Picking up the PiecesBy Alice C. Aldridge
Former Space Commander Colin Travis, who still tended to expect unquestioning obedience despite more than a year as a Free Trader captain, Travis didn't look up from the Flight Engineer's board to see if their new apprentice was following his orders.
But the trainee at the pilot's controls with Travis's determined jaw and Jenna's piercing hazel eyes countered tersely, "We're too low to make another orbit. I'd have to waste fuel on a suborbital approach. The angle's not that far off the beam. I can do it by dead reckoning."
"`Dead' is what we'll be if you make that foolhardy approach," Travis growled. " Obey my orders, you young idiot, and abort the landing!"
Jenna Stannis watched silently from her station at the navigator's board. The angle was steep but not impossible. Jason could probably make the landing, if he was half as good as he thought he was. But Travis was the co-pilot/trainer on this run and wouldn't appreciate her contradicting his orders.
She busied herself with logging the coordinates of all incoming orbital craft and tried to ignore the growing tension between the two. Jason's gaze was cold and unyielding and there was a tic in Travis's left cheek that did not bode well for his temper.
Headstrong and impulsive, Jason balked at the cautious, by-the-book instrument landing Travis had ordered. Instead he set coordinates for a fast intuitive approach requiring nerves of steel and a stomach to match.
"I'm piloting this craft and the final judgement is mine, Captain," Jason retorted, as he hit the firing controls that committed them irreversibly to the landing approach.
Cursing sulfurously, Travis reached for the override on his control panel but the abrupt attitude change caused him to misjudge his aim and hit the auxiliary rockets' firing switch instead! The unexpected power surge disrupted Jason's delicate handling of the reentry and they tumbled toward the planet's surface, yawing and pitching wildly.
Travis wrestled with his secondary controls using the full force of his cybernetic arm but with the override not activated, Jason still had primary helm control. The apprentice's instincts were those of a born pilot, but he lacked the training and experience to bring the ship out of its uncontrolled spin.
Sparks arced upwards and acrid fumes from the overheated controls set them coughing. Thrown against her restraints by the ship's wild gyrations, Jenna could only watch the viewscreens glowing white hot as their ship spiraled down into the atmosphere!
The blinding white glow exploded into darkness. . .
And ponderous stately chords of "The Federation Funeral March" droned from the communication panel. Then bright fluorescents flickered on while the vents labored to suck out smoke and fumes.
Jenna let out a shaky breath as the monitor's officious nasal tone admonished them, "Please check under your seats and remove all personal belongings before leaving the simulator. Failure to comply will result in delay of your final evaluation score."
Jason was seething with outrage, but Travis remained silent, his expression hooded and withdrawn, clutching the test flimsies in a white-knuckled grip . Long habit of caution kept the trio silent until they were back in the Stannis Compound, inside Travis and Jenna's suite and away from curious ears or spycams.
Then Travis turned a cold, vitriolic rage on Jason. "That was the most hare-brained, recklessly stupid example of piloting I've seen in years! At the FSA, you wouldn't have left the simulator alive. A firing squad would have executed you on the spot for deliberate defiance of a superior's orders!"
"This isn't the damned FSA" Jason spat. "At least in the Enclave, most trainers usually trust a trainee's instincts instead of playing it safe, flying by the numbers like you want me to do!"
"You expect me to trust your instincts? After that test run? I don't know about you, boy, but I've got better things to do with my life than wind up scattered bits and pieces across Sanctuary's hinterlands."
"If you hadn't panicked and tried to take control..." Jason started contemptuously, but his words were suddenly choked off the fierce grip of Travis's cybernetic hand on his throat.
"I don't panic, boy. Don't make that mistake again or I'm likely to forget..."
Jenna pushed angrily between the two of them, forcing Travis to relinquish his grip. "For pity's sake, Travis. He's still a raw apprentice. . .and our son besides. We're supposed to be training him, not beating him to a pulp!"
"Pounding seems the only way to get anything into that thick skull. " Travis glared at Jason's sullen withdrawn expression.
Jenna glared between the two of them in exasperation. "Mikhail was right. Inbred stubbornness has reached lethal levels in this clan. Butt your heads together as long as you like. I'm due at the refit yards."
Travis took a deep breath then let it out slowly, as the rage boiling through him died down to a simmer. But Jason was still seething and pushed rudely past Jenna, snarling, "If you don't have the balls to teach me how to pilot, I'll find someone who does. Like. . .Tarrant."
As Jason stalked out, Jenna arched an eyebrow at Travis. "That's all we need, Tarrant's irrepressible self-confidence added to Jason's adolescent reckless streak." She continued on a more serious note, "But you were too hard on the boy. He's sixteen and he thinks he's invulnerable."
Travis muttered in frustration as he hurled Jason's test scores at the nearest disposal chute. "Reckless adolescent idiocy. Never had to dealt with green troops. By the time they were assigned to my unit, they'd been conditioned to absolute obedience. . .or they were dead."
"Wonderful," Jenna sighed, wondering if it was too late to enlist in a Free Amazon mercenary company. Half-joking, she retorted, "Surely, you remember what it was like when you were his age?"
There was a long silence and when she looked into Travis's face, it was stark with pain.
"Mostly I try not to," he whispered hoarsely.
Travis remembered . . . running for his life through the fireweed as its caustic sap smeared into the fresh scratches whipped bloody by crown of thorns. Tears and sweat mingled, burning his eyes before dripping down his trembling muscles. Stumbling over an exposed root, he almost slammed into hard-baked ground, but managed to stagger onward, ignoring the red-hot pain knifing up his leg He gulped down burning sobs of air as the nightmarish howl of the fenris pushed him onward.
Feared by the Metis III colonists as the most brutally efficient killing machine on the planet, the fenris's hairless, low-slung, muscular body and razor-edged talons looked like a cross between a komodo dragon and a mountain lion. However, its reptilian predisposition for preferring its dinner warm and twitching was its most horrifying trait. The beast used venom sacs in its claws to immobilize its quarry, dragging its prey back to a hidden lair to feed at its leisure, often while the hapless victim was still alive, unable to move. He'd been unfortunate enough to stumble on a fenris larder once. The putrid odor of decaying flesh and crazed screams of one of its half-eaten victims were seared into his memory long after he charred the stinking pit into slag.
The beasts' normal range was in the high mountain caves beyond the settlement, but a scarcity of game had driven the beast down to the edge of the colony's fields. His older brother Diarmid had suggested that the two of them should do something about the "problem." Since Dar had been the one to sneak their father's blaster and its carefully hoarded charges out of the cabin, Colin had reluctantly agreed to act as bait to lure the fenris out of its lair and into Dar's weapon sights..
Only something had gone wrong. Dar was supposed to bring the beast down on the far side of the river. He'd lured the fenris right up to the bushes where his brother was supposedly lying in wait. . . and nothing happened. Now he was the doomed quarry of a fenris's relentless pursuit, with no hope of escape.
Colin turned to face the beast slavering on his trail, with nothing but a utility knife and a hopeless resolve not to die running in fear.
The lean reptilian body lunged out of the underbrush, its venom-tipped claws aimed at his eyes. Then a blinding light charred bone the top of its skull into a stinking black fog as the corpse dropped at his feet, still thrashing with inhuman vitality, splattering blood and brains across his trembling legs.
He gagged at the stench, retching as he dropped to his knees. When his outraged stomach settled, he glared weakly as Dar stepped calmly from behind the tree where he'd been waiting for his younger brother to lead the fenris into his sights.
He'd climbed unsteadily to his feet, glaring at his brother -- his darker mirror image -- in a mixture of relief and fury which Dar had ignored, as he recharged the aging blaster. Dar, who was always calculating and planning, with ocean depths of guile behind a charming smile and eyes that weighed every word and action. Recently Colin had begun to recognize his older brother's ruthless pragmatism and calm manipulation. But this was the first time Dar had deliberately endangered his life! Or worse, knowing what he did of the fenris's habits.
Staggering over to the still twitching carcass, he kicked it in a fit of temper then turned to Dar wanting to pound those coolly amused features into a bloody pulp.
"Why the bloody hell did you wait so long?" he gritted out. "You were supposed to bring him down on the other side of the creek!"
Dar deliberately ignored him until he lunged forward, burying his hands in his brother's shirt and pulling him up until their eyes locked. "Why, damn you? Why?!"
The older boy shrugged off his frantic grip. "We were too close to the hill country. Wounded, it could have escaped into the caves and we'd have nothing to show for our efforts."
Colin shuddered. "Another half second and you'd have had my gutted carcass to show for your efforts.
His brother's answer had only troubled him more.
Dragging out his own well-honed blade to blood their kill, Dar continued with a bitter sarcastic note to his voice. "Then our father would just add one more stone cairn to that monument to his pride and stubbornness behind our cabin and our mother would have one more 'lost bairn' to croon her mad lullabies to on this misbegotten hellhole of a planet. " He slashed at the carcass viciously, splattering the thirsty ground with the orange gore.
The vitriol in Dar's voice drowned the blaze of his anger as Colin knelt to help with the messy job. "What else do you expect? This is a frontier world . . . harsh . . .untamed. But it's better than life in the domes on Earth."
"Is it, little brother? Is it really? You were only a toddler when our father decided to emigrate and raise his family in the Outer Worlds, away from 'Federation corruption?'"
"You weren't that much older," he retorted. "What do you remember that was so great?"
"Safety. . .security. . .regular meals, even if they were only the sustenance ration issued to every citizen. At least we weren't living on the thin edge of starvation. Or likely to become dinner to the local wildlife." Dar glanced down in disgust at the half-gutted carcass. "I'll take the security of the domes over the `freedom' to starve to death any day."
He'd stared at Dar in disbelief until the older boy looked up and hissed, "Keep watch, you idiot. The stink of this kill will draw every scavenger in a ten-mile radius. I want to bleed the carcass and harvest a little of the meat before we pitch it in the river."
"Why? Fenris meat is so rank it's almost inedible."
Dar grimaced bitterly, "Not if you're starving, little brother. And judging from what I've seen of this year's crops, it's going to be a cold, hungry winter."
Colin subsided, recalling how even the hardiest of hybrid grains had not thrived that year, with the drought sucking every bit of moisture from their crops.
Dar gazed up at him, a calculating look in his eyes, although his face had its usual bland expression."There's going to be an emergency meeting within the sevenday. My hunch is that they'll vote to send out a general distress call, hoping Space Command will come pull their fat out of the fire. But I doubt they'll get any response. The Federation has too many other more valuable worlds needing its protection to bother with borderline outworld settlements."
He sat back on his heels, wiping his gore-splattered hands on the brittle dry grass. "But the Free Traders might intercept the signal and come in sniffing after whatever marginal profit could be made from a salvage operation. Whatever the case, I intend to get out on the first ship that grounds here."
"How are you going to pay passage?" he'd scoffed. "You don't have credits. . . or anything else of value to interest a Free Trader Captain."
Dar's hands were covered with drying blood and there was a shrewd look on his face. "There are other ways to earn my keep, Colin. Talents that are always useful, whether on a Free Trader cargo vessel or a Federation troop ship. I'll make it worth their while to take me on." He glanced obliquely at the younger boy. "Why not come with me, Colin? You're too smart to be stuck in a backwater dump like Metis III. Together we could cut a better deal and guard each other's back."
He dropped his eyes, breaking away from that compelling gaze. What Dar suggested was tempting. . .very tempting. But there were obligations to his father and the rest of the family to be considered. And other people, too. Like Marissa Reeves, the girl Dar was supposed to be bonded to that fall. Dar had found his sense of loyalty laughable.
"Conal thinks waving Jacob Reeves' daughter under my nose like a prize sow will seduce me into staying on. That I can't resist her rustic charms and after I put a child in her belly I'll be forced to stay here and perpetuate this doomed venture." He wiped his knife in the brittle dry grass before sheathing it. "I'm not that naive. . .or that hard up."
Dar gave him a condescending smile, "She's all yours, little brother, if you want to be tied to this death trap of a planet. But don't preach to me about loyalty and the duty we owe our family. Conal's fed me that line of jetwash often enough and it's too thin a gruel to keep the hunger pangs at bay."
Pushing to his feet, he gestured to the gory quarters of meat. "Take your pick. At least you'll have the satisfaction this winter of dining on fenris before it dines on you."
With a queasy lurch of his stomach, Travis hoisted the blood-stained package on his shoulder and followed his brother back to the farm.
Vila Restal whistled cheerfully to himself as he ambled through the crowded backstreets of Xanadu's docks. Considering the dire events Blake and the crew of the Liberator had survived during the past year, he considered himself fortunate to be alive and in one piece, free to roam where his fancy took him while Avon was talking business with that Free Trader Captain, Jenna's uncle. Of course, he didn't have the cash to celebrate as enthusiastically as he would like. But for someone as agile-fingered as he was, it was a momentary setback at most.
He smiled and waggled his skillful fingers at one of the numerous females, both exotic and plain, sauntering throughout the area. The one he had his eye on had dark curly hair and was wearing a snug-fitting gold jumpsuit that hugged her lush figure as tightly as Vila would have liked to, if she had given him the slightest encouragement. She arched one brow but did not seem particularly impressed by what she saw; a medium-sized wiry individual, with thinning dark blonde hair, hopeful brown eyes that topped a sly grin but no readily obvious bankroll. Instead, she turned her attentions to a much more impressive specimen, who flashed a fat roll of credits and an broad, gold-toothed grin.
Vila shrugged off-handedly, knowing that he was going to have to acquire a fairly heavy purse before he could get into the swing of things. Luckily Xanadu did not seem to be cursed by presence of blackclad security types like those who had dogged his steps in the domes back on Earth. With just a little judicious mingling, he should have enough discretionary funds to begin his celebration.
He brushed past a plump blonde matron, managing to acquire the fire emerald pin securing her cloak. Then he appropriated a xenite studded chrono from a harried looking bureaucrat. And was about to score an especially thick wallet when a small magenta-furred beast on the shoulder of the mark he'd brushed against began to shriek. "THIEF! PICK-POCKET! FOOTPAD!"
Vila recoiled and tried to duck into the half-open door of a noisy bar just behind him but a hand the size of a small ham buried itself in his tunic. "Hold it right dere, short-stuff. I t'ink you got somep'n belongs to me."
Vila sputtered as he gazed into the scarred, fierce features of the rough type whose pocket he had just rifled.
"Whhhha...wha.. whaat are you talking about? I never saw you before in my life!" he managed to squeak, attempting to sound like an outraged upstanding citizen.
"Maybe not, but accordin' to my little TP alarm here, my poke jus' found its way inta your pocket."
The owner of the ham-sized hand shook Vila so hard his teeth rattled. Fumbling hurriedly to return the appropriated cash, Vila attempted a placating smile, "Just a misunderstanding. No harm done. You looked like an old friend who owed me money."
Rather than releasing his bone-crushing grip, the grim hardcase drew Vila closer, wheezing his boozy, garlicky breath into the lockpick's face. "I don' like pickpockets, little man. But even more I don' like pickpockets who insult me! When I get t'ough wit' you dere won't be enough lef' to wipe my boots with."
But before the irate giant could make good on his promise, a tall gangling youth pushed out of the crowd. "Go pick on someone your own size, Brock. Unless everything that big is already extinct, too stupid to live."
"Back off, Jason, dis is between dis sticky-fingered thief and me. Or has Stannis clan sunk to `prenticin' lowtown docksweepings `sides tank grown nonborns like you!"
The youth glared at Vila's tormentor, his blue eyes colder than a northern spring. There was something familiar about that icy glance though Vila couldn't quite place it. But the soft-spoken menace in that voice set off alarms in the lockpick's head even though he wasn't its target. "You think you can take me down, Brock? By yourself? Or do you need the help of that gang of slack-jawed lackwits you run with?"
Three other over-muscled types sauntered up, much to Vila's dismay. They had the broad-shouldered swagger of dockworkers and eyed him with predatory contempt, like a pack of hyenas sizing up a lone packrat.
Tossing Vila off-handedly to one side, their leader grinned savagely. "I'll let dem have my leavin's after I break you into tiny pieces, Travis. Dere won't be enuff left to fill dat test tube you came outta."
Though Vila was not inclined toward physical heroics, the sheer folly of a half-grown kid taking on his oversized opponent ignited his sympathy for the underdog. Of course, the fact that when the bully finished mopping up the streets with the boy, he'd resume where he left off with Vila contributed to his sense of outrage. He glanced around furtively hoping to spot something he could use for a weapon while the two combatants circled, feeling out each other's weaknesses, oblivious to the curious crowd of onlookers that had gathered.
Sidling away from the actual conflict (and helping himself to two small purses as he did), Vila spotted a shopper with a large basket of pottery, just about the right size to crack someone's skull. He casually appropriated two of the larger pieces while he peered over the shoulders of the crowd, hoping the boy was still more or less in one piece. As he did so, Vila gaped in amazement.
For the first few moments of the brawl, the boy had moved awkwardly, woodenly, as if this was the first time he'd ever fought anyone hand to hand. Then abruptly, his eyes glazed over and he dropped into a trained defensive stance that caused Brock to step back, momentarily wary.
When Jason didn't press his attack, Brock threw a fast jab to his chin, which Jason sidestepped so it grazed his cheek instead though the force behind that blow still left him half-stunned. Dazed as he was by that near-miss, the youth countered with a rapid-fire series of punches, aimed with an inhuman accuracy that left his opponent reeling.
Brock stumbled toward the slighter youth, attempting to pin him against a wall and make full use of his greater weight and strength. But the boy was quicksilver; slipping through his fingers, eluding his grasp, continuing to pummel the roughneck with repeated, damaging blows until the larger man dropped to the ground, brought down by the cumulative effect of the attack.
Kneeling beside his semiconscious pal, one of his buddies glared up and growled. "You cheatin' bastard. You musta drugged `im. Nobody takes Brock out dat easy in a fair fight!"
Jason waited, sweaty and panting, but still in his defensive crouch, his face blank and empty. When the second man lunged for him, he pivoted sharply and swung a full extension kick into his attacker's groin. As the roughneck curled around his pain, writhing and groaning, Vila knocked the other two members of the group to their knees with well-aimed applications of ceramic ware to the cranium.
Quickly sidestepping his stunned victims, Vila clutched the lad's arm and dragged him away from the crowd and down a narrow alley. Although the boy didn't appear to have taken any real punishing blows, he had a half-dazed look that seemed to require the prompt infusion of some kind of oral stimulant.
"My nerves could use a little tonic as well," Vila muttered to himself, as he steered them into one of the quieter taverns down Dock Street.
Moments later, having downed his first adrenaline and soma in a single gulp, Vila urged a full glass on the boy who was just beginning to shake off the effects of his battle. Jason took a sip of the potent mixture and grimaced, confirming Vila's suspicions that this was likely his first drink as well as his first battle.
He peered at the lad much more closely, finally recognizing those half-familiar features. "That goon called you Travis, din'nt he? Jason Travis. You're Jenna's ... and his...son."
Taking a second swallow of his drink, the boy had regained some composure, judging by his surly response."What's it to you, Restal? Or are you picky about who saves your tail when it's caught in a tight spot?"
Vila took a long gulp of his second soma, smiling in relief, "Not at all. Just glad to have all my assorted pieces still in their proper places." He patted his tunic pockets, carefully ascertaining that the pilfered purses were still safely stashed, then looked with surprise at his new drinking partner. "How'd you know who I was?"
"Phrath told me about Blake's part in the joint operation that cleaned out Servalan's raiders. And how my moth. . . Jenna was once the Liberator's pilot. I was curious about the rest of the crew." Jason quirked a small ruthless grin, "Phrath also mentioned that your hands were quicker than your brain."
Vila winced, recalling a friendly card game with the hot-tempered feline that had nearly turned lethal when the deck turned out to have an extra pair of aces. "Your furry friend doesn't have a sense of humor."
"Neither do most of the spacers and dockhands on this side of town. Picking pockets down here is a high-risk operation. Especially if you chose a mark who's wearing an empathic `squealer'."
The thief shook his head in disgust, "There oughta be a law against those pipsqueak furballs, otherwise how's a man gonna make a dishonest living?"
Jason subsided into a brooding silence once again, leaving Vila studying his newfound drinking companion. Despite Cally's attempted explanation of Auron's cloning techniques, he still couldn't comprehend how Jenna and Travis were parents of a boy Jason's age, considering they'd only been together for little more than a year
He shrugged that question off since there was no doubt in his mind about Jason's heredity. Jenna had aimed that cold glare in his direction too often not to recall it, even on a much less attractive face. And Vila recognized the ruthless skill displayed in that dockside brawl from earlier run-ins with Travis when he'd been Servalan's single-minded killing machine.
Vila raised his glass, seeking to break through that grim silence. "You look a bit like Jenna, you know, particularly that scowl. Of course, you resemble your Da even more, the way you move. Hard and deadly like. But you wouldn't really want to move like your moth...like Jenna. She's...round...soft...sorta cuddly."
Vila babbled, until he remembered who he was talking to. His voice went dry, suddenly seeing much more of Travis in that withdrawn expression than he was comfortable with. He stuttered onward, "Of course, not to say that I ever did...cuddle her, I mean. Not Jenna, she was too cold, too stand-offish..." He gulped hard. "Then, she always had her sights fixed on Blake." Groaning to himself at that particular choice of words, Vila downed his second soma, waving frantically for a refill.
"Let's have a toast to new friends and old." He raised his glass then suggested. "Why don't you buy the next round and tell me what you're doing down here?"
Jason gestured to the barmaid and pulled out a credit chit, "Keep the drinks coming and send the tab to Fleet Captain Jenna Stannis." He thumbprinted the ID section of the tab and took a long gulp of the drink in front of him, which was still his first.
Then he whispered in a low uncertain voice, "Trying to find myself. . . .or lose myself, I'm not sure which."
Jason stared down at his clenched fists, "I've been having dreams lately. . .about people I don't know, places I've never been. That's one reason I looked up you and the rest of Blake's crew, trying to put names to those faces." His voice went ragged. "But it doesn't help. They're all memories from the past, but it's not my past."
Vila sobered. He'd eavesdropped when Cally had explained to Blake how she had imprinted Jason's mind with a combination of Jenna's and Travis's memories so he would have a baseline of experiences to draw on adjusting to society. He didn't really understand what she had done, but having endured repeated attempts by the Federation to condition and "rehabilitate" him, he had some sympathy for the boy's mental confusion.
"Forget about the past, Jason. It's only the stuff of regrets and might-have-beens. You're living the good life here in Xanadu, with friends, a useful skill, a safe haven, unlimited credit. You've even got a family of sorts, though I can't imagine either Jenna or Travis overflowing with nurturing instincts."
"In case you haven't noticed, Restal, I'm not exactly a member of the nappie brigade. I don't need their `nurturing'! Especially since it wasn't their choice to become parents in the first place." Jason retorted bitterly.
Vila shrugged, turning an inviting smile to the saucy barmaid who'd just returned with another round of drinks. "Most people don't choose to become parents, especially in the Delta section of the domes. It just happens. . .inevitable as the law of gravity."
"Normal childbirth, maybe. But not what happened to me! Winding up practically a programmed copy of Travis." He drained his glass, then glared at the lockpick. "I'm sick and tired of it!"
"Be grateful for small favors," Vila's expression turned momentarily bitter. "You avoided the worst part of life.... eatin' slops, bein' small, weak, at the mercy of everyone who wants to bully you." Then he forced a smile, slipping his arm around the waitress and patting her bum hopefully. "Now, you're old enough to take care of yourself . . .in spades. And young enough to drink all night and boff half the skirts in this section of town without feeling the aftereffects in the morning!"
Jason lowered his glass, a fierce resolve on his features. There was a red gleam in his dark blue eyes that Vila found alarming. "That's what I ought to do. Get out from under his shadow and raise a little hell. Maybe the only way to escape his memories is to make my own to take their place."
He reached inside Vila's pocket and tossed a handful of coins on the table. "C'mon, Restal. According to the local jetwash, the pleasure house on Half Moon Street has a set of Altairean triplets that can blow the top of your head off!"
Vila released the cuddlesome bargirl reluctantly. His nerves were hoping for a somewhat quieter intimate evening than the rowdy hijinks that Jason obviously had in mind. Plus there'd be hell to pay once Jenna or Travis got wind of his part in this escapade. Hopefully he would be back on Liberator, heading for the far side of the galaxy before that occurred.
Travis remembered. . . that year's harvest. Grinding, backbreaking labor with Metis burning white hot in the northern sky, setting the whole landscape shimmering in the heat. Dar was there too, stripped to the waist, as filthy and sweat-streaked as he was, but still maintaining that cool air of detachment that Colin found so irritating. As if this were all some kind of game and he was merely calculating his next move.
The third worker was small-boned, but wiry and strong, with dark downcast eyes and short wavy hair. Marissa Reeves had come help their mother during the last months of her latest pregnancy but it was an open secret she was to be bonded to Dar, once they proved to be mutually fertile. But although Dar had not openly defied their father, it was obvious that he did not intend to succumb to Marissa's shy, awkward attempts to seduce him.
When Maeve's hoped for child had been stillborn, Colin had helped his father build yet another stone cairn for a tiny, pale body that his mother clung to hopelessly, pleading.
"It's not dead, Conal. Just sleeping. Don't take it out there. It'll be so cold and alone."
Marissa had stayed on to help his sister Deirdre care for the younger children, helping the thirteen-year old with learning Maeve's normal household duties. She also tried to reach past his mother's gentle madness and lead her back to reality, but with little success.
He'd hardly noticed her then; shy, awkward, skinny Marissa with her red, work-worn hands and her solemn expression. But lately, there had been a change; a blossoming of graceful curves, along with the dimple in her cheek when she turned one of her rare smiles in his direction that left him blushing and tongue-tied. Now, as she labored beside him in the field with her skirt kilted up to her knees and the sweat gleaming on her flushed face and shoulders, he was caught in a turmoil of emotions he hardly comprehended.
There was little left for them to harvest in that field after the ravages of drought and disease and depredations by braks, one of the more persistent omnivorous life forms on Metis III. Then a sudden banshee wind had blown up out of the north, forcing them to take cover with a quarter of what remained still unharvested.
Dar was the first to spot the dark clouds on the horizon which had gathered with surprising speed and covered nearly half of the sky, with lightning flashes flickering beneath. The refreshing breeze had turned icy, and Rissa shivered at the precipitate change. He could already see hail plummeting from those heavy-bellied clouds, pounding the hybrid grain into useless chaff.
Travis gritted his teeth, trying to choke down the growing despair that made him want to raise his face to the unforgiving skies and howl out his frustration. They had drawn heavily on the freeze-dried rations that were supposed to see them through a half century of routine planetary emergencies, like the occasional flood or earth tremor or even crop failure. But the past fifteen years had consisted of one setback after another in their efforts to turn Metis III into an independent, self-sustaining colony. Drought, pestilence, fire, and flood had descended on the settlement like a roll call for Armageddon. The promised paradise that Conal Travis and his fellow settlers had purchased at premium rates from the Federation's Emigration Board was rapidly becoming a deathtrap...and there seemed to be no way out.
He wondered grimly if Dar wasn't right about leaving. At least, it would be two less mouths to feed with the declining food supply. But their skills in hunting and gleaning the largest possible yield from the fields often made the difference between mere hunger and borderline starvation for their family. He couldn't abandon them to face that alone, not when his own father needed him so much! Especially not if Dar left.
The scattered drops had turned into a deluge just before they reached the drying shed, leaving them soaked to the skin.
"Uncouple the wagon from the tractor," Dar ordered as soon as they pulled inside. "I've got to get back to the steading."
"Why?" he gestured to the curtain of falling rain. "This will last for hours. Besides we've got to rack these sheaves so they'll dry."
"You know Deirdre can't handle Mother during a storm like this," Dar answered bluntly.
"She'll slip away and wander through the woods, chasing after deathcandles and mournlarks, calling for her `lost babes'. We've been lucky so far, she's not fallen afoul of a fenris but that luck won't last forever. And weakened as she is, another bout with river fever will kill her."
Rissa started to climb up behind Dar.
"Take me with you, Diarmid. She's my responsibility."
Dar arched a mocking brow, "There's barely enough room on this seat for me...and considering the force of the wind and the terrain between here and the house, you'd only slow me down trying to keep from pitching us both down the nearest wash. Besides, she's much more obstinate recently...it may take a stronger hand to keep her under control."
He'd gripped his brother's arm, "Dar...be gentle. Try to reason with her."
Dar shrugged off that restraining hold, "You don't reason with a madwoman, Colin. But don't worry, I won't tie her down...unless she becomes violent." He glanced back at the cold, shivering couple. "You better start spreading that grain to dry, to try and salvage something from this day's work. That should keep you warm until the storm blows over."
With a brief airy wave, Dar gunned the tractor's engine, taking him out into the gray sheeting rain.
He glared after his brother, a surge of resentment burning through him and banishing the chill. But Rissa stood forlorn and shivering in the cold, dank air. Abruptly, he pulled the door to the shed closed, shutting out the damp cold, but leaving them in darkness except for a small amount of light filtering from an upper row of vents.
Groping blindly for the tools stored in the shed, he tried to speak in a cool, matter-of-fact voice. "I'd offer you my shirt," he gestured to the wet skirt and blouse clinging to her slender, shivering body, "but I think it's even wetter than what you're wearing." Grateful there was only a faint quaver betraying his emotions, he continued. "Much as I hate to admit it, Dar's right. If we want to salvage anything of this crop, we better get it spread to dry. At least the work should keep us busy until the storm is past."
Rissa nodded and began to help him pitch and spread the sheaves of hybrid grain into the drying racks. The tedious repetitive nature of the task soon had them sweating once again but it was finished much too soon for his peace of mind. Racks that should have been filled nearly to the roof were almost empty, and as Rissa glanced up from the last sheaf that she had been turning, she whispered in a hopeless tone of voice.
"There's not enough here to last your family through the winter, much less the rest of the settlement."
"This isn't the only field being harvested. Your father has at least twice as much of the hybrid grain. And then there's Ben Gardner's legumes and Roy Asoka's tubers."
"Father had to burn off one field because of yellowleaf and he'll be lucky if the braks leave him half of what he planted in the other. I doubt anyone else is having much better luck. This planet is cursed!" Rissa's dark eyes filled with tears. "No wonder Dar won't touch me. He knows we're doomed, that any children we bring into this world face death by slow starvation ...or worse."
He felt his heart clench in pity at the anguish in Marissa's voice, yet it ignited a spark of defiance as well. No matter what Dar said, Metis III was home! Even if it was not the paradise world that his father and the other colonists hoped it would be, there was still a wild savage beauty to this adopted homeworld and he did not intend to let it defeat him. Dar could run away, seeking a softer life on the Inner Planets, but he intended to stand and fight for his survival and that of his loved ones.
He put a comforting arm around Rissa's thin shoulders, drawing her close, feeling her heart pounding against his chest like a captive bird. "Dar's a fool," he answered, his voice deep and husky. "Metis III will be a good place to live, to raise a family. We just have to hang on, fight for what we really want. There's an ancient philosopher my father sometimes quotes, `What doesn't destroy me only makes me stronger.'"
Rissa was surprised by his passionate avowal and whispered, "I thought you were just Dar's shadow, only following his lead. But there's more to you...much more." She gazed into his eyes, searching for something...someone to believe in. The fierce spark burning inside him ignited an answering flame in her, turning the chill gloom of the drying shed momentarily as bright as creation's first sunrise and transforming the musty smell of the damp sheaves into the scent of dew wet grass and wildflowers sweeter than any rose.
She raised her hand in a tentative caress of his cheek, startled as he pressed it to his lips and then sought her own in a sudden eager kiss. Drawing her into his embrace, his fingers had fumbled at the laces of her blouse and she responded eagerly, pushing aside his damp clinging shirt, caressing him in avid hunger. With a sudden trembling haste, they'd cast aside their clammy garments and buried themselves in each other's body in the warmth of the drying grain, forgetting in their mutual joy the fierce storm surrounding them...and the darker clouds yet to come.
Travis's guttural moan startled Jenna out of a sound sleep and she quickly turned on the bedside lamp, wondering if the nightly demons that had haunted him in the past were making an unwelcome return. In the muted light, sweat gleamed on his shadowed features, though he didn't seem to be in the throes of one of his usual nightmares.
He blinked, half-dazed, roused from his dream by the dim light and her concerned regard. His expression was strangely vulnerable and impulsively she asked, "Who's Rissa?
Travis stared past her into the darkness then answered hoarsely,"A girl... on Metis III."
Desolation filled his face as he continued in a choked whisper, "We were to be bonded."
Jenna felt a hot twinge of jealousy. Rissa must have been his first love. She'd avoided probing too deeply into his past before, but this time she intended to satisfy her curiosity.
His voice was flat and utterly without emotion, remembering the loss as though it was yesterday.
"Fenris killed her. Her father blamed me. . . she was pregnant with our child."
Jenna reached out to comfort him, trying to soothe the raw grief of those pain-filled words. As she cradled his head against her breasts, caressing his dark hair and murmuring soothingly, only his harsh breathing betrayed the depth of his pain.
Pushing away, he gripped her shoulders painfully, hard enough to leave bruises, "Never again, Jenna. I won't lose you, like I lost her. I need you too much."
She was startled by the fervor of that avowal and its unsettling candor, even in the intimacy of their own sleeping quarters. It revealed a dangerous emotional vulnerability in Travis, a vulnerability that both excited and alarmed her.
Appalled, Jenna protested "We've gone through too much to reclaim my - our - ships and earn acceptance in my clan. I won't give that up, Travis. Not even for you."
"I know," he whispered hoarsely, gently stroking her hair. " And I can't survive without you beside me. Ever since Rissa died, there's been an aching void inside me. Nothing dulled the pain, not duty or battle, not even obsession with revenge. Nothing, until you crashed into my life."
Travis's eye burned into hers and he drew her tightly against him, his mouth burning against hers. Even as his stark need fueled her own desire, Jenna felt a growing misgiving taking root in her mind. Travis's obsessive hatred for Blake had, for the most part, been the result of a puppeteer's psychomanipulations. Travis's own brother Carnell had been the psychostrategist responsible for that mental conditioning. Though he claimed to have erased the effects of his tampering and restored Travis's memories, she had to wonder. Was this sudden obsessive need an aftereffect of that conditioning? Or a sign of some new emotional instability?
Early the next morning, while Jenna was devoting a little more attention to her toilette, preparing for the important ceremony later that day, Travis strode in, his features set with exasperation.
"I just spoke with Akema. Jason never showed up at any of our docking slips last night. Even Phrath hasn't seen him for the past day. I left a message at the apprentice barracks and the refectory, but no one recalled seeing him anywhere around last night or this morning."
Dropping her brush on the dresser, she glared in the mirror."I hope he's not cooling his heels in the local security block. I warned the Matriarch this wasn't the best way to introduce Jason to the Clan. There's going to be enough of an uproar about founding a new sept. But with Jason's irregular background and the involvement of the Aurons, it's likely to turn into a three ring circus."
Travis leaned against the door, his arms folded across his chest "Why all the 'ruffles and flourishes' anyway?"
"Enclave and clan tradition and, in this case, a deliberate effort on the First Captain's part to smooth over the irregularities of Jason's origin. We're very big on ceremonial rites of passage, because they provide us with lots of opportunities to renew and maintain family ties, arrange for fostering and apprenticeships, even negotiate future bonding contracts." She glanced at him in amusement, "You might want to be on the lookout for a likely match for Jason. I hear the Niachros clan has an abundance of eligible nieces."
Travis stepped behind her, placing his hands possessively on her shoulders, "Let him hunt up his own bondmate. Teach him to look for the proper assets in a woman; a sharp eye, a steady hand and. . .a fast ship."
She arched her brow at him and sniffed disdainfully but before she could speak, they were interrupted by the chime at the entrance to their suite. Reaching over to activate the security camera, she gasped with shock at the image relayed to her screen.
It was Jason! Semiconscious, with blood covering the left side of his face, he was supported by someone just out of the camera's viewing angle. She rushed to open the door, with Travis right behind her. As she did so, an overpowering reek of stale alcohol and cheap perfume hit her in the face, revealing the likely cause of their son's stuporous condition. Not to mention the company he was keeping.
"Vila!" she exclaimed, outraged.
The thief winced and raised a shushing finger. "Not so loud, you'll wake him." He half-dragged, half-carried Jason's lanky body into their quarters. "Or you'll wake me, which `ud be worse."
Travis steered the inebriated pair over to the sofa, where Vila dropped Jason with a gusty sigh of relief. "He's heavier than he looks." Peering muzzily around, he remarked, "Nice place you got here but I really have to go. Get back to the Liberator. Blake's expecting me. . .got some safes he needs opened." He started to activate the teleport bracelet but Travis forestalled that move with the bruising grip of his cybernetic arm.
"You aren't going anywhere, Restal, until you tell us exactly what happened?"
Vila tried to shrug him off. "Exactly? What's to tell? A boy his age...it's normal to sow a few wild oats. Get drunk and find a pretty girl or two to have a good time."
"What about that?" Jenna gestured to the bloody-looking mark on Jason's face which, upon closer inspection, proved to be a savage looking dragon tattoo in a garish shade of red, coiling malevolently around his left eye and across his cheek.
Vila looked abashed, "He said he was tired of being Travis's shadow. Of being haunted by memories and nightmares that didn't belong to him. He wanted to change who he was, do something that made him different...marked him out." He peered up at the stark black patch concealing the empty socket and scarred cheekbone on the left side of Travis's face and licked his lips nervously. "Ummmm...I tried to talk him into something a little less ...obvious, like a snake or a dagger on his arm, but he was set on doing it that way."
Travis raised their son's chin to inspect the gaudy brand more closely while Jenna muttered under her breath, "Would make-up hide it long enough to get through today's events? Maybe the Matriarch won't notice if I use a heavy enough foundation."
Dropping Jason's head in disgust, Travis snorted, "As sharp as the old lady was the last time I saw her, you'd have to encase his head in duranium for her to miss spotting this atrocity."
He grimaced at the stench surrounding the boy. "Notify your uncle of the situation and see if he wants to call off the sideshow. I'll toss this young fool under a cold shower and sober him up or at least hose off a little of the cathouse stink." He glared at Vila before hoisting Jason up on one shoulder. "Couldn't you have chosen one of the higher class pleasure houses to patronize?"
Vila shrugged offhandedly, "He was picking up the tab. I wasn't about to criticize his selection." He smiled slyly. "Besides, the girls are rounder and friendlier on this side of the docks. Those high class joints always have thin, bony types who look down their aristocratic noses at Deltas like me."
Jenna called Mikhail's office and notified Brendan, his executive assistant, of Jason's inebriated condition. The telepath's expression was impassive as he responded, "I will relay that information to the First Captain but I'm afraid the most we can do this late is delay the ceremony. The Enclave Council has been notified and many of the Clan Houses will be present, so calling the whole thing off would be unthinkable." His grey eyes twinkled with a somewhat austere amusement. "Besides, with all the special dishes your uncle has ordered, the caterer would have a stroke if we cancelled now."
Jenna rolled her eyes. "Heaven forbid that we upset the caterer. Just warn my uncle what to expect. We'll try to have Jason in a reasonably sober condition."
Breaking the connection, she heard the sounds of someone being violently ill in the fresher and called through the door,"There's a couple of vials of Detox on the lower shelf of the medicine cabinet, if you want to try that."
Travis remarked caustically. "Judging by the variety of poisons Jason apparently ingested, it will take an industrial strength chemical wash to restore his brain in under twelve hours."
"We've got less than three. Do you need any help?"
"No, I can handle him. But see if you can get a straight story from Restal about what happened."
He turned back to the shower, where Jason sagged against the wall, shivering despite the hot water sluicing down his body. Travis watched him warily. The spasms of nausea that wracked him earlier had subsided but the boy could still black out and crack his skull open or half-drown if left alone. He shook his head in exasperation over the dragon tattoo glowing fierily through the water streaming down Jason's face.
"Young idiot," he muttered to himself."Might as well have drawn a bull's-eye on your back if you ever need to blend into a crowd unnoticed."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Jason mumbled, wincing at the pounding agony in his head.
"Self-mutilation seemed like a good idea? You fool, you've marked yourself for life on nothing more than a drunken impulse! I didn't have any choice about mine," he gestured angrily to the black patch and cybernetic arm. "They were the price of my loyalty to the Federation."
Travis broke off the rest of his bitter outburst and activated the cubicle's blowers. "Come out when you're dry. I'll see if we can find something that makes you look halfway respectable."
To Jenna's surprise when she reentered the room where she'd left Vila, he was still sprawled on the sofa, with no evidence that he'd rifled silver or lifted any other items of value from their quarters. She stared at him with a slightly jaundiced eye.
"You seem unrepentant about taking Jason on the cook's tour of every gin joint and cathouse on the lower end of the docks."
"It wasn't my idea," he protested weakly. "Truly it wasn't. It's just when he saved my neck by beating up that gang of rowdies..."
Jenna held up her hand to halt his explanation. "Jason took on a dockside gang . . . alone? And managed to hold his own?"
"Hold his own. . .he beat `em to a pulp. With just a little assistance from me." Vila shrugged modestly. " Course, he's got all the moves of a Death Squad commando, benefit of your bondmate's training, I guess."
"Travis hasn't begun unarmed combat drills with Jason yet. We've been too busy working on his pilot training." Jenna looked at the lockpick with growing misgivings."You said something earlier about Jason being bothered by dreams and memories that didn't belong to him."
"He didn't go into detail. Just seemed. . . I dunno, upset, shaken, about it."
"Did he mention any names. . .or other specifics?"
She was only too familiar with the catalog of her bondmate's nightmares.
Jason owed his survival, his very identity to Cally's efforts after Jenna's uncle had arranged for his "birth" and then abandoned him. The Auron had explained that the joint mental pattern that she had given Jason was little more than an imprint of socialized responses rather than actual concrete memories. What if Cally was mistaken and Travis's memories, terrible as they were, were somehow surfacing in Jason's mind? Jenna shuddered at the thought.
"No...no specifics." Vila scratched his head, thinking for a moment, then recalled. "Except one thing...one of the girls he was with got a little huffy afterwards. Said he kept calling her by another woman's name. Lissa, Raisa, something like that."
"Yeah, that's it. Does it mean anything to you?"
Jenna felt a growing sense of alarm. Rissa's name had just emerged as part of Travis's nightmare last evening. Were he and Jason mentally linked in some way? She shook her head to clear it. This sort of thing was totally beyond her comprehension. But Cally was a special guest at today's ceremonies. Afterwards, Jenna would tell her about Travis's nightmares. . .and Jason's reaction to them. There had to be a simple explanation.
Folding her hands in front of her, she turned an exasperated smile on the nervous thief.
"Just answer one question about your part in Jason's escapade. Are we going to be billed for an orgy?"
As the last of the formal toasts was concluded, Jenna drained her glass and breathed a sigh of relief that the ceremony was finally over. Glancing around at the heavily laden tables of rich delicacies, she replaced her empty glass with a full one from one of the trays of drinks circulating around the room and a familiar voice asked mockingly,
"Don't tell me that the trials of motherhood are driving you to drink this early in the day?" Jenna glanced around and spied a red-haired figure in an elegant green and gold gown.
"Dani," she exclaimed, hugging the other pilot and nearly baptizing both of them with Antarean sparkling wine. "I thought you had a trade run to Argos and couldn't get back in time?"
"I got a datafax last evening informing me my cargo wasn't ready due to processing delays. Rather than rack up a week's worth of docking fees, I thought I'd drop by to see how your new apprentice. . .and adopted son was working out?"
Smiling ruefully, Jenna shook her head, "I thought getting him at this age, we'd have skipped all the rough spots - 2 am feedings, strained beets, diaper detail, even the whole primary education zoo. Seems like I didn't know the half of it."
"Teenage angst and rebellion," Dani chuckled as she snagged a Deneb crab roll and a couple of gingerberry tarts from passing trays. "Not to mention the typical identity crisis."
Jenna stared moodily into her glass, "Unfortunately, Jason's 'identity crisis' isn't typical."
Taking a long swallow, she continued, "Though the rebellious streak is definitely my contribution."
Dani almost choked recalling Jason's response during his part of the naming ceremony.
The Matriarch had placed her hands on his head as he knelt in front of her, signifying acceptance into the clan as she intoned, "I declare this son of Jenna Stannis and Colin Travis, clan member by blood and bone. Record his name in the records ...Mikhail Alain Duncan Kenyon...."
"Jason," he interrupted.
The Matriarch stopped short and looked down in disbelief "What?"
"My name is Jason."
There was a long silence and Jenna felt her stomach tying itself into a knot. That does it. The tattoo was a shock, but now she's going to pitch him out on his ear for deliberate insolence.
Instead the old woman's eyes had seemed to twinkle in approval before she started the litany once again."His name is Jason Mikhail Alain Duncan Kenyon..." The names droned on for another five minutes, memorializing Stannis male ancestors going back to the Atomic Dark Ages.
Then she turned to Travis causing a rustle of surprise as she inquired, "Was there any name you wished included in those already bestowed?"
He shook his head, drawling laconically, "I think the boy's burdened with enough family honor already."
Jenna had managed to choke off her laughter and the ceremony proceeded without any further interruptions.
Licking the gingerberry juice from her fingers, Dani shrugged, "Offhand, I'd say he inherited his stubbornness from both of you. It's a valuable survival trait. . . if not taken to extremes."
Vila sauntered up with a drink in both hands and Dani snagged one with a gleeful grin.
"Thanks, Vila. I was dying of thirst."
Jenna circulated through the crowd, trying to spot Cally. Tarrant and Dayna were conversing animatedly with a group of young couples, including several Fleet Captains of the various clans. Blake was absorbed by something her uncle and First Captain Niachros were proposing. But there seemed to be no sign of the slender Auron.
Feeling someone close behind her Jenna turned abruptly, almost treading on Travis's toes.
He rarely shadowed her during gatherings on Sanctuary, trusting that the clan's routine security measures were adequate for her safety and she was somewhat startled that he would be hovering like this at a family function.
"What's the matter? Is there a problem with one of the ships?"
"No problem."he shook his head, though she could read the tension in his body and the guarded, uneasy expression on his face.
"What's wrong?" she persisted..
Travis returned her gaze levelly, then tried to shake off his apprehension. "Nothing."
"You don't hang over me like a storm cloud if nothing's wrong."
He retreated behind his duty mask, obviously with no intention of answering.
Jenna glanced around again, finally spotting Cally, then waved him over to the buffet. "Look, why don't you go get a drink? I want to talk to Cally. Girl talk."
Travis shrugged, then reluctantly stepped over to the bar as Jenna approached Cally, wondering how to express her recent concerns about Jason's memories.
The Auron guerilla still possessed that quiet calm that Jenna had found so perturbing when they crewed together on the Liberator. It sometimes seemed that her inner being was a still deep pool, untroubled by the fear, anger, and passions that had tormented Jenna. Tormented as he was by inner doubts and fears, Cally's serenity had drawn Blake to her as a confidant, though not the lover that Jenna had once jealously believed. Now Jenna hoped that the Auron could pass on small portion of that inner tranquility.
Sensing Jenna's worry, Cally's welcoming smile quickly vanished.
"I was about to congratulate you on Jason's and Travis's acceptance by your clan. . .but I sense you are uneasy, disturbed. How can I help?"
At the bar, Travis froze, his face drawn and his heart pounding as an ominous sound echoed through his head. He pivoted swiftly around trying to locate his bondmate, terrified at what that sound signified. He groped for his blaster then swore as he realized he was unarmed. This gathering was in the heart of the Stannis complex, surrounded by the most sensitive, high-tech security system available. Given the formality and decorum of the ceremony, he had reluctantly agreed not to carry any kind of weapon. Now he had only his bare hands to defend her from the horror whose howl shivered through his gut.
Jenna drew the telepath aside to a quiet corner, breathing a momentary sigh of relief then quickly blurted her worries about Travis's emotional instability and Jason's apparent `flashbacks' of Travis's memories. Feeling somewhat foolish now that her fears were out in the open, Jenna tried to shrug them off.
"I know Vila isn't the most trustworthy of witnesses, but he seemed sincere about this. Jason has been. . . off balance lately, flaring up for little or no reason. Knowing what he should do, but lacking the skill or coordination to follow through. And Travis's early memories have been growing in intensity in his recent nightmares."
Cally was baffled, "There shouldn't be a mental link, or even any actual memories, from either of you. I just used a matrix that combined your basic memories from your first sixteen years, so the level of social and physical skills would closely match Jason's current age."
"Mine perhaps, but that's when Travis was engaged in a daily battle for survival on his homeworld. Some of those experiences were painful enough to break through his memory blocks even before Carnell erased the conditioning. Is it possible Jason is being subjected to that? "
The Auron frowned thoughtfully, "I don't see how. When our minds were linked on Centero, I only sensed his basic personality, with no access to actual memories."
"Well, I guess Travis's flashbacks are understandable, considering what's happened the last couple of months," Jenna admitted uneasily.
"I still find it hard to believe that his own brother could have betrayed Travis the way that he did. Puppeteers may have a reputation as soulless manipulators, but what Carnell did was obscene."Cally studied her long slender hands, "I still don't see how Jason could possibly be experiencing Travis's memories. . .no matter how painful or intense."
The object of their discussion, Jason Travis, was taking a cautious sip of ginger beer while Jennifer Niachros, an amethyst-eyed apprentice navigator tried to convince him to try one of her uncle's hangover remedies. "It's quallan eggs...they're the small round purple things by the liver pate. You dip them in the acadis roe...the pink slimy stuff..."
Jason gulped down more of the bubbly drink than he had intended and started to choke. While Jennifer was pounding him vigorously on the back, he froze and the glass slipped out of his hand to crash to the floor. Ignoring her outraged wail as its contents splattered her Vincan silk gown, he glanced hastily around, a terrified expression on his face.
Brushing past the stunned Jennifer, he bolted around numerous guests and well-wishers, until he reached Jenna's side, red-faced and panting. He clutched her arm, starting to pull her away from the startled Auron.
"Fenris..." he gasped in panic, "All around us! We have to get back to the steading, before full dark."
Jenna froze at those terror-filled words.
She recognized that name from Travis's darkest memories of his youth on Metis III and glanced in dismay at Cally. Jason was flashing back to the one of the worst nightmares from Travis's past!
She tried to calm him. "It's all right. It's only a bad dream. . .there's nothing here now."
He gripped her arm painfully, grating out in a snarl that sounded just like Travis. "Stop blathering, girl, and pick up your heels and run for it. I'll try to hold them off."
He groped for the weapon he wasn't wearing as he pushed her toward the door.
As she stumbled to her knees, thrown off-balance by his shove, there was a hoarse animal-like scream from across the room.
Jenna felt the blood congeal in her veins at the anguish in that cry! It was Travis, his voice a tattered rag as he moaned in despair, "NOOOO, I won't lose her....not again!!!"
He lunged at Jason in an demonic fury, grappling with the boy and throwing him to the floor, amid the shrieks of confused and terrified guests.
Jenna and Cally were momentarily frozen by the sudden attack and then quickly tried to separate the combatants, but the struggle was too intense. Mikhail stared in disbelief at the unexpected violence, but Brendan had sensed the mental shock waves just prior to the actual explosion, With Blake's stalwart aid and his own coercive mental skills, the wiry telepath managed to break up the battle between the two men.
Blake pried Travis's crazed grip from Jason's throat, muttering, "I wish you'd pick on someone your own size. . . instead of a half-grown boy."
Travis stared at his one-time foe, his face blank and empty, then slumped against him.
Brendan held Jason's bruised, unconscious body cradled in his arms, whispering in a low, overcontrolled voice. "Alert the medcenter. . .quickly! He's not breathing!"
* * *
Travis remembered. . . he didn't know why Jacob Reeves had been at his parents' cabin that night. In all likelihood, it was to discuss increasing the frequency and the urgency of the colony's call for help. The situation in the colony was deteriorating daily. Starvation and disease was taking an ever increasing toll of their numbers and strength. Plus the local wildlife was increasingly less wary of the colonists encroachment and becoming much more of a threat to their survival.
Whatever the reason, Marissa's father had stared in stunned disbelief as he staggered through the door after stumbling nearly two miles, clutching her bleeding body in his arms, warning them of the fenris pack skulking at his heels.
But there had been no sign of the beasts and after an appalled glimpse of his daughter's savaged corpse and the hopeless terror in her staring eyes, Reeves turned on him in a red fury, clutching his shirt, stiff and stinking with Rissa's blood. "Damn you, boy! You were the father of her child, her intended bondmate! You were supposed to protect her and your baby! Not stand by whimpering while they were ripped to dogmeat!"
He'd hung unresisting in that hysterical grip, until his father stepped in, forcing Jacob to relinquish his hold, trying to reach past his dazed stare.
"Snap out of it, son. Tell us what happened."
He'd looked up, the desolation in his heart matching the cold emptiness in Reeves' face as he answered flat-voiced, "It was fenris. . .two, three, I dunno, I lost count."
Reeves had grated out in disbelief, "If there were so damn many, boy, how is it you're still alive and not ripped to bloody pieces like my Rissa?
"The blaster. . ." he'd whispered numbly. ". . .kept firing until the charge. . .died. Then I pulled out my knife. . .trying to drag them. . .away from her. . after. . .after. . ." and his voice had choked off .
Sobbing, he'd slumped weakly at the table as his younger sister Deirdre hurried over from the fireplace where she'd been huddled with their mother, brother and sisters, trying to keep warm. She poured out a basin of water and began sponging off his blood-soaked arms and hands, exposing deep lacerations. As she eased off the jacket, she noted its tattered condition and the dark stains reeking of fenris venom soaked into the lining. Although she tried to catch their father's eye, Conal had been more concerned about the missing weapon
"Where's the blaster, son? What happened to it?"
"Don't. . .don't remember," his voice had slurred as his head lolled to the side.
Conal placed a comforting arm around his shoulders while Jacob Reeves glared bleakly, his fists clenching and unclenching spasmodically. Everyone was oblivious as Dar went over and lifted the blood-sodden blanket to inspect the torn flesh of his once intended bride.
His coldly sarcastic observation broke through the shocked numbness that filled the room.
"Looks like your aim was slightly off, little brother, if you were just aiming for fenris. There's a blaster burn on her chest. It's hard to see with all the other damage, but it went right through her heart."
Reeves had buried his hands in his shirt again, shaking him "You murdered her, you bastard! Your own wife and child, you bloody-handed butcher!"
Conal forced his way between them, "It was an accident, Jacob. He tried to save her. In all likelihood, she was dying before he fired . . ."
Reeves had turned reddened eyes toward Conal, "You don't know that for sure. He could
have run away when they were attacked, then come back afterwards for her body, emptying his blaster, claiming he'd fought the beast off."
"What about his wounds," Deirdre had interrupted shrilly, from where she'd been bandaging his lacerated arms.
"Self-inflicted most likely, with his own knife," Reeves dismissed her scornfully. "Not the work of fenris claws or he'd be hanging in its larder now, where he belongs."
Deirdre had snatched up his jacket but before she could continue her defense, Conal had clenched his teeth and gritted out in a low voice "Jacob Reeves, I know you are beside yourself with grief for you daughter, but only our long friendship prevent me from shoving that filthy lie down your throat!"
Borderline starvation had pared Conal's once massive frame down to little more than stringy muscles on an oversized skeleton, but he was still an intimidating figure and the blood-chilling wrath on his face forced Reeves to swallow back any further accusations. As he turned away from his daughter's shrouded body, the expression in his eyes was an open wound. He spoke in a harsh broken voice,"It will take me a couple of hours to bring a wagon back for her. If I can impose on your kindness that long...?"
"Why not bury her here, Jacob," Conal offered awkwardly, trying to smooth over the rift suddenly yawning between them. "She's one of our family, by bonding, if not by blood, and there's a pretty spot in a group of lindor trees, where three of our children are laid to rest."
"No!" Jacob choked off harshly. "I won't have her buried here, so near to where she was mur..." he bit off his accusation. "Where she died so violently. Her spirit couldn't rest in this bloody ground. I'd prefer to take her home. . .where she belongs."
Strangely enough the shock had seemed to clear his mother's mind, for the moment at least, and she approached Reeves as he was leaving.
"We'll prepare her body, Jacob. Was there anything special that you wanted her to wear?"
"NO!" Reeves had howled bitterly. "I want nothing from you. Nothing! Your son robbed me of my child. . .and my future."
Pulling his jacket up tight around his ears, before he went out into the bitter cold, Reeves turned a last despairing look on the broken body that had once held his dreams and hopes for the future. Then turning a bitter, red-eyed glare of purest hatred in his direction, Reeves had spat, "One day, if there's any justice, you'll suffer the same terror and pain that Rissa did as she died, boy! I only hope I live to see it."
With Reeves' curse ringing in his ears, he'd collapsed, burying his face in his arms.
* * *
Xanadu's largest medcenter tried to soften the stark plainness of its waiting rooms with artificial greenery and pastel walls, but Jenna was too consumed with worry to even notice. Brendan had gotten Jason breathing again before the emergency crews had arrived. Then Travis had abruptly collapsed into a raving, violent delirium that had somehow infected Jason as well. The medics could do little to alleviate their condition except heavily sedate them both..
When they arrived at the medcenter, the chief physician had requested Brendan and Cally's assistance in performing a type of brain wave scan on the unconscious pair. Jenna paced helplessly, awaiting the results. Blake was slumped in a chair next to one of the artificial plants while Avon brooded, staring out the window at Xanadu's soaring towers.
A technician entered the room, addressing her, "The tests are finished and both came through as well as can be expected. You may see them for a few minutes before Dr. Wylie discusses the results."
Jenna nodded and followed the technician to a small screened off area, where Travis lay deeply unconscious, pale as death, with a fine tremor passing through his body at irregular intervals. He was secured with a restraint web and she felt a rising panic threatening to choke her. As often as Travis had stood on the brink of death since they had been together, she had never felt so helpless, so inadequate. Not even aboard the Reina in the void as they had hurtled toward the confrontation with Blake at Star One.
She reached out to caress his forehead and smooth back a strand of dark hair that had fallen across it, but the technician quickly forestalled her.
"It's best if you don't touch him. He's sensitive to stimuli of any sort and we don't know what will trigger another episode of seizures."
Jenna stared at the technician in dismay then dropped her hand to her side. Stepping away from the bed, she whispered, "Where's Jason? I thought they'd be in the same room."
"No, Sen Jason is on another ward, at the other side of the hospital. It was necessary to separate them as much as possible. Dr. Wylie can explain later. Do you wish to see your. . .son?"
Jenna shook her head numbly, unable to endure the thought of seeing Jason, pale and insensible, as debilitated as Travis.
"No, let's hear what the doctor has to say."
Jenna was ushered into an office, where Brendan and Cally were already present. Brendan's austere features were drawn with new lines of fatigue and worry and Cally was seated by a window, sipping listlessly at a cup of warm soup. Much to Jenna's surprise, Avon and Blake entered moments later followed by Dr. Wylie. He had a round-faced cherubic face, with a fuzzy brown halo of hair, looking more like a kindly uncle than a psychosurgeon, which was what the hospital had said had been called in to deal with Travis and Jason's condition.
He shook everyone's hand briefly before turning a mock-baleful glare on Brendan, "Ser Doyle, I told you I wanted you to drink something warm and restorative as well, not just give it to the Auron. The two of you have done the work of an entire diagnostic team in the past six hours and you look like a feather could knock you over! Now do I have to sit on your chest, while Seran Cally pours whiskey down your throat?"
Brendan smiled wanly, going over to the dispenser and pressing the selector for beef tea, "That won't be necessary, Doctor. Besides, considering what lies ahead, I don't think I should be under the influence of any depressants."
Sighing morosely as he plopped into a chair behind the overflowing desk, Dr. Wylie nodded in agreement. "Unfortunately, that's true or I'd be getting totally blotto myself. I don't think I've run into a more virulent set of memories or conditioned mental blocks. It's a miracle that Captain Travis has survived as long as he has."
Jenna swallowed a lump in her throat and exchanged glances with Brendan, "He's been a survivor, from the very beginning. Even Servalan and her puppeteer couldn't destroy him."
Dr. Wylie nodded absently, before activating his data screen and keying up several reports.
"The cost of that survival was high, judging by his physical and mental scars, and he may not be done `paying the piper' in dealing with his past. Unfortunately, Jason has somehow gotten caught up in those traumatic memories."
He highlighted a pattern tracing across the screen and Jenna stared at it blankly as he continued. "This is a psychically augmented recording of your bondmate's brainwaves, taken in linkage with Ser Doyle. I know it's only so much gibberish to you but I want you to notice a segment of theta spikes that repeats at regular intervals. That is the specific signature of Federation mental conditioning."
"But Carnell said he'd erased..."
"Oh, I don't doubt that he erased the actual blocks the but the trigger points were still present, encapsulated within Travis's mind. Now, look at this pattern that was taken from your son...while he was in linkage with Seran Cally."
Jenna didn't have to look, she knew. "The patterns are identical. I know. Cally used a fusion of our mental imprints to give Jason an identity. . .but why is it Travis's memories he's reliving and not mine?"
"The primary reason involves the removal of the blocks, which caused your bondmate to re-experience these particular memories and the strong emotions associated with them." Dr. Wylie, studied the screen tapping a stylus against his chin.
"But why is Jason also experiencing those memories?"
"I'm not totally sure. We're on terra incognita here. This whole procedure has only been theorized in the most advanced textbooks because of our lack of knowledge about cloning and the Aurons' own isolationist stance. But Jason's and Travis's brain patterns show an unusual congruence, more like clone siblings than genetic offspring, with the resulting telepathic-empathic linkage. Thus, what Travis feels and remembers, Jason does, as well. Today's outburst was only the tip of the iceberg. In restoring Travis's memories, the puppeteer somehow triggered their involuntary recall. . .and Jason is reliving them as intensely as if he were experiencing them for the first time." Dr. Wylie's soft brown eyes were haunted.
Jenna bit her lip in dismay. "Can't you stop it? Drug them both and wipe Travis's memories. Restore the damned mental blocks, if necessary!"
Blake stared at Jenna, horrified at this ruthless side of his former pilot..
Dr. Wylie shook his head in denial, "Impossible now that the memories have been triggered. That process can't be reversed any more than a matter-antimatter reaction. We can delay the inevitable with suppressants. But we can't drug either of them too long without causing permanent damage. And without some kind of intervention, the experience may shatter Jason's mind completely."
Jenna stared down at her clenched fists, fighting back tears. It shouldn't affect her like this. Jason was a biological freak, given life only because of her uncle's whim. They'd taken the responsibility for him impulsively, seeing in his resemblance to Travis a chance for a new beginning. To heal the old wounds scarring so much of her bondmate's past. Only now that past was coming back to haunt them with devastating power and she was helpless to prevent it.
Cally stepped away from the window."I can link with Jason and protect him."
Blake broke in sharply, "Cally, you can't do this. It could damage your mind, possibly even kill you."
"I'm aware of the risks, Blake. But it is my responsibility," was her calm reply. "I'm the reason Jason is in danger. If I hadn't taken the actions I did..."
"The boy would still be a mindless husk in the Aurons' stasis chambers," Avon interrupted caustically. "Surely that doesn't mean you're his `keeper' for life, does it?"
"I've always taken responsibility for the consequences of my actions." Cally gazed at Avon in gentle reproach. "Even the best-intentioned ones."
"No good deed goes unpunished," Avon remarked drily. He turned his piercing dark gaze on Brendan, Mikhail's telepathic aide. "I know your telepathic skills aren't unique on this planet, Doyle. Can't you send for someone else with Cally's skills to get the boy through this...this crisis?"
"Possibly. But even if our Esper Guild could locate someone as psychically strong as Seran Cally, there's no guarantee that individual would be able to establish a link with Jason. Not in the limited time we have. Jason is innocent...and should be protected from those memories."
"Heaven protect us from innocents," Avon muttered savagely under his breath, turning his basilisk glare between Blake and Cally, trying to elicit some sense of pragmatism or at least enlightened self-interest. But the Auron's expression was filled with the gentle stubbornness he found so exasperating.
Jenna had slumped in a chair, caught between relief and fear, her gaze turned to Brendan in mute appeal.
"I will link with Travis in an attempt to shield him from the full impact of this forced recall, Seran Jenna," Doyle stated hesitantly. "But remember, he did survive the actual events and he may not welcome any presence in his mind as he relives these painful. . .and private experiences."
"I'll take that chance," was Jenna's hoarse reply. "Damn Carnell for doing this to him."
* * *
Travis remembered . . . his father's hands, scarred and swollen by the years of grinding labor trying to make Metis III a home. Normally steady and sure, Conal's hands trembled while holding the crude containers as Travis had decanted his home-brewed explosive. As part of an ongoing vendetta against the fenris, he'd distilled the volatile devil's brew from common farming chemicals the colonists had brought with them. Hence his father's trembling hands. His own were rock steady and his face an emotionless mask as he prepared to go into battle against the beasts that had slaughtered his wife and child.
Although Jacob Reeves had not openly accused him of cowardice, the circumstances surrounding Rissa's death had left him a virtual outcast. But he'd hardly noticed, consumed as he was by grief and rage and a growing obsession to exterminate the fenris.
Conal had tried to reason with him, "Why a vendetta against dumb animals? It's a waste of the colony's resources, not to mention your own life."
"It's my life to risk," was his harsh reply. "Besides, I don't think we've got much of a future left here. I'd rather go quick, with fenris blood on my knife than die by inches."
"You used to believe that we could make a future here if we just hung on, and fought for what we truly wanted."
"That was when Rissa was alive," he'd answered raggedly. "When I had something to live for. Now there's nothing. . . nothing left, except Rissa's screams."
Abruptly he shouldered the deadly pack, striding out into the predawn darkness. He did not look back as he left. Otherwise, he might have seen the grief on his father's face as he stared out at the stark and barren fields. Fields that once held the promise of hope and new life, but now were only the devil's harvesting ground, a dim, hopeless corner of hell.
Both of Metis III's moons had set, leaving only the cold starlight to guide his steps. He paused momentarily, letting his eyes become accustomed to the dark, gazing up into the unheeding heavens as he did. Streaks of light ripped across the darkness, stragglers from the usual late summer meteor shower. One in particular so bright he thought that it might actually be large enough to survive its fiery descent through the atmosphere. He shrugged indifferently, numb to its splendor. The heavens held no promise for him. All his hopes and dreams had died with Rissa."
Dar was waiting for him at the top of the ridge, their last functioning pulse rifle slung over his shoulder. His brother's eyes gleamed with a darkly humorous malice, "You're still determined to go through with this reckless stupidity?"
"I've located den sites for nearly a score of fenris. It's whelping season now and most of the females are still nursing their young. A few well-placed bombs will flatten out this group's population growth curve. . .for this year at least."
"And if your home-brewed grenades fizzle, they'll wean their cubs on your bloody carcass." Dar observed caustically.
"They won't," he retorted, "Now, are you coming or not? It'll be daylight soon and they sleep heaviest right after they've gorged on the night's kill."
"How come you're so certain that they all made a kill?"
"I left three hamstung braks practically on their doorsteps." He shifted the pack so it rested a little more securely on his shoulders and plunged into the shadowy woodlands just beyond the settlement.
"Too bad you couldn't poison the meat. It would have simplified things enormously." Dar fell in beside him.
"You know better than that. They prefer to eat live prey, that they've brought down themselves." There was a haunted note in his voice but Dar ignored it.
"Very well planned, little brother. Your tactical skills could take you far in Space Command, maybe even earn a commission Why not change your mind and come with me?"
"No one's going to answer that distress call. Not the Federation or any independent spacers." He gazed into the slowly brightening skies. "We might as well dig our graves and be done with it."
Dar asked mockingly, "So you've stopped believing in Conal's dream? That hard work and good intentions can actually transform this cesspit into a paradise?"
"With Rissa gone, it doesn't matter anymore." The aching void inside threatened to swallow him, "Nothing matters."
Dar stared for a moment before breaking into scornful laugh, "Is that why you're so determined to get yourself killed. As blood price for her death? You mistook a physical itch for grand passion and you think it's left you scarred for life. Don't be an idiot, Colin. She didn't care who spread her legs as long as she got a child in her belly."
He buried his fists in his brother's shirt, rage surging inside of him. "Keep your lying tongue off her, Dar. She loved me. Rissa did love me."
Startled by the violence of his reaction, Dar had stared at him in disbelief, then fell silent, trailing behind until they reached the cutoff that dropped down into a rocky gulch, littered with scree and pockmarked with numerous overhangs, grottos, and shallow caves. Judging by the heap of well-gnawed bones and stench of rotting meat permeating the area, Dar saw that his brother was right about this area sheltering more than a single litter.
As his eyes watered at the rank musky odor, Dar was clearly disturbed by the signs of cooperation among the once rabidly isolationist predators. It could only mean worse problems for the Metis colony. Since the last of the energy cells for recharging weapons had been cannibalized to power the transmitter, they were easy prey for a pack this size.
Seeing Dar's sudden dismay, Travis had remarked off-handedly. "We've become enough of a threat to force them to adapt. Evolutionary change...for the sake of survival." He shrugged off his knapsack containing his hand-made explosive devices. "But I intend to give evolution a little kick in the teeth." He sorted through his miniature bombs, checking for flaws or cracks in the casings, making sure all the timers were set, positioning them so they could be easily and rapidly dispersed. "Killing off this breeding group should short-circuit that change."
Dar glanced down at the pit, then back at the pulse rifle he held ready. "So, what am I supposed to do while you're conducting this exercise in eugenics? There's not enough of a charge in this rifle to give you covering fire."
"Enough for a single shot- if you hit dead center." His voice was cold and remote.
"What good will that do? If any of those bombs turn out to be duds and don't seal all the dens, you could have a dozen fenris after you. I can't stop that many with a single shot."
"You won't have to. Just take a bead right here," He'd tapped squarely between his eyes. "And don't miss."
Before Dar could protest, he dropped over the side of the rift, half-sliding, half-scrambling towards the dark mouths of the fenris lairs and a rendezvous with his own personal devils.
Stalking through the shadows, he'd placed the bombs with meticulous care, inside crevasses and grottos, where they should trigger the collapse of the entire canyon wall. Despite his earlier nerveless arming of the devices, he shivered as he crept deeper into the silent arroyo. The musky stench from the dens almost stifled him and he flashed back to the attack on Rissa-the pack's bloodied mouths tearing at her body. The resulting wave of nausea nearly dropped him to his knees, retching. He swallowed hard, fighting the spasms, knowing if he weakened, the sound would rouse even a lethargic fenris. Wiping the sour taste from his mouth, he resumed his task ignoring his watery eyes and trembling muscles.
He was almost finished when he spotted an isolated lair, halfway up a rock face, out of the path of his explosions. He stared grimly noting the loose gravel at its entryway. A single misplaced step could set off a slide and alert the whole pack. But if even one litter escaped...
Grimly he reached for an outcropping on that sheer wall, straining upward, ignoring the pain knifing though his shoulders and the sharp rocks lacerating his fingers.. With painstaking care, he slid the last bomb just inside the mouth of the den, catching his breath as a small trickle of sand and gravel followed that cautious placement.
When no outraged howl erupted, he exhaled slowly, hanging limp against the rock face He knew he was wasting precious seconds but his knees were trembling too hard to support his weight. Sucking in a deep breath, he readied himself for the dash back through the gorge, then slid to the ground, pausing only long enough to wipe the sweat out of his eyes.
The sun was over the horizon now, streaming down into the rift and nearly blinding him with its glare. Hastily, he retraced his steps, trying to outrun the hair-trigger fuses on his homemade bombs, but he was still a hundred meters from Dar's position when the first exploded-too soon! The rock wall shivered and collapsed with a roar, sealing most of the caves before the occupants could shake of their lethargy and escape. But subterranean vibrations roused three females scant seconds before the rest detonated, and maddened by the noise and stink of the explosion they scrambled from their lairs.
He sprinted for the canyon opening, dodging the beasts and the aftermath of the explosion would confuse their hyperacute senses long enough for him to escape, but one of them clawed out blindly, slashing the back of his thigh. Fortunately, the females venom dried up in mating season or he would have been paralyzed, easy prey despite the fact they were half-stunned by shock waves and blinded by the surging dust.
Sidling back against a rock wall, he glanced up looking for his brother, but the dust clouds were too thick. Was Dar still there? Or had his brother abandoned him, counting the risk too high once things went wrong? He pulled out his own nearly drained blaster, wondering if its weak charge would be enough. With a low growl, one of the fenris leaped for him and a harsh beam seared through the dust, cutting the beast in half.
Dragging an arm across his eyes, he coughed at the acrid smoke from its charred flesh as he muttered, "Dammit Dar! You're supposed to shoot me, not the fragging beast!"
The two surviving fenris circled, moving in closer. Oblivious to the threat of his weapon, the closest charged, sinking her teeth into his arm, razor-edges slashing it to the bone. He fired point-blank into her face. Blinded, the fenris screamed, releasing her grip as she fell back against the second, who sank her fangs into her packmate's throat as they rolled together in a kicking, screeching fury.
Eyes tearing in pain, he staggered to his feet, clutching at his wounded arm as he tried to inch away from the bloody melee. Then an inferno of weapons' fire flared down and reduced the battling fenris to a raw red heap of charred meat and smoking hide.
Gagging at the appalling stench, he stared upwards, wondering who was responsible for his deliverance. A platoon of black clad figures with blank visors covering their faces surrounded Dar, his pulse rifle apparently in their custody. Despite his earlier boasts about proving himself an asset to any ship that set down on Metis III, Dar did not look very comfortable with their rescuers. In fact, despite the fact they had just saved him from being fenris meat, the whole situation looked downright threatening,
A wave of dizziness threatened to send him spiraling down into unconsciousness and with a deliberate effort, he dragged himself to his feet, still staring suspiciously at his rescuers. One of them, obviously senior to the others, raised his visor showing a scarred but somewhat less menacing expression. "Looks like the cavalry arrived just in time, youngster. Or you wouldn't have been much more than rat bait."
"I could have handled them," he lied brashly, holding out his almost empty blaster. "I had this."
The noncom's eyes narrowed as he ordered with cool contempt. "Well, maybe you just better drop it, sonny. We wouldn't want it to go off accidentally and shoot you in the foot. Besides, I got orders to take any natives I find to the Commander. And Commander Brannen don't like to see armed natives. It causes misunderstandings. . .sometimes fatal ones."
He glared up at the older man, reluctant to part with the blaster's comforting weight, even if it was nearly empty. "We're not natives of Metis III. We're Federation colonists, entitled to Space Command protection."
There was a harsh rusty laugh from the trooper, twisting his features into a much more threatening mask. "That's rich, "native". Because according to our records there ain't no "legal" settlement out this far. Only squatters and renegades and pirates. So drop the blaster, "native" before I forget how entertained I was by your little tussle with the local wildlife and put you out of your misery."
Staring up into the barrels of six fully charged blasters, he hesitated. . .
* * *
"CALLY!" Blake's voice rang out in concern, then he moved with surprising speed to catch the swaying telepath before her head crashed against the side of Jason's bed. As he swept her up in his arms, he glanced urgently towards Dr. Wylie. The psychosurgeon hurriedly ordered Jason and Travis sedated, even though the memory trace was still in active recall. He paused long enough to check their life sign readouts, then guided Blake to a treatment room across the hall.
Brendan groaned, his eyelids fluttering as he broke the linkage with Travis moments later.
Dragging his hands down his face, he quickly reassured Jenna. "The segment was nearly finished. Travis dropped his weapon and accompanied his brother and the Federation Patrol without any further argument."
Jenna let out a deep shaky breath. Brendan had allowed her to share his linkage with Travis's mind until Cally's collapse had broken his concentration.
Even second-hand, memories of the hardships and brutal experiences that Travis somehow survived had taken its toll of both of them. Jenna's stomach was tied in knots and there was a blinding pain centered just between her eyes. Brendan looked twenty years older.
The telepath slumped against Travis's bed as he studied the overbed monitor. Both patients were still drugged and unresponsive, apparently unaffected by the abrupt dissolution of Cally's telepathic bond. Drawing himself upright, Doyle made an effort to smooth his rumpled tunic.
"I think we should check on Seran Cally. I did not sense a severe trauma causing her to break off, but she is shaken and very weak."
Cally was sitting on a treatment table, massaging her temples as she refused a vile-smelling concoction that Dr. Wylie was trying to coax her to swallow.
"Of course it smells bad, it's medicine! But it's the specific remedy for the esper backlash headache you're suffering from right now."
Avon was glaring in vindication at Blake, "Now that Cally's overactive sense of responsibility has been satisfied, can we go back to Liberator and tend our own affairs?"
Finally taking a sip of the brew, in hopes that her head would cease pounding like a pneumatic drill, Cally shuddered and then turned her gaze back to Avon. "You needn't remain on my behalf. But I cannot leave until my task is complete."
"Cally, this has to stop...now. " Blake's voice was stern. "The strain is too much for you."
"I have survived worse." She closed her eyes, still wincing with the pain.
Moving quietly to her side Brendan pressed his fingers gently to her temples, "Your spirit does you credit, but Ser Blake is correct...the strain is too much for you. You aren't strong enough to shield Jason any longer and the link is at too critical a stage to risk a further collapse."
"Then how are we going to continue?" Jenna demanded .
"I will link with Jason. I am not as familiar with his mind as Seran Cally, but my prior experience with Travis's mind should overcome any difficulties." Brendan stated in his calmest, most professional tones.
"What about Travis?" Jenna's voice was ice cold. "Who's going link with him?"
"There is no one else available, Seran Jenna," he answered soft-voiced. "I'm afraid Travis must face his demons alone"
"No," Jenna denied hoarsely "There has to be another way."
"He survived the actual experience," Dr. Wylie responded soothingly. "I know reliving such memories can be painful. Often they're like a wound that's festered, breeding poison deep inside. Experiencing them again can sometimes be a healing experience, like lancing the wound and letting out the pus and corruption so that it can heal clean and whole."
"What if the wound's too deep to heal?" she demanded bitterly.
Dr. Wylie looked away and would not meet her eyes.
Jenna stood there, her face emotionless but her eyes diamond hard. "All right, Brendan, I know you have to protect Jason, but I want to be linked with Travis for this last memory trace."
Brendan started to protest and Jenna raised her hand, "I don't care about the risk. I don't care if we both die. . .or go stark raving mad. I won't let him face it alone. . .not any longer."
* * *
Travis remembered. . . staring baffled as Dar hunted hastily around the adjutant's office, where they were waiting until summoned by Commander Brannen. "What the hell are you looking for?" he'd demanded. "If they find you rifling that desk, we'll be shot..."
"Not if I what I suspect is true," Dar muttered then after spotting the hidden console, pressed the switch activating the spy camera in the commander's office. "Any junior officer who wants to survive in the Senior Echelon keeps a careful eye on his senior officer's...activities." Numbly, he'd watched Brannen's treatment of his father, learning his first hard lessons for survival within the ranks of Space Command.
The Commander merely glanced at the much folded and worn paper before tossing it back to Conal. "Yes, it has all the proper seals and signatures...but forged documents like this are a thriving industry out on the Rim. With no record of this colony in Federation files, you have no legitimate claim for Space Command's aid. As stateless indigents, the best I can do is ferry your people to the refugee camp on Marduk."
As his father stared in dismay, he tried to recall what he'd overheard from other colonists about possible planets where they might be evacuated. Marduk was not one of the choicer worlds. A pesthole of the worst kind, it was a dumping ground for every drifter, social outcast, and displaced misfit in the sector. Drugs and prostitution were its only industries, other than a thriving slave market.
"We have wives...children! You can't condemn us to what is little more than a stockade world for outlaws and smugglers."
"I have no choice in the matter. My men and supplies are stretched to the limit in this sector. I can't afford to waste them on impoverished noncitizens. Now, if you don't mind, I have work..."
"Wait," Conal pleaded desperately. "What if we signed over salvage rights to everything in the settlement?"
Brannen shrugged, "Scrap metal and antique machinery would hardly bring in a centicredit per ton. Not even worth the time it would take us to load it." He glanced back at his data screen, the enlistment vid shots of the two new recruits momentarily catching his eye. "You're...Travis? The father of the two youngsters who were picked up by our recon patrol?"
He and Dar listened intently, knowing that it was their fate under discussion.
"Are they all right?" Conal's voice was ragged.
"The younger boy was mauled by one of your local predators but it's nothing our medunit couldn't handle." There was a sly gleam in Brannen's eye. "They both say they want to enlist. Since they're underage, it will require your signature. But they seem strong enough to survive in the ranks. At least it's a way off this planet."
Their father nodded in weary agreement. "They may be underage in Terran years, but out here they're considered adults. If my signature is what it takes to give them a chance to survive..."
There was a brief silence, then Brannen observed. "Scrap metal may be a glut on the market but manpower, both skilled and unskilled, is still a rare commodity on the Rim."
"What are you suggesting?" Conal's voice was suspicious.
"A simple business proposition, Travis. You know your people, their skills, their value. If enough of them were willing to sign ten-year contracts with the Federation and/or Space Command and designate me as the recipient of all wages and bonuses, except for minimal subsistence allowances..."
"That's virtual slavery!"
Brannen continued, unruffled by the outburst. "...I would be able to justify diverting a ship to transport your people to a more, shall we say, amenable world than Marduk."
Conal stared at Brannen, demanding in a low harsh voice, "An open planet, where we can claim our own land and make a new start?"
Brannen gave a harsh bark of laughter. "I would have thought that your people would have had a bellyful of pioneer spirit by now. No, the planet that I had in mind is an agritech world, owned by one of the larger Earth corporations. Your people can hire on at the farming factories or take service level jobs."
He watched in disbelief as their father nodded without protest and started to leave, seeming to accept that unscrupulous offer as their only hope of escaping the planet. He wondered what the other settlers would have to say when he told them the Federation's price for their survival.
He started to move away, but Dar nudged him sharply. Brannen was discussing their enlistment in the Space Force.
Brannen steepled his fingers, then ordered, "Don't leave just yet, Travis. We've finished testing your sons and they can return with you to make their farewells."
He shivered catching sight of the Space Commander's hooded gaze studying their holoshots, running one finger down his cheek pensively. There was an avidity in those flat, steel-colored eyes that chilled him to the bone.
Brannen addressed Conal smoothly. "Both your sons tested well in our preliminary exams. They're strong, well-developed, with excellent reflexes. I'll admit to being surprised they could both read and cipher as well as they did, but then they're hardly the level of our usual gutter-bred conscript. They may have a very bright future ahead of them...if they survive the indoctrination period. It can be a somewhat brutalizing experience, especially for boys as young and, shall we say, comely, as your two."
His stomach had lurched at Brannen's casual admission of one of one of the harsher realities of troop life. Their father's fists were clenched at his side. "Go on," he grated out.
Brannen studied his nails before continuing. "Exceptions can be made for certain gifted recruits. Sponsorship by a senior officer exempts them from the usual indoctrination, putting them wholly under his command for special training and...privileges. Even the chance of having their skills called to the attention of the Senior Echelon for rapid promotion and advancement."
"And the price of that sponsorship?" Conal demanded coldly.
"Not terribly high, just contract them to me rather than Space Command. They'll be recorded as new recruits but under my sole authority for the next few years...until something better comes along."
"For you or for them?" Conal's voice was devoid of emotion, but Brannen studied him cautiously before answering.
"I can assure you, Citizen Travis, that their skills and bearing will guarantee them a life of comfort and security among the Federation elite."
"As submissive, trained lap dogs," Conal spat. "I didn't risk my life and theirs for all these years to sell my sons into that kind of slavery! You can take your offer and shove it..."
At their father's outburst, Dar quickly blanked the screen and closed the drawer, concealing the spyvid's controls, then pushed him back to the straight chairs where they had been awaiting Commander Brannen's pleasure. No sooner had they seated themselves than a section leader appeared, gesturing curtly for them to follow him.
Moments later they were ushered into Brannen's office, where Conal's headlong departure nearly ran them down. As he gestured angrily for them to follow him, they heard Brannen's hotly derisive warning.
"They'll get no different treatment in the ranks, you fool. And I doubt whatever coarse brute that stakes his claim on them can offer the advantages I can."
Conal placed a hand on each of their shoulders, turning coldly hostile glare on the officer. "We'll take our chances, Commander. I've decided to join my boys in the ranks of the Space Service and you better warn your troopers that anyone who lays an unwelcome hand on either of them outside the line of duty is going to draw back a bloody stump!"
By the time they returned to the settlement, the whole colony was abuzz with rumors. Conal called the surviving senior householders together and in a few terse sentences sketched out Brannen's offer. Their reactions predictably wavered between outrage and despair.
"Slavery - pure and simple!" Ben Gardener growled.
"But it's a chance for life, even for those signing the contracts." Roy Asoka protested. "Even bonded labor grades have some rights."
"Yeah, the right to be subject to the whims of whoever holds that contract," was Eric Cord's bitter observance. "As blaster fodder, whipping boy, or even experimental animal. Those are all the rights we'd have."
"And who do we condemn to that kind of contractual bondage anyway?" Jacob Reeves demanded hotly. "If all the able-bodied men sign up, how will our wives and children support themselves? Yet, what man would be cold-blooded enough to sell his own sons or daughters into slavery?"
"I would," Conal answered darkly. "If it meant their survival."
Reeves glared at them, standing tight-lipped and silent at their father's side, as their mother's face went dead white at the sudden revelation.
"I might have expected that from you," Reeves snarled contemptuously. "That butcher's boy of yours ought to do well in the Space Service, seeing as how his hands are already covered with my daughter's blood!"
Conal grabbed Reeves' shirt front, drawing him close, as he hoarsely whispered. "That's enough out of you, Reeves. My boys won't be going alone. I'm signing on as well..."
There was a low-pitched moan as Maeve sank into her chair, rocking back and forth, crooning to herself the same lullaby she keened over her children's tombs. Stricken, their father knelt at her side, trying to reach through the sudden shock, "It will be all right. Deirdre's almost sixteen and Brian's thirteen, both of them old enough to find jobs and help you make a start on a new world. Megan, Maggie and Gwen are smart and will grow stronger once there's enough food. . ." Conal rambled on, spilling out words like his heartsblood in a desperate attempt to reweave his wife's fragile hold on reality, in danger of unraveling once again.
Dismayed by this despairing scene, the meeting quickly broke up as the colonists returned to their own families and the similar bitter decisions awaiting them.
He started to join his father attempting to comfort his weeping, almost hysterical mother. But Dar gripped his arm, pulling him to one side as he hissed, "She's as mad as ever she was...before Rissa's death. If you stay any longer, she'll drag you down with her I'm going back to the landing site and have another little talk with Commander Brannen. Are you coming?" "Why? After the way our father insulted him, I don't think Brannen's going to want to have anything more to do with us."
Dar's eyes gleamed with deliberate cunning. "Oh, I'm sure he won't object to a little firsthand knowledge about the passengers and `cargo' he's about to take on."
Gazing numbly back as he followed his brother, he saw his father cradle his wife gently in his arms, her crooning litany subsiding into soft weeping. He thought that painful image would haunt him for the rest of his days.
He was wrong.
With Dar's knowledge at his disposal, Brannen carefully monitored each of the new conscripts; choosing the most skilled and able-bodied to fill out his own ranks, consigning the less competent or more recalcitrant to be transhipped to the general labor pools. He also studied the results of Conal Travis's testing and evaluation with a certain satisfaction.
This time he and Dar were purposely allowed to witness the meeting and discussion of their fate in the security monitor on the adjutant's desk. Learning still another valuable lesson in dealing with a potential threat.
The older man had been summoned to Brannen's office, standing there with red-rimmed eyes and face haggard with exhaustion.
"You're no fool, Travis. You know the results of these tests as well as I do. You're overage, underweight, harboring half a dozen parasites, not to mention bone and tooth loss. I couldn't justify signing you on to clean waste cubicles much less join the tough elite combat unit that your sons will be assigned to. Looks like they'll have to survive the attentions of their troopmates on their own."
He shuffled the data plaques on his desk, before he offered a final deal.
"However, if you should change your mind and sign your sons on as my `personal aides', I'd be willing to pay you a premium enlistment fee for them. That amount of money would go a long way towards buying your family their own land rather than having to work someone else's'."
Conal pressed his lips tightly together, trying to resist the temptation. "But what about the others...my friends and neighbors?" he gritted out.
Brannen buffed his nails thoughtfully before continuing, in a coldly pragmatic voice. "There is a secondary agricultural world, barely within this sector that I could divert to. Your fellow colonists would be able to claim their own land...once they earned enough credit with the local planetary government."
"And how would they earn that credit?" he questioned bleakly.
"By building roads, bridges, schools, government buildings." A smirk twisted Brannen's mouth. "Just the sort of noble, self-sacrificing tasks that you pioneer types should appreciate." Brannen paused, studying Conal obliquely.
"There's just one thing you might want to mention, before you inform them of that option."
"What?" was Conal's monotone query.
"We're neither equipped or supplied as a passenger carrier. In order to shuttle your people to a world that far off our course, they'll have to go under cold-sleep conditions. We have the cubicles and drugs, but no medical officer to monitor the process." He shrugged. "There are risks...but certainly less than you already face on this planet."
A cold horror settled in the pit of his stomach. Improperly supervised, cold sleep could result in brain damage, insanity, loss of life or limb. There was only a fifty-fifty chance of any of the the colonists waking up alive, sane, and relatively whole at their destination.
Conal knew that as well as he did and scrubbed his hands together hopelessly, as though trying to scour away the grimy, dirty feeling covering him. But there was no other option. They could remain on Metis III, winnowed down by disease and starvation, until the few survivors either killed themselves or regressed to total savagery. Or they could buy a chance for a future by selling their own flesh and blood to buy a way off this deathtrap and make a new beginning elsewhere.
"Bring me the damned contract," he snarled. "I don't suppose you want it signed in blood, do you?"
Brannen pressed a button on his desk, summoning his aide. "A simple X on the dotted line will suffice," he answered smugly.
Already outfitted in Federation black, accompanying Brannen's aide, he and Dar were led in to confront their father as he signed their lives over to the Commander.
"Witnesses to my betrayal," he barely managed to choke out.
"Call it a kindness, if you like. I thought you might want to bid them farewell, since it's unlikely your paths will ever cross again."
Jerkily Conal had scrawled his name across the contract binding them into ten years of service to Commander Brannen and the Federation. He wouldn't meet his father's eyes, knowing the brutal necessity behind the act but still too angry and betrayed to even bid him good-bye. But Dar's face showed a serenely smiling contempt as though he finally had gotten the upper hand.
Despite the scorn on the older boy's features, Conal gripped his shoulders in desperate appeal. "Take care of your brother, Dar. Look out for him...protect him! You're brothers...that's all that really matters. Promise me, boy!"
Jerking angrily away from that fervent plea, Dar had pushed him out of the office just ahead of him, leaving their father behind, head bowed, with an expression of utter desolation carved on his face.
All he wanted to do was put as much distance as possible between himself and the place where his father had betrayed him... selling ten years of his life like so much scrap metal. But Dar was still listening through the half open door to the final conversation between Brannen and their father.
"Haven't you heard enough?" he hissed. But Dar waved for him to be quiet.
"... making a clean break like that. The first few months in the Service is difficult enough without having to cope with homesickness or other maudlin emotions."
Conal's ragged whisper was an epitaph for the past.
"We have no home. Not anymore. The Metis III colony is dead...buried...with nothing left but a bloody mass grave."
But his final question and Brannen's casual reply was the stuff of nightmares.
"That secondary agricultural world you're sending us to...just out of curiosity, what's it called?"
"A regular little paradise planet," Brannen consulted his screen. "Federation records list it as Auros, but the colonists renamed it ...Zircaster."
* * *
The name reverberated through Jenna's head, outlined in white-hot bursts of laser fire and images of charred, shattered bodies. She stumbled through the chaos, searching for Travis and found him, in the middle of the carnage, facing the firing squad that he'd once commanded.
"No!" she screamed in denial and jerked upright. She was on a stretcher with Brendan and Dr. Wylie hovering over her, worried expressions on their faces. After checking her vital signs on the monitor, Dr. Wylie hurried from the room. Jenna winced as the sharp pain behind her eyes subsided to a steady throb.
Brendan gently pushed her flat "Don't try to sit up just yet. You just suffered a major trauma to your nervous system and you need a little time to recover."
"What about Jason?" she demanded hoarsely. "And Travis," she tried to sit up again. "Where's Travis, what's happened to him."
"Jason has regained consciousness, somewhat shaken and confused by the memories he experienced. Seran Cally is with him, explaining what happened." Brendan took a deep breath before continuing, "Travis. . .is still unconscious, barely breathing."
Jenna swung her legs to the floor, then staggered dizzily upright despite Brendan's efforts to keep her on the stretcher. "Where is he, Brendan? Show me."
With a shrug of resignation, Brendan put one arm around Jenna's waist to steady her and led her to a darkened room, where Travis lay, pale and somehow shrunken. Only the faintest blips on the monitor screen showed he was even alive.
Much to her surprise, Blake was there. Seated in a corner of the room, chair propped against the wall, arms folded across his chest, his expression unreadable.
"Keeping a deathwatch, Blake?" Jenna whispered hoarsely. "Don't you think it's a bit premature?"
"Dr. Wylie didn't want him left unattended.. Since Cally was busy with Jason, I volunteered. Now that you're here, I'll leave." Blake pushed out of the chair and started to go, but Jenna placed a hand on his chest to forestall him.
"Stay, Roj. Please." She glanced down at Travis, as his chest slowly rose and fell. "I don't want to be alone right now."
Brendan helped Jenna over to a chair beside the bed, then left, murmuring something about checking on Cally and Jason. Jenna reached under the covers for Travis's flesh and blood hand, clutching it as though she might drag him back to consciousness.
After a long moment, Blake cleared his throat and then spoke quietly, "Brendan told me about Travis's final memory-about his family and friends being evacuated to Zircaster. I know it was a terrible shock-for both of you." He paused, then continued in a slightly darker tone, "Too bad he didn't discover that sooner. He might have been able to stop the bloodshed."
Jenna stroked Travis's forehead. "He had flashbacks and nightmares after the mnemonic cascade, but never this bad, this intense."
"Damn Carnell."She continued in a low, savage voice. "He mindwiped and conditioned Travis, trying to erase his past. Then removed the memory blocks so he'd have to live through the very worst of those memories again."
"You can't make peace with the past, unless you face up to it," Blake said remotely, recalling his own sessions with psychostrategists and how he'd been forced to denounce his friends in the Freedom Party at his first trial.
Jenna turned tearful eyes in his direction, "Oh, Blake, I'm afraid I'll lose him. That he can't live with this memory of betrayal of his friends and family on Zircaster."
Blake inhaled deeply, then gusted it out in a slow sighing release. "The Federation wasn't wholly to blame for that bloodbath. There were radical elements within the Freedom Party contemptuous of our efforts to change the Federation by peaceful protest. They believed violence was the only way to achieve their ends. . ."
A hoarse rasping voice broke into Blake's revelations. ". . .and they were very good at what they did. Taking advantage of the disgruntled and unarmed but resourceful populace on Zircaster I lost almost a quarter of my troops to caltrops, pit traps, and homemade explosives."
"Travis!" Jenna exclaimed joyfully, ready to throw her arms around his neck, until he forestalled her, raising his hand weakly.
"I warned you about hearing being the last thing to go." Travis continued, his voice still ragged but growing stronger. "The Federation was going to order the Fleet to burn off the whole planet. Unless I rooted out the terrorists." He paused, swallowing painfully, "I made a sweep through the low-rent housing, knowing that's where transients and malcontents tend to gather ... I couldn't even exclude the women, because several of them had been part of a scheme luring off duty troopers to a brothel mined with explosives. The execution death toll was high. . . but it spared the rest of the colony from sharing their fate."
Blake was momentarily silent, recalling his recent discovery about one of the more potent Federation weapons and their restraint in using it. "Were any of your friends or family among the rebels you executed?"
"I never knew, not until my trial," Travis answered bleakly. " Retraining therapists had restored enough of my past for Servalan to attempt to use it against me. She ordered my defense attorney to have the death rolls read into the trial record. She thought it would break me, make me go willingly to my death." His eye burned with a fierce rage that Blake could almost feel. "She was wrong! That's the real reason I bolted, Blake. Not just to save my own skin but because she...and the Federation...had betrayed me once too often."
Blake shuddered at his own memories of loss and betrayal resurrected by Travis's reluctant admission. "How many actually died there?" he blurted.
"There's no way to be sure. I don't even know if any of my immediate family survived cryostasis, much less lived long enough to be part of that . . . massacre."
There was a long painful silence before Travis continued, "I'll probably never know if any of them are still alive."
Blake brooded silently, recalling how he felt upon learning of his brother's and sister's deaths at the hands of the Federation, because of his resistor activities. His idealism had been the cause of their deaths much the same as Travis's sense of duty had resulted in his family's deaths. Perhaps it was time for the two of them to make peace with their pasts. . .and with each other.
Jenna pressed her hand to Travis's cheek, "We all have ghosts and demons in our pasts. I did things to survive when I was starting out as an independent pilot that still make me wake up in a cold sweat.. But we have to move on with our lives. Carnell tried to destroy you with those memories. . and he failed. What's that old quote, Blake? 'What doesn't destroy me. . ."
"'. . .only makes me stronger.'" Travis and Blake finished almost in unison
Jenna managed to conceal her laughter at the two men's dubious glares at one another, before she continued."I need you, Travis. And not just because you're the 'toughest bastard in fifty parsecs' but because I love you."
Travis captured her hand, pressing a brief kiss and a whispered "And I love you" into the palm, before his wary mask was in place once again. With a mixture of regret and relief, Jenna recognized that the emotional vulnerability gripping him earlier seemed to have run its course, along with the violent memories of his survival on Metis III.
Blake cleared his throat and was mumbling something about 'getting back to Liberator' as he hurried out, still acutely uncomfortable at their obvious passionate attachment. He almost ran over Cally, who was standing in the doorway with a pale-faced and wobbly-kneed Jason leaning on her shoulder.
"Blake, we need to talk about changes in Liberator's personnel."
Blake sighed ruefully, turning toward Jenna. "Why don't we all meet in Stannis's office in a couple of hours. That will give everyone a chance to pull themselves together. Avon can finalize his deal with the First Captain, while I discuss future supply runs with you. . .or your uncle, if necessary."
Some two and a half hours later, Blake was sprawled in one of Mikhail Stannis's oversized chairs, watching in bemusement as the First Captain continued haggling over the fine details of Avon's and Orac's contract. Travis and Jenna stood by the window, staring out at Xanadu's soaring towers, while Jason sat next to the bar with Cally, listening intently as she questioned him.
Biting off a dockhand's oath, Mikhail pushed away from his desk, strode over to the bar and poured himself a drink. "You drive a hard bargain, Ser Avon. You aren't by chance related to my business rival, Greg Niarchros, are you?"
Blake cracked his knuckles then leaned forward to catch Avon's eye, "How soon will you be moving out? I've just heard from a small settlement on Gandalfo that wants to join the Alliance. . .if we can get them out of a 99 year exclusive trading contract that they were forced to sign with the Amagons."
"Eager to recruit more simple-minded idealists for the Cause, Blake?" Avon questioned sarcastically.
"I don't like to see people taken advantage of," Blake answered in a patient voice.
"They're obviously lacking in good sense, if they think they can trust the Amagons." Mikhail snorted as he sipped the amber whiskey in his glass.
"Sometimes life's so damned hard, people don't have a choice," Travis spoke softly, only to have Jason echo him from across the room.
Cally gave a frustrated sigh as she spoke, "I was afraid of that. Even though Travis is no longer suffering from the involuntary memory recall, he and Jason are still mentally linked."
Travis turned a sympathetic glance toward their young apprentice, "I knew you were too much like me for your own good, boy. That's one reason I was so tough on you, hoping to spare you the same mistakes I made. A man wants his sons ...son to have a better life than he did. I do remember that much from my past."
Jason glared at Travis, obviously on the verge of making his usual defiant response, until Cally placed a gentle hand on his arm and he dropped his gaze, muttering something under his breath. Jenna had the impulse to go over and shake him in exasperation, until Jason raised his eyes to meet Travis's and said in a low, almost apologetic tone, "I didn't make it easy for you, I guess."
Mikhail Stannis set his glass down before stating in a truculent voice that brooked no argument,
"I knew this was a mistake from the very beginning. No apprentice remains on his family's ships once he passes his thirteenth year. That's not just to assure the family line continues if a ship is lost, but also to prevent the kind of conflicts that were flaring up between the two of them. If Jenna's maternal instincts hadn't decided to kick in such a damned inconvenient fashion, we wouldn't have been plagued by this whole damned telepathic/empathic nonsense." He glared at Jenna, "Why couldn't you just have gotten pregnant instead of taking on an overage apprentice?"
Jenna glared at him, "Don't start that argument again! This is all your fault, anyway, with that in vitro cloning scheme of yours."
Mikhail did not return Jenna's glare, but grabbed up his glass and gulped down the last of his whiskey before continuing, "Whatever. Just look at the boy. He's almost sixteen, he needs to be with others like him; listening to outrageous music, racing speeders, wearing preposterously expensive clothes, with obscene holograms projecting from his belt buckle."
Jenna shuddered but before she could express her disapproval, Cally interrupted, "That's where you're wrong, First Captain. There are no others like Jason. He may appear to be the average irresponsible sixteen-year-old, but because of my actions, necessary as they might have been, he has Travis's memories. Memories of a savagely brutal and tragedy-haunted life on a primitive homeworld. Other than his age, he has very little in common with your other apprentices. Which is why I want to suggest that Jason spend the next six months, or longer if necessary, aboard Liberator."
"WHAT?!" Blake and Avon turned to Cally with almost identical disgruntled expressions.
Unruffled, Cally continued outlining her proposal."It would be an ideal situation. I would be able to train him in the necessary mental disciplines to prevent a repeat of this incident. Tarrant would continue his pilot training and Dayna could teach him survival skills. Day to day life on Liberator would help broaden his experience and expose him to different viewpoints and ideals."
"I'd prefer Vila didn't 'broaden his experience' of dockside low life anymore than he already has," Jenna protested.
"And I'm not thrilled about Jason being under Blake's influence before he's had some exposure to the more pragmatic principles of Free Trading," Mikhail grumbled. "I'd prefer the boy begin to learn about his Free Trader heritage as soon as possible. Its traditions will provide the sense of identity and stability he's been lacking. He should be enrolled at the Starliner School where he'll learn Clan and Enclave history, as well as trade law...
Travis spoke up sharply, "Not on your life, Stannis! For years the Federation conditioned me to be the perfect soldier, with unquestioning loyalty and blind obedience. I'm not going to see Jason made over into someone else's idea of what he should be!"
Blake pushed out of his chair and strode over to where Jason was listening to the arguments about his future, with a closed, impassive expression.
"Everyone seems to have decided they know what's best for him Why don't we ask Jason's opinion?" Blake placed a large gentle hand on Jason's shoulder.
A momentary blind rage crossed Jason's face at Blake's touch and he visibly suppressed the unwanted emotion. Gazing at the floor, he began in a barely audible voice, "That's the problem, Ser Blake. I'm not even sure who I am, much less what I want to do, not any more. One part of me wants to be a pilot, like they're trying to teach me. Another part wants to plan and organize things; battles, trade missions, hell, maybe even planetary governments. And one part," his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, "one part of me feels Seran Jenna is . . . the most beautiful . . . most desirable woman in the galaxy."
Jenna's jaw dropped at Jason's mumbled declaration as Travis's hands clenched painfully on her shoulders.
Jason looked across the room in desperate appeal, "I know those are his feelings, not mine, Seran. But sometimes it's hard to. . .to separate the two. Sometimes, my head gets so crowded with thoughts, emotions, and memories, it feels like it's going to explode!"
"That settles it," Mikhail said grimly. "The boy's long overdue for bonding. I'm calling Greg Niachros right now. What was the name of that little violet-eyed beauty at the party? The one pushing the hangover remedy? Jennifer? Jennifer. Obviously has a good head on her shoulders."
"And she's likely to come after him with a fully charged blaster for spilling his drink on her gown." Jenna said sharply. "Don't you learn from your mistakes, Uncle? I ran away ten years ago, rather than be bonded to the man you picked out for me. I'd just as soon not go through the same thing with Jason."
"But you are in favor of shuttling your only son off with an irresponsible idealist like Blake?" Stannis demanded.
Jenna and Travis exchanged oblique glances, before Jenna spoke in a very soft voice, "Blake may be an idealist, but he feels his responsibilities deeply. Too deeply, sometimes. Besides, it's Cally who has offered to watch out for Jason and see to his training."
"But who's going to 'watch out' for Blake, with Travis's virtual clone running loose on Liberator ?" Avon questioned snidely. "Travis is still a danger to everyone around him, as this debacle clearly proved. What's to prevent Jason from being an equal danger?"
"Why should it matter to you?" Blake asked with an innocent expression. "Unless you've decided not to leave Liberator after all."
Avon stood in the middle of the room, his arms folded across his chest, "Let's just say, I'm not ready to cut my ties with you. . .and Liberator. . . completely yet. And I prefer a degree of safety and security in my surroundings."
"What about that contract we just signed, Ser Avon?"
"You'll get what you paid for, Stannis. Orac can supply the data and routing information that you require from the far side of the Spiral Rim, if necessary. Though I hope Blake isn't planning to go so far off the beaten track?"
"There are small settlements and half-forgotten colonies out there, neglected by the Federation even before the fleet was decimated at Star One. With no more resupply ships and even Free Traders and other independents few and far between, they undoubtedly need medical supplies, replacement parts, even just the knowledge that someone knows they exist and will answer a call for help." Blake's expression was distant, recalling what he'd learned from Travis's-- and now Jason's- memories.
Travis stared at Blake with rueful admiration, "You're finally learning how to build a coalition, Blake. I just hope you and Cally don't manage to co-opt our son into becoming another starry-eyed idealist."
"I'm sure Avon and Vila will be glad to provide him with the necessary lessons in pragmatism and caution," Blake assured them.
Jenna exchanged glances with Travis, "It doesn't sound like Jason could get into too much trouble, does it?"
Her bondmate gave a wicked chuckle, "Knowing Tarrant's propensity for charging headlong into other people's battles, I don't hold much hope of them coming home unscathed. Still, it might teach the boy a lesson or two about life on the Rim."
He glanced across the room at Jason, who was standing now, between Cally and Blake
"Well, Jason? Does any of this meet with your approval?
The boy swallowed hard, looking between Travis and Blake, Jenna and Cally.
"I'd like to go with Seran Cally and Ser Blake . . . to learn who I really am . . . without someone else's thoughts and memories taking over."
Jenna reached out and clasped his hand in both of hers for just a moment before turning to her uncle. "I'll cut you a deal, Mikhail. When Jason gets back from his `tour of duty' aboard Liberator, we'll send him to the Starliner School long enough to pick up the basics of Enclave history and some of the finer points of trade negotiation. By that time Jason should have enough diverse memories and experience, that he and Travis won't have any problems being together. Then he can apprentice with us until he's old enough to contract out as an independent."
"What about his bonding?" Mikhail asked sourly.
"Uncle, that notion has outlived its usefulness as far as I'm concerned. Besides, Jason is too young to have to worry about it right now. Once he's older, he can make his own decision about who he wants to share his life with." Jenna gave a ghost of a smile. "Even if his family doesn't approve."
The First Captain nodded his head reluctantly.
"Well, that's settled then." Blake said, looking around in surprise, before reaching into his tunic pocket and producing two teleport bracelets. "Cally, why don't you and Jason teleport up now so you can show him around the ship and get him settled in. I have a few things I still need to discuss with the First Captain. What about you, Avon?"
Avon took the bracelet Blake was holding out and snapped it around his wrist. "I've finished my business here and I'll keep an eye on Cally and Jason. Just so she doesn't show him all our vulnerable spots right away."
There was a momentary awkwardness, then Cally and Jenna embraced warmly.
"I'll notify the apprentice barracks that Jason will be leaving on Liberator. You can send him down to fetch his things later. I don't think he's had time to accumulate too much in the way of clothing so you might want to show him the wardrobe room." She paused to wipe away the momentary dampness in her eyes, "Though heaven only knows what he'll do if he finds the black leather and studs that Avon hid in the back."
Jason and Travis stood off to one side, suddenly haunted by the intensity of old memories. Especially the bitter farewell that Travis's own father had made to his two sons years before.
"Watch your back." Travis warned. "Blake's an idealist and tends to be naive about alien life forms. But out on the Rim, the only thing you can trust is a loaded blaster and eyes in the back of your head. Avon's more of a realist, but won't watch anyone's back but his own."
Avon's hooded gaze met Travis's and he gave a feral smile as Travis continued, "Tarrant can be cautious, but tends to get caught up in the spirit of the moment. So you're likely to be the only pragmatist in any given situation."
Jason hugged Travis hard, then released him with a mumbled apology, "I'm sorry, Captain. Sorry that I couldn't be a better son for you."
Travis grasped his hand firmly, "You were what we needed, when we needed it. Making us look to the future. . . instead of dwelling on the past. For no other reason, you were the best son for us."
Jason stepped back, rubbing fiercely at his eyes as Cally called over her bracelet, "Dayna, we're ready to come up now. Activate all teleport bracelets, except Blake's." Jason turned and waved just before they vanished in a blink of white light.
Stannis and Blake shook hands as the First Captain said sternly, "I expect you to keep me informed of new trade possibilities or natural resources, while you're out there recruiting, Blake." Almost as an afterthought, "And take good care of the boy. After all, he is Jenna's son."
"And Travis's" Blake met the eye of his one-time enemy. "Don't worry, we'll take care of him and bring him back safe and sound." He activated his communicator, "Dayna, teleport now." As they left Mikhail's office, Jenna said softly, "He was with us such a short while. Who would have thought it would be so hard to say good-bye?"
Travis pushed a strand of golden hair out of her eyes, "It's not so big a galaxy that we aren't likely to cross their paths again while we're trading out on the Rim."
Jenna had to smile, "Maybe you're right." Putting her arm around his waist. "But until we do, let's enjoy the peace and quiet. . .for a little while at least!"
Mikhail's secretary caught up with them in the hallway, "Captain Travis? You're being paged by Security. Something about an altercation down on the docks involving your crew."
Travis and Jenna exchanged rueful looks, as he grumbled, "What was it you were saying about enjoying the peace and quiet?"
Jenna shrugged, laughing. "Not in this lifetime."
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