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"Shattered Reflections"

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 6

A fetid mist pervaded the alleyway, beading on the broken and buckled placrete like oily perspiration. The "unbreakable" security lighting had been shattered long since by the denizens that haunted this undesirable area just beyond the docks; down-on-their-luck spacers, unlicenced pleasure drones, drug or alcohol-dazed derelicts, all of whom found the darkness more conducive to their business of survival. Despair filled the air like the stench of unwashed bodies.

Hurried steps stumbled along in that darkness, accompanied by the sound of harsh, fear-stricken breathing. A ragged young woman, herding two small children before her, staggered to a halt, sagging against a graffiti stained wall.

"Wait...just a moment..." she pleaded breathlessly to the hooded figure pacing cat-silent just behind her. "So dizzy. . .didn't feed us for the past day."

Glancing back to see if they were being followed, Travis nodded a reluctant acquiescence to the woman's desperate plea. As she collapsed to the filthy street, shivering in the dank air, he gazed down impatiently, then shrugged off his cloak and wrapped it roughly around her and the two children.

Clutching its warmth to her, Claudia Maryatt stared up at the shadowy face of her rescuer.

"Who are you?" she gasped in a fear-strangled whisper."Where are you taking us?"

His gaze raked thru the fog and smoke, still searching for the skulkers he knew were only seconds behind. The data cube he had used to intimidate Latimer into releasing the woman and children into his custody had been a rush job at best. Only his reputation as Servalan's enforcer prevented the slaver from making even the cursory background check that would have exposed his hasty fabrication.

He glanced down at the trembling figure crouched at his feet, warning in a hoarse whisper, "We can't stay here. Latimer will send his hounds out any moment now. We have to keep moving."

"No," Claudia's voice cracked in desperation. "Not another step until you tell me who you are and where we're going?"

He ached to shake some sense into her, but his cyborg arm was fused slag and the weapon in his right hand too essential for their survival to put away for even a moment.

Grimacing in exasperation, he bit off his words tersely. "I'm Space Commander Travis. Your husband saved my life after Blake maimed me."

"Then Victor sent you. I knew this was all a mistake. . . some kind of misunderstanding. My husband is a loyal officer of the Federation. He would never desert. . .never abandon us to be. . .sold! Like animals!" There was a tremulous hope in the woman's voice as she grasped at straws. "Where is he? Are you taking us to him?"

Travis quickly disabused her. "Your husband is dead," he stated bluntly.

"NOOOOOOO!" she wailed, collapsing to the filthy street, the two children clinging to her skirts, terrified and confused. Travis looked away, abruptly ashamed at his casual cruelty yet oddly envious of Maryatt that someone should mourn his passing so passionately.

He gazed at her with growing awkwardness, wanting to comfort her, but lacking the skill and the time to indulge this grief-stricken outburst. He finally interrupted her heart-broken sobs with a bleak revelation. "He didn't desert. Servalan betrayed him to further one of her schemes and I couldn't- I didn't-- stop it. But I can stop her from destroying his family."

Claudia stared up at him, her tear-smeared face filled with despair. "How? If Victor was branded a deserter, our citizenship has been revoked. We have no rights, no credit, no friends. . . nothing! What's to become of us?"

"I've arranged transport for you on a Trantinean freighter. He's headed for the Rim Worlds. The Federation's reach doesn't extend that far, so you should be able to make a new start, without having to look over your shoulder."

Claudia climbed slowly to her feet, wearily hoisting her youngest in her arms. "But I have no skills, no training. How can we survive?"

Impatiently Travis stuffed his weapon in his belt and fumbled for a small leather pouch tucked there. Pressing it into her hands, he growled softly, "There's a year's worth of credit vouchers in here. Besides the captain owes me for turning a blind eye to some of his more profitable smuggling operations. He'll help you get settled on one of the border worlds."

"A Trantinean smuggler?" she was appalled. "How can you trust him? How do you know he won't dump us out the airlock at the first opportunity?"

As Travis turned toward her, there was a feral yellow spark in his eye, smoldering like a coal banked in ash. His predatory smile had nothing of humor in it as he answered in a menacing purr. "Oh, he knows the cost of betraying my trust. If he gives you any trouble, just ask him if he's so fond of his cyberhand that he wants another one."

Claudia shivered at the chill threat in his words.

Suddenly a blaster bolt split the darkness, scorching the abandoned refuse behind them and sending up an oily cloud of smoke that set the children to coughing.

"Damn," Travis swore, flattening against the alley wall as he groped for his weapon. "I thought they'd be too busy readying the rest of their cargo for shipment to come after us so soon."

He answered with a rapidfire volley that forced their pursuers back into the darkness. Shoving Claudia ahead of him, he hurried toward the docks, trying to keep to the shadows as much as possible.

Latimer's men followed, firing at sporadic intervals despite Travis's efforts to keep them at bay. As they fled down the street, abruptly he lurched against Claudia, slamming her into the side of a wall and knocking the breath out of her.

She blinked back tears of terror and pain, gasping as she tried to clear her head. "What's wrong?"

For a long terrifying moment there was silence, then she felt a warm stickiness dripping down her side. She whimpered in dismay, not certain whose blood it was.

Travis coughed painfully then dragged himself upright and away from the shaken Claudia. "Caught the edge of that last one," he gritted out, pressing his elbow tight against the oozing wound.

He glanced at the trembling woman and children, then back down the alleyway at the hunters following them. "The Trantinean freighter's located in docking slip twelve." Reaching inside his tunic, he pressed a data cube into Claudia's trembling hand. "Tell the Captain that has his docking clearance and my records of the last ten years of his smuggling runs. That should assure he keeps his end of the bargain to get you set up safely somewhere out on the Rim."

"What about you? Aren't you coming?" Maryatt's wife asked uncertainly.

"I've some unfinished business with Latimer. . .and with the Supreme Commander as well." Travis was pale and sweating but the feral gleam in his eye sent a chill down Claudia's spine. Despite her gratitude for their rescue, she was relieved this cold, ruthless man didn't intend to accompany them any further, even as far as the spaceport.

She nodded in agreement then settled her youngest a little more securely on her hip as she tugged his heavy cloak around them both. Firmly grasping her oldest child's hand, she retreated in the direction Travis had indicated. Latimer's men attempted to follow but Travis squelched those efforts with a deadly rain of blaster bolts forcing them back in the shadows once again.

They watched in frustration while their prey disappeared into the labyrinth of warehouses and refit bays surrounding the docking area. Their leader snarled a savage curse then raised his voice tauntingly, "You didn't think that clumsy forgery would fool us long, did you,Commander?"

"Long enough for us to get to the docks," Travis answered hoarsely, holding his fire for the moment.

"You can't escape us, Commander. My men have you surrounded. Why don't you just drop your weapon and let us fetch back the woman and her brats and we'll forget this little misunderstanding ever happened."

"I think not," Travis peered around the corner, trying to spot his ambushers before they could move in closer. "Servalan doesn't have a forgiving nature where `political prisoners' are concerned and I'd prefer an easier death than ending my life in the slave pits of Ursa Prime."

He snapped off a fast instinctive shot and was gratified by the scream that answered it. But he could hear them closing in on him, rustling like rats in the darkness. They had the scent of blood now and nothing less than his death would satisfy them.

He noted grimly the flashing light in the grip of his weapon that signaled its charge was nearly depleted. Probably no more than six or eight bolts remaining. Enough for an honor guard into hell if he aimed carefully. A mirthless death's head grin crossed his scarred features.

More than enough.

He took precise aim with his next four shots, using skill hard-won in battles against urban guerillas. Three of the bolts were clean hits, stopping their targets cold. The fourth was off-center, sending the thug reeling into the street screaming in agony until one of his mates put him out of his misery.

Deep in the shadows, Travis felt the ooze of blood from his side becoming a steady stream as a burst of feedback from his crippled cyberarm radiated agony down his left side. His vision went grey around the edges from the pain and shock. "Time to put an end to this," he thought grimly, checking the charge in his weapon as he took a last deep breath of the smoke-filled air.

With a savage scream of defiance, he charged into the middle of the street, waving his weapon like a madman. His abrupt change of tactics drew two of Latimer's men out of cover, firing hastily, attempting to bring him down. But he aimed with cool deliberation and dropped them both. Then a bolt fired just beyond them grazed his face, spinning him around and dropping him to the street in an explosion of pain and blood. Convulsively he squeezed off his final bolts, in a hopeless effort to take out the last of Latimer's men. Silence settled around him like a shroud.

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Alice C. Aldridge

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