CeremoniesBy Alice C. Aldridge
Apprentice Captain Jason Stannis charged up the emergency stairwell, his long legs taking the stairs three at a time. Reaching the fifth floor in half the time it would have taken the lift to answer his impatient buzz, he hurried toward the Travis/Stannis office, one of the more modestly outfitted spaces in the main Clan complex. He was bursting with excitement and couldn't wait to share his good news.
Pausing at the doorway to straighten his tunic and smooth down his flyaway blonde hair, he couldn't help listening at the door for a moment before he charged inside. Though he hadn't totally outgrown his youthful impulsive streak, both his genetic parents had attempted to instill a degree of caution in him that neither of them practiced in their own adventurous lifestyle.
Judging by the deep basso rumblings, the Travis/Stannis fleet's senior engineer Akema D' Scotu was present. Even though none of their ships were currently being repaired or refitted, Jason knew better than to interrupt this kind of consultation.
Listening cautiously at the door (though he'd deny he was actually eavesdropping), Jason was more than a little surprised at the subject of their discussion.
"Have you heard anything from Glynis this last month?" Travis's voice was irritated but not overly concerned.
"No sir, Fleet Cap'n, sir."
"Wasn't she at the Thunder Priest's sacrificial ceremony?"
"That was for warriors only, she wouldn't have been welcome. Besides, she doesn't hold much with the old ways. Believes more in her own wits and the swiftness of her paws."
"Sensible female," Travis muttered. "Still, we owe her a fair amount of Phrath's back wages, plus a loyalty stipend for the time he served aboard Stannis/Travis ships."
"I told her, captain. But she didn't want any part of that 'blood money'."
Travis's non-cyberfist smashed on the desk in frustration, "We're not trying to buy her off, dammit. Can't you get that across to her, Engineer? Those are his wages rightfully earned, with the usual death benefit, for her to use however she sees fit. It's enough for her to live comfortably here on Sanctuary . . . or set herself up as a bloody queen almost anywhere else."
"Like I said, sir. It isn't money she wants, but blood rights."
"Then to blazes with her, I don't have time for some foolish female's vendetta."
"I think you should least take the time to speak to her . . . and hear her out. After all, Phrath died on a mission with you."
Travis struggled to bite back his retort that the Kyrenian had pushed his way onto that mission, against Travis's wishes and his better judgment. No matter what the reason for the Kyrenian's presence, he'd died under Travis's command and that made the gunner's death his responsibility.
"All right, all right. Set up a meeting time and place that suits her so she can say her peace."
"At your command, Captain Travis, sir."
Jason cringed at the excess politeness, indicating Akema was well and truly pissed off and judging by his father's lack of reaction, he didn't care. Unsure whether or not he should tiptoe out of the office and then come in again, banging the door and making other loud noises, Jason froze as Akema stormed out of the office like a flesh-and-blood hurricane, brushing past him with little more than a grunt of acknowledgment. Considering the number of times that the engineer had put up with his surly teen attitude, Jason gave him as courteous a greeting as he could, then turned his attention to his father, Fleet Captain Colin Travis, co-founder of the Travis/Stannis sept, of which Jason was currently the sole heir.
Jason stared at Travis somberly, noting the new lines carved beside his mouth and the occasionally tentative way that he reached for objects on his desk. Even though it had been over nine months since the Chiron operation, Travis was still recovering from his own rescue mission. He'd bolted from the medical center after less than a week's recovery, against medical advice. As a result the regaining of his normal strength and stamina had been considerably delayed, leaving him irritable and frustrated. Struggling to keep a firm grip on her own temper, Jenna had tried to help him as much as he would allow her. However, this time of year, with their fleet's annual inventory and budget summaries due, was especially trying for both of them. So much so that Jenna had actually welcomed the early morning summons to her grandmother's suite just to escape the growing tension in their office. Travis had not been amused.
Doing his best to take some of the load off his Fleet Captain's shoulders, Jason was overseeing the repairs on the Subterranean Exploration Vehicle, Loge. The STEV and its battered transport ship, Midgard, which had also been part of the Chiron rescue operation, were left in a stable orbit over the Enclave's homeworld Sanctuary by ace pilot Del Tarrant. No one was exactly sure why Travis had ordered that extensive repair and refitting of the Loge, but such a potentially unprofitable venture had left many of the other trading houses to wonder if he had lost what little sanity he had left.
So far his obsession with the Loge had not bankrupted the newly founded sept, thanks to the financial support from the family of former Fleet Warden and ex-Federation President Samore, who were apparently fulfilling obligations to Captain Travis. But the repairs were almost finished and it was uncertain how a cutting edge planetary exploration vehicle would be of any use to a Free Trader sept. They couldn't afford to keep it in spacedock once the repairs were finished, but they had no idea where they could store the oversized and overpowered subterranean craft indefinitely.
In addition to his supervisory duties, Jason had recently checked out the Starliner Archives, attempting to locate family or colleagues of Drs. Hertzog and Sinclair who might be willing to take charge of the craft and use it as it was designed, for subterranean exploration and mapping of marginal and underexplored planets.
Travis sat there bleary-eyed, his chin propped on his flesh-and-blood hand, listening to the flood of data that Jason was currently regurgitating, having buried his nose in the annual report of the Interstellar Congress of Geology and Geophysics for most of the morning. He raised his hand to stop the spate of intellectual garbage.
"The impression that I'm getting, boy, is that Derek Sinclair was one of a kind, an explorer and discoverer, rather than some fusty scholar digging through antique geologic scans for minuscule trivia that they dump on some graduate student to produce a research paper to be read before next year's Congress."
Jason winced at his father's razor sharp insight, sighing as he agreed that he had wasted most of his morning on a wild goose chase. He shrugged it off with a lame excuse, "Knowledge is a valuable commodity, Fleet Captain. You never know when something I read today might come in useful."
Giving an impatient grunt of disbelief, Travis intended to dismiss the overly energetic apprentice captain and get back to work on the bloody, bedamned budget projections.
But Jason had other things on his mind this fine morning . . . and his sunny, silly grin was definitely unwelcome to Travis in his current state of mind.
"Well, get on with it," his father snarled.
"Get on with what?" Jason replied, somewhat startled.
"Whatever outrageous scheme that you've latched onto this time."
"No scheme, Fleet Captain. But . . . on my way back from the Archives, I ran into Kayla Madison down at the marketplace. She and her grandmother are here to have the surgery done to restore her vision."
Travis grunted a noncommittal acknowledgment, while his mind flashed back three years ago, when he'd gone with Blake to Zircaster/Auros, both of them hoping to make amends for their past transgressions against its citizens. Blake attempting to undo the damage he'd done with the destruction of Star One and Travis seeking to come to terms with his own actions against its citizens when putting down a revolt.
Unknown to Blake, Travis had a second objective, attempting to locate family and friends from his homeworld Metis III who'd been relocated to Zircaster. He'd found much more than he bargained for -- his family's grave, a sister who had survived, along with her young son. He'd also encountered Naomi Reeves, the mother of his long-dead lover Marissa, and Kayla Madison, Naomi's granddaughter and Marissa's niece, who bore a startling resemblance to her deceased aunt, at least in his mind.
Jason had been drawn to the girl, much to Travis's dismay, fearing the boy was still haunted by the memories Cally had implanted to establish his identity. That fear had proved groundless, though judging by his familiarity with her grandmother's condition, apparently Jason had been seeing the girl whenever his ship was in that sector.
Trying to maintain the pretext that his interest in Kayla was strictly business, Jason babbled on, "Ever since we took those color samples offworld three years ago, their dye and fabric industry has been flourishing, so they decided not to put off the procedure any longer. I was . . . very glad to see Kayla again, though the two of us had a long talk when I visited her after what happened on La Terre."
"She and her grandmother were glad to find someone they knew . . . especially since the doctor accompanying them was still conferring with the surgeon who's going to restore Naomi's vision. Oh, and they sent their regards to Captain McRae."
Travis leaned back in his chair, his mind aswirl with memories and emotions, then swallowed hard, trying to clear his dry throat. "I hope you informed them that Captain McRae was on a trading mission halfway the other side of the Spiral Rim."
"No worries, Captain. You won't have to dig out that old holo-imager." He gave an exasperated shake of his head. "I understand the Zircaster massacre was the reason you went in with a cover identity, but why'd you use Dani's name?"
"That wasn't my doing, but Avon's," Travis grimaced. "Orac had access to Dani's pilot credentials from when she was part of that infiltration mission into Servalan's base. Avon decided it was easier to tweak an existing document rather than create a whole new identity from scratch. Hardly caring whether it complicated my life . . . or Dani's."
He rubbed his hands tiredly down his face, "So . . . how are Kayla and her grandmother doing?"
"Good . . . good," Jason said before continuing somewhat tentatively. "I know you and Jenna are swamped with the year-end reports, but I would like for both of you to make some time to meet them while they're here. Maybe for lunch . . . or even just tea. You see, Kayla and I . . . I mean the two of us . . . we've decided to file a formal bonding contract."
Travis stared at Jason for a long moment, hardly able to believe what he was hearing, then said in a low, harsh voice, "Over my dead body."
Surprisingly Jason did not erupt with his typical heated reaction, but spoke calmly, "I'm sorry that you feel that way, Fleet Captain, but both of us are of legal age and you no longer have any say in the matter."
Travis slumped in his seat behind the desk, burying his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking. For one horrible moment Jason thought that he was crying, but instead when Travis took his hands down, there was, to his eternal shock, a lopsided grin on his father's face and only the slightest hint of moisture in his eye.
"Well, at least you get your taste in women from the Travis side of the family, boy. Congratulations on picking a sweet girl with a good head for business. Just don't expect to borrow money from us to finance some big hoop-la. We're barely keeping our heads above water as it is."
"I understand, sir. Frankly, all that Kayla and I intended to do was fill out the contract and have it witnessed and filed at Central Records, then maybe have lunch with her grandmother, you, Jenna, and some of your crew?"
Travis tried to swallow past the cold knot in his chest, hoping that this little get-together would occur before Naomi Reeves had her vision restored. Even twenty some-odd years later, scarred as he was by Blake's rebels, he did not want to face the sharp-eyed scrutiny of the woman who had known him as the potential bondmate of her and Jacob Reeves' daughter, Marissa. He had buried that part of himself years ago in the same cold, barren earth that held Rissa's fenris-ravaged body.
Brooding as he was, Travis did not notice the somewhat troubled expression on Jason's face.
"I did some back checking of the files while I was at the Record Center, to confirm a few details. Hell, I'll admit I wanted to find out the date on yours and Jenna's contract. Just for curiosity's sake, you know . . . but it wasn't registered."
Travis sat there simmering for a moment, after Jason dropped his little bombshell. "Of course, it was registered, you young idiot. Jenna and I signed the bonding contract on Kellogg IV, while I was still recovering from my injuries after the attack on Star One. It was recorded in the log of the Reina until we could file it with the registrar here on Sanctuary. That would have been no more than six months . . ."
The absolute certainty of his words trailed off as he remembered his warning to Jenna after they first grounded on Sanctuary. "We'll keep the contract a secret, stored in the Reina's log, not formally registered. That will give you maneuvering room, Stannis, in dealing with your uncle and the rest of clan." Even though Jenna had refused to take his advice about keeping their bonding a secret, between his testing and the Byzantian treaty conference, they'd never gotten around to transmitting a formal copy of the actual contract from the Reina's log.
And now that "bold and bonny ship", La Reina del Sol, was just a bunch of random molecules, floating in the deep space of the Hephaestus Belt.
"Oh shit." Travis clapped his hand to his forehead as he muttered into the stunned silence.
Fleet Captain Jenna Stannis slouched in the overstuffed chair in her grandmother's anteroom, one expensively and outrageously shod foot kicking impatiently at the heavy oak desk where Katya Doyle sat seemingly immersed in the information on her data screen. Both of them were waiting the Matriarch's formal summons for her granddaughter to enter her inner office.
Staring down at the bright red, artificial nails applied by the manicurist during the major cosmetic upgrade that Katya had recommended before she made her appearance in front of the de facto head of the Stannis Clan, Jenna frowned in disgust. She had enough worries, trying to keep their fleet operating at a profit despite Travis's difficult recovery after his escape from death during the Chiron rescue operation. She certainly didn't have time to waste getting a cosmetic and fashion refit at the old woman's imperious dictates.
But apparently no one appeared before the Matriarch these days without being manicured, styled, primped, polished and outfitted within an inch of their lives. A totally outrageous expenditure of time and credits as far as Jenna was concerned. She'd arrived at the office in her second best suit, with her hair freshly washed and even made the effort of applying more make-up than usual . . . only to meet with Katya's disapproving expression as soon as she walked into the outer office.
The makeover had been relatively quick, though Jenna glared in disgust at the outrageously stylish designer gown she was currently wearing, wondering if she'd be allowed to keep it when she left. Or would it be passed on to some underprivileged cousin, or stuffed in a storage closet and never worn again? With an impatient sigh, she resumed her restless fidgeting.
"Would you please stop that?" Katya asked in a somewhat harassed tone.
"Huh?" Jenna looked up, her mind back at the office, wondering how Travis was managing with the budget projections for next year and whether or not he'd managed to play on Brita's sympathies yet with his look of heroic suffering.
"Would you please stop kicking the desk. You're leaving marks on it."
Uncrossing her legs, Jenna began drumming her hard acrylic nails on the top of the desk as Katya gave a loud martyred sigh.
"This is no easier for me than it is for you, Fleet Captain. The Matriarch has grown increasingly demanding in the last few months, expecting that family members will live up to her expectations of their appearance and behavior. I'm afraid what little tolerance that she once had for non-conformity has been exhausted."
Jenna listened with a growing sense of dismay filling her heart. She'd had a difficult enough time fulfilling the old woman's expectations over eight years ago when she and Travis had announced their bonding in order to claim her father's fleet of ships. Travis only had to survive the physical and mental trials that her uncle had put him through, while Jenna had faced the censure and denunciation of her grandmother and most of the other women in the clan over her appalling choice of a bondmate.
Travis's strength, endurance and survival skills had won him the approval of his crew and most of the Enclave captains and her own stubbornness had convinced most of her family members to accept her choice, though there was still disapproval at her continued refusal to become one of the clan's perennial brood mares. The abrupt appearance of their genetic son, Jason, who was an artificially matured product of the Auron placental chambers, had only complicated the situation.
Though they had proved their canniness and courage time and time again. Even to the point of being responsible for the downfall of Supreme Commander Servalan and saving the Enclave Fleet from the depredations of her raiders, it never seemed to be enough. They had won conditional acceptance, conditional approval . . . and now her grandmother had decided to dictate not just her life and genetic contribution, but how she dressed as well?
Jenna stood up abruptly, turned around and headed for the door.
"Seran Jenna," Katya said in alarm. "Where are you going? Your grandmother could send for you at any time . . ."
"Or she could keep me out here cooling my heels until the sun goes nova, Katya. I've wasted enough of my time . . . and left my bondmate alone doing a job that requires my help to do it right. If the old . . . if my grandmother wants to see me, she can call my office."
Pulling off the acutely uncomfortable designer shoes and tossing one savagely in each corner, Jenna stomped out of the anteroom, looking for the dressing room where she'd left her clothes earlier. Katya dashed out from behind her desk, grabbing at Jenna's arm in frantic haste.
"She'll see you now, Seran Jenna. You've been summoned into her presence.""Well, tell 'Her Majesty' that I just realized that I've a much more important engagement on my calendar. Coffee with my bondmate. If she needs to see me that urgently, let her come to me. Goodbye, Katya, I'm through dancing attendance on her whims. I'd like to say it's been fun . . . but I'm not that good a liar."
Having located the room where her clothes and boots were waiting, Jenna was too impatient to struggle with the delicate hooks and ties that had fastened her into the gown. Instead she ripped off its delicately draped and stitched bodice then stepped out of the skirt, tossing the ruined dress into the corner and hastily pulling on her pants and blouse as she stomped into her boots.
She hoped that the Matriarch wouldn't call out the guards to interfere with her departure. She'd left her stun blaster at the office and though she was still carrying two knives, she wasn't sure she was mad enough to slit the throat of some poor hired muscle who was just trying to do his job.
Shrugging into her jacket, she sensed Katya's probing mental presence just outside the door. Jenna was well acquainted with Katya's father's psychic abilities, having seen Travis knocked out and later mind-sifted by Brendan Doyle at her uncle's order. While Jenna was not sure if Katya had those same aggressive skills, she did not intend to be marched back to her grandmother's office under the telepath's psychic control.She threw open the door, knowing she couldn't take the other woman by surprise, but determined to put up a bold front. "I'm not going back, Katya. I'm tired of being treated like the cuckoo's egg in this family. I'm sorry I don't meet my grandmother's expectations of style, elegance, and proper submission. I know she thinks that if my father and mother had not been murdered by the Federation and I had not gone on the run as a smuggler out on the Rim that I would have grown up to be a proper, respectful wife and mother. I disagree. I've always had a wild streak and nothing anyone could have said or done, would have changed that part of me. This is what I am . . . who I am and I'm sorry that I don't meet with her approval, but I'm not going to change at this late date. Not even your telepathic skills can turn me into what I'm not . . . so don't even try."
Her grandmother's secretary would not meet Jenna's blazingly furious gaze, but dropped her eyes meekly, "I did not come to bring you back to the Matriarch, Captain Stannis. Only to assure that you found your street clothes and see if you needed any help removing the dress . . ."
She stared blandly at the delicate pastel pile of fabric and beading, crumpled carelessly in one corner, "I see that you have no need of anyone's help . . . or advice, Captain, and I apologize for the waste of your valuable time. I shall inform the Matriarch of what you have said and notify you of her response. Give my respectful greetings to your bondmate and your crew."
It was all Jenna could do to keep her mouth from hanging open at the young telepath's measured reply, which hardly fit with her impression of her grandmother's autocratic demands. Still, even though the Matriarch had made Travis's ultimate acceptance into the clan possible, had initiated the idea behind the founding of the Travis/Stannis sept and the actual acceptance of a placental chamber progeny as a clan member, she still had no right to run their lives. Did she?
With her mind still roiling with anger and other less recognizable emotions, Jenna charged out of the building, nearly running over a very pregnant woman. Pausing to apologize, Jenna grabbed the other woman by the shoulders, barely recognizing her because of her extremely gravid state and the resultant roundness of her face. Only the blazing red hair and piercing green eyes of Dani McRae made that identification certain.
"Dani . . . what the hell . . . you look ready to drop. Did you decide to go for the accelerated gestation after all?"
"Good to see you too, Jenna," Dani flashed a weary grin. "And hell no, I've been carrying this oversized bundle of exuberant athleticism for a full nine months now."
"Has it really been that long?" Jenna asked in disbelief. "You must have had the embryo implanted soon after your ship grounded."
"After my close call on Chiron . . . and Captain Reid's sacrifice, life seemed too fragile and too short not to go ahead with my plans, especially since you said that Travis's germ plasm was available at the Bio-Replication Center. I sent a message requesting the IVF using my stored ova while I was en route from Chiron and had the embryo implanted as soon as I dropped ship. It's a healthy girl according to the geneticist, with no indication of any anomalies or hereditary disorders."
Dani shifted to one hip and irritably patted her oversized abdomen, which Jenna saw was visibly twitching even through the oversized top that she was wearing. Holding one hand to the small of her back, she muttered in exasperation, "I wish that you'd informed me that your bondmate did gymnastic stunts in his off shift. Then I might have opted for the placental tanks after all."
"Thanks for the warning, Dani. If I ever do decide to make a further genetic contribution to the Stannis line, I'll definitely choose tank-grown. Well, when's the big day? You look like you should have delivered a month ago.""I just saw the OB specialist and he's got the delivery inked in for tomorrow at 0900 sharp. If you and Travis would like to inspect her and be part of the naming ceremony, you're welcome to come anytime between noon and 1300. He can even sign the genetic donor records . . . if he wants to, that is. They'll be sealed except for eugenics purposes."
"I'll tell him as soon as I get back to the office," Jenna promised. "I don't know if he'll be willing to come. He's still not happy about my uncle's early attitude towards him as little more than a potential genetic donor to the Stannis line. He had enough trouble reclaiming his humanity, without having to go through that."
"I'm sorry," Dani murmured. "I didn't know." Wincing she placed her hand on the small of her back and groaned. "Forgive me if I toddle off, but I've still got paperwork to do on my next cargo run and some last minute baby items to lay in . . . and I'm determined to get one last full night's sleep."
"Well, I'll see you and your daughter . . . have you picked a name yet?"
"I've got a couple running around in my head. I just want to see which side of the family she looks like first."
"Well, I'll be at the birthing center tomorrow, for sure. And I'll just have to see how Travis takes the news."
"Pour him a good stiff drink first. It's a McRae tradition."
Jenna smiled as Dani turned and tried to stride away, but settled on waddling in a less than dignified fashion.
Nine months since the Chiron rescue Jenna thought to herself Has it really been that long? Has it really taken so long for Travis to get his strength back, to regain his mental equilibrium? Or were they both just lying to themselves and Travis would never again be the man he once was."Stop it," she muttered angrily to herself. Travis was almost recovered and if he wasn't getting the inventory assessment and budget projections done in record time, it wasn't his fault. After all she'd just wasted an entire morning sitting idly in her Grandmother's office when she could have been doing her part to get the paperwork finished.
Time to grow up, Stannis. Free Trading is not all flying fast ships and seeing exotic places. There was work to be done as well, and not just the inventory and budgeting responsibilities.
They also had to make sure that the ships were in peak condition and that the crew was properly taken care of. A thought which brought another sharp pang to her heart. Travis had survived the Chiron expedition. Phrath had not. She and Travis had already made one journey to the Kyrenian homeworld to lay Cub-Killer's blood-stained scarf at the Warrior's Altar. It had been an intense emotional experience for both of them. She wasn't sure she could face the Thunder Priests again or meet the proud yet grieving gaze of M'reeth Goldeneye once more, this time with nothing to show for the heroic death of her youngest cub.
She rubbed her hand across her burning eyes, surprised to find them damp with tears. "I'll deal with it later," she promised the ghostly gray figure with the merrily flashing fangs, who occasionally haunted her dreams. "Business first, then duty to friends . . . and deal with grief in its own time."
Opening the door into their office, she was pleasantly surprised to find Travis elbow deep in contracts and trade negotiation worksheets. Only to her surprise, they were not this year's records, but those dating from their earliest days of running the fleet. When they were still building a reputation as a fast and reliable fleet. What possible interest could Travis have in those old documents? They were for trade missions long past, with contracts met.
"What's up?" she demanded. "Why are you digging through these old records of contracts and trading deals? Just what are you looking for?"
"How did the meeting with your grandmother go?"
"It didn't," Jenna replied, shrugging her shoulders. "She's gone batty, making all sort of impossible demands before allowing anyone into her presence. I got fed up and told Katya that I was tired of dancing to the old baggage's tune and left. Oh by the way, you'll never guess who I ran into on my way out . . ."
"Later," Travis waved his hand in dismissal. "Just how angry did you make the Matriarch? Is she likely to start looking for some way to kick us both out of the Clan?"
"I doubt it. She may be senile, but she's not vindictive. Besides we're clan members by blood and by rite. Our bonding contract sealed the bargain."
Travis leaned back in his chair, exhaling slowly.
"That's the problem, Jenna. That contract no longer exists."
"You've got to be joking. We signed it and had it witnessed on Kellogg IV, just after Star One. You were still convalescing and I remember how shaky your signature looked."
Travis nodded his head in patient agreement as she verbally recalled the chain of events. "Then we filed it in the Reina's computer, to be transferred to the main Archives here on Sanctuary so we could claim my father's ships."
"Do you remember why we didn't do a data upload to the Archives as soon as we grounded?"
"There was that meeting with my uncle . . ." Realization slowly dawned in Jenna's face. "I know we had our reasons for not doing it then . . . but surely, we must have done some kind of link with the Main Archive center during the weeks that we were on Sanctuary?"
"There was never a chance. Between my testing and the fact that you were being kept in virtual seclusion until I completed that trade mission with Nighthawk's crew, neither of us set foot inside the Reina until after the Byzantia Conference."
"Then we would have done the data link afterwards to update her maps and codes."
"You were still recovering from your injuries and I was trying to get the other three ships flight and cargo ready. The Reina was virtually mothballed."
"Until Jade," she whispered hoarsely.
"Until Jade," he agreed. "And your rescue mission into Servalan's base."
"Where she was blown to atoms. Oh, shit."
"My sentiments exactly," Travis concurred in a rueful tone. "Now you see why I'm a little concerned about just how angry the Matriarch really is?"
Jenna buried her face in her hands, caught between laughter and tears. "Of all the times to grow a backbone. We are well and truly screwed."
Some six hours later, after a detailed examination of their contracts and documentation for the last eight years, they came to the somewhat relieved conclusion that their legal status was not as dire as it had first appeared.
Leaning back in his chair with both feet propped on the desk, Travis gave Jenna a mocking grin, "Well, it looks like Mikhail did us a favor after all by keeping so many of our business dealings in your name only, with no mention of our bonding status or my signature required anywhere on the documents."
Jenna was still pacing restlessly around the room, her arms folded across her chest, muttering angrily under her breath, "That small-minded, interfering snake. He was determined to get rid of you by hook or by crook and tried to hide it from me all this time. I'll bet even that 'rest cure' of ours on Allegria was part of his plan. And I know that his part in Jason's rescue from Lucan's clutches on La Terre was only for the sake of the clan's reputation and to protect its holdings I swear I will never believe a single word that comes out of that man's mouth, ever again."
"Don't be so hard on the old man, Jenna. He did have legitimate reasons for taking the steps that he did to protect you . . . and this clan. Besides you have to admire his persistence at keeping my name off your business records for as long as he did, it certainly simplifies matters trying to go back and deal with any legal or contractual requirements . . . once we get that bonding contract properly signed, witnessed, and filed. Unless you've changed your mind about wanting a broken-down, beat-up former Federation officer?"
Jenna's back was turned to him, so he was unable to read the expression on her face and had to rely on body language instead. She froze, her shoulders stiff and defiant at his initial statement. Then as he continued, he watched her unbend a little until she tensed again as she began to shake silently at his final words.
Slowly he put his feet back on the floor and started to go over and try to comfort her, only to see her turn around with her hand over her mouth in an effort to muffle her laughter.
"Broken-down. Beat-up. You're definitely going to play the pity card for all it's worth, aren't you?"
He gave a casual shrug, then answered with a toothy grin that Tarrant would have envied.
"It seems to work well enough on Brita. Don't tell me you've got your eye on another hot pilot, who probably doesn't know his Cochran coil from his Ryker coupling?"
"Who cares about their engineering skills?" she retorted playfully. "Akema and his gang handle those chores. At my age, all I care about is how sharp my fellow pilot looks in tight leather . . . and whether he can estimate a low-fuel liftoff, without using a calculator."
She cocked her head in amused appraisal, "Since you pass on both counts, I guess I'll have to keep you."
Much to her surprise, Travis swept her up in his arms and spun around until they were both dizzy, before sprawling in his chair, with her on his lap. Cuddling up to him, Jenna murmured against his neck. "Why don't we call it a day and go home? We could order supper in and make a short night of it,"
Travis heaved a deep sigh, "Don't tempt me, Jenna. There are still three crucial documents whose legitimacy depends on our formal bonding contract. So we need to figure out how soon we can get a replacement document amended, witnessed and filed."
"What documents are those?"
"Our co-ownership of the trading fleet, the sept founding document . . . and Jason's adoption papers."
Jenna winced at the thought of the complications that would arise unless they managed to get the documentation updated as soon as possible. As long as her attention was on Jason, Travis thought he might as well inform her of the good news.
"I'm sure Jason would appreciate having his legal status clarified as soon as possible since he and Kayla Madison intend to file their own bonding contract within the week."
"Bonding contract . . . but he's still a minor . . ."
"He's already 21. According to Cally, his physical age was 16 when he was decanted from the tank . . . and that was five years ago last month."
Jenna got slowly to her feet, feeling an odd fluttering in her stomach that the years had passed so swiftly without her even noticing.
"But he's still too immature to even consider being bonded, much less to a girl we don't even know."
"He's more mature than I was when Rissa and I exchanged vows. Besides I know the girl . . . she's Rissa's niece." Travis stood behind her, his hand resting on her shoulder.
Jenna turned around and stared at him, feeling her heart pounding hard though she wasn't exactly sure why.
Travis tried to reassure her, "She's got a level head on her shoulders and business instincts that Mikhail would envy." He placed both hands on her shoulders, looking intently into her eyes. "I know it's hard to believe, but he is old enough to fly a ship, take a bond mate . . . and maybe even start a family."
Remembering Dani's invitation for the next day, suddenly Jenna began to giggle and then laugh out loud, holding on to her stomach as she collapsed on Travis's chair. "Oh no, I don't believe this. It's too improbable, too outrageous."
"What is?" Travis loomed over her suspiciously, wondering what else was going on that had Jenna so off-balance.
"I ran into Dani outside the Matriarch's office and she informed me that your daughter would be delivered tomorrow at the Birthing Center at 0900."
"Delivered . . . not decanted?" Travis asked in a barely audible voice.
"Yes, when I ran into her, she looked like she was carrying twins, but said she'd only had a single embryo implanted. She invited us to visit between noon and 1300 to inspect the new addition and participate in the naming ceremony, if we want."
Travis sank heavily into Jenna's chair, not sure himself what he was feeling.
"Naming ceremony. Tomorrow. We're invited?" he managed to choke out.
There was a brittle silence between the two of them as they exchanged stunned glances until Travis threw up his arms in surrender.
"Why the hell not? We can visit Dani and offer our condolences for the child's less than stellar looks and disposition, if it takes after me. Then visit that barrister friend of yours and see if he can help us straighten out this bonding contract mess. Afterwards we can go home and celebrate till our heads roll across the floor."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Jenna grinned cheekily, "Are you sure you don't want to get started on that celebration tonight?"
"I don't think it's a good idea to attend a naming ceremony with a hangover. Too many brats wind up with unpronounceable names as it is. Best if we both are relatively sober, don't you think? At least if Dani's still under the influence of whatever medication they use during the delivery, we can try to talk her out of anything outrageous . . . like Sophanisba."
"And what's wrong with Sophanisba?" Jenna asked with mock indignation, standing up and putting her arm through his. "I had a great-great aunt named Sophanisba and she always sent me chocolate-covered cherries for my birthday."
Travis gave her a wry grin, "Isn't that proof enough?"
Jenna was sprawled face down on the bed, her head buried under the pillow when the comm center started its silent urgent flashing. Travis had been sleeping soundly too, but long years of midnight recalls and urgent summons to Federation HQ had conditioned him to go from a sound sleep to instant wakefulness. He pressed the Acknowledged button, pulled on his trousers and went in the next room to answer the call.
It was audio only, with no visual image of the caller whose voice held the hoarse breathy quality of a man using an artificial larynx.
"Decker here, Apex Security, Captain Travis. Night shift on the central system monitoring your vessel while it's in the space dock repair facility."
"What's up?" Travis demanded coolly, knowing the man wouldn't have called this late for a false alarm.
"Motion sensors have picked up movement within the STEV. Nothing we can isolate onscreen. Just shadows where they shouldn't be and the occasional odd flicker of something light-colored and moving on the periphery that the sensors can't track."
"Sabotage? Can you narrow down its location?"
"Temperature sensors are set to identify ignition points . . . not body heat."
"Vermin, maybe. Rats, tunnel crawlers or the like?"
"Each repair dock is decompressed between assignments. If it's vermin, they're used to breathing vacuum."
"Maybe someone or something stowed away on the repair crew's shuttles?"
"They have a pretty good screening procedure downplanet, but we'll do another scan before they start work tomorrow."
"Try not to aggravate them, if you can avoid it," Travis yawned. "They still haven't submitted their final bill."
There was a wry wheezing chuckle over the blank screen, "I'll be the soul of tact and diplomacy, Fleet Captain."
Travis ran a hand through his mussed hair, knowing he shouldn't spend any more of the sept's funds on this project, but not wanting the STEV to be sabotaged or stolen either.
"How much would it cost to set up a system that could catch our 'ghost' on camera?""It's hard to say, Cap'n. Depending on whether it's deliberately avoiding the sensors . . . or just too small to register. Probably require a whole upgraded system level. At least ten thousand credits, maybe more."
Travis winced, knowing it would probably run twice that amount to try and catch their intruder. Decker seemed to be very good at reading silences, and responded in a raspy voice.
"If you need someone to watch over your 'baby', Captain, I'll take on the job as an independent contractor for a tenth that price, with a guarantee that I'll snare whatever is sneaking around that STEV of yours."
"Thousand credits seems a bit pricey for vermin extermination, Decker."
"Hell of a lot cheaper than replacing the vessel, Captain."
"You've got a point there," Travis chuckled darkly. "How do you want to be paid? Hard cash or a credit transfer?"
"Let me do some checking around that overpowered 'mole' of yours for a couple of days, Captain, and then I'll let you know."
"All right. Do I need to notify the repair crew . . . or make any other arrangements?"
"They all know me down on the docks, Captain. I'm the only C-2 quad in a LS chair that's working full-time."
There was a brief silence as Travis took in the implications of that casual statement. The man he was hiring was on total life-support, in a chair that handled the neurological function for a body that was paralyzed from the neck down.
He rubbed his flesh and blood hand across his unshaven chin, "Are you going to be able to handle the 'vermin,' if it turns out to be of the two-legged and not four-legged variety?"
"I've got a heavy duty stunner rigged in my chair to take out uncooperative and unfriendly sorts of almost any species. I'll be in touch." With that casual reply, Decker closed the link, leaving Travis brooding on the extra security that he'd just hired, sight unseen.
Though normally he was the first one up in the morning, the late night security alert had left Travis on edge and unable to get back to sleep until nearly dawn. To his everlasting surprise, Jenna had set the alarm to get them up shortly after that.
"What the hell," he stared at her bleary-eyed after his interrupted night's sleep. "Dani's baby won't even be delivered at this hour. Why are we getting up to go to the Birthing Center?"
"We're not going there until after lunch," Jenna explained with exaggerated patience. "We've got an appointment with that barrister friend of mine at nine o'clock sharp. Try to find something respectable looking in your closet . . . but not the dark blue, with gold fittings. That's only for Clan functions."
Showering and shaving with unusual care, Travis picked out a dark gray wool unisuit that he had last worn when negotiating a contract with an Agro Coop that wanted to ship in vitro livestock cultures to farming worlds out on the Rim. They'd been so skittish, he'd wondered if it was human genestock rather than animal that they were planning to ship. It just turned out that they were sending gene-engineered breeds that reproduced more frequently in hopes of improving the colony's survivability.
Smoothing down his dark hair, he looked at Jenna who was wearing her best suit and had her blonde mane tightly plaited in a single braid wound into a knot at the back of her neck. Despite the rather severe look, she gave him a reckless grin.
"Well, if Jason's getting married soon and we're standing witness to Dani's naming of her child, then I probably at least ought to look the part of a proper Stannis Clan captain."
He put his arm around her waist and kissed her lightly on the forehead, "No matter how proper you look, you'll always be rebel renegade Jenna Stannis to me."
She gave him a mock frown, "Well, whatever you do, don't mention that to Calvin Whitney, Esquire. He'd probably faint from the shock."
The offices of Harkness, Hartsook, Brookshire, and Brown followed the typical solicitor's pattern of acres of plush rugs, massive antique wooden furniture and dark-paneled bookshelves supposedly holding weighty law tomes that contained records of legal decisions dating back before the Atomic Era to Earth itself. Travis was not impressed by the rows of leather-bound volumes, knowing that the receptionist's console was the real link to those hundreds of years of records and the legal assistant manning that post was the one who actually retrieved the data on the precedents and decisions that Enclave law was based upon.
The young woman seated at the desk wore a pale lilac Van Rala unisuit that would have paid the Alamo's crew's wages for six months. Her champagne colored hair had the kind of artfully tousled look that took a high-priced hair-dresser an hour and a half to achieve. Her make-up and nails were flawless, leading Jenna to stare down somewhat dismayed at the expensive manicure that she'd had yesterday, which was somewhat the worse for wear today.
"Captains." The young woman inclined her head gracefully, as she handed them a document about the thickness of the Federation Space Academy Cadet Handbook. "Ser Whitney has drawn up a copy of the e-file that was lost in the destruction of your ship. While we realize, this may differ from your original bonding contract, he would like you to look over the wording, various clauses and sub-headings. Initial everything that meets with your approval and cross out anything that does not. Afterwards, he will meet with you to discuss any amendments or adjustments, before it is signed and witnessed."
Jenna stared at the manual-sized printout and said in a chilly voice, "That is not a copy of the contract that my bondmate and I originally signed. It was a single page printout without any so-called clauses, sub-headings, or amendments."
"This is the standard contract for a bonding within a Clan house, Seran . . . Captain. Negotiations between two houses are much more involved."
"This was not a clan contract, Serita." The frozen tone in Jenna's voice nearly caused Travis to laugh out loud at the hapless legal assistant, except the self-absorbed young woman seemed totally oblivious to Jenna's irritation.
As a former Federation officer Travis was all too familiar with the kind of bureaucratic mentality that insisted every minor detail of any government contract be itemized and detailed down to the smallest microchip, so he was not as totally appalled at the document as Jenna was.
Flipping through the pages, he chuckled to himself, "Clauses regarding the ceremony and who performs it, family members invited and banned, the carat and quality of jewels in rings exchanged, number of bridal attendants and junior attendants and which side of the family shall be seated first, types and proof of beverages to be served, along with who not to serve, whether or not cake shall be shoved in partner's face . . ."
Jenna turned a very jaundiced glare in his direction.
Travis snickered as he glanced over the various sub-headings, "It gets better, defining number and types of marital relations to be expected by each partner. Number of hot meals to be prepared by which partner on what days of the week . . . and a grievance process, by which one partner may complain if the other serves a poorly prepared meal more than twice a month."
"I am not about to have anything to do with this kind of nonsense," Jenna gritted out. "Give our regards to Ser Whitney and tell him we prefer to go down to the docks and pay a couple of credits to the local contract vendor, rather than deal with this absurdity. Sorry to have wasted your time . . . and ours."
The assistant stood up at her data station, dumbfounded at their reaction, "But you can't leave without signing this. You're a Stannis . . . and you're obligated to abide by these rules and obligations."
"I may have been born a Stannis, Serita, but I'm currently one of the co-founders of the Travis/Stannis sept and there's nothing in our originating documents that says we have to put up with any of the rigmarole other Stannis members do. So shred, burn, or use that document as landfill, but don't expect my bondmate or me to ever sign it."
Hearing the raised voices in his outer office, the sound of alienated clients about to take their credits elsewhere, Calvin Whitney hurried into the room just as Jenna was about to snatch open the door and depart.
He was a blandly handsome, expensively dressed young man with thinning blonde hair.
"Captain Stannis, Captain Travis, it's good to see you so early this morning. I take it you've been discussing possible revisions to your original contract with my assistant?"
"Not exactly, Ser Whitney. We've been attempting to explain to the young lady that we do not require a standard Clan contract, with all its clauses and sub-headings, detailing every aspect of our lives. Instead, we would like to have a copy made of the basic contract that we originally signed, which simply stated our intent to be partners in business and personal matters until one of us decided otherwise."
Whitney nodded his head somewhat reluctantly, "Yes, I remember that very open opt out clause. Either one of you could terminate the contract without even notifying the other." He wiped his hand across his chin and then gestured them into his inner sanctum and over to overstuffed leather chairs. "Are you sure that's what you want? I mean what if there are children . . . or business obligations? It seems a little cold and abrupt?"
Jenna shrugged, "It's suited us so far, through war, plague, ion storms, teenage apprentices, and other trials. Besides contracts don't bind people, emotions do."
"But contracts simplify matters when emotions run hot . . . or cold." He shook an admonishing finger at them before consulting the single-page print-out centered on his desk. "I don't know why you asked me to draw this up for you, when you could have purchased a similar version - on less expensive paper, I will admit - down on the docks and just signed, dated it and filed it at the Archive Center afterwards."
"Perhaps so, but the date is the real problem," Jenna admitted. "Like I told you when I called, even though we signed the original contract over eight years ago, no current documentation exists since the ship where it was recorded has been destroyed. The bonding exists where it always has, within us . . . it's just some of the legal aspects that may need to be straightened out."
"This current document is covered under attorney-client privilege, should any question arise about its legality or other contracts that it affects," Whitney reassured her.
Travis spoke up, "There are only three actual documents affected by its absence, the joint ownership of our trade ships, the founding of the sept, and the formal adoption papers of our genetic son, Jason Stannis."
Whitney nodded, "So Captain Stannis informed me. I'll look over the file copies and see what needs to be done to prevent their legitimacy from coming into question. It will probably just require a minor addendum to the original documents. As long as you're here, why don't you both get your wills updated, especially since we need to have an original and not transmitted signature from Captain Travis."
Jenna and Travis exchanged looks and then shook their heads as Jenna explained, "That's an excellent suggestion, Ser Whitney, except we are probably going to need to make major changes in both documents within the next couple of weeks. Let's postpone that until everything is finalized."
"Certainly . . . if you could just give me some indication of what sort of changes?"
"Jason, our son, is planning to be bonded soon, so his legal status will change. And we'll need to make revisions in our wills."
"May I be so bold as to inquire who is preparing his bonding contract? Just for my own files, of course."
"He's having the same type contract, with minimal legalistic wording and no formal ceremony."
"Egads," Whitney muttered to his two clients. "What do you people have against celebrations? Music, dancing, a little obligatory merrymaking?"
Jenna signed, exchanging a rueful glance with her bondmate, "Nothing really, except when it involves politics, manipulation, scheming and trying to control other peoples' lives."
Whitney arched his eyebrows at her in mock dismay, "Don't you realize, Captain, that those are the four most enjoyable activities for the human brain . . . after sex, of course?"
"Of course," Jenna gave the lawyer a tight smile. "Thanks for your help."
"I'll let you know if anything is needed to make sure the other documents remain legally binding. And please don't forget about updating your wills."
As Whitney followed them into the outer office, Jenna noticed that his assistant hastily blanked the screen of the comm set where she was conversing. She wondered if the girl had been taking a private call, then shrugged. It was no business of hers. Travis retrieved the manual-sized contract from her desk and stuck it under his elbow, forestalling the assistant's protests.
"Never know when we might decide we want to negotiate a traditional bonding contract, Serita. And this might come in handy."
Jenna stared at him in disbelief as they departed the office, "Have you lost your mind? No one actually uses these traditional contracts anymore, not since my grandmother's time."
"Maybe not," Travis mused, "but it might prove useful. As a paperweight if nothing else. Besides I wanted to make sure that none of our private information found its way into that contract."
"You heard what Whitney had to say about attorney-client privilege, didn't you?"
"Concerning the document he is going to file, not necessarily anything else. Besides I'm not sure I trust that young woman. She dresses a little too well for an office assistant . . . so unless she's sleeping with one of the partners, she may be selling confidential information."
Jenna stared at him appalled, "You have a truly suspicious mind, mi'love. You should have been born a Stannis."
He grabbed her around the waist and nuzzled against her neck, "I'm glad I wasn't though, or you and I wouldn't be bonded."
She laughed as she slapped his hands away, "Behave yourself, Captain. We need to get some lunch and maybe have a stiff drink or two before making our call on Dani . . . and her new daughter."
Travis took a deep shuddering breath as though he was about to change his mind, but Jenna grabbed his arm firmly. "You ought to be proud, Travis. Dani could have chosen almost any male donor in the Enclave, including some of our best pilots and captains, but she picked your DNA. She's a discerning woman . . . and your genes were the ones she wanted."
After a quick lunch, they took the cross-town shuttle to the Birthing Center. It took them longer than expected since local transportation was still crowded with the Chiron refugees who were attempting to find missing family members, resolve their financial affairs and relocate to more hospitable worlds.
When they arrived, much to Travis's relief, the building looked more like a residential complex instead of a medical facility, with beautifully landscaped grounds, lovely shimmering fountains and walkways among the well-manicured gardens. The only hint to its real nature were the women in various stages of pregnancy seated on lounges or strolling among the blossoming trees.
Glancing around in amusement, Jenna remarked, "This place is very relaxing, almost enough to make me reconsider my decision about not having children."
"Having them's not the hardest part," Travis muttered irritably. "It's raising them that's the killer."
A hearty laugh echoed behind them, "Says the man who never carried a ten-pound aspiring gymnast under his navel."
"Dani," Jenna exclaimed in delight, grasping the pilot's hands as she took in her much reduced figure clad in a loose-fitting jumpsuit. "You're up and about already? Where's your daughter? There weren't any complications, were there?"
"No, problems for either of us. Delivery was a breeze. She just has to have a final genetic screening and full body scan to rule out any possible health problems. When the doctor beeps me, we'll go see her, decide on a name and then sign out and head for home."
"You haven't picked out a name yet?" Jenna was surprised.
"She wasn't quite what I was expecting," Dani's brows arched as she grinned at Travis's obvious discomfort at her statement. "Oh, she's as beautiful and healthy as anyone could wish, but she doesn't look much like either the Elliott or McRae side of the family, so I thought maybe your bondmate could tell if he sees any similarity that might help us name the bairn."
"Given my limited experience in that area," Travis muttered, "it always seemed to me that babies only looked like other babies."
Dani and Jenna barely managed to stifle their outburst of laughter, while Dani nodded her agreement, "I'll admit that you have a point. Though I have to wonder, considering your history as a Federation officer, just what your experience with babies is?"
Travis took in a deep shuddering breath before letting it out again, "My past was an uncharted minefield for years. Even after the psychostrategist Carnell supposedly undid his programming, I tend to avoid deliberate reminiscence. There are still too many . . . painful memories, that I prefer not to recall."
Though the incidence of Travis's flashbacks had become much less frequent since he had found his sister and her son and made his peace with the incident on Zircaster, Jenna was determined not to let him lapse into one of his brooding spells.
"Surely one overfilled nappie wasn't that traumatic, Colin," Jenna remarked with a sarcastic edge to her voice, causing Travis to pull up short. Shaking his head in amusement, he gave her a ghost of a grin.
"Says the woman who's likely never even picked up a wet baby."
Then it was Jenna's turn to experience a sudden painful memory, regarding the desperate situation on Liberator in the aftermath of the Chiron rescue. Though as chief pilot/shuttle coordinator she spent most of her time on the Flight Deck, when she did take a break for meals or to grab some much needed shut-eye, she found herself confronted with the sick, injured and frightened refugees inhabiting its cabins, rest rooms, and companionways.
Cally and other health specialists worked around the clock to treat injuries and save lives, but most of the refugees had brought nothing but the clothes on their backs, resulting in a serious shortage of basic necessities. Jenna had pitched in and helped whenever she could, scrounging up bedding and sanitary supplies, helping distribute protein packs and ration water, even dealing with wet, dirty nappies, using whatever was available. Vila's and Blake's wardrobe had been stripped of soft comfortable shirts and vests which were recycled for clean diapers and blankets. Much to Avon's relief his black leather and studs had been unusable.
"That reminds me," she said giving Travis an amused sidelong look. "We need to go shopping after we finish here. I owe Vila a dozen new shirts."
Travis gave her a sharp look then shrugged. "Do as you please, Jenna, but I've got an appointment on the docks as soon as we're finished here. Regarding a security upgrade on the STEV."
A melodic beep came from the device hanging from Dani's belt and she hit the respond button.
"Well, that's the doctor letting me know that my bundle of joy is ready and waiting back in my room. We'll go and pick out a name for her, then get the genetic documentation signed and sealed." She turned an intent look on Travis, "Your part will be done once those records are complete. You have no further obligations. However, both of you are welcome to be as much or as little a part of her life as suits you."
When they arrived in Dani's room, a health aide was waiting with a large box of baby supplies, a data crystal containing the infant's health records, and a document reader with blanks for the baby's name and male genetic donor's signature.
Curious, Travis peered down at the blanket-swaddled bundle inside the bassinet. The child's eyes were closed but opened suddenly, startling him with their bright blue intensity.
"The doctor told me that most newborns have blue eyes to begin with," Dani came up beside him, her green eyes sparkling. "We won't know their true color for several weeks."
The infant's skin was porcelain pale and fair with no birthmarks or other discolorations, much like Dani's typical red-headed complexion. Somewhat hesitantly, Travis reached down to gently remove the knit cap covering the top of the baby's head, not really surprised that the profuse curly locks were not dark like his, but almost the exact shade of Dani's.
He gave a short bark of a laugh, "If you just intended to have yourself cloned, Dani, why ask for my genetic contribution?"
Dani gave him a sharp look and then remarked, "Oh, now come on, Travis. Don't tell me there weren't any red-headed women in your family tree?"
He started to deny it and then with a painful intensity that took his breath away, he heard his father's voice as clear as if it was yesterday.
"Ahh, here's my two red-headed darlin's, Maeve my love, your hair flying bold and bronze, and little Gwen, bright as a copper penny."
His face went pale as he sagged under the shock of that memory.
Startled by his drawn and distressed expression, the health aide quickly pulled a chair from under the table and pushed Travis down into it.
"Here, take a load off. Shall I send for the medic . . . or they might have a shot of whiskey squirreled away in the medicinal stores cabinet? We usually don't have male donors pass out once the child has been cleaned up and made presentable. Mostly it's earlier in the proceedings."
Jenna knelt beside Travis, realizing that he must have recalled an early and likely very painful memory of his family on Metis III. She reached up and caressed his cheek, not surprised to find it wet with tears, as he gazed back at the graveyard of his past.
"I forgot that my mother Maeve's hair was a rich bronze, before . . . before hardship and starvation leached all the color . . . all the life . . . out of her. And pretty red-headed Gwen, with her pigtails flying . . . Gwen was my youngest sister, barely five years old when our family left Metis III, hoping for a better life on Zircaster. She never even saw that new world, dying with our mother in cold sleep Deirdre said. Their bodies dumped from the capsules to feed the fusion engines."
Startled by that low harsh voice and sensitive to the sudden emotional tension filling the room, the baby screwed up her tiny face and began to bawl . . . loudly. Dani hurried over and picked her up murmuring, "There, there punkin. It's all right, nothing's wrong. No one's going to hurt you."Together Travis and Jenna stared at Dani's tender, fierce expression cuddling her child. Travis felt an odd mixture of joy and sadness at that maternal scene. Joy that Dani obviously loved her . . . their . . . child and that the baby girl would have as happy and healthy an upbringing as Dani could provide. Sadness because his own brother and sisters had died so young and he had not been there to protect them.
He gazed up into Jenna's and Dani's worried expressions and pushed out of the chair with an irritated growl, "Would the two of you stop hovering? I'm fine. It just took me by surprise, what Dani said. Remembering Deirdre's words over that empty grave."
Travis's expression went momentarily bleak again as he stared at Dani with the baby cradled in her arms. Jenna stood when he did, remaining beside the chair, seemingly in no hurry to rush over to Dani's side and fuss over the baby. Like she'd told the Matriarch when they'd rejoined her clan, some women had the mindset to produce and raise a dozen children and others considered the whole process a damned nuisance.
He and Jenna had been emotionally bonded since that first day that they'd saved each other's lives. Over the weeks that followed, he'd grown to admire her spirit, her courage, and the fire of her passion. When they'd returned to her home in the Free Trader's Enclave, he was somewhat surprised at some of the antiquated expectations that her clan had before accepting her back as one of their own. Turning such a fierce and canny pilot into little more than a brood mare had seemed wasteful in the extreme. In addition, the First Captain's avid interest in Travis's own contribution to the Stannis gene pool had left him with a definite sour attitude about the whole process.
Still, through no fault of their own, he and Jenna had wound up genetic parents of a 16-year old son force-grown to physical if not mental maturity in the Auron placental tanks. In some ways, he was glad that part of Jenna and himself lived on in their son Jason, though in more than one occasion he thought the boy might be the death of both of them.
Slowly he walked over to where Dani was still cuddling her daughter. Reaching out with his flesh and blood hand, he gazed down and cradled the tiny head, running his fingers gently though the damp, reddish curls. "My sister's full name was Gwendolyn, which is a mouthful for such a tiny little bit. But if you could call her Gwen . . . ?"
Dani stared up at him, her green eyes shimmering with tears, "Maeve is a bit old-fashioned for a first name, but if you don't mind, I'd like to call her Gwendolyn Maeve? If that meets with your approval? Her use name will probably be Gwen."
He nodded eagerly, not willing to trust his voice, though behind him he heard Jenna's remark choked between laughter and tears, "You mean you hope she'll answer to Gwen. If I know your crew, she'll be called everything from Little Red to Peanut to GWENDOLYN MAEVE, GET DOWN RIGHT NOW!"
They all laughed much louder than Jenna's observation really deserved, glad of any reason to put aside the painful memories from Travis's past. The health aide filled in the infant's chosen name and then held out the pad for Dani and Travis to sign and thumbprint as the genetic donors for the child's conception.
"The records are private and remain sealed except in eugenics cases when the possibility of consanguinity and inbreeding might occur. Even then names are not revealed only degrees of relationship," the aide reassured them.
Travis shrugged. Jason was his only other blood descendant within the Enclave, this child's half-brother, and he doubted that there would be any chance of cross-breeding. After witnessing their signatures, the aide transmitted the document from the pad and then handed Dani the data crystal and box of supplies.
"This should hold you for a couple of days at least. At least until you and the little one get settled in at home. There's a fairly comprehensive list of answers to questions you haven't thought about asking right now and the Center's comm number is at the top of the list. Oh, and a little piece of advice that I give all mothers. Don't be afraid to let the baby cry now and then. It exercises her lungs and acquaints her with the reality that she's not really the Empress of the Universe."
"Maybe we should change her name to Servalan," Jenna joked darkly.
Travis shuddered, "Don't even think it, Stannis. The mere suggestion is enough to give me nightmares."
Before Dani could react to Jenna's remarks, they heard the sounds of another voice in the hall asking for Dani McRae's room.
"Oh, drat," she groused. "I told McDougal not to bring the crew up here. That I wanted to get the baby home quietly, without a bunch of noisy ion rammers sticking their noses in her face and giggling about who she looks like."
Much to her surprise, it wasn't Dani's Eurasian engineer who stuck his head in the door, but Travis and Jenna's son, Jason.
"Seran Jenna," he grinned. "They said you'd gone to see Dani's new baby, so I thought I'd come over and introduce you . . ."
Suddenly catching sight of Travis, Jason's grin froze into a rictus of alarm and he started to backpedal out the door, hastily shoving the person behind him back into the hall.
"Errrk, I see that we've come at a bad time, Seran Stannis, Seran McRae, Captain Travis. We'll visit another day."
Catching sight of the young woman behind Jason, Travis felt a sinking feeling in his gut. It was Kayla Madison, the girl Jason was planning to be bonded to . . . who unfortunately knew him as Free Trader Captain Colin McRae and not Jason's father. When he'd traveled to Zircaster, seeking his lost family and looking for some way to atone for the execution of civilians that he'd ordered years before, he'd used a holo-imager designed by Kerr Avon to disguise his features. But after spending virtually a whole afternoon with Kayla when she'd guided him back to Blake and the crew of Liberator, he feared the sharp-witted young woman might notice similarities in his build and voice and somehow make the connection between the two identities.
Apparently Jason had similar misgivings, judging by his efforts to divert Kayla's attention. But her curiosity had been aroused, as had Jenna's and Dani's, so with growing trepidation Jason introduced not only Kayla but her grandmother Naomi Reeves to Jenna and Captain McRae.
For the moment, his fears seemed to be groundless. After little more than a brief exchange of identities, the two newcomers turned their attention to Gwendolyn Maeve with comparisons, discussions and suggestions, while ignoring Travis and Jason as though they had been on the far side of the galaxy.
Taking advantage of their temporary anonymity, Travis pulled Jason to one side and hissed, "What were you thinking, bringing Kayla . . . and Naomi here?"
"When Brita told me that Jenna was visiting Dani's new baby, I figured that she'd be here by herself and I wanted her to at least meet Kayla before the bonding. Then when we started over, Kayla told me that Naomi's treatment was finished and asked if we could bring her grandmother along as well. What else could I do but agree? It seemed a fairly safe opportunity for the three of them to get to know one another without . . . complications. Just what the hell are you doing here, anyway?" Jason gritted out, glancing nervously over his shoulder at Kayla and her grandmother who were still cooing and laughing at the baby.
"I was invo . . . invited," Travis decided that now was not the best time to reveal his genetic contribution to Dani's child. Jason already had enough on his mind without dropping that little strontium grenade in his lap. Then he felt a cold chill go up his spine as he glanced over at Naomi Reeves and the thick dark lenses that covered the upper part of her face, "Naomi's vision has already been restored, you said? How long will her eyes be bandaged?"
"They aren't bandaged at all," Jason replied. "She's just wearing the heavy-duty UV protection until her eyes become accustomed to the light . . ." His voice trailed off as he saw the resigned expression on Travis's face. "You said that she knows you from Zircaster. But she only saw the holographic image that Avon programmed, didn't she?"
"I'd switched it off so it wouldn't short out while I was drinking water out of her catch basin. She got the drop on me with a pulse rifle before I had a chance to turn it back on. We talked for a while in daylight before she took me into her cabin. I don't know how much detail vision she had at that point . . . or how much she remembered from the past. She may have some hard questions to ask you."
Before either of them could discuss the matter any further, Naomi turned away from the baby and took off her glasses peering intently across the room at Travis, a shocked and disbelieving expression on her face. Prepared for a tirade of accusations, Travis still felt the breath knocked out of him with the force of a kick to the gut upon hearing her words."Conal? Conal Travis?" Her voice was a strangled whisper. "But it can't be you. You're dead . . . dead, these fifteen years gone. I saw your body in the street next to my Jacob's . . . after we drove the raiders off." She was holding the dark glasses in one hand, her other outstretched, staggering towards him as though she was still half-blind.
Instinctively, he reached out and caught her by the arms so she saw his face full on and not just in profile, with its distinctive black patch. She stared at him in horror for a moment, before saying in a harsh whisper, "I was wrong. You're not Conal, not at all. You're him . . . the Butcher . . . the Butcher . . ."
"The Butcher of Zircaster. Yes, I am," Travis answered in a flat emotionless voice as Kayla stared in sudden horror at her future bondmate and the man who her grandmother was accusing of the bloody slaughter of many of their friends and relatives, wondering what the link was between them.
Jenna turned away from Dani and strode over to Travis's side, with a resolved expression on her face, "He's also Captain Colin McRae, whose knowledge of Federation technology saved your world from being destroyed by a malfunctioning weapons platform."
"Which the Federation had left in orbit years before to terrorize and control us," Kayla retorted hotly.
Travis placed a restraining hand on Jenna's arm, "Don't try to defend me, Jenna. It's not worth it . . ."
Jenna persisted, determined to get all of Travis's hidden past out in the open this time, to finally lay the ghosts and exorcise the demons that had haunted him for so long.
"And he's Colin Travis, Conal's and Maeve's son," she said, her eyes gleaming hotly. "Who signed away ten years of his life as a Federation trooper to buy a new start for the rest of his family on Zircaster. So, don't blame him for what he was ordered to do. Not until you know the whole truth."
There was a prolonged stunned silence in the room, broken only by Gwendolyn Maeve's fretful wails. Dani turned her attention to her daughter, trying to soothe the child and calm her own nerves as she murmured, "Oh shit, I think your diaper needs to be changed. And I could use a stiff drink or three myself, if we ever get back to our cozy little flat."
But before anyone could respond to Jenna's revelation, a petite elderly woman, dressed in a dark rose gown, with her snowy hair piled in ornate curls on top of her head slowly entered the room. She was leaning heavily on an ebony cane and accompanied by her telepathic personal assistant, Katya Doyle. Glancing around at the emotional tableaux, she observed the expressions of shock, anger, resignation on individual faces, as well as the anguished looks between the two young people.
"Have I come at a bad time?" inquired the Matriarch of the Stannis clan. "No matter, I just wanted to drop off a birthing gift for Dani."
Katya Doyle stepped forward with an elaborate shell box, decorated with lace and pink ribbons, presenting it to the somewhat shocked Dani McRae, who was still trying to comfort her wet, fussy child.
Then the Matriarch turned her determined steel gray gaze to her granddaughter Jenna, "Since, you're too occupied to visit my office, child, I've made the effort to find you, difficult as you seem determined to make it. I won't discuss our private business here, but I did want to congratulate you on the bonding of your son, Jason. And inform you that Katya has already started to make the arrangements for a formal ceremony . . . if that's agreeable to you?"
Jenna's mouth didn't quite drop open in amazement, but she felt a grudging admiration for her grandmother's intelligence sources. Less than a day after Jason had proposed to the girl and the Matriarch was already planning the bonding ceremony that would likely be the grandest soiree in this sector of space since the inauguration of the Federation President and installation of the Supreme Council.
Still, there were some major misunderstandings that needed to be straightened out, or there might not be a bonding at all.
"Umm, we appreciate the offer, Grandmother, but there are still a lot of questions to . . ."
Before Jenna could finish her explanation, her grandmother snapped out sharp as a whip, "It was not an offer. The ceremony will be held at the main Exhibition Hall, one week from today at 3:00 in the afternoon. Dress is formal. Attendants for both brides have been selected from Stannis cousins and nieces. There will be a full dinner buffet afterwards."
Shocked at the steel in her grandmother's voice and suddenly inundated by the abrupt flood of details, Jenna grasped at an apparent mistake in her grandmother's planning, "Both brides, but Jason and Kayla are the only . . ."
"The clan has tolerated your and Travis's informal arrangement long enough, Jenna. The legal ramifications of the loss of the only copy of your bonding contract in the destruction of your ship should make it abundantly clear that a formal ceremony is essential under these circumstances, to legitimize your standing in the Enclave. Please, be in my office tomorrow morning at 0900 sharp to discuss the financial arrangements that need to be finalized for both of these contracts. Afterwards, you'll be escorted to your dress fitting."
Jenna started to protest, then gazed around at the shocked and traumatized expressions on the faces of the people around her. There were too many unraveled emotions in the room to add any more stress to the mix. Best to acquiesce to her Grandmother's wishes for the moment, she thought as she uttered a resigned sigh and nodded reluctantly.
Whether or not Jason and Kayla resolved their relationship, in her and Travis's case, it would be easier to accept her grandmother's decree than to continue beating her head against the wall of clan tradition. Besides, an elaborate celebration would definitely boost their visibility within the Enclave and perhaps even increase their chance of acquiring more valuable contracts. Still she did not intend to let the old woman railroad her completely.
"All right," she agreed. "But forget about the dress fitting. I'm not putting up with another one of those outrageous frou-frou outfits you and Katya foisted off on me yesterday. My formal clan robe is dressy enough for this affair."
"As you wish, child. Though I'm sure Jason's future bondmate will appreciate the opportunity to select a glamorous gown for the bonding, since it will be an exclusive creation by one of the most talented designers in this quadrant."
The young woman in question was standing beside her shaken grandmother, with her arm around the older woman's slumped shoulders.
Despite the Matriarch's intimidating presence, Kayla clearly did not intend to be stampeded into a bonding either when there were so many unanswered questions about her future bondmate.
"I'm afraid that I can't be present then either, . . . Matriarch. Though I initially accepted Jason's proposal, I've just learned some very disturbing things about his family . . . his father, I mean. I don't think I really know who he is anymore."
Resting both hands on her cane, the Matriarch gave Kayla an appraising glance, "Very well, young woman. Kayla. Search your soul . . . and then make your decision. But I expect your answer by noon tomorrow."
She peered down at the blanket-wrapped bundle in Dani's arms who was currently sucking on her fist.
"You have a beautiful baby, Captain McRae and with any luck at all, the child will grow up resembling you. But don't rule out plastic surgery, especially if she's cursed with her genetic father's jawline." She turned that penetrating gaze onto Travis, who was absently stroking the jaw in question.
Moving stiffly, she leaned on Katya and departed, leaving the usual astonished chagrin in her wake.
"How the hell did she find out?" Travis muttered as he glared at Jenna. "I thought that all Bio-Replication Center procedures were supposed to be confidential."
Jenna shrugged in resignation, "Considering my grandmother's sources, she undoubtedly knew the baby's sex, hair and eye color before Dani did." She turned her attention to Jason who was trying to make a last desperate appeal to Kayla, to reconsider. However, the young woman was intent on getting her weary and shaken grandmother back to their lodgings.
She gazed up at him with a troubled expression, "Please, don't call tonight, Jason. I just need time to think about what I learned today. We'll sleep on it . . . and then talk."
"You were right about Whitney's legal assistant," Jenna remarked when they were back at their office. "Likely she's the one who was selling information to the Matriarch."Travis ran his hand through his hair in exasperation, "I don't know which situation that I find more appalling. That the Matriarch knew about our bonding situation difficulties before we even left the barrister's office. Or that supposedly confidential genetic information was in her hands . . . despite the clinic's assurances of privacy."
Jenna shrugged, feigning indifference although she shared Travis's concern. She was all too aware of the Matriarch's influence within not only the Stannis Clan, but the entire Enclave. It was all very well to try to maintain confidentiality about one's financial dealings and contract matters but in many ways Xanadu was still very much a small town. Gossip lubricated many of the transactions between the families and keeping secrets within one's own clan was virtually impossible, besides being considered anti-social.
She heaved a sigh, hoping that Travis would not feel too outraged by her Grandmother's knowledge of their affairs. Although she understood that his compulsive need for privacy was the natural result of his time as a Federation officer, when any hidden secret was seen as a weakness that could be used by underlings, peers, or Servalan herself in their ongoing struggle for wealth and power. He'd learned the lesson of circumspection the hard way, by having his past used against him, and now he kept secrets as a habit of reflexive self-defense.
"Still, she does have a point," Jenna made her own argument in a reasonable tone of voice. "Now that we've resigned ourselves to trading within the Enclave and negotiating contracts locally on a regular basis, we need to make sure that our partnership is recognized as legitimate. While I'd prefer to formalize it a little more quietly, if my grandmother is determined to pay for the biggest social fandango on this side of the Spiral Rim, why not relax and enjoy the festivities?"
'Relax and enjoy the festivities?' Travis snorted. "Sounds like the advice given to a condemned man on the gallows just before they spring the trap door."
Jenna shook her head ruefully, "At least the revels will be brief. She seems resigned to a single day of festivities for the four of us. Some of the clans have the tradition of week-long celebrations for their bonding ceremonies. They're still talking about the Gupta nuptials for their twin daughters that went on for ten solid days of partying. Seran Gupta took to her bed for a month after that affair."
"What about Ser Gupta? Did he file for bankruptcy?"
"Probably not, though I wouldn't swear to it." Jenna noticed that Travis was swiftly changing from the business-style outfit that he'd worn to consult with the lawyer and visit Dani and her new baby to a pair of well-worn and battered leathers.
"Where are you headed, Colin?"
"Down to the docks to consult with a security specialist about the STEV. There have been some anomalies on the cameras the last couple of nights and I want to make sure that no one tries to hijack our expensive 'white elephant.'"
Jenna frowned, "I thought that the transport ship was a flying junk heap by the time Tarrant reached space dock?"
Travis shook his head in rueful agreement, "It was. The Midgard was severely underpowered to begin with and after the damage it sustained on Chiron, it was easier for the repair crew just to break it down for scrap. Saved us a few hundred credits on repairs. Following the Chiron rescue operation, oversized transports were a glut on the market, so we picked one up cheap. Now the repairs are finished, Loge can go anywhere . . . once we find someone to make proper use of it."<>There was a brief silence, then Jenna sighed. "Considering the storage fees on this 'millstone' of ours, if we don't locate someone to take possession soon, would you consider leaving the transport unguarded, with the hatches open and a fully charged fuel core?">
"Ask me again in six months," he grimaced.
After Travis left, Jenna busied herself with the data crystal printouts and projecting the next year's probable expenditures. She muttered to herself while going over their readouts.
"Maintenance logs are finally up to date since all three ships have had total refits in the last two years. Brita's due for a ratings review, which means we'll need to hire a replacement navigator for at least two weeks while she takes the tests. Six of the nine apprentices should be upgraded to able spacer, which means trying to locate new crew members, and all the hassle that involves."
She ran her hand idly through her tousled hair, wondering if she should ask Travis to make inquiries on the lower end of the docks for unemployed spacers, the next time he checked out the STEV's security.
With a sharp pang, she recalled another crew member that they would have to replace.
"We'll need a new gunner, too," she muttered. "And where the blazes are we going to find someone as quick and fearless, with as sharp an eye as Phrath?"
Only silence answered her query, until a brisk knock interrupted her brooding.
"Come in," she growled.
To her surprise it was Katya Doyle, her grandmother's assistant.
Unable to hide her irritation, Jenna asked sarcastically, "I thought I had until tomorrow before I had to start dealing with all the nitpicking details for my grandmother's flamboyant celebration? I really don't have the time to waste indulging her whims right now, Katya."
"I require very little of your time, Captain Stannis, and my true errand does not concern the details of your bonding ceremony." The young telepath's expression was so troubled that despite her resentment, Jenna gestured for her to be seated in one of the few comfortable chairs in the office.
Katya looked down at her hands, hiding her piercing gray gaze as she continued in a low monotone, "The majority of arrangements have already been made in accordance with the Matriarch's previously stated wishes, concerning location, invitations, and ceremonial formalities. You may designate your preferences regarding flowers, music, and overall color scheme during your meeting with her tomorrow."
"But I decided to visit you on my own, hoping to explain some things from her past so that you will understand her reasons for pressuring you and your bondmate into participating in this large formal celebration."
Jenna shrugged, not really interested in explanations or justifications. "It hardly matters, Serita. She has the power to enforce her whims . . ."
"This is not a whim," Katya's eyes blazed and Jenna felt the air in the room suddenly grow tense.
Lowering her gaze to her tightly clasped hands, she whispered, "Please, forgive my outburst, Captain Stannis. But I owe the Matriarch so much and I want to make this event as perfect as possible."
Jenna heaved an exasperated sight, "Travis and I owe her a great deal too. I just wish that she would try to understand our point of view."
"She does understand it, only too well," Katya said in a muted voice. "Her first bonding was also an informal contract, like yours. It too was filed in her bondmate's flagship's computer and lost when his fleet went out on a trading mission and never returned."
"I didn't know," Jenna admitted softly.
"Very few did," Katya continued. "Including the Grand Dama of the Duquesne Clan to whom that fleet and its pilot belonged. Without that contract, your grandmother had no rights, no status, no recognition within her bondmate's clan . . . and no way to support the child that she gave birth to six months after the ship did not return."
Jenna felt her jaw drop in astonishment, hardly able to imagine the Matriarch in such dire straits, with no resources and no one to turn to for help.
"Don't pity her," Katya spoke up as proudly as though Jenna's grandmother was her own blood relation. "She was beautiful, intelligent, and a shrewd dealer and quickly found a job as a free-lance cargo mistress, inventorying and evaluating high-risk cargos for independent pilots who wanted to make a quick profit without taking suicidal chances. She met Raphael Stannis when he was just the captain of a fleet of six ships. After a whirlwind courtship, she agreed to become his bondmate, only this time, she made sure the bonding contract was filed in the archives and that the ships were registered in her name as well as his."
There was a long pregnant silence as Jenna took in the implications, before speaking out in a muted voice, "I can see her concern, considering her own past. But the circumstances were completely different in our case . . . and there was never any danger of losing the ships to Travis."
"Perhaps not, but her greatest fear was that you had lost your heart to a man who was not worthy of it. And in those first years, Travis seemed determined to prove that she . . . and everyone else who doubted his loyalty to you and to the clan . . . was right."
Jenna's lips tightened in anger, "If you're blaming him for Mikhail's little scheme with the telepathic seduction, don't! Travis was mentally vulnerable then, and too many people took advantage of it - your father, my uncle, his own brother, and Servalan. It's a wonder he retained any sense of his own identity, after they finished manipulating him."
Katya's eyes dropped as she continued in a low voice, "My father, Brendan, regretted his actions greatly. That's why he informed you about Jason's status, despite your uncle's strict orders . . . and fought so hard to save the boy from having his mind destroyed by Travis's memories."
Taking a deep shuddering breath, Jenna closed her eyes, trying to banish her own recall of those terrible hours. "And I am still grateful for his efforts, but surely my grandmother must have had some trust in Travis, to allow the founding of the new sept?"
"Primarily, she was hoping to force the two of you into making a formal contractual declaration of your bonding, for business reasons, if nothing else. But you insisted in tottering along, year after year, paying more attention to other people's problems than your own. Finally, the situation became untenable, when both of you endangered your lives during the Chiron rescue mission, leaving Jason in a very precarious situation, not just in regards to his inheritance of your fleet, but his actual clan status. Your grandmother was determined to take the proper steps to make sure that there was no question about the legitimacy of your bonding . . . or Jason's identity as your genetic offspring. Formalizing his bonding to the Madison girl is just icing on the cake. Now do you understand the necessity for this very formal, very visible celebration of your bonding vows?"
Jenna took in a deep ragged breath and let it out slowly, "I . . . see her point of view. I just wish all of this could have been done much sooner, without the three-ring circus. But given the present conditions, I guess we have no choice but to 'relax and enjoy the ride.' I will cooperate to the best of my ability, Katya. Let's just try to keep the dancing bears and other outrageous displays to a minimum?"
Katya opened the computerized data notebook that she constantly carried and made a quick notation, before looking up with a perfectly straight face, "All right, no dancing bears. What about performing poodles?"
For a long moment, Jenna stared at her in disbelief, then catching sight of the slight twitch at the corner of Katya's mouth, collapsed on the other woman's shoulder laughing like a loon.
"You are just joking, aren't you?"
"No dancing bears, performing poodles, jugglers, contortionists or other extreme displays. The ceremony will be a simple exchange of vows, before witnesses, with a full dinner buffet limited to family to the fifth degree and whatever friends that you and your bondmate may wish to invite. I would suggest no more than fifty."
Jenna took in a shaky breath, "Fifty close friends, huh? Who can be on Sanctuary in less than a week's time? That may be a very sparse crowd."
She gazed deep into Katya's gray eyes, "Thank you for telling me a little bit more about my grandmother . . . and for making all the arrangements."
"Don't thank me until after it's over," Katya warned. "We still have to survive it."
There was a quiet knock at the door, surprising Kayla Madison. She glanced over at the entrance to her grandmother's sleeping quarters, but there was no sound, so apparently the sound had not disturbed the older woman. There was an electronic monitoring system to identify any unwanted callers, but Kayla ignored it, preferring to answer the door herself.
She was not surprised to see Jason Stannis at the door, even though she had asked him not to come tonight. Jason had been brash and impulsive from the first time they met and she hardly expected him to have changed that much over the last three years.
Still, she made a token protest, "I told you that I needed time to think, Jason, before I made my final decision about our bonding. Six hours is not enough time . . ."
"I know, Kayla," he glanced down at his clenched hands, refusing to meet her gaze. "But I thought that you should know the whole truth about my background, before you decided. Not just who I am . . . but what I am."
Her heart pounded in apprehension, not just because of Jason's words but the grim look of resignation on his face.
She gestured for him to come in and watched as he seated himself on the couch, eyes downcast and hands clenched tightly together.
"Surely it's not that bad, Jason. I've met your parents . . ."
"You've met my genetic donors," he bit off harshly. "No, don't interrupt. Let me tell it all at once, otherwise I'll never get through with it." He bowed his head over his hands, then glanced at her sidelong, his blue-gray eyes grim. "Do you know how old I am . . . chronologically, not biologically?"
Confused, Kayla's expression was a mixture of doubt and fear, "I don't understand what you mean, Jason?"
"I am an artificially matured clone, the genetic offspring of Colin Travis and Jenna Stannis but the product of Auron placental chambers, where I was decanted as a sexually mature but mindless physical body, five years ago. I won't go into the details about the why of my existence, except to say that I'd still be a blank slate, frozen in stasis except for the intervention of Cally of Auron. Having been mentally linked with my biological parents at various times, she used those imprints to give me a rough template of a personality."
He bared his teeth in an almost feral smile, "Even though they'd had no part in my creation, other than being the genetic donors, once they knew of my existence, Travis and Jenna adopted me and offered me a chance to make a future for myself as a pilot and captain in the Stannis fleet."
His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, "It nearly turned out to be the death of Travis and myself when Servalan's psychostrategist -- the puppeteer Carnell -- unblocked Travis's memories of his past. A past so painful that it almost destroyed both of us to relive it."
Kayla sat in the chair opposite Jason, her own fists tightly clenched and her face pale as chalk, "But why would his -- your genetic father's -- memories nearly destroy you?"
He shrugged, his hands lax between his knees, no longer tightly clenched, "I don't really understand that myself, but it had something to do with Cally imprinting my mind with portions of Travis's. When Servalan's psychostrategist gave Travis access to the memories that had been blocked for so long, they spilled over into my mind because of that programming."
He rubbed his hands together nervously, "It gave me a slight understanding of the savagery of the life that he and his family experienced on Metis III. And why he sold himself to the Federation, hoping to buy them a better future."
"But Travis was a Federation officer, not a bondslave . . . or a mutoid."
"He started out as an outworld conscript, with all of his wages signed over to the Captain of the ship that ferried the Metis III survivors to Auros/Zircaster. But he clawed his way up through the ranks by virtue of skill, courage, and sheer unstoppable determination. Until he crossed paths with Blake . . . and Supreme Commander Servalan. Together, they hit him with a one-two punch that nearly destroyed him."
"I don't understand," Kayla said plaintively. "I thought Supreme Commander Servalan was his superior officer . . . and Blake was a rebel traitor."
"She was and he is . . . and that's another story, much too involved to go into at this time." He stood up, squaring his shoulders with resolve. "Blake and the crew of Liberator also have been a big part of my life, but if I tell you all my secrets now, what will we have to talk about after we're bonded?" His grin was somewhat wistful, hoping there would be a bonding as they had planned.
Kayla stood up too, staring down at her tightly clasped hands with a perplexed look on her face, "Thank you for your honesty about your past, Jason. I'm not sure what I think about what you've just told me, but I appreciate knowing the truth . . . the whole truth. I really need to sleep on this tonight and to discuss everything that you've told me with Naomi, but I promise I will give the Matriarch my answer before noon tomorrow."
Jason turned and started to leave, when he heard Naomi's hoarse voice quavering from the darkness of the doorway leading to her room, "Tell me the truth, boy? How did my Rissa die? Jacob swore that it was Colin's doing, that he'd run away when the fenris attacked and dragged her down. I thought I knew the boy too well to believe that, until he left his family. Just tell me what really happened that night on Metis III?"
"I can't answer that question, Seran Reeves."
"Because Cally erased those memories completely for the sake of my sanity. Only Captain Travis still knows the truth about that night."
"Then only Colin Travis can tell me that truth," she said in a bleak voice. "And I doubt that he would admit it if he had abandoned her."
Jason drew himself up proudly, "In the past eight years, my father has admitted to more terrible crimes in his past. If you ask him for the truth, I think he will tell you."
"Even if it means that Kayla and I leave this planet and never return?"
Jason swallowed hard, feeling his heart turn to a lump of ice at that resolute avowal.
"Even then, Seran Reeves."
A foggy twilight covered the lower end of the docks giving its seedy bars and dives a shadowy, almost mystical appearance. If Travis hadn't known better, he almost would have been deceived by the gauzy iridescence that disguised the shabby entrances of bars like The Vale of Shangri-La and Universe's End. Still, he glanced over at them warily as possible shelters, if his silent tail should prove hostile or just greedy.
His meeting with the security expert had proven very enlightening, both about the resolve and determination of some so-called crippled spacers and the recent advances in surveillance technology. Strapped into a life-support chair that was controlled by his brain waves and provided oxygenation, perfusion, and neural stimulation to everything from the neck down, the former independent captain was surprisingly upbeat about his situation.
"I'm a product of modern technology," he flashed a rakish grin. "If my ship had made its crash-landing six months earlier, I wouldn't be here. And my situation now isn't that much different from being a lone pilot out on the Rim, hooked up to navigation, life support, and engineering just to keep the ship running. This way I get to stay planetside and whistle at the all pretty girls."
Too disconcerted to ask Decker what he did if the girls whistled back, Travis turned his attention to the surveillance tape, agreeing that something registered on them, but not able to get a clear focus no matter how much he tinkered with the definition controls.
"Bugger it," he finally gave up in disgust. "How long will it take you to get your own surveillance up and running, Decker?""Should be no later than 2200 at the latest, Captain. Do you want me to report in then . . . or just wait until I catch your prowler?"
Travis yawned until his jaw cracked and ran his flesh and blood hand through his hair.
"It's been a long day, Decker. Just call me when you catch something, okay?"
Decker's skills didn't come cheap, but Travis could not begrudge the man a means of making a living, since he could only use his brain and a voder activated stun weapon, if his cameras and monitoring devices turned up anything larger and nastier than the standard dock rat.
Hearing the soft patter of feet behind him, Travis wondered ruefully if he was going to have to deal with a larger version of vermin before getting to climb into bed. He stepped into the shadows, concealing himself as much as possible, watching and listening for the person or persons following.
The side street that he'd ducked down was silent so he could hear the bootsteps of whoever was following him, but there was nothing but the dim background noises of the bars and dives. But as he waited just inside one of the alley ways, he spotted a small, hooded figure creeping slowly from shadow to shadow.
Stepping out of his hiding place, Travis grabbed the figure by the shoulders, "Not so fast, my sneaky friend . . ." Then the voice dried in his throat as her hood fell away and he saw the distinctive black, white and orange markings of Glynis Featherpaw, Phrath's mate.
She was as stealthy and quick as ever, but deep, self-inflicted scratches on her shoulders, face and arms wept bloody tears. Travis remembered the sharp-tongued, slinky minx that he'd first met when she and Phrath had gone bar-crawling with Akema and him soon after he'd become a Stannis captain and felt a deep surge of guilt at the change.
Glynis hissed softly, "Careless you grow, Travis Captain. Without the sharp ears and clever paws of my Phrath beside you, taken you might have been a dozen times or more as you prowled the docks."
Travis felt a hard lump of grief in his chest but answered her challenge, recalling his engineer's earlier words. "You say there is blood debt owed you by Stannis/ Travis fleet, Glynis. Then why haven't you claimed Phrath's wages . . . or the compensation money due you? I owe him my life at least three times over and the funds will provide you with a good living here on Sanctuary . . . or anywhere else that you chose to go."
Glynis's low hiss changed to a threatening rumble, "Helpless queen, think you I am, Travis Captain? Able spacer this one is. Shipping on boldest trading ships out of Xanadu port; pathfinder, starhunter I am, no blood money do I need."
"It's not blood money . . . or any other attempt to cover my guilt, you fuzz-faced idiot."
Realizing he was on the verge of losing his temper at Phrath's bondmate, he rubbed his hand roughly down his face. "We only want to give you Phrath's rightful due as a trusted and respected Stannis/Travis crewmember."
"Money I care not for. Only freedom and excitement ruled our hearts. Much adventure did Phrath encounter at your side, many battles did he fight, Travis Captain." Her emerald green eyes glittered in the stark security light as the darkness deepened. "Honor did you return to his clan with the bloodstained battle scarf of Cort Deadlyclaw."
There was a brief painful silence and the voice that had echoed shrilly only a moment before, softened into a low rumble, "Tell me how boldly he died, Travis Captain, and blood debt is settled between us."
Travis stared at the darkly hooded figure, standing at the edge of the shadows, feeling the heart pounding hard in his chest. If she'd asked, he would have given her gold, diamonds, feldon crystals or enough kairopan to live like an empress for life, but the one request she made was virtually impossible.
After more than a decade of writing terse, uninformative after-action reports that provided ambitious senators little concrete data with which to praise or condemn his troops, depending on which way the political winds happened to be blowing, Travis was totally unprepared to tell Glynis the kind of heroic saga she wanted to hear.
He groaned silently to himself, running his hands down his face before turning to the hooded figure, "Are you sure we can't go inside one of these bars and sit down over a couple of beers, while I gather my thoughts?"
"Hard truth, I want Travis Captain. Unlubricated by liquid inspiration. Your truth, Captain."
"My truth," Travis said sourly, wondering just how much truth Glynis was prepared for. Still, he'd listened to enough of the Kyrenian's sagas on long night shifts that he had some hint of what Glynis needed to hear.
Taking a deep breath, he began in a harsh voice, "I was summoned by a former commander to take on a dangerous mission, rescuing his granddaughter and her two sons from an underground bunker, in the aftermath of a meteor strike to their homeworld. Normally I would have refused, but I owed the old man, besides it would earn much glory and show Jenna's uncle that I was worthy of being her mate."
First lie, he thought to himself. He didn't give a flea's ass what Mikhail thought of him anymore, but Phrath's sagas always required that the hero prove himself to clan and family.
He glanced over at Glynis, but her face was concealed by the hood of her cloak, so he continued spinning out his yarn, remaining true to the facts, especially how he'd tried to convince Phrath not to come, but embroidering ever so slightly, so that Phrath's part in the episode took on more excitement, more glory.
Altruism wasn't a particularly prized trait among the Kyrenians, so Travis found himself emphasizing the adventurous aspects of the mission and especially Dr. Sinclair's intense curiosity and scientific interest in exploration. That was a trait that Glynis obviously admired, given her choice of ships. He even tried to recreate Sinclair's greeting to Phrath, only to have Glynis curl her upper lip in amusement.
"Proposition my mate, the human did? A wonder it was that Phrath did not gut him outright."
"All right, no more translations attempted, if that suits your highness. I just wanted you to get some sense of why Phrath took the actions he did later."
"Sinclair human Kyrenian greeting spoke to Phrath? And knew his warrior name?" Glynis wrinkled her muzzle with surprise. "Federation trained scientist he may have been, but Kyrenian heart and soul he obviously had. Good company to die in, Travis Captain."<> Travis continued with his recall of the Chiron mission, trying to downplay Phrath's weakness as the temperature rose. Glynis listened avidly as the tale came to its inevitable conclusion and Travis wondered desperately how much he should say about their grim ending. How could he put a positive spin on what actually happened when Sinclair and Phrath attempted mine the conduits and seal off the magma surge?
Travis was silent for a long moment before finishing in a hoarse,
ragged tone. "Sinclair and Phrath were buried under the falling rocks,
but we didn't dare stay and try to
recover the bodies. Lava was filling the tunnel . . .and there
was no possibility that either had survived the explosion."
Glynis's face was in shadow, hidden by her hood and he heard the soft hissing recital of the coda from one of the oldest Kyrenian hymns to their mother goddess, "Welcomed they were into the blinding white light of Her heart, where there is no darkness, no cold, no hunger and no tears."
Travis stood there, heart pounding, wondering what to say next. Glynis solved the matter for him, "Your heartbeat betrays you, Travis Captain. Which part was the lie?"
"Does it matter, Glynis? Phrath died boldly, trying to save lives."
She raised her chin so he saw the full effect of her glittering green eyes, "It was a lie . . . but a good lie. Even if there is no trophy to lay on the Warrior's Altar in his name, when I return home I will hire the best stavemaker in the city to turn your words into a proper saga, Travis Captain."
"You'll need to claim his wages and compensation then, won't you Glynis? PR spinners even on your homeworld don't come cheap."
Glynis gave a merry hiss, "Give up, you do not, do you, Travis Captain? Very well, take Phrath's wages this one will. Someone to Stannis/Travis offices will I send in a day or two."
"Best if you make it after the first of next week, Glynis," Travis replied glumly. "There's a bonding ceremony scheduled for the end of this week and Jenna and I probably won't be readily available until after it's over."
"Formalizing thy vows finally thou art, Travis Captain?'
"Does the whole blooming city know?"
"Few secrets are kept down on this end of the docks," she shrugged.
"Well, you're welcome to come, if you want. I'll have a formal invitation sent out tomorrow."
"Afraid you are not that certain indiscretions from your past I might mention?" Glynis bared her fangs in a half-threatening grin.
"Glynis lass, that's old news. You need to find some newer sources."
She flicked her ears in amusement, "Soon will see you, Travis Captain. More practice on creative storytelling, you need though."
Travis gusted out a deep relieved sigh that the situation had turned out well, hurrying back to the more commonly traveled areas of the city where he caught a rapid shuttle back to their quarters. As he entered he was surprised to find Jenna on the long range comm, just signing off as he closed the door.
"Who were you talking to at this unholy hour?"
"Cally on board Liberator. Katya said that we could invite fifty of our closest friends . . . and I figured that Blake and his crew qualified. They aren't that far away and should make it back in time for the ceremony."
"You invited Blake . . . and Avon to our bonding ceremony?" Travis didn't know whether to laugh or have a roaring temper tantrum as Jenna continued in a blithely oblivious tone of voice.
"Cally, Tarrant, Dayna, Vila and Soolin will be coming too. After all we've been through together over the past years, I think they qualify. Was there anyone that you wanted included?"
For a moment, Travis sat there dumbfounded that Blake, Avon and the rest of that crew might actually be considered his "friends." Then with a bland smile, he turned to Jenna and asked in a saccharine tone of voice, "Do you suppose we might be able to contact Clinician Franton on Auron, to reach Cally's clone sister Zelda and ask her to bring Levan . . . Servalan's clone?"
"Over my dead body," Jenna answered in an utterly flat voice, just before Travis broke out laughing. Moments later, she saw the outrageous humor in the situation and joined him on the couch, both of them laughing so hard that their sides hurt.
"Oh, that would be something to see, wouldn't it? Avon and the clone seated across the table from one another, smiling like a pair of sharks."
"Let's avoid that much excitement, if at all possible," Travis sighed, leaning his head back on the sofa where he'd just collapsed. "I've had about all I can take for the evening, settling matters with Glynis."
"Is she finally going to accept Phrath's wages and benefits?"
"I think so. She said she'd send someone over to our office the first of next week."
"Good, that's one loose end tied up. Now all we have to do is find someone to replace him."
"And that, my love, is a problem for another day. It's past midnight and long past time we were both in bed," he yawned widely.
"You're getting old, Travis, " Jenna jabbed him in the ribs.
"Still young enough to catch you," he grinned and swung her up in his arms, marching towards their bedroom door.
At 0900 the next morning, Jenna showed up at her grandmother's office, wearing her best suit with her hair and make-up as neatly done as she could manage at that hour. To her surprise when she opened the door, the room was dark, except for a single candle that barely illuminated the reception area, throwing the rest of the room into shadow.
Katya Doyle was seated at her desk as usual, her face as immobile as a marble statue's, holding a bronze urn between her two hands.
"What's wrong?" Jenna rasped out of a throat as dry as dust, already half-suspecting the truth.
"The Matriarch is gone, passed beyond," Katya's voice sounded so distant and impersonal that Jenna could hardly believe her words.
"Her health had been declining this past month . . . and she heard her bondmate's voice calling her, more insistently each day. She resisted as long as she could, wanting to see you and Travis properly bonded. When she persuaded the two of you to go along with her plans yesterday, I sensed her utter relief. She had done her duty for the Clan . . . there was nothing holding her here any longer. She slipped away just after midnight."
Jenna felt her knees buckle as she sat down hard on the couch across from the desk.
"I . . . didn't know. She seemed so strong, so resolute, as she told us exactly what we were going to do. It just seemed futile to argue with her, especially since we knew that we needed to formalize the bonding anyway. And with Jason and Kayla wanting to be bonded as well, it seemed easier to agree than to resist any longer."
Jenna stared down at her hands, tightly clenched in her lap. "Well, so much for that plan. I guess we'll have to cancel the preparations for our ceremony and start arranging her farewell rites."
She rubbed her forehead in resignation. "I'm not really certain about family connections and traditions, so I'll have to rely on you to tell me who to contact and what to do. Oh, good grief, does Mikhail know yet?"
"The First Captain was at his mother's bedside when she passed away, Captain Stannis. And the preparations for the bonding will continue as planned." The determined expression on the young telepath's face left Jenna utterly bewildered.
"Have you lost your mind, Katya? I may have been absent from clan and enclave for over a decade, but I do remember the proper ceremonies and customs." Jenna started to count off on her fingers. "The viewing. The condolence calls. The farewell itself along with the interment, followed by the burial feast. Then there's the traditional mourning period, the family's withdrawal from all social events . . ."
"There will be no mourning period and no cancellation of the bonding ceremony. The Matriarch was very specific about that, making sure that my father, myself, and the First Captain agreed to her final request."
Katya stared at the urn between her two hands, tears running silently down her pallid cheeks. "She was cremated as she requested and her ashes are to be scattered to the four winds at sundown tonight. You may attend if you wish, but there will be no formal ceremony nor any kind of commemorative event."
"And Mikhail agreed to this?" she asked in disbelief.
"It had been her sincere wish for many years . . . and Mikhail would not deny her the peace that she sought."
Jenna stared at Katya, seeing not just the tears but the genuine grief felt by the other woman. She remembered her first encounter with the young telepath, her outrage and fear when confronting other woman's serene demeanor. How Katya had maintained her equilibrium despite the out-of-control emotions that Jenna had literally spat in her face in the aftermath of their first encounter with her uncle Mikhail and his less than hospitable treatment of Travis.
"You loved her very much, didn't you?" Jenna asked gently.
"Yes, I did," she answered simply. "She was closer to me than my own father . . . though not through any fault on his part."
Jenna remembered Brendan Doyle's stern yet compassionate features, and other things as well. How the telepath had ripped into Travis's mind at her uncle's order, sifting out the truth about his past and learning the depth of Travis's true feelings for her. Afterwards, although Doyle had followed Mikhail's orders to test their relationship, he had done much to preserve their emotional link, despite her uncle's efforts to undermine it. And he had saved Travis's sanity after Servalan's psychostrategist Carnell had unblocked long-lost memories from his past. Still, there were things that he had done at her uncle's command that she found reprehensible.
Katya stared into Jenna's eyes seeing the mixed feelings there, and reading her surface thoughts as plainly as words on a page. "My father has known Mikhail Stannis all his adult life and occasionally has acted as though he believed Mikhail's words should be carved in stone. Recently, he has relied more on his own judgment about the First Captain's actions, which is why he took matters into his own hands regarding Jason's survival and well-being. Although the Matriarch did exert some influence on his behalf."
Jenna nodded slowly, realizing just how much her grandmother had cared for her. Katya continued, filling Jenna in on events that had occurred after she fled the Enclave years before.
"My mother had died shortly after I was born. During that time when the Federation was exerting considerable pressure on the Enclave, attacking trading ships and blockading our borders. It was shortly after your parents' deaths, when Mikhail became First Captain and he and the Matriarch were doing everything in their power to preserve the Stannis Clan. It required almost all my father's time and energy to aid in that task."
She took a deep breath in resignation, "So, like many children during that time, who were either orphaned or lost family members to Federation border raids, I was creche raised."
Sensing Jenna's commiseration, Katya smiled ruefully, "It wasn't really that bad, Captain Stannis. The people who ran the center were qualified child education specialists, patient but not affectionate. Like most of the others, I had a surviving family member who could not properly raise me due to absence or the demands of duty, but did visit on special occasions like holidays and birthdays. I was happy there . . . until my powers manifested, then I became an outcast."
"I think if my father had realized, he would have taken me to the Psi-Training Center, but at that time he was deeply involved in the First Captain's efforts to consolidate the Stannis Fleet and did not recognize the early signs of my telepathy."
"I'm still not sure why the Matriarch visited the education center when she did. She always claimed that she was only seeking a personal assistant, and knowing my father's organizational skills, she assumed that I would be ideal for the job. Whether she was aware of my mental and emotional trauma at that time, I never discovered. Even after my psychic abilities were properly trained, her thoughts remained opaque to me."
"I always wondered about that," Jenna said ruefully. "No aspersions on your mental abilities, Katya, but I don't think that I could tolerate being around someone who knew every thought that crossed my mind, all the time. It would be embarrassing."
Katya gave her a faint rueful smile, "You were shipmates with Cally of Auron for over a year, were you not?"
Jenna felt her cheeks flush, remembering her early reactions to Cally as a potential rival for Blake's affection, especially as a fellow rebel who sympathized with his goals.
"Ouch. That's exactly what I mean. I didn't exactly make her life pleasant those first few weeks."
"Yet eventually you became friends, to the point that she saved Travis's life despite her doubts about his loyalties. She also provided Jason with the mental imprint that gave him his only hope of living a normal existence."
"And worked desperately with your father to save both of them when Carnell's mental tampering endangered their lives and sanity." Jenna finished softly, realizing just how much she had come to depend on the Auron telepath.
She stared at the graceful urn resting between Katya's fingertips, sensing the heart-wrenching grief beneath her serene expression. "Sundown, you said? Where will you scatter the ashes? Travis and I, possibly even Jason, would like to be present, if you have no objections? And I know that depending on the location, the time of sunset varies, and we don't want to be late."
A brief smile lingered on Katya's lips, "It will be at approximately 1847 atop the Stannis Trade Tower, which is slightly more than a mile from Xanadu's main spaceport. That way most of her ashes will remain here, on the world where she bore two sons and worked diligently to assure the survival and well-being of her clan and its trading fleet."
The telepath's voice sank to a husky whisper, "But some of them will be carried into space in the wake of Stannis ships, drifting among the stars and taken to other worlds that she once longed to explore. But her skills were desperately needed by family and clan, so to preserve their future she put aside her own desires."
Jenna felt her cheeks burn at Katya's words, recalling how her grandmother had chided her for placing her own selfish desires above the clan's well-being, yet in many ways she'd been as much a stranger to her family as Travis was. That was one thing that made it so very difficult to comply with the Matriarch's desire that she sacrifice her freedom for the clan's future well-being. Still, though she had not deliberately complied with her grandmother's wishes to preserve her father's bloodlines and bring in Travis's outworld genes, Jason fulfilled that requirement on both counts, as totally unwanted as his initial presence might have been.
Taking a deep shuddering breath, Jenna spoke, "I never really knew her that well, Serita Doyle. As an adolescent I spent all my time on the docks, badgering pilot apprentices and journeymen with questions. My mother tried to teach me about my responsibilities as a clan daughter, but she was often busy with her duties aboard my father's fleet . . . and I was very strong-willed, determined that I would become an apprentice, no matter what my family had to say about it."
"You are your grandmother's blood and bone, beyond a doubt," Katya said in a softly neutral voice. "I will meet you and your bondmate tonight at 1830 in the First Captain's office. After the scattering of the ashes, he said something about 'everyone needing a stiff drink.'"
Jenna nodded her head warily, hoping that was all her uncle had in mind, and not some drastic re-allocation of duties and assignments in the wake of the Matriarch's death. Half-guiltily, she reached out and clasped Katya's hand as it gripped the urn containing the earthly remains of her grandmother, "I'm sorry I've always been so terse and sharp with you, Serita . . . Katya. I guess I blamed you for things that weren't your fault . . . and even envied a little your closeness with my grandmother."
Katya started to protest, but Jenna raised her hand, "No, let me continue while I have the nerve. You were much more her granddaughter than I ever was and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your patience and kindness to me, despite our difficult beginnings. I know that it was much more than I deserved. If there's ever anything I can do for you . . .?"
"Really?" Katya's expression held a tentative, almost pleading look. "Do you think you could be here for the consultation with the stylist and dress designer at 0800 tomorrow? It was the only time available after canceling today's meeting on such short notice. I know you're just planning on wearing your formal colors, but the designer is determined to create a brand new gown for the bonding ceremony. I've assured that it will be the same basic style and color, though there will be some minor detailing added . . ."
Jenna shook her head in rueful acknowledgment, "If it will make your life easier, Katya, I'll be there . . . as long as the designer doesn't expect me to be civil or articulate at that hour of the morning. Also, our sept won't be billed for this new gown, will we?"
"Oh, no," Katya quickly reassured her. "Everything is paid in full from the clan's discretionary fund. This kind of celebration benefits every captain in the fleet."
Jenna nodded her head thoughtfully, realizing that her grandmother had been much more canny and insightful than she ever admitted. "It's too bad we waited so long to formalize our arrangements, Travis," she muttered to herself as she pulled the door closed behind her. "We might have won a lot more good will with a celebration than we ever did through negotiation."
A subtle breath of the Matriarch's perfume seemed to surround her, along with a ghostly whisper See I told you, girl, but you never believed me.
As she entered their quarters, Jenna felt a growing sadness and wondered if Katya had not exerted some sort of anodyne effect on her emotions during their discussion of the Matriarch's death. Or perhaps it was just that the initial shock itself had left her numb. She rubbed her hand across her face absently and was surprised to find tears trickling down her cheeks. To her embarrassment, Travis was still seated at the table, finishing a late leisurely breakfast and when he saw her dazed, tearful look, pushed hurriedly to his feet and rushed over to her.
"What's wrong? Did something happen to Jason . . . or Dani?" He gripped her shoulders peering intently into face. "Not the Liberator?"
"No, not Jason . . . the Matriarch. She's gone, died last night, around midnight," Jenna choked back the tears, almost ashamed at the emotions that threatened to cause her to break down sobbing. Travis gathered her against his shoulder, murmuring soothingly as he smoothed the hair back from her forehead with surprising gentleness.
"Then the bonding ceremony's canceled." He actually sounded disappointed and Jenna didn't know whether to laugh or cry as she told him about her grandmother's final decree. He shrugged in resignation upon hearing that the ceremony would go ahead as planned and did not seem terribly shocked by her request about disposal of her remains.
"Always thought the old bag . . . your grandmother was surprisingly pragmatic for a woman of her generation . . . and this proves it. No cosmetic make-over, no arguments about the dress she'll wear, the type of casket, color of interior, open or closed, and so forth and so on, until the family's at each other's throats and any semblance of dignity is forgotten. Instead, she takes the matter of preservation out of everyone's hands by opting for cremation . . . and then has her ashes scattered. No tombstone, no monument, no ornate iconography for graffiti-crazed pre-adolescents to decorate with obscenities."
He paused in stroking Jenna's hair, a grim smile on his face. "I gather she'll be greatly missed, and not just by your clan."
"Why do you say that?"
"Otherwise, why the anonymity? She's already left her legacy for future generations, in the family she raised and the Clan that she ruled."
Hearing the respect in her bondmate's voice overwhelmed the last of Jenna's barriers and she broke down into sobs. He picked her up in his arms and was headed towards their bedroom when the door chimed.
He tried to ignore it, but the chiming continued with increasing urgency until whoever was at the door began to hammer in desperation.
"Bugger it all," Travis muttered under his breath. "If it's Blake or any of that crew of his, I swear I'll put a bounty on their heads myself."
"Open," he growled, for once grateful that Jenna had the voder circuits upgraded so the door would respond to their voices, if they had their hands full.
To his surprise, it was Jason at the door, his face pale and distraught, though when he spotted Jenna in Travis's arms, he did look somewhat disconcerted.
"If I've come at a bad time . . ."
"Come in, shut the door, and sit down. Her grandmother died last night and Jenna's a bit distraught. I'll be out once I get her put to bed."
"The Matriarch's . . . gone? Well, that ices the cake," Jason muttered.
Hearing the anguish in their son's voice cut through Jenna's distress and she wiped the tears from her face, taking a deep breath to compose herself before gesturing for Travis to put her down.
"What's wrong, Jason? Has something happened to Kayla . . . or her grandmother?"
He heaved a deep sigh, "No, they're fine physically. But I may have just made things worse by trying to explain about my past."
"Go on," Travis said in a neutral tone of voice.
"You recall that Kayla had asked for time to think before going through with the ceremony. Still, I thought that she had a right to know about my whole past. Not just who my parents are, but the truth about my origin in the Auron placental tanks, so I went over there to lay all my cards on the table."
Travis rubbed his forehead distractedly, "There's a very old saying, boy, that dates back to the pre-Atomic age. Something about 'letting sleeping wargs lie,' or not poking big, ugly beasts with a pointed stick. I take it that your education was deficient in this regard?"
Jason slumped on their sofa, staring down at his hands clenched tightly together, "I thought that it would help her decide, maybe even bring us closer together if I was honest enough to tell her about my past, my whole past."
"Except it's not your past, it's mine. And Naomi Reeves has a very strong link to it," Travis rasped, his face haunted.
"I'm sorry, Captain," Jason's voice was trembling. "I didn't know. Not until she mentioned Marissa . . ."
Travis clutched his son's shoulders, feeling a sudden dread, "Don't tell me you still remember what happened? I thought Cally had erased every trace of those memories."
"She did her best, but the images from your mind, especially of Rissa's death, were so intense that the best she could do was sever the emotional linkages to them in my memory. I still get occasional mental flashes of your past, but they're like images from a vid, with no real connection to my feelings."
Travis breathed a sigh of relief, glad that Jason was not haunted by his past, yet somehow strangely perturbed that the images had been stripped of all their emotional context. It seemed like a violation of Rissa's memory, even though Jason had never known her.
"All right, son. You laid all your cards on the table, revealing your unconventional origins and sordid past. What did Kayla have to say?"
"She said she'd let the Matriarch know this morning. But if the Matriarch's . . . gone, then the whole ceremony will be canceled, won't it?"
"Not bloody likely. When Jenna's grandmother decrees that an event will occur, it goes forward, regardless of planetary upheaval, alien invasion or supernova."
Jenna noticed that Jason still seemed uncomfortable, despite Travis's assurances. "What's wrong, Jason? Was Kayla unhappy about your past?"
"Not so you could tell," he answered grimly. "But Seran Reeves wanted to know the truth about how Marissa died . . . and when I couldn't tell her, she said that she wouldn't give the bonding her blessing."
Travis's face went bleak, "Rissa still haunts my memories, but it's long past time to lay that ghost, Jenna. Kayla and Jason deserve their happiness and I'll do whatever it takes to make sure they get it." He glanced down at his chrono. "It's almost 1230. There's plenty of time to meet with Naomi Reeves, tell her the bitter truth about how her daughter died, then join the two of you at the Stannis tower before 1830."
"You're not going without me, Travis," Jenna said with a stern look. "I want Jason and Kayla to be happy just as much as you do, but I won't let you sacrifice what peace you've made with your past. You aren't going to face her alone."
"Don't be an idiot, Jenna," he retorted just as stubbornly. "You've already had to deal with one trauma today, the last thing you need is to be there when I tell Naomi Reeves how her daughter died. It was an ugly death . . . and I doubt she'll get much peace from those facts. Still, I owe her the truth, as terrible it was. I only hope she won't hold Jason accountable for my failings. Kayla and Jason deserve to live their own lives, and not be held hostage to my past."
"And you stop acting like an idiot yourself, Colin. I nearly lost the two of you to the emotional shock associated with those memories not five years past. You're right, I've had enough trauma in my life today and I don't intend for it to end by having you admitted to the mental center either raving or catatonic, dealing with those memories alone. So get used to it."
"Captains," was Jason's plaintive plea, but before the argument could continue, there was another knock at the door.
"OPEN!" they both roared simultaneously, ready to commit mayhem on whoever had the audacity to interrupt their quarrel.
It was Blake, holding a large, obviously professionally wrapped box in one hand with a somewhat dubious look on his face. Behind him was Avon, wearing his typically snide expression, along with Cally, Tarrant, Dayna, Vila, and Soolin, the usually wildly independent crew appearing as conventionally well-groomed as any typical politician's posse of aides.
Blake took in the grim look on Travis's face, before asking in a rather apologetic tone, "Have we come at a bad time? All the comm circuits to the First Captain's office were busy, so I thought we'd check in with the happy couple . . .?"
Travis glanced sidelong at Jenna, whose expression vacillated
outrage and relief, before gesturing for Blake and his crew to come
in as he gritted out through clenched teeth.
"Your timing is perfect, Blake, as always."
Travis stood on the roof of the main tower of the Stannis Clan offices, watching the opalescent skies overhead shift into a cascade of color as the sun sank towards the horizon. His head ached dully as if someone had been thwacking it with a cricket bat, yet despite his earlier meeting with Naomi Reeves and recounting the most traumatic event of his young life, he felt surprisingly well.
Thanks to Cally's Auron powers. Her mental shields had enabled him to tell Naomi Reeves the truth about how her daughter had died, without reliving the entire experience or evoking the vivid, destructive emotions that had surrounded those memories for so long.
The story was painful and the sense of failure still cut his heart like a knife, even after all these years. But she did not react with the same vitriolic accusations that her husband Jacob had hurled at him, despite his bloodied, battered appearance. She believed his story and actually embraced him in gratitude for his attempt to save Rissa from the ravaging fenris pack.
"Jacob had invested so much hope in our future on Metis III. He thought that Rissa's children would be that future. I think he went a little mad when that hope died."
As she gazed up into his face, her deep brown eyes reminded him all too vividly of Rissa before she had died and he tried to avoid meeting that gaze, but she was persistent.
"Listen to me, Colin. No matter what happened out there between you, Rissa, and the fenris, I know how much you loved my daughter, and I remember how gentle your father Conal was with Maeve, even after her mind was gone. No matter what Jacob said, I am convinced you did not abandon Rissa. And I know if he were alive today, that Conal would be very proud of the man that you've become . . . and the grandson you've given him."
She turned her smile on Jason and Kayla, who were watching nervously, "And I definitely give my blessing to the uniting of our two families. It's long overdue."
Glancing around the sheltered rooftop at the individuals present for the ceremony, Travis was somewhat surprised to see that the crowd was so sparse. Of course, the Matriarch's death had occurred less than twenty-four hours before and that was very short notice for anyone who was actually offplanet. Still, he would have thought that the numbers of relatives present would have been well over a hundred.
But there was only his and Jenna's little group, consisting of Jason, Kayla and her grandmother, Brendan and Katya Doyle, who had custody of the urn with the Matriarch's ashes, Mikhail's household, which consisted of a statuesque brunette with dramatic features and two daughters and their families, clustered in a quietly whispering group. First Captain Greg Niachros, head of Clan Niachros, and his Fleet Captain Stephan Niachros were also present, exchanging politely distant nods with Travis before resuming their sotto voce conversation.
As the sun dipped closer to the horizon, a breeze began to rise and Travis took a deep breath, smelling all the rich and exotic scents that wafted up from the city below. The spicy fragrance of hundreds of braziers, baking breads, roasting meats and vegetables, burning incense and candles, hairdressing and simmering dyes, even the sharper odors of welding and ship repair had their own particular aroma. All of the scents deeply evocative of the diverse and varied people and cultures that filled the streets of Xanadu.
The First Captain held up his hands for silence and the whispers died away.
"I know you are wondering why there are so few of you present for this farewell ceremony, when there were so many who knew, admired, and even loved the Matriarch. All I can answer is that she asked me with her dying breath to allow only those who were her closest relatives . . . and friends . . . to be present for this ceremony. Thus I included only my bondmate and her daughters, my brother's daughter, her bondmate and son, along with his future bondmate and her grandmother. Relatives by blood and bond, proven by trial." He turned a briefly amused glance at Travis and Jason, who maintained their stoic expressions.
He turned his attention to Captain Niachros and his son, "You've always been my greatest rival and competitor. We hoped at one time that our two houses might be united, but fate decreed otherwise. Still, I know the esteem that the Matriarch held you in and I know she would have wanted you here for her farewell."
Captain Niachros bowed his head so that Mikhail did not see the tears glittering in his eyes, but the First Captain was too blinded by his own tears. As the edge of the sun touched the horizon, Mikhail took the urn from Katya's grasp and removed its seal, exposing the contents to the rising breeze. At first nothing seemed to happen, then a short sharp gust of wind spiraled around them, scattering the silvery ashes to the four directions.
Just as the ashes were dispersed into Sanctuary's atmosphere, a bright golden ship climbed on a pillar of flame into the darkening skies. It was too far away for any of them to read its name or house, but Greg Niachros whispered softly, "That was one of ours, NTS Odyssey, a deep range explorer, going out on the Spiral Rim in search of new worlds . . . and new races, exotic fabrics and foods, medicines and technologies, or just to see what's out there."
"A grand send-off for the Matriarch, Greg. I thank you for delaying the takeoff so that it would provide her wings into the darkness."
Both men's eyes looked surprisingly damp as they solemnly shook hands and then embraced. After a moment's hesitation, everyone in the group was enfolded in mutual hugs and Jenna found herself being pounded on the back by Stephan before the perfumed presence of Mikhail's dark-haired spouse almost overwhelmed her, "I'm your Aunt Athena, Jenna, Mikhail's current wife."
Jenna stared into those implacable storm-grey eyes, feeling a certain relief that this striking and strong-willed woman was not in charge of the wedding preparations. "If there's anything you need for the ceremony . . . jewelry, accessories, or a good hair-designer, I'll be glad to give you some names."
"Thank you . . . Aunt Athena, but I think Katya has everything under control."
"Of course she does, dear. But just in case you want to try something . . . unconventional."
Jenna blinked, surprised at the sudden twinkle in her aunt's eye and resolved to at least make a social call on the woman, if there was time to do so before the bonding.
The sun was completely set and the evening stars beginning to shine as Mikhail led the group off the roof and back down to his office. With Brendan's and Katya's help, everyone soon had some kind of drink in their hand, whether a light dry sherry as in the cases of Jenna's aunt and cousins, Kayla and her grandmother, or a whiskey potent enough to dissolve the rug if spilled, in the case of Travis, Mikhail, and Greg Niachros.
Like Stephan, Jenna was sticking to Antarean spring water, having already had enough jolts to her nervous system for one day. Besides, she was afraid that anything alcoholic would break down her barriers completely and she still wanted to keep an eye on Travis in the aftermath of his meeting with Naomi Reeves. Cally had done her best to shield him from the trauma of re-living the events leading up to and surrounding Marissa Reeves' death, but Jenna wanted to be sober if she had to deal with any flashbacks, not trusting her uncle not to take advantage of Travis's vulnerability even now.
After the toast to the Matriarch's passing, Travis took a cautious sip of the whiskey, grateful for its smooth potency. It offered a momentary relief for the throbbing in his head that was his usual reaction to Cally's telepathic monitoring. While he appreciated her efforts to spare him from emotional trauma while reliving that past history, hopefully for the last time, he wished that her powers didn't leave him with a blinding headache.
He glanced sidelong at Brendan Doyle who was also warily partaking of Mikhail's premium stock, wondering if the telepath might have left some kind of mental trigger in place to alert him to anyone tampering with his mind. It was the kind of ploy that he'd come to expect from Jenna's uncle, even after all these years.
Sensing that he was being watched, Travis caught the First Captain's stern expression fixed on him and turned his gaze towards Jenna as he raised his glass in brief salute. Mikhail answered that silent toast with a raising of his own glass, approaching Travis until their glasses clinked together.
"Here's to fast ships, rich cargos, and a clear profit on the voyage," Mikhail gave the typical Enclave toast.
"And here's to bold and brassy golden haired pilots, who charge to everyone's rescue at the slightest excuse."
"To Jenna," Mikhail acknowledged ruefully, emptying his glass in a single gulp. Travis sipped more slowly, well aware that he couldn't match Stannis drink for drink and walk out of this function under his own power. Whether it was the potency of the drink or the emotional shocks of the past twenty-four hours, Mikhail's hard-shelled exterior seemed to have softened somewhat.
"She's her father's daughter, stubborn down to the bone. And her mother's as well, too kind-hearted for her own good." Mikhail glared at Travis, with a flash of the truculence that had been his most common reaction to the two of them during their first year in the Enclave. "But I don't need to tell you that, do I, Space Commander?"
Travis's cybernetic fist clenched at the reference to his old title as he met Stannis's gaze, wondering why the man was trying to provoke him now of all times. Then he looked past the tempered ice of his stare, seeing the grief and anger still buried deep inside the First Captain's heart.
"No, First Captain, you don't need to remind me of Jenna's kind heart . . . ever. As I shouldn't have to remind you of her canny mind, her lightning reflexes, and her sharp bargaining skills. She was born and bred to pilot and command, not just her own ship, but her own fleet."
For a long moment Stannis stared at Jenna's chosen and tested bondmate, feeling the frustration that had tainted his view of the man for so long, then he took a deep breath and let that uncertainty go. First Captain Mikhail Stannis finally admitted that his long-nurtured desire of turning over command of the Stannis Clan to his brother's only surviving child . . . the granddaughter who most resembled the Matriarch in spirit . . . was not going to happen.
Whether it was her inborn independent streak, or the knockabout existence she led as a free-lance smuggler and pilot on the fringes of Federation space, Jenna had other allegiances than just to her clan. First to that idealistic fool Blake and then to a half-crippled and blinded outcast Federation officer. Loyalties that she would not surrender.
Still, Stannis had to admit to himself, even if Jenna's allegiance to her clan was no longer paramount, her choice of lovers and companions had led to some remarkable changes recently: the crippling of Federation power, the Byzantian treaty allying many of the independent worlds, the destruction of Servalan's renegade fleet, and his own acquisition of the amazing computing skills of Ensor's creation ORAC. Mikhail shook his head and smiled like a cat with a dish full of cream. Business had definitely been booming.
He sighed ruefully, nodding in acknowledgment of Travis's declaration. Jenna's choice had been common knowledge among the clan for years, along with the fact that the Matriarch had accepted that decision and been grooming an alternate as her successor. Of course, the fact that her choice violated every unspoken rule and tradition within the Enclave complicated matters considerably.
Still, there was no time like the present for formalizing the Matriarch's selection and making the announcement.
He glanced over at Jenna with a look of appeal, "Are you sure you won't change your mind about becoming the Matriarch's successor?"
Jenna stared at her uncle like he'd lost his mind, before replying in a relatively calm voice, "No, Uncle, that is definitely an honor I can do without."
"The choice will be formalized with the reading of the Matriarch's will in the presence of the entire clan the week after your bonding ceremony." Mikhail stared pensively into his heavy glass, swirling its dark amber whiskey. "Though we can get out the word informally, by having her as one of the signatory witnesses during the ceremony. If that meets with your approval, Serita Doyle?"
At first, Jenna thought that Mikhail was consulting with Katya because she was in charge of the arrangements but when she took in the pale, frightened look on the young telepath's face and the equally distraught look on Brendan's, she realized just who her grandmother's second choice had been. She strode over and gave the girl a nearly rib-shattering hug.
"I'm so pleased, Katya. The Matriarch couldn't have made a better choice."
"Then you're not angry, Captain Stannis, that I'm not a member of your clan? That I have no direct blood ties?"
"Katya, you and your father have done more to promote the survival and well-being of the Stannis Fleet and Clan, than anyone else ever since I've known you. Certainly more than I've done. That makes you Stannis in spirit, which is much stronger than flesh and blood. I'm not only glad that the Matriarch chose you as her successor for my sake, I just don't believe that anyone else could do a better job."
With a final quick hug, Jenna stepped over to Travis's side, noting the wryly amused look on his face as he drawled, "Well, that's certainly a relief not to have that bloody sword hanging over your head any longer, isn't it? With Katya being so much younger than you, you don't have to worry about outliving her and having the question come back to haunt us again."
Jenna gave him a gimlet-eyed glare, "She's not that much younger than me, I'll have you know." Then she noticed Travis was sniggering in his drink and seriously considered pouring her Antarean sparkling water over his head, but given the seriousness of the occasion, decided to wait until after their bonding ceremony.
She noticed that Mikhail's step-daughters seemed equally relieved not to have the possibility of inheriting the Matriarch's title imposed on them and were offering Katya their sincere thanks and congratulations.
With the ceremony over and the question of the Matriarch's successor settled to everyone's apparent relief, Jenna felt the nervous energy that had kept her going for most of the day beginning to ebb.
"You wanna make our farewells, Travis? Right now I just want to go home, pull the covers over my head and sleep for a week."
"I thought we planned to meet Blake and Liberator's crew for drinks and dinner down on the docks around eight?" Travis asked somewhat concerned at Jenna's increasingly pale face and exhausted expression.
"See if we can't make it another time, Travis? The last thing I want to do is watch Vila try to drink Tarrant under the table while Blake offers maudlin toasts and Avon sits there being darkly sarcastic."
Travis nodded in eager agreement, beginning to feel his head beginning to throb again despite the temporary anesthetic properties of Mikhail's whiskey. "I'll check and see if Jason wants to go pub crawling with that merry group . . . and if not, we'll just have to make it another evening."
Travis started up from a sound sleep, seeing the comm signal flash and quickly hit the HOLD button. Carefully extracting himself from Jenna's embrace, he pulled on his trousers and went into the main room, activating the voder circuit.
"Decker, is that you? What's up? Did you spot our dock rat?"
"Who else would be calling you at this hour of the night, Cap'n?" The wryly amused voice held a note of strain and Travis strapped on his weapon and hurriedly grabbed a jacket and pair of boots, without going back to finish dressing.
"You got something cornered, Decker?" he snapped. "Hope you didn't bite off more than you can chew."
"I got something cornered, Captain, and I don't think it's what either of us was expecting." The smoothly urbane reply held a note of increasing urgency. "You better get over here double quick. I'm not sure I can keep a lid on this situation much longer."
"Don't take foolish chances, Decker. If things get out of hand -- shoot, and don't hesitate."
There was an increasingly nervous laugh, "I don't think you want me to do that, Cap'n. Not really."
And the signal cut off before Travis could demand to know what Decker meant. He grabbed a belt with two more weapons attached and fastened it under his jacket, next to his skin and then hesitating for just a moment, decided not to leave a message for Jenna.
"No need to worry her," he muttered. "I'll be back long before she's awake."
Famous last words his conscience sneered at him, but Travis hurried to the lifts and down to the transport level.
The Stannis clan maintained a private high speed transport between their living quarters and the shuttle up to the main space dock. He and Jenna rarely made use of it, preferring to maintain what little anonymity that they could by using public transport or randomly chosen rentals, but tonight he wasn't worried about the First Captain finding out where he was going. Tonight speed was of the essence if he wanted to get to the Loge before Decker wound up on the wrong end of a blaster . . . or worse.
Fast as the transport was, Travis drummed his fingers impatiently on the automatic control panel, his imagination working overtime about Decker's words. Not what they were expecting? He wasn't expecting anything or anyone to be interested in the Loge. It was a high-tech underground exploration vehicle, useless to anyone on a cosmopolitan world like Sanctuary. Only a trained geologist/planetologist would even know how to use it.
He rubbed his hand absently against his forehead as the transport swooshed to a halt, quickly exited heading for the shuttle. The graveyard shift pilot was half-dozing at her controls, but jerked awake as Travis came aboard and buckled into the co-pilot's seat.
"Take me to docking slip 113 A," he ordered harshly, flashing his ID. "But lock onto the transport's belly hatch. I want to get aboard without anyone knowing."
"But that's against the rules . . .," the pilot started to protest before staring nervously into the blaster Travis pointed under her nose.
"I'm the owner and I make the rules. Understand?"
Swallowing hard, the pilot activated the engines for the fast lift into orbit before approaching the dock. It took some careful maneuvering to get them to next the belly hatch, but with Travis's terse instructions the nervous pilot was able to comply.
"What now, Captain? There's no deep space airlock connection. How do you intend to get aboard the transport? That vacuum's a bit thin for breathing."
Using a handheld remote activation device to open the hatchway, he ordered grimly, "Take this shuttle inside, Pilot. I know it's a tight squeeze but you shouldn't do more than scrape the paint."
The young woman started to protest but after a long look at Travis's blaster and the grim look on his face, decided that explosive decompression would probably be an easier death.
"All right, Captain, but this craft doesn't have finely tuned steering controls . . . so don't blame me for any dents in your shiny new ship."
Despite her misgivings the shuttle pilot did an admirable job fitting the craft into the hold's very limited space. As they waited for the air pressure to return to normal so he could open the hatch, Travis stared through the forward screens in awe at the repaired and refitted Loge. Struggling with his own physical and mental recovery over the past months, he hadn't had a close look at the craft since it had been left in Space Dock in the aftermath of the Chiron rescue mission.
Obviously, Samore's family had spared no expense in ordering equipment and supplies, while Jenna and Jason had assured that only the most skilled technicians had done the repair and refit work. If he'd been impressed with the exploration craft when he first saw it, he was virtually awe-struck by it now. With its top-of-the line-heat shielding, updated Xenon laser drill, and sonic cannon, the vessel was ready to tackle almost any subsurface exploration assignment. Even though he was a deep-space pilot by training, his fingers almost itched to try out those controls and feel the leviathan rumble of the Loge's engines.
As the hold pressurized enough so he could open the shuttle's hatchway, a mechanically augmented voice hailed him from the Loge's control deck.
"Well, you took long enough getting here, Cap'n. I was beginning to think that you stopped off for a pint along the way."
"I took the scenic route, Decker. Just in case our dock rat had the drop on you."
"You are a cautious sonuvabitch, aren't you? Well, pay off the shuttle jockey or tell him to wait because I need you at the controls. ASAP."
Travis arched a brow at the pilot, "Stay or go?"
"I might as well wait," she shrugged. "I'm gonna need your signature on my requisition for a new paint job. And I wanna see what was so important that I had to get here at gunpoint?"
"All right, but if you hear blaster fire, seal up your hatch. And don't take on any hitchhikers."
As Travis hurried up to the Loge's controls, he didn't have time to do more than glance at the boxes and crates of scientific equipment stowed in the holds, just waiting to be unloaded and hooked up to the main sensors. He sighed ruefully, remembering how Lynn Hertzog had protested so vehemently as they stripped away all her monitoring and recording equipment, everything but the basics needed to power the ship for its rescue operation. She'd been consumed with curiosity about the effects of the cometary impact on Chiron, rabidly eager to take geologic readings, even as they stood on the brink of Armageddon.
"Gotta admire a woman that single-minded," he muttered to himself.
When he reached the main controls, he found Decker there, his normally neatly combed blond hair falling over his forehead as he scanned the screens of the internal monitors he'd placed strategically throughout the Loge's data collection and storage areas.
"Whoever our intruder is, he moves like a damned phantom. I thought I had him cornered in one of the storage bays when I called you, but he skittered away before I could get it sealed off. I finally got most of main storage locked down, limiting the area where he's able to hide but he's still managed to stay out of camera range, ducking into the shadows like he knows every inch of this craft."
Travis felt a sudden chill shiver down his spine, "The only man who knew the Loge that well is dead, buried in a magma flow on a planet that's currently an orbiting pile of rubble."
"Well then, maybe it's his ghost."
"I don't believe in ghosts," Travis answered harshly, as he unholstered his blaster. "Show me the area that's been sealed off and I'll see if I can't corner our stealthwise dock rat."
Using a set of controls that he activated with a nod of his head, Decker pinpointed the last area where he'd spotted their intruder. "Judging by glimpses I did get, I was beginning to think it was just a kid, but 'Hide and Seek' is just a game to kids. Our intruder acts like it's a matter of life and death. I can't even figure out where he's getting food and water . . . if he even is getting food and water."
"Then he can't hold out forever," Travis nodded grimly as he went over the sensor screens where Decker had illuminated the areas he'd just sealed off.
The main area where the intruder chose to hide was the laser and sonic cannon bays.
"Those heavy duty power conduits are a real rat's nest, Captain Travis. The EM radiation interferes with the sensors and I can't get back there physically to scope things out."
"Then that's where I'll check, Decker. Keep the area sealed off and under surveillance."
"Just don't let him get the drop on you, Captain. You owe me money."
"Right," Travis answered grimly, his mind already on the cramped spaces between the conduits and energy shields.
Activating the security code, he entered the cramped weapons area, nearly choking on the hazy ionized atmosphere. The air crackled with electricity and he frowned down at his weapon before holstering it, not wanting to set off a super-charged beam under these conditions. Almost overwhelmed by the smell of scorched insulation and lubricant, Travis wondered how anyone could tolerate it for more than a few minutes. As he listened carefully, he heard a muffled sound of coughing in a corner, and moved stealthily toward the huddled figure.
Decker seemed to be right about it being a young stowaway, judging by the tangled hair and bony shoulders.
"C'mon, kid. You don't belong here. Too much radiation'll stunt your growth. Don't give me any trouble and I'll buy you a meal down on the docks. Make it hard and I'll beat the shit out of you."
"I do so belong here. The Loge's mine. I built her. Or Derek and I did. No one else has any right to her." The voice that answered was more high-pitched than he expected, and oddly familiar as well.
Travis reached out tentatively with his flesh and blood hand, resting it on the shivering shoulder as he drew the intruder to her feet, recognizing the broad forehead and high cheek bones of Dr. Lynn Hertzog. Though he could hardly believe it was the same woman who'd argued and fought with him as she piloted the STEV some ten months before. Her once robust frame was little more than skin and bone, her dark brown curls limp and streaked with gray. Only her piercing green gaze was the same and although she appeared disoriented and confused, Travis could see that she was back from whatever dark place that she had retreated to when Derek Sinclair had died during the Chiron rescue mission.
"You're right, Dr. Hertzog," he answered in as soothing a voice as his raspy throat could manage. "Loge is yours now. I kept my promise and had it rebuilt, refitted and upgraded. It's yours whenever you want it." His hand rested gently on her bony shoulder, "I think you need to see the doctors though."
"No!" she protested hoarsely. "No more doctors, no more dark rooms. Too quiet, too empty. I don't belong there . . . I want to get back to work . . . exploring volcanos and caves, listening to the heartbeat of the world." She covered her face, trying to hide the tears that filled her eyes, "Even if Derek is no longer beside me."
"All right," Travis agreed, trying to reassure the shaken woman. "No more doctors and hospitals. But you do need to get a clean bill of health before you take control of the Loge. And there are a few technicalities that still need to be cleared up."
Lynn sagged weakly against his shoulder, as she gazed around at her rebuilt excavation vehicle in disbelief, "You kept your promise, Captain Travis. You really did."
"I gave you my word, Doctor . . . and I don't go back on it, no matter the cost."
With a supporting arm around her waist, he led her back to the Loge's main controls where Decker was impatiently waiting, electromagnetic interference keeping him from seeing the details of what had happened in the weapons bays.
"Well, it looks like you actually know our stowaway, Captain Travis. Do you want to fill me in on the details . . . or let me die of suspense?"
Tersely Travis outlined his part in the Chiron Rescue mission nine months ago. How Drs. Sinclair and Hertzog had volunteered to use their underground exploration vessel to reach survivors stranded in an underground bunker on a world on the verge of self-destructing after a major cometary impact. Trying to keep his narrative terse and to the point, Travis touched lightly on Sinclair's death as he tried to divert a magma flow that would have blocked their rescue efforts. Finally he detailed the rescue itself and how they made the rendezvous with the transport vessel by the narrowest of margins, both fuel and oxygen wise.
"She gave the young family we rescued her oxygen mask and passed out just before we reached the surface," he explained to Decker, who was listening in bemusement. "Afterwards, she remained in a comatose state . . . until recently, I guess." He turned his attention to the shaky geologist, "How the devil did you get out of the rehab center without us being notified? They're supposed to update Jenna or me on any change in your physical or mental condition."
Dr. Hertzog looked down at the industrial grade jumpsuit that she was wearing.
"I'm not sure . . . I just remember nightmares and darkness. I couldn't move or even think. They kept putting these trank patches on me so I didn't know where or even who I was. The one night, I managed to pull off the skin patch before it knocked me out. I knew I had to get away . . . somewhere I could gather my scattered thoughts. There was a maintenance worker in my room, doing some sort of repairs. I pretended I was choking, that I couldn't breathe and lured her close enough so I could grab her. The next few minutes aren't very clear, but I think I managed to hold the patch against her neck until she collapsed."
She took a deep shuddering breath. "I'm pretty sure she was breathing when I stripped off her clothes, leaving her in my bed so I could sneak out."
"Bloody hell," Travis swore. "You'd think that someone on the staff would have noticed the switch by now and notified us?"
Decker gave him a rueful grin, "If it's like some of the rehab centers I was in, all the staff cared about was whether or not the headcount matched. If the good doctor was that withdrawn to begin with, she's probably had her diagnosis upgraded to 'delusional.'"
"Well, I guess Jenna and I can get it straightened out eventually. Right now, the best place for you is the Stannis Clan holdings. We'll find quarters for you near Jenna and me and get you checked out by one of the doctors. Once you've got a clean bill of health, Jason can give you guided tour of the 'new and improved' STEV."
"'New and improved?'" Dr. Hertzog sputtered, beginning to get a little of her old acerbic nature back. "What was wrong the 'old original' vessel. And who is this Jason? A geologist? An engineer? And what qualifications . . . other than sheer brass . . . make him think he can improve on my handiwork?"
"He's a junior apprentice pilot, fresh out of the academy," Travis retorted with a wry look. "Which qualifies him to run the universe . . . in his opinion. And he's been studying the files of the Interstellar Congress of Geologists and Geophysicists for the last six months, making sure the upgrades to the Loge fit their specifications."
Dr. Hertzog glared at him weakly, trying to hide the trembling in her knees. "While I appreciate the boy's hard work, Captain, given the Congress's fossilized attitudes, I'm afraid I may have to request that some of those upgrades be revised . . . or even removed?"
Travis shrugged. "I warned him laboratory scientists typically lack knowledge of conditions in the field. We'll pull out any 'improvements' that don't meet with your approval, Doctor. Though I doubt we'll get anything done this week. Jason and I have a large formal bonding ceremony scheduled in six . . . make it five days time. And we seem to be at the beck and call of half the females in this city, so I'm afraid you'll have to wait your turn."
Nodding absently, her attention clearly elsewhere, Dr. Hertzog gazed intently at the external views of the upgraded ship, taking in its highly polished, heat-reflective surface and multiple hook-ups for sensor linkages. "I'll have to admit that you've certainly done a good job on the exterior, Captain Travis." She gazed around wistfully, "If you don't mind, I'd like to stay here a little longer and check out some of the changes before I make any final decisions."
Travis glanced down at his chrono. Nearly 0600 and he'd had less than two hours sleep, with a long and trying day ahead of him. Catching that weary expression, Decker flashed him a smug grin.
"Why don't I stay and show the lady doctor around, Captain? I'm a night owl anyway and I got to know this STEV pretty well when setting up the security system. Then when we're through, maybe we can have breakfast and a little pleasant conversation before I escort her to the Stannis compound."
"Does that meet with your approval, Doctor?" Travis arched a brow at Lynn Hertzog, noticing her attention fixed on Decker's rugged good looks and devil-be-damned attitude and ignoring minor inconvenience of the LS chair.
"Yes, of course," she said vaguely, then turned her attention back to Travis. "How will I contact you once I arrive there?"
"Just leave a message on the central computer. I think I'm currently listed under 'Fatted Calf.'" He turned back to Decker, "And I'll put in a good word about your work with the other Stannis captains. Reliable security specialists are not easy to find. How do you want to be paid? Credit voucher, direct transfer or hard cash? If you want cash, I'll need to bring it by later."
Decker flashed him a sly grin, "Hell, Captain, it's not every day that I find myself in the company of a brainy and beautiful lady scientist. I'll give you a fifty percent credit break for that reason alone . . . and another fifty percent break, if you can get me an invitation the biggest social fling of the week . . . that bonding ceremony?"
"Why the hell would you want to come to the bonding of someone you hardly know, Decker?"
"Word gets around, Captain. And I enjoy seeing the underdog come out on top. So what do you say?"
"Well, if you don't mind rubbing elbows with several hundred people you've never met before, why the hell not. I can have it data-statted to your office . . . or leave one for you to pick up when you deliver Dr. Hertzog to the Stannis compound,"
Travis glanced over at Lynn Hertzog, noting the faint flush on her cheeks and the sparkle in her dark green eyes. Decker might be paralyzed from the neck down, but that didn't seem to affect his smooth charm and mega-watt smile. Well, Jenna always said that 9/10 of sex was from the eyebrows up.
Shaking his head in bemusement, he headed back to where he'd left the shuttle pilot, hoping she was as inclined to give him a break on her charges but somehow doubting it.
It was still dark when the alarm shrilled and Jenna muttered a feeble, "Off."
Before she could turn over and go back to sleep, the day planner spoke up in a decidedly nasal tone, reminding her of her important appointment schedule. With a groan, she remembered her promise to Katya to be at her grandmother's office by 0800. With a regretful sigh, she tossed off the covers, staggered into the fresher and turned the shower on as hot as she could stand it.
Travis's absence from their bed did not worry her as it once might have, even though yesterday had been a traumatic day for both of them. She'd vaguely overheard the call about the security problem on the Loge, which was likely where he was right now.
Activating the blowers, she quickly brushed out her hair and dressed in a somber colored suit. While it wasn't the most up-to-date styling, maybe the designer would take into account her grandmother's death as the cause for her unfashionable appearance. She headed out the door then paused, wondering if she should leave a message for Travis about meeting later. With a rueful sigh, she realized that the consultation with the designer was probably just the first of a long series of meetings and decisions that would likely keep her busy all day.
When she arrived, she was both surprised and gratified to see Kayla Madison there as well.
Not wanting to disturb the designer, who was scrutinizing a full-length computer display of Jenna's formal Stannis colors, Jason's intended whispered, "My grandmother and I had a long talk last night, about Jason's past . . . and our future together. I don't really understand Free Trader traditions and a dozen other things that I probably should know, but I love him with all my heart and I'll do everything in my power to make him happy."
Jenna gripped the younger woman's hand tightly and gave her a reckless smile. "I was a little vague on tradition and family expectations myself, after spending almost ten years as a smuggler and rebel pilot, fighting the Federation. Don't worry, you'll catch on fast . . . as long as you stand up to them."
Obviously well-briefed by Katya about Jenna's stubborn streak, the designer who went by the name Devon said in a conciliatory voice, "There's a timeless and starkly elegant simplicity to the gown, Captain, and its color is flattering to your hair and skin tones. However, given the significance of the occasion, it seems to me that just a small amount of additional gold filigree on the bodice, sleeves, and in diamond-shaped panels along the hem of the skirt would add to its elegance."
Having seen Devon's creations at the various clan functions she and Travis had attended, Jenna had some idea of what the designer meant by 'a small amount.' Still, she had promised to cooperate so she shrugged in agreement.
"Just try not to make it too heavy. If I've got to be on my feet all day to greet my relatives and then dance at the reception, I prefer not to need a major rebuild of my feet and ankles afterwards."
Devon nodded an absent agreement, her attention already diverted to Kayla's lithe, willowy grace. "Now this young woman would look outstanding in one of the multi-tiered Bella Rosa gowns, a strapless bodice, sweeping skirt and train, and layers of ruffles cascading off her shoulders and down her back."
"No," Kayla answered firmly, holding out a tattered drawing of a gown with a shallow scooped neckline, long sleeves, and simple fitted bodice that flared out from her hips to a full-length skirt that swirled around the ankles like sea-foam. "I prefer something simple, too."
"But you have the perfect figure . . . and this is such a major event in your life. Don't you want to make a dramatic impression on your bondmate's clan?"
Kayla stared at the exotic dress that was being modeled by 3D projection in the middle of the room, "Yes, it's very beautiful, but it's not who I am. My world is just beginning to recover from the devastation of the attack on Star One and my family wasn't wealthy or powerful before then. I see no reason to pretend to be something I'm not."
The designer heaved a regretful sigh, hearing the surprising maturity in the girl's voice and knowing better than to try and badger this young woman with Katya present, "I suppose you want the dress made in a simple fabric as well."
"Chameleon silk," Kayla said firmly.
The designer's mouth fell open and she repeated in a voice hoarse with shock. "The entire dress!?! I don't know if I can locate that much of the fabric on such short notice. And there would have to be an extra charge for such a rare material . . ."
Her voice trailed off at the amused look on Kayla's face, "That's no problem. My grandmother and I have a full bolt packed in our belongings. The dye comes from our planet and she wove the fabric last year, after . . ."
Devon stared in disbelief as her knees gave out and she collapsed in a chair, her voice a choked whisper,"You have an entire bolt of chameleon silk . . . woven by your grandmother?" She swallowed hard, attempting to moisten her suddenly dry mouth. "Given the simplicity of your pattern, I'm quite sure that one bolt will be more than sufficient."
She continued in a hopeful tone, "And if you would allow me to keep the remnants, there would be no charge for either of the dresses."
Kayla looked over at Katya Doyle, Matriarch-to-be of the clan she was marrying into, not certain how to reply.
"Devon is the finest designer on Sanctuary," Katya assured her. "And I'm sure she will do her very best to create the perfect dresses, according to the design each of you have chosen. As for the fabric remnants, that's your decision, Serita Madison, but if you do agree, I'm sure that Devon will be in your debt . . . and at your beck and call for years to come."
"Oh gladly, Matriarch," the designer breathed, her eyes glittering in anticipation. "For the opportunity to work with that much chameleon silk, I'll create a new formal gown for your young kinswoman every year for the next five."
"That won't be necessary," Kayla replied. "Besides where would I wear them?"
But Katya took her aside and whispered, "Even if you and Jason decide to make Zircaster your home, you'll still need to visit Sanctuary on a regular basis to keep up with what's happening among the clans . . . and there will be many parties and celebrations where you'll be glad to wear an original Devon."
With design and fabric settled, final fittings were a mere formality being done by 3D laser mapping. After the designer hurried away, with a message from Katya to Naomi for her to receive the bolt of fabric that had been brought for the bonding gown, the three women collapsed with a sigh of relief on the oversized couch in the Matriarch's inner office.
Glancing at her chrono, Jenna muttered, "Well, that wasn't as traumatic as I expected . . . and it's only 0930. So are we free for the rest of the day?"
Katya took a deep breath and reached for her data comp but before she could access the extensive list of meetings, consultations, and overall decisions that still needed to be made, there was a brisk knock at the door. But before anyone could get up to open it, Mikhail's bondmate, Athena, bustled into the room with a diverse group of young women trailing behind. Jenna thought she recognized her two cousins, but was surprised to see Liberator's full distaff complement, Cally, Dayna, and the enigmatic Soolin, along with Alamo's navigator, Brita Rocklin, who glanced around at the Matriarch's office curiously.
"Well, Katya, what are the three of you lolling about for?" Athena said, shaking her finger in a mocking fashion. "We've got a wedding to plan and not nearly enough time to do the job properly."
"Well, Captain Stannis and Serita Madison were about to go over my preliminary list and make their choices . . ."
Athena glanced down at Katya's computer link and raised one coal dark brow, "And what's the fun in that? Just looking at pictures and projections? How are they supposed to have any idea of size . . . color . . . fragrance? Not to mention hearing the actual music and not some tinny reproduction and choosing buffet dishes without tasting them, based on computer displays alone?" She gave an exaggerated wink, "Three-quarters of the vendors in Xanadu have left messages on Mikhail's comm center in the last twenty-four hours. Come on, Katya, let's let Jenna and her future daughter-in-law get a sample of the more exotic side of this city, before they submerge themselves in data accounts and crew rosters again."
Katya turned an inquiring look at Jenna, who glanced over at Cally and Dayna, trying to get a sense of their attitude about being part of this excursion.
Cally had a mildly amused expression as she replied, "I never had the chance to explore the city whenever we've been here in the past, Jenna. It would be enjoyable to see parts of it with such a knowledgeable guide as your aunt."
Dayna was immersed in some kind of technical conversation with one of Athena's daughters about a new energy augmentation technique that would increase the power and range of Liberator's weapons. She agreed to be a part of the group, if they could stop by Beryl's lab facilities afterwards.
Athena tsked at her daughter in exasperation, "Can't you ever leave work at the lab?"
Soolin just shrugged when her opinion was asked, replying in a mildly amused voice, "I'd be kicked out of the Gunslingers' Guild if I refused a free meal and drinks. Count me in."
Brita had a slightly guilty look on her face, "I probably should get back to the office. Captain Travis showed up at 0630, looking very tired but like a load had been lifted off his shoulders. He said something about the Loge no longer being a problem . . . and asked me to send out an invitation to Decker Security." She turned to Jenna with a mildly accusing look, "I didn't know that anyone other than family was invited."
Remembering the fifty invitations that Katya mentioned earlier as being allowed for friends, Jenna cringed, and slapped her forehead in exasperation. Though she'd remembered friends aboard Liberator, she'd forgotten about the loyal crews of Alamo, Balkis, and Valkyrie, who'd brought their ships and cargos through despite raiders, ion storms, and even hostile planetary defense systems.
She gave Brita a contrite grin, "Travis and I think of our crew as family . . . and automatically assumed you'd been invited." She turned a beseeching look to Katya, "Do you think it might be possible to arrange for a few more invitations to include all our crews . . . and apprentices?"
"I think that can be arranged," Katya smiled.
Brita seemed somewhat surprised at Jenna's inclusion of the apprentices, "You sure about that, Captain? Some of those youngsters can probably suck down their body weight in prime rib. Worse than a plague of locusts."
"I'll ask Akema to keep and eye on them and make sure they don't stuff food inside their tunics. Besides they need the chance to sample something besides protein packs and dockside junkfood."
"If you say so," Brita said uncertainly. "But I still should get back to the office . . ."
"So Travis can pull his 'poor, overworked captain' routine?" She grabbed her navigator by the elbow before turning her attention back to Athena. "Well, Aunt, let's get this expedition underway."
Katya tried to beg off, pleading other clan business but Athena was adamant. "You realize this is the only occurrence of real importance for the next five days, Serita Doyle? Besides would you rather we gossiped about you behind your back . . . or to your face?"
The first three stops were at the florist's, the artificer who was in charge of the attendants' gowns and the musician's guild. Jenna and Kayla quickly approved Katya's preliminary selections, while Athena studied the arrangements with a critical eye.
"Jenna, the designer said that you're wearing clan colors with gold trim and Kayla's dress is chameleon silk, which metamorphs according to light, so what about adding some gold and silver ribbons to the attendant's bouquets, and burnt gold trim on the table arrangements? A little extra greenery wouldn't be amiss either."
Jenna nodded her head in bemusement, not having the faintest notion of what Mikhail's bondmate was talking about, but taking her cue from Katya who seemed content with the older woman's suggestions.
At the gown artificer's, they examined the template projection for the attendants, which was a princess style gown with a cowl neckline and three-quarter length ruffled sleeves. Athena frowned her disapproval, "That won't work at all. With both brides in starkly simple gowns, the attendants need to be toned down as well. Sleeveless bodices with sweetheart necklines should coordinate much better. Don't you think, Jenna, Kayla?"
The two of them exchanged mutual shrugs, before Jenna nodded.
The artificer gave the group a sour look as she made the necessary adjustments and inquired, "You do realize that several of the attendants have rather large bust measurements, and this style will only make them more noticeable?"
Athena gave a rueful sigh, "Ouch, I forgot that Doyenne Shanika's daughters were in the wedding party. Any suggestions, Katya?"
"A gold chiffon drape across the front of the bodice would hide a multitude of sins . . ."
"And coordinate with the flower arrangements as well. Brilliant, Serita, I can already tell that you're going to have a long successful run as Matriarch of this clan."
The musicians' guild presented a much more challenging situation for everyone. Though not an expert in orchestral music, Jenna did not like any of the pieces played for them.
"They all sound like dirges, Katya. Like we're being dragged to the altar. Don't these people know anything triumphant . . . or even moderately cheerful?"
Katya consulted with the guildmaster, who gave a very sour frown as he said in a somewhat defensive tone, "This is the ceremonial music written by our local composers that is considered appropriate for bonding ceremonies. If you ladies wish to review other selections written by outworlders, you may access our database and see if it contains anything that you like. Of course, locating musicians familiar with alien instruments and musical notation may prove more difficult."
Much to Jenna's surprise, Dayna spoke up somewhat hesitantly, "Much as I despise the Federation, when my father fled from Earth, he brought a great many music data crystals with him. To remind him of my mother and our home he said. Some of it was so sad it made me cry, others made me want to leap and dance, but there was one composer that we both loved. His music could be bright and funny, like a buzzing insect or create images in my head of things I'd never seen . . . a busy market square or a great storm at sea. His name was . . . funny, like two last names. Maybe he wrote something Jenna would like?"
The guildmaster sniffed disdainfully, "Earth music is archaic and derivative at best, I'm sure that I or one of my instrumental masters can create something much more original that would meet with your approval, Seran Stannis."
"I'm sure you could, guildmaster if we had weeks or even a month to wait for the arrangement, but this ceremony takes place in less than five days. We don't need original . . . or creative, we need it now."
Athena's dark gray eyes glittered sharply as she muttered to herself. "Two last names . . . now where have I heard that before? I'd like to see your historical archives, Guildmaster. Maybe they can give me some hints about this composer that Dayna remembers."
With an offended sniff, the chief musician showed them the archive listings and began to activate the data files for musical pieces that had not been played before an audience in hundreds of years.
Running a dark burgundy enameled nail down the screen, Athena muttered to herself, "Abramson, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bushinsky . . . Carter, Cash, Copeland . . . Delibes, Denver . . . Gershwin, Glass, Joel, King, LennonMcCartney, Porter, . . . ahh, here we are, Mikhail's favorite Russian, Rimsky-Korsakoff."
Opening the field further to find out which of his compositions was on file, she quickly activated the one that she had heard long ago and smiled as the military flourish of a trumpet fanfare sounded its brassy notes in the hall. For a moment Jenna cringed as the martial tocsin grated across her nerves, then she listened with her heart and soul, hearing the heartfelt joy in the music as well as its exultant notes of triumph.
"It's not a military piece at all, is it?" she asked Athena breathless, not quite trusting her instincts."Its formal title is 'Entry of the Nobles,'" Athena tapped the data retrieval screen. "Which could mean almost anything, depending on your historical perspective. But it most definitely is not a dirge."
Jenna glanced over at Kayla, wondering in any particularly unpleasant memories of the Federation's occupation of her world might be aroused by the martial sound of the trumpets. But to her surprise, the younger woman shrugged, "They never held daily formations, even before the massacre. Afterwards, those who remained behind were the lowliest conscripts, with no pride, no sense of duty. Little more than thugs in uniform . . . as they proved in the aftermath of the destruction of Star One. A martial fanfare means nothing to me."
"Make a copy for us then, if you please, guildmaster. And you'll need to locate suitably skilled musicians within the next three days, so we can hear them perform before the ceremony."
"As you wish, Seran Stannis," the chief musician replied with an expression sour enough to curdle milk.
"I would like to hear their initial audition no later than the evening of the 16th,"Athena stated firmly. "And they must be available for final rehearsal the afternoon before the ceremony. The usual fees will be paid to the musicians and of course, there will be a substantial financial bonus awarded to your guild, due to the difficulty of locating the necessary antique instruments and performers capable of playing such an obscure historic piece."
The guildmaster's expression was much happier as he escorted them out although Jenna thought the man might resort to tearing his hair out once they left.
Their final stop was a private dining room, located at the central market, where butchers, fishmongers, and poulterers offered samples of their wares prepared in half a hundred different ways, sauteed, braised, barbecued, skewered and broiled. The samples and their various exotic seasonings would have tempted even a die-hard vegetarian. There were also other delicacies of various types offered as well, pates, cheeses, pasta and fried dumplings, cous-cous, and hummus, vegetables from every greengrocer in the sector, prepared in dozens of different dressings and sauces. By the time that the desserts and coffee were offered, Jenna was virtually glassy-eyed.
"How can you?" she moaned as Cally popped a richly decorated chocolate confection into her mouth.
Auron metabolism Cally beamed at her without having to open her mouth while savoring the exquisite treat. Besides there's always room for chocolate.
Jenna turned her attention to Katya who was jotting notes onto her data padd as Athena made suggestions and either nodded or shook her head at the young telepath's selections. The gathering was clearly breaking up. Dayna and Beryl had excused themselves even before dessert to check out the energy lab. Athena's other daughter, Cammie, and Kayla, were listening wide-eyed to some story that Soolin was reciting in a droll tone of voice. Catching Mikhail's name mentioned in passing, Jenna thought it might be her version of Jason's rescue from La Terre de la Nuit San Fin. Brita was simply savoring her second or maybe even her third cup of coffee, with a placid look on her face.
"Definitely an improvement over the paint stripper we get dockside," Jenna remarked.
Brita raised a speculative eyebrow, "I wonder how much it would cost to have a gallon of this delivered in a thermal stasis container to the office every morning?"
Jenna glanced over at Katya's data entries, noting the beverage prices listed and after swallowing hard, rasped, "We couldn't afford it without becoming freebooters. Egad, I've paid less for a whole cargo hold of liquor."
Brita sighed ruefully, "I expected as much. Still, just think of the improvement it would make in Captain Travis's temper."
Shaking her head, Jenna disagreed, "Nothing's going to help that until the annual inventory and budget projections are finished."
Noting that Athena and Katya seemed to be done with their consultations, Jenna asked her "aunt" bluntly, "Just how long have you and Mikhail been bonded? I know my uncle has always played his cards close to his vest, but I would have expected to have seen you at some of the functions we've attended in the past few years."
Athena gave her niece a patient smile and took a long sip of her own coffee, before continuing.
"Well, the old bear and I got around to registering our vows formally when the three of you returned from retrieving Jason. I think he felt a sense of his own mortality after his encounter with that Terra Nostra thug. But we were first sworn to each other years ago, when your father and mother were still alive. Mikhail was the second son, planning to have a quiet planetside career and stay out of family politics. As the youngest daughter in my family's house, I was an ideal match . . . until your father was killed by Federation troopers and Mikhail became First Captain."
Jenna rubbed her brow speculatively recalling Katya's earlier revelation, "But my father wasn't even a Stannis. His father was my grandmother's first bondmate . . . I don't even know his name."
"Theo Duquesne, captain and heir to the Duquesne fleet. When he vanished into the void and was never heard from again, it broke your grandmother's heart . . . and destroyed the soul and lifeblood of House Duquesne. They limped along for another decade or two and then sold the remnants of their fleet and route data to Casa Alejandro."
"I still don't understand, Athena. If my father wasn't a Stannis by blood, then why was he selected First Captain over Mikhail?""Because he was Raphael Stannis's choice . . . and bloodlines have always meant very little in deciding who captained Stannis ships or ran the clan's affairs. Why do you think that Mikhail was so eager to bring you back into the fold, even with your less than suitable bondmate? It wasn't your bloodlines that he wanted, even though he had a large number of your ova harvested at the first opportunity. He needed your boldness and defiance . . . along with your information about the Federation. It just took him a little longer to realize that Travis had the same assets as well."
The older woman reached out and clasped Jenna's shoulder, "He always hoped that you'd change your mind and become the Matriarch's successor, for those very reasons. But he finally accepted that you were no more suited to remain planetbound than our daughters are to captain their own ships. Beryl is a brilliant engineer and Cammie is very gifted at accounting and keeping the Stannis Clan in the black despite occasionally outrageous spending binges like this one."
She turned her attention to Cammie who was just refusing her third cup of coffee, "Have I blown the budget yet, my girl?"
"Not even close, Athena. The vendors are still fighting over who picks up the tab for this little soiree so I guess that you haven't gotten the final bids yet?"
"Katya . . . excuse me, the Matriarch-to-be . . . has those figures in her data padd, so I imagine she'll make the final decision." Turning her attention back to Jenna who was staring into her cup in bemusement. "Was there any item in particular that you liked or wanted to make sure was ordered for the celebration?"
"Not really, it's all wonderful." She stared bemused, at her newly discovered aunt and cousins. "I was just thinking how little that I really knew about my family and myself these past few years. And how odd it is that it takes a death and a bonding ceremony for me to discover who I really am."
"Consider yourself lucky then, Captain Stannis. There are those who don't discover their true selves until they're lying on their deathbeds."
Jenna nodded somberly and raised her coffee cup in salute to her aunt and newfound confidant, "To self-discovery and the revelation of hidden truths."
"To the future." Athena replied with a smile.
Despite Katya's exemplary organizational skills, the next three days saw the usual foul-ups and mis-communications. Although Jenna kept in touch with Mikhail and Katya on a daily basis, she managed to avoid dealing with the tribulations of planning the huge celebration. Fortunately, the young telepath's experience as the Matriarch's personal secretary gave her the patience, and influence that were required to keep the high-speed bonding plans on track. Suitable substitutes were found for suppliers who were unable to meet the ceremony's requirements, last minute substitutions were made in the floral arrangements when one of the attendants turned out to be allergic to the original bouquets and, last but not least, every piece of the clan's communal silver service was located and polished to a high sheen.
After some initial difficulty, the Musicians guild located performers with the instrumental skills necessary to play the ancient processional selected by Jenna. However, like most exotic specialty performers, their non-conformist looks and behavior had precipitated a virtual riot at their last concert. Mikhail bailed them out at Katya's request and then had a long enlightening discussion with the guildmaster, threatening grave bodily harm to the entire group if they repeated their antisocial antics.
While Mikhail and the clan's new Matriarch proceeded with the organization of the ceremony, Jenna and Travis attempted to take care of their ongoing problems. The most urgent was dealing with Dr. Hertzog's status as a fugitive mental patient. Travis's initial reaction to the situation had been to storm into the Mental Center's office and pound its director into a bloody pulp for his failure to notify them of her escape. However, Jenna's cooler head prevailed and they scheduled an urgent meeting regarding Dr. Hertzog's current condition.
Jenna shook her head in exasperation, hissing at him they waited in the Director's outer office, "Try to keep your temper under control, love. I don't think Mikhail would appreciate bailing you out of the security block this close to the ceremony."
"Damn idiot deserves to be hung up by his thumbs for failing to notify us as soon as she went missing," Travis muttered under his breath.
"Maybe he didn't know."
Travis's scowl deepened, "Incompetence . . . and carelessness only makes it worse."
After they were ushered into the Director's office and the usual courtesies of beverages offered and declined, Director Norden called up Dr. Hertzog's records on his viewscreen.
"I'm not sure why you're here, Captains? We sent out our monthly report on Dr. Hertzog's status last week. There was a brief delusional episode where she claimed to be someone else . . . an electronic maintenance specialist named Jurgen. But we upped her dosage of Tranquetrol and she returned to her usual non-violent . . . and non-responsive state."
Travis pinched the bridge of his nose and asked in a deliberately patient tone of voice, "Did you think to verify her ID after that 'delusional' episode? Or check with the maintenance shop if any of their staff was missing?"
Norden looked at Travis as though he was a potential mental candidate, "Maintenance has a fifty percent monthly turnover rate, Captain. And I assure you that our security measures are more than sufficient . . ."
"Humor me and do a DNA scan," Travis ordered. As the Director started to protest, he turned on his most feral smile. "Charge it to the Stannis account if I'm wrong . . . and we'll let the legal experts settle the matter, if I'm right."
Half an hour later, Director Norden was babbling his apologies as Constance Jurgen, Monitoring Systems Electronics Technician was seated groggily in a chair while the tranquilizer antagonist began to take effect.
"I don't know how this incident happened, Captains and I assure you that it will not be repeated. We will upgrade our security procedures and patient ID protocols . . ." He paused in his stream of excuses to take a deep breath, "You did say that Dr. Hertzog has been located and apprehended. If I might know where she is currently located? So we can resume her treatment."
"She's currently residing in the Stannis Compound," Jenna answered tartly. "And given her present mental condition, I don't think she needs to return to this facility. In fact, we would be most grateful if you would sign her dismissal papers and whatever documents are necessary to testify to her civil competence."
"I'm not sure I can do that," Norden dithered. "At least, not without a perfunctory examination to assure that she is not a danger to herself . . . or others." He glanced over at Technician Jurgen, who had a somewhat confused smile on her face as she tried to remember how she wound up in Dr. Hertzog's bed, wearing her ID bracelet.
"I really don't remember much after going in the room to check the heat and motion sensors. I remember the patient making these gasping, gagging noises and I went over to see if I could do anything to help. Then she opened her eyes and grabbed my wrist. Weak as she was, I had a hard time shaking her off, and then I began to feel dizzy . . . and that's the last thing I recall of the past week."
She gave a giddy grin, "It's the best rest I've gotten in months. I just hope the Supervisor isn't mad."
"Dr. Hertzog managed to palm one of her trank patches before it took effect," Travis stated in a grim tone. "Then lured Jurgen over to her bedside and used it on her."
He turned a very baleful gaze on the Director, "So no one is to blame, correct? You'll explain that what happened to Technician Jurgen was not her fault, so she's not in trouble with her supervisor . . . and sign Dr. Hertzog's competency papers. And nothing will be said about security breaches . . . or lack of proper patient identification?"
Norden turned his attention to his computer screen and made a few perfunctory entries before activating his computer center. Moments later, several documents with impressive seals attesting to Lynn Hertzog's health and mental stability materialized on his desk. The Director quickly signed them and handed the originals to Jenna.
"Copies will be kept on file in my office and at the Central Records facility. If there's anything else I can do?"
"Just make sure that Jurgen's boss knows what happened . . . and why not give her the rest of the day off?"
Norden nodded sourly as they pulled the door to his office closed.
"Well, that was much simpler than I expected," Travis gusted out a sigh of relief. "Now what?"
"Well, I doubt we'll get any work done this week," Jenna shrugged in resignation. "But we ought to drop by the office and make sure the data crystals and the rest of our records haven't generated its own black hole and disappeared into the singularity."
Much to their surprise, instead of the deserted office that they had left, they found Akema and Brita present, surrounded by various crew members who were bombarding the senior crew members with questions and demands. When their appearance was ignored, Travis put both index fingers to his lips and gave a piercing whistle that threatened to shatter the windows.
"All right, what's with the three-ring circus, Akema? I thought that you were just supposed to pass out the invitations?"
"It's not quite that simple, Captains," the engineer rumbled, sounding for all the world like a frazzled grizzly bear. "It seems that the crew has questions about dress code, behavior expectations, policies about number and gender of escorts and where the two of you are registered for bonding gifts."
Travis glared at his rather flamboyant crew, stating in a dead flat tone, "I can't answer for the escort etiquette, dress code, or gifting situation, but I can promise you that anyone attempting to dance with a tray of drinks on his head or similar nonsense will answer to me personally."
A brief intimidated silence followed that pronouncement, then the insistent buzz of questioning resumed, until Travis resorted to his parade ground voice.
"Quiet! One at a time."
As the buzz settled to a murmur, he turned his attention to one of his senior crew members.
"All right, Sarcar," he nodded to the Orphidian cargo master. "What's the problem?"
"Formal wear invitations hath said are required. Whose formal?" he gestured down at his own glistening scales which were especially bright and resplendent since he had just completed his annual molt. Travis swallowed hard, realizing that he was up to his neck in alligators in a manner of speaking.
However, Jenna fielded the question with a calmly expert expression. "I know most of you come from varied backgrounds and are on limited budgets. All I ask is that your outfits be clean . . . and don't outshine Kayla and me. After all, we're supposed to be the center of attention. And yes, Sarcar, you're exempted from the rule, since not even a Devon original can eclipse your splendor. Next?"
"Will there be dancing?" That question from recently promoted Engineer 3rd class, Ling, whose shy smile disguised a very exuberant nature.
"Within reason, Ling. Just try to keep the acrobatics low-key enough so you don't knock over any of the older dancers out on the floor."
There were several more questions and comments that Jenna passed on to Brita, because she knew the crew's eccentricities better than either of the captains. Once the crew realized that they were truly welcome to the celebration, most of their uncertainties vanished and the apprentices chattered eagerly among themselves about what to wear, while the more senior crew conferred with sidelong smirks about the bonding gift they intended to buy for their captains.
Jenna shrugged in resignation, knowing that they would likely be the recipients of every triple-X rated vid or "marital aid" that could be found on the lower end of the docks.
"At least they'll be more entertaining than all the silver and crystal dust collector 'pass alongs' that my Stannis kin are likely to inflict on us."
The day before the bonding ceremony dawned gray and drizzly, leaving Jenna with definite misgivings about the next morning. Shrugging off her doubts, she muttered to herself.
"It's Katya's problem, not mine. All I have to do is get dressed and show up on time."
Travis seemed somewhat disgruntled when he caught sight of the weather, muttering to himself in frustration. "Damn, I knew I shouldn't have let Akema talk me into this."
"Talk you into what?"
"He's organized a short Memory Ceremony for the crew to say their good-byes to Phrath. Nothing formal or religious, just brief recall of remembrances shared. Then when Dr. Hertzog showed up, he decided to make it a joint service, honoring Dr. Sinclair as well."
"And why wasn't I informed?" Jenna's voice held a definite chill.
"Brita was supposed to mention it the other day, but totally forgot when Athena dragged her out of the office to take part in all the food and music selection excitement. And Akema felt guilty about bringing it up when we were discussing protocol with the crew. It's already been delayed so long, waiting for Glynis's return and the formal Kyrenian rite. Still, he hated to schedule it so soon after the Matriarch's death and before our celebration, but there's no other choice. If he waits any longer, half the ships and crews currently docked will be gone on trade runs. So it's today . . . or not at all."
"I didn't realize," Jenna answered somberly, "and I should have. It's my obligation see that crew members lost in our service are properly honored and their families provided for. I've been negligent . . . and let you shoulder the responsibility."
Glancing out their window at the gloomy skies, Travis said in a remote voice, "No, the duty was mine to begin with. To watch out for my crew . . . I should have done a better job." He gave a deep sigh. "The ceremony is scheduled for 1000, at the Arboretum near the Grassy Lea rec area. Though with weather like this, I doubt anyone will show up. Of all the fragging luck."
"I know we've been busy, but I still feel guilty that Akema was the one who thought about organizing it. Considering how much we owed Phrath, I wish we could have arranged a better celebration of his life. Will Dr. Hertzog be coming with us?"
"No, Akema picked her up earlier. Probably to find out if there was anything special that she wanted said or done in Sinclair's memory."
Much to their surprise when they did arrive at the mossy glen bordered by aromatic shrubs and exotic flowers, there was a very large, very mixed crowd present. Not just crew and officers from their three ships but dockworkers, bartenders, and various other denizens from the lower end of the docks. Most were dressed somberly or wearing dark cloaks to shield them from the rain, but several of the women were wearing the extreme make-up and eye-catching attire of "working girls."
He muttered an aside to Jenna, "It appears that Phrath had a great many more friends than we realized."
Navigator Brita Rocklin overheard the remark and joined them, saying in a low voice, "He lived life to the fullest when he was off-duty. Buying drinks for down-on-their luck spacers and making 'loans' to anyone with a sad story. I don't think he ever met a stranger. Kyrenians rarely plan for the future and Phrath lived in the present more than most."
Travis pinched the bridge of his nose, recalling his conversation with Glynis, "Anyone want to take bets that Glynis has already lifted ship . . . and won't be in the office next week to claim Phrath's back wages?"
Jenna nodded absently, glancing over to where their broad-shouldered engineer was keying through his data comm's screens and asked, "Just what are you looking for, Akema?"
"An Earther poem, believe it or not. Phrath actually read human poetry, besides memorizing his own clan's sagas and ballads. There was something that he recited to me once . . . it sent chills up my spine. I managed to find a copy and put it on my data comp, but never did get it properly coded in the index. What the blazes is Ling's dance files list doing here?"
"He was running out of memory and I said he could borrow some of yours . . . until he got an upgrade," Brita said in a meek voice.
"Blast and damnation, woman. He's screwed my indexes all to hell. I'll never find that poem now . . . oh, there it is."
With a satisfied growl, Akema turned his attention to the group huddled under the minimal force screen that kept off the worst of the rain.
"I think we all know why we're here. To honor the memory of Phrath Sharpeye of the Nightsinger Clan . . . a gunner of unsurpassed skill, but also a roisterer and singer and lover of life. We are also here to remember one who went into eternity at Phrath's side, scientist, adventurer, and explorer, Derek Sinclair."
There was a choked sob from Dr. Hertzog who was standing off to one side and Jenna reached out and drew her closer, putting an arm around the woman's trembling shoulders.
Akema bowed his head momentarily, then cleared his throat, "I don't have the necessary skills to recite all of Phrath's battles or declare the tales of the scars he bore. His freemate Glynis has sworn to hire the best stavemaker on their world to spin a proper saga that will tell his adventures. But we can recall the things he did, large and small, to make the night less dark and the wind less cold."
"He'd always buy a round of drinks for the refit crews," one burly spacer growled. "He was the only one who ever recognized our hard work."
Travis flinched, then started making notes inside his head of things he needed to do in the future, now that his exuberantly generous gunner was no longer there to pick up the slack.
"He'd buy a meal for the newer 'dockside dollies', giving them advice about the rough sorts to avoid, even though he was never a customer. Glynis was the only love of his life." The smeared make-up on the joy girl's face wasn't just from the rain.
A half-dozen other voices spoke up with words of praise for Phrath's boldness and generosity. Jenna felt a bitter regret, realizing how little she had known about their gunner's life beyond their ships.
There was a brief silence then Dr. Hertzog stepped forward and spoke in a trembling voice, "Derek recognized the value of having a Kyrenian aboard the Loge on the Chiron rescue mission though I did not realize how bold and courageous he was . . . until he died trying to save human lives." She choked up. "I wish I had known him better."
There was a long silence as Travis and Jenna exchanged glances, wondering which of them should speak for their ships and crew, then Travis cleared his throat and stepped forward.
"Most of you know me as a pilot and captain in the Stannis Fleet. Phrath knew when I first came to Sanctuary that I was a former Federation officer . . . and deserter. He nearly slit my throat the first time we met . . . then turned around two weeks later and saved my life on the Nevya trade mission. Since then he saved my life at least a half-dozen times and asked for nothing in return. I didn't realize how much I would miss him . . . until he was gone."
Travis's voice was husky but Jenna could not see his eye and whether or not he had shed any tears. Her own eyes were blurry and she did not trust her voice, and so just nodded an acknowledgment of her bondmate's words.
Akema glanced around to see if anyone else had something to say, then gazed down at his data comp. "Phrath was a poet and a singer, reciting the sagas of his ancestors and homeworld to anyone who would listen, whether they wanted to hear them or not. But he also appreciated the poetry and songs of other worlds as well. This was one that had special meaning for him. The origins of this poem are lost in antiquity, but it was said to come from Old Earth and be written by one of the pilots of that world, before they actually flew in space. But the spirit is there."
"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air,
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high, un-trespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
(High Flight - John Gillespie McGee, Jr. 412 Squadron, RCAF)
The crowd listened in silence and then slowly dispersed, going back to their jobs and lives, carrying the memories of the laughing, snarling gray-furred gunner with them.
That evening Travis shook his head in exasperation as Jenna made him change into a slightly more dressy outfit than his usual somber black leathers.
"Humor me, love. This will be a celebration, not a wake. Something a little less uninhibited than the typical last night party for the groom-to-be and not as sedate as a family get-together."
"Who's throwing it?" he asked somewhat apprehensively.
"The crew of Liberator."
He paused with one arm in his jacket and looked at her dubiously, "Blake, Avon, Vila . . . and the rest? Can I bring a scanner to check my drinks for hemlock?"
She gave him a slightly more than playful swat, "Stop joking around and finish dressing. We don't want to be late."
"Who's joking?" he muttered under his breath before following her out the door.
When he saw the banner -- THE (Last Night of) FREEDOM PARTY -- hanging over the door of the room reserved for their get-together, he nearly did bolt, except for Tarrant meeting him outside and offering an embarrassed explanation.
"It was my fault really. Everyone had a task to do, arranging for this affair . . . Blake and Avon picked the location, Cally and Soolin arranged for the food, Dayna and I were responsible for the drinks. Figuring it was the one thing that he couldn't foul up, Vila was put in charge of decorations."
He gestured somewhat guiltily overhead, "And this was the result. I can assure you that Blake is as upset as you are."
For a moment Travis closed his eye, remembering those dark days when Servalan had been the head of Space Command and the Freedom Party her obsession . . . and his nemesis. How his ambush at Blake's secret meeting place had changed all their lives so terribly. Yet, the ultimate consequences of those events had led them down a long and difficult road to tomorrow's joyful celebration.
"It doesn't matter, Tarrant," he smiled ruefully. "That's all long past . . . and forgotten. Besides considering that the sign was Vila's doing, I guess we should be grateful that it doesn't include half-clad joy girls or virgins in red fur as part of the message."
"I think Soolin has been exerting her influence on our little thief," the pilot shrugged. "She seems quite fond of our light-fingered friend, though not exactly eager to formalize their relationship."
Dayna's been balking too, ever since the Chiron mission." There was a mixture of guilt and exasperation on the pilot's face, "I thought that both of us having such a close brush with death might serve as a motivation. But somehow she doesn't seem to see it that way.""You violated her trust, Del. You didn't tell her the whole truth about the mission . . . and who it involved. She might forgive you for saving Federation citizens' lives. Hell, she helped feed and care for the Chiron refugees aboard Liberator, but it's going to be very hard for you to regain her trust."
Tarrant's expression was pensive, but Travis wasn't sure that he'd actually be able to lower his barriers that much. Telling Dayna that he'd been wrong was difficult for someone as self-assured as the former Federation captain. It didn't just go against his inbred self-assurance, but also the mindset that had been ground into him at the Academy.
"A Federation officer is always right. To believe otherwise is treason."
Travis clasped the young captain's shoulder ever so briefly, "Think about it, Tarrant. About how much your relationship with Dayna means to you . . . and what you're willing to sacrifice for it."
He went inside the room, following Jenna, noting that she had already joined Cally. Dayna, and Soolin over by a table holding the drinks dispenser and snack trays of various sorts. Jenna selected something colorful and filled with fruit, giving Travis a warning look. He returned the look blandly, equally resolved not to drink anything mixed by Vila . . . or Avon, for that matter.
Catching sight of Travis, Blake hurried over from the main buffet table, holding out his hand with a tentative smile on his face.
"I'm glad that you both decided to come, Travis. I realize we aren't family or even close friends but we are very grateful to have been invited to the festivities. Since Jenna was Liberator's first pilot . . . and the two of you have shared a number of experiences with Liberator's crew over the last few years, we thought that little revelry to celebrate such a joyous occasion and offer our congratulations would not be amiss."
Travis nodded, his eye hooded and half-shut, swallowing back the bile that he still felt in Blake's presence and reluctantly acknowledging the truth of that observation. Even after Jenna had left her crewmates aboard Liberator, their lives had still seemed woven together with those of Blake and his crew; from Byzantia to Zircaster, from Auros to Chiron.
While the attack on Servalan's base had served their own interests, Blake and his crew had no reason to rescue him from her clutches, except Jenna's resolve. Given her experience of his ruthlessness, Cally had demonstrated her own compassion time and again; saving his life at Star One, using her mental abilities to provide Jason with an identity and saving their sanity, after Carnell's manipulations had shattered his psychic shields.
He still wondered about Vila's and Avon's involvement in their skirmish with the Terra Nostra when he and Jenna had taken a much needed vacation. But he'd always be grateful to Avon for using his computer skills to correct the deteriorating meteorological conditions on the planet where Travis's sister and nephew lived, while Dayna and Tarrant risked their lives to destroy a Federation weapons' platform whose decaying orbit would likely have left the planet a radioactive wasteland.
His and Jenna's efforts to repay Cally's kindness by transporting medical supplies to her plague-stricken homeworld Auron had dropped them right into the middle of Carnell's plot to resurrect Servalan. Fortunately Avon's and ORAC's skills identified and destroyed the virulent organism behind the plague. Even Vila and Soolin had done their share, helping break Jason out of a Terra Nostra stronghold and just last year, Liberator's entire crew, along with Jenna and half of Sanctuary's pilots had worked together to evacuate Federation colonists from a world nearly destroyed by a cometary impact.
He and Blake had faced their inner demons . . . and made peace with their past. Now it was long past time for them to make peace with one another.
He clasped Blake's hand tentatively and made a grim effort to smile, "Thank you, Blake . . . for everything."
Catching sight of the two of them within grappling distance of one another, Jenna put down her drink and hurried over and took a firm hold of Travis's cyberarm, hoping to forestall any potential violence. But Blake continued to clasp Travis's right hand and said in a voice thick with emotion, "I know now that you and Jenna teaming up was the best thing to happen for both your sakes . . . and the galaxy at large."
He gazed down into Jenna's tender yet worried expression as she glanced between the two men, "But sometimes I have to wonder what would have happened, if I had been able to persuade Jenna to stay with me . . . with Liberator . . . after Gan's death. What battles we might have won . . . or lost? What would have happened at Star One . . . or Byzantia, if you and Jenna had not been there to help hold off the Andromedans . . . and to nip Servalan's scheme in the bud?"
Travis shrugged, a somewhat grim look on his face, "I don't know about your maybes and might-have-beens, but if Jenna and the Reina had not blasted through that pursuit squadron, I'd be nothing more than floating space dust."
Jenna clasped his shoulder fondly as she turned her attention to Blake, "Even if I had stayed after Gan died in Central Control, I'm not sure I would have taken your side against Avon, not any longer."
Clad in silver-highlighted black, Avon shimmered out of the shadows where he'd been listening to Blake's and Travis's reconciliation and Jenna's declaration, with an amused smirk.
"Finally, you admit that I was right . . . and we should have used Liberator to become fabulously wealthy, forcing the Federation to deal with us on our terms. By making the proper political contributions, we could have had Servalan demoted to kitchen drudge, third class, and bought off the Council and Senate. Then adjusted the cybernetic poll results so Blake was installed as 'Fearless Leader for Life'. If you'd only listened to me."
Chuckling ruefully at Avon's acerbic observations, Blake turned his attention to Jenna, "I presume that everything's all prepared for tomorrow's ceremony?"
"Don't ask either of us," she shrugged. "Mikhail and the new Matriarch are running the show. We could probably substitute a couple of pre-programmed droids tomorrow and no one would know the difference. I didn't even have any idea of what kind of ceremony was planned until the rehearsal this afternoon."
"What kind of ceremony is it?" Blake asked. "Religious, secular, poetic or dramatic?"
"Not religious," Jenna shuddered. "The Free Traders learned a long time ago to avoid mixing business and religion. People may lie, cheat, and steal for profit's sake, but religion can get you killed - especially worshiping the wrong gods, with the wrong words."
Travis remarked grimly, "I thought you knew your history better than that, Blake. The Federation rose out of the ashes of the last religious wars and achieved power by banning all religions . . . except the worship of the state."
"I know," Blake replied. "Gan and I discussed it just before we broke into Central Control, wondering about our ancestors . . . and the gods they worshiped."
"The vows that Travis and I repeat are between the two of us . . . and no one else," Jenna interjected. "Not family or friends or interfering 'gods.' We don't need anyone's approval to validate our bonding, we knew what we were doing from the very beginning. And the only reason we're going along with this outrageous convocation is so the clan will stop nagging us and let us get on with our lives . . . and business."
Blake nodded somberly then guided the couple over to the dispenser and ordered three whiskeys neat. As the drinks materialized in their heavy crystal glasses, Blake clinked his forcefully against Travis and Jenna's.
"To a happy life together for the both of you . . . no matter what the future holds."
Travis responded with a toast of his own, "To peace, harmony, and FREEDOM . . . wherever Liberator flies."
"To the future . . . and a positive cash flow," Jenna grinned.
Avon approached the trio, holding his own glass which he raised in ironic salute, "And as long as we're putting in our petitions to the Powers that Be, here's to extravagant wealth and a long enough life to spend it."
Tagging along behind Avon's darkly elegant figure, Vila swayed and hiccoughed, with a large bottle in each hand, "And here's to being covered with caresses by in virgins in red fur . . . while imbibing alcoholic beverages from every planet."
Relieving Vila of his two bottles, Avon steered him towards Soolin, "Try to appreciate what you have, Vila, instead of chasing after a hopeless fantasy."
Much to Jenna's relief, the day of the ceremony dawned bright and clear. Obviously Mikhail had paid a substantial bribe to the meteorological board that controlled Xanadu's weather patterns. It looked like it was going to be one of those brilliant fall days, with opal skies veiled by a thin cover of citrine clouds. Jenna stretched and yawned, not surprised to find that Travis was already up and showering, despite their narrow escape from a wild night.
The dinner with Liberator's crew had remained relatively tame and ended early enough that Jenna thought they could actually do a little dockside roaming, hitting some of the bars on their last night of "freedom." However, Travis's paranoid instincts dictated otherwise. He was too wary of enemies and good-intentioned "friends" to risk drugged drinks, family hijackings, or other possible incidents that might interfere with their participation in today's ceremony.
After returning to their quarters, both of them were surprised to find a contingent of brightly outfitted, slightly tipsy, giggling young females waiting outside their door. The leader of the group stepped forward and hiccoughed, before addressing Travis in her most authoritarian tone.
"We are Captain . . . Serita . . . Jenna's bridal attendants and it is our duty . . . and our privilege also, to assure that her honor . . . and virtue are upheld this last night before the bonding ceremony. So, if you'll accompany us, Captain?"
Jenna heaved a rueful sigh as she took in the high-spirited youngsters milling in the corridor. She knew that while they'd likely spend part of the evening at the Blue Grotto, ogling its beautifully muscled male exotic dancers while stuffing twenty credit notes in their g-strings, that they would likely wind up at Barney's, eating outrageously rich ice cream confections and drinking fruit-filled drinks. After an evening of that kind of indulgence, her gown wouldn't fasten without major surgery and she'd have bags under her eyes large enough for a galactic tour. No, she definitely decided to choose virtue over vice.
"Thanks for the offer, girls, but we're turning in early tonight, if you don't mind."
"But what about tradition?" one of the younger ones squealed. "Your bondmate isn't supposed to see you at all that day before the actual ceremony."
"I'll keep my eye closed," Travis answered sardonically. "Now, if you children don't mind we've got a long day tomorrow . . . and Jenna needs her beauty sleep . . . desperately."
Jenna punched him in the ribs as the gaggle departed, giggling, but he ignored her irate reaction and proceeded to make sure that she got a very good night's sleep.
The next morning while Travis was in the shower, someone was hitting the door chime with growing impatience. Grumbling to herself about the torment she intended to inflict on such early risers as she groped around the room for her robe, Jenna finally activated the viewscreen.
To her surprise it was Mikhail, with Jason in tow, who was looking somewhat frazzled and hungover, apparently wearing the first thing he'd been able to grab from his closet.
Making sure that her robe was securely fastened, she activated the door and invited the two of them inside.
"It's a bit early and I haven't fixed any coffee yet, but if you can wait . . .?"
"I've no time to chat, Jenna. Where's Travis?"
"In the shower. What's the rush? It's barely 0900 and the ceremony isn't scheduled until 1500, nearly six hours away. Plenty of time to get ready . . ."
Her voice trailed off at the exasperated look on her uncle's face and she gestured towards their fresher, hoping that Travis had some clothes with him, or Mikhail was likely to drag him out the door, wearing nothing but a towel. After he left, she turned her attention to Jason who's normal ruddy complexion was a delicate shade of puce this morning.
"You look like you had an exciting evening?"
"The junior crew and apprentices of Alamo, Balkis, and Valkyrie, along with the Lantau, the ship I was apprenticed on my last quarter at the Academy, threw me a party, celebrating the upcoming bonding. We hit most of the clubs on the lower end of the docks. Watched the shows, even had a couple of 'private' performances." His grin was definitely lopsided and Jenna pinched the bridge of her nose.
"You didn't . . . umm . . ." she groped for a euphemism that wouldn't embarrass both of them. "You didn't have . . . intimate relations with any of the 'performers', did you?"
Jason blushed furiously, "Umm . . . not exactly."
"How 'not exactly'?" she pressed further, but by then Mikhail and Travis had entered the room, with her bondmate toweling his hair, which was still standing on end.
"What's the damned rush?" he growled.
Mikhail gave him an intense stare, apparently surprised at his relatively clear-eyed state, "I thought I was going to have to de-tox both of you, but you're not hung over at all. Didn't the two of you celebrate your final night of 'freedom?'"
"Why the hell would we do that?" Travis grumbled. "We've been bonded every way but formally for the past eight years. Why should last night be any different?"
"I'm glad that someone in the family exercised self-control," Mikhail glanced between Jenna and Jason, seemingly surprised that she was not in the same shape as Jason.
"I took a rain check on the bonding attendants' fling too. So, I guess Jason is the only one who needs your attention."
Mikhail shrugged, "Well, we need to get going soon anyway. Katya was right behind me with Kayla, her grandmother, the hairdresser and make-up artist in tow and both dresses are supposed to be delivered before noon. So, we won't see you again until the ceremony."
Taking her uncle aside, Jenna whispered, "When you get Jason out of here, take him to the MedCenter before you dry him out. He may have been foolish enough to have unprotected sex with one of the 'dancers' at last night's bash. I'd hate to see him pass something on to Kayla ."
Mikhail heaved a put-upon sigh, "I'll make sure he's de-loused, de-toxed, showered, shaved and pummeled into some semblance of an upstanding young journeyman. And try not to give Katya too much of a hassle about the make-up and hairstyle. She's just trying to make it easier for you and Kayla."
Jenna gave him a wry grin, "Uncle, for today and today only, I will try to be meek, submissive, and at the beck and call of every dowager aunt, meddling uncle and busybody cousin affiliated with this clan. But tomorrow everything goes back to normal and anyone who tries to tell us how to live our lives can take a short hike out the airlock. All right?"
Mikhail took a deep breath as though he was about to lecture her again on family loyalty and then shrugged, "You and the Matriarch can slug it about your duties to the clan. I'm tired of flying a desk and fully intend to get back into space with my own fleet. I'll see you at the ceremony."
Somewhat surprised at her uncle's proclamation, Jenna made a desperate attempt to smooth down Travis's rumpled hair as she gazed deeply into his blue-gray eye. "See you at the ceremony, love. Unless you've changed your mind."
Travis pulled her close in a fierce embrace, "If I don't show up, then it's because Avon hired a press gang to dispose of me. But I think he's decided to save his money and go into politics."
"Heaven forbid," Jenna muttered, closing the door behind the trio then hurried to get her own shower before the Makeover Crew arrived. Some fifteen minutes later cleaned, buffed and exfoliated, with her hair clean and wet, Jenna met the Matriarch and her entourage at the door.
Kayla and her grandmother looked impossibly chipper for the early morning hour, but Jenna decided to offer everyone a mug of tea, coffee, or chai anyway.
"Thank you, Jenna, but we've already eaten. But we can wait while you have something to eat."
Even though she had not overindulged the night before, Jenna's stomach still felt like it was filled with an entire company of tap-dancing butterflies.
"I'll pass," she muttered. "Gotta save room for all the fancy dishes we ordered."
Katya shook her head in amused exasperation, "At least eat some toast and marmalade. If you pass out at the altar, everyone will think you're pregnant."
Jenna managed to choke down half a piece of jelly smeared toast and drink some juice while the make-up artist began Kayla's makeover. Over the next two hours, the two brides-to-be were artistically enhanced, reconstructed, and styled, until Jenna stared at the unbelievably glamorous display reflected in the mirror with its exaggerated cheekbones, enormous dewy eyes, perfect pouting lips, and artfully upswept hair.
"It's not me," she protested. "This isn't who I am. Travis won't recognize me."
Pushing away from the dressing table she strode into the fresher and turned the shower on full blast. Before she could step under it, Katya clutched her arm and demanded, "What are you doing? We don't have time to do this again."
"I don't want you to," Jenna said firmly. "I prefer to do my own hair and make-up, thank you. I want the image I see in the mirror to reflect me . . . and not some one's fantasy image. Besides Travis just might refuse to go through with the ceremony with a 'stranger' . . . and think of the problems that could cause."
Sensing the stubborn resolve behind Jenna's seemingly light-hearted words, Katya nodded her reluctant agreement before turning her attention to Jason's future bondmate.
"What about you, Kayla? Do you feel the same?"
Glancing at her own gorgeous image, Kayla nodded her head, "I'd be afraid that Jason would expect me to look like this all the time."
Katya gestured to the two artists who began to revise the most extreme features of their handiwork, without totally erasing their artistry. The make-up enhanced their own appearance, but did not change their look entirely, hiding small flaws like moles or smile lines, while enhancing their natural features - the fiery spirit shining out of Jenna's eyes and Kayla's fresh-faced innocence.
When the gowns were delivered there was another brief flurry of excitement as Jenna discovered just how much filagree that Devon had considered 'a little' enhancement. Struggling into the dress which actually chimed as it was pulled over her shoulders, she muttered, "Well, the dratted thing's bright enough to deflect any beam weapons aimed at us,"
Shrugging it into place so Katya could secure the rear fastenings, "And almost heavy enough to qualify as body armor. Did you decide against hiring that security detail, Matriarch?"
Katya had an amused expression on her face, "I assure you, Jenna, your uncle and I have taken the utmost precautions . . ."
"I was just joking, Katya." Jenna shrugged and shook out the skirt, trying to settle the heavy beaded panels as comfortably as possible. "Now, what?"
"Our private transport is waiting in the lower level. Its windows have been opaqued so no one can see either of you prior to the ceremony."
In the Director's office of the largest Trade Meeting and Exhibit Hall in Xanadu, Jason Stannis paced nervously, clearly determined to wear a path in the exotic Chakira embroidered rug. Travis was almost as agitated as the younger man, but having survived over fifteen years of the Federation Space Services' "hurry up and wait" mindset, he was able to control the state of his own nerves a little better. The First Captain simply had his feet propped up on a desk and was snoring, until a series of chimed tones sounded and his eyes opened as he dropped his feet to the floor.
"That's the cue for our entrance, Captains."
The trio checked each other out for twisted collars, open flies and other wardrobe embarrassments. Having little or no say in his formal attire for the ceremony, Travis was somewhat relieved that Mikhail had finally chosen something relatively somber and not overly complicated.
In the fitting room, there had been a brief discussion about them actually wearing the clan's traditional historic Old Earth leggings and knee-length gilt mercantile robes. But Travis had quickly quashed that notion.
"No robes, Mikhail. I had to wear a kilt once for a formal Space Forces function . . . and it was damned drafty under that skirt. Besides I don't have the knees for tights."
Mikhail had shrugged, actually relieved at Travis's protest, "Athena would probably kill me if we spilled anything on them, anyway. White tie or black then?"
"What's the simplest to get into," Jason muttered, still suffering from the aftereffects of his prior night's overindulgence, despite (or perhaps because of) every hangover cure that Travis and Mikhail had poured into him that morning.
Deciding that even with the expert dresser's guidance that they preferred not to deal with studs, cufflinks, high collars and bow ties and chose the simplest dark formal wear. Travis indulged his single independent choice with a leather vest under his jacket, while Mikhail chose a dark muted gold, and Jason went along with a rich forest green.
"Kayla's wearing chameleon silk in this basic color, though it will change in the light."
"At least it doesn't clash with your complexion," Mikhail observed.
As they walked through the darkened corridors into the main hall, Travis felt the breath catch in his throat. Yesterday's rehearsal had been held in this hall to give them a general idea of its size and acoustical properties, but it had been dark and gloomy due to the overcast skies. He'd gotten a very dim impression of the vast height of the largest meeting area in Xanadu, inside the Great Hall of Trade, but not of its glorious columns and graceful soaring buttresses.
In the full sunlight, he could see that the hall was enormous with huge white marble pillars, veined with glittering streaks of malachite, supporting the vaulted ceiling that seemed to reach to the very heavens. The ceiling itself was painted dark blue and projected on its surface were the glittering patterns of constellations that adorned the skies of half a dozen worlds where the Stannis Clan had holdings. The floor was a dark gray stone flecked with gold, and it seemed that almost every square inch of space was occupied by Stannis captains in their medaled uniforms along with their wives and families in glittering robes and gowns, exotically clad trade representatives from a hundred different worlds, officers and crewmembers from nearly half the fleet, representing a dozen different species and worlds. Even the youngest apprentices were there, not as gorgeously outfitted as their officers and captains, but their youthful faces shone with excitement.
He and Jason looked positively drab by contrast, but it didn't matter. As he heard that first brassy fanfare of trumpets, his heart froze inside of him. It sounded just like the opening notes of the Federation military anthem, The Fleet Victorious.
Had someone chosen that music to deliberately humiliate him?
Noting the dark flush on his face, Jason gripped his arm and whispered under his breath, "It's not what you think. Listen to all of it . . . the whole passage. Kayla told me about it . . . and how Jenna worried that it would bring back painful memories."
Travis bowed his head and listened . . . carefully. Jason was right, the music was not the same at all. It was older and more festive than martial. The repeated fanfare of the trumpets was made even more joyous with the inclusion of strings, tambors, and reeds. Even the roll of the drums did not have its usual harshness. He swallowed past the dryness in his throat.
"What's it called?"
"Procession of the Nobles . . . urk."
"Stop gossiping like a pair of old ladies," Mikhail jabbed him in the ribs and hissed. "Look solemn and expectant. The bonding attendants will be entering soon. And try to remember what you're supposed to do."
Travis noted that the rhythm of the processional was almost a quickmarch, but the attendants were making their entrance at a more decorous pace. In fact, judging by their tentative steps and less than glowing complexions, they seemed like they would have been much happier if the accompanying music had been a pavane . . . or funeral march. At the rear of the entourage paced Katya Doyle, wearing the rich crimson robe embroidered with gold that was the Clan Matriarch's traditional ceremonial wear and carrying the two scrolls that contained the bonding vows.
There was a brief murmur of surprise at the young telepath's presence, but a scattering of applause demonstrated the clan's preliminary approval of her selection, then the crowd's attention returned to the entry of the bonding party.
Travis stared intently at the train of attendants, trying to count heads and see how many of the group that had tried to entice Jenna into going on a spree with them the night before were present at the ceremony.
Mikhail jabbed him in the ribs and muttered, "Stop ogling the attendants. You were supposed to get that out of your system at last night's parties."
Travis shrugged, answering out of the side of his mouth, "We avoided the wilder events, like Jason's . . . and whatever bash the attendants had planned."
"Where did you go?"
"A rather sedate 'Last Night of Freedom Party', with Blake and the crew of Liberator," Travis answered blandly, watching with amusement out of the corner of his eye to see if Mikhail fainted or exploded. However, the approach of the attendants distracted Jenna's uncle before he could give vent to his amazement.
As they fanned out in a semi-circle in front of the three men, Travis could tell by the watery, red-rimmed eyes, and delicately puce complexions that most of the girls had partied to excess the night before and was grateful that he and Jenna had decided just to attend the Liberator's rather tame celebration and exercise restraint afterwards. This was one event that he wanted to be clear-headed for, to savor to the fullest.
Katya halted and held out the two scrolls she was carrying. Travis stepped forward first and Jason followed, each of them inclining his head in courtesy as he received the antique-appearing parchment. As the young Matriarch took her place at Mikhail's side, the trumpets sounded their fanfare for the third time, with a note of jubilation.
Jason took a deep shaky breath and stared at the entryway, where Kayla had paused, highlighted in sunlight, her dark hair gleaming and the chameleon silk of her dress shining brightly as a spring day. She held a spray of honeysuckle and jasmine, twined with ivy. As she walked briskly forward through the sunbeams shining through the windows and illuminating the hall, her dress changed from green to bronze to gold to an opalescent glimmer that seemed to glow with all the colors of the rainbow.
As she approached the central space where the attendants and her future bondmate awaited her, a delicate blush suffused her cheeks. Jason managed to reach out and clasp her hand without tripping over his feet, but judging by the stunned expression on his face, he would require constant encouragement to remember the vows that he and Kayla were supposed to exchange.
The final fanfare sounded, not merely joyful but exultant as well and Travis felt the chill bumps shivering down the back of his neck as he stared toward the entryway, waiting for Jenna's appearance. For a moment he did not see her, the dark blue of her gown blending into the shadows and a cold fear clutched his heart that somehow this would all turn out to be nothing but a delusion, born of fever and pain . . . and he would awake, cold and alone back in the barracks at Space Command.
Then the sunbeams suddenly reflected from the filagree across the shoulders and bodice and down the sleeves, highlighting the diamond shaped panels on her skirt, and then crowning Jenna in light and leaving Travis breathless at her appearance. The decoration on her dress gleamed brightly, but to Travis it paled against the gold of her hair and as beautiful and innocent as Kayla might have been, she could not hold a candle to Jenna's joyously glowing face.
She carried nothing in her hands, no bouquet of flowers symbolizing fertility. Instead she strode boldly towards him, her pace matching the rhythm of the march, open-handed and open-hearted, just as she had been when they first encountered one another on that barren planet years before. He felt his heart catch in his throat at her fearless beauty, hardly believing that she had somehow seen past his bitterness and hatred, to the bold young dreamer he once had been.
He glanced out over the crowd filling the hall, spotting Naomi Reeves, her dark eyes sparkling and her face flushed with joy at her granddaughter's bonding, and perhaps even sharing a little bit of his own happiness. Catching a glimpse of Blake, his thick curls and towering presence assuring that he stood out even in this crowd, Travis was not surprised to see a mildly rueful expression on his face.
Blake had sacrificed any hope of holding on to Jenna's love by choosing to follow his cause. It may have been a worthy one -- freedom for the galaxy -- but losing Jenna was the price that he had to pay. Travis read the momentary regret in his eyes and turned his own attention back to Jenna as she approached the central area, where Jason and Kayla stood, lost in each other's gaze and Mikhail and Katya waited somewhat impatiently for him to take Jenna's hand. Flesh and blood clasped together and they turned to face the First Captain and Matriarch-to-be of the Stannis Clan.
Each one of them repeated the vows as read by the First Captain, promising to 'keep and protect one another in the face of debt, plague, invasion and war. To hold true to their vows and never betray their bond, but to remember that the links holding them together are gossamer fine -- love, trust, caring and hope -- and if any of those links are broken, by either of the parties, that the bonding can be dissolved without question.
Each of the couples stared into their beloved's face, the younger not really understanding the depth of their commitment and the older already having had their bond tested by invasion, battle and plague, knowing how strong the ties truly were.
As each couple placed their thumbprint on the designated space, the contracts were witnessed by Katya and Mikhail and though tradition dictated that they be returned to the couples, Mikhail tucked them inside his jacket with a determined glare.
"I'll take charge of getting the copies on file at Central Records, just to make sure there are no 'mistakes' this time. You can pick up the original hardcopy next week, and download a datafax tomorrow afternoon."
With the vows signed, witnessed and sealed, the couples turned to face their friends and family and were greeted with a resounding cheer.
Pushing his way to the front of the crowd, Vila, who was already tipsy, waved a large bottle of champagne, "Let the celebration begin." Just behind him, decked out in a brightly beaded red dress trimmed in matching fur, Soolin managed to retrieve the magnum before Vila smashed it over the two bonded couples, 'just to get them off to a good start.'
Exchanging rueful grins, Travis and Jenna led the laughing, gossiping, joyful crowd into the main hall, where the revelry began in raucous celebration of the most improbable bonding in the multiverse.
The door to the office opened with a distinct creak, as Travis glanced back at Jenna.
"Looks like we're the only ones here," he whispered with a definite sigh of relief.
Though the family celebration of their bonding had lasted well into the early morning hours, Travis and Jenna had left the party early, under the pretext of having to catch an early transport to one of the numerous romantic resorts on Sanctuary. Jason and Kayla had decided to take Mikhail up on his offer of the lovely beach house on Alegria. Considering the girl's rustic background, Jenna assumed that she would have no problems dealing with its less than modern cooking facilities, but did give her a heads up just in case.
Muttering to herself regarding some of the more persistent celebrants, Jenna commented, "Considering that the cleaning crew threw out the last serious partiers at 0600, I didn't expect any of our crew to be conscious at this hour. But you shouldn't have asked Akema to keep watch over the apprentices. He was starting to nod off before midnight."
"I had Brita take him home shortly after," he agreed. "Then told Ling that I had full access to the security cameras and if I caught him or any of the other junior officers lifting the silver or pouring hot sauce in the fruit trays, they'd be polishing carbon scoring and meteorite dings off our ships' hulls with a llama hair brush for the next six months. I guess he rode herd on the worst of their antics because Mikhail didn't call this morning to read us the riot act."
"Still, I probably should check in with 'Aunt' Athena and make sure there wasn't any major damage . . . but not until we get caught up with some of these inventory crystals." She glanced around at their cluttered desks and shrugged. "A whole week shot down the tubes. Well, Mikhail can't complain about us being late this year, since he was the one responsible."
"I thought it was the Matriarch's doing," Travis looked up in surprise.
"Their minds ran in the same track," Jenna shrugged. "If she gave the order, then he had some part in its inception. She may have had emotional reasons for wanting to see us bonded, but Mikhail's were utterly practical."
Travis caught up her hand in his flesh-and-blood one, pressing a fervent kiss to its palm, "Their reasons don't matter. I'm just grateful that they 'made' us go through with the ceremony. I never realized what I was missing until I saw you coming down that aisle, blazing like the sun, nearly blinding me with your beauty."
She smiled indulgently as she gently drew her hand away, "You keep that up and we won't get anything done today . . . and we can't stall Mikhail forever on getting our inventory, budget and requisitions completed."
"Slavedriver," he grinned before turning his attention back to the data crystals.
They worked together intensely for most of the morning, putting a considerable dent in the pile of crystals and getting a basic overview of their net income and probable expenditures for the upcoming year.
"It's not as bad as I thought," Jenna arched her back, trying to get the kinks out of her shoulders and neck. "Even with your absence for most of the year, and the expenses from rebuilding the Loge, our bottom line still managed to show a profit. Not a large one, I'll grant you . . . but now that we no longer have the maintenance and upkeep charges for the STEV, we shouldn't have to struggle so hard to keep our heads above water."
"We still have to replace most of our apprentices . . . and we need a new gunner as well," she shook her head.
"Another gunner," Travis mused grimly. "Where the blazes are we going to find someone with Phrath's skill, not to mention his pure brass . . . attitude."
"I don't know," Jenna let her shoulders slump. "I just don't know."
She glanced at the chrono, noting it was well into the afternoon, "Do you want to break for lunch . . . or just push ahead and take off early for dinner?"
Before he could answer, there was a sharp rap at the door and as he called out, "Enter," a fully cloaked and hooded figure stalked into their office. Noting the silence of their visitor's approach, Travis glanced down and took note of the white-furred feet. He stood up and offered his chair, assuming that he knew their guest's identity.
"Welcome to our office, Glynis Featherpaw. Have you come to claim Phrath's wages and other money rightfully owed you? I can make up a chit, or call one of the credit houses and arrange for cash delivery . . ."
"Mistaken you are, Travis One-eye, Captain." Travis felt a sudden sharp pang at the tone of that arrogant young voice and hearing the name that Phrath had so often called him.
"Money is not what this one seeks, but a place by your side, on your flight deck as gunner. A place this one is entitled to as Phrath's daughter."
The figure threw back its hood and Travis found himself confronting not Glynis's black, orange and white markings, but a bright white face with jaunty whiskers and a pink nose, with two pink-white ears. Most striking was the furry black patch across the top of her head, covering her left eye that was almost identical to the one Travis wore, except for the bright green eye gleaming out of the middle of it.
Travis almost choked in surprise, while Jenna snickered, "Are you sure you didn't make any genetic contributions elsewhere before Dani asked . . . or invoke 'First Night Rights' after Phrath and Glynis were bonded?"
Travis just gave her a wicked grin, as he held out his hand to their visitor in greeting. "Jealous already, luv . . . and us not even bonded a full day yet."
"What's your name?" he turned his attention back to the aspiring young gunner.
"Damika Quickclaw," she raised her head proudly
"I greet you, Damika, daughter of Glynis Featherpaw and Phrath of the Nightsinger Clan and while I recognize the legitimacy of your claim, I must inform you that Enclave ships are crewed differently than Kyrenian. We honor your sire's sacrifice, but that doesn't guarantee you his place aboard my ship as gunner and explosives expert. Not unless you have skills of your own?"
"Sure shot am I, and fast too. Best gunner . . . best fighter too, on this end of the docks. This I swear on M'reeth Goldeneye's collar of kitling ears. More proof do you want?"
Remembering that it had not been so long ago when Glynis and Phrath were bonded, Travis ran his fingers through his hair before questioning the young cub, "You seem a bit young to be out on your own?"
"Tempered by 'Blood and Steel' I have been, Travis One-Eye. More qualified to become your gunner than half the spacers on the docks."
Jenna nodded her acknowledgment of that startling revelation. Kyrenian society had undergone major changes in the last few years and allowing female cubs to undergo pilot and weapons training and take positions on offworld ships was one of the most drastic. To have passed the test that she claimed meant this young gunner was very special indeed. Still, they couldn't accept her without a background check and concrete proof of the skills she claimed.
As the young Kyrenian reached under her cloak for the blaster holstered at her hip, Travis caught a glimpse of silky black markings across her back and covering her legs, like she was wearing knee-length pants and a vest. It gave her a rakish piratical look and, along with her bold speech and outspoken claims, reminded Travis of how much he had missed Phrath the last few months.
He glanced down at the plass sheets printed out from the data crystals this morning and the pile of crystals still to be read. Catching Jenna's eye as she stared in bemusement at the aspiring gunner.
"What say we treat this youngster to a seafood lunch at Casey's and then see if the testing facility is open today. And if our young gunner can hit fifteen targets out of twenty, without getting a kink in her tail from the evasive course that you and I will pilot while she's trying to get a tracking fix, then we'll take her on."
"What about the data crystals?" Jenna asked somewhat dismayed, "We have at least another quarter's data to print out and collate."
"It will still be here when we get back," he gave her a rakish grin.
"Only fifteen out of twenty targets this one must hit," the young minx hissed indignantly. "Then blindfold me you must or else hang me up by my tail! Too easy this testing you make."
And laughing with delight, Travis put his flesh-and-blood arm around Jenna's shoulders and his cyberarm around their new gunner as the three of them strode boldly into Sanctuary's bright sunlight, ready to take on the universe and whatever it might throw at them in the days and years to come.
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