her caution. Instead, Blake speculated that she was still uneasy about the aftermath of his mental trauma discovering that his brother was the puppeteer Carnell. She need not have worried. Although somewhat brittle and worn, Travis had resumed the arrogant, hard-edged mask he showed to the galaxy at large with the weary assurance of a man well-practiced at keeping his guard up. Blake could hardly blame him, given the recent revelations of the lies and betrayal that had overshadowed his whole life. Even with Jenna's loving support, Travis would still find it difficult to trust people.
Yet, despite that cold, defiant facade, Blake knew his old enemy had surrendered on a gentler battleground. Even if Travis never again said the softly whispered words Blake overheard the day before, he would live those words to the limit of his strength because his honor would not permit him to do otherwise. Jenna had sown the seeds of Servalan's defeat when she acknowledged, nurtured and fought for Travis's humanity, despite what everyone else believed about the man. For the sake of that rediscovered humanity, Blake could finally forgive Travis the blood and hate and horror that once lay between them.
Travis had taken Tarrant's position at the helm controls but Del remained on the flight deck because of what he knew was about to happen. Brita relayed a message from the combined fleet. "All survivors have been evacuated and all recoverable items salvaged from the base itself." There was a morose sigh from Jenna's direction on the couch. The Reina had not been one of those salvageable items. Brita continued to relay instructions from the fleet. "They're requesting we withdraw at least twenty thousand spacials from the base itself."
"Then he's actually going through with it?" Blake questioned, disbelieving.
"You can hardly blame him," Avon responded. "Space Command is already overextended, attempting to keep order on the Inner Worlds, patrol the Outer World borders, and safeguard the Enclave's trading fleet. A base standing empty like that is an open invitation to pirates, space tramps or other malcontents to set themselves up and make trouble." Avon's caustic tones held a fleeting admiration. "Besides, what better way to intimidate any future enemies than by a spectacle of this proportion!"
For long moments, they all stared at the viewscreen with its image of the cold, barren rock that had been such threat to them. There was a fierce blossoming fire that split the darkness with an explosive force, all the more terrifying because of its dead silence in the airless vacuum of space. Elemental flames consumed the entire substance of the asteroid until they faded into darkness, leaving nothing except the void.
Stunned silence reigned in the aftermath of that awesome display until Travis busied himself with setting Liberator back on a course to Sanctuary.
Brita glanced up from her comm board. "Captain Travis, I have an incoming message for you and Fleet Captain Stannis. It's a linked three-way call from Sanctuary by way of the First Captain's flag ship."
"Probably telling us our ships have been confiscated for nonpayment of docking fees," Travis muttered sourly under his breath.
Jenna threw him an exasperated glare and Blake glanced around at the members ofLiberator's crew. "If it's a private message, we can leave..."
From the comm board, where she was glancing over Brita's shoulder, Jenna waved him back to his seat. "Oh I doubt if it's more than a minor warning from Mikhail about getting our minds back on business. After all, Alamo and Valkyrie were part of the Enclave's combined fleet, so he really doesn't have anything to complain about."
Moments later, to Jenna's surprise, Brendan's ascetic features appeared on Zen's screen. "First Captain, Seran Jenna, Ser Travis, I am relaying this message to you jointly since you are all affected by a decision that I was forced to make in your absence."
Jenna and Travis exchanged bewildered looks as Brendan made a visible effort to compose himself before beginning his explanation.
"Two days ago, a young man arrived on a chartered shuttle from Auron. He has an unusual background, being the artificially matured product of an in vitro fertilization, though of human rather than Auron origin."
"Get to the point, man," Avon muttered sarcastically.
"The Aurons imprinted him with a composite memory, immature personality and enough background to function in human society."
"Sounds like the average teenager to me," Vila observed, "except for that part about functioning in human society."
"Hush," Cally whispered, shifting uneasily on the couch next to him.
Jenna glanced at her uncle on a split screen with Brendan. His face went pale and then suddenly flushed a bright red as he broke into Brendan's report.
"There's no need for you to continue, Doyle. I. . .admit the child has a legitimate claim to the Clan's protection and I will assume full responsibility for him."
If Jenna didn't know better, she'd swear her uncle sounded . . .flustered?
There was an amused smile on Brendan's face as he continued, "That won't be necessary, First Captain. The Aurons didn't send us a helpless youngster. The boy has been given sleep learning, along with RNA augmented skills. However, his final aptitude tests revealed he had skills that they could not properly instruct."
Brendan paused and Mikhail snorted in exasperation.
"Well, Brendan, don't keep us in suspense. What sort of skills?"
"His reflexes, perceptions, and aptitudes are those of a born pilot. Since their prior isolation has left them without the proper facilities for nurturing this skill they sent him to us for training and a suitable apprenticeship."
Jenna still did not see why Brendan had included them in his report unless it was because of their obligation to train future pilots for the clan. But the boy was from Auron, not Sanctuary. Still, something about this homeless, parentless boy - an outcast in his own way - tugged at her heart and piqued her curiosity.
"What's his name, Brendan? And do you have any holos of him?"
Her uncle broke in suddenly, "Jenna, it's not your responsibility. Brendan and I can handle this . Why don't you take a week off, you and Travis probably need a little time to yourselves to get things sorted out between you."
Jenna stared at the screen in disbelief, certain her uncle must have taken leave of his senses. That kind of sentiment was so alien to him that she was deeply suspicious of what might be behind it. She stepped toward the screen. "No, I think the sooner we get back on our regular trade runs, the better for all of us. An extra pilot, even a green one, will be an asset. Besides I'm curious. . ."
The rest of the sentence died in her throat as Brendan transmitted the bi-angled ID shot onto the screen. Its resemblance to the ID shots taken of Travis in Carnell's files, when he'd been a raw Space Command conscript nearly twenty years before, was uncanny! A somber, grim-faced youth with haunted eyes stared out at them. Only the unruly blonde hair straying across that broad forehead differed - a blonde that was the same shade as her own! She gasped in shock and Travis choked off a startled expletive.
There was no question in her mind that the child - no, young man - was from her and Travis's genes. The in vitro cross Brendan had mentioned must have been from her stored ova and Travis's sperm. She gave her bondmate a curious look, wondering how her uncle had managed to obtain the specimen, in view of Travis's earlier reluctance to cooperate in that regard. Well, no time to pursue that mystery, when there were other more urgent ones.
Like why would this half-grown child show up right now? And why her uncle was so deadset on keeping the boy away from them? Then she recalled Carnell's smug statement about genetic tampering and Travis's resistance to certain Federation drugs. That certainly explained her uncle's eagerness to acquire Travis's offspring. . .any offspring, by any mother. He'd wanted that gene under his control, to be replicated and spread throughout the Enclave so they would never fear the Federation again! This child was undoubtedly the result.
She smiled bitterly, remembering the puppeteer's confession of the gene's instability, then turned and accused her uncle.
"You discovered the gene was flawed, didn't you? That was why you didn't want me to go after Travis. You had what you wanted from him and it wasn't the prize you expected. What about the boy? Were you as willing to dispose of him as you were of Travis?"
Her uncle's jaw was set as he met her anger with his own pragmatism. "It's my duty to protect the clan and I'll do whatever's necessary. . . lie, cheat, steal, even kill, if I have to. You should understand better than anyone, since that's what you were willing to do to save your bondmate." There was a remote admiration in his gaze. "Forget about his damned genes. Any man who can kindle that fierce a loyalty and devotion in a Stannis daughter is an obvious asset to the clan." Those words constituted his blessing on their bonding, belated and reluctant as it was. Then he was all business. "Are you sure you want to take on the boy as an apprentice? Knowing the wild streak he's likely inherited, he'll probably be a handful."
Jenna glanced at Travis. After the initial shock, a mixture of anger and guilt had flickered across his face. She stepped over to his side, whispering gently, "My uncle is not a man who takes 'no' for an answer. I know your 'genetic contribution' may not have been voluntary, any more than mine was. But the past is the past, and this boy is the future."
Standing beside him, she spoke in a normal tone,"Do you feel fit enough to take him on? If he's just escaped the Aurons' sedate society," her eyes twinkled as she mildly teased Cally, "he's likely to be bursting at the seams to prove himself.
From the weapons' console, Phrath grinned widely, as he growled., "Fast times ahead, for sure. Piloting Balkis hotshot kid get us to the Rim and back, Time Distort 16, wanna bet?"
Travis stared at the boy's features again, feeling the years slip away. Remembering his own father's hopes and dreams for his sons. . .and how those dreams had been shattered.
He put his arm around Jenna's shoulder, "I think the two of us ought to be able to handle one teenage boy, no matter how 'wild' or stubborn he turns out to be."
Jenna turned back to Zen's viewscreen and informed Brendan, "We'll sign him on as soon as we hit groundside. What did you say the boy's name was?"
Cally spoke softly from behind her friend, "His name is Jason. It means `healer.'"
Jenna and Travis turned together to stare at the Auron, suddenly realizing how deep her compassion ran. Despite old enmities, she, more than any of Blake's crew, had put the past and its horrors behind her. Not only had she forgiven Travis for his part in Centero, but she had given them both a chance for a new life beyond the bitterness and hatred of Travis's bloody past. Even more moving than her compassion was her obvious faith that the newly forged alliances between Federation, Enclave and the neutral worlds would endure and bring about a better future.
Travis swallowed hard, remembering the similar faith and hopes among the colonists of Metis III, his own parents especially. Their dreams of freedom and a brighter future were destroyed by Federation lies, corruption, and treachery that had caused the failure of the colony and the dispersal of its few survivors,
Now, a new wind was blowing through their lives, sweeping away all the old hatreds, vendettas, obsessions and guilt. Cally had given them the opportunity to make a new start, rebuilding their dreams by giving this child of deception a second chance, as well. Travis stared thoughtfully at the youthful face on the viewscreen. A second chance for a new beginning, with a strong, loving woman beside him.
Relinquishing the helm to his one-time enemy, he gave the ex-rebel a rakehell grin. "Well, Blake, let's get this bucket of bolts moving. The lady and I," his gaze fell affectionately on Jenna's somewhat uncertain expression. "The lady and I have an appointment with a new pilot apprentice . . .and we don't want to keep our son waiting."
That acknowledgment of the boy's claim on them, no matter how dubious his origins, sent a tide of love surging through Jenna's heart and she glanced up at him tenderly. "You heard the man, Blake. Let's go home!"
With an answering warm smile and the sense they had all found a home, or at
least a momentary respite in their struggle for freedom, Blake steered the
Liberator toward Sanctuary.
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