Rest CureBy Alice C. Aldridge
The orderly, if hectic, loading process of a few moments before had suddenly dissolved into chaos as a guy cable snapped, sending a cargo net spinning out of control, threatening to plunge downward and crush the dockworkers and maintenance crew scurrying beneath. Crouched over the auxiliary controls on the catwalk just outside the Alamo's forward hold, Captain Travis frantically tried to damp the load's oscillations long enough for the workers below to get clear.
For a moment, it looked like he might succeed until an overcorrection on the backswing crashed the cargo into the narrow platform where he was standing, pitching him toward the tarmac fifty feet below.
Suddenly a lithe, gray furred figure hurdled forward and buried his claws in Travis's leather vest, momentarily halting that downward plunge. Momentum slammed the two against the side of the scaffolding with a bone cracking jar, but Phrath's claws only dug in deeper. His rear claws scrabbled frantically at the metal flooring as the wiry feline gunner tried to brace himself and pull his captain to safety, but he lacked the brute muscle power to drag Travis's limp body onto the catwalk.
For long seconds they hung there, like two lost souls dangling between heaven and earth, until Phrath regained his breath and squalled, "Akema . . . muscle-bound oaf! Help me . . .NOW!" His razor sharp claws were ripping through the vest and shirt as he tried for a better grip."Slipping . . . not much longer able to hold!"
From his station just inside the cargo hold, the burly engineer stared and a clammy sweat oozed down his smooth ebony scalp. Jenna watched in dismay as Akema froze at the edge of the scaffolding despite Phrath's increasingly vitriolic yowls.
"Don't just stand there! Help them!" she shrieked while the emergency klaxons wailed in the background. Even the port rescue squad's Rapid Response Team could not arrive in time to save her bondmate and his would-be rescuer.
She choked back another scream as Phrath's hold seemed to slip and Travis swung loose, secured by only one arm. Then the Kyrenian swiped fearlessly, with inhuman speed, hooking onto his captain's belt, through he was dangling from the scaffolding at an even more precarious angle.
Jenna grabbed Brita's arm, "Why doesn't Akema do something?"
"He's afraid of heights," Brita choked, her gaze never leaving the muscular engineer, shivering paralyzed at the edge of the unstable platform where his crewmate and captain swung helplessly. "Deathly afraid . . . "
"No!" Jenna grated, looking around urgently for something -- anything -- that might break their fall; cargo nets, bales of soft goods, anything other than the hard-sided storage bins that littered the loading bay.
Suddenly Brita clutched her shoulder, "He's going out . . . to get them!"
The two women watched, holding each other in anxiety, as Akema dropped to his knees and slowly crawled out on the shaky catwalk. Jenna bit her fist to stifle her outcry as the platform trembled like a sapling in a windstorm at the massive engineer's weight. Inching laboriously down the narrow walkway, he leaned forward and grabbed Phrath's waist to prevent the gunner from slipping any further and then slowly, the muscles in his broad shoulders rippled and swelled as he dragged the unconscious Travis back on to the platform.
But their combined weight was too much and the overstressed metal began to groan and buckle as it pulled away from the side of the ship. In a desperate scrambling rush, the two spacers half-dragged, half-threw their captain and themselves back inside the Alamo's hold, split-seconds before the scaffolding collapsed with a tortured metallic scream.
Forty-eight hours later in the luxurious anteroom of First Captain Stannis's office aerie, Jenna watched in relieved amusement while her bondmate surreptitiously scratched at the synthaskin covering the deep gouges scored across his shoulders and back.
"Didn't the medcenter use a tissue regenerator on them?"
"Yeah," Travis answered peevishly. "But the tech said there was some kind of mild inflammation in the wounds. Probably from Phrath using his claws to gut fish."
"Just be grateful he also used them to prevent you from repainting the docking bay a garish shade of blood red. Where is he anyway? I haven't seen either him or Akema around since they checked out of the medcenter."
"Probably on the second day of a three-day carouse," he remarked wryly.
"What about our strictly enforced curfew for the two days prior to a scheduled liftoff?" Jenna glanced at him sidelong, mildly disapproving.
He shifted uncomfortably, trying to ease the weight of the fiberglass brace encasing his leg from knee to ankle.
"What the hell, I figured he and Akema deserved some time off after risking their necks to save mine." Travis sobered. "When I came around in triage, Akema was gray, still shaking like a leaf . . . and Phrath's belly looked like it had been flayed from him being dragged across the scaffolding, trying to break my fall."
Jenna's brows drew down in commiseration, "Knowing how vain he is about that fur, I'm amazed he left his quarters, even with a three day pass."
Still massaging his knee, Travis snorted, "Shows how well you know our resident Kyrenian. Last I heard, he was making the rounds with Glynis, showing off his 'battle scars' and bragging how he saved my life -- single-handed. Wonder what Akema has to say about that?"
"I think he was just glad to get down with a whole skin. Brita told me that he's been petrified of heights ever since he nearly died in a climbing accident on the Galya Range. She still can't believe he was actually able to crawl out there and save the two of you."
"He's a brave man," Travis admitted slowly, " One of the bravest I've ever known. Both of them are, as a matter of fact."
Jenna gazed at him in surprise causing Travis to awkwardly shift his position then bite off a sulfurous epithet at the sharp jab it sent through his knee. Glaring down at the awkward and antiquated brace, which he'd been forced to wear because he wouldn't stay in bed long enough for a full regeneration of his broken tibia, he muttered, "Between the doctors trying to tie me to that damned bed and your uncle keeping us here, cooling our heels, we'll be lucky to make our scheduled delivery date!"
"Sarcar's overseeing the transfer of Alamo's cargo to the Valkyrie right now. She's a smaller, faster ship and should be able to beat the deadline."
Travis folded his arms across his chest and furrowed his brow, "I don't like taking Valkyrie through the Diego Drift. Her shields aren't as powerful as Alamo's and jetwash around the docks is that the ion storms are bad right now."
Jenna cocked her hands on her hips, "Then maybe you should have stayed in the hospital if you're going to second guess me all the way to Ganjiro and back."
Before Travis could reply, the door to Mikhail's office opened and her uncle gestured them brusquely inside. Much to her surprise, he was alone; not even his telepathic aide Brendan Doyle was present. After sorting through data flimsies for a moment, he turned his piercing gaze on them.
"The balance sheets you transmitted last week actually show a respectable profit margin for the past six months, despite your rocky beginnings with the clan and Enclave."
Jenna smiled ruefully to herself. Rocky? More like a bloody avalanche considering events of the past year; the terrorist attack during the Byzantia negotiations, Travis's kidnapping, and the Enclave's part in helping the Federation to clean out Servalan's raiders. It was a miracle they'd made any profitable runs at all. But she did not remind her uncle of that, knowing he would likely blame Travis's Federation background for those unsettling events.
"Of course, that was before this last mishap."
Travis glowered at the First Captain, his touchy pride reacting to the implied criticism that they were somehow to blame for the accident.
"The Dock Supervisor inspected the equipment last week and the cable was sound then," he growled. "So don't accuse us of carelessness and shoddy loading practices."
Stannis grimaced, "Accidents do happen. . . and I'm not blaming anyone for this one. In fact, according to the results of your lab tests, the timing was fortunate, for everyone's sake."
Jenna's eyes glittered hotly as she flung herself up from the chair. "You mean you have access to our medical records too? Don't we have any privacy at all? You're as bad as the Federation!"
Travis was somewhat discomfited by Stannis's admission, but he understood the necessity, knowing how an officer's physical status affected his combat readiness. He admonished Jenna, "Don't get so excited. This isn't a question of privacy, is it, Stannis? But overall pilot fitness?"
Mikhail nodded sourly, "For safety and security reasons, every pilot in the clan is examined semiannually to ascertain his mental and physical fitness to fly. Due to the uproar of the past year and a half, neither of you were on the exam roster . . . and it appears you both have suffered for it. Your reaction times are down, your overall concentration borderline, your stamina . . . . Well, I don't need to run down this whole list, but to put it bluntly-- you two are a danger to yourselves, your ships and your crew."
Travis glared down at his brace, recalling the surgeon's dire warnings of tissue depletion and failure of the bone matrix bonding when he'd signed himself out of the medical center. He'd brushed it aside as usual but had to admit he and Jenna had been under a lot of stress lately. Grabbing meals on the run and getting less than four hours sleep most nights, trying to meet shipping deadlines and keep Jenna's recently inherited fleet competitive with Free Traders who were much more experienced at the ins and outs of interstellar commerce.
Jenna stood behind him, resting her hand on his shoulders for support as apprehension colored her voice,
"Well, what are we supposed to do about it? We've got a cargo due in the Ganjiro system by the end of next week. Then there are repairs to oversee on the Alamo and when Dani returns with Balkis . . . "
"That's all been taken care of," the First Captain sais brusquely. "I told you before, `the clan takes care of its own.' Your ship will be repaired and the rest of your trading commitments handled by other clan pilots for the duration."
"What duration?" Jenna demanded in alarm.
"Your mandatory downtime. As of 0800, you and your bondmate were removed from the active roster and won't be reinstated for at least two weeks." Stannis turned his attention back to his data screen.
Despite his own doubts about their current mental and physical condition, Travis hitched himself irritably out of his chair, his leg propped before him.
"And what the hell are we supposed to do during this downtime, anyway? Twiddle our thumbs?"
Glancing up, the First Captain reached inside his desk and tossed a data crystal and keycard to Travis, who caught it one-handed. "The clan keeps a small villa on Alegria, the easternmost of the Palomino Islands. Quiet and secluded but there is a village, Land's End, if you get bored with one another's company . . . or tired of Jenna's cooking, since the facilities there don't include a food dispenser." He glared at them sternly. "Relax. Have some fun. That's an order."
As they turned to leave, Stannis warned Travis. "Alegria may be a resort but Land's End still has a small town mentality. They don't appreciate outsiders sticking their noses into things that don't concern them. So mind your own business. . .and stay out of trouble."
The hydrofoil that ferried them through the Palomino Islands out to the resort island of Alegria was crowded with students on holiday, vacationing families, even a weathered old sea dog who eked out a marginal existence on the outer islands by out-of-season fishing and peddling bogus treasure maps to gullible mainlanders.
Although Travis's brace had been removed before they left the city, he still walked with a distinct limp. That hobbled gait, along with his black patch, drew the scruffy beach bum to latch on to him in attempted camaraderie of one-time soldiers. Shrugging off the boozy-breathed invitation to share a bottle and commiserate over old battles, Travis joined Jenna in the small alfresco dining area on the after deck.
She was seated at a table with a group of colorfully garbed students, whose lively chatter and outbursts of laughter vied with the raucous squawks of the seabirds wheeling in the wake of their ship. Travis grunted a barely civil acknowledgment of their friendly greetings before dropping heavily into an offered chair.
Jenna cut her eyes at him in exasperation, "I hope you aren't going to be this surly the whole two weeks."
He leaned back in the chair, trying to ease the cramping muscle in his calf and gave her a halfhearted grimace. "There . . . I smiled. Are you happy now?"
"Well, I've seen more sincere ones on Sindari slavers, just before they slapped on the neck collar. . . but I suppose it will do." She gazed at him, somewhat concerned. "Is that leg still bothering you? When we dock do you want to stop by the medcenter before we go out to the villa?"
"No!" he retorted, straightening out of his half-slouched posture. "I've had enough of doctors poking and prodding at me, while making dire predictions. All I need is a good night's sleep and a chance to get some proper exercise."
Jenna nodded in sympathy, while Travis leaned back, studying their tablemates. The girls with their ribbon-woven braids and neon bright beachwear flirting outrageously with boys sporting coxcombs and Maori style bodypaint. Despite his earlier disgruntled air, he slowly relaxed, enjoying their youthful banter and barely comprehensible jargon like exotic birdsong. Until they brought out their music cubes and began broadcasting cacophonous harmonies that threatened to drive innocent bystanders insane, as well as deafening them. The seabirds veered off with loud screeches and taking a hint from their retreat, Travis and Jenna hurriedly withdrew to the opposite side of the ship.
Suddenly, Jenna gripped his arm and pointed to a table at the far end of the deck, half-hidden in the late-afternoon shadows. "Look, over by the railing. Do you see that slight, sandy-haired fellow doing the card tricks?"
Travis glanced over to where she gestured, spotting a wiry figure almost hidden by several other passengers as he shuffled and flashed a deck of cards. He squinted against the setting sun, not really able to see the man's face, but hazarded a guess, based on the sleight of hand display.
"You think it's Restal? What would he be doing here?"
"I don't know," Jenna answered thoughtfully. "Blake and the Liberator are supposedly on on a mission to one of the rimworlds beyond Destiny. I can't imagine Vila staying behind, unless Avon's here too. Of course, he does have that contract with my uncle and could be on some kind of fact-finding mission. Or he might be on vacation himself."
"Maybe so," Travis muttered to himself, though he couldn't imagine Kerr Avon being interested in the sort of excursion they'd been sent on, unless there was some kind of profit in it. When he glanced over to the railing again, the card trickster had disappeared.
Shortly after that, the students disembarked, leaving a peaceful, grateful silence behind them. Only a handful of passengers remained for the last leg of the journey to Alegria. The glare of the setting sun sent them forward, to the bow of the ship, watching as it cut through the amethyst colored twilight toward the lights of Land's End, twinkling before them like a cluster of fallen stars.
The late evening breeze cooled their faces as a meteor arced across the heavens, plunging into the darkness ahead of them. Another soon followed and then another until it seemed the whole sea was alight with their burning descent. They stared enthralled by the fiery phenomenon until the scruffy sailor Travis had avoided earlier sauntered over.
"Ishtar's Tears," he cackled, pointing upwards. "Summer meteor showers. Puts on a real fireworks display this time o' year. So many of `em, they actually interfere with orbiting communications and guidance systems."
Fortunately, after that brief garrulous outburst, the old man drifted away, leaving Travis and Jenna alone in the star-spattered darkness.
It was long past midnight when the ferry docked at Land's End. Bleary-eyed and half-asleep, Jenna started down the gangway until Travis stopped her.
"Wait. There's someone down there. Let me check things out."
"It's probably the caretaker, with transportation to the villa." Jenna tried to stifle a yawn.
"Maybe," Travis countered, "and it also might be trouble. Stay here until I find out for sure."
The damp chill had stiffened his leg, but he tried to hide his limp as he moved warily toward the man who stood at the foot of the gangway beside their bags. There was a small disrupter concealed in his vest pocket, but he did not reach for it even when the half-hidden figure stepped out of the shadows, holding out his hand, "I'm Rafe SanMarco, part-time caretaker and full-time beach bum. You must be Jenna's bondmate. Stannis sent a message that the two of you were overdue for some downtime."
Travis stared at the proffered hand suspiciously.
"You got any identification so I know you're who you say you are? "
SanMarco's dark seamed face creased in a weary smile, "Stannis warned me you were a suspicious bastard. I don't carry a standard ID . . . but I think she can assure you of my bona fides."
Travis cursed under his breath, hearing Jenna right behind him despite his warning.
"Rafe. . .?" Jenna questioned uncertainly. "Is it really you? But I heard The Duchess of Alba was lost on the Luxor run nearly fifteen years ago."
"It's a long story, chica, better told over a couple of cold brews. Maybe tomorrow afternoon? Right now you and your man look like you could use some serious rack time." He keyed a pocket antigrav field that herded their bags over to a waiting groundcar.
Travis glanced at Jenna sidelong, waiting for her decision on whether their escort was legitimate.
"I apprenticed on Alba for six months before my parents . . . before I left the Enclave. Rafe was the senior watch officer responsible for my evaluation. I guess I know him as well as I know any Enclave officer."
Travis did not respond verbally, only reached into his pocket to reengage the safety on his disrupter, still watching SanMarco carefully during the drive to the beach house.
Jenna was sound asleep, her head sagging heavily on his shoulder by the time they arrived at the estate. Despite his cramped and stiffened muscles, Travis curtly declined San Marco's offer to carry her into the house. After placing Jenna on the bed, he returned to the entry to listen to the caretaker's brief rundown on the villa's amenities and security system.
"Why the hell do we need a security system if this island's so safe?" he demanded.
"Lot of rats in underbrush, this keeps them out of the house-for the most part. Good night, Travis," SanMarco's dark eyes gleamed in amusement. "I'll stop by late tomorrow afternoon and see if the two of you need anything."
Numbed by exhaustion, very deliberately Travis activated the security system before staggering back to the master bedroom, where he'd deposited Jenna earlier. She was half-awake and fumbling with their bags, attempting to unpack, as he stared at her in disbelief.
"Go. To. Bed." he ordered, sitting down to pry off his boots, then letting his clothes drop where they fell.
Jenna nodded and peeled off her clothes before dropping onto the oversized bed. Travis fell beside her a few moments later, staving off oblivion only long enough to mumble "Lights. . . offff" before diving into his pillow.
The wiry thief cringed. Although somewhat mellowed by the fact Blake and the Liberator were no longer self-destructively engaged in pursuit of freedom for the galaxy, Avon's acid-etched drawl could still flay him to the bone. Especially when things were not going according to plan.
"They didn't see me, I swear. They were met at the docks by a hired groundcar and driven out of town toward the southern end of the island," Vila babbled nervously.
Avon brooded for a moment, "Stannis may have been telling the truth after all, but it seems exceedingly odd that the two of them should turn up on the same boat, heading for the same island where he sends us to investigate."
"Maybe it's just a coincidence." Vila ambled over to the room's drinks dispenser, studying its exotic bill of fare.
Avon turned his attention back to his adjustments on Orac, before remarking darkly, "I don't believe in coincidences, Vila, especially where First Captain Stannis is concerned. Jenna and her bloody-handed consort must be here for a reason. Either as bait or surveillance. Whatever his motives, I don't intend to be second-guessed. "
After finishing a final adjustment with his laser probe, Avon questioned the irascible computer. "Now, are you able to decode those transmissions you picked up earlier?"
*Such trivial actions are totally beneath my vast capabilities. Besides, they were not Federation ciphers.*
"Surely with the backlogged transmissions Stannis relayed, you have enough material to begin decrypting those signals." Avon propped his elbow on the computer's casing.
*The code is simplistic and the messages little more than a repetitive call and respond password, along with a series of landing coordinates.* The machine sniffed indignantly.
"Well then, give us the coordinates," Avon demanded acerbically. "We'll relay them to Stannis and our little sojourn in this rustic backwater retreat will be over."
*I am unable to comply.*
Vila could almost swear the nasty little machine sounded smug.
"And pray tell, why not?" Avon's voice assumed its dark menacing edge at Orac's recalcitrance.
*I know they are landing coordinates by the format in which they are transmitted, but the specific location remains garbled by this area's current electromagnetic disturbances.*
"Then use your directional beams to locate the site where the transmission originates." Avon ordered. "That should at least give Stannis a general idea of where his troublemakers are located."
*Vector analysis remains inconclusive.* Orac reported stiffly. *The transmission site is surrounded by geologic phenomena which scramble any attempt to identify its coordinates.*
Avon slammed Orac's key into the slot in exasperation, turning his attention to Vila who was sprawled bonelessly on the room's plush divan, contemplating a precarious tower of brightly colored fruit adorning the drink he'd just ordered.
"I wanted a drink, not fruit salad," he protested.
"Dispose of that," Avon commanded. "It seems Orac won't be much use as I hoped. I want you to circulate among the villagers and gather some information."
"But it's after midnight," the little thief protested. "They roll up the sidewalks at nine o'clock sharp in this burg."
"Then get started first thing in the morning." Avon responded in a chill tone. "And make sure you stay out of sight if you spot Travis or Jenna. I don't know why they're here . . . but it can't be to our benefit."
It was early when Jenna woke, judging by the half-light filtering through the gauzy curtains covering the oversized French doors. The air was still, almost stifling so she stumbled to her feet, still groggy with sleep, and cracked the doors slightly, glimpsing a flagstone terrace that led down to beach just beyond. The freshening breeze filled the room, bringing with it the salt and iodine scent of the ocean and the cries of seabirds, leaving Jenna shivering with anticipation as much as the early morning chill.
Burrowing back under the covers, she pressed against Travis's warmth. With a half-grunted protest, he turned over and wrapped his arms around her, banishing the chill as he drew her into an intimate embrace, sliding his hand along the curve of her body, while whispering into her hair, "What are you doing up so early? I thought we were both supposed to be relaxing, taking Stannis's rest cure?"
"The room was stuffy and I opened the doors to let in a little fresh air."
Travis propped himself on one elbow, glaring at the just opened door, his brow drawn down in perplexity.
"What the hell . . . After SanMarco left, I know I activated the security system. Opening that door should have set off every alarm in the place!"
Jenna sat up and glanced at the panel beside the bed, which glowed green in stand-by mode, rather than the red it would have shown with the system fully activated.
"You must have dreamed you set it. Because I certainly didn't know how to disarm it this morning . . . "
Travis stared at the panel suspiciously, certain he'd set it to alert them of possible intruders. Even exhausted as he'd been the night before, he would never be so careless as to leave them vulnerable in a strange house. But that glowing green light seemed proof that he had.
Before he could brood on that disturbing possibility Jenna's preemptive caress drew his attention back.
"Listen, Colin, don't start something with me and then go woolgathering!"
With a husky chuckle, he pushed aside his misgivings to give his bondmate the amorous attention she was demanding. The slow, languorous exploration of sensation that followed was no less fulfilling at its climax than some of their earlier, more frenzied couplings.
In the aftermath they sprawled in one another's arms with Travis's fingers twined in Jenna's golden hair.
"What's to eat around here?" he grumbled. "After no dinner last night, I'd appreciate something a little more substantial than just coffee."
Jenna swung out of bed and started rummaging through her bags. "Akema's coffee could be pretty substantial," she muttered, pulling out a lightweight silken robe that she quickly wrapped it around her.
" I'd prefer something a little tastier than coffee grounds, if there's a choice. Besides didn't the doctors say I'm supposed to eat regular meals?" He gave Jenna a wistful look, hoping she'd take over kitchen detail.
She shrugged in exasperation, "All right, since you're the invalid, you can shower first while I check out the food prep area see if it's as primitive as Mikhail warned us."
Swinging his legs off the bed, he gave a mock-growl, "If I weren't starving to death, I'd make you eat that 'invalid' remark."
"Promises, promises," Jenna tossed over her shoulder as she left the room.
To her dismay, Jenna discovered the meal prep center was definitely lacking in modern conveniences. There was no stasis box or flash unit, only some kind of antique electrical device with dials, switches and controls that she would need a manual to decipher. She peered into the cabinets and shelves, seeing dishes and utensils, but no sign of any kind of prepared or pre-packaged foodstuffs.
As a last resort, she opened the door into what looked like a closet. It had shelves on both sides containing large bins labeled: flour, sugar, salt, rice, corn meal. There were large hanging salt encrusted lumps that might be some kind of meat, if they weren't someone's battle trophies, and strings of dried miscellaneous foodstuffs that nearly killed Jenna's appetite permanently.
Clenching her fists, she threw her head back and shrieked in a mixture of outrage and frustration. Five seconds later, Travis crashed into the room, dripping soap and water, with a towel clutched around his waist and a primed disrupter in his fist.
"Wot'th'blazes. . ."
Spying Jenna staring in horror at the pantry, he peered in expecting to find a mutilated corpse at the very least.
"It's nothing but raw materials," she protested. "I can't do anything with those."
Reaching deep into the recesses of shelves, Travis pulled out a brown oval also crusted with salt. "Flour, meal, salt-even eggs. Definitely primitive, dangerous too." He lifted the egg gingerly to the light as if to identify its contents. "Never know what's inside 'em till it's too late.
Heard of a recon patrol 'liberated' some green ones one time. Planning to have them for breakfast. . . until the eggs hatched and ate them instead." He shuddered and gently replaced the egg in its box.
"You're babbling, Travis," Jenna had folded her arms across her chest.
Travis wiped the soap from his face, then grimaced, "Just let me finish shaving and I'll see what I can scrounge together while you get cleaned up."
For the next thirty minutes sounds like the Battle of Star One erupted from the kitchen, along with enough smoke set off the fire alarm twice. The second time Jenna called Rafe to let him know it was just a false alarm, he offered bring a supply of ready made meals to last them for the rest of the week. Jenna accepted his generous offer, as long as it included coffee brewed by some one other than herself. Rafe promised to find the best coffee on the island.
As Jenna helped Travis carry their plates out to the flagstone terrace to a table just outside their bedroom, pleasantly shaded by an arbor of spicy blossoming margethas, she hoped the breeze would dissipate some of the rising smoke. Staring at the contents, she felt her gorge rise, almost afraid to ask what he'd prepared. What it looked like was a lump of blackened rock, a half raw, half charred slab of protein and some sort of pebbly items floating in a greasy liquid.
She picked up her fork tentatively as Travis dug in with gusto, "What is it?" she questioned weakly.
"Three of the four basic food groups." His chewing had slowed and he gave a convulsive swallow before answering. "Biscuits, bacon, and beans."
"And the fourth?"
"Beer. Didn't see any bottles, but maybe SanMarco will bring some with him."
"Maybe," Jenna nodded, feeling the need for something a lot stronger than beer. She picked up her plate and was about to dump it for the sea birds to scavenge, then decided she didn't want to antagonize them and carried it into the kitchen.
Staring at the shambles Travis had made of the kitchen, Jenna covered her eyes in disbelief. It was obvious that neither of them had any pretense of culinary skills. If they hoped to survive this vacation, they'd have to dine out nightly or else hire a full-time cook. Grimly Jenna began to restore some kind of order to the chaos that Travis had left in his wake.
"Once a Federation 'agent of ruin', always a Federation 'agent of ruin,'" she muttered.
By the time Travis brought in his plate, she had gotten a handle on the worst of it. She doubted if the charred debris burned on to several of the pans would come off without a laser drill, but for the most part, the kitchen no longer looked like a battle zone.
Wiping her hands on the dish towel, she suggested, "You want to go swimming? I'm sweaty enough so that water should feel good right now."
He looked down at his feet, hemming and hawing, before meeting her gaze. "I don't know how to swim, I never had a chance to learn."
Taking him by the hand, Jenna led him across the malachite sands and into the warm water, "Well, there's no time like the present. I'll show you a few basic strokes and you'll be swimming like a Piscean merman in no time."
Travis stared at Jenna's silk robe, which was becoming transparent as she waded into the water, "What about swim suits? You can't go swimming like that."
"Why not?" she laughed diving under an incoming wave. "This is a private beach, no one can see us except the fish. . .and if they don't care, why should I? Now, shed those wet clothes and follow me." She tossed her soaked robe onto the sand and stroked into deeper waters.
After some thirty minutes of learning the breast-stroke, back-stroke and Cetacean crawl, Travis felt a little more confident in the water, but his leg was beginning to ache from the unaccustomed exercise and he trudged out of the water and pulled on his pants, before dropping onto the warm sand.
Jenna seemed as at home in the water as she was on the flight deck of a ship, her pale body diving under the dark waves and then surfing along their crests. She had briefed him on the local lifeforms, so he didn't panic when the pack of seabears swam by. They were a protected species; fat furry bewhiskered creatures that grazed on seaweed and algae. When one of them approached close enough to blow fishy bubbles in Jenna's face, she just laughed and headed into shore, riding the waves and paddling lazily.
Travis sprawled on the beach, observing crystal armored crustaceans as they foraged at the water's edge for glittering stones and broken shells that they dragged to their sandy nests. Beyond the white foam of breaking waves, the dark waters reminded of the grim depths of his past and the memories that troubled him.
Jenna dropped down beside him, noting his brooding withdrawn expression.
"It still haunts you, doesn't it? Your past . . . how your brother betrayed you. And helped Servalan manipulate you all those years."
He continued gazing into the shadowy rolling breakers as he whispered hoarsely, "Ever since those memories re-surfaced, I can't help wondering if my assignment to Zircaster was deliberate on his part . . . or just a random toss of the dice."
"Don't dwell on it, Colin." Jenna placed her hand gently on his arm. "It's in the past and can't be changed, no matter how you might wish otherwise."
. "I will go back. . . someday," he whispered. "And make peace with that past . . . for both our sakes."
Jenna felt a sudden chill at those words. Shaking the wet sand out of her robe, she shivered and said, "I'm going back to the villa and shower off some of this salt."
Travis stood up, brushing the sand from his legs as he protested, "Hey, it's my turn first. I never got to finish my shower."
Jenna laughed and started running, "You'll have to beat me to it. . .unless you want to share?"
By the time they both finished showering together, scrubbing each other's backs and other more interesting portions of anatomy, one thing led to another and the afternoon passed much too quickly. With a guilty start, Jenna glanced at the chrono then jumped out of bed and began rummaging through her closet.
"Hurry up and get dressed, Travis. It's almost five and Rafe said he was bringing drinks and dinner, along with the rest of the supplies I requested."
"When did you do that?" Travis grumbled.
"This morning while you were trying to set fire to the villa. Now, hurry and get dressed." She glanced at the gauzy curtains covering French doors, suddenly spotting a shadowy figure on the terrace outside their bedroom. Hurriedly she knotted the sarong type dress that she'd chosen, then waved a cautioning hand at Travis who had just pulled on his trousers. Her bondmate grabbed his disrupter and then threw open the patio door, to find Rafe SanMarco casually seated at the table under the arbor where they'd eaten breakfast..
"Well, ninos, you seem to be enjoying your first day in paradise."
A sudden blush crept up Jenna's cheeks, while Travis bristled at the patronizing tone in San Marco's voice, "How long have you been out there, spying on us?"
"Not long, not long at all, hombre. Believe it or not, I do have other things to do beside spy on young lovers." He grinned at Jenna, "Like rescue old friends from impending starvation . . and severe caffeine withdrawal." He gestured toward a thermos, a cooler, and a large box.
"The meals are from the best restaurants on the island. The coffee I brewed myself. The beers are in the cooler." He grinned at Jenna, "Now all you have to do is decide if you want to rev up or wind down?"
Travis had gone back into their bedroom to put away the disrupter and finish getting dressed. By the time he rejoined the two of them, three moisture beaded beers were sitting on the table and Jenna had opened several containers to sample.
Travis stood off to one side, watching suspiciously while Jenna dished out the contents of the boxes equally among three plates. Only after San Marco had swallowed his first bite did Travis begin to eat. The food was well-prepared, though some of it was spicier than they were accustomed to. Jenna took a long swallow of the beer, then questioned San Marco, "What else is there to do around here, Rafe? Sand and surf and sleeping in is all right in small doses, but doing nothing else for two weeks will leave us stark raving looney."
"Land's End isn't quite as dull and provincial as you might have been told. There's shopping and sophisticated entertainment as well as the usual resort recreations, though I doubt the two of you are much interested in fungo or baxball. But we do have several other attractions. Have you ever ridden a horse, chica? There are several riding paths, including a scenic one up the Estrellita Cliffs. Or turbocycles, if you want something with a little more zip to it." He leaned back and held out his hands expansively. "Anything else you'd like to know?"
"I'd like another rundown on the security system," Travis stated coldly. "I set the alarms last night only to find the system on standby this morning."
Rafe shrugged casually. "You were very fatigued last night, hombre. You probably thought you set it, but you made a mistake."
"I don't make mistakes about security, SanMarco. Especially where Jenna's safety is concerned." The cool note in Travis's voice went frigid. "Something caused a default in the system after it was set."
Rafe raised a dark skeptical brow, "This island is quite safe, senor. There hasn't been a violent crime here in almost fifty years. But if you wish, I will go over the controls again before I leave. Now finish your dinner before it gets cold."
Having eaten little except protein packs for the last week, Travis and Jenna left very few scraps for the circling seabirds. As Rafe opened the last three beers, Jenna leaned back in her chair, studying him. "You said you'd tell me what happened to the Alba. I left the Enclave right after the Federation started intercepting our ships, seizing their cargoes and killing or conscripting their crews. Was that what happened to you?"
SanMarco stroked his mustache for a long painful moment, avoiding her eyes, before he answered, "No, we didn't run afoul of a Federation border patrol, not like your father's ship. It might have been better if we had."
Jenna shuddered at Rafe's casual mention of her father's ill-fated encounter but placed her bottle carefully on the table before folding her hands in her lap.
"What could be worse than kidnaping, rape, and murder?" she demanded harshly.
SanMarco's features sagged, making him look years older. "At least it was quick. Not like what happened to Alba's crew." He raked hand through his grizzled hair as though trying to push the memories away. "We were heading home after a routine trade run to Luxor and were just inside the Diego Drift when our main drive's shielding cracked, exposing our engineer and his second to a fatal dose of radiation. Greg hung on long enough to vent the core before it blew us to hell and gone and limp the ship to the nearest planet."
He paused, wiping his hand across his eyes. "It was a `good' landing . . . the living outnumbered the dead. For a while, at least. Serai set up our automatic distress call before succumbing to some type of virulent infection. The local wildlife wasn't very congenial either and one by one the rest were eaten, poisoned, or died from unknown causes . . . except me. I was alone -- for a very long time -- until an Enclave ship picked up our distress signal, came looking for survivors . . . and found me." He smiled bitterly. "So, you see there are worse fates than a Federation hijacking."
A long uneasy silence followed as Rafe busied himself dumping the soiled dishes and cups into his hamper. Seeing the caretaker obviously about to leave, Travis placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"What about the security system?" he demanded.
"Like I showed you last night, it activates from the main panel in the hall or an auxiliary panel in each bedroom, using the code phrase I gave you. Any defaults are displayed on the panel for five seconds before the alarm sounds, so you can locate your prowler . . . or close the window . . . before all hell breaks loose."
Travis bristled at SanMarco's slightly contemptuous attitude but did not push the issue. Jenna followed Rafe as he hurried through the villa and toward his ground flitter.
"Thank you for the dinner, Rafe. And . . . I'm sorry about what happened to Alba. They were all good friends and I'll miss them."
"So will I, chica. So will I," he whispered harshly, his dark eyes somber.
Swinging the hamper up on one broad shoulder, he turned back to the two of them momentarily. "Oh, if you happen to be interested in geological phenomena, there's the Devil's Playground, two dozen square miles of sulfur springs, fumaroles, and boiling geysers on the far west end of the island. Make sure you hire a competent guide though, it's not a place where you want to get lost."
"Boiling geysers and sulfur springs?" Jenna made a face, "Doesn't sound like any place I'd want to spend a lazy afternoon."
"You're right about that, chica. Well, here the keys to the ground car, if the two of you plan to get 'out and about' tomorrow."
He waved to Jenna one final time and then sauntered down the beach.
Travis gazed after him darkly, waiting until he was sure he wouldn't be overheard.
"He was lying."
" Why? What reason would Rafe have to lie to us?"
"I don't know . . . but I'll dig it out eventually."
Jenna stared with mixed delight and apprehension at the horses, trotting, snorting and plunging within the small corral as their satiny coats gleamed copper, bronze, and gold in the early morning sunlight. Such high-spirited antics were almost infectious despite the earliness of the hour but having little experience with live transportation, Jenna had considerable qualms about the trustworthiness of such large, seemingly untamed creatures.
Travis was studying the beasts with his usual wariness, leading her to wonder why he had dragged her out of a warm bed at such an ungodly hour anyway. He'd been surly and withdrawn during breakfast, saying little except, "SanMarco suggested we get out and about and I'm curious."
So they'd driven toward town until they spotted the horses being let out of their stable, then parked the flitter and strolled over to watch.
The owner/hostler, who rented the animals for gallops along the beach or provided maps and supplies for longer trail rides into the island's tropical interior, strolled over and leaned on the fence beside Jenna, gesturing toward the animals.
"Good morning, Ser, Seran, my name's Stuart McKay. I see you're a good judge of horseflesh. You won't find a gentler, more exciting means of transportation anywhere on Alegria."
Travis grunted a noncommital response as McKay continued his pitch. "They're the best gene-engineered animals credits can buy. High-spirited but responsive to voice and rein."
He dug in his pocket and held out a handful of sugar lumps to entice one of the beasts over. As if deliberately contradicting his assurances, an ebony maned bay charged forward, displaying an appalling array a yellow teeth that looked large enough to separate McKay's hand from his wrist. To Jenna's amazement, the man stood his ground, merely grabbing one of the beast's delicately pointed ears as it slobbered up the sugar on his palm.
Travis surveyed the handsome animal warily. "Never did trust live transportation and I've ridden just about everything that walks, shuffles, or slithers on a score of backwater worlds. Half the time the mounts were more a threat to my troops than the enemy we faced."
McKay answered somewhat defensively, "You'll find no bad-tempered or ill-trained beasts among my string, Ser. I stake my reputation on it."
Travis turned a wryly questioning glance toward Jenna. "You care to risk life and limb on his reputation."
Despite her misgivings, Jenna stared at the beasts avidly, still captivated by their free-flowing manes, silken coats, and the sheer high-spirits radiating from them.
"I'll take the chance, Colin."
She pointed to a smaller horse, whose golden coat gleamed in the morning sun as she danced nimbly in and out among the larger beasts "If McKay can catch that one for me." She smiled wistfully, recalling the Reina's gold-splashed bow. "Believe it or not, she reminds me of a ship I once owned."
Stuart returned her smile, "Summer's a good mount, Seran." He glanced at Travis, "Any preference, Ser?"
Travis stared at the beasts in resignation. "Just get me one with a sound leg on each corner and I'll manage. And I want a map of the upland trail . . . what did SanMarco call it, Jenna?"
"Estrellita Cliffs, I think."
McKay nodded eagerly, "Two mounts, a map, and a picnic lunch, specialty of the house, for the Estrellita trail."
Later as they cantered slowly along the beach, kicking up sand and spray, Jenna smiled in delight, feeling the mare's muscles ripple beneath her knees and the giddy sensation of sea breeze whipping through her hair. Beside her, astride a rangy, long-legged beast almost as black as his expression, Travis warned her, "I hope you feel that good coming back. My experience with these beasts tells me we're likely to limp home, if we're able to move at all."
Jenna sobered, acknowledging the stretch and pull she felt in muscles only used sporadically but shrugged off his dire expectations. "So we wind up spending the next few days in bed." She leered at him in anticipation. "I certainly have no complaints about that."
Despite his admonitions, Jenna noted Travis sat his mount, Aquila, with a casual, loose-hipped ease that made her feel awkward in comparison. Slowing their pace as they came to the end of the beach, they spotted the forest trail marked on McKay's map.
The large canopy of leaves overhead did not block out the sunlight completely but there was a pleasant relief as they entered its cool green depths. All around them the trees and vines were alive with bright colors, the sounds of birds and a rich heady scent of floral perfumes and growing things. Velvety flowers, radiant as a fallen rainbow, twined among the branches and carpeted the moss beneath the horses' hooves, releasing a potent, dizzying fragrance as they brushed against them.
Birds, tree frogs, and numerous insects sounded calls both raucous and melodic as small furry beasts skittered overhead, leaping from branch to branch like reckless acrobats, sometimes showering the two riders with leaves or half-ripened fruit. Jenna had to laugh as a plumy tailed little animal crouched above them in the fork of a tree, screeching irately as they rode by apparently infringing on territory it considered its private domain.
To her surprise Travis remained relaxed and at ease as they rode along the jungle trail. So much so that she remarked on it. "I'm amazed you don't have a weapon out, taking potshots at our noisy trail companions."
Travis's smile was confident. "They tell me we're safe here. Small wildlife isn't a threat. Only if everything got quiet, then I'd know to be on the alert."
"Did McKay mention any dangerous animals around here?"
"There's an oversized feline predator that might spook the horses, although they're just as likely to attack it. But it's usually nocturnal and prefers small prey like our loud-mouthed buddy." He surveyed the deep foliage surrounding them. "The real threat would be human -- outlaws, renegades, or other scum. But there's little of that around here, according to the local gossip."
Still, Travis stood up in his stirrups as though stretching his legs and made a quick careful survey of the terrain and trail behind.
Confident they weren't being followed, he veered off in a westerly direction, taking a different trail than the one marked on the map.
"Where are you going, Travis? The map points this way."
"Never cared much for maps, especially ones drawn for tourists. Sometimes you can find much more interesting things striking off on your own."
"If we don't get lost and wind up starving to death," Jenna muttered as she followed him onto the meandering trail, where the underbrush grew much more heavily across their path. Wet leaves and flowers brushed across Jenna's face and shoulders, leaving her covered in sap and sweet-smelling pollen. She was about to ask Travis to turn back when they pushed out of the undergrowth into a clearing, with a tiny stream trickling down the rocks at its edge.
The glade was small, with barely enough room to spread out their blanket after they'd tied the horses to the trees so they could graze on the lush grass. As Jenna pulled out the picnic lunch packed in their saddle bags, she glanced up and found Travis had vanished into the undergrowth, Pushing stiffly to her feet, she started after him, breaking through the trees to halt just at the edge of a cliff with an eagle's eye view of the beach below them.
Jenna gasped at the vista of sea and sand spread out before them. Colorful cottages and brightly colored beach houses were scattered up and down the dark green sands, bright as gems on black velvet. Foam rippled on the shoreline like lace trim on the edge of a gown.
But further down the western end of the island, the pristine beach gave way to jutting chemical-stained cliffs, pock-marked with crevices and caverns. She couldn't tell much about the area beyond the tumbled boulders just beyond the cliff, but Travis had pulled out a spy scope and was peering into that inhospitable locale aptly named the Devil's Playground.
After a long moment, he folded up the scope. "Well, it looks about the way SanMarco described it. Definitely a place to avoid."
As they turned back to the clearing, Jenna asked peevishly, "Is that why you took this little side trip? Just to find out if Rafe was telling the truth?"
Travis put the spyscope back in his saddle bag, "Judging by that map, you can only see the eastern end of the island from the Estrellita Cliffs. I just wanted to get a look at the western end . . . and this Devil's Playground for myself."
Jenna grimaced irritably as she unpacked the food, "Surely, you don't believe he's trying to hide something from us, do you?"
"SanMarco's a man with secrets, that much I can tell. But whether they involve the two of us. . .I can't be sure." Squatting beside Jenna, he watched her moving stiffly, while she unwrapped the sandwiches and opened the drinks. "Feeling the effects of your ride?"he murmured into her ear.
"A little," she frowned, then groaned as she leaned back against a tree.
Travis began to knead the stiff, cramped muscles in her thighs. "This should loosen you up a bit. Make the ride back a little more comfortable."
Sometime later, they lounged on the blanket finishing the last of their lunch. Jenna yawned widely then glanced up at the sun which was definitely past its midpoint. A cool breeze sprang up, blowing from the western end of the island and carrying with it an unpleasant odors from the Devil's Playground; toxic fumes that boiled up from thermal springs and geysers and yet there was an odd acrid stench as well. Travis sat up and took a deep breath, trying to sort what seemed familiar about it while Jenna crinkled her nose in distaste and hurriedly folded the blanket and repacked it in their saddle bags.
"Definitely time to leave if the wind's going to shift," she protested. "What is that? Sulfur, ammonia, or something worse?"
Travis sniffed again, "No, there's something organic in it; maybe a methyhydroxl residue from some type of processing."
Jenna looked at him. "Like someone was using that end of the island as a chemical dumping ground? That doesn't make sense at a popular resort like this. The richest clans in the Enclave have beach homes here, they'd never permit that kind of pollution."
"Maybe the Enclave doesn't know," he responded darkly, gathering his reins and mounting. "Or maybe I'm wrong and all we smelled was the typical reek from the Devil's Playground."
The ride back was silent, mostly due to fatigue. But Jenna pondered the odd ending to their otherwise enjoyable day. Was Travis right about that smell? Was it something more than the normal geothermal effluvia of the wasteland known as the Devil's Playground? And if it was, what should they - what could they - do about it?
She tapped Summer's flanks, quickening her pace until she was along side Travis, riding knee to knee down the trail. "What do you think, Colin? Should we notify the militia?"
"And tell them what? That there's a stench coming from the island badlands. You'd be lucky if they didn't laugh in your face," he retorted caustically. "If they're honest cops, they'll get wind of what's going in the Devil's Playground sooner or later."
"And if they're not honest?"
"Then the less we have to do with it, the better. You heard what your uncle said about minding our own business. It's easy for outsiders to have accidents . . . fatal accidents."
That warning kept Jenna on guard after they arrived back at the stable, resisting the impulse to mention the Devil's Playground to the owner to see what he had to say. Still McKay spun off a steady stream of gossip and information about the island while he was unsaddling and rubbing down the horses. Most of it was secondhand tourist spiel, but they did pick up a few useful pieces of information.
They decided to have dinner at one of Land's End's numerous outdoor cafes before returning to the villa, choosing a quiet table at the edge of a shaded verandah, under a trellis covered with night-blossoming sweetvine. As Jenna studied the menu, she glanced at Travis, sprawled comfortably across from her then reported furtively,
"McKay said both weather control and geographic locator systems have gone down in the past week. Supposedly because of an unusually large seasonal meteor shower. What do you think?"
"I think if I wanted to hide something I was doing around here, those satellites would be the first thing I'd take out . . . especially since the meteor showers are already blamed for the scrambled communications and navigational beacons." He shot her a sharp look. "All the more reason for us to stay out of the way. The militia will be jumpy enough without strangers sticking noses into their business."
Jenna nodded a reluctant agreement, forcing herself to relax. After a few deep breaths of the fresh ocean breeze spiced by the pungency of the blossoms surrounding them, she had to admit how wonderful it was just to sit back and leisurely enjoy a meal, without pressure or worry. Not having bolt her food and dash back to the flight deck, or gulp greasy port food while going over refit worksheets with the Dockmaster, or choke down dispenser packs as she worked on balance sheets at her office in the Stannis Clanholding.
They dined on fresh celestra, a local seafood delicacy, taking their time to savor the well-prepared meal and sparkling wine and enjoy the pleasure of one another's company. The blinking firefly lights wound among the sweetvine added to the romantic atmosphere.
Just beyond the verandah, streetlights illuminated the main square, filled with early evening strollers, pushcart vendors, and sidewalk entertainers. It reminded Jenna of the bazaar at Kirghiz during the Byzantian negotiations, although there were few, if any, aliens present and the shoppers were much more affluent, judging by the cut and style of their clothing.
Suddenly, she spotted a dark-haired man dressed in somber clothing who was moving through the crowded square with the arrogant grace of a merchant prince. It was Avon! The shock of recognition left her momentarily stunned, although she was certain it had been Vila they had spotted on the ferry earler. Again, she wondered what those two were doing at this quiet island retreat rather than the glittering gambling resorts they usually preferred.
She clutched Travis's arm and pointed, "Look, on the far side of the crowd. It's Avon."
Her bondmate stiffened, his eye narrowing suspiciously, then tossed a handful of credits on the table to cover their bill. "Too many odd coincidences are piling up, Jenna. Let's hear what Avon's explanation is for being here."
By the time they reached the square, the dark clad figure had slipped away onto a side street. Although they searched through the crowd, stopping in many of the small shops around the square, Jenna saw no further sign of Avon or Vila.
It was full dark when they gave up their search. The nightly meteor shower was exploding overhead like a holiday fireworks display in a lightshow so bright it was visible despite the street lights' artificial twilight. Travis studied the phenomenon dubiously, wondering just how close to the island those meteorites were landing.
When they returned to the villa, its remotely activated systems remained dark except the security lights and Travis glanced at Jenna, who was already half-asleep beside him. "Looks like a major power failure. You want to head back to town?"
"No," she yawned widely. "They're probably blacked out as well since the meteor showers cause so much electromagnetic disturbance in this area. According to Rafe, there's an auxiliary generator that keeps the basic systems running here. Enough for me to have a hot soak before I crawl into bed."
As Jenna settled into a hot bath to ease her stiff, aching muscles, Travis double-checked the security system. The auxiliary generator only supplied enough power for the internal system so Travis defaulted the perimeter before setting the alarms. Sometime after midnight, the panel chirped softly to announce it had switched over from the auxiliary system after main power was restored.
Roused by the faint sound, Travis got up to reset the outer perimeter alarms. As he did, he spotted a shadowy figure in the shrubs just beyond the French doors outside their bedroom. Grabbing up a disrupter, he hit the code to shut off the system, catfooting his way out a side door trying to catch their mysterious visitor. But by the time he reached the terrace, the skulker had slipped away, leaving only faint sandy tracks that the wind quickly dispersed.
Much to Jenna's chagrin, Travis was up early the next morning, intent on another trip into Land's End.
Pulling the covers over her head, she groaned, "What happened to the notion of getting some rest and relaxation on this enforced vacation?"
Travis glanced at her sidelong, "There's a limit to the amount of time I can tolerate `twiddling my thumbs' and yesterday's sedate trail ride wasn't much of an improvement. I spotted a vendor who leases turbocycles in the village yesterday. Why don't we rent a couple and burn dust for an hour or two?"
Jenna sat up, leaning her elbows on her knees as she studied her restless bondmate. His addiction to speed was a relatively benign hangover from the ruthless, blood-drunk Federation conditioning that had once consumed him. Besides, she shared much of his passion for the intoxicating thrill of piloting a high performance air or land craft, testing her skills and reflexes to their limits. It was a shared attraction to danger that bound them together as much as their physical and emotional ties.
Laughing ruefully, she threw back the covers and hurried into the shower, calling over her shoulder.
"I wouldn't mind seeing a little more of the island than we did yesterday on horseback."
By midmorning, they were astride two of the vendor's less battered machines, listening impatiently as he gave a rote recital of precautions and regulations. "Obey local traffic ordinances. No passing on the right. Beaches are off limits. Horseback trails, too. Don't trespass on private property . . . and stay off the western perimeter road."
"Why?" Jenna questioned, glancing up from her rundown of the cycle's antiquated control systems.
"High incidence of rock slides. Crews are trying to keep the road clear but there's been a lot of seismic activity lately and that whole side of the island's unsafe for casual riders. Any problem with that?" The man's brittle, pugnacious attitude made Jenna uneasy.
Travis shrugged as he tightened his heavy gauntlets.
"No problem," he replied laconically, pulling down his goggles and pushing off his machine in a loud coughing roar. Jenna followed him down the road, swearing sharply when she tried to squeeze her throttle past the sedate pace that they were traveling.
Travis glanced over at her in amusement. "There's an automatic stop to hold the speed under fifty kph. Keeps green riders from splattering themselves all over the countryside."
"Looks like we'll have plenty of time to study the scenery if we can't go any faster than this!" she declared in frustration.
Travis flashed her a wicked grin, patting the carryall strapped to the back of his cycle. "Don't sweat it, Jenna. I came prepared . . . with much more than just lunch. Pull off at the first unpaved side road you see once we're outside the village."
As soon as they were out of sight of the main highway, Travis dismounted and began dismantling the throttles on their cycles. Jenna offered to help but he waved her away.
"They're Federation surplus and I've supercharged engines like these so often, I could do it in my sleep. Just keep an eye on the road and make sure we haven't picked up a tail."
Jenna glanced at him in surprise. "Why do you think anyone would be following us?"
"Just an itch at the back of my neck," he answered darkly. "Especially after that cycle huckster also warned us away from the western end of the island. Another warning on top of that stink we smelled yesterday is beginning to make me curious about what somebody's trying so hard to keep secret."
Jenna raised her eyes heavenward.
"You're getting as bad as Blake about sticking your nose in other people's business. I thought you said yesterday it was the local militia's problem and we should stay out of the way."
"That was before I spotted someone skulking around the grounds last night, while the outer perimeter was down due to the power failure." He quickly reassembled his throttle control before starting on Jenna's. "And I don't think it was the first time either. I think we've been under surveillance since we arrived and I want to know why. I just have a hunch it involves whatever's being hidden in the Devil's Playground."
Jenna shook her head in a mixture of exasperation and anticipation as she watched Travis's supple hands at their skillful tinkering. Despite her initial resistance, she was actually enjoying their enforced vacation and now there was a mystery adding an edge of danger to the enforced idleness of the island's relaxed atmosphere.
Travis grunted in satisfaction as he completed the adjustment to her cycle then wiped his hands and drew on his gauntlets. Swinging his leg across the cycle, he kickstarted it with practiced ease, testing the adjustments to the throttle as he revved the engine.
Jenna started her machine but it coughed and sputtered, jerking under her hands.
"Advance the spark then pull out the choke," Travis advised, leaning over to glance at her controls. As she did the engine settled into a steady roar, straining at the brakes.
Travis raised his voice to be heard over the rumbling engines, "Keep a light touch on the throttle till we get a feeling for how these beasts handle. Especially since we don't know the roads here that well."
Jenna nodded as she eased off her brakes, following him for the moment. They kept their speed low on the unpaved road, not wanting to throw up a betraying cloud of dust. But once they were back on the highway, Travis squeezed his throttle until it was wide open, burning down the roadway with Jenna right behind.
When their speed passed 100 kph, an automatic skinfield activated, deflecting insects, dust and gravel thrown up by their wheels but still letting the wind stream around them, hard and demanding, like an impatient lover's caress. Pulling alongside, so they were riding almost knee to knee, Jenna glimpsed the blissful intensity on Travis's face and grinned ruefully.
Speed was a drug for Travis sometimes. One of his few vices, despite the black reputation of most Federation officers. He'd been conscripted from a spartan life on a backwater colony before being exposed to the depraved excesses of many of his Space Command superiors. The self-discipline of his austere upbringing enabled him to resist the usual addictions, chemical and carnal, common to the Federation upper echelon. Only his sometimes reckless obsession with danger remained from Servalan's malicious programming..
It was a small enough price to pay for his sanity.
Besides she enjoyed the glorious sensation of that speeding cycle almost as much as he did. Though on a different level, feeling the power of a fast ship or other craft in her hands. Knowing she controlled it, commanded it, that it was responsive to her touch alone. That was the intoxication for her.
They hurtled down the highway, the scenery surrounding them little more than a blur, until they rounded a curve abruptly coming on a series of brightly flashing barriers that closed off the road ahead. Jenna hit her brakes hard, fishtailing wildly until she skidded onto the shoulder. Travis's braking was a little more controlled but he still broadslid to a halt bare inches away from the barriers' flashing lights.
Jenna raised the visor on her helmet, staring at the roadblock in disgust. "Road closed? Why? What in blazes is going on here?" Just beyond the barrier, the road wound its way up the rugged peaks zig-zagging along the desolate landscape known as the Devil's Playground.
Travis glanced down at their cycles then over to a firebreak slashing through the brush covered foothills that bordered the wasteland. "These machines were originally designed to travel offroad, under the worst of conditions. I'm still curious about what everybody seems to be so dead set on keeping hidden."
Jenna nodded grimly, pulling her visor back down as she followed him along the dusty, rambling trail. The rugged conditions forced them to a snail's pace as he took the lead using his greater weight and strength to muscle through the overgrown underbrush. A short time later, they chugged to the top of a rocky ridge that threaded across an obstacle course of ravines, caverns, and smoky grottos steaming with the choking sulfurous breath of underground hot springs.
Although she had shared his earlier curiosity, Jenna had to admit as she scrubbed at her red-rimmed eyes, maybe Rafe and the others who warned them to keep away did have their best interests at heart. This certainly wasn't the kind of place where she wanted to spend any more of her vacation. She started to pull alongside Travis and suggest they turn back.
Then a sharp burst of light seared down from the ridge ahead, igniting her front tire and pitching Jenna off as the cycle rolled over on top of her. Travis wheeled around in a spray of sand just managing to evade a second blast as he laid his cycle down hard and scuttled over to her side.
"Jenna!" The urgency in his voice dragged her out of the darkness threatening to engulf her.
"I'm all right," she slurred, struggling upright but he pressed her back down, trying to keep them covered by the dubious shelter of her smoldering cycle.
"Stay flat. Someone's shooting at us!" he hissed vehemently, tossing his helmet to one side as he tried to get a fix on their bushwhacker.
"There's a mini-disrupter in my carryall," she gasped. "But it's only good at close range. Supposed to take care of small vermin, rats, snakes, and the like."
"Looks like the vermin's a little larger than expected," Travis grimaced, coughing at the acrid fumes from the cycle's smoldering tire. "Dammit, he's got our range and can just sit up there, potting away at us all day . . . unless we arrange a little diversion."
After dragging Jenna behind some rocks, Travis scrambled over to her cycle, jerked free the saddle bags, then heaved the cycle over the edge of a ravine just beyond the trail's edge. Retrieving her disrupter, he fired his cycle's tires and shoved it after hers watching it roll end over end down the slope, to crash noisily at the bottom. There was a momentary silence followed by a loud explosion when the fuel tank blew and a thick cloud of smoke billowed up from the bottom of the ravine, obscuring the whole area.
"Why'd you do that?" Jenna protested weakly. "How are we going to get away now?"
Travis did not answer, only picked her up and withdrew further into the brush under cover of the thick black smoke. Hurriedly scooping out a shelter, he pulled a thick mat of branches and brush over them, shielding Jenna with his body as he peered up at the cliffs from where the shots had come.
"If we're lucky, our bushwhacker will provide us with transportation home. If not . . . we walk."
When Jenna did not make her typical acerbic response, Travis glanced down at her in concern. She lay there weakly, her face pale as chalk with blood oozing from a deep scrape along her hairline.
He gritted his teeth in frustration, unable to help her as he heard pebbles spatter down the rocks, warning him of the approach of the ambushers to inspect their handiwork.
"You got `em, Jocko!"
"Looks like it," a second voice coolly confirmed, its owner peering over the edge of the ravine at the burning wreckage below.
"Jeez, the Boss ain't gonna be happy about this, Watson. We're supposed to bring the bodies back so no one'll suspect we're out here," a third gunman whined.
"You wanna slide down there, Lang, and drag up the cooked meat, be my guest." Jocko sneered. "But I did my job. Hit the second rider just hard enough so he lost control and took his buddy over the edge with him."
Travis pushed a peephole through the brush screen, taking aim at the man who'd just boasted of his marksmanship. He ached to blow a hole through that smirking face but the pulsing red light on the weapon's grip warned him there was barely enough charge for a single shot; which would leave him with an empty weapon, still facing two well-armed killers. He couldn't take the risk, not with Jenna injured.
Reluctantly, he lowered the disrupter but continued to watch tensely, hardly breathing. Beside him, Jenna moaned softly, half-conscious, and he drew her close against him to muffle the sound.
He studied the men as they squatted at the edge of the ravine, watching the flames below while arguing whether one of them would go down after their victims' bodies. They had the casual brutal confidence of professional killers although they weren't at ease in rough territory. That probably meant they were Terra Nostra hit men, more accustomed to the overcrowded warrens of Earth's domed cities. That might be the only factor favoring his and Jenna's survival.
He watched as the one called Lang made a halfhearted attempt to climb down the ravine, only to have an avalanche of dirt and rocks slide out from under him, nearly dragging him to the bottom. He clutched frantically for his cohorts' hands as they pulled him back onto solid ground, laughing mockingly at his expense.
"Well, if they weren't dead before, Lang, you finished the job, dropping rocks on them like broken-backed rats," the coolly pragmatic Watson observed. "C`mon, we got better things to do than stand around in the blazing sun, starin' at dead bodies. No one'll find `em down there and even if they do, it'll look like an accident."
Travis lay there in a cold sweat as their voices receded, then hurriedly sat up, turning his attention to Jenna. Her eyes were rolled back in her head and there was a heavy, erratic quality to her breathing.
He slapped her face gently until her eyelids fluttered open and she stared at him in a daze. "Stay awake, Jenna," he pleaded. "I think you've got a mild concussion and you can't go to sleep right now."
"My head hurts," she winced, rubbing at the dried blood. "Just lemme rest for a little while."
"No," he ordered sharply, concerned by the slurring of her speech. "We've got to get moving. Those thugs were headed back to their base to report. And someone may decide to come back and make certain we went up in smoke with our cycles. We have to put some distance between us and this place before then."
Nodding weakly in agreement, Jenna swayed to her feet and stumbled behind him as he started across the rugged ground in a long, ground-covering pace.
Regaining some of her mental clarity once they were moving, Jenna questioned him as they trekked over the broken, dusty trails, "What are they trying to hide? Illegal chemical dumping is hardly profitable enough to go to this kind of extreme to keep it a secret."
"There's definitely big money in whatever is concealed here," Travis declared grimly. "Enough to pay off some of the island's security forces and hire professional killers to keep the rest away."
The afternoon sun blazed harshly, bouncing off the rocks and cliffs and beating down on the two of them as they hiked toward the road. Before long, Jenna dropped to her knees, burying her face in her hands, "The heat . . . and glare . . . ." she groaned. "My head feels like it's about to explode!"
Travis knelt beside her, making her drink the last of their water, before he swung her lightly up in his arms.
"It's less than five miles back to the main highway. Once we reach it, we can flag down someone to give us a lift back into town."
Trying to ignore her throbbing head and the way the trees and rocks wavered whenever she focused on them, Jenna giggled weakly, "I guess we'll have to forfeit our deposit on those turbocycles. I don't think the owner's going to be too happy to hear they're smoldering wreckage at the bottom of a ravine in the middle of the Devil's Playground."
"If he has any complaints, he can take them to the First Captain. Then maybe then your uncle will think twice before packing us off to some friggin' vacation hot spot!"
Jenna leaned her head weakly against his chest as he trudged doggedly onward, ignoring the pain in his legs and his growing weariness. Then, just ahead of them on the horizon, he squinted hard and spotted a billowing cloud of dust. He growled in frustration, certain it was the men who'd ambushed them earlier, coming back to finish the job.
They were at the top of a barren hillside with only some dried-up, scrubby brush for cover. Knowing any attempt to hide here would be futile, he gently placed Jenna down then drew his disrupter, preparing to make his stand.
Instead, to his surprise, it was SanMarco in a four-wheel drive, offroad vehicle. The man pulled to a dusty stop just below them, getting out cautiously as he stared at Travis's ready weapon.
"Looks like you don't take advice very well, hombre," Rafe shaded his eyes.
Travis hesitated for just a moment before he powered down his weapon then lifted Jenna and slid down the hill toward SanMarco.
"I don't like people lying to me," he snarled.
"Por favor," SanMarco tilted his head to the side. "Exactly how have I lied to you, senor? I warned you to hire a guide, if you were interested in the Devil's Playground. By ignoring my advice you seriously endangered Jenna and yourself."
Rafe pulled out a medkit then handed Travis a full canteen. He glared at it for a moment before taking a long deep swallow, soothing his parched, dusty throat. Rafe dabbed at the scrape on Jenna's forehead with an antiseptic pad, hurriedly treating some of her other scrapes before settling her down in the back seat of the vehicle. "If you don't object to more of my advice, I think we should have that bump on Jenna's head checked at the medcenter."
Travis nodded in weary agreement, maintaining a guarded silence as Rafe drove them back to Land's End. As they pulled up in front of the medcenter, SanMarco drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel before turning a dark warning glance on the other man.
"You got off lightly, considering you were warned about the Devil's Playground more than once. You're a stranger here, so don't stick your nose into things that don't concern you. Jenna is an old and dear friend of mine and I don't want to see her hurt. But if you tempt fate again, you both may find yourself in boiling water over your heads."
Vila slumped morosely across from Avon, watching the tech's skilled hands making further delicate adjustments in Orac's circuitry.
"Just one drink," he wheedled. "A little adrenaline and soma to steady my nerves. You know how waiting affects me and Stannis's agent is already an hour overdue."
"No," Avon retorted shortly. "I need you sober and in full possession of the few wits you retain."
"Why?" the sandy haired thief demanded peevishly. "Once we report those coordinates Orac located, we're finished here, aren't we? Free to hop the next shuttle to Space City."
"The situation may not be as simple as Stannis believed." Avon's dark suspicious gaze rested on the door which had just chimed.
Nodding to Vila to let their visitor in, Avon moved to one side, out of the direct line of fire, casually checking to be sure his weapon was fully charged.
As Vila opened the door, their visitor slipped hurriedly inside without waiting for an invitation. Weapon in hand, Avon glared at the man accusingly.
"Why the rush, SanMarco? Were you followed?"
"I don't think so, but Jenna's bondmate is becoming a problem." Rafe stroked his mustache nervously.
"His status as an ex-Federation officer has made our drug runners very nervous. They've been keeping a close eye on him. Even triggered the security system where Travis and Jenna are staying a couple of nights ago."
"Fumblefooted idiots," Vila muttered under his breath. "I could get past it blindfolded."
Avon shrugged, ignoring Vila's boasting. "So? Travis serves as a distraction until you send in your people to clean out that operation."
"Only my strike team won't be ready to move for another eighteen hours and Travis is sniffing around much too close to that processing site. If he does something rash and Jenna gets caught in the middle of a firefight, Stannis will nail my hide to his wall."
"Then someone needs to make sure he doesn't do anything rash." Avon's feral gaze turned on Vila who squeaked in protest.
"Not me! After our last run-in, Jenna's likely to truss me up and let Travis use me for target practice."
"Then use your hangdog charms to convince her otherwise," Avon remarked acerbically. "After all, you did rescue their boy Jason from that dockside brawl. Surely she's grateful for that good deed, unbelievable as it may be?" He glanced over to SanMarco. "When should Vila try to make contact with them."
"Early tomorrow morning would be best. They'll be at the medcenter, making sure Jenna's recovered from her injuries. If I read Travis right, he'll be on a hair trigger, ready to pounce on anything the least bit suspicious."
"And I'm supposed to be the pouncee," Vila grumbled crossly. "I still haddn't said I'll do it. Why should I risk my neck just to keep the two of them out of trouble?"
"Consider it an exercise in altruism," Avon smiled with the barest hint of warmth. "Blake will be quite proud of you . . . once he recovers from the shock."
Late that night, Travis sat guard as Jenna slept, watching for any change in her slow regular breathing.. Though her injuries were limited to a mild concussion along with the minor cuts and bruises, Travis knew how narrow their escape had been. If their ambusher had raised his sights just a hair, Jenna would be lying in the middle of the Devil's Playground, a two-inch hole burned through her chest.
He shivered with a chill that had nothing to do with the late night breeze coming through the half-open French doors. It was all his fault. Hi suspicious nature had gotten the two of them waylaid by prying into matters that did not concern them. Even though the return of their late-night visitors had left him with the skin-crawling sensation they were sitting on a time bomb ticking inexorably toward detonation.
Travis slammed his fist on the arm of his chair, welcoming the discomfort as a brief distraction from his jumbled thoughts. Jenna had been his lifeline out of the madness and obsession that had once consumed his life. Her acceptance and trust purging away much of the savagery that tainted his service in Space Command.
He leaned forward, brushing his hand tenderly down her cheek, stoking back the golden hair falling across it. And her unstinting passion had given him back his humanity, after years of being little more animal instinct yoked to killer servomechanism at Servalan's command.
Pushing out of the chair, Travis began to pace the room like a caged tiger. He no longer trusted Stannis's motives for sending them on this little "rest cure." Whoever had been skulking around the beach house obviously thought they needed to be kept under surveillance. Whatever illicit activity was occurring on this island, it wasn't worth risking Jenna's life. . . but he was tired of being a sitting target. So tomorrow, he'd make sure Jenna stayed in town while he set up an ambush to find out just who these lurkers were working for. He nodded in grim satisfaction That should take care of the problem, without endangering Jenna any further.
When Jenna awoke the next morning she was stiff and slightly nauseated but able to keep down a light breakfast of toast and juice. As they got ready to go into the village Travis remarked brusquely, "After you get checked out, we'll find a room for you to stay in town overnight."
"Why?" she protested. "I'll be all right. I just have a few bumps and bruises."
"Someone's been snooping around the grounds the past few nights. Either because of who you are . . . or what I was. It probably has nothing to do with whatever's happening at Devil's Playground, but I'll find out once I catch him. Or them." Travis's expression was hard.
"Not without me, you're not," she protested. "I'm the one with the bump on the back of my head from that ambush."
"Exactly," Travis answered pragmatically. "And likely the double vision and dizziness that go with it. I want them alive, Jenna, and able to answer questions."
Jenna accepted the logic of his argument, although reluctantly and they started into town.
The day was cool and overcast with the scent of rain in the air. A sharp breeze whipped Jenna's hair across her eyes as she glanced skyward at the blowing clouds.
"Looks like some heavy weather moving in. That may keep our visitors away tonight."
"Or they might decide the storm will cover their tracks, if they decide to do something more than just spy on us."
But as they were leaving the medcenter, a nondescript wiry figure sidled up to them, giving Travis a nervous sidelong glance as he held out both hands to demonstrate his honest intentions.
"Vila!" Jenna reacted sharply, "Then it was you we saw on the ferry."
Despite the thief's empty-handed gesture, reflexively Travis clutched the front of Vila's shirt as he demanded in a low growl, "What's going on, Restal? What are you and Avon doing here?"
"No need to get physical," Vila attempted to placate the irate soldier. "I was just on my way to look for you. Avon and I are working for Stannis but we dinnit know the two of you were down here. Honest." He glanced around nervously. "Look, why don't we go somewhere private and have a round of drinks. Discuss old times."
Jenna tapped her foot in exasperation, "Vila, it's only 9:30 in the morning. Isn't that a little early, even for you? Why don't you just tell us what you've been up to, right now, then we'll be on our way and forget we ever saw you."
Vila withdrew from Travis's loosened grip, pulling his tunic back into place, jittering nervously, "I can't tell you here. Too many curious ears. Besides, if Avon found out . . . " Vila shuddered with exaggerated dread.
Jenna and Travis exchanged cautious glances.
"It might be worth the bar tab, just to find out what my uncle is up to." Jenna muttered. "And it could spare you from losing a night's sleep."
Travis shrugged, "I'll go along just to see if Restal has any new lies, but I don't care what tales he spins, I'm still keeping watch tonight . . . alone."
Jenna compressed her lips tightly, then gestured to the pickpocket. "All right, Vila. Find your private drinking place and pick your poison. But I better hear something worthwhile for my credits . . . and time."
Nodding nervously, Vila ducked down a small side streets away from the main square, heading toward the docks and the less crowded taverns. As they turned down one particularly narrow and winding alleyway, five dark-clad, well-armed thugs erupted out of the darkness, surrounding them so quickly even Travis was taken by surprise.
Travis glowered at Vila, thinking the thief had deliberately led them into an ambush, except his cowering, terrorized expression convinced him Restal was as surprised as they were. Despite his shock, Vila moved quickly to dissociate himself from them, hoping to escape the trap.
"Errrk, I was just hoping to scam this pair out of some of their credits, but if you fellas have a prior claim, I'll be glad to step aside." Vila sidled away, trying to get out of their reach.
"Hold it right there, Shorty," growled the leader. "We got orders to bring in this pair because they've been sticking their noses in what don't concern them. And those orders include anyone they've talked to . . . like you."
"Not me," Vila protested weakly. "I only met `em five minutes ago. Besides who'd share secrets with a dockrat like me?"
One of the thugs grabbed Vila's arm, twisting it up painfully behind him as the leader whispered his foul-breathed threat into Vila's face. "Maybe so, dockrat, but you're still coming along. Any more objections?"
Vila lapsed into a cowed silence while Travis and Jenna stood stock-still, stalemated by the blasters jammed against their sides. As their captors began to bind their hands behind them, Travis pulled sharply away, using the full force of his cybernetic arm to smash one thug's jaw then whipped his elbow toward a second man's ribs until the sharp crack of a blaster barrel against his skull dropped him to his knees half-stunned. The leader followed with a vicious kick to the ribs that laid Travis face down in the filthy alley as he hissed a warning.
"Don't try that again, hero, or next time, this pretty lady of yours will pay the price." He tossed a laser probe to one of his men. "Gamble, see if you can't disable that arm so he doesn't cause any more trouble."
Ripping down the sleeve of Travis's shirt, Gamble pried up the ulnar access panel, jammed the laser probe inside, and triggered it at the highest setting. With a strangled moan, Travis arched into a convulsive spasm from the neural overload before falling to the gound, barely breathing.
He regained his wits under assault by a series of pleasant and not so pleasant sensations. His head was pillowed on Jenna's knees as she gently stroked his face and called his name. But the place they were confined was rolling and pitching so wildly, it was all he could do to keep from spewing up his breakfast on her lap. His condition was only aggravated by the foul stink of stagnant water and an acrid chemical odor that threatened to choke him. He coughed weakly, trying to clear his throat.
Jenna murmured in relief as he opened his eye, barely able to see in the dim cell. "Thank heaven, you're finally coming around. I thought they killed you when they shorted out your arm!" "Not quite," he muttered weakly, trying to flex his elbow or wrist, testing the extent of the damage. But it was no use, Gamble had been very thorough and his left arm was only dead weight. "Damn, looks like we're going to have to hunt up another cybersurgeon now Docholli's vanished."
"If we live that long," Jenna laughed bitterly. "After they knocked you out, we were dragged aboard one of the boats they use for smuggling processed drugs out of the Devil's Playground. The wind had picked up and her captain didn't want to risk the trip but Slade put a gun to his head so he raised sail and headed out into the storm."
Travis groaned as he massaged the back of his neck, "So, that's what this is all about. Someone's using that wasteland to hide a drug processing plant with the seasonal meteor shower camouflaging delivery of raw materials."
"Uh-huh," Vila confirmed from his spot by the door where he was listening out for their captors above decks as he fiddled with the ancient rusted lock fastening the door. "Avon and Orac were sent down here because the Terra Nostra's been trying to get a toehold in this sector for years and your uncle wasn't best pleased with the militia's efforts to locate their base. . Course, they had to rely on a secondhand detection system while the Terra Nostra has the best jamming equipment their dirty money could buy. Orac sniffed it out fast enough . . . for a rat in a box."
"Then what the hell are we doing here?" Travis demanded irately. "If Avon knows their location, why haven't they sent in the militia to clean out the scum?"
Vila grimaced uncomfortably, "They were about to, that's why Avon sent me out to keep you in Land's End, away from the raid."
"And instead you lead us right into their open arms," Jenna's eyes glinted dangerously.
"It wasn't my fault," he protested. "How was I s'posed to know about that ambush?."
Travis had struggled to a sitting position, flexing his shoulders and back, trying to compensate for the dead weight of his left arm. "We can parcel out the blame later. Right now we need a plan to keep ourselves alive." He glanced at Jenna as the ship heeled over hard, sending a gush of icy spray under the door. "Sounds like the storm's at its height. If Vila can get that door open, maybe we can take them by surprise."
"Maybe," Jenna wrapped her arms around her chest, shivering. "If anyone's still aboard." She stared hard at Vila, still struggling with the lock. "Any luck?"
Vila groaned in exasperation, "This dratted thing's so primitive, I'd have better luck gnawing through it with my teeth!"
Suddenly a sharp crack sounded from overhead. Instinctively, Travis grabbed Jenna by the waist and shouldered Vila away from the hatchway, rolling across the floor until they sprawled, stunned, against the forward cabin wall. A fraction of a second later, a broken mast smashed through the hatch where Vila had just been crouched. As the wind-driven rain stung their faces, Vila stared at the shattered beams where his head had been only moments before, muttering weakly, "Thanks, Travis."
Travis shrugged off the feeble gratitude, scrambling over the wreckage topside, into the teeth of the driving rain. He staggered aft, only to find the helm abandoned, spinning free and likely to capsize them at any moment. Although lacking any seagoing skills, he leaped to secure the tiller, instinctively aware that if the boat remained broadside to the waves much longer she was sure to come to grief.
Moments later, after struggling through the loose canvas that snapped and billowed around the broken mast, Jenna reached his side and helped steer their bow into the wind and to minimize the wild pitching and rolling that threatened to break them apart.
"Where is everybody?" she shrieked, barely able to be heard over the howling wind.
"They must have abandoned ship when the storm hit, figuring it wasn't worth their lives trying to bring us to their boss . . . since we'll be dead anyway when the boat founders. They may be right." Travis cocked his head to one side, hearing the dangerous creaking and shifting beneath their feet. "Unless we can keep this wreck afloat long enough to reach land."
He studied Jenna as she balanced on the rolling deck, her hands resting on the wheel, holding it on course with a minimum of effort. "You've handled craft like this before, haven't you?"
"A little, under my father's direction." She swallowed hard, gazing at him in appeal. "But never by myself, in conditions like this."
"Well, that still puts you lightyears ahead of the rest of us." He gathered up Vila from where he was crouched in the lee of the deckhouse, wet and shivering.
"We're all gonna die," Vila moaned. "They left us here to drown like rats."
With only one functioning arm, Travis couldn't shake sense into the pickpocket like he ached to do. Instead he used the parade-ground timbre of his voice to lash the other man to his feet. "I wouldn't worry on that account, Restal. They say a man fated to hang won't drown and I never saw anyone with a noose written so clearly across his face. Just get moving and maybe we won't have so far to swim when this craft goes under."
As the two men labored to cut the rigging loose that held the broken mast in place, Jenna gripped the wheel like grim death, stuggling to keep the bow headed into the wind despite the fact the wind-whipped shrouds kept dragging them broadside. They were still shipping water badly and each wave that broke over the decks threatened to wash them overboard.
After Vila broke into a tool locker and located two laser cutters, the frustrating work of slashing loose the halyards and lines then heaving the broken spar overboard went much more swiftly. Once the foredeck was clear, the boat stabilized and Jenna was able to get a better idea of their course and heading as they were tossed up and down, cresting the waves.
Travis dragged himself aft, hanging on to the stanchions until he reached Jenna's side. She was peering worriedly astern as the island lights disappeared while they continued their erratic steering into the wind.
"If this boat were sounder, I'd lash the tiller, heave to, and try to wait out the storm. But we're taking on to much water and are likely founder before it blows itself out, " she gasped hoarsely, her throat raw from breathing in the icy brine.
"Can you bring us about and head back to shore?" Travis coughed.
"I. . . don't know," she hesitated. "She's sluggish answering the helm and we could broach completely before I got her running with the wind." She glanced at Travis hunched to one side with the dead weight of his nonfunctioning arm. "We need to reduce sail first and I'm not sure the two of you can do it under these conditions. But I do know it's a two-handed operation . . . and our only chance."
As she gestured him over, he yelled at her in wry amusement "I wonder if this is what Mikhail considers . . . fun?"
She stared at him blankly and he elaborated, "You know just before we left, when he ordered us to 'have fun?'"
Shaking her head in disbelief, Jenna ordered, "Take the wheel and keep her headed so we crest those waves at an angle and not head on. With Vila's help, I should be able get the sail down, leaving the storm jib to give us enough headway for steerage as we ride the waves in."
Travis waved off her explanations impatiently, "Don't tell me what you're doing, just do it! I'll keep us from going under as long as I can!"
Even with Vila's frenzied assistance, reefing the wet canvas was almost impossible as they were battered and bruised by the whipping lines. But desperation kept them at the task until it was finally done.
Staggering aft, Jenna relieved Travis at the helm and stated tersely, "I'd order both of you below decks if I wasn't afraid we'll roll under. All I can say is hang on as tightly as you can and get ready for a wild ride!"
With that warning she brought the boat about, heeling over so far only a miracle kept them from capsizing. Moments later after they righted, they were running before the wind in a headlong, exhilarating plunge though the waves that was almost like flying. Despite the headiness of the sensation, Travis saw they were in grave danger of surfing over the wave tops and swamping the boat completely. He stared at Jenna wondering if they should try to reduce speed, but she was too busy, fighting the helm and trying to keep them afloat as they sped toward land.
Suddenly there was a harsh, grinding sound as the keel hit bottom, flinging the three of them to the deck. They'd run aground! He felt the jarring, ripping sensation as the boat broke up beneath them and pulled Jenna to her feet as he kicked at the half-stunned Delta.
"Move it, Restal! We're aground and breaking up. If you don't want to get dragged under, abandon ship NOW!"
Jenna was half-stunned by the force of the collision and the icy waves washing over the sides of the deck. Although he was not a strong swimmer, Travis coaxed her to wrap her arms around his neck as he leaped overboard. The surf was rough, dragging him under but he struck out toward land with an awkward sidestroke until he felt the gritty shift of shells and sand sliding beneath his feet. He staggered upright and stumbled toward the shore with Vila splashing beside him, sputtering and spitting like a wet cat but in no apparent danger of drowning.
Weakened by the damage to his cyberarm and the debilitating chill of the storm, Travis did not think he would make that last ten meters. But he finally crawled out of the surf and collapsed onto the muddy gray sands, retching and coughing up the bitter water, with Jenna's limp body beside him.
"Well, well, just look the tide washed in," a menacing voice chuckled.
Travis opened his eye blearily, staring up into the barrels of four disrupters aimed at his head, then swore under his breath at their appalling luck. Escaping from a crippled ship after being abandoned to drown only to stumble ashore and fall into the hands of the same goon squad who'd captured them in the first place.
Vila curled up in a ball, his arms pulled over his head moaning about the unfairness of it all until Gamble prodded him to be quiet. A second thug, his swollen jaw roughly bandaged, stepped away in disgust from Jenna as she lay on her side, still retching up the salt water, but Slade, the man in charge, ordered sharply, "Get them on their feet. I know Mr. Reno will be very eager to meet our curious friends. He's got a few questions of his own he wants answered."
Shoved roughly to their feet, the three of them were herded into a ground rover that bumped and bounced across the treacherous terrain of the Devil's Playground until they were brought to the hidden base. As they approached the camp, a haze of thick fumes oozed outward. Travis and Jenna coughed, trying not to inhale the acrid vapors while Vila rubbed his reddened, stinging eyes. One of the guards gave a harsh bark of laughter at their obvious discomfort.
"Stinks don't it? But it don't bother us . . . that's the smell of money brewing. Pure crystal credits - one thousand per kilo!"
The leader glared at his underling sharply. "Button your flapping lip, Gamble! They don't need to know any more about this operation than they've already seen!"
"Why the hell should it matter, Slade," Gamble protested. "They ain't leaving here alive." Then he leered at Jenna obscenely, "I just hope I get my turn at that fine piece of tail before we toss it down a smokehole."
Travis lunged at Gamble only to be brought up sharp by Slade's gun under his chin. "Don't try it again, hero. Mr. Reno wants you alive for the moment but he doesn't care how many parts are missing. Make another move like that and I'll blow off your left leg so everything balances."
Reluctantly, Travis subsided, still remaining alert for any chance to make a break.
The camp was a ramshackle collection of prefab modules huddled in the shadow of a looming granite overhang that concealed it from both satellite surveillance and routine militia flyovers. The outer walls of the modules were also chromatically keyed to blend in with the rocks and rugged terrain to minimize the likelihood of them being spotted by casual observers. While the abundance of sulfur hot springs and chemical seeps in the area masked the stench of the actual processing itself.
There were a large number of trucks, dune buggies, and land rovers parked in the area, currently being loaded with all sizes of boxes, crates, and bales, labeled coffee, glass, and electronics. It seemed to be a large, well-organized drug operation.
As they were marched under guard toward one of the buildings, Travis's experienced eye swept the area looking for weak spots; some vulnerability or breach in security they might use to make an escape. But the area swarmed like an anthill with hard-eyed, watchful men and women, weapons in their hands or within easy reach. He exchanged grim looks with his fellow captives. The odds did not look good for getting out alive.
The building they entered was slightly removed from the main processing complex and they were herded into a plain, windowless office and shoved into hardback chairs along one wall. Behind the desk across from them hunched a man with all the genial charm of a killer shark, ignoring them as he spat out orders at his comm center.
"Two more boats other than the one Slade lost were damaged in last night's squall," he rapped. "We're going to have to double up on some shipments out of the inlet or risk sending another truck through on the ferry."
He listened for a moment as he glowered at his three prisoners, then continued, "The militia may be combing the whole island searching for them and if they're just checking IDs they may not examine the smaller containers too closely."
His eyes gleamed coldly as he glanced over at Slade, "You reported `Mustang Sally' had run aground, with a mast missing and unsalvageable. I have another use for her. Set adrift with belongings from our guests, she might convince the militia they were lost at sea during the storm."
"Like ol' one-eye's cyber arm maybe," a second thug leered, prodding Travis with his gun, before running his thick fingers down Jenna's throat in an obscene caress, "Or this pretty little necklace here." Travis tensed, ready to throttle the man despite Slade's earlier warning.
But Reno turned an icy glare on the man, "Don't be crude, Crater. We need them alive . . . for the moment, at least."
He pushed away from his desk, pacing in front of them as he oozed the same oily menacing charm that Jenna remembered from her encounters with Largo. Obviously a prerequisite for Terra Nostra advancement.
"I know you're eager to cooperate with us, aren't you, Fleet Captain Stannis?"
Jenna did not react to that recognition. Undoubtedly the Organization had files on her, Travis, and probably Vila as well. Their corrupting influence depended on knowledge of potential clients and victims. And she'd already escaped their slimy grip twice.
"Just what sort of poison are you peddling this time, Reno? It can't be shadow, with moon discs now extinct."
Reno's oily charm congealed. "You seem to have forgotten who's in charge here, Captain. I'm the one asking the questions, not you!"
He paused in front of her, turning on the full menace of his predatory gaze. "Who else is spying on us, girl? The Enclave has been trying to shut down this operation for over a year but you're the only ones bright enough to ferret out our location. Who's your contact and what have you told him?"
Jenna spat in contempt, "No one, Reno. Your thugs jumped to the wrong conclusion as usual. We're just here on vacation."
He shrugged, feigning indifference, hoping to rattle his prisoners."It hardly matters now. With the meteor showers fading, we're closing shop for a while. In less than an hour there won't be a microgram of crystal within ten miles of here, so any raid will just be a waste of the Enclave's time and resources."
Jenna glared at him defiantly, "My uncle told Blake about this base and that's why Vila's here. Liberator's in orbit, her neutron blasters zeroed in, just waiting for his signal to blow you and your death factory into bloody bits! So you better start running if you want to escape."
"Oh really." His bland gaze raked across Vila's surprised and terrorized expression before he wheeled around and backhanded Jenna hard, leaving a trail of blood rilling down her chin. Travis lunged upwards until Crater shoved him down again.
"Don't waste my time with stupid lies, girl. Our informants know Blake and Liberator are at the far side of the Rim, recruiting farmers. I only wish Blake was here. The unfortunate aftermath of his clash with Largo is still a very painful memory within the organization."
He bared his teeth in a feral smile, "I'd like to be the one to make an example of Blake and his crew, to remind the galaxy we still possess the ability to punish anyone who crosses us. But that would draw too much attention to this area and possibly interfere with the smooth running of this operation when we start up again during next year's meteor showers. Though, the three of you will have vanished anonymously down a steam vent long before then," he finished nastily.
He paused, gazing at Jenna as he fingered his lower lip in speculation. "Of course, with your uncle being such a powerful figure in the Enclave, you might be more useful as a hostage to restrain some of his rasher actions."
Jenna's eyes glittered defiantly. "Your threats don't frighten me," she spat. "I'll die first rather than beg Mikhail to cooperate with your slimy schemes."
"Oh, I wouldn't harm a hair on that beautiful head of yours, " Reno leered, stroking his well-manicured hand across Jenna's cheek. "We'd just begin amputating pieces from your bondmate instead . . . starting with a finger, an ear . . . maybe even an eye, until you convinced your uncle that working for us was in his best interest."
He gripped her shoulder menacingly. "Of course, with so much of him already missing, you'd have to persuade your uncle swiftly to have anything left worth salvaging."
Abruptly Jenna slumped under his grasping fingers. "Don't hurt him," she pleaded huskily. "I'll do whatever you say."
As she felt his grip loosen and saw the guards momentarily relax at her sudden surrender, Jenna turned her head sharply and bit down into the fleshy part of Reno's thumb with all her might! As he squealed like a slaughtered pig, Travis took advantage of the distraction and erupted upwards using his head like a battering ram to stun the guard looming over him.
Crater's weapon clattered to the floor where Vila pounced on it, covering the other two enforcers nervously, while Travis dispatched the dazed thug with a lethal blow to the larynx. After kicking Crater's body to one side, Travis silenced the squalling Reno by throwing his good arm across the man's neck and dragging his chin up sharply.
"Don't even twitch, scum, or I'll snap your neck like a twig," he hissed with malevolent force.
"You can't escape," Reno sputtered. "My men have orders not to let me be captured alive. We'll all be cooked meat before you take three steps out that door."
"We'll take that chance," Travis muttered grim-faced. "If you're like Servalan, you'll be sniveling two feet out the door for your hired guns to hold their fire."
Vila fidgeted uneasily, "We better get moving, people. Orac and Avon had pinpointed this base for the militia just before I came looking for you and I think it's about to become a freefire zone any second now."
In noisy punctuation to Vila's warning, they heard a sudden, almost deafening, explosion that shook the whole building, followed by the whine of blaster fire and the agonized screams of wounded and dying men.
Travis and Jenna exchanged alarmed glances.
"As usual, Vila, your sense of timing sucks!" Jenna declared in low-voiced exasperation. "Do you think we'll be safer in here or outside as moving targets?"
Vila cringed as another loud detonation sounded off to one side. "I'm-m-m not sure," he stuttered. "But those cliffs hanging over us didn't look all that stable and SanMarco said he intended to leave nothing here except a smoking hole in the ground."
"Rafe's leading the attack?" Jenna was startled. "But I thought . . . "
"Uh-huh." Vila nodded as he stared longingly at the door. "Can we discuss this later? I'd really rather take my chances with random blaster fire than another bomb."
Travis nodded in reluctant agreement, still keeping his deathgrip on the whimpering Reno. "Never thought I'd say this, Jenna, but Restal's right. Especially if we use them," he jerked his head toward the other two enforcers, "as shields."
Prodding their prisoners out ahead of them, they had the good fortune to encounter a militia sapper squad just outside the building.
Vila gave a weak grin as he hurriedly surrendered his weapon. "Don't suppose you fellas were looking for me, were you? I'm Vila Restal, associate of the surly Alpha and the computer with an attitude that's running this operation."
Wearing desert camouflage and a thick coating of dust smeared down his sweaty face, the section leader glared at them with a cold, ruthless expression.
"Colonel's running this operation and he didn't say anything about takin' prisoners," he spat as the rest of his squad raised their charged weapons.
"Then your Colonel's a fool," Travis responded in his deadliest command voice. "If he lets a squad of trigger-happy goons deprive him of valuable enemy intelligence."
He jerked Reno's head still farther back until the man nearly choked, "This scum was in charge of the whole scheme. He can give you his sources, contacts, delivery schedules, everything . . . with just a minimum of persuasion."
"All right," the squad leader nodded curtly. "You've made your point . . . sir. Williams, you and Scanlon escort them back to the staging area. Maybe the Colonel can sort this out."
After leaving their prisoners under close guard, Travis, Jenna, and Vila were delivered to the command center where the militia raid was being coordinated. Much to Jenna's surprise, when they entered the communication van, there sat Avon, impossibly cool and collected despite the stifling heat and dust, with Orac off to one side, making its usual snide pronouncements.
*As you can see, Vila has been located, safe and sound. I might suggest the next time he disappears, you check the local pound.*
Avon pursed his lips ruefully before pulling out the activation key. "You may have a point, Orac," then turned his baleful gaze on the apprehensive thief. "You were supposed to keep them away from here during this little altercation. Instead you turn up right in the middle, only a hairsbreadth away from being blown to bloody bits. What's your excuse this time?"
"It wasn't my fault, Avon, really! I met them where you said, then headed for my favorite bar so we could stay out of trouble. But this squad of Terra Nostra goons had their own orders." He shrugged helplessly. "What was I supposed to do? They had all the guns."
Avon pinched the bridge of his nose, shaking his head in resignation. "Vila, the scope of your ineptitude never ceases to amaze me."
He glanced up as SanMarco charged in, wearing a smoke-grimed militia uniform with colonel's wings on his collar. "Ramos said you had news of . . . "
His worn face creased in a sudden smile, "Jenna, chica, you're safe! When the three of you vanished just before the storm hit, I was certain we'd only find your bodies washed up on the beach!"
"Reno had other plans," Jenna replied caustically. "For me, at least. I was going to be his hostage to force Mikhail to call off his spies. Too bad neither you nor my uncle saw fit to explain exactly what was happening here!" Her arms were folded across her chest as her foot tapped angrily. "Why did my uncle use us as bait for this operation?"
"I knew you were lying about something, SanMarco," Travis grimaced. "I just wasn't sure what."
"You weren't supposed to be 'bait', Jenna." San Marco began apologetically, "Just a slight diversion. Someone to keep the Terra Nostra's attention distracted while Ser Avon was trying to locate the coordinates for their base."
"And why were you involved in this little scheme, San Marco?" Travis demanded.
"Revenge, amigo. Something you understand well, I'm told. I didn't tell you the whole truth about the Alba, Jenna. During our mission to Luxor, a Terra Nostra capo tried to hire us to run drugs into Sanctuary. We refused of course and he promised that we'd regret it. Our shielding failure wasn't accidental, we'd been sabotaged as a warning to other Enclave ships on the dangers of not cooperating with the Terra Nostra."
"But your uncle and the other clan captains weren't so easily cowed. Still, they chose to act covertly against the Organization rather than endanger their ships and families any more than absolutely necessary. That's why this operation had to be kept secret, even from you."
Jenna took a deep unsteady breath and let it out slowly, her temper cooling somewhat. "That's all very well, I suppose, but destruction of a Terra Nostra facility this size isn't going to be easy to cover up."
Rafe's lips skinned back from his teeth in a feral snarl of a smile. "You'd be surprised at what a little geological upheaval can hide."
As he spoke, there was a short series of precise detonations then a loud prolonged rumble as the ground shook for almost a minute.
"What the hell?" Travis swore, clutching at the side of the van trying to keep his balance.
Avon glared at the militia leader accusingly while Vila looked like he wanted to bolt.
"I thought you were going to wait until we got clear, SanMarco. According to Orac this area's a seismic powder keg. You could have dropped this whole cliff on our heads."
"My people are professionals," Rafe snapped. "They know what they're doing. When the Terra Nostra dropship radios for coordinates tonight, all he'll hear is dead air. And when they come to investigate, all they'll find is a couple of hundred tons of crumbled rock in a known seismic hot zone. Sheer bad luck. No one to blame, no one to punish! Only a very large deficit on their books, compliments of the Enclave. They'll think twice before trying to set up another operation like this on Sanctuary any time soon."
Jenna was silent staring at the ruthless expression on SanMarco's face, wondering what had happened to the gentle, laughing man she remembered.
Then a brief, regretful smile emerged like a sudden shaft of light breaking through a storm front. "I'm sorry that I spoiled your vacation, but I did try to warn you to stay away." He sobered, suddenly taking in their salt-crusted hair and skin, Travis's cyber arm hanging limp, and their overall battered and disheveled appearance.
"Ouch, chica, I didn't realize. . .! You look like you've been wrestling with a bear and the bear won. Let me make it up to you. When I report to your uncle, I'll explain what happened and ask him to extend your vacation for another week to allow you to recuperate in our glorious sea and sunshine."
"Oh no you don't!" Jenna protested vigorously. "When you call Mikhail, tell him Travis and I will be on the next ship out, headed for the best cybersurgery facility in the sector . . . at his expense! Then we're coming back to Sanctuary and spend the rest of our so-called vacation in our own apartments! Right Travis?"
He nodded in bemused agreement as she continued, "In bed . . . twiddling our thumbs . . . with the doors locked and barred!"
Rafe stared at her for a few moments, his thick brows drawn together before he crowed with laughter and clapped Travis on the shoulder.
"That sounds like a very good idea, chica, and the safest one I've heard from you this entire week!"
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