ContagionBy Alice C. Aldridge
The Free Trader ship Alamo screamed into Auron's stratosphere like a banshee with its tail on fire. Her captain, former Space Commander Travis clenched his teeth, struggling to hold the ship on course as midair bursts from the planetary defense system vibrated through the ship's heavily armored superstructure, rattling her captain and crew like dice in a cup. Normally Travis would have preferred Valkyrie's speed or Balkis's maneuverability for this kind of planetary shuttle, but at the moment he was grateful for Alamo's heavy-duty armor which was the only thing keeping their crew and cargo in one piece.
Turning an icy glare towards the gunnery controls, Travis snarled, "Listen, you fuzzy-brained excuse for a gunner, stop that next missile before it gets a fix on us . . . or if we survive this barrage, you'll clean the carbon scoring off our hull with your tongue."
Taking the Kyrenian's guttural hiss for his usual ill-tempered acknowledgment, Travis turned his attention to yellow warning lights blinking red all over his controls, then growled on the intercom to engineering, "Where the hell are my stabilizers, Akema? Jenna and I can't keep this ship on course with our bare hands."
"You might want to consider burning jets out of here, Cap'n. Me and the lads are holding this ship together with mantras and spit. I think it's fair to say that the Auronar are not interested in our cargo any longer."
" Jenna's trying to get through to the Auron Council right now, Engineer. Keep her steady on her gyros another two minutes."
Jenna pounded her fist on the comm in frustration, trying to reason with the blandly officious planetary controller. "But we have a special landing permission from the Council, you daft idiot. I've already transmitted the emergency clearance. If you have a problem with that, take it up with them."
As another near miss threw Jenna against her restraint harness, she erupted in a venomous outburst of profanity that would have done credit to a platoon of Federation Marines. But judging by the controller's unblinking reaction to her vitriolic assault on his parentage, manhood, and sexual practices, Travis was inclined to believe the image was pre-recorded and the missile attack an automatically programmed countermeasure.
"Endit." His voice was hard enough to shatter rock. "Stop wasting your breath on a recording."
Jenna turned to him, hazel eyes blazing and Travis made a deliberate effort to soften his tone, trying to avoid lacerating Jenna's stubborn pride any further. "Akema's got the right of it. Why risk the ship . . . and our crew's necks? Abort this run and dump the cargo . . . or find a buyer in the salvage market. If the main spaceport is warning off incoming traffic with missiles, something's seriously wrong down there."
"Cally said it was just a 'small outbreak'," Jenna muttered to herself. "Why do I get the feeling the situation is much worse than she thought." She shook her head in frustration and grimaced. "I've never dumped a legitimate cargo yet . . . and I promised we'd make this delivery. No matter what."
"And we owe Cally." Travis acknowledged wearily, wishing for once that Jenna was a little less staunch regarding old friends. Of course, it didn't help that she was still trying to prove herself to her uncle . . . and the Enclave.
He turned to their navigator, a plump woman with a mop of curly dark hair and a queasy expression, and ordered, " Brita, locate a suitable area for Alamo to put down. A safe distance from the spaceport's automatic defenses."
"On it," Navtech Brita Rocklin nodded, wiping futilely at the sweat trickling down her cheeks as she adjusted the coordinate grids on her navigation console.
"Nothing fancy," he growled. "Any flat piece of terrain will do . . . minus the ground fire."
Travis glanced around at their bridge crew: Phrath hunched over his gunnery controls, whiskers arched at a predatory angle, Brita struggling to gulp back her nausea, !tsach, one of Akema's apprentices, hands flying as he updated the data feed to the engineering deck. A good crew, who had proved their loyalty to Jenna and him a dozen times over. They deserved better than this . . . a low profit, high risk mission that Jenna had taken out of a sense of obligation.
He glanced over at Jenna, "Did Cally have any suggestions about where to deliver these supplies . . . now that our consignee at the spaceport has bailed on us."
Muttering to herself, Jenna studied the grid projected on her console. "Last I heard, her clone sister Zelda was head of the Reproductive Facility at the BioReplication Center. They should have the lab facilities . . . and trained personnel . . . to make use of our cargo."
"You get that, Brita?"
"Aye Captain," she acknowledged, moments later. "Transferring landing grid to main helm control . . . now."
With coordinates in their computers, the two Free Traders turned their attention to the atmospheric maneuvers necessary to get their ship and crew safely grounded. Landing without the guidance beams available at the spaceport was a touchy proposition, but they had grounded ships under much worse conditions and despite their disagreement about this mission, they still worked well together, anticipating each other's moves with a minimum of discussion. It was an ideal situation since the roar of Alamo's landing rockets made conversation almost impossible until they touched down.
As Jenna shut down the engines, Travis gusted out a sigh of relief then hit the comm controls to their Cargo Master's station.
"All right, Sarcar, get that cargo offloaded now. Your crew will have to jury-rig a pulley system since we don't have the benefit of the port's facilities . . . or work crews. Dragoon some of the engine gang if you need help."
"No worries, Captain sirs," hissed their Orphidean Cargo Master. "Prepared we are for any and all difficulties. Groundside thy cargo will be in less than an hour."
Travis grunted an acknowledgment and turned his attention to his bondmate who was studying their power levels and fuel consumption readouts. Her expression was grim.
"That course change burned up two-thirds of our remaining auxiliary fuel for braking and maneuvering. If we can't refuel here, we may have a problem getting back to Sanctuary."
Travis shook his head in disgust, "Damn little chance of refueling, with the spaceport using us for target practice. Aren't there any refit yards in this sector?"
"Auron's always been isolated, off the beaten track. No neutral ports within three parsecs . . . that I know of."
"Bring up that quadrant map again. Something about the cometary field on the outskirts of the system looks familiar."
He traced his finger along the chunks of rock and ice orbiting at heliopause of the Auron sun, then suddenly spotted something about ten times brighter than it should have been in that graveyard of planetary debris.
"That's a beacon marking a Federation fuel dump. With a minimum fuel liftoff, we can use the rotation of the planet to give us enough of a boost to coast into the cometary belt, then all we have to do is locate the dump and help ourselves."
"Alamo's not a Federation ship," Jenna protested. "How do you know whatever's at that dump will be compatible with our engines?"
"Fuel dumps like this supply everything from high-velocity pursuit ships to long-range deep-space probes. There's bound to be something Akema and his crew can adapt for our engines."
Jenna's expression was troubled. "One of the first things I learned out on my own was that nothing's free in this galaxy. That fuel could wind up costing more than we can afford."
"Consider it payment for services rendered," Travis answered in a dead flat tone. "I've given them their 'pound of flesh' . . . and more. Besides Samore still owes us for our part in that little scrap with Servalan."
"I guess," she shrugged. "I'm just worried any Federation troops we cross paths with might not see it that way."
She gazed at the map again, tracing a low-fuel trajectory past the comet belt.
"There are rumors of an Amagon souq ship somewhere in this sector. I know Tarvin once mentioned wanting to establish regular trade with the Aurons."
Travis snorted in exasperation, "Our last run-in with the Amagons involved blaster fire, not bloody tea and crumpets. They'd sooner hijack this ship and peddle it and our crew to the highest bidder, than sell us fuel . . . even at bootlegger prices."
Before Jenna could answer, there was a burst of static on the intercom, as Sarcar interrupted them. "Captains Sers. To the cargo area soonest please be coming down." Their normally imperturbable Cargo Master actually sounded flustered, a situation that had Travis glancing around the bridge for some kind of weapon more powerful than the hand blasters that he and Jenna normally carried.
"What's the matter, old snake?" he questioned, stalling for time as Jenna rummaged through storage bins, looking for anything that could possibly be jerry-rigged as an explosive device.
"Militia . . . with weapons."
Sarcar grunted hoarsely as though someone had jabbed him very hard with the barrel of a gun, "Thirty seconds to come out has thou . . . unarmed, or apprentices will kill, they say . . . starting with the youngest."
Jenna froze in dismay, letting the weapon in her hand drop to the deck.
"No," she whispered, her eyes haunted." I won't lose another one, not so soon."
Travis caught her shoulder as she started out the door, "Jenna, wait, it's a bluff. They're Aurons, pacifists by nature."
"I suppose those rockets they fired at us at the spaceport were bluff, too?" She tossed her weapon belt aside, although Travis noted she did not discard the miniature pulse pistol hidden under her shirt or the pair of knives in her boots. "If the Aurons are shooting at legitimate cargo vessels, we need to find out why."
Travis groaned to himself before asking in a disgruntled tone of voice, "I thought you'd given up sticking your nose into other people's problems?"
Jenna glared back at him, hands on her hips. "They've fired on our ship, taken our crew hostage, and will likely confiscate our cargo without paying for it. What more does it take for you to consider this our problem?"
Snatching the gun from his hand, she gave him sidelong glance, "You still have some of those strontium mini-grenades, don't you?"
"And a few other tricks," he admitted with a cold smile. "What's your plan? Let 'em lock us up together, then blast our way out?"
"Not right away. I'd still like to talk to whoever's currently in charge and find out why one of the more peace-loving races in the galaxy has started shooting on sight. Whatever this problem is, it's likely a danger to other Enclave ships."
Jenna grabbed Travis by the elbow. "We better not keep them
waiting too long . . . or our apprentices will be white-haired by the time
we get there."
The militia colonel, an auburn-haired woman with steel-gray eyes, wore a cool, competent expression and the by-the-numbers attitude of a rulebook officer. She ignored their protests, questions, and verbal insults with a deliberate equanimity that left Travis seething. He was prepared to play balls-to-the-wall head games with a male CO but was stymied by an officer who lacked the testosterone to react to his jibes.
Travis wasn't sure if the woman was actually psychically sensitive or just a good judge of character, but she kept a dead bead on him while her troops strip-searched Jenna, doing the same to Jenna as they peeled him down to his skin, locating their concealed weapons. The troops remained business-like as they did their jobs, making no provocative moves that might have given any of their captives the means or motive to attack them.
After a thorough surface screening, the colonel regarded them blandly, "I'd prefer not to put either you or my troops through the distasteful experience of a body cavity search. Give me your word as Free Trader Captains that you won't try to escape and I'll forego the indignity. Otherwise . . . ."
Travis would have promised, then cracked their captors' heads at the first opportunity but Jenna stepped forward and spoke up. "You have my word, Colonel as an Enclave captain . . . and a Stannis. Just let our crew go. It was my decision to land, despite the warnings at the Space Port. We had special clearance from the Auron Council."
"Your crew will not be harmed, Captain. But I have orders to bring the two of you to my superior."
The Colonel gestured for the two of them to get dressed and then ordered her troops to bind and blindfold them securely. As they were hustled into surface transportation, Travis grimaced in disgust. But once the door was slammed shut, he began to flex his cyber prosthesis, testing the strength of their restraints. Solid titanium. Little chance of breaking loose without doing serious damage to his flesh and blood arm, a situation he wanted to avoid unless absolutely necessary.
Beside him, he felt Jenna squirming around, digging with her nails at the side of her leg.
"Sitting on a rough spot?"
Jenna stopped what she was doing and pressed her fingers into his palm,
hurriedly spelling out her intentions in Lassa trade talk.
HUSH. MAY BE WIRED. I OPEN CUFFS. YOU GET DIRECTION.
Travis signaled his agreement. Jenna had acquired a few of Vila's simpler lock picking skills and even blindfolded, he still had sound, smell, and a fairly reliable "bump of direction" to make a good guess about where they were being taken planetside.
As Jenna struggled to open her cuffs, Travis listened intently, sniffing the air on occasion for clues about their route and destination.
Once she freed herself, Jenna pulled off her blindfold, then quickly swept the confinement area for hidden cameras or mikes before turning her attention to freeing him.
"We may as well speak freely. If they have monitoring devices on us, they're too well-hidden for me to locate."
"It's highly unlikely. Despite their professionalism, this was a spur-of-the-moment operation. Otherwise they'd have better intel on both of us."
"You mean, not disabling your arm?" Jenna knelt beside him, tongue between her teeth as she worked on his bindings. "Maybe they have orders to bring us in uninjured."
"Maybe, but orders from whom? We're definitely not headed back to the capital."
She gave him a questioning look and he continued. "No checkpoints.
Traffic's virtually non-existent, no echos from
Moments later, his wrists were free and as he rubbed his right arm to restore circulation, Travis questioned, "You had a better chance to study the map grid before we landed. How far did Alamo actually put down from the BioReplication Center?"
"Less than five miles. If that's where they're taking us, we'd have been there half an hour ago."
"Unless this is some kind of 'snipe hunt'."
Jenna looked at him in bewilderment as Travis gave her a menacing smile, "Scare tactics, m'girl. Drive us around in circles blindfolded and make us think we're a lot further from our ship and crew than we really are."
"Psych us out, break down our resistance to questioning. Any of half a dozen other reasons."
"Again, why? We're just Free Traders, bringing in medical supplies, not bloody commandos."
"Maybe other Aurons don't believe 'a leopard can change his spots' . . . ."
He cocked his head to one side, listening intently.
"You remember any mountain ranges near the capital?"
"None shown on the map. Why?"
Then Jenna noticed it too. The sudden resonant echo of their engine noise and deepening rumble of their tires. "A tunnel? But where could it lead?"
"Given our welcome at the spaceport, likely some sort of civil defense facility . . . possibly even a government bunker."
"You think the situation has gotten that bad?"
"Automated defensive fire at incoming ships. A militia detail assigned to a Free Trader crew. What do you think?"
"Oh shit," Jenna swore. "And we're grounded right in the middle."
The vehicle lurched to a halt and as they heard the escort detail checking their weapons before exiting, Travis hissed, "Quick, get those shackles back on."
"Too many well-armed guards expecting trouble right now. Better if they think we're sheep, not wolves. They let their guard down . . . then we make a break for it."
Jenna hurriedly refastened both their manacles, making sure her lockpick was well hidden, just as the door swung open. The CO peered in at them, noticing their missing blindfolds, then smiled ruefully as she gestured for one of her troopers to remove their handcuffs.
"Sorry to truss you up like holiday wildfowl, Captains. But it was necessary to get you away from the capital without drawing undue attention."
"What's this all about, Colonel? We're carrying medical supplies, not weapons. Why was our ship fired upon and our crew taken hostage?"
"Clinician Franton is waiting, Captains. If you'll kindly follow me."
From the underground motor pool, the Colonel led them into a labyrinth of flourescent lit, concrete walled hallways. Jenna had cultivated a knack for memorizing distance and direction and attempted to map the area in her head as they were taken through the maze of security stations and winding corridors that led to an express lift. After they entered, the Colonel used a key to activate the panel which had no other controls to indicate how far down they were going. Judging by the speed of their descent, they might have been headed for the infernal regions though Jenna thought it more likely that the shaft led to a doomsday bunker.
The lift doors opened onto a flourescent lighted hallway that appeared almost identical to the one that they had just left. They were escorted into an office furnished with little more than a desk, three chairs and a computer work station. A mature woman with haunted eyes and blonde hair cropped just below her ears was seated at the desk, studying a table of readouts onscreen.
"Colonel Amara reporting as ordered, Clinician, with Free Trader Captains Stannis and Travis of the Enclave ship Alamo."
"Thank you, Colonel. That will be all."
The colonel saluted briskly and turned on her heel, leaving Travis and Jenna alone with the woman. Turning her attention from her screen, she gestured for them to be seated and began to speak in a brisk, businesslike manner.
"I'm Clinician Franton, a member of the Auron Genetic Council. I apologize for the less than hospitable welcome, but given the current situation and Captain Travis's belligerent reputation, it seemed the safest method for all concerned."
Jenna felt her growing unease congeal into an icy lump of dismay.
"What is this place? Why'd you send the militia to take our crew hostage?"
"I had no choice," Franton said tight-lipped. "Having you arrested was the only way to guarantee your safety. The Council declared Auron a Closed World just this morning and ordered that all off-worlders be taken into protective custody."
Travis glared around the starkly furnished room.
"I thought Aurons were supposed to be peace-loving and enlightened?"
"No one is immune to fear, Captain. Especially in our current situation."
Before Franton could explain further, dark-edged sarcastic voice rasped from the comm on her desk.
"Franton, Avon here. Orac's just come up with data that I think you'll find extremely interesting."
"Orac? . . . and Avon?" Travis's scowl deepened. "Don't tell me Blake and his crew are stuck down here too?"
"Cally and Avon arrived yesterday,"Franton sighed, pushing away from
her desk. "You might as well come with me. Judging by Avon's
voice, the situation is much worse than we thought . . . and you have a
right to know what you've gotten into."
As the entered the central lab facility, Avon was glaring at a holographic map projection highlighted with red and green lights while Orac's irritable tones declaimed, *As you can plainly see, epidemiological projections clearly indicate that the disease did not originate from a point zero as expected. Rather it was apparently 'seeded' in multiple locations, such as large urban areas, also in locations with highly mobile populations such as learning centers or cultural events. Thus, the unusually rapid spread of this disease is not accidental, but deliberate.*
Franton's face blanched at Orac's declaration,"Then it's too late for a vaccine. We need to develop a treatment for the disease itself." She turned to Avon, requesting in a tightly controlled voice, "Is Orac equipped to do a genetic analysis of the infective organism? At least that would save some time in producing a possible antitoxin."
Avon glanced up at Travis and Jenna , trailing in Franton's wake, then drawled in an acid-etched voice, "It might be easier to look for similar outbreaks on worlds resisting Federation control. Unless Commander Travis has any biowarfare information that he'd like to share?"
Travis's fists clenched as he gritted out a barely civil answer, " Give it a rest, Avon. Bioweapons were never my bailiwick. I was a field officer, 'up to my arse in slime and lasers'."
Jenna broke in,"What about Blake and Liberator? Are they still in orbit? Any chance of at least getting our crew teleported out of this mess?"
Cally turned and took Jenna's hand in greeting, "I'm sorry, Jenna, but Blake has already returned to Sanctuary for more medical supplies."
"For all the good it's likely to do," Avon muttered sourly. "Unless Orac and the Auron scientists can come up with a cure, Blake just may find himself returning to a dead world."
There was a brief stunned silence before a voice virtually identical to Cally's broke in, "Franton, Cally, please come to the Bioreplication Center. AT ONCE." There was a short silence as though the speaker was struggling to regain her composure.
"There's been an . . . an . . . incident in the placental chambers."
Franton blanched and rushed out the door without saying a word.
As Cally started to rush after her, Travis caught her arm, "Placental chambers? That's the cloning center, isn't it? What's it doing down here?"
"My clone sister Zelda, who's in charge of the facility and its genestock,
decided to have everything moved into this bunker because of the epidemic
" Cally replied impatiently. "That way, in the event of a worst case
scenario, at least our future population would not be at risk. Or
so we believed."
As they entered the lab where the cloning chambers were kept, they found Franton and Zelda intently studying a nude full figure holographic projection.
" . . . and all the rest are pure Auron? This was the only anomaly . . . the only non-Auron cells within the rest of the gene stock?"
"Yes, the only human cells. The rest of the cells were Auron. From Levannen, part of the gene line conservation project."
Franton clutched at the laboratory desk, muttering to herself, "It's not possible. Our screening procedures are too stringent for this to have happened accidently."
Attempting to regain her composure, she demanded. "Is this a complete chromosomal projection of the cells implanted in the cloning chambers?"
"After compensating for ionization damage . . . yes." Zelda nodded, then hovered over her controls to rotate the figure so that it could be studied from all angles. The figure was female and blandly attractive, but without the vital spark of a thinking mind there was nothing to distinguish it from any of a thousand other empty faces.
While Franton and Zelda labored over the holographic projection, Jenna gestured with irritation towards the nude figure,
"What's this all about?"
Cally shook her head in bewilderment, "I'm not exactly sure. The cloning chambers were supposed to remain offline. With most of Zelda's regular staff drafted to help in the medcenters, there aren't enough technicians to assure quality control during the procedure."
"Or to maintain the necessary security precautions?" Travis interrupted in a darkly suspicious voice. "How the blazes did human cells get mixed in with a group of cultures from . . . where did you say? Levannen?"
"Yes," Franton answered reluctantly.
"I'm more concerned about who, rather than how," Avon said. "Anyone who would go to the trouble of smuggling cells into a cloning chamber clearly has something to hide. I think someone should try to identify your mystery 'guest'."
Turning to Zelda, he demanded,"What about hair and eye color? Surely the template can give you some indication?"
Glancing up from her station, Zelda made some adjustments in the program and the image's hairless skull abruptly was covered by dark curls. "Does this help?"
Avon shook his head in frustrated denial, while Franton observed ruefully, "Given the current state of cosmetic modification, detailed projections are often more misleading than useful."
"Finish it," Travis ordered in a ragged voice.
The eyelids abruptly opened and Avon gazed into their golden amber depths, suddenly recognizing that predatory stare.
"Servalan!" he rasped.
"No," Travis muttered, gripping Jenna's arm hard enough to leave bruises.
For a long moment Avon glared at the hologram, his expression remote and unreadable. Then with the feral swiftness, he spun around to confront Travis, his eyes as dark and deadly as the event horizon of a black hole.
"Well now . . . this makes it rather obvious who's likely responsible for the epidemic, doesn't it? Carnell, the puppeteer . . . his brother. Endangering millions of lives as a diversion for his little resurrection scheme."
Travis lunged forward, clutching the front of Avon's tunic and pulling the other man up until they were eye to eye. "That is not my brother. Dar died fifteen years ago. Carnell's a construct . . . a thing, created by the Clonemasters and programmed with my brother's memories."
"How very reassuring," Avon hissed, pressing a small blaster against Travis's ribcage. "Now, let go of me . . . or you'll be needing a set of internal cybernetic parts to match your external attachments."
Franton pushed between the two men, trying to defuse the potentially deadly confrontation.
" Don't we have enough problems . . . without fighting among ourselves?"
Avon maintained his suspicious look, even as he replaced the weapon inside his jacket.
"Destroy the clone . . . now. The only way of dealing with a viper like Servalan is to crush her before she can spread her poison."
Franton shook her head reluctantly. "That's not an option. There's no way to shut off one placental chamber without endangering the entire cluster. Almost a thousand individual embryos."
"A small sacrifice to rid yourself of Servalan's poisonous revenant."
"No," Franton stared down at her clenched fists. "It's not a sacrifice we can afford to make. Especially not those cultures."
"And why are they so valuable?" Jenna demanded, genuinely curious.
"When the Elders of Auron initiated the planet-wide cloning program a generation ago, there were those who opposed this action, fearing the loss of their individuality. They also found the idea of linked minds . . . repugnant. Those who chose not to take part in the cloning program withdrew from Auron society and formed a separate community. In Levannen."
Franton took a deep shuddering breath, "My father also disagreed with the cloning program, but chose to remain on the Council. He maintained contact with Levannen's leaders for some years, but since his death . . . ."
Her voice trailed off and she paused, her eyes closed in painful reminiscence before shaking off the memories and continuing in a brusque tone.
"Because their refusal to take part in the cloning project a generation ago, their gene stock represents a valuable diversity within the Auron race. One we cannot afford to lose."
"If they were that opposed to cloning in the first place, then just how did their cell cultures wind up at your central cloning facility? Particularly, with Servalan's cells tucked among them, like a strontium grenade in a nosegay?"
Jenna managed to choke off a laugh at Travis's apt image as Franton continued in a determined tone.
"My father communicated with Levannen's leader shortly before he died, requesting cell cultures from them to include in the planetary genestock. To be used in the event of a planetary catastrophe. But for years there was no reply. Then last week, two messengers arrived, hand-carrying the cultures in an antique stasis box."
"Didn't that seem a bit . . . odd? I mean, not a flamin' peep out of them for years, then all of a sudden they turn up on your doorstep?"
Franton snapped back. "We had other concerns at the time, with the onset of the epidemic and attempting to identify the causative organism."
Propping one hip on her desk, Travis replied. "Dunno about you, but I'd have put some hard questions to whoever delivered those cultures."
"One is elderly and in poor health, while the other is quite young, barely into her teens. Both were exhausted when they arrived, hardly up to sustained questioning. Besides, there was no reason then to question them about the cultures."
"Don't you think that there might be a reason . . . now?" Avon suggested in an infinitely patient tone. "Considering the presence of Servalan's cells in your cloning chambers . . . and Orac's evidence that this plague of yours was artificially seeded and spread."
Franton's face hardened as she leaned forward to activate the intercom
on her desk, "Colonel Amara, please bring Veronica and Cleome of Levannen
to my office. Under guard."
Travis gusted out an exasperated breath as he stared at the charred remains of Veronica of Levannen, then dropped the concealing sheet. Colonel Amara gestured briskly for two of the accompanying guards to remove the body to the stasis room.
"Looks like a sustained pulse rifle blast to me," he muttered.
"Or a blowtorch," Avon added in a caustic tone. "Definitely a case of overkill, if she was as old and feeble as Franton claimed."
He turned a probing gaze towards the Colonel, "What did security have to say? Were there signs of a struggle? What about the other one? Did she see or hear anything?"
"When the detail arrived, the door was locked. They opened it and
found Cleome, the younger woman, unconscious, sprawled on the couch in
the main room. After notifying the medic, they searched the two sleeping
rooms and found Veronica's body
. . . just as you saw it."
"Which seems to indicate that one of your troops or scientific staff is a cold-blooded murderer," Travis stated flatly.
"You're ruling out the second messenger?"
"I'm not ruling out anyone, Avon. For all I know, you scampered down here and shot the old woman in a fit of pique because she'd delivered the package with Servalan's cell culture."
"A motive that applies equally well to you," Avon sneered.
The Colonel glared between the two men in irritation. "These outrageous accusations may be amusing to you humans, but I think once the girl regains consciousness, questioning her will provide us with a much better idea of what happened."
With the arrival of Travis, Avon and the Colonel, Franton's austere office became rather crowded. Cally and Zelda were seated in one corner, silently communing, while Jenna paced impatiently as a tiger in a cage. In the center of the room under Franton's watchful gaze, Cleome of Levannen fidgeted, staring down at her tightly clenched hands before peering up anxiously at her interrogator from under an unruly mop of dark brown curls.
" . . . like I told you the first time. We'd just eaten our midday meal and Elder Veronica retired to her room to rest. I was scanning through the one of the book vids and must have nodded off. The next thing I remember was the guards, charging in and shaking me awake, demanding to know what happened. For all I know, they were the ones who shot her."
Franton continued her questions in a calm, deliberate voice as Jenna edged over to Travis and updated him in barely audible whisper.
"The girl had somnium in her bloodstream, but no clue of how it got there. No signs of a struggle, though as small as she is, it wouldn't have taken much of a blow to knock her out."
Travis had spotted the wiry muscles covering the girl's slender bones and her watchful wary gaze.
"Don't underestimate her, Jenna," he murmured. "Time to stir the pot a bit."
He deliberately swaggered over and pulled Cleome's chin up so she was forced to look straight into his fierce expression as he sneered "Stop coddling the chit, Clinician. Who cares about the old woman's death anyway? You should concentrate on how their gene stock samples got into the cloning chambers. Did you do it alone, girl? Or was there someone on the inside, helping you? Was that why you killed the old woman, because she got in the way?"
Franton glared at him, outraged.
"Captain Travis, cease badgering this child at once . . . or I'll have you removed, bound and gagged."
Colonel Amara approached him from behind, placing a heavy hand on his shoulder. As she did, he turned just enough so she could read his lips.
"GOOD COP, BAD COP," he mouthed, hoping she was canny enough to catch on to what he was trying to do. After a momentary hesitation, she gave a barely perceptible nod before speaking out in a cloyingly reasonable tone.
"I'm sure we won't have to resort to such stringent measures, Clinician. After all Captain Travis wants the same thing we do. To discover who is to blame for Veronica's murder . . . and tampering with Levannen's gene stock."
Cleome leaped to her feet, "Our gene stock's been tampered with?"
"In a manner of speaking," Amara answered coolly. "Someone placed Levannen's cell cultures in the cloning tanks."
"No," the girl sank back in the chair, burying her face in her hands. "This can't be happening. How can I face the Eldest Delphine and tell her? An Elder is dead and the genes we were entrusted with have been contaminated."
She looked up, her face streaked with tears although her gaze was filled with disgust as she glared at Cally and Zelda. "How can I tell her that our cells have become part of the cloning abomination?"
"This is not the time for ideological nonsense," Franton pushed away from her desk and stood over Cleome with an increasingly stern expression on her face. "Who ordered that gene stock to be delivered now? My father requested those samples nearly ten years ago. And where did the alien cells come from?"
"What alien cells?" Cleome's expression was totally baffled.
"She puts up a good front," Jenna remarked under her breath.
"Or like any frontline trooper, she doesn't know any more about the battle plan than her part in it. Makes sense when you think about it. Can't reveal what she doesn't know, not even if she's drugged . . . or mind-probed."
"You have a suspicious mind, Captain Travis." Colonel Amara whispered.
"I'm still alive. More trusting . . . more gullible officers aren't.
Travis turned back to Cleome, almost hissing into her face, "What were your orders, girl? To divert the guards while the old woman activated the cloning tanks?"
Jutting out her chin, the young courier answered in a defiant tone, though Travis could tell by its underlying quaver that her confidence was rapidly eroding. "I was asked to accompany the Elder Veronica on this journey and provide for her comfort. That's all."
Amara placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, "But you must have heard rumors, gossip . . . some reason given for this sudden reversal of Levannen's policy of isolation after so many years."
"There was nothing else," Cleome said through gritted teeth. "Nothing more than I've already told you."
Travis stared down at the girl, knowing that she was lying, but uncertain just how much further he could push her. She was trying to put up a bold front, but something had left her badly shaken, though he wasn't sure if it was the murder . . . or the mention of the cloning tanks.
He'd risk one last nudge.
"She's lying," he sneered. "Otherwise, why risk delivering the genestock now, right in the middle of an epidemic. They were hoping to find the Bioreplication Center unguarded . . . or that the plague had reduced the population so much the Auron Council would clone their genestock, no questions asked."
"No . . . NO . . . NO. It's not true," Cleome teetered on the edge of hysteria. "Cloning is evil. Clones have no souls." She glared at Cally and Zelda with loathing. "The Eldest would never be a part of that. Never."
The girl buried her face in her hands and broke down sobbing, "Please, don't make me stay here any longer. Let me go home."
Franton tried to comfort the distraught young girl, "You're safe here, child. No one will harm you."
Travis and Avon exchanged dubious looks, wondering at Franton's blind spot about the earlier murder.
"What about them?" she pointed at Cally and Zelda, shuddering.
"They're Aurons, too. Just like your family and friends."
"No, everyone knows that clones can crawl around inside your head, reading your thoughts . . . and . . . and . . . twisting your mind."
Franton was left momentarily speechless by that vitriolic outburst but
Travis gave a guttural laugh, breaking the shocked silence.
"Someone's been filling your head full of moonbeams, girl. Aurons may read minds, but they don't control them."
He paused as a sudden dark speculation entered his thoughts.
"Not like . . . puppeteers," his voice trailed off into silence.
It was past midnight when the last of the two heavy duty cross terrain vehicles was loaded with medical supplies and lab equipment. Colonel Amara rubbed a grimy hand across her oil-spattered and smudged features and addressed her weary troops.
"All right, hit your bunks. We move out at dawn tomorrow. Alpha company goes with me, while Beta company remains here in charge of security under the command of Major Brand. Draw two weeks' rations and non-lethal weapon charges. Dismissed."
As the troopers dispersed, Travis sneered at Amara in disgust. "Non-lethal weapon charges? You think your troops will be able to deal with panic-stricken mobs or desperate separatists using stun-rods and sleepy gas?"
"This is a medical relief operation, not an invasion force . . . and if you're uncomfortable with my choice of weapons or tactics, Captain, feel free to remain behind."
"So you can lead a detachment of green troops into a likely death trap?"
"I only agreed to you coming with my detachment at Clinician Franton's request. She believes your knowledge of the puppet master possibly responsible for the alien clone is essential to this mission."
"That's 'puppeteer', Colonel. Franton recognizes the danger that Carnell and Servalan represent."
"I'm not convinced," the Colonel answered in a dead flat tone. "I find it difficult to believe that the people of Levannen would take part in a scheme that would deliberately endanger their fellow Aurons."
"Maybe so, Colonel. But they deliberately withdrew from their fellow Aurons some years ago . . . and isolation can breed alienation and mistrust."
"You have a reputation for being a hard man, Captain, and I intend to give the Elders of Levannen full benefit of the doubt."
Travis nodded his head in reluctant agreement.
"They may not know anything about how Servalan's cells got into their gene stock. But it's still dangerous to follow tiger tracks . . . when you're only armed for rabbit."
Amara's brows drew together and she muttered in exasperation, "Earther aphorisms are as incomprehensible as Earther humor."
She turned to the other Free Trader Captain. "Are you sure you won't reconsider, Captain Stannis? We'll be traveling through very rough country, heading into the mountains where there are frequent thunder squalls and even the occasional blizzard or hailstorm. The facilities in this bunker may not be luxurious, but at least you have a warm, dry bed."
Jenna smiled ruefully, "Sorry, Colonel, but the last time I let him go on a trade mission without me, I almost didn't get him back with the few parts he's got left still intact. I'll take my chances with the weather . . . and Auron tigers."
Sighing in resignation, Cally pushed aside her blanket and began to dress silently in the dark. Despite the fact that she was home - the right sun, right air, even the right ground beneath her feet, much as she could sense them inside this underground prison - she was still unable to sleep. Not even the subliminal murmurings of her clone sister's sleeping mind was enough of a soporific this night. Coming home was no longer as comforting or as simple as she once believed.
She probably should have remained in the lab with Avon to help him with the antitoxin but after the revelations and violence of the past twenty-four hours, her whole being - mind and body - felt lacerated, raw to the touch, with an avalanche of emotions threatening to overwhelm her. There was guilt at Franton's seizure of Jenna's ship, dread at Avon's discovery of the epidemic's origins, outrage at the discovery of Servalan's clone within Auron's placental chambers. But worst of all was her shock at the animosity . . . the sheer hatred . . . radiating from another Auron at her and her clone sister, Zelda, because of their mere existence. Even though Cleome was leaving in the morning, escorted by Colonel Amara's detail, her attitude had raised many questions about Levannen.
Closing the door to the quarters she and Zelda shared, Cally stepped into the dimly lit hallway. With no definite goal in mind, she hoped to find some place she could meditate and put these clamoring emotions in perspective rather than allow them to nibble away at her self-control like rats in the dark.
Padding silently into the well equipped recreation area, she found a secluded
corner and settled into a full lotus before turning her attention inwards
to the inner uncertainties that ranted at her. It was no use.
They had grown too strident for her to bury any longer under her usual dispassionate
calm. They would have to be acknowledged before she could begin to
She grimaced as doubts and fears surged through her mind like storm-tossed waves on the sea. Then she began to breathe deeply and slowly, finding the inner calm that enabled her to see the waves for what they truly were- mere ripples on the ocean of eternity, transient amid the timeless roll and surge of the great abyssal depths. Her eyes closed and she began to drift on those waves, riding their endless swells.
Quiet. Drifting. Peaceful.
Suddenly a blaze of thought, diamond hard and diamond bright, flashed through her consciousness, like a bolt of lighting spearing across the midnight sky.
Cally took a shuddering breath and emerged from her trance, nerves jangling. She glanced around the room, somewhat surprised to see that she was still alone. With an abrupt shake of her head, she realized who was the likely source of that icy eruption of brilliance and rose gracefully from her lotus seat, hurrying in the direction of the lab.
Undoubtedly she'd find Avon there, with Orac at his elbow, running diagnostic simulations, searching for an antitoxin. Avon's habitual insomnia often left him prowling Liberator's corridors at odd hours, pouncing on malfunctioning circuits like a hungry predator. Circumstances did not appear to have changed here on Auron. She paused momentarily outside the door to be sure she wasn't interrupting any critical procedures then suddenly froze at the coldly malevolent note in Avon's voice.
"You do realize that if we cannot produce an antitoxin in time to save Cally's world that I will dismantle every single one of your circuits?"
There was a very long silence after Avon spoke, before Orac replied and if Cally did not know better she would have sworn that there was a certain - apprehension? - in the normally peevish vodered reply.
*I did not realize that Auron's survival was that important to you*
"Cally's well-being is . . . important . . . to me," Avon stated in a dead flat tone. "And since she demonstrates a sentimental attachment to her clone sister and fellow Aurons, then their survival becomes equally important."
*I shall revise my research priorities accordingly and accelerate development of possible antisera*
"You do that," Avon replied, removing the activation key.
Cally remained there, silent for a long moment before entering the lab and addressing Avon in gently solicitous voice. "Don't you think you should get some rest? You haven't taken a break for almost forty-eight hours, ever since we teleported down."
Avon glared at her, muttering something distinctly unflattering under his breath, while Cally continued in a frustratingly reasonable tone of voice, "Extreme fatigue often results in mistakes, which can cost time as well as lives."
Avon stood up stiffly, trying to ease the cramping tension in his back. "I assure you, Cally. There will be no mistakes in production of this antiserum. All of Orac's resources are currently committed to this project."
Cally felt a sudden chill run down her spine at the unyielding tone in Avon's voice and muttered in exasperation to hide her misgivings. She grasped his shoulder and turned him gently around so her fingers could press firmly against his lower spine, "You haven't been doing your stretches, have you?"
Avon grimaced at her probing touch, but did not pull away, "It's . . . been . . . a . . . bit . . . difficult . . . given our current situation. Ouch."
"This bunker has a well-equipped rest room."
"Which I doubt I'll have time to use . . . if you expect me to produce an antitoxin in time to save this planet."
Cally froze momentarily, then continued kneading his knotted muscles until he gusted out a harsh, "Enough."
She started to withdraw, then stepped around him so they stood face to face. Gazing into his eyes, her fingers traced along the lines of worry and fatigue on his face with a delicate, tentative touch. "I know that you'll be able to save the people of Auron, Avon. I trust your computer skills . . . and your caring heart."
Avon delicately clasped her fingers, the usual razor edge to his voice momentarily blunted, "I suppose that makes it all worthwhile."
Then they both heard the distinctive whine of a charging pulse rifle and spun around to find themselves face to face with a militia trooper in full isolation gear, with his weapon pointed directly at their heads,
"This lab is off-limits. Any intruders are to be shot . . . on orders
of Major Brand."
"Take a ten minute break."
As Amara's voice echoed over the CTV's comm unit, their driver wrestled with the stubborn gear box, set the brake, and turned off the laboring engine. Blessed silence ensued and Jenna slumped back in the sprung vinyl seat, cramped and sore from just bouncing along in this so-called cross-terrain vehicle for the past hour. They'd gotten started at dawn and the first six hours had been over the main road system, but much too soon their vehicles had reached the narrow, rutted back country trails that Amara had warned them about.
Beside her, Travis was poring over the photographic surveys of the area that he'd downloaded earlier from satellite surveillance system. There was a grid navigation system installed on the console of their vehicle, but he'd checked out its limited resolution and declared it a "waste of space."
Jenna arched her back as she tried to massage out the growing stiffness. She wasn't sure about the age or origins of their transportation but the damn thing steered like a blind mule and rode about as smoothly as a three-legged tark. Gazing in bemusement at the lonely wooded glades and empty fields surrounding them, Jenna was surprised. She'd always thought of Auron as a cosmopolitan world, much like the Free Trader's homeworld, with large cities surrounded by carefully landscaped parks and recreation areas. This virtually untouched wilderness didn't seem to fit with what little Cally had told her.
Beside her, Travis grunted in exasperation as he unwound his long legs and climbed out of the vehicle. "I'm going to talk with the Colonel and see if there isn't some quicker mode of transport to get us to the settlement. At this rate, those clones will be grandmothers by the time we return."
Jenna nodded as she decided to take advantage of the break and stretch her legs as well.
Col. Amara had projected a map from her data padd on the side one of their CTV's and was attempting to choose the best route into the harsh back country.
" . . . reported rock slides. Road repair crews are nonexistent in this sector, but it's the most direct route. We'll continue along this stretch and hope we have enough muscle power to deal with any obstructions on this section of roadway."
She dismissed the drivers and was checking updates on the progress of the epidemic as Travis strode up and demanded in an irritable tone, "Why the blazes are we taking the scenic route? Auron's not some backward, lo-tech colony world. Surely your planetary forces have some type of high speed troop transport, like jet pods or helidrones?"
Amara didn't speak until she had signed out and shut off the system, then turned to Travis and answered bitterly, "Two years ago our 'planetary forces' consisted mainly of volunteers whose chief duty was rescuing lost campers and locating strayed children. Oh, there were a few uniformed ceremonial troops to provide pomp and color on holidays but Auron was a civilized, peaceful world. Until we opened our port to . . . to . . . outworlders. Only since then have we needed troops to protect us. As a result, you may find us lacking modern weapons and transportation. Not to mention up-to-date military training."
For a long moment Travis was silent before he admitted with grudging admiration, "Your people must be fast learners. Federation troops as green as yours would be too trigger-happy to use on a mission like this."
"There was no choice. They're the only troops available. They have to be good enough to do the job."
"What about you, Colonel? What were your qualifications for command?"
"I was a history professor, Space Commander. The Council hoped I would be clever enough to learn from mistakes of the past."
Travis studied her for a long moment, rubbing the scarred tissue on his left cheek just below the patch. "Smart move . . . for politicians. But I thought Aurons were pacifists. How did you learn about soldiering and tactics?"
"Our past isn't totally bloodless. There have been raids, riots, and even the odd skirmish or two, though our species' high degree of telempathy prevented the madness of full scale war. Of course, there were always Federation wars, massacres, and pogroms to study."
"True," he nodded in agreement. "Unfortunately the FSA stopped teaching history to its cadets when Servalan was appointed Supreme Commander."
"Ignoring the past is dangerous."
"Especially if you want to avoid repeating the same stupid mistakes."
Amara gave Travis a long assessing look, "You're not as hard as you pretend to be."
She gusted out a tired sigh,"Still, I think we should switch trucks and see if you can scare anything useful out of Cleome. I've been smiling so hard for the past six hours that my teeth are sunburned, but she still hasn't confided in me."
"She may not know anything. Like I said earlier, green troops are rarely briefed on the order of battle."
"You're making the mistake of underestimating her because of her youth,
Captain," Amara remarked thoughtfully. "Call it Auron intuition, but
I've got a gut feeling that girl knows much more than she's telling us."
Avon lunged at the trooper, grabbing for the weapon. As they struggled, Cally telepathed an urgent plea to Zelda.
Send help . . . and notify Franton. . This may be our killer.
Try to take him alive . . . for questioning.
I'm more concerned with keeping Avon alive.
Having alerted Zelda of the attack, Cally turned to help Avon only to discover that despite his exhausted condition, he'd already downed the trooper and taken possession of the weapon. The figure sprawled at their feet was much less intimidating without the charged pulse rifle currently in Avon's grasp. Despite his easy victory, Avon was breathing hard and extremely irritated.
"Care to explain why you're so eager to shoot someone working on an antidote to save your misbegotten planet?"
"Got my orders," was the curt reply. "Intruder in the bunker. Midnight to dawn curfew, anyone out of quarters to be shot on sight."
Red-eyed and wearing a stained lab coat, Franton arrived in just time to hear the tail end of that revelation.
"Who's orders?" she demanded.
"Major Brand's, ma'am. Posted in our bunkroom, just after the Colonel left."
" Now what?" Franton muttered, before hitting the intercom. "Major Brand, report to the main lab - at once."
Despite the urgency in Franton's voice, it was almost twenty minutes before Brand arrived, decked out in an immaculately pressed and tailored dress uniform, with full ribbons and braid and carrying a swagger stick, with an armed escort accompanying him.
Franton glared at the armed detail somewhat taken aback before she spoke in a mild tone. "I ordered you to report, Major? Not your troops."
"Cold-blooded murderer on the loose, ma'am. Don't want to take any chances."
"I see." She paused for a moment, staring down at her hands, noting their ragged broken nails and the chemical discolorations that stained them. "Have you given any thought your current mission, now that Col. Amara has left?"
"Of course, ma'am. Protecting this bunker."
There was a long pause as Franton stared at him, hands folded in front of her, clearly waiting for him to continue.
"And its personnel," he added almost as an afterthought.
"Thank you, Captain. I'm glad that you have some clue about our purpose here. Which is to provide a safe, working environment for the personnel - the scientists and technicians - who are attempting to discover the cure for the plague currently decimating our world. You did understand those two key words, didn't you? Safe? And working?"
"That's Major, ma'am. My proper rank is Major."
"I don't give a damn what your rank is, Captain. You and your troops take their orders from the Auron Council. And I am currently the senior surviving - the only surviving - member of that Council in this bunker.
"But ma'am," he sputtered. "There's a murderer loose. How do you expect me to protect these people if they insist on working all hours of the day and night, anywhere they choose?"
"That's your problem, Lieutenant, and I'm sure you'll come up with a satisfactory solution that doesn't interfere with our efforts to develop an antitoxin. If you can't . . . ." Franton gave the now sweating officer a very chilly glare. "I'm sure that there's someone in your company who will be more than willing to take over the assignment . . . and your command."
"Yes, ma'am." Brand answered meekly, though his eyes were simmering with outrage. He gave her a stiff salute then turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
"You've just made a very dangerous enemy, Franton," Avon observed.
"Who . . . Brand?" Franton rubbed her hand wearily across her eyes. "He's a coward . . . and a fool. Promoted well beyond his level of competence."
"But not beyond his ambition . . . and ambitious men make deadly enemies."
"Maybe so, but I'm more concerned about finding a cure for this plague than Brand's career aspirations."
She glanced at the trooper crouching tensely on the floor and the pulse rifle cradled casually in Avon's grip. "And this was the trooper that tried to kill you . . . for working late?"
"So he said,"Avon drawled. "But I'm beginning to have my doubts."
"You . . . ," he prodded the prisoner with one foot. "Take off that isolation mask and show your face."
Slowly the uniformed figure climbed to its feet then pulled off its head gear with a defiant air. For a moment they stared at the age-ravaged features and short-cropped wispy white hair. Only the golden predator's eyes were still recognizable.
"Servalan?" Avon gasped hoarsely . "But . . . you're dead!"
"Just temporary setback," she tittered as she pounced with surprising nimbleness to seize the gun from his shock-loosened grasp. "According to Carnell. Of course, Clone Master technology isn't what it used to be. We're hoping the Aurons can do so much better."
Avon started to lunge for her but she dodged out of his reach, bringing up the gun until its barrel rested between his eyes. "Don't try it, Avon. I won't hesitate this time."
Before anyone could react, Servalan reached inside her jacket and tossed a grenade in the middle of the room. It erupted in a vast cloud of thick black smoke and choking fumes. Disoriented, Avon grabbed for the weapon, shoving its barrel up before she could fire, then tripped over his feet and grasped the nearest body, wrestling it to the ground. As he grappled blindly in the darkness, someone stumbled over to a wall control panel and turned the section's ventilation fans to EXHAUST. Slowly the smoke and fumes dispersed, leaving Avon blinking owlishly as he discovered that it was Cally he'd been grappling with.
Brushing off his clothes, he climbed stiffly to his feet, listening as Franton ordered Brand to organize search teams to try and locate Servalan.
"You won't find her," he said. "Even a secure facility like this one is honeycombed with service tunnels and wiring conduits."
"But how did she get in?"
"Considering all that's happened since their arrival -- sabotage, murder, and now this attack on Cally and me - I would venture to say that she probably disguised herself as one of the emissaries from Levannen.
"Veronica," Franton said in flatly.
"Undoubtedly, she waylaid one of her guards, slit his throat then left the body in her quarters, burned beyond recognition. That way she could acquire a militia uniform and weapons necessary to have free run of this place."
Franton rubbed her tired, reddened eyes, "Any more good news, Avon?"
"It was hard to be sure, but based on her appearance, I think that this Servalan is a radiation-damaged clone . . . and her sanity may be deteriorating even faster than her physical condition."
"In other words, we're trapped down here with a madwoman."
"No . . . we're trapped down here with an armed madwoman."
By the time the Colonel decided to call a halt and set up camp, Jenna felt like most of the bones in her body had been deliberately broken and reset with metal spikes. She groaned audibly as she staggered away from their vehicle, somewhat gratified to see that Travis and Cleome were also moving stiffly as they clambered down.
Despite the girl's sullen attitude and obvious xenophobia when the Colonel had delivered her at midday break to their CTV, Travis managed to break through her brittle shell of silence by late that afternoon. When a Federation officer he'd learned early how to read people - enemies and troopers alike - as a matter of survival. Regardless of Cleome's vitriolic outburst the day before, he didn't believe she was as filled with anger and hate as she pretended to be. There was a definite undercurrent of fear beneath that anger. So Travis decided to reveal a little about his own past and the hardships that his family and neighbors had endured on the Metis III.
It wasn't pleasant reviving those painful memories, describing how drought and insects had decimated the crops. Or how their settlement had been winnowed down by starvation, disease, and the depredations of wild animals. He'd caught a sidelong glimpse of the growing anxiety in Jenna's face, but he carefully steered the conversation away from any mention of the fenris and his own terrible loss.
Cleome glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes, her expression haunted "It's been hard in Levannen too, the last couple of years. No matter how hard we work, or what precautions we take, there's always something spoiling the crops and undoing our best efforts." She swallowed hard, "Almost as if someone was sabotaging us. Trying to make sure that our colony failed."
Travis gave a bitter laugh, "Don't think much of yourselves, do you? Girl, farmers have been battling the elements . . . and losing . . . for thousands of years. It doesn't take sabotage to make it a hard life and holding grudges against your neighbors only makes it harder."
"But they're not like us. They're weak in body and spirit. By depending on clones for population growth, they've cut themselves off from the Soul of Auron." There was a tremulous note in Cleome's voice. "Our bloodlines remain pure . . . despite the hardships we've suffered over the last ten years. Our elders may have to pull their belts tight, but children and breeding age women always receive their full nutrient allotment."
"To assure that children reach sexual maturity and women take in enough calories to sustain a pregnancy," Travis's voice was haunted, recalling the gaunt, empty-eyed image of his mother, standing her mad watch over the cairns of stillborn babes that she had been too starved to carry full-term.
"Your birth rate's been dropping off?" Jenna had questioned sharply.
"No . . . not really," Cleome answered with a slight quaver. Then she thrust her chin out almost defiantly. "My first breeding term was due this spring, but this assignment took priority. Once I return home, I'll be gravid within a month's time . . . ."
Noting Jenna's appalled expression, Cleome continued in a deliberately provocative tone of voice, " . . . and since twins run in my family, there will likely be two babies added to our population by spring."
Jenna glanced in disbelief at the flat-chested, narrow-hipped child sitting between her and Travis, muttering under her breath, "It's much more likely that someone will be digging your grave next spring if you're even able . . . . "
Travis caught Jenna's eye and shook his head sharply. If Levannen was desperate enough to be breeding children like Cleome, clearly the situation was much worse than the Colonel believed. Still, it served no purpose to try to convince Cleome of the stupidity of her colony's reproductive program. If there was one thing Travis had learned in all his years of soldiering, it was never to argue sex or politics with civilians. Not unless you wanted to start a full-sector war.
Turning his thoughts back to the present, Travis did a few quick knee bends to get the kinks out, grinning as Jenna stuck out her tongue at him.
"After I drop Cleome at the Colonel's billet, I'm going to make a swing around the bivouac area and check out the security arrangements."
"You're expecting trouble?"
"Let's just say, I'd prefer to nip any problems in the bud, before they become full-fledged disasters. Especially since we're not carrying heavy-weight firepower."
As they strolled through the camp, Travis noted that, despite their relative inexperience, Amara troops were skilled and efficient in getting their billeting area set up. Of course, it didn't hurt that they had been supplied with lightweight but sturdy particle lock field shelters and recycling waste control units. Still, something about their site's sentry arrangements set alarm bells ringing in his head and he stormed into Amara's quarters.
She glanced up from the data screen where she was going over tomorrow's route with her section leaders and gave Travis a very chilly smile.
"Ah, Captain Travis . . . and Cleome. I'm glad to see that you survived this afternoon's travels without inflicting grave bodily harm on one another. Now if you don't mind waiting outside, I'm right in the middle of a strategy meeting for tomorrow's . . . ."
"Tomorrow's strategy won't be worth a plugged two-credit piece unless you put up a better defensive perimeter tonight."
"Defensive perimeter? There's no need . . . ."
Travis pushed through her officers and glanced scornfully at the map projected from her lightweight battle computer. He studied the controls momentarily, then made a series of entries on the keypad that placed a line of red hashmarks along one side of the camp and highlighted several other areas in orange.
"This whole section is undefended against a sneak attack and these areas in orange leave your sentries vulnerable to being blindsided at least once during their watch."
Amara gave him a patiently exasperated look, "Well, yes, Space Commander, if this was a combat situation on an alien planet, I'd be more security conscious. But we're on Auron now, where there's never been a history of wars . . . or sneak attacks, especially from our own people."
"Fear, especially for families and loved ones, can drive people to extreme actions." Travis hit the keypad again, highlighting two different areas in orange and one between them in red. "Before we left the bunker, I checked out Avon's map for areas where the disease was particularly widespread. Both these communities have a fifty percent infection rate."
"I don't see how this affects . . . ."
"Beside your practically unarmed troops, those trucks are filled with medical supplies and lab equipment."
"But this mission was secret. There's no way anyone in those communities could have found out . . . ."
Travis stared at her in disbelief, "Colonel, haven't you ever heard the old saying, 'Three can keep a secret . . . if two of them are dead.' ? Half the people in the bunker knew about those supplies . . . and there was no communications blackout before we left."
"Even so, what could a group of unarmed civilians do?"
"A great deal . . . ," Travis's expression was haunted, but his voice remained steady. "Mobs are always dangerous, even without weapons. But there's a very good chance that these citizens could be armed."
He pointed to the area marked with a red X. "That's an armory, filled with weapons from the Andromedan War. Mass-produced and hastily distributed during the chaos around the time of the Battle of Star One. They were reclaimed and dumped here after the signing of the Byzantian Treaty. Considering their age and condition, they're probably more dangerous to their users than their targets, still it could get to be a very ugly situation. Unless you nip it in the bud."
Amara leaned back in her chair, giving Travis a long intent look.
"You're very knowledgeable about Auron strategic data, Space Commander."
Travis stared at her, barely concealing his contempt. "I make a point of being informed about all pertinent data in any given tactical situation, Colonel. Knowledge is a soldier's best friend . . . next to a fully charged pulse rifle."
The Colonel steepled her fingers and brought them up to her lips, tapping pensively. "Thank you for pointing this out, Captain Travis." She continued in a mild but thoughtful tone of voice. "I'll take your recommendations under consideration. Now, if you don't mind I'd like to continue with my officers' formal briefing."
She glanced at Cleome, who was staring at Travis in horror. "Cleome, there's a cot and fresher already set up through that screened off area, if you'd like to clean up and get a little rest before dinner."
The girl nodded jerkily before vanishing inside Amara's quarters.
The Colonel turned her attention back to Travis, "If you and Captain Stannis would care to join me here later for dinner? It will just be standard issue rations, but perhaps you can give me further advice about setting up our defensive perimeter."
Travis lapsed into a rakehell grin, "Be looking forward to it, Colonel. Always glad to put my two-credit's worth in."
Much later that evening, Jenna stirred drowsily from her boneless sprawl as Travis slipped out of her embrace and started to get dressed in the dark.
"Ohhhh, can't be morning already. You just got the kinks out, all the way up and down." And she gave a catlike grin of contentment while patting Travis's bare hip
"Go to sleep, Jenna. I'm going to make security rounds. To be sure the detachment is staying alert, not sitting around gossiping and drinking coffee."
The air was surprisingly chilly as Travis stepped out of their shelter. Though the season was currently late summer, the air temperature at this altitude was much colder than he expected. He pulled his jacket fastening all the way up and rubbed his hands together briskly, before tucking them in his armpits to keep warm. Such cold nights during the warmest time of the year likely meant a short growing season in Levannen itself. No wonder Cleome looked half her age. The colony must be on the thin edge of starvation.
He shook his head grimly. Desperation frequently drove people to make foolish decisions, making them easy prey for someone like Carnell. But what did they hope to gain by being part of this scheme to resurrect Servalan, cloning her in Auron's placental chambers? And what about the plague? Was it a just an elaborate diversion to sabotage the Replication Center's normally stringent security measures? Or was there some other - more sinister - purpose behind it?
He shook his head in frustration. No use brooding about Levannen now. They'd arrive there tomorrow, or the day after at the latest. Then to hell with Amara's tact and diplomacy, there were hard questions to be asked and he intended to get answers.
Travis identified himself to the armed guard outside the post, then was waved inside the module which was red-lit to preserve the detail's night-vision. The craggy-featured, grizzled section leader in charge would have fit into any Federation unit, despite his Auron origins. Having been present at Amara's briefing, he acknowledged Travis with a curt half-salute.
"Can I help you . . . sir?"
"Just wanted to check the set-up and make sure the trouble spots were covered."
"Yes, sir. We've got motion sensors set to register anything above 25 kilos and an infra-red scanner that will identify anything they miss. Plus we make a regular foot patrol every hour, just to make sure nothing gets through."
"Sounds like you've got all bases covered, Section Leader . . . ?"
"Aldor, sir. And the rank is Squad Chief in the militia."
"Chief Aldor, it is. Do you mind if I watch for a few minutes?"
"Not at all sir." He gestured to a thermos and mugs on the table. "Cold night out tonight. There's hot chai in the thermos, to help take the chill off."
Travis poured a mug and sipped slowly, glancing over the sensor tech's shoulder. He wasn't familiar with Auron's nocturnal fauna, but presumed that the trooper could tell the difference between wildlife and human infiltrators. Still, it never hurt to ask.
"What am I looking at, Trooper?"
"Most of what you see out there is just ground noise . . . field rodents, tree moles, skitterers, and the occasional grumbler."
"Large fur-covered omnivore. Not really dangerous unless provoked."
Travis spotted a steadily moving light on the screen and pointed it out to the tech.
"What's that? Along the southern perimeter of the camp?"
"That's Galen, sir. You can tell by his ID light. Gold marks our troops, white is animal and red is unknown. He's out there with our portable infrared sensor, making a ground sweep, checking for hot spots."
The technician stifled a yawn and rubbed at her eyes. "Guess I better take the next sweep to get some fresh air. Just sitting here, watching those lights blink on and off is purely hypnotic."
Travis stared at the grid, baffled. The motion sensors were glowing steadily, not blinking at all, despite the tech's description. As he studied the screen, she gave another large yawn and propped her head on one hand. The gold light which marked the trooper on foot had stopped momentarily, then moved on, only now it seemed to be weaving back and forth, away from the perimeter. Travis watched for a moment and then turned to the Squad Chief
To his surprise Aldor was seated in a chair, his head slumped forward. Travis grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "Aldor. Wake up, man. Something's wrong with your sweep man. He's moving away from his area, into the woods."
"Nooo," Aldor slurred, his eyes rolling back in his head. "Good man . . . Galen . . . knows his duty. Walking his post . . . jus' like I told him."
While he was trying to get through to the Squad Chief, the technician laid her head down on folded arms.
Travis glanced around, spotting an empty mug on the floor at Aldor's feet and another one at the technician's elbow. He snatched up the cup and sniffed at it. There was a cloying sweet smell, but he didn't know if that was the chai, something that Aldor or the tech had added or whatever was affecting them.
He grabbed the front of Aldor's shirt and tried to shake him awake.
"The coffee . . . chai . . . who brought the chai, Chief?"
"The Colonel sent it . . . good Colonel . . . takes care of her troops."
"But who actually delivered it?" Travis demanded through clenched teeth.
"That girl . . . you know, the pretty little thing, traveling with us. With the funny name."
"Cleome," Travis hissed, feeling a sudden dizziness as everything in the shelter developed a dark shadowy halo. He glanced at his own cup that he'd set down beside the tech.
He hurled it against the wall of the shelter, watching it shatter with a brief gratification.
Damn that girl, she'd fooled him - fooled all of them - into believing she was innocent. Not involved in the cloning scheme with Servalan's cells.
Travis massaged his temples in frustration.
He'd taken in less of the drug and hadn't been under its influence as long. Maybe he'd be able to stay on his feet long enough to sound the alarm. He glanced around the tent, looking for a comm unit or anything that could be used to rouse the camp. Aldor was wearing a sidearm, but it was one of those useless stun rods.
As he stumbled through the shelter looking for something - anything - that would set off an alarm, he staggered over to the sensor screen. The gold light had stopped moving, probably indicating that Galen was down. But there was another light - red for unknown, red for hostile - moving away from the bivouac area and into the woods. He wasn't sure who it was, though he could make a good guess - Cleome. He didn't know if she just intended to run away or to meet up with an attack force and guide them back. Whatever her intentions, she had to be stopped.
The technician was dead to the world, but Travis could still navigate even though his head was swimming. He staggered over to squad chief Aldor and dragged the man to his feet, first slapping and then backhanding him in an effort to rouse the man enough to throw off whatever drug was in his system.
"Aldor . . . on your feet . . . you've been drugged. Notify the Colonel . . . we're wide open for attack!" He shoved Aldor out of the shelter, hoping the cold air would help to revive him. The temperature was already chilly and there would be frost by morning, if it continued to drop. Fortunately the chill cut through a little of Aldor's grogginess.
"What happened . . . I was on watch . . . ."
"Your team was drugged, Chief. . Warn the Colonel . . . and send someone out for Galen before he freezes to death."
"Where are you going?"
"To find Cleome . . . and bring her back."
Travis stumbled into the darkness, with no light and no weapon.
Nothing but the cold resolve that filled his heart.
*I have produced an antiserum formula as required, Avon. Now if you have no further trivial demands, I shall resume my own researches. Without Human interference. *
"Not until I have three hard copies of the laboratory procedure and time frame required to produce sufficient quantities, along with baseline projections of its efficacy and mortality index."
*Such inconsequential computations are beneath my superior skills. *
"Just do it," Avon ordered
Some twenty minutes later, Avon was scanning through the main computer's printouts. Even though he was not a biogenetic engineer, he did have enough general lab time to recognize any gross errors in Orac's procedural guidelines. Everything seemed to be within the necessary parameters. Until he reached the last page and read the mortality figures for the antiserum itself.
"35% mortality? This can't be right. The disease itself only has a 75% mortality rate."
He addressed the box of blinking lights in a deadly quiet tone.
"I'm afraid 35% mortality among those who actually survive to be innoculated is not acceptable, Orac."
*You did not express a preference for such narrow guidelines of survivability when you originally defined the problem. I have fulfilled my part of the bargain. DO NOT INTERRUPT ME AGAIN.*
The lines of fatigue around Avon's mouth deepened and his dark eyes glittered coldly. Glancing down at the laser probe in his hand, he leaned over Orac's container and activated it directly over the main circuitry link.
*What are you doing? I did as you asked. Your human failings are not my fault.*
"Maybe not, but my human feelings tell me that I'm not going to let you get away with deceiving me. You're of no further use in assuring Cally's survival . . . or my own, so I might as well break you down for spare parts. Your memory core might be marginally more effective than the one currently operating the food processing center . . . or perhaps you'd prefer to replace the one monitoring the waste recycling unit?"
For a long moment there was an outraged sputtering noise like the sound of circuits overloading, then the voder activated again in a clearly sulky tone, *Very well, I shall reconfigure my calculations to reduce the severity of the side effects. But, before you even ask, I cannot produce an antiserum with zero percent mortality. It simply is not possible.*
Avon straightened slowly, feeling the tension in his back work its way into his shoulders and continue into his head, which began to throb. He massaged one temple while closing his eyes against the halos that surrounded supposedly glare-free lighting.
"Just how much can you reduce the mortality rate?" he gritted out.
*It's impossible to project, given my current knowledge of the disease. I need further data input from the Auron epidemiologists. *
"Can't you obtain it from the central lab computer?"
*No, there's been a security lockdown on the main system, isolating all peripheral stations so they're unable to share information. And, before you ask, Auron systems do not use tarriel cells so I am unable tap into them. *
"Very well," Avon stared down at Orac, his gaze hooded and unreadable. "Once I get that epidemiological information, how long do you need to adapt the antiserum?"
*Within twelve hours.*
"Which means at least another forty-eight hours before Franton's people can mass produce and distribute it. More of Cally's people becoming infected and dying. If this is another stalling tactic, Orac, I'll give Cally the laser probe and let her dismantle you."
Avon stalked out of the room and was halfway down the corridor before he realized he didn't have the slightest idea where to go. He noted that Brand had stationed armed guards the doors of various offices and laboratories and the major hallway junctions. While he approved their watchful presence as a possible deterrent to prevent Servalan's clone from committing further mayhem, he'd never been comfortable surrounded by armed troops, even supposedly friendly ones.
He glanced at the closest door, which wasn't labeled as to personnel or activity, then decided to return to the bunker's main lab facility. If there wasn't an epidemiologist there at least someone should be able to tell him how to locate one. He strode down the corridor, oblivious to the militia troopers' suspicious gaze and started to enter the lab, only to find a large trooper with his weapon at port arms blocking his way.
"I'm afraid that facility's off limits . . . sir. Only authorized personnel permitted to enter."
"I am authorized personnel, you armor-plated idiot. For the past week, I've been developing an anti-serum to stop the plague before it eradicates your entire population."
"Wouldn't know about that . . . sir," answered the trooper, beginning to get an edge to his voice. "I'm just following orders. No one gets in without proper authorization."
"And who, pray tell, is responsible for issuing these proper authorizations?" Avon's voice had taken on a deadly quiet tone.
"That'ud be Major Brand . . . sir. But he's sleeping right now, so you'll have to wait until he wakes up."
The sudden manic glitter in Avon's eyes caused the trooper, large and well-armed as he was, to tighten his grip on his weapon and take a half step backwards, even though the tech made no threatening move.
"Well . . . well . . . well," he muttered in a malignant undertone. "Glad to hear that Major Brand feels so secure about our situation - planetary plague, alien cells in the replication chambers, not to mention an armed madwoman running loose in this bunker - that he's able to catch forty winks."
Then with the speed of a cobra, Avon pulled the concealed weapon he'd threatened Travis with earlier, pressing it under the guard's chin, "Clearly, since there's no real danger, you can just drop that weapon slowly and put your hands on top of your head."
As the guard cautiously complied, Avon gestured for the man to precede him into the lab. Despite his outrage at Brand, Avon was gratified to see six scientists as red-eyed and rumpled as he was laboring away at their stations.
He rapped a glass condensation tower to get their attention.
"Sorry to interrupt, but I'm in dire need of an expert on Auron epidemiology. Can you tell me where I might find one?"
Several of the group stared at Avon and his prisoner, disconcerted by the presence of an armed stranger in their midst. Clearly fearful that he might have broken in from the outside, one of them summoned up his nerve and stuttered, "W . . . w . . . what . . . d . . . do . . y. . you want with him? We've only just isolated the causative organism. It will be days before we produce a serum."
"I know,"Avon said patiently, re-holstering his weapon in an attempt to reassure them. "I'm Avon. I teleported down here a week ago with Cally to help with the vaccine. Only we discovered when we arrived, that the situation had deteriorated . . . ."
Taking advantage of Avon's efforts to calm the scientists, the guard bolted from the room and moments later, there was the penetrating howl of a full-security alert, which was quickly silenced. Avon sighed in exasperation as he pulled his weapon again, prepared to intimidate the guards into notifying Franton before they attempted to drag him down to the security cell block. Fortunately, he didn't have to waste his breath. Franton was at the head of the armed detail, bleary-eyed and irritable.
"Why the hell was that alarm sounded?"
"Sorry to disturb you, Clinician, but Orac needs certain data to complete his calculations on the anti-serum."
"And . . . you couldn't get it from the mainframe system?" she asked patiently.
"Not with the security lockdown." Avon replied, glancing over her head to see that Brand had just showed up, red-faced and out of breath, in a lounging robe. "When I searched for someone who might have the needed information, I was informed that I lacked the proper 'security authorizations', which would have to wait until Major Brand's naptime was over."
Avon considered himself a master of the cold, furious glare but he had to admit that this time Franton had him outclassed. The look that she gave Brand clearly portended the coming of another ice age. However she maintained the almost inhuman calm that had largely characterized her reaction to the crisis.
"Major Brand, I'd like to see you in my office."
Addressing the militia that were present, she spoke with a clear and unmistakable authority, "If Major Brand has not made it clear, I will do so now. Your job is to protect these scientists, not interfere with their work. The mainframe lockdown is cancelled as of now, so each department has full access to all research. And the guard details will take orders from the scientists they are protecting, not vice versa. Are there any questions?"
"Good, then let's get back to work."
Franton turned her attention to Avon, "I hope you're finished stirring stinger's nests, Avon, I'd like to get some work done."
"So would I," he replied wearily. "But Orac needed up-to-date epidemiological stats in order to improve the survivability rate on his anti-serum."
"Then your computer has produced one?" her eyes gleamed with desperate hope.
"With a 35% mortality rate. We can do better." Avon's voice was hard.
"Maybe so," she replied wearily. "But once you get your upgraded data, please send me a copy of the current formula. At least we can get started . . . ."
"And make the necessary revisions as Orac develops them," he nodded in agreement. "I'll stop by your office later."
After several hours of acting as mediator between two epidemiologists with totally different viewpoints on what data Orac needed, Avon threw up his hands in frustration and arranged for the transfer of each scientist's working files.
"I hope that data dump gives Orac indigestion," he muttered to himself as he headed in the direction of Franton's office. He had been working for almost twenty hours straight without taking a break and nursed a feeble hope that Franton might have coffee or some other type of stimulant in her office. He felt so drained that he wouldn't even turn up his nose at one of those awful herb teas like Cally was always trying to foist off on the crew.
He heard a dull buzz of conversation as he paused outside Franton's office and eavesdropped shamelessly for a moment hoping that he was still in time to catch at least some of the dressing down that military idiot Brand was due. No joy. Both voices were female and if not actually arguing, at least debating something very intensely.
" . . . cannot allow him to destroy it. Even if there's no danger to the other cells."
"But you heard what he said. And I was there on Byzantia. I saw what happened during the attack on the delegates to the treaty conference."
"But you said you were rescued by Federation troops, and she was there as a representative of the Federation, wasn't she?"
"Yes . . . but the renegades who attacked us were under her command. At least, that's how the final intelligence reports read." Besides fatigue, Avon heard the growing uncertainty in Franton's voice but what troubled him most was the identity of the other speaker, the one defending Servalan.
It was Cally's voice . . . and it continued in a deliberately reasonable tone.
"Military intelligence, cut and pasted to promote whatever version of the truth that the current Federation regime wanted you to believe. Oh, I know all the horror stories we've heard about Servalan's atrocities . . . and some of them may even be true. But the embryo growing in our placental chambers is not Servalan . . . nor even her identical twin. It is a brand new organism, its entire being a blank slate. No more guilty of Servalan's crimes than any of the clones growing in the chamber with it."
Avon's hand clenched spasmodically, almost reaching for his weapon as he ground his teeth together and charged into Franton's office.
"Cally," his voice was raw with fury. "Why are you defending that . . . that copy growing in the placental chambers? You know Servalan's history. This clone will spread her poison even further. How could you betray Blake . . . betray me . . . like this?"
"You're wrong, Avon." The slender figure seated across from Franton stood up, taking in Avon's outrage with a cool dispassion.
"Not about the clone," he continued hoarsely.
"Well, that too. But . . . I'm Zelda, not Cally."
Avon struggled to hold on to his righteous fury but the abupt disclosure left his knees threatening to buckle under him.
Politely solicitous, Zelda offered him her chair as Franton chirped,
"I think we all could use a nice, soothing cup of camomile tea."
Travis paused his headlong charge into the woods, trying to locate their runaway. His head was pounding and there were strange shimmering lights surrounding the trees and bushes, nearly everywhere he looked.
"Stop. Think . . . you idiot. No chance in hell of finding the girl if you blunder around like a drunken tusker." He massaged his aching head, trying to remember something important. What was it that sensor tech had said about the sweep man? Something he was carrying, besides a weapon.
Infra-red sensor. Yeah, that was it. If he could just locate the man, then he'd have some chance of tracking Cleome through the darkened underbrush. Following her body heat even in these dark woods, should be fairly easy. She'd stand out like a comet in a asteroid belt.
He was at the defense perimeter and he stumbled around for about five minutes trying to spot Aldor's trooper. What was the man's name?
Galen, that was it.
" GALEN" he shouted, "Where are you, man? Give a shout if you can hear me. The chai was drugged . . . and we've got get you back to camp. C'mon boy, at least rattle some bushes, if you can't shout."
Travis paused, for a long moment. The camp was still quiet. He hoped Aldor hadn't gone back to sleep. Even the insects and other nocturnal creatures were still. Something must have disturbed them. He heard a choked gasp and the scrabbling sounds of someone trying to push through the underbrush even though he was barely conscious.
"Here . . . ," came the ragged whisper. "Over here."
Travis knelt beside the trooper, feeling over his barely conscious body for the sensor. He quickly pocketed it and considered taking the man's stun rifle as well, then dismissed the thought. It would just slow him up, besides if he couldn't handle one teenage runaway without resorting to weapons, she deserved to escape. He also noted the ID beacon and was gratified to note that it had a homing signal. He set it off with a sense of relief, knowing that Amara's troops would be able to locate their teammate much more quickly now.
"The Colonel's on her way, but I can't wait. Got to locate that
Levannen chit before she brings down half the countryside." Travis patted
the trooper's shoulder reassuringly before standing and heading into the
darkened woodlands surrounding them.
He hadn't gotten more than fifty yards in when he lost all sense of direction. The sky had been clear only moments before, with Auron's two primary satellites providing enough softly glowing light to track by. But a low-lying fog had rolled in, diffusing that light, giving everything around him a deceptive silvery gleam. Droplets sparkled on spreading evergreen branches like diamonds glittering in the darkness and there was a growing stillness as though the usual nighttime denizens were waiting, holding their breath.
He thought that he heard the soft trickle of a stream flowing over rocks as the forest loomed eerily overhead. This wasn't the drought-stressed, barren undergrowth that they'd been driving through earlier, but an old growth forest, filled with primaeval giants looming against the star-spattered skies.
Travis rubbed at his good eye as he squinted and blinked, trying to see through the rising haze. But it was no use, there were gauzy tendrils floating all around him, wrapping him in their embrace, until he felt like he was surrounded by ethereal figures wearing gowns of mist and fog. The chill evening temperature suddenly turned warm, almost balmy, and he slid down the opening of his jacket as he tried to wipe the beads of sweat from his face.
The watchful part of his brain started yammering at him, "Keep it fastened, you fool or you'll freeze. It's just the drug fooling you, screwing with your mind."
Travis shook his head, stilling that internal voice as he glanced down at the infrared sensor. It was blinking, showing that he was on the right track and as he gazed at the trees and brush around him, he realized he didn't really need the device.
He could "see" the path Cleome had taken. Glittering particles hung in the air like a trail of faery dust. He followed that shining trail, swift and feral as a wild beast until he sensed that she was just ahead, in a clearing. A tiny vale, free from the shadows of the looming trees where an eerie light shone down on her terrified face.
The first moon had set, but Auron's second moon still rode high in the sky, showering its golden light into the darkness. As Travis watched, the slender girl paused in her frantic flight, her fingers reaching up as if to catch the moonbeams, spinning around in some mystical invocation. A nightbird trilled and as Travis watched in disbelief, Cleome . . . changed.
First, she still seemed human, but taller, more ethereal, clothed in white and silver, weaving webs of enchantment from her fingers, drawing him out of the shadows where he stood against his will. She watched him with dark, inhuman eyes as though daring him to look upon her unearthly form but Travis was not easily intimidated.
He grabbed one of her wrists, snarling "No more running, girl. We're going back to the camp . . . now."
To his astonishment, she seemed to transform into some sort of bird, soft silver wings fluttering wildly against his chest as she strained to escape. He clutched her tightly against him as feathers and leaves blew around his head in a sudden whirlwind. Then she changed again - into a slinking furred predator, with green eyes gleaming in fury as it tried to bury scimitar sharp claws in his throat. Travis grappled with the beast, rolling on the ground and managing to dodge the eviscerating kicks of its back claws chiefly because of his long experience with similar tactics of his Kyrenian gunner whenever they practiced hand-to-hand combat.
Even as his hands closed around the beast's throat in a death-like grip, it mutated again into another woman, this one clad in close-fitting black with a lush red slash of a mouth. Her hips writhed against his groin as her green eyes glittered with heated sensuality.
"Let me go . . . and I'll give you a night that you'll never forget."
By this time, Travis was thoroughly fed up. He didn't know if this was some deranged side affect of the drug she had administered or if Cleome herself had some kind of weird Auron mental powers. Whatever the cause, he was too tired, sore and angry to deal with it.
He clenched his cyber fist then hesitated, realizing that he was dealing with little more than a child. Instead he delivered an open-handed blow with his flesh and blood hand. The hot green eyes fluttered closed . . . although the lush female figure did not immediately dissipate.
"Oh, bloody hell," he muttered to himself as he rubbed at his eye, trying to penetrate the golden haze that filled the clearing. But the woods still loomed all around him, shadowy and impenetrable. He glanced down at the now useless infrared sensor on his belt, belatedly wishing that he'd taken Galen's homing beacon as well.
"No use crying over spent ammo," he muttered, taking a heading on a bright solitary star that he hoped was Auron's pole star. Slinging Cleome' s limp but still lush figure over his shoulder, he headed in the direction where he thought the camp might be located, patting the shapely rump resting against his cheek, "Too bad you can't keep the padding. Might save you a hard ride."
As he trudged through the cold, damp woods, the rush of adrenaline that had gotten him this far down the trail began ebb. The body he'd thrown so casually over his shoulder earlier began to feel like it had turned to stone. His head was throbbing as the shimmering haze of moonlight and mist abruptly became a dank, clammy fog that left him chilled to the bone. The fingers on his right hand were numb and he could barely feel his feet.
Travis's foot slid on a moss-covered rock and barely managed to keep his balance, then he tripped again and went to his knees. As he tried to get to his feet, Cleome's limp weight unbalanced him and he sat down hard, letting her body slip down beside him on the wet ground.
Glancing blearily around, He dragged his burden under a tree where there was a bed of soft leaves, then dropped down beside her, drawing her close to conserve the little warmth they had.
" Take a five minute break . . . that's all. Just five minutes."
His head dropped and his breathing slowed as feral eyes watched out of
Some interminable time later, Travis started awake, certain that he'd heard someone - Jenna- calling his name. He listened for a long moment, peering desperately through the shadowy woods, hoping this wasn't still some kind of delusion.
He clawed his way up the tree trunk, swaying dizzily as he croaked in a hoarse whisper, "Jenna . . . is that you? Over here . . . I'm over . . . here."
His knees buckled and he sagged to the ground again, convinced he was only imagining things. Still under the mental influence of that troublemaker from Levannen. Then there were voices again and he saw the lights getting closer as he heard other voices, not just Jenna's.
"Captain Travis. Can you hear us? Where are you?"
"Here . . .," he wheezed. "Over . . . here."
For a brief heart-stopping moment, he thought they hadn't heard him, then there was the sound of bodies pushing through the underbrush . Jenna rushed to his side, her smooth warm hands caressing his face though her voice was ragged with a mixture of anger, fear, and relief,
"Colin, you idiot! Are you all right? Why'd you go after the girl alone . . . and unarmed?"
"Security detail drugged . . . out of it . . . Couldn't wait for reinforcements . . . ."
His voice trailed off as he slumped against Jenna,, drifting towards unconsciousness again.
Hurrying over, the Colonel helped Jenna lower Travis's semiconscious body gently to the ground. "Medico Noral will be over as soon as he checks Cleome's condition."
Jenna glared at the colonel, "Travis wouldn't hurt her . . . not deliberately."
"I know," Amara's expression was grim. "But given the drug's bizarre hallucinogenic effect on humans, there's no telling how he might have reacted under its influence."
Moments later, as the medic ran his scanners over Travis's body, he reported on Cleome's status. "The girl's unconscious, though nothing appears broken. The bruise on her jaw is the result of an open-handed blow, not a fist. Just enough force to subdue her. Her current state of consciousness is chiefly due to hypothermia."
Noral glanced at Travis's readings, then examined his fingers and flashed a light into his eye, checking for pupillary response. "He's still under the effect of the drug, which is making his hypothermia worse."
"Then let's get them back to camp, where they can be properly treated," Amara ordered brusquely.
The medic gave the colonel an exasperated look, "That's not possible, Colonel. This man's core temperature is so dangerously low that unless we can warm him up in the next thirty minutes, he is very likely to go into cardiac fibrillation."
"How can you treat him here . . . out in this . . . this . . . wilderness?" Jenna protested.
Medic Noral's cherubic face and crystalline blue gaze often led people to underestimate both his age and his level of skill, so he was well-rehearsed in soothing reassurances.
"My specialty is battlefield medicine, Captain, even though I've never used my skills in combat. However, I have participated in wilderness rescue operations and I know how to deal with hypothermia."
"Very well, Medic," said Amara. "What can we do to help?"
In a surprisingly short time, Noral with Jenna and the Colonel's help had set up a field medical unit, which served as a basic shelter from the cold and damp.
"Strip both of them to the skin," the medic ordered. "Then dry their bodies off gently, with a minimum of friction and wrap them in those heat reflective blankets, while I start the dripfeeds."
"Shouldn't we use brisk massage?" Jenna grunted as she worked at prying off Travis's boots. "You know, to restore circulation?"
"Not under these conditions. Given their bodies' degree of shutdown, restoring circulation now would just send chilled blood directly to the heart, bringing on the very condition I'm trying to prevent. Instead, I'll start an arterial line and let the warmed fluids infuse slowly, gradually raising their temperature."
"Is there anything else we can do to help, Noral ?"
"Just help me secure these lines . . . and keep watch on how the two of them respond."
Some twenty minutes later, Jenna could see little change in Travis's condition. He was still deathly pale, with his chest barely moving. Amara was staring at Cleome with equal intensity, noting the dead white pallor and translucent quality of the skin on her face and hands.
"It's not working," Jenna turned a desperate expression on the medic. "Isn't there anything else we can try?"
"Well, there's always the old-fashioned remedy," the young medic suggested, reluctant to meet his Colonel's gaze, but Amara just snorted in exasperation as she stripped off her jacket.
"What old-fashioned remedy?"
"Two warm bodies in a sleeping bag," Amara replied, pushing their patients closer together so four of them could squeeze under the reflective blankets. "Don't tell me none of your male companions ever tried that old line about 'shared body heat' on you?"
Jenna grinned ruefully, "I was never that fond of 'roughing it', Colonel . . . but I've warmed a few half-frozen shipmates in my time."
She pulled off her boots and then eased under the blanket, shivering as she brushed against Travis's chilled body.
"Brrr, he still feels like a block of ice." Wrapping her arms and legs around him, Jenna entwined her hand with his, placing his icy fingers against her lips.
"Hold on, love, I'm here now. You're warm and safe . . hold on . . . just hold on."
The Colonel joined Jenna under the blanket, next to Cleome. Getting a nod from the medic, she began to massage the girl's half-frozen fingers, warming them in her hands.
Noral continued to monitor vital signs and the infusion of fluids. Gradually the deathly pallor of Travis's face and body began to recede as he grew warmer. Cleome's shallow breathing had also deepened and steadied as her core temperature approached normal.
Suddenly Travis's eye fluttered and he groaned as he tried to sit up "Oh, blast, who's been using my head for target practice?"
Noral hurried over, first checking the dripfeed and taking a reading of his vital signs, "Try not to move, Captain Travis. The fluids are starting to flush the drug out of your system but the pain won't ease until your temperature returns to normal."
But Travis wasn't listening, as he stared at Jenna propped on one elbow, leaning over him solicitously. "Jenna, what are you doing here?"
"Trying to keep you from freezing to death,"she answered in a husky voice, brushing his hair back from his forehead, then continuing the lingering caress down his scarred cheek.
"But how . . . ," he raised up on one elbow, then groaned as his head resumed its savage pounding. "Oh drat, the girl . . . Cleome. She drugged the guards, so she could escape . . . and I went after her." He dropped back on the pillow, his eye haunted, "But when I found her . . . she turned into a . . . bird? . . . a wild beast . . . then a witch?" He wiped dank sweat from his cheek and jaw. "She looked like something uncanny . . . but I knew it wasn't real . . . was it?"
"Drug-induced hallucinations," Jenna hastily reassured him. "The drug she used to sedate the guards has a different effect on humans. Almost as bad as shadow . . . but not addictive."
"Well then, I'm grateful for small favors," he muttered darkly. Glancing over to the other side of the sleeping pad, he flinched as Colonel Amara's cool gray gaze met his and a slight smile quirked in the corner of her mouth.
"Glad to see you making such a swift recovery, Captain Travis. Looks like the old-fashioned remedies still have their uses."
" Huh?" he replied intelligently.
Jenna grinned as she leaned over him and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek, "You know . . . generating body heat with two bodies in a sleeping bag?"
Travis groaned as he sank back on his pillow, throwing his arm across
his eye to hide from that improbable image, muttering to himself, "It's
a trooper's bloody wet dream . . . naked, under the covers with a blonde,
brunet and redhead . . . and no one will ever believe it."
With a sinking feeling in his already unsettled stomach, Avon knelt beside the body sprawled in the corridor and felt for a pulse. As he did, he spotted the pooled blood and climbed slowly to his feet. He glanced up and down the hallway, but there was no sign of whoever murdered the technician. Reaching into his pocket, he brought out a Liberator teleport bracelet and used its comm unit.
"Cally . . . Cally, where are you?" he demanded in a hoarse whisper.
"Avon, is that you?" Cally's voice echoed surprisingly loud in the deserted hallway. "Why aren't you resting? Orac's almost finished his final computations on the anti-serum. There's no need for you to monitor . . . ."
"I know," he replied impatiently. "The formula's just been transmitted to Franton's office and the main lab. I was headed back to my quarters when I had a rude surprise."
"There's a body in the corridor . . . with its throat slashed. Judging by the amount of blood on the floor, I think it's a safe bet to say he's dead. Notify Franton . . . then see if you can locate one Brand's 'security' details."
By the time Cally arrived at the corridor where the body had been found , the situation was tense and deteriorating rapidly. Major Brand and two guards had slammed Avon against the wall with their guns pressing into his kidneys, while a half dozen scientists and technicians milled around, muttering nervously.
Cally pushed angrily through the crowd until she confronted the security officer. Even though he outweighed her by at least thirty kilos, she tore into him furiously
"What's the meaning of this, Major? Haven't you been warned about harassing the scientists and technicians on this project?"
He sneered down at her, trying to maintain some degree of control of the situation.
"We found him with the body . . . and he was armed."
"With a pulsed energy blaster, you idiot," Avon retorted. "Not a switchblade. Unless you believe I ripped out this poor devil's throat with my teeth."
He grimaced sidelong at the security guards with a glare sharp enough to have drawn blood, but they held their position, weapons still maintaining a bruising force against his ribs.
Fortunately, Franton and Zelda arrived on the scene moments later.
"At ease," she ordered the troopers.
They gave a quick sidelong glance at their commander, who had suddenly broken out in a cold sweat, then reluctantly lowered their weapons. Avon pushed away from the wall that he'd been pinned against just moments before and calmly brushed himself off, before stalking over to Cally's side, where he delicately removed his weapon from Brand's belt.
Cally stared at him apprehensively, noting his frozen black glare. But despite her concern about Avon's current mental balance, he did not strike Major Brand as she feared he might. Rather he turned and walked deliberately away from the security officer, kneeling beside the body again as he gestured for Franton to join him.
After the slightest hesitation, she did so.
Even though criminal forensics was not her field of study, she did know enough to recognize that the corpse had been dead for more than an hour, which gave Avon the perfect alibi. He'd been in her office during that time, sipping tea while arguing heatedly with Zelda about the dangers represented by Servalan's clone.
Franton massaged her forehead wearily. It had been worse than a council debate. Avon had been coldly sarcastic while Zelda persisted with her usual blazing idealistic fervor. Fire and ice in their viewpoints, with no hope of ever reaching a reasonable compromise.
Well, that problem will just have be shelved for the present she thought. There are much more pressing matters to be dealt with right now. Like whether the Auron race has a chance of surviving this plague . . . or if those of us trapped down here will ever get out alive.
She studied the face of the corpse closely. Although the features were bruised and swollen, she recognized him as one of the junior technicians in the bacteriology lab. She felt a stab of guilt at her sense of relief that it hadn't been any of the epidemiology or virus lab workers. They were already short-staffed in those two fields and their expertise would be the most in demand over the next 48 hours as they worked on producing enough anti-serum.
Climbing wearily to her feet with Avon's help, she gestured to the security detail.
"Take the body and put it in the stasis room. We'll notify his family - if any of them survive - when the crisis is over."
Brand started to object, "Clinician, I must protest. My troops are trained security specialists . . . not common laborers."
Franton turned and glared at him, her eyes as hard as flint. "Major, your troops have yet to prove that they can protect us from a small child with a slingshot, much less the crazed killer or killers currently at large in this bunker. Unless you want to want to lead a search detail through the air ducts and inspection crawlways personally, you'll do as ordered."
Even though Brand blanched at the idea of squeezing his bulk into one of the bunker's claustrophobic ductways, he still managed to articulate his objections.
"You're not treating us fairly, Clinician. Blaming my troops for failing to save that technician, when you've made them little more than scientists' errand boys. They expect us to fetch and carry for them, deliver equipment and test materials, then they ignore any attempts on our part to provide them with even minimal security coverage."
He gestured toward the body which had finally been covered by a sheet. "That young fool who just got his throat cut, refused to have a security escort accompany him . . . even though he was warned about the danger."
Franton drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "All right, Major. I'll admit that perhaps I used poor judgement in allowing the scientific staff free rein. Use your own discretion in assigning guard details and security patrols." Her gaze did not waver as she continued her orders. "However, please refrain from antagonizing our guest any further. Avon may not be from Auron, but he has done his best to save us from this plague."
Brand saluted, nodding stiffly, but Cally could still read the open hostility in his body language as he followed the detail carrying the body to the freezer.
Franton wiped a hand across her face and stared bleary-eyed at Avon and Cally.
"I truly do appreciate all your hard work, developing that antiserum."
"It was Orac's calculations, not mine, that produced the formula," Avon said somewhat defensively. "Just remember that, if everything suddenly crashes around your ears."
"There's no guarantee that the antiserum will work," she agreed. "But at least we have a chance of surviving, something that we didn't have before you and Orac discovered the truth."
"Any luck at identifying who might have cultured this particular strain of the virus?"
Franton shuddered, "Impossible as it is to imagine any Auron betraying their own people, we have no choice but to believe the evidence. Even though the organism originated in the Federation, someone familiar with Auron biochemistry had to tailor it to our population."
"That's your problem," Avon answered in an icy tone. "Now, if you'll forgive me, Liberator should be orbiting this planet within the next twelve hours. I need to disconnect Orac from your system by then so we can return to the surface and contact Blake. Coming, Cally?"
Cally's face was sad but resolute. "I'm not leaving, Avon. Not while my people are still in danger."
The haggard expression on Avon's face turned glacial and his eyes were as black and empty as the void. "Suit yourself," he shrugged. "But I've had a bellyful of nobility and self-sacrifice, particularly when your clone sister demonstrates such a determined self-destructive streak. The sooner Orac and I are off this death trap of a world, the happier I'll be."
He strode down the hall, pushing through the still dispersing group of technicians, then paused for a moment and turned to address Cally again in a bleak voice.
"If you do survive, don't come back to Sanctuary, expecting to find me there. I've decided to accept Stannis's offer of a permanent safe haven, in exchange for full ownership of Orac. You and Blake can continue performing your good deeds throughout the galaxy, but I'm tired of risking my life, trying to save people from the consequences of their own stupidity. Good night!"
After Avon had departed, Franton tried to comfort Cally.
"I'm sure he didn't mean it. He's just tired and upset about finding the body . . . and he'd had an argument with Zelda too, just before this happened. Once he gets a good night's sleep and something to eat beside protein concentrates and mega-caff, his temper will cool down . . . and everything will be back to normal."
Cally shook her head in slow resignation, "That was normal . . . for Avon. No, he's determined to leave Auron as soon as possible. Before the Servalan clone reaches viability. I can hardly blame him, knowing what I do of the Supreme Commander's past crimes. Zelda may believe that the clone is free of Servalan's evil, but I still have my doubts. However, I will not act upon them without factual evidence."
Two corridors over, Avon entered his pristine quarters, totally exasperated at the automatic sliding door and lightweight ergonomic molded furniture that denied him the opportunity to vent his feelings by slamming the door and hurling a chair across the room. He sprawled on the neatly made bed, with his boots still on and threw an arm across his throbbing head.
Blast the woman! Blast her sweet smile . . . tender nature . . . and the way her fingers brushed across his forehead, soothing away the tension and pain.
Despite his mental turmoil, Avon's extreme exhaustion rapidly spiraled him down into a dark and uneasy slumber. Images flickered through his dreaming mind, a mixture of desire, repulsion and fear.
He stood over Servalan's charred and smoking body once again, kneeling reluctantly to close her empty eyes. He stared at her lips, blood red against the pale translucency of her skin and felt a sudden compulsion to kiss that lush mouth one last time. As he bent forward, her eyes opened suddenly, gleaming like a predator's as she sank razor sharp fangs into his neck. Reeling back, clutching his throat, he staggered toward Blake, Vila and the rest of his so-called friends.
Blake gazed down on him with a distant pitying look as he murmured, "I can't help you, Avon. My destiny . . . my followers . . . are calling to me."
Vila cowered away, muttering, "Can't stand the sight of blood. Even if it's not mine."
Dayna and Tarrant stood side by side, their youthful faces glowing but their eyes were empty and abstracted.
"I have to fly the ship," Tarrant declaimed.
"I have to make weapons," Dayna declared.
Avon dropped to his knees, bloodstained hands raised in appeal but Blake maintained his remote unfeeling gaze before they all faded into nothingness, leaving Avon bleeding and alone.
Gasping desperately for breath, he tottered to his feet once again, clutching at his throat. He stumbled blindly through the empty darkness, looking for someone, anyone to help him. As he did, a voice echoed out of the emptiness.
"Blake's concern for our safety is inspiring, don't you think?"
"Personally I don't care if the whole planet turns into a mushroom."
"If it's between the creatures and us surviving, there should be no argument. Even your irrational conscience should agree to that."
"There will come a time when Blake won't be making the decisions."
"Life expectancy must be fairly short among your people."
"The man who trusts can never be betrayed . . . only mistaken."
Hearing the calm surety of Cally's voice, he staggered towards her and collapsed, covered in blood and at the end of his strength. Much to his surprise, she pulled him to his feet and as he swayed weakly, gazing into those cool remote features, he realized that it was not Cally but Zelda who stared at him with such calm detachment, like a scientist examining an insect under the microscope.
"You're bleeding," she said, her mouth turned down in distaste.
"Thanks to Servalan," he managed to gasp in a bubbling whisper.
"You are mistaken," Zelda persisted with her earlier argument, eyes glittering strangely.
Suddenly there was odd echo in her voice and as Avon watched in disbelief, Cally appeared at her side, a bright reflection of her clone sister.
"Servalan has been reborn, innocent of all her prior sins and mistakes. A blank slate, that anyone can write upon." As they declared the clone's innocence, the two Aurons circled Avon like savage beasts about to make a kill.
He groped weakly under his jacket for the weapon that he always carried and pulled it out, his arm wavering as he tried to take aim.
"Don't try anything," he said in a hoarse whisper. "Or I'll take you to hell with me."
The two Aurons only smiled, showing fangs like Servalan's as they lunged for him, ripping at his flesh . . .
Avon lurched up, his heart pounding, still feeling the teeth tearing at his throat as he fumbled for the light switch. The bright overheads came on, banishing the darkness but sending a bolt of pain through his eyes and into his head. He groped for the smaller reading lamp at his bedside, then turned it on and quickly extinguished the ceiling light, leaving most of the room in darkness, with only a small pool of brightness by his bed.
Slumping back down, his heart still pounding, Avon closed his eyes, determined to will the nightmare images away. Gradually his breathing deepened and his heartbeat slowed.
"Sleeping with a night light, Avon?" A mocking voice whispered out of the dark.
" Keeps the monsters at bay," he muttered drowsily.
"But you've dispatched all your monsters: the Federation, former Supreme Commander Servalan, lack of sufficient funds to assure your safety. Even Blake's Cause has been reduced to little more than the occasional errand of mercy."
"Which is still enough to drag me into danger, risking my neck to appease his hyperactive conscience."
A figure clothed in shadows glided out of the darkness, seating herself beside him on the bed as she caressed his face and crooned, "Such a handsome neck, too. Supporting such a brilliant mind."
Avon shuddered at the touch of those smooth white hands, with their gleaming red lacquered nails. "Just another hallucination," he muttered to himself. "Any moment, you'll turn into a dragon . . . or a wolf. And the fears and doubts parading out of my subconscious will resume their little sideshow."
Despite a momentary aversion to the hands' coolness, Avon couldn't deny the shiver of pleasure as they probed beneath his jacket, unfastening the shirt beneath. The shadowed figure leaned forward as she caressed his shoulders, running bone white fingers down his collarbones to tweak his nipples, before nails the color of blood raked across his abdomen sending ripples of pleasure into his groin.
As Avon groaned in anticipation, he felt a cold prick of metal against his throat and his eyes shot open, staring through the thin draperies into the predatory golden eyes of his succubus then down to the deadly knife she had pressed against his throat. Her eyes glistened in expectation, though whether for sex or blood, he had no intention of putting to the test.
Slapping the knife from her hand, he grabbed her other wrist to prevent any further attempts to divert him. Then as she tried to pull away, he reached up and snatched off the black veil that covered her face.
And gasped in shock.
It was Servalan.
Though she was not quite the age raddled crone that he had seen when she tried to kill him several days before. He gazed at her face bemused, noting the shimmer of a holographic imager, which along with the veil itself had temporarily restored her illusion of beauty.
"What happened?" he demanded harshly.
"He betrayed me . . . just like Cally has betrayed you."
"Who betrayed you?"
"Carnell," she spat.
"He delivered my cells to the Clone Masters, as you might have guessed. But they were collected and stored under less than ideal conditions. This clone seemed all right in the beginning, but very soon, it began to deteriorate . . . to age, like this."
She gestured down at the body concealed by her shadowy coverings.
"I was becoming . . . old . . . and hideous," her voice broke. "I couldn't bear it. I begged him to kill me . . . but he said that there was another way. That the Aurons' techniques were superior to the Clone Masters. That I could be myself again . . . ."
She stared down at her hands, the only sign remaining of her once great beauty.
"But he lied . . . ," her voice was a choked whisper. "Their clone isn't really me, not any more. It's someone new, someone better. Someone who he can mold and manipulate . . . like a puppet."
She gave a bitter hysterical laugh as she jerked out of his grip and lurched to her feet.
"How very ironic, don't you think, Avon? That my puppeteer, who I used to control others for so long, now plans to pull my strings."
"Wait," Avon tried to push himself off the bed even though his head was throbbing, determined to stop her from fading back into the darkness.
"Tell me where he is," he grimaced, ". . . and I'll kill him for you."
She stared down at him with a momentary hopeful look. "Would you . . . would you really do that for me?" Then gazing past him into the darkness, she shivered. "No, then you'd kill the clone too . . . and there would be nothing left. Nothing remaining of all that I've planned and schemed for. Everything would be dust . . . ashes and dust."
As she vanished into the darkness, Avon staggered to his feet, determined
to catch her this time. But the shadows in his room were empty once
again . . . except for the ripe cloying stench of decay.
"Wake up, Travis."
He muttered , " 'nother fifteen minutes. Bloody lift-off can wait fifteen flamin' minutes, can't it?"
He felt a hand on his shoulder and started up, reaching for a weapon that he no longer carried. Slumping back against the sweat-stained seat of the CTV, he gazed into Jenna's face, scrubbed his hands down his face and then ran them through his hair, leaving it a rumpled mess.
"What's happening?" he growled
Jenna reached up and tried to smooth his mussed hair, grumbling in exasperation.
"Nap time's over. Something's got the Colonel's wind up and she's holding a 'tactical briefing'. I'm not sure what's going down but if she finally decided to include us then we ought to at least show up on time and try not look like skelly rats have been nesting in your hair."
He scratched his chest and yawned before massaging his forehead and wincing slightly, "Don't mind the damn nests . . . just wish they'd quit holding such loud parties."
"Head still bothering you? Want me to find the medic?"
"Nah, I just hope the Colonel's serving something stronger than that damned herb tea ."
Amara, her two squad chiefs, and the medic were gathered around the second CTV, drinking mugs of chai while studying the map projected by the battle computer on side of the vehicle. Much to their surprise, Cleome was also present, seated off to one side, a seething mass of teenage guilt and resentment.
Giving a curt nod as Travis and Jenna joined the group, the Colonel proceeded with her briefing. There was little that was new or urgent as far as Travis was concerned. Mainly reminders about the increasingly rugged terrain and the necessity for being on the alert for possible ambushes.
"There's very little likelihood that we'll have to deal with looters or others of that ilk. But there are at least two other isolated communities in these mountains besides Levannen. They may have been spared the ravages of this plague or they may be in the same dire straits as lowland areas. Whatever their situation, we will try to render aid whenever possible."
"Will we be distributing medical supplies?" Chief Aldor inquired.
"Not at random," Noral spoke up. "We'll need to set up a lab in Levannen first, to identify possible sources of the plague organism. If there's nothing incriminating, we notify Clinician Franton . . . and hope they have good news about the anti-toxin. If so, I should be able to produce it with the equipment we brought and start treating local cases."
"And if there is no good news?" Travis asked in a deadly soft voice.
The medic sucked in a deep breath then gusted it out in resignation, "Then we do whatever we can to help these people."
"Any more questions?" The Colonel looked around at the grim faces, before nodding to herself. "Well, get some lunch. We move out in thirty minutes . . . with no stops until we reach Levannen."
As her officers dispersed, Amara motioned for Travis and Jenna to remain.
"I had a very interesting conversation with Cleome this morning, regarding loyalty, duty and . . . worthiness to share in the Soul of Auronar."
Amara's gaze turned hard as flint as she led them over to where Cleome slumped, her head hanging between her shoulders, her wiry hair still tangled with leaves and twigs from the night before. The Colonel grasped the teen's shoulder, turning her to face them.
"You're luckier than you deserve, girl. If Captain Travis or one of my troops had died, you'd be facing a Council tribunal. Where did you acquire that drug? And what did you hope to accomplish by running away?"
Cleome's earlier defiance seemed to have dissolved with the morning mists. She was shaken, contrite, and seemed genuinely repentant about her actions the previous night.
"I'm sorry. I took the drug from Veronica's bag, just before we left," she gasped through choked back tears. "I didn't want to hurt anybody, only to get away . . . back to Levannen to warn the Elders."
"Warn them? About what?" Amara demanded. "This is a relief mission, not an invasion force."
"I know, but so much was happening just before we left. I was afraid . . . especially after what Franton said about the clones." She buried her face in her hands. "It wasn't my fault. I truly didn't know what she had planned."
"Who? The Elder Veronica?"
"She wasn't one of the Elders, not really." Cleome looked around in desperation. "They said that the deception was necessary . . . if I wanted to help my people."
"Who said that? Your Elders . . . or someone else?" Travis's expression went from casually alert to predatory stillness.
"Our two visitors. Balor and Emain. Their ship made an emergency landing just outside our village nearly three months ago. It was after their arrival that the weird things began to happen."
"What sort of things?"
"All night meetings between the Elders and Delphine. Strange comings and goings. Whole fields lost to disease or insects, with no one even attempting to save them. Like it didn't matter, not anymore, " There was a shrill edge to Cleome's voice as she wiped a trembling hand across her eyes.
"Then the Eldest asked me to travel with Emain and deliver the gene stock to the Bio-Replication Center. When I asked why, she said it was the price of our survival." The teen scrubbed at her reddened eyes. "What could I do but obey? Besides . . . I was afraid of Emain. Even disguised as Veronica, when she pretended to be old and weak, her eyes were always watching me, like a serpent about to swallow a skitterer." Cleome shuddered again.
Amara placed a comforting arm around the girl's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Cleome. We didn't realize . . . ."
"What did they look like?" Travis interrupted irritably.
"Who do you think?" he snarled. "Your visitors - Balor and Emain."
"Balor was tall and handsome, with bright gold hair going silver at the temples. He had the most mesmerizing blue eyes," Cleome's expression was momentarily dreamy, then she shuddered. "But then I realized his face was a mask, covering something dark and deceitful. I never saw Emain's face. It was always veiled, but her hands were very beautiful. Smooth and white, with perfectly manicured nails and polish as red as blood."
"Carnell . . . and Servalan," Travis rasped.
"Well, there's one down anyway," Jenna shrugged. "Veronica's dead. You saw the body yourself."
" Somehow I doubt that charred body we found wrapped in Veronica's robe was actually Servalan's."
"But we were there when Servalan died before," Jenna's voice was hoarse. "We saw the body . . . and I don't believe in ghosts."
"What about clones?" Travis countered sharply
"Well, of course," Jenna nodded slowly. "But if Carnell already has one clone, why go to all this trouble to obtain another one?"
"Maybe he wants a matched set," Travis growled. "Hell, I don't know. But I'll certainly ask him when I see him . . . right before I blow his fraggin' head off."
He turned his attention to Cleome, who cowered against the Colonel.
"Tell me about their ship when it landed. Was it venting fuel? What about structural damage? Or radiation leakage? Do they still have communications, weapons, or sensors?"
"I don't know," she said in a choked whisper. "I'd never seen such a ship before."
"Stop harassing the girl, Captain," Amara ordered sharply. "She's been raised in a farming community, not an engineering school. She doesn't know the first thing about spacecraft."
Travis massaged his forehead in frustration, "Which means we'll be going in blind, with Carnell holding all the cards. Your troops will be sitting targets for neutron blasters or even attitude jets before they get close enough for your stun guns and sleepy gas to be of any use."
"We won't be going in blind, Captain Travis. I dispatched a recon patrol early this morning, while you were sleeping. We'll wait here until they return. I don't intend to lead my troops into an ambush."
While Travis and Amara continued an intense discussion of tactics and possible ambush scenarios, Jenna decided to take Cleome under her wing temporarily. Even though she lacked any semblance of maternal instincts, she felt sorry for the youngster who looked like she hadn't slept or had a decent meal in ages. Auron's largely vegetarian and vat-grown protein meal selections were usually too bland for Jenna's taste, but at least they served decent breakfasts.
As she started to lead her away, Amara glanced up.
"Where are you taking Cleome?"
"Just to get her cleaned up a bit. Then I thought we'd see if anything is left from breakfast."
Amara gave a distant nod, then turned her attention back to the map projection where Travis was sketching out some kind of stratagem that would make the best possible use of their limited arms and the rugged terrain. Jenna gave a small rueful sigh as she led Cleome back to the CTV. No matter how often she believed that they had buried Travis's past, its ghostly revenant always managed to resurrect itself. Old skills and old memories woven together in a bitter reminder of the history that he never managed to escape, no matter how much he tried to change to fit into their new life.
Jenna rummaged through her carry-all.
"Not much in the way of hair-care products," she muttered. "Mainly just basic survival stuff, soap, dental rinse etc. Well, here's a comb at least. Sit here," Jenna pointed to a camp stool that had not yet been stowed away. "And we'll see if we can't at least get the knots out."
As Jenna attempted to comb through Cleome's tangled curls, her thoughts turned to Travis once again.
Despite both their efforts to adjust, there always seemed to be a fundamental difference in the way that they viewed their position in the Enclave. To Jenna, their fleet was a means to an end. Though she still wasn't quite sure whether the end she sought was to prove herself worthy to be a Stannis Fleet Captain or to make enough profit on their trade missions to finally earn Mikhail's respect. Whatever her goal, at the moment, it seemed further away than ever, particularly if they had to hire a high-priced advocate to get Alamo out of hock and their crew evacuated from Auron.
But to Travis, the ships and their crews were an end in itself, providing him with purpose, discipline and camaraderie. Flying trade missions, outwitting the Dockmaster's arbitrary decrees, alternately cajoling and cursing the repair and refit crews was the most truly satisfying part of Free Trading for him. He could care less if a cargo run made a big profit or barely broke even. All he wanted - all he needed - was enough credits to keep their ships running and their crews paid, with an occasional blowout in one of the local dockside taverns.
A simple life . . . that always seemed destined to be snatched out of his reach by demons from his past.
She yanked with her comb at a particularly stubborn snarl, somewhat surprised that Cleome wasn't protesting more vigorously.
As she looked up from her self-appointed task, Jenna saw Amara and Travis striding over to meet what appeared to be the recon detail, judging by the camouflage paint on their faces and the branches tied randomly to their arms and legs. She was too far away to hear their voices, but judging by their expressions and the grim look that settled on Travis's face, the news wasn't good. Jenna resumed her task with increased zeal until Cleome's whimpered protests finally registered and she stared blankly at the curly strands of hair tangled in the comb.
"Sorry," she apologized, running the comb through with a lighter touch. "Looks like that's got the worst of them. Go ask Galen for one of those sweetberry rolls that I saw him stowing in his gear after breakfast."
"Do you want me to bring something back for you?"
"No," Jenna answered in a bleak voice. "I seem to have lost my appetite. I'll be helping Noral stow the medical supplies."
Since Travis and Amara had headed right over to where Noral had set up his equipment, Jenna guessed that whatever the patrol had spotted required an urgent consultation with the detail's medic.
As she approached, she just missed the beginning of the patrol's leader report.
" . . . looks like approximately 50 to 75 able-bodied men and women. And they're armed."
" Just like the Space Commander said they might be." Aldor nodded in Travis's direction, as Travis clenched his cyber fist, crushing the rock that he'd been using to sketch out his suggestions during their earlier tactics discussion. He opened his fist, letting the dust trickle to the ground as he muttered to himself.
"I couldn't be wrong . . . just this once . . . about worst case scenarios?"
"At least we're expecting them . . . and we'll be prepared." Amara said in reassuring tone.
"If you think that stun guns and sleepy gas will stop a determined mob, then you're more delusional than Servalan ever was."
"Don't underestimate me . . . or my troops," the Colonel replied sternly, then resumed questioning Aldor's patrol in a low voice that Jenna could no longer overhear.
She turned her attention to Travis, noting that he was no longer rubbing his forehead, though the expression on his face sent a cold chill into the pit of her stomach.
"Damned if I know," he grumbled. "Get ready to fight, I guess. If the Colonel decides to trust the two of us with weapons."
Much to Jenna's surprise, the Colonel did not order her troops to take up defensive positions, but settled down to wait patiently.
Less than an hour later, three Aurons waving a white flag approached their vehicles.
"Who's in charge here?" one of them demanded.
"That would be me," Amara held out her hand, striding forward. "Colonel Amara of the Capital Militia. How can I help you, citizen?"
The leader's stern features were framed by a halo of gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, but despite his grandfatherly appearance, the Colonel sensed a bitter anger beneath.
"I'm Senior Prater, the head councilor of Sendwasi Settlement and chosen spokesman for the villages of Gladis and Nerat. There have been no recent disasters in this area nor incidents of civil unrest. Why are your troops on the road to Levannen, Colonel?"
"We're here by order of the Auron Council, Senior."
"There are medical supplies in those trucks," erupted one of the men accompanying Prater, his face seething with resentment. "Supplies that are desperately needed by our families. We won't let you deliver them to those . . . those . . . misfits."
"Be still, Ross," the Senior hissed. "I'll deal with the Colonel."
Amara tilted her head in irritation, "I don't know what your quarrel is with the citizens of Levannen, Senior, but I have my orders. Now if you don't mind, we'd like to get moving so we can arrive there by sundown."
"We can't permit you to take those supplies with you, Colonel. We need them too much. Our people are sick . . . dying."
"I know, Senior." The Colonel's expression softened. "The epidemic has spread throughout Auron, but scientists in the capital have developed an antiserum. Medical technicians should be here with the cure for your people within forty-eight to seventy-two hours."
"We may not have that long," Ross raged. "My youngest child is burning up with the fever and we've already buried two of her clone sisters." His voice broke and the other man gripped his shoulder in commiseration.
Prater turned his piecing dark gaze back to Amara, "Levannen's people escaped the worst of the disease. At first we thought it was because they lived at a higher altitude or had a different water supply but when we asked them for help, Delphine laughed in my face. She said the plague was a . . . a judgement by the Soul of Auron on our people. Because we turned from the old ways, used clones to increase our population, had dealings with off-worlders . . . ."
He glared in contempt at Travis, standing off to one side.
"It's those 'off-worlders' who may save your arses," Travis grumbled.
Amara's lips were compressed in a thin line, while her grey eyes turned hard as flint.
"Something's definitely not right in Levannen,"she muttered barely within Travis's hearing. "And we need to act now before the situation gets any worse."
"You're gonna have to go over their dead bodies first, judging by Prater's expression."
"Maybe not, maybe we can negotiate."
"Yeah, and maybe I can grow another arm, too."
She muttered an order into her comm unit, "Medic Noral, bring two canisters of the vaccine and medical support equipment here."
"At once, sir."
Five minutes later Noral and Jenna arrived carrying the canisters and Amara gestured for them to be handed over to Prater and his escort.
"This vaccine will protect your citizens who don't already have the disease and the rest of the medical supplies should help keep the others alive long enough for the anti-serum to arrive."
"There's not enough here for three villages," Prater argued.
"That's all I can spare," the Colonel answered tight-lipped. "Vaccinate your most susceptible people and isolate the rest. As for the support materiels, they only have to last for a couple of days."
"What about a medic?"
Amara chewed on her lip before shaking her head reluctantly," I'm sorry, we only have one field trained specialist and we don't know what the situation is in Levannen."
"I told you," Prater pleaded. "The people of Levannen aren't sick. They don't need your help."
"Perhaps not, Senior. Or they may need it more than you can imagine," Amara replied in a distant voice. "I'm sorry we can't do any more, but I have my orders."
"You may regret following those orders, Colonel Amara." Prater answered darkly as the two men with him hefted the canisters onto their shoulders and withdrew into the surrounding trees.
"I already do, Senior," the Colonel muttered to herself.
Much to her surprise, Travis grabbed her by the elbow and steered her toward her vehicle, practically tossing her into the seat, before he addressed her driver.
"Pull out now! Max speed and don't stop for anything."
"What are you doing, Travis? I didn't get a chance to brief . . . ."
"I know and I'm hoping that if we move quickly enough, Prater will still be trying to explain to his fellow Seniors why he didn't get what he went after. Just maybe we can outrun them . . . but tell your troops to have their weapons charged and ready."
As the CTV rumbled by, it threw up a trail of dust that left Travis coughing but he covered his mouth and hurried back to his and Jenna's vehicle The troops were still climbing aboard and he roared at them,
"Move your sorry arses, you slime-eaters. Get aboard, charge your weapons and be ready for trouble."
"Weren't the supplies the Colonel gave them enough?" Jenna was baffled and next to her Cleome appeared terrified.
"Probably not." He glared at Cleome with his most intimidating expression. "Somehow Levannen's managed to really piss off their neighbors. Prater practically accused them of causing the plague over 'religious differences'. What do you know about that, Cleome?"
"Nothing," she muttered, cringing in her seat. "Nothing."
Travis snapped a series of orders to the squad in the back of their vehicle, making sure each trooper was armed with as many gas grenades as their harnesses would hold.
But before he could do anything else, they shuddered to a halt, sending
Travis crashing into the control panel. He shook his head, trying
to clear it as Jenna yanked him down to where she and Cleome were crouched
between the seat and the controls.
"Get down you, idiot. They've got laser weapons. I saw the flashes."
"Where the hell did they get them?" he muttered. "Federation hasn't used lasers in years."
" Luckily the Aurons haven't had much targeting practice . . . or we'd all be dead . . . . " The words died in Jenna's throat.
Travis glanced at their driver slumped over the steering column, feeling his gorge rise at the roasted meat smell and the scorched ruin where the soldier's face used to be.
"They may not be sharpshooters, but they're good enough to finish us off, if we don't do something quick."
Jerking open the door, he pushed out the driver's body, using it for a shield until he could duck under the vehicle.
"What the hell are you doing?" Jenna hissed, dragging herself over to the spot Travis had just vacated.
"Stay down," he ordered. "I'm going to find the Colonel and try to get us away from this killing ground. Keep the engine running, but don't put it in gear until I signal you."
"Be careful," Jenna whispered into the silence. "I love you."
Travis pushed to his feet and zigzagged through the underbrush towards the other stalled CTV. Most of the detachment had already taken cover, but their weapons which had been designed for crowd control in an urban setting were virtually useless against foes who could pick them off from a hundred yards away. Several troopers had tried to heave grenades into the trees in hopes of incapacitating some of the snipers, but the gas dispersed too rapidly. Besides the cost of that attempt had been steep, with two dead and one severely wounded, whimpering in agony as Noral immobilized his seared arm.
Scuttling over to Amara, he saw that she had her battle computer up and running, attempting to pinpoint the enemy by their body heat. It was a good idea, though he wasn't sure what she intended to do about it, since none of her troops' weapons were powerful enough to reach the settlers lying in ambush.
"You were right, Captain."
"About what, in particular?"
"Going after tigers . . . without the right weapons. I should have listened to your advice."
"Great inscription for my tombstone. 'He was right, but nobody ever listened,' " he muttered, then gave her a stern look. "We're not dead yet." He took a deep breath, wiping the sweat from his face. "You do realize they're using weapons from the Andromedan War?"
"I guessed as much. There aren't that many armories or weapons' caches on Auron. What of it?"
"Judging by what I've seen so far, most of them seemed to be armed with lasers - light beams focused through finely tuned crystals. Very fragile crystals. That's why the Federation stopped using laser weapons. Too fragile. Ordinary use often shattered the crystals, making them useless in the field."
"They seem to be holding up pretty well so far," the Colonel laughed bitterly, gesturing to her pinned down troops.
"For the moment," he agreed. "But what if we could disrupt that fine tuning, maybe even shatter those crystals?"
"But how? We don't have weapons capable of that."
" Maybe you do . . . if you're willing to risk everything on one throw of the dice."
The afternoon sun slid behind a bank of clouds, filling the woods with chill shadows as Travis scrambled over to Chief Aldor. The chief was acting as spotter for a young marksman who was taking careful aim with his stun rod despite the fact his target was out of the weapon's standard range. Travis held his breath as the trooper fired, but to no avail. Even superior targeting skills were useless in this situation.
Pulling the older man aside, he asked, " What's the power source for those weapons?"
"Sonic core, sir. Sets up a vibration in the rioter's inner ear and puts 'em down hard."
Travis smiled ruefully, "Yeah, I imagine it's hard to resist arrest when you're puking your guts out. But how come your troops aren't affected by backlash?"
Aldor quickly dismantled his weapon and pointed to a dark and surprisingly heavy piece of material, "That's the main baffle sir, focuses the sonic beam and absorbs random vibration."
"What happens if you remove the baffle . . . and overload the core?"
The Auron stared at him in alarm, "Overload the core and these rods will self-destruct with a blast loud enough to rupture eardrums."
"And shatter finely tuned laser crystals?"
The light dawned on the chief's face as he gave a feral grin, "Yes, I imagine they would do some serious damage to laser crystals . . . and our attackers too." Then he frowned. "But how are we going to get close enough for the rods to affect them. We've already lost three troopers trying to lob our gas grenades at them."
"Let me worry about the delivery system, Chief. Gather all the stun rods you can spare. Just leave enough for the detail to maintain covering fire."
Scrambling down to where Amara had most of the snipers highlighted on her computer screen, he studied it for several minutes, committing their positions to memory, before fitting himself out in a trooper's weapons' harness.
Amara fixed him with a falcon fierce glare, "What are you planning to do, Space Commander?"
"Sow a few dragon's teeth, Colonel . . . or pull a few if you want to be literal about it."
Aldor scurried over several minutes later with nearly thirty sonic rods bulging out of his pockets and the inside of his jacket. Travis started hooking them on his harness, pausing only long enough to listen carefully to the chief's caution about the timing of the overload.
Luckily it would allow him enough time to reach most of their attackers before the first rods overloaded. With the sun low in the sky and a heavy ground mist rising, conditions provided an ideal cover for Travis' sneak attack. Besides once the rods self-destructed, he should be able to make his escape in the ensuing chaos.
"You don't have to do this," Amara placed a tentative gentle hand on Travis's flesh and blood arm. "This isn't your battle."
"Colonel, I'm the only person in two hundred parsecs who has any chance of pulling off this kind of operation. Besides, you'll owe me after this." There was a feral glint in his eye as he put his cyber hand under her chin, pulling her close enough to feel his guttural whisper against her cheek. "I want my ship and crew released, whether I make it back or not. And you do your damnedest to get Jenna back alive. Understood?"
Amara tried to jerk out of that steely grip, seething at Travis's harsh words. Then as her temper cooled, she realized just what he had entrusted to her.
His heart . . . and whatever was left of his soul.
She gave him a very precise salute as she repeated her promise. "They'll be allowed to leave as soon as quarantine is raised, you have my word on it."
He returned her salute with a careless wave, "You better keep it . . . or I'll come back and haunt this whole planet."
As he slipped into the shadows, she turned to Chief Aldor.
"Do you think he'll make it?"
"I wouldn't have given him as many stun rods as I did, if I didn't believe he had a more than even chance. If he doesn't make it, the only thing left for us to do is throw rocks . . . and I don't think that will slow Prater and his people down at all."
Seconds stretched into interminable minutes and Amara began to believe that their scheme had failed.
"Surely, we'd have heard something by now. It can't be taking him that long to locate Prater's snipers. He's been shot . . . or captured . . . they're going to use our own . . . ."
Suddenly the silent trees were rocked with explosions of sound. Amara dropped to her knees covering her ears. That couldn't be their stun rods overloading. The sound was too piercing . . . too painful.
"Open your mouth," Aldor roared, trying to be overhead. "Equalize the pressure and maybe our eardrums won't rupture."
In the middle of those explosions, she heard other noises too. Guttural sobs and screams of agony. The sound of more pain and suffering than she ever wanted to hear in her life. The detonations suddenly ceased, leaving a dead silence in their wake. Amara climbed to her feet, her knees trembling, not sure whether the sudden quiet meant that Travis had succeeded or whether she'd been deafened by the blasts.
Her shaken troops also got to their feet, creeping out from behind the trees and under bushes where they'd taken shelter. Despite the silence, many of them gazed around suspiciously, expecting further shots from the attackers in the hills.
"Send out scouting parties," Amara ordered hoarsely, her throat raw. "And get the wounded over to Noral."
"What do we do about them?" One of her younger soldiers gestured towards the hills where the hidden snipers had tried to cut them down.
"Bring the wounded down for Noral to treat. The dead . . . ." She gazed bleary-eyed at the carnage around her, especially her own weary and battle-shocked troops. "Just leave the dead where they are . . . for now."
"Sanders, Braden, check the CTVs for damage . . . blown tires, fuel leaks, whatever. Inigo, Marcus, see if Noral needs any help. The rest of you fan out and round up our prisoners."
Chief Aldor barked out orders, knowing the only way for any of their untried troops to survive this situation was to keep them moving on sheer momentum, getting everything back to normal as quickly as possible. If they stopped to lick their wounds and count the costs, they'd shatter like brittle glass. No, best to keep them too busy to think, too busy to notice the missing faces in their squads, the empty places in the ranks.
He studied the Colonel's face too, not liking the dazed, blank look he saw in her eyes.
Then, much to his relief, Travis limped out of the trees. His dark leathers were covered with dust and soot and there was a raw, red area along his left side. He tossed the harness and its remaining stun rods at the Chief.
"They're more practical for blowing up your enemies, rather than attempting to pacify them."
"Those people weren't our enemies ," the Colonel muttered in a low voice that only Travis and the Chief could hear. "They were Aurons, like us. Farmers and tradesmen, driven by desperation. They only wanted to save their families."
Travis gripped her shoulders so hard that she almost cried out, " But they chose the wrong way to do it. They tried to kill your troops and take what they wanted. In defiance of the lawful authority of the Auron Council. You had your orders, Colonel."
"Maybe I was wrong, following those orders," she muttered, eyes downcast. "Maybe I should have let them have the supplies so they could save their families and children."
Travis put his hand under her chin, tilting it up until her eyes met his. "Don't second-guess your superiors, Colonel . . . or the whole chain of command will collapse into anarchy. The same goes for the laws of your peaceful planet. Those laws have to be enforced, even if desperate people sometimes find themselves on the wrong side of them."
Amara swallowed hard and then nodded her head in reluctant agreement. As she did, Travis took her arm and started to lead her into the trees that he'd just exited.
Aldor protested, "Wait a minute, Captain. Just where do you think you're taking her?"
"To see the results of her commands. Reality will be much easier to deal with than the horrors her overactive imagination is likely to produce."
And for the most part, Travis was correct. Even though they were initially stunned by the explosions, many of their attackers had already regained consciousness, although most were still dazed and bleeding from the nose and ears. Others had staggered to their feet and were being herded over to the medic's station to be checked out for possible concussion and ruptured eardrums. Only a very few bodies remained still and unmoving. Two of them were charred and smoking and the Colonel knelt beside one, staring in shock at the seared mask of the sternly paternal features.
"Prater . . . ," she managed to choke out. "How could this have happened?"
Travis prodded the slagged, blackened laser clenched in Prater's skeletal grasp with the toe of his boot "He must have been firing when the sonic overload triggered a flare-back before the crystal shattered. At least it was quick."
Beside him lay the charred remains of Ross, the man who only wanted to save his child.
Amara felt a surge of anger and grief well up inside her as she dropped to her knees, giving vent to harsh sobs that tore their way out of her chest. Travis rested his hand on her shoulder but did not attempt to comfort her. When she had finally spilled out the last of her grief and frustration, she looked up at Travis, demanding in ragged voice.
"Does it ever get any easier?"
"You better pray that it doesn't."
The teleport bracelet buzzed and Avon rolled over reluctantly, rubbing the sleep out of his reddened eyes.
"Avon, are you awake?"
There was an edgy note to Cally's voice that sent a jolt of adrenaline through his system, banishing any further drowsiness.
"I am now. What's wrong?"
"Servalan's clone is missing. Someone removed it prematurely from the cloning chamber."
"Well, that solves everyone's problem, doesn't it? It should be dead by now, unable to cause any more trouble."
"The clone may not be . . . dead," Zelda's voice broke in. "There's evidence that the placental chambers were tampered with, accelerating its maturation process . . . at the expense of the other clones' lives."
"So much for your 'new and improved' Servalan," Avon sneered. "So, what do you expect me to do about it?"
"Please come to the Bio-replication lab," Cally's voice was strained. "There's something here I think you should see."
Avon hesitated. He did not believe that Cally would deliberately lead him into a trap, but she did have tender feelings for her clone sister that could be easily manipulated. Still, there was no other choice if he wanted to save her. With a snort of disgust, he rolled out of bed and made sure that there was a full charge in his weapon. Striding impatiently through the deserted corridors, he noted the absence of the usual militia guards which only contributed to his growing sense of unease. Approaching the lab as stealthily as he could, Avon pressed flat against the wall and peered around the corner leading into the facility.
Everything appeared dark and deserted so Avon inched cautiously ahead, his weapon out and nerves on the hair-trigger. The monitoring devices emitted a nerve-jarring whine as their screens showed nothing but flat lines and the placental chambers themselves appeared filled with murky, foul-smelling fluid. As he edged closer, trying to get a glimpse of anything still remaining in the chamber, a beam shot out of the darkness hitting him square in the back and setting his nerves on fire.
He sprawled on the floor, shuddering into unconsciousness, as a mockingly familiar voice drawled, "Didn't anyone ever tell you, 'Inquisitiveness terminated the feline', Avon?"
Avon awoke with nerves jangling, to find himself tied to a chair, with Cally, Zelda, and Franton trussed up beside him, seated in a neat row like students in a lecture hall. Carnell had stationed himself in front of them, arms folded
"You took your sweet time, Avon. I thought we were going to have make our departure without giving you a chance to say farewell."
"How very ungracious of me," he managed to grit out.
"Indeed," Carnell gave his most artless smile. "Especially since you're such old friends."
He gestured and a veiled figure glided reluctantly out of the shadows.
Avon squinted, trying to peer through the gauzy covering, wondering whether it was the new clone or the old one that Carnell had summoned.
"You won't get away with this," Franton interrupted. "Our techniques differ vastly from those of the Clone Masters. Our clones are not carbon copies with identical personality to the parent's cells. Each clone is a, tabula rasa . . . a blank slate that develops its own personality according to training and inclination."
"I know," Carnell gave his most charming smile. "That's what I am counting on."
He pulled aside the veil covering her face and revealed the clone, pristine and perfect, with a startling innocence glowing in her amber eyes. Avon stared into that one-time predator's gaze, half entranced and half appalled. This clone was an empty vessel, waiting to be filled.
"She has all the original's beauty, charisma, and intelligence," Carnell smiled like a proud father. "Without the pride, cunning and willfulness. She'll make a perfect tool for the puppeteers, especially after I've finished her conditioning."
"Nooo," Zelda lunged against her ropes, almost tipping her chair over. "She's innocent, with the mind of a child. I won't let you corrupt her to fulfill your ambitions for power."
"I'm afraid you don't have any choice in the matter."
"We'll warn the Federation, alert them that a copy of Servalan is at large under the control of the puppeteers. That will put a stop to your scheming."
Carnell's smile widened, although his eyes were glacier cold, "Perhaps so, if I were stupid enough to allow that message to get out, but Auron is a Closed World now, thanks to the 'seeds' I sowed in Levannen. In another two weeks it will be a dead one."
He turned his most patronizing smile on Avon. "And don't count on your antiserum saving the planet either. While I was playing 'Hide and Seek' with Franton's incompetent militia, I left several strontium grenades in strategic locations. Once they are triggered, this bunker will be your tomb."
"What about the other one?" Avon asked grimly. "The 'mother' of this clone."
Carnell stared at Avon for a moment before breaking into mellow laughter.
" 'Mother'? I can't believe you're that much of a sentimentalist, Avon. The Clone Masters' copy was flawed from the very beginning. I knew it was a risk, giving them the post-mortem cells, but their process was the only way for me to acquire a non-tainted cell culture. I probably should have terminated their defective clone once the cells were replicated, but she has proved rather useful . . . distracting the Elders in Levannen, while I developed and distributed the disease cultures, diverting Franton's and Zelda's attention from the Bio-Replication Center, even keeping you 'entertained' long enough for me to accelerate the Auron clone to maturity."
"And since you're so fond of the Clone Master's version," Carnell's smile turned malignant, "I'll gladly leave her here to keep you company. Step forward, my dear, I know you've been listening, there in the dark. Why not come out where we can see you?"
"I don't want to."
The voice was harsh and graveled, yet Avon could still hear remnants of its old compelling charm. He shuddered, unwilling to see her with little but the ragged remnants of her beauty remaining. She was equally reluctant to show herself in the light. Obviously, the illusions that she had used to disguise herself before were no longer good enough.
"Come. Out. Now." Carnell ordered, his urbane charm dissolving. "Don't think you can defy me. I know that you've been watching Avon, trying to seduce him. Hoping that he would rescue you . . . but there's nothing left to save."
A raggedly veiled figure tottered out of the shadows, her breathing harsh and rasping. She stared at the copy of herself, raising her clawlike hands as if to rake them down those flawless features, then stopped and turned away even before Carnell ordered,
"Don't touch her . . . or I'll kill you right now."
"No, you won't," the once lush mouth spat. "You'd never be that merciful. Your control of your brother Travis over the years proved that."
"Everything I did was necessary for our survival."
"Everything you ever did was for your benefit and no one else's," the clone's voice rasped. "Until Travis finally realized that you had betrayed him all those years . . . as you've betrayed everyone who ever trusted you."
" Trust is just another commodity, to be sold to the highest bidder."
Carnell stared at the older clone for a long moment. "You were a commodity too, my dear." Then his lips thinned as he fired his weapon, burning through her midsection
"But you've outlived your usefulness."
She gasped, almost in relief, before slumping against Avon's legs and falling to the floor at his feet. He struggled against his bonds, unsure whether he wanted to embrace her dying body or confirm that she was truly dead.
The Auron clone covered her face, cringing in horror at the violence before her. "What have you done?" she cried in a hoarse whisper.
"Just tied up a last loose end," Carnell shrugged. "Pick up her bags. You'll need clothes and hers will fit perfectly."
The Auron clone knelt beside her predecessor's body, staring into the ravaged features then bowed her head and clasped the clone's hands, folding them decorously across her chest.
Carnell turned his attention back to Avon and the others. "I probably should just leave you here to die in the explosions, but I don't like leaving things to chance. Unexpected factors have thwarted my carefully plotted schemes in the past. So, I'll grant you each the kindness of a blaster bolt to the head before taking my leave. Who wants to be first?"
Avon struggled desperately, hoping against all odds that he might be able to break his bonds even as Carnell aimed the weapon between his eyes. But before the puppeteer could fire, a startled look came over his face.
"I wasn't . . . expecting . . . that . . . " and he pitched forward, with a knife buried to the hilt in the center of his back.
Behind him, the clone stared down at her blood-stained hands and said in a choked whisper, "She pressed it into my hand, just before . . . before she died. I didn't know what else to do. He killed her . . . and he was going to . . . to . . . kill . . . ."
She dropped to her knees, blank-eyed and shivering.
Avon recognized the signs of incipient hysteria, although in his wildest dreams he couldn't imagine Servalan giving in to it. "Pull yourself together, Ser . . . girl, and cut us loose. We're not out of danger yet."
With a dazed, empty expression, the clone pulled the blood smeared blade from between Carnell's shoulder blades and began sawing at Avon's bindings. Once he was loose, he hurriedly freed Franton who rushed over to the comm unit.
"This is a Code Red alert. An unknown quantity of explosive devices have been planted in this bunker. Start immediate evacuation by sections according to drill procedures. All militia troops report to your stations to insure an orderly exit."
Avon hurried over to one of the monitor screens and hastily activated it. "The question is whether those grenades are on a timer or a manual switch."
As he scanned through the security cameras' displays, Avon hoped they might reveal something useful.
"Considering his calculating personality, I doubt he'd leave the destruction of this bunker to chance. He always prided himself in knowing which way his victims would jump."
Franton gasped with a sudden horrified realization, "The lifts. He could have planted the grenades there." She reached for the comm only to have a vaguely familiar voice break in.
"Hold off on the evacuation, Clinician. The lifts have been mined."
"Major Brand, is that you?"
"Yes, ma'am. My troops have been sweeping the corridors, conduit shafts, and access tunnels for the past twelve hours trying to flush out the murderer. Didn't have much luck until I thought about checking for evidence of sabotage and dug out the chemical explosive detectors."
Franton swallowed hard, "Good work, Major. Will you be able to disarm them?"
"Shouldn't be too much of a problem, ma'am. Just looks like routine timing devices."
"Better let me give them a once-over, Franton." Avon offered. "Especially since it was a puppeteer that set them. Who knows what subterfuges he might have included."
"Very well, Avon. I'll ask Major Brand to wait until you arrive."
As he started out the door, Cally followed on his heels.
"There's no need for you to risk your life doing this."
"Perhaps not, but I doubt that it's in my best interest to pit Major Brand's intelligence against Carnell's . . . even postmortem. I'd rather not have to tunnel my way out of this misbegotten hole in the ground."
Cally smiled to herself as she nodded in agreement.
Jenna flung herself into Travis's arms almost knocking him off his feet, then pulled back and took a closer look at his battered figure. She drew back her hand as if to slap him and then threw her arms around his neck again and sobbed against his shoulder.
"You fool, I thought you were just going to get the other truck moving, not lead the bloody 'Charge of the Light Brigade'."
Travis ran his thumb gently along Jenna's tear-stained cheeks as he murmured, "It's not as bad as it looks, just caught the edge of a beam." He winced as Jenna unfastened his jacket and eased it away from his side, exposing the raw, blistered flesh just below his ribcage. "Guess I'm not as quick on my feet as I used to be."
" Then maybe you'll think twice about taking such reckless chances in the future."
Jenna put his arm across her shoulder and helped him limp over to where Medic Noral had set up his triage unit. Despite their relative inexperience, Colonel Amara's troops had been lucky. After the initial casualties when they first came under fire, most of them had little more than minor burns and scrapes. Though one trooper managed to break his wrist while diving for cover too enthusiastically.
Prater's people were in much worse shape.
Even though she was not squeamish, Jenna kept her eyes averted as they picked their way through the moaning, sobbing men and women. Many of them had black eyes and swollen faces as a result of the sonic feedback, while others suffered from severe burns when their weapons had exploded. They found Noral just closing the eyes of one young man who seemed relatively uninjured except for the blood trickling from his ears and nose.
He got to his feet slowly with a pained look on his face, "Severe intercranial bleeding. There was nothing I could do."
"Can you do something about this . . . ," Jenna gestured at Travis's side.
Bending over so he could get a closer look, he continued in a brusque tone of voice. "Looks like you've got a nasty burn, Captain. My supply of synthaskin is running low, but I think I've got enough to cover the worst of that. However, you should stay off your feet for the next few days"
"Not much chance of that," Travis grimaced as the medic sprayed an antibacterial agent over the raw area before applying the synthetic skin. "The Colonel's going to need all the able-bodied troops she can muster to deal with the situation in Levannen."
"I know," Noral answered bleakly. "I've been trying to talk her out of continuing the mission. We're going to need half a battalion just to care for our prisoners."
"Those prisoners can care for themselves," Travis said harshly. "Most are just suffering from temporary shock syndrome. A night's rest and they'll be on their feet. All the Colonel needs to leave behind is a small detachment, armed with laser rifles."
"I thought the weapons were all destroyed."
"There were extras, cached at their base camp. Enough to arm a guard detail . . . and whoever will be following the Colonel into Levannen. If your Colonel learns quickly, she won't make the same mistake twice."
Noral heaved a deep sigh. "I'll get my kit together. But you still need to take it easy and drink plenty of fluids to replace what your body lost."
"Later, Medic. If there is a later."
Early the next morning, one CTV with half a load of medical supplies and two-thirds of the Colonel's able-bodied troops was on the final stretch of road heading into Levannen. Amara ordered a halt in the hills overlooking the village itself, then motioned for Travis to join her as they skulked through the trees and undergrowth until they could get an eagle's eye view of the comings and goings of the local villagers.
The village had been built in a sheltered valley, with a picturesque stream meandering along its outskirts. Though there were a number of narrow alleys winding through the residential sections, most of the streets leading to the square were wide and well-maintained. There were the usual open stalls surrounding the central market square, along with what appeared to be a metal working shop and a clinic or other central medical facility. The main building on the square appeared to be a large meeting hall with a decorative fountain gurgling in front of it.
Scanning the area with a long range viewer, Amara was surprised and alarmed to find the streets deserted. Even the central market square appeared empty and abandoned. She handed the viewer to Travis who didn't just scan the streets of the village but swept along the surrounding hillsides till he located the meadow where 'Balor's' ship had supposedly made its forced landing.
"No sign of the ship," he muttered. "Looks like that viper has slipped through our fingers again. At least your troops won't have to face more energy weapons."
He continued scanning, looking for any signs of life, then handed the viewer back to Amara with a troubled look on his face. "It's not just the village that's deserted. I don't see anyone working in the fields either."
The Colonel's expression was bewildered, "But Prater said that Levannen's people didn't have any signs of the disease. That was his main point of contention, that we were delivering supplies to people who didn't need them."
"It didn't help when Levannen's leader declared that her people's 'virtue' saved them from the disease."
Amara put down the viewer and rubbed her forehead tiredly. "I never met the Eldest Delphine, but she was a close friend of Franton's father. Franton said she was a deeply spiritual woman, opposed to cloning because she believed it limited genetic diversity and weakened the Soul of Auron. She also believed that Auron's peaceful lifestyle would be disrupted by contact with other worlds. That's why she led her followers into the mountains, to avoid contamination. "There were many on the Council who agreed with her for a very long time . . . especially in view of Federation militant colonialism. But after the Andromedan invasion, our leaders began to see the necessity for contact with other worlds. We weren't alone in the galaxy and isolating ourselves was dangerous and short-sighted. So the Council voted to sign the Byzantian Treaty and hope that our culture was strong enough not to be overwhelmed."
"Too bad she didn't stick to her guns and send Carnell and Servalan packing," Travis grumbled "It would have saved us all this trouble."
The Colonel stood up and dusted off her uniform, then tried to brush some of the leaves and grass off the militia jacket that one of her troops had loaned Travis to replace his tattered spacer's leathers. He pushed her hand away in irritation.
"I'm not one of your troops, Colonel. I came along on this junket in hopes of getting my hands on Carnell, but it seems we've arrived too late. Let's just deliver your supplies and the girl and head back to the space port."
"Don't be in such a hurry," she retorted sharply. "I still have inquiries to make with the Eldest, the citizens themselves and their doctor, if they have one. Prater didn't strike me as a fool or a vindictive man."
The Colonel's lips were tightly compressed as they returned to the truck and she ordered it to head for Levannen's central market.
Squeezed tightly between Travis and the Colonel on the front seat of the CTV, Jenna took in the mutual dark expressions on their faces and decided to keep her questions to herself.
As they rumbled through the silent, empty streets, Jenna shivered at the growing sense of desolation she felt. Coming to a halt in the square, Travis climbed slowly out of the vehicle and stared around at the seemingly abandoned locale.
A large container of some dark pungent fluid had been spilled in the street, with boxes and baskets scattered randomly about, their contents open to the weather. A chill wind blew trash across the empty roadway.
The troopers were climbing out of the CTV and at Aldor's order began fanning out through the seemingly deserted streets, weapons ready and on the alert for a possible ambush.
"What should we do about Cleome?" one of the younger troopers ventured.
"Keep her in the truck," Travis snapped. "This is no place for a half-grown girl to be running around."
"It was her home," Jenna reminded him.
"Not any longer."
He prowled across the square, glancing suspiciously at the blithely splashing fountain before heading towards the main meeting hall, with its dark, heavily carved wooden entry and tightly shuttered windows. He grasped the knob, rattling the door but before he could attempt to force it open, there was a strangled cry from across the square.
"Colonel, you better get over here . . . right now."
The soldier's voice was tightly controlled, but Travis could hear the fear wavering just beneath. He hurried over to see what had so unnerved the trooper and pushed past him into what appeared to be some sort of medical facility A stifling odor of decay hit him as soon as he entered and he covered his nose with his hand, waiting for his eye to adjust to the semi-darkness. The room appeared to be filled with advanced biologic equipment. Not the sort of facility a settlement like Levannen would have needed for basic medical procedures, but an advanced lab capable of producing bacteria and virus cultures. There also were at least twenty bodies sprawled around the room, in various stages of decomposition.
Colonel Amara was only a few steps behind him and took one long look at the lab and its equipment before she had to leave, choking and coughing at the stench. Travis joined her a moment later, rubbing his watering eye as he sucked in gulps of fresh air.
"I thought these people were supposed to be farmers," he gasped.
"So did I," she agreed. "Something terrible must have happened after Cleome left . . . and we're not leaving until I find out what."
She raised her voice so the rest of her troopers could hear. "Fan out and check the rest of these buildings for survivors. I want answers."
Jenna strode over with Cleome firmly in tow.
"What's going on here? Where is everybody?"
"That's what we're trying to find out," the Colonel said in a quietly neutral voice, before turning to Cleome. "You said that strange things were going on even before the Eldest sent you away with the gene samples. You also mentioned her odd behavior. What about illness? Were any of your people showing signs of the epidemic?"
"Nooo, though there were a lot of people in town, just before I left, but they all appeared healthy enough." Cleome paused as though trying to remember. "It did seem odd that so many would be away from their farms since it was nearly harvest . . . but I just assumed the Council had called a special meeting . . . ."
Her voice faded out as she stared at the stark emptiness around her. "Where is everyone? Even at the height of the harvest, someone's always in town, picking up supplies or getting equipment repaired . . . ."
Jenna pulled her to one side, trying to break the news as gently as possible. Cleome stared around her, shaking her head in disbelief, her fingers clenched tightly together as she slumped to the ground. Placing a steadying hand on the girl's shoulder, Jenna murmured, "Do you want to go back to the CTV and wait there?"
"No,"she answered in a strangled whisper. "I don't want to leave. Not yet . . . not until I know . . . " Her voice trailed off and the Colonel nodded absently, her eyes fixed on her troops as they swept through the deserted village.
Activating her comm unit, Amara listened intently to the terse reports as her troops began discovering bodies within doorways, in dark corners of streets and alleys, sprawled behind buildings and inside shops, as though Death had strolled through the streets, idly tapping his victims on the shoulder.
A cold chill ran up her spine as her troops reconnoitered. They had all received the latest version of the vaccine before leaving the bunker, but she knew she was still risking their lives, exposing them to what likely was a plague center without bio-hazard suits. But she had to make sure that there were no survivors. Her nightmares were going to be bad enough, coming to terms what she had done earlier in that attack on her fellow Aurons. But she couldn't live with herself if she left anyone behind in this city of the dead.
An urgent voice rasped over the comm, "Colonel, I've found someone still alive . . . in the main meeting hall. But you better get Noral here quick, she's not going to last much longer."
The medic grabbed his kit and with Amara and Travis following close behind, headed for the large shuttered building on the main square.
Cleome started after them, until Jenna caught her arm and suggested, "Maybe you better stay here. It sounds like whoever they've found is in bad shape . . . and isn't going to make it."
The girl's face was white and strained, her dark eyes brimming with tears.
"Let me go," she demanded on the verge of hysteria. "This is my home, I have to know what happened here."
She tried to pull out of Jenna's grip, but wasn't strong enough and dropped to her knees sobbing in fear and frustration.
"Just wait," Jenna cautioned. "And stay out of the way. There are hard questions to be answered here and the Colonel needs to discover the truth."
When they arrived inside, Noral was still attempting to revive his patient, an elderly woman with timeless elegant features. She was sprawled on the floor of an elevated platform that faced a large empty assembly room. The overturned podium and chairs scattered throughout the room seemed to indicate that there had been some sort of altercation, though there were no bloodstains or other signs of violence.
"The Eldest Delphine," Cleome gasped, before swiftly covering her mouth with her hand, but it was clear that the Colonel also recognized the survivor in Noral's care. She knelt beside the flaccid body, turning a sharp gaze on the medic.
"Is she conscious? Any chance at all of bringing her around so we can find out what happened? Why she sent those gene cultures to the Bio-Replication Center?"
Noral gave his commander an irritated look, "I'm doing the best I can, Colonel. Just give me room to work."
For long minutes the medic worked on the comatose form with breathing apparatus, fluids and powerful stimulants, but it was no use. With a frustrated sigh, he let the limp body collapse against the floor and stood up turning towards his superior.
"I'm sorry, Colonel. But she was too far gone by the time we arrived. There was nothing that I could do for her."
"Damn" Amara sighed, rubbing her temples in frustration. "Now we'll never know whatreally happened here."
"It's plain enough a blind man could see," Travis stated flatly. "Carnell helped them create a genetically tailored organism that supposedly would affect only clones . . . and those exposed to offworlders. Pure, uncontaminated Aurons, like themselves, would be immune."
"But he lied," Travis continued bitterly. "In typical puppeteer fashion, he manipulated them to get what he wanted - a clone of Servalan - then left them to deal with the carnage."
"But why?" The Colonel stared down at Delphine's body, still shocked by everything she had seen that morning. "Why would she believe an outsider, a non-Auron? Particularly one who was telling her to harm her fellow Aurons?"
Travis looked back at the shrunken body and his voice was almost gentle. "Because she was afraid. Her people were dying and everything she believed in crumbling to dust. Some people will do almost anything to preserve their beliefs."
Amara swallowed hard, wondering at the darkness of soul that could lead someone to commit such actions against their own people, just because of a difference of beliefs. Pushing to her feet, she wrapped her arms around herself , chilled as much by this revelation as the approaching night.
Cleome pulled out of Jenna's grasp and ran over to Delphine's body, dropping to her knees beside it. "Don't leave me, Eldest. I know that I failed you . . . and the others. But I'll do better, just give me another chance. Please, don't leave me. Not . . . here, not . . . alone."
As Cleome collapsed sobbing across the Eldest's body, Amara stared at the distraught girl uncomfortably, uncertain what to do about this orphaned misfit.
Travis seemingly picked her thoughts out of midair, "What will become of her, Colonel?"
She grimaced, "She's too old for creche schooling, but she would hardly fit into normal Auron society with the ideas that her elders have been pouring into her head. I suppose we could put her in one of the re-education centers . . . "
Her voice trailed off at Travis's accusing expression. Damn the man, did he have Auron blood in his background or was he that good at reading her body language?
"All right, Space Commander, I'll speak to Franton about taking care of Cleome until she's a little older and learns the truth about the Soul of Auron. After all, she's old enough not to be too much trouble."
After sending Cleome back to the truck, she returned to the assembly room just in time for Noral to present her with another problem. "What shall we do with the bodies, Colonel? We can't just leave them out in the elements. Especially now that we know that they all died from the epidemic."
Amara ran her hands down her face, feeling a physical and mental exhaustion that threatened to drag her down into darkness.
"I'll get a burial detail started," she sighed. "I guess they'll all have to be interred in a mass grave. I just wish we had some lime to put over the bodies, especially since so many of them are already in an advanced state of decomposition."
"Burn it," Travis interrupted sharply.
"What did you say?" the Colonel turned to him with a shocked expression.
"Burn this village to the ground," Travis continued in a pragmatic tone. "Your troops are already on the thin edge of exhaustion and this whole area is a bleeding cesspit. Fire will stop the disease from spreading any further . . . and it's a cleaner finish for everyone."
The Colonel looked over to Noral, who nodded his head in reluctant agreement.
"He's right. It is the only way to assure that animals don't further despoil the bodies and the organism doesn't get into the food chain."
Amara shuddered at that image before turning to give her orders.
Later that evening, on the hillside overlooking the village, she watched as the village of Levannen went up in flames. Her troops were stationed outside the actual village itself, with blankets and shovels to make sure random sparks didn't spread into the grass or forest.
Beside her, Cleome shivered as one of the burning buildings tumbled inward, "This was my home. What's to become of me now?"
"Don't worry, Cleome," the Colonel reassured her. "You'll be staying with me."
Travis and Jenna stood a small distance away, his arm around her shoulders as they watched the conflagration. "He outsmarted me again, Jenna, and made his escape, leaving ruin in his wake."
"It's not your fault, Colin. You can't blame yourself."
"I know," he agreed reluctantly. "But still . . . ."
Jenna broke in abruptly, determined to distract him from further recriminations.
"What about the Colonel? You think she'll be all right? After all, she's had a rough time of it these last few days."
"Most COs get ' blooded' much earlier in their careers, but she's tough. She'll survive."
After that he was quiet for a very long time. By the time he spoke again, the fire had burned down to white-hot glowing logs and a few spiraling embers.
"Promise me one thing, Jenna?"
"When I buy it . . . if there's anything left of my body, don't bury me planetside. Not in the cold ground. Send me out in a blaze of glory, a capsule shot into the sun. Or better still, feed my body to the ship's engines. So nothing's left . . . nothing but a blazing path through the darkness."
Jenna's throat was too tight to speak but she nodded her head before leading him back to their shelter, to wait out the rest of the night.
A week later, Travis and Jenna were shown into Franton's office where Cally and Avon were already present. Cally seemed troubled and Avon was in a full sarcastic mode.
"I don't see how Zelda can persist in her foolhardy proclamation that the clone is innocent. You were both there and you saw her. You can't deny that she slipped that knife between his ribs with a real expert's skill."
"And she was practically in a state of shock afterwards. She did it to save our lives, Avon. She didn't have a choice. Carnell had that gun pointed right between your eyes . . . ."
Cally paused in mid-sentence, with a guilty look in Travis's direction.
Though he'd slouched into one of the chairs, Travis shot upright at the mention of the puppeteer's name. "Carnell was here? What happened ? Please don't tell me he managed to escape again?"
"He didn't," Avon replied in a snide tone. "Zelda's supposedly uncorrupted Servalan clone stuck a knife between his ribs and right into his heart . . . just like a pro."
"She'd already seen him murder her clone in cold blood and he made it very plain that we were to be next."
Travis looked at Cally in disbelief, "Servalan's clone stabbed Carnell . . . to save your lives? Next thing you'll be telling me that she's still here, waiting to stand trial for her crimes."
"She is in the custody of my clone sister Zelda," Cally continued. "Being treated for emotional trauma because of the events that occurred immediately after her awakening. Zelda hopes Levan will be able to overcome the shock and become a fully functioning member of Auron society."
Avon folded his arms across his chest and muttered under his breath something about " the foolhardiness of taking vipers to one's bosom" but Cally ignored him.
"Levan?" Jenna had an odd expression on her face.
"Yes," Cally continued. "We thought it best not to remind the clone too much about her progenitor's past and besides the name will also serve as a memorial to Cleome's people."
"How is Cleome . . . ," Jenna began, but Travis interrupted, "You said she-the clone-stabbed Carnell in the heart. Is he dead, or did he manage to pull off another puppeteer trick?"
"Your brother . . . excuse me, I mean, the puppeteer Carnell is dead. His body was put in the bunker's stasis room and then moved to cryostorage once Franton returned to her main office in this building."
"I want to see it," Travis demanded in a harsh voice.
"Just let me contact Franton," Cally demurred.
"NOW, Auron" Travis had erupted to his feet, his face filled with a seething rage until Jenna grabbed his arm and pulled him around to face her.
"Calm down, Travis," she hissed, her nails digging into his flesh and blood arm. "We'll get see Carnell's body sooner if you keep your temper under control."
Travis took a deep shaky breath and muttered an apology in Cally's direction, but before she could say anything, Franton entered the office, carrying several data cubes.
"Sorry to take so long, but I was making arrangements for the final release of your ship and crew. I've also arranged for Alamo to be towed to the main space port, refueled and refitted, ready for take-off whenever you are."
There was a brief shamed hesitation, before she continued, apologetically, "I just wish I could do more, after all you did for us. I have put in a voucher to reimburse you for the medical supplies that you delivered, but the Council is still deluged with requests for medical aid and emergency assistance from all over Auron. It may be months before we get around to normal commercial transactions, but I promise that we will repay you for everything you did for us . . . eventually."
"Commercial transactions be damned," Travis said impatiently. "I just want to see Carnell's body. To make sure it's really him . . . and not another one of his tricks."
"Very well," Franton agreed as she led them out the door. "The cryostorage unit is in the Central Lab Complex. I'll go with you. There are still some questions that I have."
Travis had lapsed into a sullen silence, but Jenna replied for him, "I'll answer whatever I can, Clinician. But if it's about the puppeteers' plans and what they hoped to use the Servalan clone for, I'm afraid we're as much in the dark as you are."
Jenna was relieved that neither Avon nor Cally chose to come with them because, judging by Travis's earlier outburst, her bondmate was having a difficult time dealing with his conflicted emotions. All she could do was hope that it was Carnell's body in cryostorage and not another ruse and if it was Travis's brother, that they could finally lay that bloody part of his past to rest.
Travis remained grimly silent all the way down to the vault, shrugging into the heavy coat the attendant handed him without a word. Continuing down the stark gray hall, the attendant stopped and checked his index file before opening a rime-covered drawer.
Carnell lay there, pale as death, with ice crystals clinging to his sleek blonde hair and impossibly long eyelashes. He looked older than when they last saw him, without the mocking smile that seemed so much a part of him. Although his eyes had been closed, there was a startled look on his face, as though he truly had been surprised by the clone's attack.
How ironic, Jenna thought to herself, that the clone he had risked so much to acquire would actually turn on him and put an end to all his plans and schemes. The puppet outmaneuvering the puppeteer.
She glanced sidelong at Travis who seemed content to stand there, staring at the man who once was his brother.
"Aren't you going to examine the body?" asked the attendant. "Check for scars, birthmarks, whatever . . . to confirm that he's the one you're looking for?"
"There aren't any," Travis answered shortly. "Not on this body anyway. Do me one favor though, help me turn him over. I want to see the knife wound, just to be sure."
"Sure of what?" Jenna grimaced. "Even if he wasn't dead when she stabbed him, he's a corpsicle now."
"I just want to make sure that he actually had a heart for her knife to reach."
Jenna stood back as the attendant and Travis turned the body over and he stared at the gray shriveled gash and then shuddered and let the body drop back down.
"All right, I'm convinced. What now?"
Franton spoke up. "That's what I wanted to ask. How you wanted to dispose of the body? Inter it here on Auron or ship it to your homeworld. You could even have it cremated and take the ashes with you."
Travis answered shortly, "I think not. He haunted me more than enough while he was still alive. I intend to lay his ghost permanently now that he's dead." He gave a bitter chuckle. "Even though there is a gravestone with his name on it on Zircaster, I doubt Deirdre would appreciate me shipping his remains to her."
He turned to Franton.
"Burn the body. Burn it to ashes and then scatter them across the most desolate area on Auron."
"You hate him that much?" she asked softly.
"Hate . . . no, not any longer." Travis answered in a soft voice. "I guess that I'm just hoping the desolation will remind his spirit of our home on Metis III . . . and maybe he won't haunt my dreams any longer."
When they returned to Franton's office, Jenna was surprised and somewhat dismayed to see that two more people had arrived. It was Zelda accompanied by Levan, Servalan's clone.
Knowing Travis's history with Servalan, she thought that the clone's presence would unnerve him, maybe even precipitate threats or violence. However, he took his cue from Avon and Cally who did not seem threatened by the Auron produced clone. As Jenna took a closer look at this copy of their one-time bitter enemy, she found herself relaxing as well.
While the clone wore an exact copy of Servalan's physical features, everything else about her seemed to belong to someone else. Her body language was relaxed and less threatening, her dark hair wispy and loosely floating around her face. Even her eyes were different, warm amber rather than the golden predator's gleam that they had seen so often in the past. She was wearing a loose-fitting, dark blue institutional style jumpsuit. That in itself convinced Jenna that this clone was not Servalan's revenant, knowing from past experience at Central Control just how clothes conscious the former Supreme Commander could be. Zelda reached out and embraced Cally, then stepped back, clasping her hands firmly
"I wanted to thank you again for answering my call and for bringing Avon and Orac with you. Without their help, Auron would be a dead planet now. How can we ever repay you?"
Avon gave Cally a brief predatory smile but did not make one of his usual snide remarks, instead he gave a graceful nod of the head that took in Franton, Zelda, and the clone.
"It was my pleasure to come to the rescue of such . . . charming . . . ladies. Don't hesitate to call on us in the future if any problems arise. Any problems, at all."
His dark gaze fastened on the Servalan clone, who seemed oblivious to his regard.
Franton had just taken an incoming call, receiving a report on her desk com.
" --and there haven't been any deaths in the past seventy-two hours and most of the serious cases are past the crisis, so there seems to be no further threat from the epidemic. Thank you, Dr. Griff."
She ended the call and gazed at her visitors, "That was a report from the planetary epidemiologist. No new deaths and the most serious cases are resolving.
Sighing in relief, Franton grinned, "It's over. This threat to Auron is finally over."
"It's never over."
Everyone turned a startled look to Servalan's clone when she spoke, but she maintained her same bland, gentle expression. Only Avon thought he saw the barest flicker of gold in her serene amber gaze.
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