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Expeditionary Force

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 2 of 23

There was a brief silence in the aftermath of Zen's report before Avon's acid drawl manifested, "Well, even Zen advises caution, Blake, before we charge headlong into another one of your reckless ventures."

Ignoring Avon's protests, Blake ordered Zen to plot the quickest route to Chiron and implement the course change, broadcasting a signal that help was on the way.  Then he turned to Tarrant and Dayna.

"We'll need your skills if we want to improve our own chances of survival while saving as many of the colonists as we can.  Zen can handle the simple route to Chiron, Tarrant, but once we're in orbit around the planet, I want you at the helm.  There's no telling what sort of floating garbage you'll have to deal with while we're trying to rescue the survivors.  Our lives may depend on your skill at evasive maneuvers.  Dayna, I want you to standing by the plasma bolt station so anything Tarrant can't evade, you'll be able to destroy."

The two young people nodded and began to work on linking their controls together to optimize their ability to dodge or destroy orbiting debris.  At Blake's strong suggestion, Vila returned to the Med Center to help with the likely influx of refugees and casualties.  Vila started to take Soolin with him, but Blake addressed the blonde gunslinger thoughtfully.

"If you don't mind, Soolin, there's another job I think you'd be much better at."

Leading her to the teleport pad, he pointed out the various controls and coordinate system, reviewing how they worked.  "This duty requires a quick steady hand and a sharp eye for detail, both of which you have in abundance.  Do you mind helping evacuate survivors from the planet's surface?"

Soolin shrugged and gave a rueful smile, "It beats being surrounded by squalling babies and their hysterical mothers.  Wouldn't take Cally's job on a bet."

Blake nodded in agreement.  "We just try to do what we can in a situation like this."

However, by the time that Liberator arrived in Chiron's system and they had a chance to study Zen's data readouts and viewscreen images from the planetary surface itself, it was obvious that Liberator and its crew lacked the equipment and the expertise to conduct rescue operations in the inferno that Chiron had become.

Avon was the first to speak after scanning Zen's initial atmospheric readings and the electromagnetic flux that was playing havoc with his computers, "No chance of using the teleport, Blake.  Not unless you want your body as scrambled as totally as your brains are.  The meteorite's initial impact created so much electromagnetic garbage in the atmosphere, I wouldn't even recommend attempting to send down food or medical supplies.  Its cellular structure would arrive in such a deranged state as to be toxic . . . or at the very least, useless."

"We can't just abandon these people, Avon," Blake protested.  "Surely there's something that we can do to get them off their world?"

A snide expression came over Avon's face, as he pulled up the planet's colonization records at his computer station.  "Do you know anything about the history of this world, Blake? The brave pioneers that you want us to endanger our lives to make some reckless, foolhardy attempt to rescue?  They're Federation bureaucrats, Blake.  Government appointees, retired Space Command officers and their families, bloody politicians.  Can't we just assume the universe has finally developed a sense of justice . . . and let them die in the secure little nests that they feathered for themselves, with the sweat of other people's brows?"

There was a long silence as Blake stared down into the swirling hell that had once been a pastoral planet, before he turned to Avon, "They're still human beings, Avon.  They laugh, cry, love their families, feel pain and sorrow, just like you and I.  I won't abandon them, not if there's some way . . . any way . . . that we can come to their rescue."

Savagely Avon stabbed at the controls of his station, triggering the eruption of several pages filled with maps, equations and predictions.

"Look, I know you were a systems engineer and not a planetary or environmental ecologist, but take a good long look at those readouts.  That meteor was a Category IV impactor . . . or what in less erudite circles is known as a 'planet-buster.'  The people of Chiron don't just have to worry about firestorms, acid rain, nuclear winter or other environmental catastrophes.  Their world won't survive that long.  The collision set off a chain of events that will result in world-wide volcanic eruptions, tectonic upheaval and crustal shifts that will eventually tear this world apart."

Avon's voice never rose above a muted growl, but everyone on the flight deck heard the frustration in his tone.  Despite his earlier denunciation of Chiron's colonists as "Federation scum", he was as disturbed about abandoning them to the planet's dissolution as Blake was.

"Is there any way at all that we can save these people?"  Blake's voice was even and pragmatic, as he turned to Tarrant who had pulled off several miraculous rescues and salvage operations in the past.

"Well . . ." the pilot muttered thoughtfully.  "We could evacuate them by shuttle or other atmospheric craft . . ." 

Avon covered his eyes with a weary hand, "You did notice the readouts about wind velocity and other atmospheric vicissitudes didn't you, Del?"

"Hypercanes of 300 kph, along with tornadic downbursts, and a skyful of cometary debris.  Yes, Avon, I'm well aware of the dangers of attempting to pilot an atmospheric craft down to the planet's surface.  However, I think that we can find the right kind of craft to do the job . . . and the pilots to fly them . . . on Sanctuary."

"And Mikhail Stannis will likely demand his usual 'pound of flesh' before offering any assistance."

But Avon's sarcasm did not dampen Tarrant's altruistic impulses, "You never know, Avon.  The Enclave may already be organizing a rescue wing of pilots and craft."

"I'll believe it when I see it."

Blake turned his attention to getting Liberator under way, "Zen, plot a course to Sanctuary and implement.  Standard by twelve."

* * *

In the crowded building where the Stannis/Travis Trading Fleet maintained its planetside office, half of the partnership was slumped at his desk peering red-eyed at the pages of financial hardcopy that was the product of just one data crystal recording of last year's trade runs.  There were at least a dozen more crystals that he had to print out and review before making their annual report to the head of their Enclave, Jenna's uncle, Mikhail Stannis.  Even though they were a supposedly independent sept within the clan, they still had far too many links - financial and otherwise - with Jenna's uncle for Travis's peace of mind.

Though he had to admit that the old man had mellowed over the last couple of years, especially after their joint mission to La Terre de Nuit San Fin, to rescue his and Jenna's son Jason from the clutches of a Terra Nostra capo.  The man had been ruthlessly amoral, with ambitions that had threatened the entire Stannis Fleet, but working as a team, along with Blake's timid lockpick, Vila Restal, and his newfound fast gun girlfriend, Soolin, they'd managed to retrieve the boy without having to yield control of the clan's holdings.

"Now, if I could just whip these damned figures into some reasonably intelligible format as easily as we dealt with Lucan and his flunkies," he muttered, running the fingers of his flesh and blood hand through his unruly dark hair.  Though dealing with their fleet's balance sheets was not his favorite past time, Travis had grudgingly learned to accept the responsibility for keeping them current, knowing that keeping proper records was as important to managing their three ships as it had been when he'd commanded a brigade of the Federation's best troopers.

Of course, his junior officer didn't dare complain when he would foist off minor resupply and replacement nitwork on the poor sod.  Jenna, on the other hand, protested vigorously and often whenever he tried to inflict his data keeping chores on her . . . or anyone else in the crew that he could bully, bribe or persuade to feel sorry for him.

With a rueful sigh, he bent over the pages of figures again.  With his attention focused on inventories and tariff tables, he did not realize that Jenna had entered the office with some kind of formal printed document in her hand, until she actually spoke, "We've just received an official summons from the Enclave Council."

There was a very odd look on her face.  A strange mixture of guilt, bemusement, and if he could believe his remaining eye - jealousy.

"What's wrong?" he demanded.  "Don't tell me Jason's gotten into trouble again?"

"No, it's not Jason.  The petition is in your name."

"My name?" he exclaimed.  "Wotinhell for?  I've been stuck in this damn office for the past two weeks trying to get the annual report finished.  What do they want now?"

"A sample of your DNA . . . suitable for inseminating a fertile egg."

Travis's face blanched and then flushed with anger, "Bloody shite!  I thought that your uncle had gotten over that nonsense, especially after it turned out that Jason was not the prize package that he was hoping for?"

"It's not Mikhail who wants the specimen, Travis, but Dani . . . Dani McRae."

The room was deadly silent while Travis tried to take in the implications of the strontium grenade Jenna had just dropped at his feet.

"Dani's an independent," he finally rasped.  "Why the hell would she want a link to the Stannis Clan?"

"It's not family ties or political favors that Dani is looking for, Travis," Jenna said in a quietly sarcastic voice.  "As basis for her request she included a copy of your piloting test scores, from when you were trying to win my clan's approval.  They're very impressive . . . as is her written evaluation of your behavior during the test.  'The candidate demonstrates superlative piloting skills, despite the handicap of a limited field of vision.  He also exhibits above average strength, razor sharp reflexes, and utter fearlessness.  However, his volatile temperament could make him a danger to ship and crew.' "

Travis was momentarily dumbstruck.  He'd only seen Dani McRae a couple of times since his pilot testing.  She'd been part of the team who'd infiltrated Servalan's base to rescue him and also been present at Jason's formal naming ceremony, when all hell had broken loose due to an aftereffect of Carnell's mental programming.  He didn't know for certain, but he thought that it had been Dani McRae who helped Jenna create the identity of Captain Chandra who was nearly the ruin (purely by accident, of course) of his and Mikhail's carefully laid plans to rescue Jason.

He massaged his forehead which had begun throbbing violently in reaction to this unwelcome request.  "She's got to be crazy to want any part of my genetic background."

Jenna shrugged as she replied, "Any woman who wants to grow a parasitic organism inside her own body, rather than take advantage of the Enclave's placental tanks is certifiable anyway, in my opinion."

"She wants to have the child naturally?"  His throat suddenly went dry.  "Don't tell me she wants a natural conception, as well?"

Jenna studied him for a long moment, before answering in a totally flat tone.  "Are you volunteering for stud duty?"

There was a long tense silence before he exploded in a stream of particularly vile profanity which vented enough of his anger so he could make a barely civil reply.

"Your uncle was the one who started this nonsense about my genetic 'gifts'.  I wanted no part of it then . . . or now.  If Dani's been bitten by the motherhood bug, tell her to find another donor.  The sperm bank's closed . . . permanently."

Too outraged to continue the meticulous calculations that their end-of-the-year records required, he hurled the facsimile sheets onto the desk.  "Here, you fry your brain with this for a while.  I'm going out to get blind, blotto, smashed."

As he paused momentarily, his hand on the door, Jenna said in a low, almost contrite voice, "We owe her, Travis.  I owe her
. . . more than you know."

He bit back the savage retort that was on the tip of his tongue and answered as calmly as his seething emotions permitted, "Find another way to pay her back, Jenna.  One that doesn't threaten our bonding."

* * *

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