LegaciesBy Alice C. Aldridge
"Down and safe," Blake murmured into his bracelet. "Have Avon stand by with the equipment. Our welcoming committee hasn't put in an appearance yet, so I'm leaving the comm link open."
"What's the matter, Blake? Don't trust your new allies?"
"Things have changed on Zircaster since the withdrawal of Federation troops. Besides current data is essential in dealing with the colonists."
Travis did not continue the discussion, glancing around the area uneasily. This was not the world he remembered with its ramshackle, overcrowded warrens huddled around the huge mechanized commercial agricultural facility. In the aftermath of the Andromedan war, the farming factories had been left little more than rubble as surviving colonists fled from the devastated lowlands into the mountains, where it was easier to hide from Federation patrols or bloodthirsty renegades. According to Blake's contact, the fugitives had initially prospered, building snug, sturdy cabins and raising enough food to keep them alive through the harsh winters.
But without Star One's regulation of the weather control satellites, Zircaster's temperate climate had deteriorated, with increasingly severe winters and harsh summer droughts. Even the annual rainfall had become sporadic, dwindling until this year there had been no precipitation at all. Without satellite control, the planetary jetstream shifted and systems which normally dropped rain in the mountains were breaking up long before they reached the settlement, leaving its once lush valleys parched and crops withering. in the fields. Though Zircaster's colonists had suffered at Federation hands, the aftermath of the Andromedan War and Blake's attack on Star One had left the planet itself battered, its ecosystems on the brink of collapse.
That's why Blake was here with the most advanced weather control equipment money could buy. Hoping to undo the harm he'd done at Star One and, with Avon's reluctant cooperation, help the settlers of Zircaster become a viable colony again.
Travis had his own agenda for this visit. Like Blake he had sins to atone for, ghosts to exorcise, but unlike Blake his face was too well known and hated by the survivors to allow him to move freely among them. However, with the help of one of Avon's gadgets, a holographic image inducer, he - hopefully- should be able to walk among the colonists unrecognized.
Avon had been in full sarcastic mode as he fine-tuned the device before Travis and Blake teleported down, "This is an imaging device, Travis, using light and shadow to create an illusion. It won't hold up to inclement weather. . . "
"I was told it hasn't rained in this particular region in over a year," Travis replied testily.
"Or intimate touch of any sort."Avon continued. "So try to resist your impulses, both carnal and heroic, unless you want to be guest of honor at a lynching."
His cover identity as an independent Free Trader captain scouting new trade routes had also fit in with Blake's plans. Now, Travis stared in the mirror, scrutinizing Avon's handiwork. His hair was rusty brown, his complexion sallow, and his two eyes a faded, watery blue. At first he'd worried that his lack of binocular vision and compromised depth perception would be a problem, then decided the inconsistency was too minor to worry about. Besides, if he was going to be talking to survivors of the Federation massacre, he was better off with nondescript features that people wouldn't remember five minutes later
Travis glanced around the deserted square where they'd materialized then asked sarcastically, "They were expecting us, weren't they, Blake?"
Blake seemed totally bewildered, "Where is everyone? The person I spoke to said there were over three hundred colonists in this valley alone."
Travis studied the dry rolling hills, spotting the parched fields and withered trees, then looked at the cloudless sky, noting the position of the sun relative to the horizon.
"Harvest time, most likely. If things are as bad as you've heard, every able-bodied man, woman and child are in the fields, gleaning every last scrap of the local food crop."
Glancing at him sidelong, Blake remarked, "I'd forgotten you were raised on a world much like this."
"Too much alike," was the grim reply as Travis scanned the horizon, suddenly spotting a dark pillar of smoke. "Looks like a large fire in that direction. Maybe that's why your welcoming committee didn't show."
Blake pressed the communicator on the teleport bracelet, "Dayna, have Zen scan the coordinates for that smoke cloud and put us down near the area."
"But Blake," she protested, "you don't know the conditions there. It could be a deathtrap."
"Just put us down out of sight of any bystanders and keep communications open," he replied pragmatically. "We can teleport back up if there's any trouble."
When they approached the area moments later, the situation was not what Blake had expected. A small group of roughly dressed men and women with blankets, rakes and shovels surrounded a burning field, though no one seemed in any hurry to put out the fire. Two men pinned the arms of a third while a tall, attractive dark-haired woman, with a torch still in her hands, berated him.
"Hawkins, you were told by the council to burn this field three weeks ago. . .before the rot spread any further. Why didn't you do it?"
"The whole field wasn't contaminated. We could have sifted out the bad grain and used the rest."
"And likely infected half the fields in this valley," she spat. "Don't you realize you put your neighbors at risk because of your pig-headed stupidity?"
" And my family will starve if you burn this field. There's nothing left, Deirdre." The colonist had stopped struggling against his captors and slumped in despair. "We lost our early wheat to the frost, the garden to edge worms, even the wild fruit trees aren't bearing or if they do, it's so bitter no one can stomach it. How am I going to feed my children?"
He broke down weeping.
The woman called Deirdre gazed a him with a mixture of compassion and exasperation. "They won't starve, Matthew. No one in this valley is going to starve as long as I have breath in my body." She nodded to the two men holding him to release their grip and after handing one of them the torch, put her arms around the sobbing man. "Things are bad but there's been enough harvested on other steadings that no one will starve - this year. We may have to tighten our belts another notch, but we won't starve."
"But what about next year?" Hawkins' reddened eyes bored into her "We barely had enough seed grain for this year's crops and things are even worse. . ."
Deirdre's voice turned sharp as her intense blue eyes glittered, "I said we'll manage. Now get out there with your neighbors and make sure the fire doesn't spread beyond this field. You've already given me enough trouble for one day."
As the chastised farmer joined his neighbors in keeping the blaze contained to his diseased field, the woman wiped sweaty hands on her calf-length skirt and strode purposefully towards Blake and Travis.
"You must be the visitors that Byron said to expect."
"Dr. Byron Daniels," Blake confirmed. "Yes, I spoke to him about the weather control equipment aboard my ship. He said he'd meet us at the town square and show us around."
She looked at him in exasperation, "He likely had an emergency call. Anyway, harvest is our busiest season. We don't have the time or energy to listen to every snake oil salesman that comes through, peddling a cure for our problems."
Travis hid a grin behind his hand at the woman's outspoken skepticism, while Blake tried to explain his intentions. "I'm not selling anything. . .miss."
"My name is Deirdre. . .Deirdre McConnell. Current head of the duly elected council of Conavale." Travis's brow drew down after hearing her name and the name of the valley. Something about her voice. . . her face. . .even the defiant look in her eyes seemed oddly familiar.
"So, why are you here?" she demanded sharply. "And keep it brief, I have a busy day ahead of me."
Blake drew in a deep breath, then exhaled sharply. "We brought weather control machinery that should mitigate some of the damage to your climate caused by the shutdown of Star One. Hopefully even restore the normal weather patterns on your planet, so you no longer suffer from droughts and other extreme conditions."
Deirdre stared at them, momentary hope lighting her expression, before she quickly stifled it. " What's the price for this miracle? There's always a price for salvation," she glared angrily at both of them, before muttering, "Just ask my father. . .or my brothers."
Travis felt a sudden jolt in the pit of his stomach while Blake tried to explain.
"Nothing. We don't expect you or your people to pay anything. Although some of them will need to learn how to maintain the equipment and make the necessary calibrations to adjust for changes in your planetary atmosphere. But that shouldn't be too difficult."
"Why?" she demanded. "What's the reason for this generosity, this benevolence? I don't believe in gifts with no strings attached. What's your real reason for doing this?"
There was a long agonized silence as Blake stared at the burning field and the dry, barren landscape surrounding them.
"To try and make up for the damage that I caused, by attacking Star One. . . just before the Andromedan War." Blake's voice was a strangled whisper.
There was a long shocked silence as Deirdre stared in disbelief
"You caused . . .attacking Star One. You're Roj Blake?" Deirdre's eyes were wide with shock and outrage.
Blake nodded shamefully and before Travis could stop her, Deirdre drew back her fist and threw a roundhouse blow with such force, smashing into the middle of his face, that Blake dropped to the ground, half-stunned, his nose gushing blood.
Deirdre stood over him, nursing her bruised knuckles, "Do you know how many people died . . . lost their homes, their families, everything they had, because of you? How many you crippled and maimed. . .or that just wasted away from broken hearts, because of you?"
She took a deep breath, regaining some semblance of control, "I should order you off the planet." She glanced over at her people who had stopped watching the fire and were staring at her, stunned by her vehement outburst and sudden attack on the visitor.
"Keep your eyes on the field," she shouted hoarsely. "We don't need a bloody brush fire on top of everything else."
One of the men started over, "What's wrong, Deirdre? Did he insult you? Do you want me to deal with him?"
"No, Jackson. It's my concern, not yours. Just keep watching that fire."
Travis felt the knot in his stomach loosen a bit. At first, he thought she might call out to the others, inciting a lynch mob, but she seemed to have her emotions under control for the moment.
Blake was pinching his nose to stop the bleeding as he climbed slowly to his feet.
"I take it that was a refusal of my offer."
Deirdre turned on him with a mixture of anguish and icy rage twisting her face, "Oh no, Blake, you don't get off that easily. My people need your weather control equipment too badly. Unless you intend to withdraw that offer. . .now?"
"No," Blake turned aside to spit out some of the blood trickling down the back of his throat. "The offer still stands. But I would appreciate it if you would refrain from abusing the people who come down to install the equipment. They opposed my actions, but I didn't listen."
"What about you?"Deirdre turned her piercing gaze on Travis. "Were you there? Did you try to stop him?"
He was momentarily stymied, not knowing what to say. What answer would fit with his role as a Free Trader captain. But Blake solved the problem for him, "He was there and he did try to stop me. . . but I shot him."
Deirdre gave him an approving nod before remarking with an ironic smile, "You must be a very forgiving person."
"Not really," he managed to grate out hoarsely.
Her eyebrows drew together, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
"Colin. . .Colin McRae," Travis answered through a throat as dry as ashes.
Deirdre's face went momentarily wistful, "One of my brothers was named Colin. . . ." Then her expression hardened, "But he's dead now. Dead and buried. . . like so many others."
Blake's nose was obviously swollen but most of the bleeding had stopped and he gazed steadily at Deirdre, "I know nothing I say will convince you of how sorry I am for the destruction that I caused. I just hope this weather device will begin to make amends for what I did."
Deirdre's expression was calm but skeptical. "Let's just see if it works before we talk about forgiveness. But I will guarantee the safety of those installing the equipment."
Blake signaled Dayna to activate the teleport, praying that she was alone at the controls, but to his chagrin, half the ship seemed to be there. Avon's sharp eyes took in his bedraggled appearance and bloodied upper lip.
Blake dabbed at his nose tentatively before answering, "A brief misunderstanding, Avon. Nothing for you to worry about. We'll start teleporting the equipment down at planet dawn."
He called up to the flight deck, "Tarrant, establish a geosynchronous orbit over this area. We'll want stay in constant contact while the equipment is being installed."
"Jason is computing the coordinates now, Blake," Tarrant replied. "And tell Avon, Zen's been monitoring atmospheric conditions and has some preliminary readings."
Avon interrupted sourly, "Link sensors directly into Orac so it can start calculating the necessary algorithms."
Turning a disgruntled look towards Blake, "I presume the 'misunderstanding' has been resolved so the rest of us won't be subject to similar attacks while visiting this rustic paradise?"
"You won't have any problems, Avon. Their leader gave her word."
Cally took Blake's arm, trying to lead him towards the medunit, "Come with me, Blake. I want to make certain the bleeding's stopped. That kind of injury can be dangerous if not properly treated."
"I'm alright, Cally," he tried to brush her off, turning towards Travis, who stood off to one side while Blake was explaining the situation. Though his facial expression remained unemotional, Travis's slouched posture virtually shouted his uncertain mental state.
"Did you see anyone you knew, Travis? Survivors from your home world, Metis III?"
"It's none of your damned business, Blake," he snapped. "I'll be in my quarters. Call me when you go back down to the planet." Turning sharply, he retreated down the hallway.
In the privacy of his room, with the door securely locked, Travis carefully removed Avon's device before dropping onto his bunk. Deirdre McConnell's fierce expression was vivid in his mind, as he remembered his sister with a similar look on her face. It had been the night his bondmate Rissa had died, ripped apart in a fenris attack.
Travis shuddered as the memories spilled over him. . . firing frantically. . .hopelessly, into the pack that had dragged his bondmate down screaming, until all he could do was take aim and end her agony with his final shot. He gritted his teeth, trying to banish that harrowing vision, then bolted to the fresher, barely able to reach the sink before his outraged stomach spewed up its contents. For long moments he slumped there as spasms of nausea wracked him, haunted by the painful images of aftermath of that attack.
How he'd grabbed his knife and slashed at the remainder of the pack in a berserker rage, until he'd driven them away from Rissa's tattered corpse. Then staggering home with her blood-stained body clutched in his arms, only to have Rissa's grief-stricken father accuse him of abandoning her to the pack. Only his sister Deirdre had stood up to Jacob Reeves, attempting to defend him from those accusations, pointing to his venom-stained jacket as she had cleaned and bandaged his brutally lacerated hands and forearms.
He rubbed his arm across his watering eye, recalling the angry, defiant look on his sister's face and how much it had resembled Deirdre McConnell's expression earlier today. Could that woman truly be his sister? Or was he merely deceiving himself because of a desperate need to believe that any of his family might have survived his ruthless actions on Zircaster eight years ago?
Rinsing the foul taste from his mouth, Travis collapsed on his bunk again. This time recalling images of his final argument with Jenna before he'd "volunteered" to accompany Blake on this errand of mercy. They'd already been at odds about the newest trade mission Jenna had just taken on at First Captain Mikhail Stannis's suggestion and his decision to go with Blake only made the situation worse - much worse.
"It's a fool's errand, Travis," she'd protested bitterly. "And a recklessly dangerous one as well. No matter how appreciative they might be of Blake's generosity, you're risking your life if they discover who you are. Backwater agrarian societies have long memories."
" No more reckless than you taking Balkis on that run to Inviedi Prime through the Hesperus Drift with an unseasoned crew. . . and Akema absent, as well."
" Akema couldn't help that his quadrennial upgrade exams were due this month. Besides, getting that serum delivered on schedule will give us twenty times the profit of any other trade mission."
"At a hundred times the risk." He'd grasped her shoulders in rough appeal and she'd jerked angrily away.
"You're hardly one to talk, volunteering to go to Zircaster with Blake." Jenna made a visible effort to calm herself. "I know the massacre still haunts your nightmares. You want to make peace with your past and possibly even discover if any of your family survived. But I'm telling you, it's too soon to stir up people's memories, particularly on a colony that's suffered as much as Zircaster has the last few years. People with little to distract them nurse their grudges and feed old hatreds to the point of obsession. If they discover who you are, they won't just kill you. . . they'll rip you to pieces."
The horror on Jenna's face was plain and he'd ached to kiss her fears away, but he knew if he touched her, he'd never find the resolve to leave.
He'd turned away, answering in a rough-edged voice, "I'm sure Avon can come up with something to hide my identity, since his safety will depend on it remaining a secret."
"If you can trust him not to turn you in himself." She turned angrily towards him, "Whynow, of all times? If we complete this run on schedule, it could be a major break for us, maybe even put us in the black enough to buy another ship, expand our operations. What's more important than that, Travis?"
"Finding my family. . ." his voice dropped to a ragged whisper at the hurt look in Jenna's eyes.
"I thought we were a family now."
Squaring her shoulders, she'd tossed her head defiantly. "Well, you've made it quite clear this wild goose chase to Zircaster is more important than any obligation you might feel to me. I guess I'll see you when you return. If . . . you return."
Her eyes had been blazing with a mixture of anger and tears as she stalked away, leaving him to wonder if she would even be there when he returned.
He rubbed his face fitfully, trying to banish those painful memories before dropping into an
Early the next morning, the majority of Liberator's crew was helping Blake teleport the weather control machinery down to the planet's surface. After studying Orac's topographical surveys and consulting several of the local farmers about weather patterns in the area, Avon had finally chosen a site to set up the monitoring station.
As Jason blinked out of the teleport alcove, Travis felt a momentary qualm and turned to Cally, who was filling a large box with medical supplies.
"Do you think it's safe for Jason to go down there? His resemblance to me might get him in trouble."
Cally looked up and smiled, "You haven't looked at him that closely in the last few weeks, have you?
"Well, the tattoo's gone. . ." Travis frowned to himself, trying to remember if he'd even spoken to his and Jenna's son in the past week. "He and Dayna were laughing about something on the flight deck a couple of days ago."
"Yes, they were," Cally nodded. "And from what I recall of your memories when Jason and I were linked, I don't recall you laughing at all when you were growing up."
"Life was too hard. . . and death too close," he answered bitterly.
"But not for Jason. The life you lived showed on your face like a brand. Since he's been aboard Liberator, Jason has lived his own life and made his own memories. He's no longer just a reflection of you and Jenna, he's becoming a person in his own right."
Travis nodded thoughtfully and then took the box that Cally held out to him, "More computer equipment for Avon's project?"
"Just some data crystals. I'll be teleporting down medical equipment and supplies for the colony's doctor later this morning This colony is running low on almost everything. Besides we hardly need these items anyway, since we're no longer battling the Federation."
Materializing at Avon's site, Travis glanced around, impressed by the panoramic view from this particular peak. Besides overlooking the entire valley, its location was almost directly in the normal path of the disrupted jet stream, source of most of the weather systems in this part of the continent. Ideally situated for both monitoring and adjustment.
Obviously, Blake's crew had been hard at work since before dawn, erecting and anchoring the sturdy prefab building that would house the weather control system. Inside the building he spotted Jason, Dayna, and Tarrant unloading boxes and sorting thru program modules, while half a dozen volunteers from the settlement began to assemble the initial monitoring system under Avon's impatient direction. Travis handed the crystals to Tarrant and was about to leave when Blake approached him.
"Why don't you teleport back up and help Cally with the medical supplies? That would give you the chance to talk with Dr. Daniels. . .get some background on the settlement, maybe even learn a little more about the people. Doctors usually know all the local gossip."
"I'm not interested in gossip, Blake," he growled. " My purpose here is business, strictly business. Looking for export goods, mineral rights, and other trade possibilities. . .like a Free Trader captain should."
"Of course, Captain McRae," Blake replied in a neutral tone. "Just be careful. Vila is on teleport watch, if you need to get back to Liberator."
"I'll remember, Blake." Travis shook his head wryly at Blake's subtle way of telling him to stay out of trouble. Depending on Vila for a fast retrieval would likely prove fatal.
He glanced around at the rugged terrain, wondering if he should call back up before Cally left and request teleport into the valley, then decided against it. He was in no rush to begin questioning local farmers about their memories of the Federation crackdown eight years ago. Exploring the region would fit in with his Free Trader persona and give him a chance to compose his thoughts about how to approach the touchy subject.
Taking a rough trail that led across the ridgeline, Travis paused in the shadow of a cliff, pulled out his scanner and took a wide range reading for useful ores or crystals. He was well aware that the Federation's preliminary geophysical surveys would have eliminated Zircaster as a commercial mining operation before turning the planet over to the agrarian combine that had initially developed it. Still, the colonists didn't need commercial quantities of ores or gemstones to improve their living conditions. Just enough to make them a viable trading stop.
The scanner remained obstinately silent as Travis surveyed the rocky terrain.
A stream of pebbles nearly dropped on his head and he glanced up from the scanner to see a small ragged figure inching up a crumbling trail along the steep tor that loomed above him.
"Look out, you little fool," he bellowed. "You're going to get yourself killed!"
The climber must have heard his warning because he gave a rather emphatic negative gesture. Though whether he was signaling for silence or cautioning him not to follow, Travis could not be sure.
What he was sure of was that the trail up side of that cliff was obviously starting to crumble and unless the climber planned to grow wings, he was almost certainly stuck on the side of that cliff. Travis squinted into the early morning sunlight trying to determine why the idiot was attempting that suicidal climb anyway. There were much easier ways to reach the top of the tor.
Suddenly he spotted the cleft in the rock just above the climber's head and the bundle of sticks and mud that could only be some kind of nest. According to planetary records, there was a large winged raptor native to these mountains which normally fed on local wildlife. But due to scarcity of its usual prey, it had recently begun attacking farmers' yard fowl and newborn herd beasts. If the climber intended to kill the creature and its offspring, he'd certainly picked a recklessly suicidal method.
And for a sudden painful moment Travis flashed back to Metis III, hearing his brother Dar's voice as though it was yesterday.
"You're still determined to go through with this reckless stupidity?"
"I've located den sites for nearly a score of fenris. It's whelping season now and the females are still nursing their young. A few well-placed bombs will flatten out this group's population growth curve. . .for this year at least."
"Damn," he muttered to himself, as he hurriedly scrambled up the ridge to a ledge that jutted over the crumbling trail and peered down to where the climber was spread-eagled against the cliff. Like all Federation Command officers Travis had the requisite mountaineer training, but at the moment he lacked even the most basic equipment.
He glared in disgust at his teleport bracelet. If Dayna had still been aboard Liberator, he could explain the situation to her and she'd teleport down ten minutes later with enough pitons and line for him to rappel down and rescue the trapped climber. But Vila-- Vila was useless. Then he looked at the bracelet again, a desperate idea suddenly taking shape.
"Vila!" he called loudly. "Wake up, Vila. I need your help."
"Whatta ya want, Travis? I'm on duty at the teleport, I can't leave my post."
"I don't want you to leave, Restal. Just stay awake for the next fifteen minutes and when I tell you to teleport, do it quickly."
"What's going on, Travis? What are you up to? If this gets me in trouble with Blake. . ."
"It won't. Just shut up. . . and try to remember, I'm McRae, not Travis, or I'll cut off your ears and feed them to you. Now, I've got to concentrate. I haven't done a free traverse in years." Recalling Avon's warning, Travis hastily switched off the imaging unit and placed it beside his discarded scanner, hoping that whoever the climber was, he was too young to remember the Federation crackdown or the officer who led it.
Sliding downwards until he felt what remained of the trail under his feet, Travis sidled along until he reached the point where the slender ridge had crumbled away, leaving nothing but sheer cliff. But Travis had learned how to climb rocks like this from an expert, finding finger and toeholds where the untrained eye saw only naked stone. He inched his way along, not moving at all until he was sure his grip would support his full weight while he searched for the next tiny niche or outcropping.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, it beat down on the rock face turning the once shadowed cliff into an inferno. Travis ignored the sweat dripping into his eye and edged his way along until he finally reached his goal, the slender ledge just below the raptor's aerie.
He eased alongside the trembling climber, not surprised to find it was a young boy, no more than ten or twelve years old. Skinny and dark-haired with intense blue eyes, the boy was dressed warmly, though his clothes had gotten torn and dirty during his climb.
Travis grinned, hoping to reassure the child, but the boy cowered away, shielding something against his chest. Peering between the boy's cupped fingers, he snorted in disgust. It was a fledgling raptor, undoubtedly taken from the nest just over their heads.
"Of all the stupid, hare-brained stunts. I hope your Pa takes a stick to you when we get back down." The child tried to retreat from Travis's anger, edging away from him until the rock began to crumble beneath him, but Travis grabbed his elbow, pulling him close. "Hell no, I didn't risk my life just to have you throw yours away. Relax, boy. My bark's worse than my bite. What's your name? Who are your parents?"
The boy trembled in his grip, staring at him in wide-eyed alarm, still refusing to speak.
"Never mind. Blake can sort it out when he gets back aboard."
Carefully he unclasped the bracelet and held it in front of the boy's face. "This is a teleport bracelet. I'm going to fasten it around your arm." He did so, sliding it above the child's elbow so it wouldn't slip off, "Then when I press this button, you'll suddenly be somewhere else . . . somewhere safe."
The boy just stared at him, still clinging to his hard-won prize. "Don't worry, the bird will go too." Travis reassured him. "Though I doubt your Ma or Pa will let you keep it." Pressing the comm button, Travis ordered, "All right, Restal. Activate the teleport now."
The boy vanished in a white-edged shimmer and Travis slumped in relief on the narrow ledge, wiping the sweat and dust off his forehead and cheeks. Glancing nervously around, he hoped Mama Raptor wouldn't return anytime soon and find her pillaged nest. He didn't feel up to going a round against the savage talons and beak that he'd seen displayed in the planetary records.
As he straightened up and prepared to begin his traverse back to the ledge, the breeze carried a distinctly carrion smell from the nest just above his head. Against his better judgement, Travis crept upward and peered into the nest, thinking to find only decayed remnants of prey brought to the nestlings. Instead, he spotted an adult raptor, sprawled lifelessly across the empty nest, its partially devoured body impaled by an arrow. He didn't know if the boy had seen the wounded bird and followed it to the nest or just set out to retrieve the fledgling on his own, but it had been a brave thing to do.
Flexing and stretching his stiffened arms and shoulders, Travis sighed as he looked back at the stretch of rock he'd come across earlier.
"I suppose it's too much to expect Restal to teleport down a replacement bracelet." He grimaced wryly, "He's probably already yammering to Cally that he's on teleport duty and not signed up to babysit kids and wild animals."
Travis glanced at his right hand with its torn nails and raw bleeding fingers and his left hand, smooth and unmarked. "Well, there's some advantage to having a cyber arm after all."
Without the urgency of a rescue mission driving him to hurry across the bare cliff, Travis was much more painstaking in choosing his hand and footholds. The sun beat down out of the cloudless sky, baking the rock beneath him and drawing the moisture out of his body. His adrenaline fueled energy was slowly boiling away and the inside of his mouth felt like sandpaper. Reaching the precarious security of the cliffside trail where he'd began his traverse, Travis closed his eye in exhaustion, then glared up at the security of the ledge some twenty feet over his head.
"Damn," he swore softly, wishing he'd at least thought to carry a canteen on this trek. He was covered in sweat and his mouth was dry as dust. Next time he'd remember. . .if he managed to survive this little outing. Wiping the sweat and blood from his right hand onto his shirt, Travis began his slow, painful climb back to the ledge.
The upward ascent was even more difficult because the sun reflecting off the rock made it much harder to spot hand and footholds. Added to the fact of his compromised depth perception, Travis began to believe he might not be able to save himself. Then with a growl of frustrated fury, he flattened himself against the cliff and used the heavy-duty strength of his artificial left arm and hand to hammer out handholds for the last few feet.
Dragging himself over the top of the ledge, Travis collapsed in an exhausted, panting heap. As his breathing slowed and his vision began to clear, he sensed that he was not alone.
Struggling to lift his head, he spotted a shaggy, fur-covered, four-legged beast with a long snout full of very large sharp teeth sniffing at his head and arm, as though deciding where to take the first bite.
"Oh shit," he groaned to himself. "Could this day get any better?"
Cally gazed around the tiny surgery of the colony's only physician. Although scrupulously clean, it contained only the most primitive equipment and supplies. She and Dayna had teleported down with several large boxes of medical items from Liberator and were waiting for Dr. Daniels to finish with a patient so he could tell them where he wanted the supplies stored.
Dayna was studying skillfully rendered drawings of local wildlife that were the spartan office's only decor.
"Oh Cally, these creatures are magnificent. Look at the wingspread on that. . ." she peered at the label in the corner of the illustration. "It says it's a sable hawk. I'd love to see it soaring like that. And this furry thing with all the teeth. . . can you imagine hunting it, with just a bow and arrow?"
Dr. Daniels stepped into the room, drying his hands as he spoke, "That's a Garm wolf, named after a mythical creature that swallowed the moon. Our version isn't quite big enough to do that but is still dangerous. How can I help you ladies?"
Cally gestured to the boxes, "These are medical supplies that our crew has little need for any longer. I thought I'd see if your people could use them?"
The doctor opened the boxes and began sifting through the supplies, murmuring in delight, "Sterile bandages, antiseptics, antibiotics. . .this is wonderful. We've been reduced to boiling rags for bandages and experimenting with local roots and herbs, testing their medicinal properties. This is even more welcome than your weather control equipment. . .to me at least."
Cally shrugged, but before she could speak, Vila's hysterical voice erupted from her teleport bracelet, "Cally? Are you there, Cally? Answer quick, please We've got a big problem-er, or maybe a little problem. But it's definitely a threat. . .to me, if not you."
"Vila, what are you rattling on about? Just calm down and tell me what's wrong?"
"There's an intruder on board Liberator."
"An intruder? How did he get aboard?"
"It wasn't my fault," Vila whimpered. "It's all his doing. He said to bring him up. . . then some little savage with a nasty beastie on his arm appeared when I did."
"Who ordered you to activate the teleport?"
"Trav--" Vila paused and swallowed, "Captain McRae."
"What could have happened?" Cally wondered, then turned her attention to more urgent concerns. "Where is the intruder now?"
"I dunno," Vila moaned. "When he appeared, I tried to talk to the boy and calm him down. Then this . . . this. . . beastie he was holding made an awful screeching noise and bit my hand. Drew blood it did. While I was trying not to bleed to death, they ran for it. Don't ask me where Probably hunkered down somewhere, waiting to rip my heart out and eat it. . .raw."
"Calm down,." Cally ordered sternly. "It sounds like someone may have stolen Captain McRae's bracelet. . .but then why would he have activated it? Never mind, I'll inform Blake."
"What about me? What if he decides to sneak up behind me and. . . eat my brains?"
"He'd die of starvation," Dayna jibed. "Just stay awake and he won't get the chance."
"Yes, Vila. Stay alert and don't leave the teleport controls. I'm sure Blake will want us to return and locate our intruder. We need to find out what happened to . . . Captain McRae."
Activating her link to Blake, Cally reported. "Vila says we have an intruder aboard. Captain McRae requested teleport, but a stranger appeared in his place. Whoever our visitor is, he's small, so I doubt he represents much of a threat."
"Undoubtedly some urchin with sticky fingers." Avon muttered from under a control panel, then peered dourly up at Blake. "You might as well teleport up with her and catch the little street arab before he robs us blind."
"Are you sure you don't need me here to help, Avon?"
"Quite sure," came the acerbic reply as Avon ducked back under the panel. "Between our local volunteer brigade, Tarrant and Jason, I have more than enough unskilled labor on hand."
As Blake materialized aboard Liberator, he saw that Dr. Daniels had accompanied Cally and Dayna. Cally was aiming an exasperated look between Vila and the teleport controls.
"It's not my fault we can't trace Cap'n McRae. I was fightin' for my life when the controls were zeroed," Vila protested. "And I don't remember how the coordinate grid got smashed."
"I know all the local kids" the doctor broke in with a worried look. "Delivered most of them, in fact, and I can't imagine one of them attacking anybody. But maybe I can help calm things down."
"Very well. Hopefully when we locate the fugitive he'll be able to tell us what happened to our . . . passenger," Blake replied.
With Zen's help the search party was quickly able to isolate the intruder, cowering behind several large crates of replacement parts in one of the storerooms.
Blake started into the darkened room only to have Cally place a restraining hand on his arm. "Wait, Blake. Our intruder is young, no more than ten or twelve years old and radiating sheer blind terror. If we charge in and grab him, he could be traumatized. . .possibly even die of fright."
"I thought you couldn't read humans?"
"Normally not. . . but the child is projecting so strongly, I'd have to be dead not to feel it." "Hmmm" Blake began nibbling on one of his fingers, a strong indicator of deep thought, then turned toward the doctor. "Do you have any suggestions, Dr. Daniels?"
" Let me go in. Once the child sees me, there shouldn't be any problem."
Cally pressed one hand to her temple and winced, "I don't think that will work, Doctor. Right now that child is a tightly curled ball of shivering terror. If any of us go charging in there, we're going to frighten him even more."
"What do you suggest, Cally?"
"Silence. Patience. Give him a chance to catch his breath."
While Blake and Cally were discussing options, they didn't notice as Dayna crept into the room, keeping to the shadows and moving like a breath of wind. As a child on Sarran, she'd learned stealth at a very young age, avoiding the hostile natives. Stalking silently through the rocks and trees became second nature to her and once she'd even located a litter of dune fox kits, after their mother was killed by a Sarran hunting party. She'd bottle fed the kits, attempting to hand raise them, but none had survived. She didn't intend to let this child and his rescued "beastie" suffer a similar fate, not when she was certain she could get close enough to coax him out.
Inching slowly towards the deeper shadows behind several larger crates, she spied a small ragged figure with something clasped tightly against its chest.
"Hello," she whispered softly. "I'm Dayna, what's your name?"
There was a strangled sob and the boy tried to retreat further under the crates, but whatever was clutched in his hands made sudden screeing noise and fluttered wildly. Dayna leaned forward, peering at the child's bloodied fingers as she spied a brown feathered ball with surprisingly formidable beak and claws.
"Oh, you have a baby. . . bird . . .hawk? No wonder you ran away. You didn't want anyone to take it from you. Vila wouldn't have, you know. He doesn't like wild things, not like you and me."
She rummaged in the pocket of her jumpsuit, finding the protein bar that she'd stashed earlier, knowing Avon's tendency to forget about eating and other basic necessities when he was in the middle of a project. Tarrant was the only one who actually enjoyed these rations, but hopefully the bird or the child wouldn't find them totally unappetizing. She crumbled it into small pieces and placed them on the floor, in an attempt to lure the fugitive out from behind the crates.
The child stared at her, bright blue eyes suspicious.
Dayna shrugged, "I'm not going to hurt you. But if you don't get some food and water for your feathered friend very soon, he's not going to make it."
The child edged toward the crumbs and snatched up a fistful. Dayna did not attempt to grab him but sat on the floor Indian style, watching as he fed most of the crumbled bar to the loudly screeing bird. Licking the last crumbs from his fingers, he stared at her with a hopeful look on his face. Close up, she could tell that he was older than they had first thought, though skinny and underdeveloped, with a shock of brown hair falling into those intense blue eyes. He appeared to be clean, healthy and well cared for, despite his tattered clothes and a superficial coating of dirt. Dayna climbed slowly to her feet, holding out her hand. "That's all I have with me. If you want seconds. . .or something more than just a protein bar, you'll have to come with me."
He stared at her for a long moment. Still clutching his hard-won prize against his chest, he stood up and warily took her hand.
Just outside the storeroom, Blake, Cally, and Dr. Daniels were watching anxiously as Dayna approached., the child lagging a little behind as though he might bolt again.
"Brian McConnell!" the Doctor exclaimed. "Deirdre's probably half out of her mind with worry."
Bending over so their eyes met, the doctor gripped the boy's shoulders, shaking him gently. "Brian, Brian, I thought we had an understanding. No more running away. You're supposed to stay with the other children, learn your letters and numbers. Study more about this planet so you'll be able to take care of your mother when you're older."
Brian's expression was solemn as he held out his rescued fledgling and the Doctor sighed, "Not another one." He peered at the bird closely, "Judging by the markings, it's a young sable hawk, though I doubt it will survive the week." He stood up taking a long look at the boy's torn clothing and scratched, bleeding hands. "We better get you washed up and tend to those wounds before telling Deirdre that you've brought her another foundling."
Blake waited impatiently for his chance, then spoke to the boy. "What about the teleport bracelet? How did you come by it? What happened to Captain McRae?"
Brian cowered back, attempting to hide behind the doctor as Daniels answered, "He can't tell you, Blake. The boy's mute, dumb as a stone. Has been ever since his father was killed by a Federation firing squad eight years ago."
Blake winced in sympathy. No wonder the McConnell woman was so angry. Continuing his questions, "What about writing? Sign language? Surely there's some way he communicates with you. . . and his mother."
"His mother's tried, I've tried, half the people in this valley have tried one way or another to teach him. . . but he's not interested. He just doesn't care. . .not about people anyway. Oh, he'll point to things he wants and express likes and dislikes to a degree, but it's only animals that he really responds to. He's rescued and hand-raised everything from butterfly voles to a wounded Garm wolf."
"That's all very well, Doctor, but I've got a man missing, with no way to trace him, except this child's memories. He must have been the last to see him, since he was wearing McRae's teleport bracelet. How do you suggest that I find him if the boy can't tell me where he last was?" Blake demanded in exasperation.
"I don't know, Blake. All I can tell you is that sable hawks usually nest in the highest crags- around the Falconer's Peak area. That's the only place Brian could have found a fledgling this time of year. "
"Is there anyone besides the boy who knows the area? Who might be willing to guide us?"
Cally placed a restraining hand on Blake's arm, drawing him away from Dr. Daniels as she whispered urgently, "Remember I told you that the boy was projecting so strongly, Blake? Travis's face was imprinted clearly in his mind. . .without the imager."
"If Avon's device has malfunctioned, then Travis must be wandering thru those hills, wearing his own face. He could sabotage what little good will we have with these people."
"And get himself killed besides."
Blake ran a hand thru his unruly curls in exasperation , "Judging by his actions so far, that just might be his objective. And even if we dragged Avon away from his weather control device to repair the teleport's coordinate system, it might not be in time to prevent Travis from doing something foolish. Tarrant, Jason and I can scour the area where Dr. Daniels says the boy might have been."
"Dayna's tracking skills would be useful and I also have experience locating people in rough country," Cally reminded him of her guerilla training on Saurian Major.
"Very well," Blake reluctantly agreed. "But once we find him, he's staying aboard Liberator, if I have to tie him up and gag him."
Turning on his diplomatic charm, Blake escorted the doctor and his young charge to the teleport. "Thank you, Dr. Daniel, for your help in identifying Master McConnell. I presume you'll return him to his mother."
"As soon as he's cleaned up and bandaged." Dr. Daniels patted Brian's shoulder before continuing, "I know most of the local farmers are busy with the harvest, but some of the volunteers working with Avon might be able to guide you, looking for your missing shipmate."
"Not necessary, Doctor. Now if you don't mind, we need to start organizing our search detail."
Shaking his head to clear it, Travis climbed slowly to his feet, gaze locked with his stalker's, keeping his left arm between his body and the shaggy beast. He reached down to his belt where his blaster was usually holstered but found nothing but torn leather. Damned thing must have come loose when he was climbing to the top of the cliff. That only left the shiv inside his boot seam. Moving slowly and carefully to reduce the chance of provoking an attack, he reached down inside his boot and slowly withdrew the slender blade. It wasn't much, up against those savage teeth, but at least he'd have a fighting chance. Especially if the beast went for his left arm instead of his throat.
For long moments, they crouched there, both man and beast with teeth bared, poised to strike at the first threatening move. A brief cooling breeze rippled through Travis's sweaty hair and the animal lifted its nose, tasting his scent on the wind. It studied him, feral yellow eyes gleaming, then with an almost human snort of disgust, the beast shook its head and trotted away.
Not certain whether it was the smell of circuitry and plastic that discouraged the creature or unwillingness to attack able-bodied prey. Whatever the reason, Travis was just glad to be rid of his four-footed company.
He stared back the way he'd come. It was less than ten kilometers to the weather station, where there would be water. . . and Avon's snide remarks about restraining his "heroic impulses". Undoubtedly Blake would also lecture him about "proper teleport procedure" and bringing strangers aboard Liberator. Travis decided he'd rather suck on a rock until his tongue turned black than go dragging back to the weather station minus his bracelet.
He glanced at the trail leading into the valley. Conavale's doctor had a commset and there might even be a transceiver at one of the outlying steadings. Once he reached the settlement, he could contact Tarrant or Cally. . . even Dayna might be sympathetic enough to teleport down with an extra bracelet and spare him Blake's self-righteous nagging. Wiping a grimy arm across cracked and bloody lips, he glanced around and retrieved his scanner and imaging device, then headed down the trail, hoping to find a spring or other source of water sometime soon.
Some indefinite time later, Travis's head snapped up as he roused from the auto-pilot state that he'd lapsed into while trudging into the valley. He glanced around warily, wondering if the carnivore that menaced him earlier might have returned, bringing friends. Seeing no sign of predators, he took a deep breath, then realized he smelled dampness in the air.
There must be a source of water somewhere nearby. Travis glanced urgently around, looking for a spring, a sinkhole. . . even a stagnant pond would be a welcome sight. Pausing, he listened intently then determined there was a faint trickling sound off to his right. He pushed through the undergrowth, then spied a small rock lined cistern about half a meter wide, filled by water trickling down from the cliffs overhead.
Crouching among the bushes, Travis surveyed the surroundings to assure himself there were no hostile animals lying in wait. After recalling Avon's warning about the limitations of his imager, he deliberately switched the device off, then staggered into the clearing, and dropped to the ground, plunging his face into the cool water. For several seconds, Travis kept his head immersed as his parched tissues soaked up the life-giving water.
As he raised his head and began to drink, a quavery but determined voice spoke out, "Stealing water's a hanging offence in this valley, stranger. Now, stand up and give me one good reason I shouldn't blow your head off."
Travis's blood turned to ice. The imaging device was off, with no chance to switch it on again before his captor got a good look at his face. And if she recognized him. . .
He shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Well, she was going to kill him anyway for stealing water, he might as well die wearing his real face.
Keeping his hands raised, Travis climbed carefully to his feet and turned to face his captor.
She was small and thin with a snow white coronet of braids. Despite her apparent age, she stood straight as a steel rod, holding a pulse rifle centered his chest though she gave no sign of recognizing Travis when he stood.
Deciding he might as well continue the charade, if she wasn't going to shoot him on sight, he apologized, "I'm sorry ma'am. I'm a stranger here, doing mineralogical scans up in the mountains when I lost my way. I didn't know this was your water."
"Mineralogical scans? Whatever for? The Federation determined there was nothing of value on Auros before they turned it over to the farming combines."
Travis's brow drew down at her use of the Federation version of the planet's name. She must have been one of the second wave of workers, brought in to fill labor slots in the combines.
He continued his cover story, "I'm a Free Trader Captain, scouting new trade routes. Looking for minerals, crystals, new spices or medicines, even dye stuffs or fabric. Anything that will make it worth my while to bring a ship out this way occasionally."
"You're a bit off the beaten path for a Free Trader, aren't you? Not many trade ships come out this far." She studied him shrewdly, the muzzle of the gun still pointed unwaveringly in his direction.
"With the Federation crippled by the Andromedan attack, the Enclave's been consolidating their holdings on the richer worlds, leaving marginal systems to fend for themselves. So independents, like myself, are able to get a foot in the door."
It was the truth, just not the whole truth. However, his arms were getting tired and he didn't feel like discussing galactic politics with a gun pointed at his ribs.
His answers must have satisfied the old woman, because she lowered her weapon and gestured for him to come forward. "Well, if you are a genuine Free Trader and not some no-account thief, the least I can do is invite you inside for drink of clean water rather than make you guzzle from the goats' trough."
As she shifted the rifle under one arm, Travis lowered his hands and approached her. A wry good humor showed in her weathered and wrinkled face and as he came closer, he saw the cloudy haze of cataracts behind her dark brown eyes.
"You. . .you're half-blind," he accused. "You probably couldn't have hit me even if you fired."
"Oh, my detail vision may be gone, but I still see well enough to keep the Garm wolves from feasting on my goat herd. . .or blow the legs out from under trespassers."
Leading him into a small, but well-built two room cabin, she gestured for him to be seated as she poured water from a glazed pitcher. "My name's Naomi Reeves, Captain. Drink your fill. That spring hasn't dried up so far, despite the drought."
As Travis sipped slowly, gazing around her cabin, Naomi puttered around the kitchen pouring hot water from a kettle hanging over the fire and making herself a cup of tea. While her back was turned, he switched on his imager, hoping her vision was as limited as she said and she hadn't gotten a close enough look at him to notice the difference
The room he was sitting in was simply furnished with just a table, two chairs, and rough hewn shelves holding dishes and pans. Along one wall was a stone fireplace with a cauldron filled with some strong smelling substance, steeping on the hearth. A large treadle loom filled the rest of the living area. The cabin was cool and dim despite the stifling heat outside and its main source of light was two windows on the outer wall with snug-fitting shutters that could be barred from the inside. Though the walls were only rough-finished, several woven hangings added brightness and color to the stark interior..
Carrying her hot tea without spilling a drop, the old woman seated herself across from him and asked, "Now, let's hear the rest of your story, Captain. Your name, your ship, and your real reason for being here?"
"Like I told you," Travis repeated, with careful patience. "My name's Colin. . .McRae, Free Trader, independent," he added defiantly. "Shipped aboard Liberator, with Roj Blake."
"What is Roj Blake, rebel, doing here on Auros?"Naomi demanded sharply. " There are no installations to attack. The Federation abandoned us to starve after the Andromedans attacked. And if he's looking for new recruits. . . we've barely enough men left to farm the land and feed those of us who survived."
"Blake's brought weather control equipment, to improve conditions here. So your farms can produce more food and your people have a better chance of survival."
"Weather control equipment? How in the blazes did Deirdre manage to come up with the credits for that?"
"There's no charge. It's Blake's attempt to salve his guilty conscience for the attack on Star One. He bought the equipment from the Free Trader's Enclave then persuaded a computer specialist to accompany him to set it up and teach your people how to maintain it."
Naomi laughed wryly, "Still, I can just imagine Deirdre's reaction when he told her who he was."
"She swings a mean right," Travis agreed, taking another swallow of the water as he nerved himself to ask the question that haunted him. "She seemed to have a personal grudge against Blake. Did she lose someone - someone close to her- when Star One was damaged?"
"Her family - or what was left of it, after the Federation had done its worst," Naomi answered in a bitter tone. "Two brothers conscripted, mother and sister dead and father left crippled by faulty cold-sleep cubicles. Star One and the chaos that followed just iced the cake."
Travis's hands tightened around the cup spasmodically causing it to shatter in his fist. The old woman stared at him, surprised by the intensity of his reaction.
"Captain McRae, what's wrong?"
"Nothing, nothing," he muttered painfully. "I. . .I . . was holding the cup too tight, I guess. It broke."
Naomi stared at him for long moments, her clouded gaze seeming to pierce through to his very soul. Abruptly she pushed up from the table to get a small whisk broom made of branches tied together and gathered up the broken pieces, putting them carefully to one side. As she brushed the smaller debris from the table, she glared at him sternly, "This is not a wealthy world, Captain, and good dishes are hard to come by. I'll thank you not to damage any more of mine ."
"I'm sorry," Travis said in a hoarse whisper. "I'll pay for it. . .or replace it."
"No matter, you're a guest under my roof and I ask no money for my hospitality. Just remember what I said." Seating herself at the table again, she studied him intently. "You seemed unusually moved by a stranger's troubles . . .or is Deirdre a stranger to you?"
Travis struggled to regain his composure while Naomi was cleaning up the broken cup, finally managing to answer the question, "No. . .no, I never met her before yesterday. She seemed a very strong woman, taking charge of burning the contaminated field And her reaction to Blake."
"Oh Blake's actions may have been rash and ill-considered," Naomi agreed. "But the Federation deserves a good portion of the blame. The garrison stationed here after the uprising eight years ago was supposed to 'protect' us. But when the Andromedans attacked, they looted the last of our emergency supplies, then raised ship and left us helpless against raiders and scavengers who preyed on defenseless worlds like ours in the aftermath of the battle."
The angry bitterness in Naomi's voice ebbed and she continued softly. "Deirdre's father led the holding action that kept the worst of the raiders at bay, until the rest could reach shelter in the mountains. My husband, Jacob, and Deirdre's youngest brother died fighting beside him. "
Travis flinched, abruptly recalling his youngest brother's infectious laugh and how he could make their baby sister Gwen smile when no one else could..
Now Brian was dead. Gwen, too. Margaret and Megan. Conal and Maeve. All of them gone. Nothing left . . .but the empty ache where his heart had been.
He and Deirdre - and Dar, if you counted animated corpses-the only survivors
His voice was a strangled whisper, "The whole family. . . dead. . . gone."
"You seemed very . . .moved by Deirdre's story, Captain."
"I was. . . orphaned at a young age, Seran Reeves. I sympathize with Seran McConnell."
He stared down bleakly then pushed away from the table, "Thank you for your hospitality. I should get going if I want to reach the valley by dark.
"Why not wait, Captain, until my granddaughter arrives? After she pens my goats for the night, she can show you the quickest, safest way back."
"No," he refused. "It's not that far. I'll find my own way. . ."
Suddenly, there was the sound of running footsteps coming up the path as a young voice called out, "Grandma, are you there? You wouldn't believe what's been happening. We've got visitors! They say they're going to fix our weather. . .and one of them saved Brian from splitting his head open when he climbed up Falconer's Peak after a sable hawk fledgling."
The girl stopped short in the doorway, seeing that her grandmother was not alone. "Oh, I didn't know anyone was here." She pushed windblown hair behind her ears, smoothed down her skirt and tried to wipe the dust from her face.
Silhouetted as she was in the doorway, Travis couldn't see her face but Naomi pushed up from the table and smiled.
"Kayla, mind your manners. This is one of those visitors that you're so excited about. My granddaughter, Kayla Madison. Kayla, this is Free Trader Captain Colin McRae. He's hoping to find something make it worth his while to make regular trade runs here."
"Oh, that'ud be wonderful. To have new clothes or shoes or even just a hair ribbon. . . and not have to repair or reuse everything. " The girl giggled, stepping forward shyly out of the sunlight and into the dimness of the cabin.
Travis blinked for a moment as he stared at her in disbelief, then sagged against the table, his heart pounding.
Kayla was the image of his lost Rissa. Same pert nose, rounded chin, and wide-spaced dark eyes, though the girl fidgeting under his startled gaze was merely slender and not gaunt with malnutrition like Rissa had been. He swayed, closing his eye and then opening it again, still staring, as Naomi continued her introduction.
"She's my youngest daughter Melissa's girl. Just turned sixteen."
Naomi Reeves! The name finally registered in Travis's memory, Naomi and Jacob Reeves -Rissa's parents. He'd met Rissa's mother only once or twice more than twenty years ago. No wonder he hadn't recognized her, although he still remembered Jacob Reeves' angry, grief-stricken face the night that Rissa had died.
Then this girl, who so strongly resembled his Marissa, was her niece. Despite the years of time and space separating them, she still reminded him far too much of the girl whose ravaged body he'd buried in Metis III's barren soil beneath a cairn of stones. The taste of ashes was bitter in his mouth, but he managed to acknowledge the introduction with a strained smile.
Kayla started to offer her hand, then glanced down at her discolored fingers and broken nails and hastily hid it behind her back.
"I'm sorry. I was picking out balsalm nuts for dye when we heard the news about Brian's rescue. I just had to come tell Gramma."
Travis swallowed convulsively, then tried to make his farewells "I'd better get back then. With my teleport bracelet gone, I can't contact the ship and Blake's probably looking for me."
"Oh yes, Blake- the one Deirdre punched in the nose. Dr. Daniels said he was taking a search party up to the Falconer's Peak."
Travis groaned to himself at the thought of retracing his steps over the rough terrain that he'd covered that morning, but there was no help for it. If Daniels was with the search party, he had no choice.
Kayla took in his disgruntled expression then offered, "I know a short cut. I could get you back to your friends in less than an hour."
Travis tried to refuse again but Naomi interrupted sharply, "Stop being so stubborn, Captain. Kayla has roamed these hills all her life. She can lead you to your friends in no time and then be back to get my goats penned well before sundown. Besides she knows a good deal about the mountain herbs and plants. Maybe some of our local remedies can make it worth your while to stop at Auros on a regular basis."
Travis nodded reluctantly, trying to hide his dismay.
Kayla set a leisurely pace, barraging Travis with questions about his life as a Free Trader Captain and the worlds and sights that he had seen.
Though he wasn't deliberately rude to the girl, Travis felt awkward talking to her, responding to her questions in little more than monosyllables. He kept his replies terse, trying to avoid resurrecting any more memories of his long-buried bondmate. A formidable task made even more difficult by Kayla's bright eyes and contagious laugh.
In a desperate effort to banish the past, Travis changed the subject abruptly, "The boy I rescued - what was his name - Brian? Child that age has no business wandering the mountains by himself. No one was
even sure where he was. What were his parents thinking?"
Kayla drew herself up a bit indignantly, "He may be small for his age, Captain, but Brian's twelve going on thirteen. Old enough to gather roots, berries, and wildfowl eggs, 'specially since he knows these mountains and the wild things in them better than anyone Deirdre tends to be overprotective of him, since he's all she's got left. But he always manages to escape his watchers and head for the hills."
"Deirdre?" Travis repeated in a choked voice. "Deirdre McConnell? She's the boy's mother?"
"Yes, and it's been a awful trial for her, dealing with everything after her bondmate was killed. Brian worshiped his Da . . .and now he shies away from almost everyone. Prefers his own company or the wild things he's rescued." Kayla lapsed into silence for several minutes and Travis abruptly noticed that they seemed to be heading in the wrong direction.
He halted for a moment, looking up at the sun and orienting himself to the mountain range that surrounded the valley. "Kayla. . .Serita Madison, I think you're off the trail. This is not the way that I came down the mountains."
"You were probably disoriented, Captain. Wandering all over the ridgeline."
Travis glared at her, "Girl, I was finding my way around alien mudballs when you were still sucking a sugar tit. I know how to mark a primary's meridian and orient myself in ocean, desert, jungle or swamp, even if I'm fogbound."
Kayla took a deep breath, trying to remind herself of the benefits of being patient with this hard-headed Free Trader. Even if Blake and his people didn't succeed in changing Auros's drought-cursed weather patterns, being on a regular Free Trader's route still meant better chance of survival for her family and the others in the settlement
"Captain, this is the shortest way to Falconer's Peak, which is where your friends are looking for you."
"Well, the boy must have been confused, if that's where he told them I found him. Because you are headed southwest and the tor where I spotted the McConnell boy raiding that raptor's nest was due east from here."
"A tall cliff with a notch in it? And a death-trap of a trail angling towards the notch?"
"Trail's not there anymore, but the rest of your description fits. So, the boy just didn't realize where he was ."
"Dr. Daniels was the one who told Blake to look for you at Falconer's Peak, based on his knowledge of the sable hawks' usual nesting grounds. No one would have ever guessed that Brian managed to climb Osprey Tor alone." Kayla's voice was hushed with awe.
"Then why the hell did Daniels stick his nose in, sending everyone on a wild goose chase? Couldn't the boy speak up?"
Kayla stared at him a long moment, her eyes hooded, "I thought you knew. Brian hasn't spoken a word since he was four years old. . .and saw his father murdered by Federation butchers."
Dayna stood slowly, brushing the sandy gravel from her hands..
"It's no use, Blake. I've quartered this area for the last two hours and the soil is just too dry and rocky to show tracks. Travis could have come this way leading a herd of banthas and there's no way we'd be able to tell which direction he'd gone."
Blake pinched the bridge of his nose then turned to question Tarrant, "Assuming Avon's imaging device has malfunctioned, what would Travis's next move be?"
"He knows he can't show his true face to any of the settlers without starting a riot. He'd probably hole up in the mountains, then break into Daniels' office after dark and transmit a message to us."
"I think you're right," Blake agreed, turning to Cally "Why don't you and Dayna return to the settlement and keep your ears open to find out if anyone has spotted any strangers . . . or anything else unusual."
Cally was reluctant to call off the search."He didn't take any survival gear. At these altitudes, the temperature drops very quickly once the sun sets."
Jason gazed at her in surprise, "Don't you remember? The memories we shared of Metis III. . . and the skills he grew up with? He won't freeze or go hungry."
"Not to mention his Federation survival training," Tarrant shrugged.
Abruptly Jason shaded his eyes to peer at two figures walking in their direction, "You know, that looks a bit like Travis. . . and he seems to have a native guide with him."
As they hurried toward the approaching pair, Blake couldn't help but notice that even though Travis had Avon's imager activated, there were dangerous flaws in its program. His neat hair and unmarked face was a stark contrast to his torn clothing and the scrapes and bruises that covered him from the neck down
It was all very well to warn Travis to stay out of trouble, but Blake had to admit the man's audacious impulses had saved a child's life. . . and hopefully ingratiated them with the McConnell woman and other settlers.
He glanced at Cally and muttered under his breath " I realize now keeping him bound and gagged for the next two weeks probably isn't a good idea. But I don't suppose you could persuade him to stay aboard Liberator for medical reasons. Possible concussion. . .or to rule out exposure to some kind of life-threatening disease?"
"Such as someone realizing the imager is a disguise and not a very good one." Cally shook her head reluctantly. "I think we've already seen how obsessed he is with finding survivors of the Metis III colony . . .possibly even his own family."
"I'm quite aware of Travis's obsessive nature," Blake commented sourly. "Maybe I can persuade him to assist Avon with the weather control programming."
The Auron frowned and hurried over, drawing Travis away from his guide and hoping the girl was too naive to have noticed the flaws in his disguise.
Travis tried to shrug off Cally's concern, "I'm fine. Just a few scrapes."
Meanwhile, Dayna was introducing Jason, Tarrant and herself to the young girl as Tarrant broke the ice by describing Vila's outrageous reaction to the child that Travis had ordered teleported aboard Liberator. Soon the foursome was laughing together like old friends.
Travis glared at the younger crew members, Jason in particular, engaged in that animated conversation as he growled, " Kayla needs to get back to her grandmother's cabin as soon as possible."
Dayna waved a careless hand, "Oh don't worry, Captain McRae, we'll get her back long before sundown.
As Cally led Travis towards Blake, he watched in dismay at the growing attraction between Jason and Kayla, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.
The Auron shook her head over his torn and bleeding fingers, noting the bruises showing through his tattered shirt. " Tr. . .Colin. . .I'm beginning to think we shouldn't let you off the ship without a keeper."
Travis ignored her words, clenching his fist and whispering harshly, "Dammitall, Cally. See if you can't break up that group. The last thing we need now is for Jason to fall for her ."
"It's just a little harmless flirtation. Perfectly normal for his age."
"Look at her, Cally. Remember the link. . .and Metis III."
Cally glanced over at Kayla, before murmuring to Travis. "All I see is a pretty dark-haired girl. What do you see?"
"Kayla is Rissa's niece. . .and her mirror image." Though he tried to hide his emotions, Travis's pain raked at her mind.
Cally studied Kayla's face, before turning back to him. "There may be a slight resemblance, but I obviously don't see it to the degree that you do. Besides, Jason, Tarrant and Dayna are just talking to her. What's the harm in that?"
Travis ran a hand across his face, causing a momentary distortion in the imager's field, before squaring his shoulders and striding over to Blake, who stared at him appalled.
"Are you trying to get yourself killed, man? Don't you remember what Avon said about the limitations of his device?"
"To hell with Avon's device. How much more time do you plan to waste over this backwater hole of a planet?"
Aggravated at Travis's sudden about face, Blake retorted hotly "As long as it takes to undo the damage done here by the Federation."
"Let's not forget the havoc caused by your near-destruction of Star One?" Travis sneered. "These farmers are still paying the price of your altruism. Or have you already forgotten the McConnell woman's warning?".
Blake took a deep breath, struggling to get a grip on his anger, wondering what had set Travis off like this. Just this morning, he had been just as eager as Blake to help this colony get back on its feet. Now, he seemed ready to abandon the whole project. . .and the planet as well.
What in the world - or on it-- had changed his mind so drastically?
He glanced at Cally, who seemed equally perplexed, then spoke in a mild voice, "I think you should go back to Liberator and let Cally examine you. It looks like you've had a rough time of it."
"Don't patronize me, Blake," Travis snarled.
"I'm just trying to keep you from getting yourself killed . . .and the rest of us with you."
Cally winced as the raw emotions surging between the two men flayed her nerves..While Travis and Blake continued their discussion in low but heated voices, Cally struggled to remain calm by focusing on the effervescent enthusiasm radiating from the rest of the landing party as they chatted with Travis's guide
A sudden breeze rippled across her skin, raising chill bumps. The weather had been unseasonably warm when they teleported down, but now Cally shivered at the sudden drop in temperature. A stiff breeze began to blow, sweeping dried leaves along as it whipped her hair across her face.
Blake's sleeves billowed and snapped like sails in the wind, bringing an abrupt halt to his argument with Travis. Both men glanced uneasily skyward, noting the sudden brazen hue of the still cloudless sky.
"I don't like the looks of this, Travis."
"Neither do I. It looks like Avon may have bit off more than he can chew."
"We need to get back aboard Liberator and determine if the disturbance is localized or planetwide." .
"What about Kayla?" Travis demanded harshly. "We can't leave her here."
"Once we're back aboard Liberator, Dayna can put the girl down wherever she needs to go. But you should teleport up at once," Blake ordered. "Before the imager shorts out completely and Kayla sees your true face."
" Just a damned minute, Blake. I don't take orders from you."
Cally glanced over Blake's shoulder, seeing Dayna and Kayla approaching. Determined to forestall further argument, she clasped a bracelet around Travis's wrist and called up to Liberator. "Vila, teleport now, please."
Dayna had raised her arm as if to hail the Auron, then lowered it as the teleportation effect enveloped Travis and Cally and they vanished. Kayla stared at the phenomenon, shocked by its suddenness, while Dayna addressed Blake.
" I was hoping Cally could tell me if she'd ever seen anything like this on Auron or the Inner Planets?" She held out a scarf that Kayla had been wearing around her shoulders earlier, so Blake could observe how it shimmered and changed color as it reflected the light.
Blake glanced at it and shrugged, "It will have to wait. I want you and Kayla to teleport back to Liberator. Then help her locate the coordinates for her grandmother's house and make sure she gets there safely."
"Why the sudden rush?"
Blake glanced over at Kayla, still astonished by Travis and Cally's sudden disappearance, then muttered sotto voce, "Just try to keep her out of Travis's way."
Dayna started to demand an explanation, but Blake had already turned to Tarrant and Jason, raising his voice so they could hear him over the rising wind, "As soon as we're back aboard Liberator, scan Zen's orbital surveillance records for the last 12 hours. They may give us some hint as to what set this off. I'll get a quick rundown on conditions in the valley, then teleport to the weather station and find out from Avon if there are problems with the computer system itself. "
After Blake, Tarrant, and Jason had teleported, Dayna held out a bracelet to Kayla.
"You may experience a little lightheadedness, but it's nothing to worry about."
Kayla nodded absently as they teleported up to Liberator, still wondering why only Captain
McRae was not affected by the approaching storm. . . untouched by the blowing grit and sand,
like he was standing in a dead calm.
Aboard Liberator, the atmosphere was anything but calm as Blake received a very angry call from Deirdre McConnell.
"What in the name of sanity is that man of yours- that Avon-- doing, Blake? My people have a harvest to get in, we can't afford to lose a single hour to conditions like this. I thought you were here to help us . . . not finish what the Federation started!"
Blake took a deep breath, striving project a soothing manner, "Weather control isn't an exact science, particularly with the conditions that have existed on this planet since the battle of Star One.. I'm sure Avon will be able to damp this system within an hour or two. But I'll relay your concerns when I see him."
"And when will that be?"
"As soon as I collect the current readings from Zen's planetary scans, I'll teleport to the weather station and try to get things under control."
"See that you do, Blake," Deirdre answered harshly. "Our lives depend on this harvest and every hour lost increases the likelihood that some of my people won't survive the winter."
"We're doing everything in our power. . ." but she cut the connection before he could finish.
Sensing Blake's frustration, Cally offered, "Why don't I teleport down with anyone else who wants to come and see if we can help with the harvest? It would show our good will and prove to the settlers that we don't intend to abandon them."
Blake shrugged, "I need Tarrant to continue planetary scans. But you're welcome to take anyone else you can convince to join you. . .except Travis."
Cally nodded and hurried from the flight deck.
"There's a more serious situation than the weather, Blake," Tarrant reported somberly from the piloting controls, calling up a navigational screen that showed the entire planetary grid. "While Zen was pinpointing the weather control satellites, he also located a group of weapons satellites in decaying orbit, likely leftovers from the Federation crackdown."
Blake frowned, " Are they a danger to the local population?"
"It's too early to predict where they'll come down with any degree of accuracy," Tarrant took a deep breath. "But . . I took a chance and transmitted my old Federation codes, just to see if we could access the onboard computers and stabilize their orbit."
"No luck. The best I could do was obtain a status update. The platforms were in polar orbit to cover the widest possible targeting area, but there has been no system maintenance or orbital corrections since Star One ceased to function."
"Worst case scenario if they enter the planet's atmosphere?"
"Unless we find some way to prevent or control their re-entry, the likelihood is that they will break up and rain radioactive debris all over the planet. . .including this valley."
"What about destroying the platforms before they start to descend?"
"Almost as bad. If they were still in a stable orbit, I'd say the odds were good that we could blast them without causing any problems to the planet below. But their ambit is becoming erratic, with its apogee at outer edge of the exosphere and its perigee almost into the stratosphere. I wouldn't want to take the risk."
Blake was startled at the uncertainty in Tarrant's voice. Usually his pilot radiated an unflappable self-assurance, but suddenly the young officer seemed wary and uncertain about both his and the ship's capabilities. Blake studied Tarrant thoughtfully, waiting for him to continue.
"These satellites were launched after I deserted from the Federation. I'm not familiar with their shielding or weapons configurations. It's possible design parameters didn't change that much and I could blow them to pieces, without contaminating the atmosphere. . . but if I guess wrong, then everyone on this planet would suffer for my mistake."
Blake pulled on his lip thoughtfully, "Have Zen calculate their rate of descent while I check in
with Avon," Blake ordered. " Orac can probably give us an update on their specifications but I
want to see if we can't stabilize this weather pattern first. We'll deal with the weapons platforms
when I get back ."
With his arms braced against the shower wall, Travis slumped under the icy water, sluicing the dust from his body as he tried to banish the bitterness in his heart. He should have learned his lesson before, when Dar betrayed him.. His past was best left buried in the mass grave that it had occupied for most of his life. Attempts to resurrect it were always a mistake. Deirdre and her son had already suffered enough at Federation-and his-hands. Raising the specter of her long-lost brother would only make things worse.
Hurriedly he toweled dry and opened the closet, pushing aside Free Trader clothing and reaching for the heavy duty black leather uniform he'd worn as Servalan's captive over a year ago. Dressing quickly, he glanced at the mirror in passing, noting ruefully how much the outfit resembled his old Federation battle dress. The similarity was reinforced as Tarrant almost snapped to attention when he entered the flight deck.
"Have you located the bunker yet?" Travis glanced over the map grids, trying to recall coordinates overheard during a rushed briefing over eight years before.
"I've narrowed it down to two locations, Commander." Tarrant highlighted the two areas on the grid and as Travis studied them intently, the former Federation captain spoke again. "I told Blake that I used my codes, attempting to access the onboard computers rather than yours. . .as you requested.."
"Too bad it didn't work. It definitely would have simplified things,"Travis muttered as he traced a mountain range outlined on the map.
"Are you sure the Master Control mainframe is still linked to those platforms?"
"Apparently so, from what you told me of onboard responses. Hopefully there's enough time for us to deal with this, rather than wait for Blake's return. He still doesn't trust me. . ."
"And with good reason," an icy voice interrupted.
Travis and Tarrant looked up to see Dayna standing at the entrance to the flight deck, her gun aimed steadily at Travis's chest. "Cally's too trusting. I knew two former Federation officers shouldn't be left on Liberator alone. It didn't take you long to show your true colors, Space Commander. What are your plans. . . charge up those weapons to enslave this planet again for the Federation?."
"Dayna, you've got this all wrong," Tarrant protested, moving away from the helm controls towards her. "Travis needs to reach the main computer controlling those satellites and see if he can stabilize their orbit."
"Even if I believed that's what you intend to do, why leave them in orbit?" She glared at Tarrant defiantly. "Liberator can blast them to atoms."
"No. . ." Tarrant replied softly. "We can't. Even the neutron blasters will leave debris - large pieces of radioactive material that could rain death on this planet for years to come."
Travis glared at her, his face icily controlled but his body tense. "That's my sister down there, Dayna . . .and her son. All the family I've got left. I intend to save them and I don't much care if I have to go over your dead body to do it.
Tarrant stared at his former commander in dismay, wondering how to defuse this potentially explosive confrontation. Until Dayna's youthful features twisted with pain and she slowly lowered her weapon, whispering hoarsely, "I had a sister once. . .Lauren. And if I'd had the chance. . .I would have done anything in my power to save her."
Travis brushed past her towards the teleport, grabbing a bracelet from the storage bin. Hastily he consulted the map grid, hesitating for just a moment before he input the coordinates. Tarrant peered uneasily over his shoulder.
"Are you sure these are the correct coordinates?"
When Travis did not answer, Tarrant grabbed a bracelet for himself, "I'm coming with you. You'll need someone to watch your back . . ."
"No," Travis said quietly. "Someone has to stay aboard Liberator. . .and monitor the platforms' orbits. If I'm not able to activate their booster rockets, don't wait for Blake.. Charge your weapons to maximum and destroy the platforms the next time they're at apogee."
Pausing for a moment, Travis clasped the young officer's forearm, "It's been good working with you, Del." then stepped into the teleport.
After sending Travis on his way, Tarrant turned to Dayna. "Let me teleport you down to the surface. It might be safer there."
"Not on your life. I'm staying up here. You need my help, Del." Dayna hesitated for a moment and then blurted. "I can supercharge Liberator's weapons so they blast the platforms to dust. That way no radioactive debris will actually reach the surface of the planet. . . since the dust itself should remain in orbit."
"Like Earth's Van Allen belt," Tarrant gave her a brilliant smile, "I knew you'd come up with a way to help these people. Let's get started."
"There's just one problem," she continued in a low whisper. "I won't have enough time to augment the blast shields so they protect us from the power overload. We can only save the planet by sacrificing ourselves."
"Will there be enough time to teleport you down to the planet before I engage the weapons?"
"Absolutely not, Del. This isn't a one-man operation. I'll need to keep the system online with spit and glue while you do the targeting. Besides," she gazed into his brilliant blue eyes as she tenderly caressed his cheek. "You're not going anywhere without me again - not even into the void."
As Dayna removed the panels from the weapons consoles, Tarrant returned to the piloting controls and began plotting an intercept course to satellite platforms.
Shaking his head ruefully as he gazed at Zen's screen. he muttered, "Avon will definitely be
pissed off about this."
Avon was indeed pissed off, although he currently was not aware of Dayna and Tarrant's impending suicide mission.
As Blake materialized inside the weather station, he winced as the sudden drop in pressure made his ears pop. The pre-fab building was already vibrating in the rising winds, despite the anchor cables they'd sunk into the ground earlier that day. Lights flickered as the thunder rumbled and Blake began to wonder if this computer's self-contained power systems and degaussing devices would stand up to a direct strike. An event that seemed much too likely for Blake's peace of mind.
The station appeared deserted, with no sign of the colonists that Avon had condescended to instruct in operating and maintaining the weather control computers. Only Avon and Orac were still present and Avon was buried to the waist inside one of the panels, as he questioned the snippily superior computer's directives.
"I fail to see how creating a tropical storm in the western ocean has improved conditions here. You have merely succeeded in making matters worse for the farmers in this valley."
* Meteorological systems are not chess pieces. They require a certain amount of time and energy to produce the desired results. As for how human lives are affected by this system, they were not included in the original problem's parameters.*
Avon pushed himself out from under the panel and interjected savagely,"Don't split hairs with me, Orac. Federation computers had no difficulty in providing Zircaster with a temperate climate and sufficient rainfall to grow enough foodstuffs to supply half the bases in this sector. Now, you can't correct a simple drought without causing a major meteorological upheaval. Surely you can do better than that? Weather control is a merely one practical application of chaos theory. It may be beyond the grasp of a systems engineer like Blake, but I expect you to do better."
Climbing stiffly to his feet, Avon pulled out the activator key and glanced up to see Blake standing within earshot of his earlier outburst. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd be in the village trying to placate the McConnell harridan."
"I sent Cally in my place," Blake responded with infuriating calmness. "What's the situation here? And where are your 'apprentices'?"
"I sent them back to the valley when conditions started to deteriorate. Most of them have families. . .and farms. . and they wanted to salvage whatever they could before the main force of the storm hit." Avon glanced in disdain at the dark gray pressed resin walls. "Besides I'm not totally convinced that this station would hold up in 100 mph gusts and that's what Orac is currently predicting."
"Then your activation of the weather control satellites isn't going according to plan?"
Avon rolled his eyes as he gestured upwards."Not as you and I would interpret it, I suppose. Orac attempts to regulate the whole planet's weather have caused the extreme conditions that we're currently experiencing. I've been endeavoring to damp this system before it wipes out the village, but without much success." Avon glared over at the station where Orac was linked into the weather control system, drumming his fingers on one of the consoles.
"The weather may not be the worst of our problems," Blake began. "Tarrant spotted Federation weapon platforms in a decaying orbit. Unless we can prevent or control their descent, their breakup will rain radioactive debris all over the planet."
"Not exactly the kind of precipitation that Seran McConnell was hoping for, is it Blake?"
"I teleported down to see if I could help you get things under control. But, if there's nothing more you or Orac can do here, we should teleport back to Liberator to deal with those weapons satellites and prevent this planet from becoming a death zone."
Avon sighed in exasperation and went to unhook Orac's links to the main terminal.
Blake opened the link on his teleport bracelet. "Tarrant, activate the teleport. Avon and I are coming up."
Tarrant's voice was strained as he answered. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Blake. We've got the force shields up while Dayna is supercharging the neutron blasters. When the platforms reach their farthest point from the planet, we are going to blast them into space dust."
"Don't be an idiot, Tarrant." Avon interrupted. "Unless you strengthen the blast shields proportionately, the resulting power backlash will kill you."
"We know." There was a long moment of silence.
"I'm sorry, Blake, but this seems to be the only way to prevent satellite debris from contaminating the entire planet. Dayna and I know what we're doing . . . and it's our choice."
"What about the rest of us, you young fool?" Avon demanded angrily. "Those supercharged particles will also damage the teleport and leave us stranded here. . .with no way of getting back to civilization."
"I'm sorry, Avon, but too many lives are at stake." Tarrant cut the connection, leaving Avon seething.
"Blast you, Blake. You've infected those two young idiots with your idealistic notions and now the rest of us will be stranded on this forgotten backwater. No one even knows where we are."
"Jenna knows." Blake answered softly
"And you're that sure she'll come after us."
"If not us . . . then Travis. She did before."
Travis materialized in the shadow of a sharp peak surrounded by seething clouds. Despite the heavy overcast, the wind whipping his hair across his face was as hot and dry as a gust from a blast furnace.
Wiping the grit from his eye, Travis glared at the sheer wall before him, a sudden cold fear clutching his chest that he'd chosen the wrong coordinates. Stepping closer, he peered at the striations in the rock, then with a grunt of satisfaction pried open a concealed access panel, revealing a voder activated entry system.
He rubbed his hand across his mouth nervously, then squared his shoulders and barked.
"Space Major Travis, alpha one five one zero five."
A second panel slid stiffly open, revealing a hand-print ID scan.
Travis stared at it for a long moment. The outline was neutral, appearing to take either hand. If a DNA sample was required, his right hand would be acceptable. . . but if identification was based on his service profile, the computer would be expecting his artificial hand with its imprinted access codes. . .and his current prosthesis didn't have those codes. Unless Docholli had been wilier than he and Jenna had credited the cybersurgeon and transferred the codes while replacing his damaged arm.
Only one way to find out.
He placed his hand on the panel - his left hand.
A beam flashed out of the panel, piercing the center of the palm. With a strangled curse, Travis snatched his hand away from the scanner and sprang backwards, hopefully out of range of the laser.
"Codes unacceptable. Entry denied."
Which put paid to his notion of Docholli's cunning. He inspected his smoking palm, opening and closing his fingers tentatively. Luckily the damage was merely cosmetic, with the main circuits still intact. Something Avon could repair easily. . . if he made it back to Liberator .
Travis glared at the panel, patiently waiting for him to try again. Did he dare risk his right hand - fragile flesh and blood - to get into that bunker.
He clenched his fist. There was no choice. He had to destroy those weapons platforms, whatever the price.
Travis placed his right hand on the scanner. There was a small prick and a brief pause, then the voice intoned.
"DNA scan acceptable. Space Major Travis, alpha one five one zero five. Step forward."
Travis did so, waiting impatiently for the door to open.
He growled, clenching his left fist, regretting that he'd let Jenna had talk him out of reinstalling the weapons circuitry that had once had made him Servalan's deadliest weapon. The lazeron device would have carved through that door like wet cardboard..
Pressing forward to examine the cliffside more closely, Travis spotted the lens of a retinal scanner. Hesitating only briefly he pressed his right eye to the opening. After a momentary flicker of red light, the side of the cliff slid back - opening into darkness.
Unable to see into the bunker, Travis stepped warily inside. As soon as he entered, the door slid silently shut behind him, leaving him alone in the dark. He waited a moment for the automatics to switch on and when they did not, rather than panicking and snapping on the safety light attached to his belt and making a target of himself, Travis flattened against the wall, letting his eyes and ears adjust.
The air was cold and still, with the stale musty odor of a long-closed tomb. There were odd whispering noises all around him. Not mechanical sounds, more like something feral skittering in the shadows.
"Not rats," he muttered to himself. "Anything but rats."
As his vision gradually adjusted to the darkness, he realized that the room was not pitch black as he had first thought. Instead, small lights flickered around him like predators' eyes gleaming hungrily beyond the edge of a campfire.
He straightened up and moved cautiously into the main room, his hand stretched out before him, with blaster primed and ready.
Until a familiar voice froze him in his tracks, as though some one had poured ice water down his spine.
"Welcome, Travis" purred Servalan's menacing tones.
"Supreme Commander," he croaked, wondering if he'd somehow passed through a hidden gateway into hell.
Convulsively he snapped on the safety light, expecting its high intensity beam to reveal the gruesomely charred corpse of his one-time nemesis.
Instead, there was only a standard Federation bunker, cramped, dusty and filled with computers. Most of the panels were dark, showing only standby flickers of borderline maintenance systems. The intimate greeting that had chilled his blood moments before was repeated in a more neutral tone from a voder in the central panel. "Welcome, Space Major Travis."
"Who. . .what the devil are you?" he demanded hoarsely.
"I am the Master Control Interface for Intelligence Collection and Collation and Systems Control-Auros. Security systems identify you as Space Major Travis. State your purpose for accessing this station. Since Central Control went offline, my power supply is extremely limited and I cannot maintain this level of operation long under current conditions."
"Which systems are offline and which are still functioning?"
"According to emergency protocols, spy and communications satellites were shut down first. Along with routine transmission of data summaries to Federation Psychostrategists."
"You have a transmission code for the puppeters?"
"Retrieve and relay."
"That file is currently unavailable."
Travis smashed his fist against the console. "Then make it available, dammit!" He took a deep breath and regained control of his rage. This was no time to pursue private vendettas. Too many lives were at stake. "Never mind, resume report."
"Weather control systems were shut down two years ago. Only weapons platforms remained online until malfunctions compromised my control of them."
"How much control do you retain at present?"
"Orbital position and weapons activation."
There was a long moment of silence, then the computer continued in a casual tone,
"The platforms' orbits are currently decaying. If weapons systems are activated during descent, they will turn this planet into a funeral pyre."
Travis drew in a long breath and exhaled it harshly. "All according to your plan, Supreme Commander? More blood poured out on your sacrificial altar. More corpses to feed your depraved appetite. Cries of pain and despair. . . music to your ears."
"I am not Supreme Commander Servalan. I am Master Control Interface. . ."
Travis broke in, finishing her litany, ". . . for Intelligence Collection and Collation and Systems Control-Auros. I know. Do you want all those people to die?"
"I do not 'want' anything, Space Major. I am merely following my programming."
Travis felt a sudden chill settle in the pit of his stomach at that inhuman reply. The computer was as much a slave to its 'conditioning' as he had once been. What had it said that it still controlled?
Weapons activation. . .and orbital position.
"Can you prevent the platforms' orbit from decaying?"
"If sufficient fuel remains in their booster rockets. But that would only delay the inevitable."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Due to failure of maintenance directives since the shutdown of Central Control, the platforms' fuel cores and weapons' systems have deteriorated. Unless some way is found to completely destroy them, eventually they will shower radioactive debris through the atmosphere."
Damn, just a stay of execution. There had to be another way.
"Wait, if you can fire the booster rockets to move the platforms into a higher orbit, why not a longer burn to reach escape velocity and push them out of orbit completely?"
There was a prolonged silence as if the computer was consulting all its data banks and doing the calculations, before giving him an answer.
"It may be feasible, Space Major. The amount of fuel remaining in the boosters is not sufficient to reach escape velocity. . . but it may be possible to use the planet's gravity well to slingshot them out of the planet's orbit. However, to execute that action that will drain my remaining power, shutting down all systems. . . even blanking my memory core."
"Do it," Travis ordered sharply.
There was another long hesitation before the computer responded, leaving Travis with a cold sweat trickling down his sides and back. Essentially he'd given this computer an order to self-destruct. If Servalan had programmed it with her personality as well as her voice. . .it would activate the weapons systems and blow the colonists to hell and gone rather than sacrifice itself to save their lives.
Damn he thought to himself I wish Blake were here, with his smooth persuasive voice and his rhetoric of self-sacrifice. He could probably seduce this bloody machine into doing whatever he wanted. All I know how to do is give orders.
"Don't be a fool," he muttered to himself, slamming his hand against the console. "I never ordered my men into battle, I led them. Facing the same foe and taking the same risks . . . the exact same risks."
The computer spoke at last, "Computations completed. Platforms will descend to optimum orbital position in five minutes and thirty-six point three seconds. At that time, burn must commence and continue for ninety-two point eight seconds in order for them to achieve slingshot velocity. After that, further orders cannot be accepted because this unit will no longer have sufficient power to communicate, Space Major.'
"Computer," his voice grated. "Display auxiliary power linkage."
As the screen came up on the monitor, Travis traced the circuitry diagram before stripping off his jacket and hastily opening an access panel in his upper left arm. "Is this linkage compatible with a DRX lepton processor?"
Not waiting for a reply, he hurriedly pried out the microcellular unit powering his cybernetic arm and connected it into the auxiliary power controls.
"Yes, Space Major, but such a small unit does not have sufficient power to activate the booster launch system."
"Maybe not," Travis grunted as he worked the dead weight of his cybernetic arm back into the sleeve of his jacket. "But it just might have enough power to keep your memory core active until Blake's computer expert Avon can rig you up with an auxiliary system."
"Why? With the communications and intelligence gathering satellites inactive and weapons platforms destroyed, there will be no need for a Master Control Interface for Intelligence Collection, Collation and Systems Control-Auros.."
"You never know," Travis glanced irritably around for some kind of chrono or other timing device so he could keep tabs on the countdown. "How much longer until time to ignite the booster rockets?"
"Three minutes and forty six point eight seconds."
Unable to sit still while the seconds ticked away, Travis activated the teleport bracelet. "Tarrant, have you set up your firing program yet?"
Tarrant's harried voice responded, "Commander, where are you? Did you locate the bunker and access its mainframe? Unless it stabilizes the platforms' orbit in the next ten minutes, Dayna and I are going to use Libertor's augmented neutron blasters to blast them into dust.
"Liberator's shields aren't strong enough to protect you from the backlash at that level of destruction."
"We know," came Tarrant's calm reply.
"Just hold your fire for another couple of minutes. The computer in this bunker is going to activate the booster rockets and use the planet's gravity well to slingshot the platforms up to escape velocity."
"That's a risky procedure, Commander. If anything goes wrong. . ."
"I know, that's why I called. I was hoping you'd be able to blast the platforms if anything went wrong during the burn or as they broke orbit. It will require a very sharp eye."
"Don't worry, Captain McRae." Dayna's sultry accents broke in. "I'll be manning the controls and nothing gets by me."
"I hope we won't need your targeting skills, Dayna. . . "
The computer interrupted him, "Burn commencing, Space Major. Ten seconds. . .twenty. . . . .forty-five. . .one minute. . .eighty. . . fuel expended at ninety-two point two seconds. Six tenths of a second short of optimum burn."
"NO!" Travis protested. "Not now, not when we were so close."
"What's wrong?" Tarrant demanded, "What happened?"
"The boosters ran dry six-tenths of a second short of optimum burn."
There was a momentary silence before Tarrant attempted to reassure him, "It may still be enough. There's always a fudge factor in orbital velocity calculations."
Travis was not optimistic. "Computer, re-check your calculations and project the platforms' trajectory based on current burn."
"Rechecking," came the mechanical reply, leaving him to wonder if auxiliary power had failed, despite his jerry-rigged interface, and all memory banks and control configurations had been erased, leaving nothing more than a glorified adding machine.
One minute dragged into five and then ten, until it seemed that time had stopped. Travis watched the faint flicker of lights on the computer, but it seemed unwilling. . .or unable. . . to answer his question.
Activating the communicator on the teleport bracelet, he called Liberator again.
"What's happening, Tarrant? Don't leave me hanging. Where are the platforms now?"
"They just made a fast swing across the magnetic pole, skipped along the outer atmosphere like stones across a pond then broke out of orbit, on a trajectory for the sun," Tarrant's voice was momentarily awestruck. "The view must have been tremendous from the northern hemisphere."
"Something to frighten the children for ages to come, no doubt" Travis responded sourly.
At least one threat had been eliminated. All that remained was to hope Avon and Orac could get the weather system back on track, so the settlers would have a chance of surviving.
He sighed heavily, feeling every kilo of the dead weight of his inert cybernetic arm.
"Space Major, are you all right?"
At least the computer was still functional. "Well enough, Master Control Interface. . .hell, I'm too tired to remember your whole damn job description . M. . .C. . .I You're Mici, all right?"
"Mici. . ."
There seemed to be a hint of disapproval in the neutral reply, but Travis was in no mood to indulge offended cybernetic dignity. "You mentioned that at one time you controlled this planet's weather satellites. Do you still have that capacity?"
"Central Control supplied the necessary algorithms, based on satellite data. I simply implemented its orders to the weather control satellites. However, even that would require a stable power supply. . . which I currently lack."
Travis activated the comm on his teleport bracelet, "Blake, Avon, I think I've found a 'quick and easy' solution to the weather control problems. Have Tarrant teleport you to my coordinates. Travis out."
As he waited for Blake and Avon to put in an appearance, Travis slumped on the console wondering if they would be willing to rely on this Master Control system, despite its Federation programming. Some twenty minutes later, Blake teleported into the bunker, followed by Avon clutching Orac and glaring around suspiciously as if he expected a patrol of armed troopers to pop out of hiding and arrest him.
Blake's calculating stare took in the musty, run-down state of the abandoned bunker with only a single computer panel showing signs of life.
"So this is how you managed to eliminate the weapons' satellites. Lucky you were able to get past the security systems."
"There was a minor problem or two."Travis tried to shrug, but the gesture was off-balance because of his non-functioning cybernetic arm. Blake took a closer look, spotting the scorch marks in the center of his left palm and the weariness on Travis's face
"What's this you were saying about a quick solution to the planet's weather problems?" Avon demanded skeptically, as he placed Orac on the main console.
"I am the Master Control Interface for Intelligence Collection, Collation and Systems Control-Auros. My external visual and auditory sensors identify the presence of Kerr Avon and Roj Blake, dangerous fugitives wanted by Space Command. Do you wish me to summon security troops, Space Major?"
Avon hastily drew his weapon and pointed it at Travis's chest.
"It's a trap, Blake," he hissed. "I told you he couldn't be trusted."
Blake was less perturbed, "I doubt there are any Federation troops within a hundred light years of this planet. Am I right, Travis?"
"Mici's been out of touch the past few years, though it managed to keep the weather satellites functioning until power dropped below critical levels two years ago. If we could re-initialize the systems. . ."
"Weren't you listening, Blake? That was Servalan's voice that spoke. If this system was programmed by the former Supreme Commander, the biggest favor we could do this planet would be to blast it into a million pieces."
Blake turned to Travis with a question, "Mici?
"Master Control Interface is too much of a mouthful. What do you say, Blake? Why not give this computer a chance to overcome its programming. . . like I did?"
"But it's the planetary population that will suffer if 'Mici' sabotages the weather control system. . . or calls in a Federation Strike Force."
Travis studied Blake for a long moment, recalling how the former rebel had pulled the rug out from under them in the matter of Jason's future. He glanced at the teleport bracelet and suggested softly, "Then contact Seran McConnell. . . and let her make the choice."
After a hurried consultation, Cally was able to locate Deirdre and give her directions about how to use the bracelet's comm unit.
"What's this about, Blake? Despite your people's help, we're still short-handed. I don't have time to waste. . ."
"Then be quiet and listen for a change," Blake snapped peevishly, before taking a deep breath to regain control. "We've located a Federation bunker that contains the main computer that regulated all the operations on Zircaster. It's been functioning at a minimal level since Star One went offline. Avon may be able to reactivate its weather control systems and restore planetary weather to 'normal'."
There was a momentary silence on the other end of the link.
"What's the catch?"
"It was built and programmed by the Federation," Blake glanced at Travis's enigmatic expression. "Its communications' and weapons' systems are not functional at present. . .due to the efforts of Captain McRae. But there's no guarantee that if we do reactivate the weather control, that the computer would not use that power to repair its Federation controlled systems."
"Can't this computer expert of yours put in a failsafe? Some kind of bypass or override circuit that would prevent that ?"
"I fully intend to," Avon replied with exaggerated patience. "But nothing is foolproof. Especially where Supreme Commander Servalan is involved."
"What do you mean by that?"Deirdre demanded. "I thought your people said she was dead. That she'd turned outlaw and died in a battle with Federation troops."
"She is dead" Blake assured her, glaring at Avon. "But this is still a Federation system, programmed when she was Supreme Commander. It may have backdoors and hidden agendas that we are not aware of. All we can do is try to anticipate future problems and set up the necessary counter-measures."
There was a long dubious silence before Deirdre spoke again. "You said Captain McRae deactivated its weapons and communications systems. He's a . . .good man, seems to know what he's about. Hell, right now we are so desperate for rain that I'd enlist a troop of aboriginal flute dancers. . .if I knew where to find them. Go ahead, Blake, do whatever's necessary to fix our weather. Otherwise, we might as well dig our own graves instead of plowing our fields for next year's crops."
After ending the communication, Blake turned an appraising look at Travis. "She seems to trust you a great deal, Captain McRae. I hope you don't disappoint her."
The next day and a half was both tedious and trying for Travis. Tedious because he lacked Blake's engineering skills and Avon's computer expertise and as a result was relegated to standing off to one side, while they worked on linking the valley's weather control station with its Federation counterpart. It was also trying, because the power linkages and data speeds of the two systems were initially incompatible, resulting in several false starts along with much muttered swearing from both Avon and Blake. Travis dozed fitfully in a corner, rousing only when Avon impatiently demanded a demonstration of his hands-on knowledge of Federation military codes and programming..
They were well into their second day, when Dayna appeared, carrying several bowls and wrapped bundles which emitted tantalizing aromas.
"Break time," she ordered in genial voice. "The three of you have been working down here for over thirty-six hours without a stop. I know Avon feeds on his own venom, but Cally thought the rest of you might appreciate something a little more substantial."
Drawn by the appealing odors, Blake hastily unwrapped several of the packages, "Stew, with real meat and vegetables, not soy cubes. And home-baked bread. . ." He hefted the loaf in one hand, savoring its weight and texture, before breaking it into chunks and offering a piece to Travis. "I imagine you haven't tasted anything that good for a long time."
"Not since I left home," Travis answered somberly. Tearing into the piece that Blake had given him, Travis closed his eye, recalling the warm haven of his mother's kitchen amid the harsh conditions on Metis III. "Oatmeal bread. . .just like my sister used to bake."
"Well, there's no need to eat it dry," Dayna revealed the rest of her bounty. "Seran McConnell sent butter, cheese and wild berry preserves. There's even a jug of cider and some sweet cakes for dessert."
Avon condescended to sample some of the bounty that Dayna had brought down, "Well, I'm glad to see that someone appreciates our efforts on their behalf."
As the three men dug into the food that Dayna had delivered, Blake questioned her on the status of the harvest and the weather conditions in the valley.
"The heavy winds have let up, much to everyone's relief. But Cally says that nearly a quarter of their grain still needs to be moved into the storage barns. If you can prevent any more storms from developing for another forty-eight hours, they should have enough stored to see them through the winter."
Avon frowned, though his glare was aimed at no one in particular.
"Currently, the meteorological conditions surrounding this sub-continent are as touchy as a primed strontium grenade. In order to alleviate the drought, I've programmed the weather control satellite to originate a low-pressure system that's presently drawing moisture out of the western ocean. Once the system is saturated, it has to be moved as quickly as possible into this drier, colder area. Delaying it creates a large risk that this valley's much needed rain will get dumped elsewhere. If everyone's in that much of a rush, why don't you and Tarrant join Cally's group on the planet?"
"I already have," Dayna answered softly. "And Tarrant is eager to teleport down with me. . . as soon as you can spare him from round the clock duty on Zen's surface scans."
"He'll just have to wait a little longer," Avon muttered as he entered more parameters into the mainframe's programming. "I still need a realtime evaluation of this Federation computer's weather system effects."
Travis stood up slowly, rolling his shoulders to relieve the strain from his inactivated arm. "I'm just supercargo here, but I can help with the harvest."
Blake stared at Travis in his stark black leathers and black patch. "And start a riot as soon as you show up. Don't be a fool. With your arm like that, you're more liability than help."
"I'll manage. . .and I'll retrieve the imager before Tarrant puts us down at the settlement."
Blake drew Travis to one side, out of earshot, "I know why you're doing this, risking your life to atone for what you did here in the past. But, you've made a new life for yourself, with Jenna and the Free Traders. Don't throw all that away."
Travis seemed to be pondering what Blake said, then looked him in the eye, blue-gray piercing into brown. "Some of these people are survivors of the Metis III colony, one-time friends and fam. . . neighbors. I owe them . . .and I intend to repay my debts."
As he pushed past Blake to where Dayna was waiting, Avon called his name.
He glanced up as the computer tech tossed a small object at him. Travis caught it one-handed and opened his palm. It was the power cell for his cyberarm.
"You'll need that if you expect to be any use at all to those farmers. And try not to forget your
cover identity-Captain McRae."
Wincing Travis straightened up, trying to ease the strain on his back and shoulder muscles. He took a cautious glance around at his fellow workers to make sure no one was looking in his direction and quickly swiped his arm across his forehead. Hopefully no one noticed the imager's flicker as he wiped away the sweat that was dripping into his eye.
He wasn't sure about the current status of Avon's weather control system. The sky remained overcast, but without a single breeze to stir the thick, muggy air that had forced most of the women to kilt their skirts to midthigh and the men to strip to the waist, At first Travis had been reluctant to do the same, fearing the presence of his cyberarm might raise suspicions. But once he realized that he was not the only one with a cybernetic rebuild, he doffed his shirt and worked
sweatily bare-chested alongside the rest.
He'd been a bit suspicious of why Deirdre had separated Liberator's crew, until one of the workers beside him spent several minutes showing him the easiest way to stack and load the sheaves. Then he realized she was simply trying to make the best use of inexperienced volunteers. In any case, Travis's body quickly remembered the old skills and rhythms, though he soon realized he no longer had the unlimited energy of a sixteen year old.
Some interminable time later, Deirdre appeared at the reins of a small pony cart loaded with a large crock and several cloth wrapped bundles.
"Break time," she called. "Sandwiches, iced lemonade, and Naomi's sweet cakes."
As the others gathered around the cart, helping Deirdre down and passing out the food and cups, Travis gusted out a deep breath and sat down hard, too weary to even think about eating.
Noticing his absence, she strode over to where he was sprawled and knelt beside him pushing a mug into his trembling hand.
"When was the last time you had anything to drink?" she demanded sharply.
He shrugged and she pressed the cup to his lips, forcing him to swallow a mouthful of the slightly tart liquid. He sputtered and tried to push her away, but she was insistent.
"Don't be a fool, McRae. I know the early signs of heat exhaustion and you've let yourself get dangerously dehydrated."
Too tired to resist, Travis took the mug from her hand and started to drain it until she stopped him again. "Slow sips at first, unless you want it all to come back up. Are you hungry?"
He shook his head and she called out to the man who had first shown him what to do.
"Andrews, stop stuffing your face and get over here."
Though Deirdre's voice was too low-pitched for Travis to catch, Andrew's protests were loud enough.
"How the hell was I supposed to know he'd already been working thirty-six hours on the computer weather program? Mason just told me he was an able-bodied hand and to show him the ropes. He caught on quick for a Free Trader space jock, doing his share and more."
"There's a great deal more to Captain McRae than there appears to be at first glance," Deirdre mused, then ordered in a no-nonsense tone. "Just help me get him on the wagon."
Travis started to protest, "I'm fine. Just not used to this kind of work, that's all."
"Look, Captain, even if we're under the gun to get the harvest in, we don't expect people to work themselves to death. Now, take a break and get a couple of hours sleep. There will still be plenty for you to do when you're not out on your feet."
After delivering food to three more fields, Deirdre stopped her cart in front of the village's central meeting hall and showed Travis inside.
"It's not much of a doss, but at least you're out of the heat and dust." She started to hand him a blanket, along with the jacket he had stripped off earlier, "You'll probably need this when you go out again. For protection from the sun, if nothing else."
Abruptly she looked at the jacket as he took it, then spoke in a hoarse whisper. "That's Federation issue. I recognize the pattern, even without the insignia. How did you come by it?"
Too tired to contradict her, Travis rummaged through fatigue-drugged memories for the tale he'd spun for Dayna before she discovered his and Tarrant's true background.
"Federation pilot before I was a Free Trader-merchant pilot," he managed to mumble.
"Oh, that explains it," she nodded, then gestured to the blanket shrouded forms. "Just pick a spot, I doubt you'll get stepped on. . .too much. Next shift rotation is in about four hours, but sleep as long as you need to."
Stuffing the jacket under his head, Travis pulled the blanket over his shoulders and dropped into
"Wakey, wakey," a much too cheerful voice echoed in his ears as someone's booted feet prodded at his ankles.
"Tarrant," he snarled. "You better have a good excuse for waking me. . .and an industrial strength cup of mega-caff if you expect to live another five minutes."
Tarrant went to one knee and held a steaming cup under Travis's nose, "It's not mega-caff, just some kind of roasted grain beverage. At least it's hot."
Travis sat up and absently started to rub the sleep from his eye, before Tarrant caught his hand. "Hold off a moment. Most of this shift's already at the dining area, but there are a few stragglers."
Travis shook his head in frustration at the limitations of Avon's gadget. Though he wanted to plunge his head under a stream of ice cold water to clear the cobwebs from his brain, that was a pleasure denied him until he was back aboard Liberator, wearing his own face.
Instead, he took the cup from Tarrant's hand and sampled it with a wry grimace, "How long have you been downworld?"
"Avon and Blake teleported up with Orac about half an hour ago. I gathered from their conversation that they'd finished in the bunker and done all they could to safeguard the system from Federation interference. Avon planned to check the final linkages at the valley's control station and monitor the progress of that low pressure system heading this way from the western ocean."
"And the rest of Liberator's crew?"
"Helping with the harvest wherever needed. Cally's assisting Dr. Daniels, Dayna's driving a cart. Vila. . ."
"Don't tell me they actually got the Delta to do some work?"
"Well, I suppose it might qualify He's keeping the youngsters entertained. . .card tricks, slight of hand, penny-ante magic."
Travis emptied his mug then climbed stiffly to his feet, "Well, I hope someone's keeping half an ear on what he's telling them. . .or there'll likely be a juvenile crime wave after we leave." He noted the omission from Tarrant's report. "What about Jason? He's able-bodied enough to do his share in the fields."
Tarrant hesitated for a moment, "No one's seen him since he ran into the girl that was guiding you just before the weapons incident. They may be with others their age, assigned some special task."
"I hope you're right," Travis muttered. "But somehow I doubt it."
As they returned to the fields, Travis found having Tarrant working beside him had its advantages. While it seemed unlikely that anyone in the valley suspected him of being a Federation officer, much less the one who had ordered the massacre eight years before, Tarrant's stalwart presence assured him of someone to cover his back, if the imager did fail.
Despite the young pilot's wiry build, he proved surprisingly strong and resilient at the grinding drudgery of the harvest, easily keeping pace with Travis's more practiced efforts. One unexpected benefit was the increased frequency that refreshment wagons appeared in their field, driven by admiring young ladies scouting out "new blood" as they offered Tarrant dippers of cool water and lemonade and home-baked treats.
Their fellow workers made few good-natured jibes at Tarrant's popularity with the young ladies, but most of them were glad to take advantage of the frequent appearances to take a momentary break from their labors. As the day progressed and the clouds grew thicker and darker, everyone glanced nervously skyward then bent to their work with increasing zeal.
A steady breeze began to blow, bringing the smell of rain..
Tarrant glanced nervously at Travis, scrutinizing the other man's disguised features.
"I think you should call it quits, sir. There's no guarantee about how much longer we have until the bottom falls out. If you get caught in a sudden shower. . ."
"I've got my bracelet on, Tarrant," Travis reassured him. "And didn't you say Orac was operating the teleport? That should assure a quick pick-up, if necessary."
"Unless he happens to be middle of one of his 'important' researches." Tarrant muttered as he studied the lowering clouds. "You'd wind up a distant second in priority. . .and guest of honor at a bear-baiting, with you as the bait."
"You and Jenna must read the same holo-novels," Travis grumbled as he continued gathering and binding the grain. "With the same gory endings. Just try to keep your imagination in check. I doubt these people go in for blood sports. Life is too hard. . . and too dearly bought."
Despite the threatening skies and the low rumble of approaching thunder, the impending cloudburst did not materialize. Energized by the cool weather and the growing promise of rain, the villagers worked hectically to get the last of their crops under cover and in the drying barns. With their field gleaned and cleared, Tarrant and Travis joined their fellow workers straggling in to the central gathering hall which had served as a dormitory and dining area for the entire village during the harvest.
A burst of lightning raked across the sky, splitting the clouds and dropping their load of moisture in sheets. Half the gathered workers charged out into the downpour, dancing and sliding in the sudden rivers of mud as they savored the bounty of that long-awaited rain. Reluctantly, Travis stepped away from open doorway and the hysterical joy beyond, not wanting anyone to be tempted to pull him into the wild celebration.
Inside the hall he spotted Jason seated on a bench next to Kayla, engaged in a very intent conversation. He watched them for a long moment, realizing that Cally was correct. The only resemblance Kayla bore to his long-lost Rissa was in his imagination. As for Jason. . .the boy had established his own identity, even before he'd left Sanctuary with Blake and the crew of Liberator.
Travis concluded that it was time for him to stop reliving the past. This visit to Zircaster was a mistake from the very beginning. It had been an attempt to find his long-lost family. . . and atone for the crimes he had committed as an officer of the Federation.
Instead, he'd discovered that his worst crimes had been against his own family. . .or what remained of it. His supposedly "measured response" had left his sister an embittered widow and his nephew, mute and withdrawn, relating better with animals than the humans who had murdered his father.
Jason caught sight of his grim expression and started guiltily, as though he had something to hide. Then squaring his shoulders, the boy gathered up what looked like small stones on the bench between him and Kayla and hurried over to Travis.
"Captain Tr. . . Captain McRae. . .I know this isn't really my business, but you were looking for trade goods before we got caught up with the harvest. I think we may have found something."
The boy opened his hand, holding out what looked like iridescent stones, until Travis peered at them more closely noting wings, legs, and a rudimentary head.
"Bugs, Jason? They're shiny enough to use for jewelry, I guess. Sometimes there's
a demand from the Inner Worlds for exotic pets. . .but that's a very limited market."
Kayla was covering her nose and trying to stifle her giggles, "Glitter beetles as pets?" she gasped. "You'd have to have your sense of smell deadened first."
Travis took a whiff, then realized there was a definite rank odor coming from Jason's hand and stepped back smartly. "I presume you can get that stench out of your skin. . .or Avon won't let you aboard Liberator until your hand is sterilized."
Jason smiled ruefully, "Seran Reeves assures me she has herbs that neutralize the odor, but it's not the bugs I was interested in, but their carapaces- their shells. Kayla's grandmother is a weaver, spinning and dying her own yarns. This is what she used to dye the wool of Kayla's scarf that Dayna was admiring earlier. The fabric catches the light and changes color according to whoever is wearing it, light green on Kayla, shimmering gold against Dayna's skin."
" A. . . chameleon cloth. Sounds promising," Travis muttered. "I presume this beetle isn't some kind of protected species?"
"Heaven forbid, Captain." Kayla grimaced. "They're a damned nuisance, that's what they are. They get into the vegetable gardens and fruit trees every spring, then have to be knocked off manually and gathered in buckets. Which are then taken up to the mountains and dumped in a ravine so they won't taint the soil."
"So gathering them is not a problem. But what about storage and transport? Spoilage factors? Would it be easier transport the raw materials elsewhere or start a dyers consortium on this planet?" Kayla and Jason stared at him, taken aback by all the questions he raised.
Travis smiled bitterly to himself, remembering how he'd hoped to undo some of the damage he'd caused by improving the colonists' quality of life. Blake brought the equipment and expertise to make up for what he'd done to Star One. Only now Jason had found what Travis had been looking for, a trading discovery to draw Free Trader ships to this planet on a regular basis and allow the settlers to buy needed medical and farm supplies, and reduce the odds of them dying of starvation, illness, or natural disaster.
He clapped the boy on the back, "Good work, Jason. Looks like you've made your first trade venture."
"But. . . C. . Cap.. Captain, you were the one looking for trade goods."
"And you were the one sharp enough to find them." Travis clasped Jason's shoulders firmly. "It's your discovery, son, and should be registered in your name." Then he stepped back and gave him a stern look. "And we'll see if you've been studying those trade manuals that Mikhail teleported up to Liberator just before you left orbit. I want to see a written proposal, showing the facts and figures necessary to outfit a profitable first trade run to this planet by noon tomorrow. You've got a lot of fact-finding to do and questions to ask, Apprentice, so stop standing there with your mouth open, before one of those beetles of yours flies down your gullet."
Grabbing Kayla's hand, Jason charged out into the darkness, practically running down Blake and Avon who were standing together in the doorway, while Avon brushed off the water clinging to his jacket with the affronted dignity of a wet feline.
"Well, Blake, we succeeded in ending the drought and re-establishing the normal weather pattern for this valley. . . with a little help from the Federation Master Control Interface."
"Mici, you mean," Blake said blandly, peering through the jostling crowd of settlers for the remaining members of his crew. "It would be better if we didn't remind Seran McConnell about its Federation origins for the time being.
After the initial wild dancing in the streets began to subside, people hurried to their homes, then returned to the hall with baskets filled with dishes and pots of food. Several men carried in a quarter haunch of some kind of herd beast that was placed on an oversized spit to
begin roasting over the fire.
Dayna and Cally rushed in, huddled together under a cloak that someone had loaned them.
Tarrant stepped over, offering drying cloths to both the women, "Looks like the two of you were with the last group. Did you get your grain under cover in time?"
"With half an hour to spare." Dayna laughed. "I was just helping rub down the beasts, while Cally and Dr. Daniels finished in the clinic."
"What about Vila?" Blake glanced around for the lockpick.
"Already here," Tarrant pointed over to the cauldron of cider warming by the fire, where Vila and several newfound friends were passing around a jug of something which, judging by the glazed look already on his face, was considerably stronger than cider.
"Then I guess we should gather up Travis and make our farewells," Blake said somewhat reluctantly. "I'd hoped to speak to Seran McConnell and perhaps try to persuade her to consider joining the Alliance."
"Just pray she doesn't punch you in the face again, Blake, for nearly obliterating her planet while trying to save it," Avon glanced across the hall, spotting the village leader. "She's talking with Travis. You better get him away from her . . .I don't think that imager is going to hold out much longer."
Alarmed, Blake noticed an odd halo effect around Travis's shoulders caused by the moisture in the room and hurried toward the former Federation officer.
Deirdre had just stepped away from the long table where several women were setting out the food; slicing bread, adding seasonings, and stirring sauces.
She looked into the face of the Free Trader Captain and reached out to clasp his hand between hers, "I want to thank you for everything you've done for us, Captain McRae. Naomi Reeves told me earlier that we may have even more reason to be grateful, come next spring. I hope you'll be the Captain on that first trade ship. I won't worry so much about being cheated then, I know you'll give us fair value."
"I don't think I'll be the one, Seran McConnell." Travis said uncomfortably. "I have other commitments, other missions. But I'll make sure whoever's in charge will do right by you. . ."
Suddenly in a shower of sparks, Avon's imager gave up the ghost.
Deirdre recoiled, startled by the electrical display, then gaped as McRae's familiar face was replaced by a stranger's hard-edged features. Shocked, she stared in disbelief, seeing the stark black patch and fierce demeanor, then gasped,
" You - you're the Butcher of Zircaster! The animal who murdered my husband!"
Snatching up a knife from the table behind her, Deirdre lunged at him.
Acting purely on reflex, Travis raised his left arm, blocking the savage blow. The tip of her knife slashed open his sleeve and raked down the arm itself before slicing across the teleport bracelet.
Before she could recover her balance and strike a more lethal blow, Blake grabbed her arm and said in a low intense voice, "Don't do this, Deirdre. He's the one who saved your world and your people. Besides. . ."
Blake took a deep breath, finally putting the pieces together from what Dayna told him, Travis's increasingly odd behavior and the strong resemblance between the man and woman he'd just separated. He didn't know why Travis hadn't told Deirdre the truth, but it was long past time that someone did.
"He's your. . . brother."
"My brother?! My brother's dead, Blake. He died in a training accident nearly fifteen years ago." Her face twisted with grief and contempt. "I have the 'official' notification. A form letter signed by some bureaucrat, offering to send a souvenir Federation flag and a picture of his grave. . .for a small donation."
"They lied," Blake persisted. "Like they lied about so many other things. This is your brother, Colin. . .Colin Travis."
The knife clattered to the floor as Deirdre peered intently into Travis's face again, as if searching for someone lost to her years before.
"Colin? No. . .it can't be. Colin would never betray us . . .betray me. Not like that. . ."
She turned to Blake with mingled horror and disgust on her face, as she spat, "My brother died fifteen years ago. This. . .this is just another damned Federation lie."
Flinching at the cold contempt in her words, Travis choked, "Damn you, Blake. Damn you to hell."
Pushing through the startled settlers, he staggered out the door and into the pouring rain.
By this time, several of the people around them had realized that something was wrong and gathered around Blake and his crew with a mixture of curiosity and alarm.
"Was there a fight?"
"Why did the Free Trader captain bolt like the furies were after him?"
"What was Deirdre saying? Something about betrayal. . .and the Butcher of Zircaster?"
The murmured questions and speculations were growing louder as Deirdre turned to Blake with a look of disgust.
"You've made good on your promise, Blake, and undone the physical harm caused by your attack on Star One. You have one hour to gather your people and get off this planet . . . before I tell everyone Captain McRae's real identity. I'm not the only person who lost a loved one in that massacre. . .and we don't take kindly to people who offer the hand of friendship and then betray us."
Despite the growing hostility of the people surrounding them, Blake was not intimidated. "One hour won't be enough, Seran McConnell. My apprentice pilot just left with a young lady. And we still have to locate. . .Captain McRae."
"Then till planet dawn, Blake. . .or we'll find them for you and return the pieces."
As Blake and his crew hastily gathered outside the meeting hall, the earlier downpour had subsided into a drizzle.
Vila asked in bleary-eyed befuddlement, "Aren't we going to stay for the party? I was just beginning to make friends ."
"Who would have slit your throat if we hadn't dragged you away when we did," Avon remarked snidely, then frowned up at the sky. "That front was supposed to bring heavy rains for the next three days. It appears Travis can add one more miscalculation to his lifetime record. The Federation weather control computer obviously isn't as foolproof as promised."
He glared at Blake as he activated the teleport bracelet's comm link. "Even though we're departing this rural paradise, I should probably assure that your reputation for charitable acts lasts long enough for us to make our getaway. Orac, teleport me to the weather control station."
Avon blinked out, then Vila, Dayna, and Tarrant had Orac bring them up to LiberatorBlake and Cally remained in hopes of locating their two strays
Jason responded to Blake's comm message almost immediately.
"I'm at Seran Reeves' cabin, Blake. What's wrong?"
"There's been a slight. . . problem. Don't return to the village but teleport directly toLiberator. Have you seen Travis?"
"When we left, he was still at the meeting hall. Isn't his comm working? Do you want me to search for him?"
"No! Just get back aboard Liberator and report to Tarrant. We're leaving orbit in six hours."
"But, Blake. . ."
Blake cut Jason off and turned to Cally, whose lips were tightly compressed as she shook her head.
"Nothing but static. The signal's not getting through."
"His bracelet must have been damaged when Deirdre attacked him. Which means we'll have to search for him on foot."
"In those mountains, in this weather?" Cally was momentarily shocked.
Blake massaged his forehead, trying to banish a throbbing headache along with the exhaustion threatening to drag him into a deep bottomless pit. He'd had little more than catnaps for the last seventy-two hours and was already running on nerves alone
"I wouldn't suggest waiting for daylight and asking for Seran McConnell's help. Not if you want to find him alive and in one piece," he snapped.
"Of course not, Blake. I'll teleport up and ask Tarrant if he has any suggestions about locating Travis under current conditions."
Blake sighed, "You're right. Maybe Tarrant's Federation training can help us find him. . .before Travis's sister does something she'll regret for the rest of her life."
Just past dawn, Travis stiffly unfolded himself from under the outcropping where he'd taken shelter during the night. The rain had slacked off around midnight as the temperature steadily dropped, but heavy gray clouds still blocked the early morning sun.
He'd tried to contact Tarrant but the comm unit on his bracelet--and likely the retrieval circuit as well--was no longer working. No way to inform anyone of his current location and he doubted that Blake would risk his crew's lives coming down to search for him. Not now, when Jenna's warning had become reality and he was trapped on this hostile world, with everyone, including his own sister, out for his blood.
Slumped against the unyielding stone with ice water trickling down the back of his neck, Travis muttered to himself, "Looks like the butcher's bill has finally come due, Jenna. But I'm not running from it any longer."
Travis straightened up, squaring his shoulders as he brushed off the worst of the mud and debris, trying to put his clothing to rights. Though he no longer wore a Federation uniform, his dark leathers were a reasonable enough facsimile. Turning toward the valley, he started back to face his sister and the angry mob that she would undoubtedly be leading.
The trail he followed didn't lead to the area that he had explored on his own several days before. Nor did the terrain resemble the location where Kayla had guided him after leaving her grandmother's cabin. His surroundings were barren and desolate, showing no signs of cultivation or even pasturage. Its weather-warped trees and thorny shrubs offered no food and little shelter for any living creature Even the mist-laden air was still, as though nothing managed to survive in this wilderness.
The steady drizzle felt like needles of ice as he plodded wearily to the top of a hill and peered at the valley below, looking for a place to rest for a while. A grove of evergreens held the promise of shelter and even the possibility of making a lean-to and small fire. As he pushed through the aromatic branches, Travis discovered a cluster of well-tended graves in a small clearing. It appeared to be a single family plot rather than a repository of the whole valley's dead.
Storm wrack and downed branches from the past week's unsettled weather had obscured the painstakingly carved markers. Kneeling beside the largest stone, he tentatively brushed away debris concealing the name and felt the breath catch in his throat at what it revealed.
He swallowed convulsively and wiped harder, but there were no flowery verses or even dates engraved on the stone. Only a list of names-tolled like a roll call of the doomed.
MARGARET AND MEGAN
Then almost as an afterthought
He crouched there, tracing the names over and over until his fingers bled. The anguish of their deaths tore at his heart, even though they had been lost to him nearly twenty years before. He couldn't even weep. He'd poured the last of his tears over Rissa's grave, leaving nothing but desolation and the bitter desire for vengeance. That thirst for vengeance had kept him alive when other men would have died. . .but now, it only damned him to a hell of his own making..
Consumed by anguish, Travis did not hear the approaching footsteps until a voice as cold as the void interrupted his thoughts.
"The grave is empty."
The familiar voice continued its emotionless recital.
"Mother and Gwen died in cold sleep. Their bodies dumped like trash into the ship's fusion chamber. Meg and Peg were buried together in a mass grave during an epidemic of lung fever our first winter on Zircaster. Da. . . Brian. . .. Jacob Reeves . . .too many others to name, died in the streets trying to hold back the raiders, while the rest of us escaped into the mountains."
Travis looked up at the coldly implacable figure of his sister, Deirdre, wound in a black shawl like a specter of death.
He sighed, squatting back on his heels. "And Dar and I - the two prodigals. Why include us? Attention to detail. . .or wishful thinking?"
"The letter didn't specify. . .and as far as I was concerned, you both were better off dead. Anything was better than believing that you were one of the troopers that killed. . . murdered my Derek and so many others."
"I wasn't one of the troopers, Deirdre. I was the commanding officer."
"And that's supposed to make it better?" she shrilled. "Your finger wasn't on the trigger, but you gave the orders. . .to round up the 'trouble makers' and 'dissidents'. Only you made a mistake. Your sweep caught up honest farmers and laborers, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Derek."
Deirdre stepped forward and knelt beside a smaller marker. Brushing away the splattered mud that hid its inscription, she begin to sob bitterly
DEREK MCCONNELL, BELOVED BONDMATE AND FATHER.
Travis straightened slowly, standing over his weeping sister. He started to reach out and comfort her, then drew back realizing how unwelcome his touch would be. Fumbling for the teleport bracelet, he held it out to her.
"Here. It's broken. . . but just to assure you I won't vanish into thin air. I came back hoping to make peace with the memories of this place. . .and to find out if any of my family had survived." He gazed down at the weathered stone. "I found my answers."
He continued in a resigned voice, "But if it takes my execution to give you peace, I won't try to escape."
Deirdre gazed up into the scarred, yet familiar face, her eyes red and swollen. She reached for the bracelet, but instead grasped his wrists, pulling to her feet as she pushed the jacket sleeves halfway to his elbows.
For long moments, she stared at his hands and forearms; the right with its bloodied fingers, torn nails, calluses and weathered scars and the left, smooth and virtually untouched.
"I know these wounds," her fingers traced the ragged scars left by fenris claws. " I remember the night you got them. . .the night Rissa died."
"And Jacob Reeves blamed me for her death," he said low-voiced.. "You were the only one who believed me. . . who stood up for me."
She gazed into his face again, as if trying to recapture the past, "I feel like part of you is the brother I knew. . .and lost. But part of you is a stranger. Someone I don't know. . ." she shuddered as she withdrew her hand from his artificial one. "Someone I don't want to know."
"Someone who died fifteen years ago," Travis whispered, then continued in a normal tone.
"Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. No one will know that it was Conal's and Maeve's son. . .and your brother, who betrayed them and ordered the massacre."
He gave her a bitter smile, "I may be a deserter and renegade . . . but I know how to face a tribunal and go to my death silently. Without raising embarrassing questions. It's the least I can do for you, Deirdre."
For a long moment she stood there, silent and disbelieving.
Then her face twisted in sudden anguish. "No, Colin. No more deaths. . . not to protect me. . . not again. I can't live with that guilt any longer. It wasn't your fault that Derek died in that sweep. It was mine. My fault. . .my stubborn pride. . .my honor."
Gasping back the tears, she blurted out her shameful secret. "One of the junior officers - a Lt. Geron- saw me in the market and took a fancy to me. Followed me home and tried to convince me to become his 'housekeeper' with sleep-in duties. Said he'd 'protect' me and my family from the Federation crackdown. I spat in his face. . .and the troopers came for Derek that evening."
She stared down at her clenched hands and then covered her face, breaking into violent sobs as she dropped to her knees once again.
This time Travis did not hesitate but drew her up as he wrapped his arms around her, trying to comfort her. "It's all right, Dee, it wasn't your fault. It could have happened to anybody . . .and probably did. It was part of the tactics of intimidation that the Federation used against unruly populations. Rape the women. . . or threaten their families so they submit willingly. Humiliate the men, then kill anyone with backbone enough to resist."
Pulling away, Deirdre stared at him appalled, "Don't tell me that you gave those orders?"
"I didn't have to. It was SOP- standard operating procedure. My troops would have mutinied if I had ordered them to do otherwise. I tried to keep it to a minimum, ordering a security lockdown as a precaution against terrorist infiltration That way troopers couldn't drag women back to the barracks and gang-rape them. They had to take their chances on patrol, which junior officers like Geron avoided whenever possible."
"And I had the bad luck to be out shopping when he drew the short straw."
"Something like that," Travis laughed grimly. "Same old Travis luck. If Dar and I hadn't encountered that patrol while we were on our fenris hunt, Brannen would never have offered to 'rescue' the rest of the colony from Metis III."
"And we'd all be long dead from starvation and fenris attacks," Deirdre replied in an equally dark voice. "Bad as things were, at least we survived."
She gazed into his face, seeing how the years had marked it with pain and bitterness. Yet underneath that, she saw the courage and strength of will that had forged Colin into the man he'd become.
"You're my brother, dammit and no matter what you've done, I don't want to lose you, not again."
"I doubt the rest of the settlers in the valley will be that forgiving."
"No," she gasped. "I'll tell them it was all a mistake. That you're my brother. . .but you weren't
the one who ordered the massacre."
"Lies make a poor foundation for the future, Deirdre."
"I don't care! I've just found you again. . .and I don't want to lose you.
The icy drizzle had finally stopped, leaving a frozen stillness as its aftermath. Travis was numb, though he wasn't sure if it was from the freezing temperature or the emotional shocks of the past hour. As he tried to convince Deirdre to let him face the valley's settlers alone, without her and her son being tainted by association, he felt a single scalding tear fall onto his hand.
That's when he realized that both of them had been trapped in the past, haunted by guilt and. a desire for revenge. With Jenna's help, he'd escaped his obsession with Blake. But until his return, Deirdre had not faced her inner demons. Now he and his sister had the opportunity to forgive themselves and each other and make a new start.
He didn't need to confront the settlers to pay for his crime years ago. The only one who mattered - Deirdre-- had already forgiven him. If he insisted on sacrificing himself, it would only add to the burden of guilt she still carried
"All right," he said in a gruff voice. "You've convinced me."
The gray clouds overhead had taken on a silvery sheen and a single snowflake drifted down. Followed by another. . .and another. . .and another, until the air around them was white with softly drifting snow. The earlier bone-numbing chill was gone and the stark landscape around them began to take on a softer, less ominous appearance. Despite that magical transformation, Travis felt a growing sense of unease.
"How far is it back to the settlement, Deirdre? This snow is falling pretty heavily and if we get stranded or lost, we could die of exposure before anyone realizes you're missing."
Deirdre looked up at the swirling snow and shivered at its deadly beauty Although she had put on a sweater and boots to hike to the graveyard, she had no protection for her head or hands except the thin black shawl which was rapidly becoming soaked. Travis was little better off, with no hat or gloves although his leathers and boots were water-resistant.
"Get moving," he ordered sharply. "The longer we stand here, the colder we'll get."
Deirdre broke into a swift trot, proving that calf-length skirts were no hindrance to her long-legged stride. "It's a little over two and a half-miles to the nearest farm. We can take shelter . . ." her voice trailed off as she stared at Travis's undisguised features.
"You can take shelter there," he stated. flatly. "I'll continue on to the village. That doctor. . . what was his name?"
"Yeah, him. Doctors take an oath . . . 'Do no harm.' He probably won't turn me in. Besides, he's got a comm unit and I can contact Liberator. Have them send someone down with a working teleport bracelet."
Deirdre was silent for a long moment as they pushed through the deepening show.
"That's very good idea. . . except I ordered Blake to leave orbit at dawn. They'll be out of range by the time we get back."
For just a moment Travis faltered. If Blake was gone, he was stranded on a world where a everyone wanted to see him dead. He glanced sidelong at Deirdre. Almost everyone, he amended, now that his sister had forgiven him for his crimes as a Federation officer. No place to hide and no way to reach Jenna and tell her what had happened.
If she even cared anymore.
"Dammit," he muttered to himself. "Can the self-pity. There are plenty of caves in these mountains where I can hole up until spring. By then, Jason should be back with a Free Trade ship and I can make my escape."
"What about supplies. . .blankets. . .even weapons?" Deirdre protested, "You don't know this world and its dangers. You could step on a wasp adder, drink from a stream contaminated by blindwort, even run afoul of a Garm wolf."
"Garm wolf. . .big shaggy beast with red eyes and an excess of sharp ugly teeth?"
"Yes," she gasped. "Where did you see one? They normally keep to the high peaks, but with the drought, they've extended their hunting ranges into the valley."
"No appetite for plas-steel," he tapped his cyberarm. "Or maybe they prefer prey that doesn't fight back."
"They're not the worst risk," Deirdre warned. "Hell, you could slip on a patch of ice, break your leg, and die of starvation."
"And I could also slip on a bar of soap in the shower, break my neck and drown."
He stopped for a moment to take her by the shoulders and force her to look at him.
"Deirdre, I was a soldier for eighteen years and a Free Trader for the past three. I've faced death a thousand different ways and I'm still here. I don't die easy and I don't take foolish chances. . . or at least not as often as I used to. And I do know how to live off the land."
"Once you're back safely at the village, I'll 'appropriate' a few odds and ends to make life a little more comfortable and then head for the mountains. We can even set up some kind of communication system, using mirrors or trail signs. That way if there's an emergency-or more likely a question - I'll be able to contact you."
Deirdre stared at him for a long time, her blue-green eyes filled with tears, then she choked them back and gave a damp laugh. "You were always hard-headed, Colin. That's one thing that hasn't changed in the past twenty years."
"Jenna would definitely agree with you."
"My bondmate" He hesitated for a moment, then continued. "She didn't want me to come back to Zircaster. She thought it was too risky." He gave a rueful laugh. "Riskier than a cargo run through the Hesperus Drift in our lightest armored ship, with a green engine crew."
" Sounds like you had a difference of opinion before you left?" There was a note of sympathy in Deirdre's voice.
"A flat out argument would be a more accurate description." He was silent for a long moment as they picked their way slowly across a section of loose rock, made even more treacherous by a thin coat of ice. Once they were back on the trail, he continued in a deliberately emotionless voice. "I'm not sure she'll even be there when I get back."
Deirdre stopped short and took his hand, looking him straight in the eye. "Do you love her, Colin?"
"Yes," he answered slowly. "She's saved my life. . . and my sanity. . .more times than I care to think about. I can't imagine life without her."
"Then tell her. When you get back, find her, tell her you love her and apologize for leaving her." Deirdre's eyes glistened with tears, "That's the one thing I regret even more than losing him. Derek and I had argued that morning. He didn't want me going to the market that day. The patrols had been increasing in size and belligerence. He was afraid of a riot."
She gulped hard before continuing, "I didn't even kiss him good-bye."
Travis hugged her briefly then took the lead on the trail, glancing back to confirm that he was on the right path. The snow was already up to their ankles and even though they were not in whiteout conditions, the rapid accumulation was making it increasingly difficult for Deirdre to identify the trail. Twice they had to retrace their steps because the snow had disguised a landmark that she used as a guide.
Pausing for the second time in an hour to catch her breath, Deirdre wheezed, "I'm not sure how much longer I can go on like this, Colin. My hands are numb and my feet feel like two frozen stumps."
"Gotta keep going," he gasped, blowing on the fingers of his right hand that had lost all sensation earlier. "Won't freeze to death as long as we keep moving."
Suddenly an anonymous figure loomed out of the blowing snow. Muffled in goggles, boots and full cold-weather gear, Travis could not identify who it was until he heard that rich, persuasive baritone.
"Enjoying this winter wonderland, you two?"
"Blake!" Travis growled in a ragged voice. "What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were supposed to leave orbit by dawn."
Blake managed a ponderous shrug, "Well, we couldn't go off and leave the job half done, could we? When the rain stopped last night, Avon spent another sleepless night trying to find out why his saturated cold front dissipated without dropping its full cargo of moisture. While he was sorting out the weather, Tarrant and I used infrared sensors to scan for anyone out and about in the mountains."
"Could the situation report wait?" Travis demanded wearily. Deirdre's teeth had started to chatter and he put his arm around her shoulder, sharing what little warmth he had left.
Noticing that Deirdre didn't flinch away from that solicitous touch, Blake gave a tiny sigh of relief before snapping the bracelets onto their arms." It's good to see you too, Travis."
"Dayna, bring us up and tell Cally to have lots of warm blankets and hot soup ready in the medunit."
Half an hour later, mostly thawed out and with regeneration pads wrapped around their frost-bitten fingers and toes, Travis and Deirdre listened to Kerr Avon's scathing explanation for the unsettled weather conditions.
"Everything would have worked out perfectly, except for Travis activating the Federation Master Control's altruistic streak when he brought it online to destroy the weapon platforms."
"Altruistic streak. . .don't be an idiot, Avon. That computer has Servalan's vocal imprint, possibly even her mental engram. I'd expect it to develop fashion sense before any kind of altruism."
"A sense of style would have been much less difficult to deal with," Avon massaged his forehead irritably. "Master Control computed that the saturated front I had worked so hard to create had the potential of causing a great deal of damage. Flash floods, streams overflowing their banks, erosion and vital mineral depletion, so the little busybody took matters into its own circuits and made 'adjustments'. Which is why the two of you nearly wound up freezing to death and there's another thirty six inches of white stuff due to accumulate in the valley over the next two days."
Deirdre stared at Avon with a troubled expression.
"It may have been right. I didn't think about it when the drought broke, but with the crops harvested and so much of the pastureland little more than dried scrub, we would have been at serious risk for mudslides at the lower end of the valley. A really heavy downpour could have washed us away. . . and now you say there's thirty-six more inches on the way?"
"Thirty six inches of snow is equivalent to only 3.6 inches of rain," Blake pointed out. "Plus it should melt slowly enough so that it will soak into the ground and begin to replenish your lakes and streams."
"Thirty six inches of snow over the next two days?" Deirdre's uneasy expression broke into giggles of relief. "Well, the crops are harvested and the herdbeasts safely stabled. It could snow a hundred and thirty six inches as far as I'm concerned."
"I'm so glad our efforts meet with your approval, Seran McConnell." Avon remarked drily, folding his arms across his chest. "Because that will likely be your weather pattern for the next six months, judging by the Master Control's selected program. One to three days of frozen precipitation every week, followed by sunny days with temperatures slightly above the freezing point of water."
"Then by spring, the drought should be ended. But what if some kind of programming flaw develops or the computer needs servicing?"
"I was in the process of training several of your local people basic troubleshooting, when we were ordered to leave orbit."
He glanced sidelong at Travis, slumped to one side, wrapped in a blanket as he fidgeted with the regeneration pad on his right hand. "I presume this demonstration of family solidarity means that order has been rescinded?"
Deirdre nodded, "I'm so sorry for all the problems you've had to deal with, Avon. But everyone in the valley is very grateful for what you've done for us."
"I'll remember that when I submit my bill."
Avon stalked from the room as Deirdre turned to Blake with a suspicious look, "I thought you said that you were doing this free of charge. . .to make up for your actions at Star One?"
"I am . . . but Avon isn't. Don't worry, he's on my payroll and I'll make sure that he's properly compensated for all his hard work."
Cally hurried in, wearing an urgent expression, "There's a message from Dr. Daniels, for Deirdre. I notified him as soon as Blake found you, so he could let everyone know you were safe and there was no need to send out a search party. And since Brian was staying with him."
"What's wrong?" Deirdre struggled to her feet, the blanket slipping from her shoulders. "Has something happened to Brian? Don't tell me he's run away again?"
"I think you should hear this for yourself . . . directly." Cally activated the comm unit on the wall. "Dr. Daniels, Deirdre's right here. Please repeat your message."
"Deirdre, it's Brian. He wants to go out in the snow . . .and play with the other children." Daniels hesitated and then continued with growing excitement. "He keeps pulling at my arm and pointing out the window. Not at the mountains or the woods like he usually does. But towards the square where the kids are making snowmen . . . and building forts. . .and having snowball fights. He . . . he seems very eager to join them, Deirdre. What should I do?"
Deirdre hobbled over to where her boots and wet clothing were drying, "I'll be down in two minutes, Byron. Make him dress in layers, with at least two pair of socks inside his boots. Once I get on some dry clothes, Brian and I. . . and the rest of those kids are going to have fun."
Cally caught Deirdre's arm as she headed for the teleport, boots, sweater, and shawl in hand., "Don't stay out too long, Deirdre. The tissue on your fingers and toes has just regenerated and is still extremely fragile."
"I'll be careful, Cally. I just want to make sure everything is all right.. This is the first time since his Da. . . died. that Brian has shown interest in anything other than wild animals."
"Some wounds take longer to heal, but it sounds like you both are on the path to recovery."
Deirdre's gaze rested on her brother, trying to appear unmoved though he was listening intently
to their discussion. "The scars will always be there, but life goes on . . . and it's long past time
that Brian and I got on with ours."
Two weeks later under bright sunny skies, though a chill wind was blowing down from the snow covered mountains, the farmers of Conavale bid a fond farewell to Blake and his crew. Everyone was present to enjoy the festivities, including Travis, wearing Colin McRae's face courtesy of a rebuilt version of Avon's imager.
Deirdre had been the only one who'd actually seen his face when the imager failed. Her vitriolic outburst and Travis's frenzied flight had been attributed to excitement and overwrought nerves due the end of the harvest and the breaking of the drought.
Besides, it was common knowledge that the Butcher of Zircaster had died at Star One.
"Let the dead bury the dead" was the general consensus among those who had survived the massacre.
Festivities included abundant amounts of food and drink and an outpouring of music which along with the brisk temperatures inspired several energetic circle dances that Vila joined with enthusiasm. Although he didn't know the steps, he took full advantage of every opportunity to wrap his arms around rosy-cheeked farm girls and spin in circles until they were giggling as he stole kisses with reckless abandon.
Avon snared Vila's elbow, detaching the giddy Delta from his latest conquest
"I think you've had enough dancing for one day, Vila."
"But I was just getting warmed up. . .and there's a whole line of saucy young things just waiting to dance with me."
"And another line of scowling fathers and brothers waiting to hang you out to dry if you keep behaving so outrageously with their daughters and sisters."
Catching sight of several tall, fierce-looking men standing off to the side of the dance circle, Vila muttered weakly, "Maybe you're right, Avon I'm feeling a bit wrung out. I think I'll go find something to drink.
Jason was looking over the food table, trying to decide where to start first when Kayla showed up with a tightly wrapped box in her hands.
"The glitter beetles are in a clay jar sealed with melted wax. It's the closest we could come to an air-tight container. Grandma also sent swatches of colored fabric, her basic dye solution and the herbs that neutralize the beetles' odor."
"I don't know how to thank you, Kayla." He put the box carefully to one side and grasped both her hands. "When Blake ordered me back aboard Liberator, I thought that this whole venture had gone up on smoke."
"Oh no, Jason Stannis, you don't get rid of me that easily. I want to see Free Trader ships stopping here more than anybody. We need medicines, new tools, new types of seed. . .and especially new yarns. . ."
"And ribbons." Jason finished for her, "Yards of ribbons to 'tie in your bonny black hair.'"
Kayla's eyes dropped shyly and then she raised them with a mischievous gleam, "And don't you forget them either, when the Free Trader ship comes next spring."
"I don't know if I'll be on that ship, Kayla. I have obligations to my captain and my clan. And there's no guarantee where I'll be assigned come spring." He tentatively caressed her cheek, "But I do promise you, when I do get a ship of my own, Zircaster will be a regular trade stop."
Though there were no formal speeches or flowery declarations of gratitude, Dr. Daniels presented Dayna, Tarrant, and Cally with the wildlife drawings that had decorated his office as a token of appreciation for the medical supplies that Liberator had donated.
Deirdre and Brian watched the celebration, until she gathered her resolve and stepped over to where Blake and Travis were standing off to one side.
Squaring her shoulders, Deirdre stood in front of Blake and spoke, "I want to apologize for my words and actions when you first arrived. I just couldn't believe that anyone would help the people of this valley 'out of the goodness of their hearts'."
"Your people did so much more than just undoing the weather control damage caused by the destruction of Star One. The donations of medical supplies, eliminating the threat from Federation weapons' systems, getting us linked up with the Free Traders. . . even saving the life of my son. There's no way we can thank you enough for everything you've done."
"I'm just glad we were able to make up for some of the damage caused by my impulsiveness."
Blake cleared his throat and then pressed a data crystal into her hand. "Since Star One, the Federation's presence in this section of the galaxy has been virtually nonexistent. Several of the outer worlds have formed an independent alliance. . . mainly for mutual protection and other advantages. Zircaster could benefit from becoming a member."
She took the crystal and nodded, "I'll consider it, Blake, and send you my answer by spring, when the Free Trader ship arrives."
Blake nodded and pressed the comm unit on his bracelet, "Orac, bring me up now."
Deirdre turned to Travis, clasping his right hand, still red and peeling between both of hers.
"Colin, I don't have the words to express what your coming here has meant to me. . .and Brian. I know you've made a new life for yourself but don't forget your old one and the . . . people who still love you, no matter what you've done."
She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek, but remembering the limitations of Avon's imager he held up his hand to stop her. Brushing his fingers lightly across her lips he pressed them to his heart. "I won't forget, Deirdre."
As he flickered into focus on Liberator's teleport pad, Cally was at the controls.
"It looks like you finally made peace with your past."
Travis gazed stolidly at the Auron, then switched off the imager, showing his true face and the emotions that still haunted him.
"Space Commander Travis is still a pariah here, but Deirdre's brother is welcome . . .as long as I'm wearing someone else's face. Like Deirdre said before, 'Some scars never heal, but life goes on'. . . and that's all I can do, just keep going the best way I can."
Two weeks later, as Liberator assumed orbit over Xanadu, Sanctuary's largest city, Cally frowned thoughtfully as she examined Travis's right hand after removing the regeneration pads.
"I wish you'd wait until planet dawn before teleporting down. Meteorological control has scheduled a freezing rain over the city for some insane reason and I don't think you should be out in it. Especially since we've just gotten rid of that persistent infection."
Travis shrugged into his jacket and grabbed his duffle bag, "Thanks for the concern, but Jason and I need to get planetside as soon as possible. Especially if we want to get that trade run to Zircaster on the books and off the launch pad on schedule."
He hurried out the door before she could see that he was using his left hand to carry the bag. His right was still swollen with an ongoing tingling sensation that made anything requiring manual dexterity a matter of guesswork.
Jason was already at the teleport with his gear and the box with Zircaster's trade goods placed carefully on top.
Blake was manning the controls and studying the coordinates that Jason had given him with a certain bewilderment.
"Why do you want us to put you down at the space port? Wouldn't it be more convenient just to drop you both right inside the Stannis compound? At least that way, you wouldn't have to hike half way across the city in a icy downpour."
"What is it with you people?" Travis bit off harshly. "I don't need a bunch of bloody nurse maids looking after me. Put us down at the coordinates I gave you. Jason and I have a lot of work to do before we call it a night. Particularly if you want Zircaster to become a viable member of your Freedom Alliance."
"You're angry I tried to persuade her to join the Alliance, aren't you?"
"No, Blake," Travis gusted out in exasperation. "I'm not angry. Just tired . . .and worried. Deirdre's canny enough that she'll do whatever's right for her people, no matter what you or I might say. But Jason needs to get their data into the system as soon as possible. . .and I want to check on our ships. Whether they're in refit. . .or out on a trade run."
"Oh," Blake said, suddenly understanding. "Well, good luck and tell Jenna hello for me."
" I will. . .if I see her," Travis muttered as they blinked out and materialized on the docks.
Jason stared around, bemused at how much things had changed in the year since he'd left.
The frame and plating shops had nearly tripled in size, fuel core operations had been relocated to the secondary yards and computer systems were under new management. Travis strode over to a information kiosk and entered his ID code. The system requested DNA scan to verify his identity and then directed them to a hangar across the field.
Travis was grimly silent as they strode across the tarmac and towards the facility. Outside the door, he swiped his ID thru the coded entry and then stepped into the dimly lighted hangar.
To his relief, he quickly spotted the sleek lines of the Valkyrie, their fastest ship and the heavier armored bulk of Alamo. Both ships appeared undamaged with no scaffolding in place, auxiliary power cables attached or tools and replacement parts strewn haphazardly across the floor by the refit crew.
He still hadn't located Balkis, although she had been listed on the inventory. Smaller than her two sister ships, she'd always reminded him of a refitted space yacht. Clean lines and responsive controls, but not much cargo space. Jenna had generally used her for transporting high value items, jewels, techware. . .and medical supplies, like the serum for Inviedi Prime.
Prowling through the semi-darkness, he spotted something, pitted and scarred by meteor collisions. Scored as it was by space dust and nebular debris, Travis could barely recognize the ship's original configuration, but it could only be Balkis.
He stared at the battered ship, feeling his world go cold and dark.
"Holy shit," Jason breathed as he came up beside Travis. "Look at the fused silicates around the secondary rockets. She must have fireballed in from primary orbit to be in this shape. It's a miracle she's still in one piece."
"Jenna's been known to pull off a miracle or two. . .if she was still alive."
"It doesn't look like the flight deck was breached and the engineering section must be relatively intact. That's the only way they could have got her down in one piece. . .such as she is."
"Why the hell is she just sitting here. . .like this? Abandoned." Travis demanded harshly. "Jenna would never. . ." The words froze in his throat as he stared at the ship.
He turned away from the derelict, his eye burning with emotion.
Jason hastily accessed the computer station just inside the hangar that recorded the dates and times of refit orders.
Balkis had been towed into this hangar almost a week ago and for the first three days, no repairs had been ordered. Jason scanned further before blurting, "Three days ago, the yard master received orders to do a full-scale diagnostic on the ship. The order was signed 'Jenna Stannis.'"
Travis glanced over his shoulder, then said in an emotionless voice, "That's not Jenna's signature."
"You think someone is impersonating her?" Jason asked in dismay.
"I don't know what to think," Travis answered harshly. "There's only one place to find out the truth. . . our quarters."
"Let me go with you," Jason pleaded.
"No. Deirdre and the rest are depending on you. I want your find registered with the Trade Acquisition Board first thing tomorrow. Next, consult with some of the senior captains in the Stannis Fleet on the best way to set up a mission to an undeveloped planet like Zircaster."
"What about you. . .what if something's happened to . . .Seran Jenna?
Travis clasped their son's shoulder, "There are some things a man has to face alone, Jason. Now, let's get you signed into the apprentice barracks."
Twenty minutes later Jason was digging into a bowl of hot soup in the refectory, as he tried to explain to the Training Master where he'd been for the past year.
And Travis walked home alone, in the pouring rain.
Outside the door to their quarters, he stared at the keypad uncertainly. He knew the entry code . . . unless it had been changed.
He stabbed at the keys but there was no response.
Taking a deep breath, he hit the keys harder this time.
The door remained closed.
He tried one last time, though his hand was trembling so hard he wasn't even sure he hit the right keys. . .and the door remained sealed tighter than Central Control.
He stood there for a long moment, the icy rain dripping down the back of his neck no colder than the emptiness in his heart .
With a muffled curse, someone snatched the door open.
"Just keep your shirt on. . ."
It was Jenna.
For long moments he stared, scarcely believing that she was real and not a mirage.
She was wearing a deep burgundy chamber robe that covered her from neck to toe and her hair blazed like a winter fire. Gazing at him like he was an apparition back from the dead, Jenna stood back from the door so he could enter.
He hefted up his duffle bag and stepped into the foyer, dripping wet and so cold he wasn't even sure he could speak. She reached up and brushed the lank hair back from his forehead.
"You certainly took the long way home," she said huskily. "You look like death."
"I feel like I crawled out of the grave."
She glanced nervously away. "There's coffee in the kitchen. I'll heat it up while you get out of those wet clothes."
Five minutes later after a quick, almost scalding shower, he toweled himself dry, relieved that Jenna hadn't emptied his closet while he'd been gone. Pulling out a pair of drawstring pants and a heavy knit shirt, Travis hastily dressed before padding barefoot back into the main room.
Jenna was trying to carry the tray holding a carafe and two mugs one-handed and having a difficult time of it.
He rushed forward, catching the tray before everything spilled. After setting it down on the table, Travis gently took Jenna's right hand in his own and pushed back the flowing sleeve, revealing the cast beneath.
"It must have been bad for the doctor to send you home still wearing this."
He took a harder, closer look at her, this time not just seeing his lover but a fellow pilot. Judging by her stiff posture and guarded movements, the robe concealed numerous bruises and contusions besides the cast. Even her carefully applied make-up couldn't totally conceal the lines of sleeplessness and pain or the haunted look in her eyes.
Drawing her over to the sofa, he sat down beside her.
"You were right about the Hesperus Drift. . .but wrong about the crew. We got caught in a cometary break-up during a force 10 ion storm." Travis gave a low whistle of sympathy. "The engineering crew may have been green but they performed like troopers, keeping systems online, above and beyond the call of duty."
She began to tremble and Travis pulled her gently into his arms, even though her bruises and contusions caused her to wince at his touch. "He was so young, Travis. Not that much older than Jason. . .and it's my fault he died."
"There was a leak in the secondary fuel core. Automatics were temporarily out because of the storm. But if we waited until the storm subsided, all of us would have died from radiation poisoning. Dewitt put on a pressure suit and vented the core manually."
"Sacrificing himself to save his ship." Travis filled in the blanks, seeing that Jenna was too choked up to continue. "It's always hard to lose a crew member, but you have to accept it was his decision to make that sacrifice."
Jenna's trembling subsided and as she met his gaze, Travis pressed her further, "What about the rest? Any more deaths. . . or critical injuries."
"This was the worst of it." She tried to waggle her fingers and winced before continuing. "Broken in five places. I was in the hospital for three days while Dr. Haroun fused the fragments. He said it was still unstable and wouldn't let me out unless I wore this for another two weeks. After physical therapy I should regain full use, with no loss of sensation."
"Everyone else just had bumps and bruises. But I still gave them a month off. . .with double pay. It will take that long to get Balkis repaired and up to speed. Along with the docking fees for Alamo and Valkyrie while the crew recovers, our profit from the Inviedi Prime 'mercy mission' will just about buy a round of drinks at Casey's."
Travis sat there mutely rejoicing that she'd gotten off so lightly, still stroking her hair even after she'd finished speaking
"Who signed the refit order?"
"Brita," Jenna looked at him in dismay "Then you've been to the docks and seen Balkis ."
"Yes, Jason said it was a miracle she made it in from primary orbit."
"Jason's here too?" she glanced nervously around as though Travis had hidden their son in a corner.
"Checked into the apprentice barracks. He made a solid trade find and needs to register it tomorrow with the Trade Board."
"I'm so glad for him," Jenna started to babble, "And glad he's back too. With me off the roster, we'll need. . ."
Travis did not interrupt but waited for her to run down. It didn't take long.
"What about your mission to Zircaster?" she asked softly. "You're still in one piece so you must have been more successful than I was."
"I guess ." He sat at the edge of the couch, hands hanging limply between his knees. "Blake and Avon corrected the damage done to their weather by the Andromedan attack on Star One. Tarrant and Dayna risked their lives to rid the planet of deteriorating Federation weapons systems. And there was only one attempt on my life. . .by my sister, Deirdre."
"Your sister? But why?"
He laughed bitterly. "Why not? My own brother brain-wiped and controlled me for over ten years. At least Deirdre had a good reason for her actions. I was the one responsible for the death of her husband."
"You didn't have a choice. If you hadn't put down that insurrection, the Federation would have blasted the entire planet to dust, like they did Servalan's hidden base. There wouldn't have been any survivors."
"'Just following orders' was a damned poor excuse for making my sister's life a living hell, Jenna."
He stared down at his clenched fists. Then looking up at Jenna, he suddenly released them.
"She forgave me, Jenna. Even though I was the one who gave the orders that resulted in the death of her husband and left her son emotionally traumatized, she still forgave me."
"Tell me the rest, Travis." Jenna said, softly brushing her hand along his cheek. "The whole story."
Half an hour later, Travis was winding down. ". . .and when I arrived at the door, I wasn't even sure if you were dead or alive."
"That's why it took you three tries and you still didn't get the entry code right?"
Travis bit off a harsh laugh as he stared at the swollen tingling fingers on his right hand.
"Well, you might say that was one reason."
Following his gaze, Jenna gasped in dismay and then started to push herself off the sofa.
"Where do you think you're going?" he growled
"To get some antiseptic and bandages, before gangrene sets in and you lose that hand too."
He pulled her gently back down on the sofa, sliding the fastener down the front of her robe until it slipped off her smooth ivory shoulders. "I love you," he whispered into her silken hair.
"What did you say?" she stared at him in disbelief.
"Just something Deirdre said that I should tell you every chance I can. . .along with apologizing for being wrong. . .even when I'm right." he grinned at Jenna's sudden outraged expression. "Anyway, there's still the slight matter of a proper welcome home and I don't think we could manage with only one good arm between us."
Jenna started to protest until his mouth pressed hard against hers silenced her.
Coming up for air several minutes later, with the robe already deposited in a silken pool on the floor, she made a token protest, "Don't you think we should adjourn to the bedroom? There's more room there. . .and we're less likely to be disturbed."
"I like a little crowding," he murmured, throwing his leg over hers and shifting his weight onto his elbows as he nibbled down her neck "Gives you less chance to get away. Besides, who's going to disturb us. Our crew's on leave, Jason's signed into the apprentice barracks, and with any luck at all, Blake and Liberator are half a quadrant away."
"In that case," she threw both arms around his neck, totally ignoring the cast, as she raised one eyebrow in amusement."Get on with it, man. You've got a hard night's work ahead of you, before we get Balkis's refit started tomorrow morning."
"Are you sure you're willing to share me with another woman that soon?"Travis gave the deep-throated laugh that made Jenna melt inside.
"Oh what the hell," she groaned, pulling him more tightly into her embrace. "The damned ship can wait. After sleeping in a cold lonely bunk for so long, I'm not letting you out of bed for the next week."
"How about the next two weeks?" He pressed his lips against the base of her throat, before working his way southward.
"Two weeks sounds about right," Jenna laughed breathlessly. "Maybe even a month."
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